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The Mandrakes Volume III: Call of the Loon

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The Mandrakes. Four men of alternative lifestyle. Introduced first in 'A High Country Tale', the four volume set marks down the early days of development of each of these unusual human beings. Prodigy. The last word young Jacob Winslow Marshall would conjure were he to apply description of himself. Prescience. Now, that was a concept which he understood, though he couldn’t have picked the alien word out of a perp lineup. Until he could. Elkin Pond epitomized the beauty that was southern Vermont but in Jake’s case the body of water provided separation between divergent worlds the boy inhabited. Finding succor in the warmth of an elderly couple’s sphere on one side enabled ultimate divestiture from the ignorance, negativism and narrow-mindedness rampant at the boy’s birthplace on the opposite edge of the pond. Though integrally important to him, the reasons for the tie to the hand-hewn home had dissolved the day his real Daddy left. From earliest years of Jake’s life, he recognized a destiny of dramatic import in the dimness of a Texas horizon yet to be explored. The state remained as nameless as the inherent trait--- prescience--- by which he drew the certainty. Until he learned it. He knew it to be where he must make way in order to fulfill purposes. Emphasis on the plural. There was a promise to be kept… and… Someone awaited.

Other / Romance
Zachariah Jack
Age Rating:

Call of the Loon

June, 1991

“Noooooooooooo!” The crescendo of the long, woebegone wail was meant to make a point. And split eardrums. From a head-covered position and squinch-faced demeanor, I hazarded a single-eyed peek from inside protective hands, surveying the damage. All three persons in the room appeared in ear-covered distress. I deemed the broadside successful.

It proved only temporary, however. After a minute’s recovery, the man in the striped shirt with the sharp weaponry--- who had strapped me into position for the beheading--- came again. This time, the broom sweeper aide and Mamma plastered my shoulders against the swiveling death chair in apparent collusion with the beast’s murderous intent. Pointed scissors waved ever closer while dastardly abettors attempted reassurance by the most transparent of felonious lies, saying anything they thought might engender cessation of attempting salvage of my head.

I wasn’t at all certain my body would do well detached from the familiar anatomy, and less, that it wouldn’t leave a scar… a bad one. Could it even be put back, it occurred to me to worry? I needed to alert an authority of the cruelty threatening me. The banshee shriek was the last-ditch effort left in my sparse arsenal of protections for self-preservation. So, I tried it again.

“Nooooooooooooooo!!” Under the heavy hands pressing me into the death seat it was all I could do to inflate five-year-old lungs with enough air to get the message out but even then, the effect was not near as shrill as would’ve been preferred.

Mamma tried soothing me with obviously faked compassion, “Jake, Jake… listen to me, honey. This is for your own good. It has just gotten too out-of-control, my little one, and we are trying to make things easier. That is all. It won’t hurt in the slightest. But it must be cut. Your Daddy says we must and it will be a whole lot better. Now calm down and sit still for us, or it really could hurt you, dear.”

Well… that sure worked, I screeched inside. Not!

Easier? Better? For whom? Duh, I reflected, insanely ill-at-ease, you really think so? Of course, it will hurt. And that man--- Wilbur, or whatever you call him--- is NOT my Daddy. My Daddy would never try something like this. And he would surely be here to save me from this Devil with the sharp scissors. Totally freaked, I opened my mouth to renew complaints.

A sweaty palm clamped suddenly over mouth and nose, immediately cutting off the attempt, but worse, my breath as well. Big eyes widened in terror as I realized now that the broom sweeper’s nasty paw was only an additional method for inflicting torture. It would be better for them, my mind reasoned, to render me unconscious--- or worse--- before implementing the decapitation process just verified as coming.

I had to do something.

Much as I didn’t want to, I pushed my tongue through pressed lips, wiggling it against the gross out palm bearing the warts which I had seen layering it upon entering the death chamber. All red and gooey with thick pus, or something. I had been nearly nauseous by the glimpse. The feel of them against my tongue was far, far worse.

“Yuckkk!” came the outcry from the mouth attached to the warty-palmed man. Boy, I thought, did that gripe have it backwards. It was my tongue on those revulsions. Yet, he did loosen his grip a tad. It gave me just enough of an angle to open my teeth and chomp down on one finger. “Ouch! That hurts, ya little turd bucket. Leggo!” I held fast, clamping down as hard as possible, hoping to sever the stupid thing. I could already taste blood, and dearly hoped it wasn’t my own. Scissor man was out of view…

Shrieking now, in his own banshee rendition, the glass-eyed sweeper wailed in agony.

Just as I thought I was making progress, Mamma’s hand slapped the bejeebers out of me. I let go in shock. She had never before struck me. I was more forlorn than ever in knowledge that evil intent had invaded all those present.

“Jacob Winslow! You stop this. Right this instant! I will not have this kind of behavior from you, young man. Just wait until we get you home and I tell your Father!” She was almost frothing as she hurled this at me. The wild-eyed look scared me almost as much as Mouth-clamper and Head-chopper. I pulled up short and sat deathly still, staring from one to the next in sheer horror that three grown adults would do such things.

Watching, quietly now, I saw the bleeding pinky rushed to the nearby sink and stuck under a streaming faucet. Mamma implored the two executioners, “Please forgive me. I don’t understand what has gotten into him.” Her sidelong hard look daggered me with venom, as surely as if I had been bitten by a pit viper. It hurt. Bad.

Head-chopper went to a cabinet, removing bandage and nursing materials. Returning to help the injured--- but not enough--- warthog who was now blotting a blood-seeping gash. The two worked at medicating and securing the wound.

Mamma came back and bent down over me, hissing not at all kindly through clenched teeth, “This is just abominable behavior Jacob. I will not have it. Now sit up straight and act like a big boy. Mind your manners. I cannot believe you would do this to these nice men. Your Father is going to be angry when we tell him.”

That broke through my arrested psyche. “Well, I’m sure not gonna tell him. And, he is NOT my Father, and you know it, Mamma. You should be ashamed of yourself--- all of you,” looking from one of them to the next, “you shouldn’t be trying to knock me off just to get me out of the way. He hates me! And you know that, too! Just let me out of here and I promise to leave and never come back!”

All the words just tumbled out in a heap. I pulled up short again, amazed at myself for the very grown-up response to this barbary. Scissor-wielder cocked his head at Mamma as he taped a bandage on the wart-covered pinky. “Ma’am. Mrs. Howard. I don’t think I am going to be able to help you and your son today. There seem to be issues that may be needing more attention than just a haircut will help.” He glanced my direction. “What’s more, we won’t be incurring any more damages at this time. So, if you would be so kind as to remove my barber drape, you and your son can take off. That would probably be for the best.” The man’s jaw set decisively.

Firmness in the tone left no real basis for debate. Mamma huffed her way through doing as requested, removing the death cape from its snug tightness around my neck--- no doubt meant to keep blood from dripping down my headless body and making a mess--- then hustling the two of us out the front door.

I focused on the red, white and blue whirly cylinder on the pole outside, trembling at the near-death experience and wincing by the hard grip of Mamma’s hand over my wrist. She dragged me with her to our station wagon parked in front, loaded me ungently into the restrictive child seat without so much as a word, started the old car and screeched out of the strip-center lot.

Thirty minutes later found us sitting in the bathroom at the forest home. Me on a closed commode seat, boosted by a telephone book; Mamma on the kitchen stool, bending my head back over an adjacent sink edge. She wielded Spotty’s dog clippers and fairly spat the first words from her mouth since the chamber of horrors. “Now, Jacob Winslow Howard, I don’t want a single movement or word from you. Keep your head leaning back into the sink, just like it is.”

With that, and the fear of God paralyzing me, she proceeded to strip the wild mess of curls in curved path after curved path by progressive arcs from brow, up over the crown and down my neck. Within seconds, my riot of lifelong ringlets lay orphaned in the porcelain sink. Limply staring up at me as if to say, ‘What did we do, Jake?’ I turned my neck when given license to move, peering from there up to the mirror. The bald pate staring back bespoke naked overexposure; my face lent credence to tragedy. In unspoken defiance, I yelled mindfully: It is NOT Howard. It is Marshall!

But, I also sighed in relief. My head was still attached to my shoulders. At least there was that.

Later that evening, ‘Father’ arrived home. Indeed, the man was more than unhappy. “He bit the barber?” The shouted sentence resonated through the house, alerting us four to take shelter in the basement.

Not waiting to hear Mamma make the moot point, “No Burt, he only bit the helper,” we abandoned ship. Luckily, the basement door was right next to our bedrooms and coast was clear for scurrying down steep dark stairs. Shelves bearing preserves, drying produce and herbs provided a hiding spot, yet we all knew it would provide very little more than a temporary respite.

Jill, Michael and Avery all conspired, right there in front of me, to throw the guilty one of us--- me--- out into the open area when He came bellowing. The voice alone was monstrously scary; feared belt medieval in its efficiency. My little butt bore scarred witness.

Reading the writing on the wall, I came to a snap decision. Making myself very small, I silently slipped down the back-shelf line. A handful of freshly pulled carrots and potatoes, some drying apples, a plastic bag and several bottles of water were collected. Heading for ‘The Place’.

Guarding against being seen by conniving sibs, I scrambled inconspicuously behind wall shelves to a secret pocket first stumbled on in grieving search for hidden haven the previous spring. When I was only four. Under circumstances more dire than those presently building: that time when Real Daddy had left.

Prying plywood backing from the wall, I squeezed soundlessly through a narrow cleft. Carefully drawing the shelf back into place after entry, a pitch black five-foot track toward the earthy smell marking the broken cement bulwark was crawled.

A foot-wide hole where ancient concrete had disintegrated offered a worm-riddled pouch of a cubby. The fecund odor of rich earth was not horrible. I didn’t like the occasional worm or tiny critter as they strayed over me on their travels but the alternative seemed grimmer.

From previous sequestrations, I had left a moth-eaten blanket. The thing smelled a bit worse for the wear. I felt around it for alien inhabitants. Thankfully finding none, the bagged produce was poked into a corner. Wrapped into the blanket, I planned on ‘laying up sorry’. In hopes the storm would blow over without my presence.

Last time, Wilbur had departed on a salesman’s road trip during the self-imposed banishment. Mamma had been so relieved my dead body hadn’t washed up downstream from the forest home on Elkin Brook that I had been spared bodily harm. A result worth repeating.

The first time discovering the site, I was bereft with sorrow. It was late in the night, having withdrawn to solitary confinement upon forced comprehension that Daddy--- my dearest hero and real Daddy--- had left. Never to return. And without saying goodbye.

I had crawled by sheer accident between shelf and wall, burrowing my sorrowful self deep from reality. There had been no goal, just determination to get away. The narrow wedge of an opening had presented itself and without reasoning, I pushed past it. Reaching the unlit little lair, I curled up and slept. Then, stayed in the cozy little hole in the wall for a better part of six days. Until I had felt like Daddy looked. Mamma was distraught by the act, thinking she had lost two family members. She almost did. Though hounded for weeks, I resolved to never let go of my secret. She had finally given up probing.

Earlier in the day leading to that night, Mamma informed us that Daddy had ‘gone to Heaven’ after a Blackhawk helicopter crash over in a land named Ethiopia. Somewhere far away. He wouldn’t be coming home. Even at four years old I was aware that didn’t add up. She couldn’t just erase the fact that he had been there only hours before.

I had found out the truth.

Eavesdropping a conversation between Mamma and Dr. Aston late in that dreary afternoon following her telling us that story, it came clear to me that Daddy had gotten sick a long time before and the reason was a cause for shame. I didn’t understand. As told by Dr. Aston, after returning from a tour of duty a year before, a sickness carried by green monkeys and ‘unnatural’ men had sneaked in and overwhelmed him.

I remembered observing it all. Month after month, he lost more and more weight, eating next to nothing and shriveling before my sad young eyes. From the tall, vibrant, fearless protector who sang to me, took me fishing and hoisted me on broad shoulders for romps around the yard with a leaping Spotty, Daddy had diminished to a sunken-eyed ghoul who rarely spoke. When he did, he sucked air in through crusty nostrils. Concave cheeks had puffed out words in stuttered phrases.

All over his once strong body there blossomed dark blotchy circles that hurt… and sometimes drained a smelly stew. A broken-hearted promise was pledged to him then that I would grow up--- fast--- to become a doctor. I would save him. He hugged me and smiled at that pronouncement, promising in return. He would hold me to it.

Mamma hated him though. I could tell. Under her breath, she muttered once, disgustedly, that he deserved it all. I heard.

We were finally barred from going to him or even speaking. So, he lay there. By himself. Withering and rasping in the darkened spare room. Alone.

One somber gray morning, a long black station wagon had rumbled into our driveway, backing up to the garage. Peeking unseen through front window curtains, I beheld a narrow bed roll out of the garage opening. A lumpy mass lay on it, covered by a sheet. The whole thing was loaded by two uniformed men into the back of the strangely shaped vehicle. It then slipped away into mist. Sad, wispy, swirling fog trails arose behind it, gathering as if by a witch’s spell, to gradually obscure the entire silhouette. Like a dissolving spectre.

We were told nothing at first. While fearing the worst, we held out hope he would get up from bed and come out of the gloomy, reeking room. After hours of terrible waiting, Mamma tearfully described a tragic helicopter wreck with another craft, crying as she affirmed Daddy would not be coming back home. One thing I knew for certain was that last sentence. The rest, I had gleaned, was a big fib. The overheard conversation later that afternoon cut deep.

It was not long afterwards--- only a few unhappy months--- that replacement Daddy, Wilbur Howard, had come into our grieving lives and sorry home. A poor substitute who disliked all things children. Even Spotty was despised. I figured all that out in ten minutes flat. The man knew that I knew, too. Spotty never once set foot inside again.

Now, ensconced in my portal to underground, I listened to sisters and brother plan my sacrifice, then bore their aggravation at yet another discovery of my ghosting. They detested me for doing it, spying incessantly in trying to figure what I did and where I went. But without success. Covering my tracks well, no one ever guessed.

True to form, within thirty minutes, three exposed children sat shivering in their boots as the trumpeting baritone voice of evil traipsed on leaden feet around and around rooms upstairs. Demanding obeisance. Mamma finally slithered downstairs, ushering the three upstairs to face the music. I listened as they were excoriated in ‘covering’ for me. Threats of dire consequences led to nothing, of course. Finally, the house quieted to an uneasy peace.

I spent the next five days in that spot, only coming out to relieve myself at the open septic tank vat in a far corner and to gather more food and water. Recognizing my strange method, the five gradually went about their normal routine, deducing that somehow an outdoor hiding place offered refuge which they could not locate. It proved baffling to them that even Spotty couldn’t track me. They commonly sent the furry friend of mine on wild goose chases around the acreage in the Green Mountain Forest tract. Without success. Never was my friend and confidant let to search the basement, for some reason. Else, I would have probably been outed.

After those days, my creeping trip up the stairs, clandestine escape to outdoors and subsequent hike through surrounding woods over a day with nature brought me, roundtrip, to the back door. A sullen welcome was met as the sun was setting. A disgusted Wilbur ignored my reappearance. Not even deigning to acknowledge the return. Boy, this was the best answer to problems, I rationalized. Success was measured in this fashion and I went to bed exhausted, hungry, bald and alone. Perfectly whole, I reflected. Without a mark.

I was a quick learner. With a good memory.

May, 1994

“Hold still, you old coot. You’ve gotten it caught in your collar.” The two old guys were close, almost in a hug, as the speaker reached his arms around old coot’s neck, trying to unravel tangled fishing line. It wrapped the silver-haired man in at least three complete loops, spiraling upwards from ankles to neck. The freshly baited hook stuck insistently in the collar of the red and black plaid Land’s End jacket. A writhing, hook-impaled nightcrawler whished, in agonal throes, on and off the adjacent bare neck. Old coot did not like the slimy texture.

“Chad, get the horrid thing off me. It’s shitting and pissing all over me, goddamit. Ewwww…get it off!” The pitched voice lent urgency to a scene that Jake and Spotty were having a hard time deciphering. Dog and boy grinned together at the fix the couple were engaged in, watching from behind a big old hemlock tree screening them.

The old-fashioned three-tiered cane pole attached to the line now entered the fray, its end flicking around four booted feet, successfully lassoing both men through two minutes of a silly, twirling dance. Jake channeled an old ‘I Love Lucy’ episode when Fred and Ricky were wrapped in a similar imbroglio and stifled a laugh by covering his mouth with a free hand.

The other, bracing Spotty’s chest, rose by simple rote function, covering the dog’s mouth, too. As if to stop a second guffaw. Spotty licked the hand, but sat still, tail wagging in enjoyment of all the goings on around him. Jake saw that his buddy’s canine lips were also raised in a tickled grin, apparently absorbing the scene and Jake’s mirth. The two shared much.

“I’ve almost got it, Derrick, if you’ll quit your prancing and give me a chance. Hold still, will you?” Chad remonstrated in vain. A fraught Derrick--- the old coot--- was either unable or unwilling to control himself. Two pale wrinkled hands fluttered helplessly in nervous circles around their bodies, expressing abject horror that the greasy annelid dared intimacy as it did.

A startling falsetto shriek erupted as wormed hook pricked tender skin, poking through the jacket collar. “I’ve been bitten! I am done in… by a worm!” Derrick’s neck arched dramatically skyward. The next thing Jake knew, the victim raised a limp wrist to brow, emitted a grumbling sigh… and sank. The rest of his body followed the wrist’s suit. He timbered limply toward the ground, eyes rolling up in a blood-drained face. The inelegant swoon dragged the enmeshed fishermen to a thumping bump on the grassy edge of Elkin Pond.

Silence ensued. For the next seconds, nobody moved. The conscious elder, boy and spotted dog all took stock of the situation, viewing the fainted Derrick in an unconscious sprawl. Chad’s eyes rolled shut and he began heaving hoarse breaths from his trapped, wrapped position atop his companion. Jake was certain somebody was dying. Or had already. He was familiar with death, after all.

Then, he witnessed a huge sucking of air by old coot, laboring to inspire air from under the stout body smothering his own. The expressive hands began snaking a peculiar snakelike jig all around--- but not touching--- Chad’s form.

This disturbed Jake. He felt he must inveigle himself into the scenario, in order to render CPR. Or something. One or the other seemed to be in need. Jumping up from behind the massive tree trunk, Spotty sprang into action as well. Savior duo proceeded to aid the unlucky fisher people. First checking for other signs of life, then unsticking and unwrapping the confused, exhausted, laboring men.

This took more than several minutes, what with the thrashing, passive resistance and gurgling anguish exhibited throughout the process. Finally, separating the friends--- Jake assumed they were--- Spotty and he managed to nudge the pudgers to semi-sitting positions. Facing one another.

Jake stood back and watched as first Chad’s eyes opened slightly, then Derrick the Coot’s fluttered and focused. A sharp cry and staccato palm slap emerged from his mouth and hand, in that order, seeing upon whom his eyes wavered to convergence. “Dreadful! I say, a blemish on the compassionate side of Humanity you are… you… you… ingrate!”

At this new outburst, and apparently unsure how long he had been rendered cataleptic, Chad the Ingrate winced away from the blow--- way too late for believability--- and harped, “Me? An ingrate? Why, I have lain insensate for no telling how long here amidst cold vile filth of this pigsty, most probably been raped or pillaged while in that state, and surely had wild animals drool on me in marking my face for a snack… and all because I risked everything to save the likes of you?” He stumbled feetward in ungainly manner, continuing to glare at the still slumped Derrick. Fire swords were erupting from his eyes.

These were met by a contrasting ice-daggered stare from Derrick, who persisted in wounded damsel mode. “Well, I knew I should never have taken up with the likes of you, as my ex-wives have always told me. You are no good and good for nothing.” Then, just to be mean, “For pity’s sake, I don’t even like anybody who likes you.”

Following suit, the old gent struggled to arise, falling several times, until old Chad--- the Ingrate--- reached out and helped hoist unsteady feet beneath him. It was then that Derrick recalled the slimy nightcrawler, feeling tentatively up and around his head and neck for evidence of the gross thing. He just knew the thing must be masturbating, or something else awful, in his hair.

Having stood silently aside and taking all of this in, unnoticed, Jake meekly intervened. Softly clearing his eight-year-old throat, the diminutive mop head timidly spoke up, “Umm, excuse me, Sirs. I think you both got tangled up and fell. It’s all right, though, because me and Spotty got the line off and turned you over and made sure you were… alive. Oh, and here’s your worm… err, bait.” The big-eyed youth handed up a hooked and still wiggling sufferer toward the couple.

If Jake’s emerald eyes were naturally big, long-lashed and engrossing, the elderly gentlemen matched them in size as they turned to little guy and spotted dog in utter surprise. Both immediately smiled, attempted straightening and brushing themselves, simultaneously transforming from grumpy demeanors at recognition of new presences. Portraying two exactly opposite personas.

“Well, my, my, look at this, Chad. If it isn’t the most adorable boy and his dog. What is his name, little man?” Jake’s innate wariness of all adults raised to high alert, previously inculcated to changeling behavior of grown-ups. As tickled by the two crusty old curmudgeons as he had been when observing them in unassuming natural states, so too was he now stand-offish by the affected alteration.

Chad, likewise transformed, now came across more like Hansel and Gretel’s wicked witch. Offering toffee and divinity. Fake. At least so thought Jake. “Uhh, his name is Spotty. But watch out, he doesn’t take to strangers very nice. If he thinks I’m in trouble, he’d probably get mad.” This, as the tail-wagger smiled good-natured acceptance of the geriatric people. The dog had obviously already sized them up. Maybe he was wrong, the thought crossed young Jake’s mind.

“Then I think that we should maneuver very carefully around the gallant protector, shouldn’t we, Chad?” Derrick posed this. “After all, it isn’t very often that a person can count on another to back them up in a pinch.” He winked over at his friend munificently, all previous animosity forgotten. Amazingly, the former drama queen reached out, taking the proffered line and hook with a now limp worm, deliberately winding the long length of heretofore shackling entangler around his fingers. Jake was extra-perplexed at such change.

“That would certainly appear to be the prudent thing to do, Derrick,” Chad sat down on a nearby stump, apparently a fisherman’s stoop by the smoothness and wear, and put a friendly hand out in greeting to the dog. “Hello, there, Sir Spottiswood. And how are you this fine Vermont morning?” Spotty responded without hesitation. Coming forward, he offered a paw and accepted a friendly ear scratch, open-mouthed, tongue tipping out and nose sniffing of the man.

Jake was a bit mollified. If Spotty trusted them, he should probably as well. Animals in general, and his canine buddy in particular, had secured Jake’s unshakeable trust. In distinct dissimilarity to humans. The latter, not so much. “Sir Spottiswood? Who’s that?” Jake was warily curious.

“Why, Lord John Spottiswood was a Scottish peer of the seventeenth century. A trusted advisor to King James I of England, the man was. This noble dog may just be related, eh?” The man smiled warmly in praising Jake’s best buddy, thereby winning the first foray. Spotty thumped the tail harder on listening to these words. Jake was enthralled. He came closer, now interested in hearing more.

“Did he have dogs, too?” An obvious question. If the possible relative did so, then another link would seem to be forged in the eight-year-old’s mind.

“Well, of course, young man. He kept a bevy of hunters. And a few that even slept with him. But, we are remiss, Sir,” --- here, he bowed ever so slightly, glancing back at Derrick as he did--- “We have not been properly introduced. That should be rectified, post haste, eh? I am Chadwick Elkin, born, raised and recently returned resident of this domain encompassing Elkin Pond. And this be Mr. Derrick Diogene, my bosom friend and confidant… and sometimes blood brother…” The emerging grin exuded benevolence toward the gent.

His friend edged forward, extending a slim hand in offer of friendship. “Yes, we are that, Chad. Blood brothers, in that we sometimes do draw blood, figuratively and otherwise, I am abashedly afraid. But that is another story for different time.” Looking at Jake, he added, “We are, indeed, bosom friends. And very glad to be meeting you, uhh…?”

Jake raised his own hand in greeting, now, satisfied by the words. At least for the moment. “I’m Jake. Jake Marshall. Me and Spotty live across the pond, over where the brook is. We are out hunting today. Spotty heard you. We watched for a little bit while you were… talking.” Jake said all this in more openness than normally allowed around grown-ups. For reasons well-grounded in experience. These two now seemed harmless; the dog’s reaction a great deal of the reason for his impression.

“It be certainly nice to make your acquaintance, young Jake Marshall, and we count it as our great good fortune by the chance.” Chad disarmed the boy further by a charming ease of manner. Jake relaxed. The three entered a dialogue bridging generations over the subsequent time, trading tidbits and opinions, comparing notes and observations, discussing the pond and its environs.

Jake was astounded to hear of the fact that old Chad’s great grandfather times nine, Thomas Elkin, was the progenitor for whom the pond was named. Before that, it was explained, the Iroquois Nation--- specifically, the Mohicans--- had held loose hegemony over the region now dubbed the Green Mountain National Forest. The Elkin Family holdings intertwined with forest boundaries while the small acreage platted by Jake’s real Daddy, twelve years before, was surrounded on three sides by the national set aside. A fourth side, Jake now knew, bordered old Chad’s land.

“That makes us neighbors, Jake Marshall. I suppose we should be a mite more neighborly in the future and get to know each other, eh?” The elder used quirky words and phrases unfamiliar to the boy, yet he was responding positively by the nuance and tone imparted in the delivery. Generational bridging. Jake liked these men. He readily agreed to come back soon, and regularly, to make that acquaintance happen. He had no other true friends, being a total loner at the small school in Grafton town, five miles distant. The boy warmed to a new friendship possibility.

Over succeeding weeks, then months, the three became close. A comfortable camaraderie developed as Jake’s trust grew. The gentlemen were taken by the sharp-minded youth and captivated by his boyish beauty, not the least of which began with a crowning mess of re-grown curls topping him. The boy’s enlivening personality and vigor brought the best out of the two. Their sometimes-rough relationship, when alone together, smoothed remarkably to an evenness not enjoyed between them since an earlier era.

Jake took to bouncing in on the duo without forewarning at the ancient, yet newly refurbished, family compound on the opposite side of the pond from where he resided. Spritely appearances both tickled the older men and engendered superlative behavior. They were still a little embarrassed by the initial meeting’s circumstance: the fishing hook episode.

By guarding against another of similar nature, the couple unintentionally regained an ease of temperament which had been their basis for years. And the reason they had fallen in love. The appearance of Jake, and Sir Spottiswood, reinvigorated a stale and stodgy existence. One slipped into through plain lack of care.

“Derrick, do you and Chad always sleep together?” Jake had picked up on the proclivity by astute eight-year-old patterns of observation, and was inquisitive. At the query, Derrick dropped the coffee cup he was sipping, totally flummoxed by the temerity of it. The contents sprayed and sprinkled into nooks and corners, but the sturdy mug remained unscathed. No one ever asked things like that, he reasoned. But he should’ve been ready: Jake was not shy and did keep both on their toes regarding traditionally touchy subjects.

Choking on poorly swallowed coffee and whirling suddenly nervous hands, the old queen sputtered inanities attempting a reply. In total failure. While Chad and he were comfortable in their relationship and at ease with themselves, harsh light of reality crashed a serene scene by the innocent question. Derrick pulled himself together as he righted the cup and blotted the mess with a napkin, assessing the best way to address such forwardness.

“Well, I guess, Jake… ummm, well, you see… actually, dear lad… oh, goodness… yes. Yes, we do. Indeed. We do share the big poster bed. Unless he acts out. Then he gets to spend nights on the couch.” The curt woodpecker-esque nodding was reassurance more for himself than the boy. Why, he reflected, should he lie about something like that in his own home? It wasn’t an issue of which he was ashamed; simply a verboten subject abiding as an elephant in the room even amongst familiars.

“I figured that. But I just needed to know.” Jake’s innocence once again blew the older man’s mind. The younger set seemed so much more at ease in the present day with things unspoken by older generations, Derrick ruminated. How refreshing. He couldn’t wait to tell Chad. “How many wives do you have?” Again, the directness. This one made Derrick think for another minute. More for whether he should answer than how.

“Umm-Hmmm. That one may take a little longer, young man. Why don’t we fix some more coffee and cocoa, and we will discuss the matter?” Derrick almost looked forward to the enlightenment as they trod the kitchen hallway.

Over the three months Jake had been visiting, Chad and Derrick had grown fond of the precocious boy. Much more mature than his years, with a quiet touch of somber, the couple had discussed an approach to the moldable lad. A decision had been made for taking the inquisitive youth under their wise wings.

Perceiving an insatiable appetite for knowledge, Chad began by opening discussions all things historical and medical. His areas of prime interest. Dialogue flourished about the region of Vermont with its rich past. Jake listened endlessly to legends and stories during fishing interludes at various pondside spots, shooting back with pertinent and impertinent probes. The choice of fishing as a venue proved a perfect multifaceted boon for the confabs.

While Chad dearly loved the sedentary pursuit, Derrick barely tolerated a messy, smelly, tedious distraction. Fishing: ick. Boy and dog embraced the pastime with barely contained gusto. Both remembered their idyllic period with real Daddy and were animated by a renewal. By the fact of old Professor Chad having been born in the big old pondside home, there existed in his memories tales rife with significance which he had begun fearing might die with him, childless as he was. In Jake, he found an assiduous recipient.

Long periods of bait and bobber watching buoyed roving discussions ranging from family anecdotes to the American chronicle. Iroquois Nation lore and colonial sagas, and especially horses, all awakened a nascent yearning to explore intriguing genres. Jake borrowed multiple books from the Elkin library in augmentation to the narratives.

He devoured many tomes but favorited ‘The Leatherstocking Tales’ in rapt zeal. A never-ending quest for everything relatable to James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, Chingachgook, Uncas and all matters equestrian engaged the boy into adulthood.

As much as these forays into the past fed fast friends’ appetites, it proved only secondary by relation to another subject tantamount in import to them both, although from opposite ends of the spectrum.

Consummating a forty-year career practicing medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College as a tenured Professor of Physiology and Surgery, Chad Elkin had fallen into his purely true calling: instructive pursuit of the artful science. Entrance into well-earned retirement, while relieving, left a brilliant educator dispirited by bittersweet existence. Satisfaction, the tenet on which all true teachers thrive, had left a void by its loss.

It only made sense, then, that at the moment of little Jake’s enlightenment to the man’s august station in the restorative profession, the look of wonderment on his face commenced a tacit pact between them.

The subject of medicine had been grabbed by Jake with both hands, both ears and both big eyes. His spacious young mind proved the readiest of receptacles. What surprised Chad simply fascinated Jake. After all, Jake had made a solemn oath meant to be kept.

The venerable educator awakened to the fact of a swan song mentorship remaining on his plate. Awaiting fulfillment. He fed the fire of a ravenous appetite for knowledge, overjoyed at the young mind craving intellectual illumination. And was left downright astounded by an astute ability to hoard knowledge at the ripe age of eight. The term wunderkind regularly leapt to mind.

During the older couple’s re-established day-ending reveries, Chad related the boy’s prowess in daily excerpts to a soulmate who lavished nurture upon the young prodigy as his own investment. The role proved palliative for the old coot whose rudder had been sadly faltering until Jake appeared on the scene.

Through two years of refurbishment fervor at the all-but-abandoned homestead, achievement of definitive completion had left Derrick drained. The stakes involved with a career in high finance had instilled him with a sense of the frenetic. A need for constant activity. Design and remodeling efforts had furnished the fast pace for the time it lasted.

Once the endless projects ceased thrumming his motor, however, the seventy-year-old engine of energy had revved on, tractionless. Slumping into an easy chair to heave huge sighs of relief while surveying success had consumed all of two weeks. Attempted rendezvous with his life-partner amidst shared endeavors of patrician gentlemen had careened the duo perilously close to double homicide. Realizing only discord and lost harmony, he hearkened on the need for an outside interest.

Only so many old musicals could fill a day without driving one batso-cuckoo. Delving into the world of arts and crafts had been appealing but held no sense of accomplishment. Bead stringing, basket weaving and macramé braiding amongst bored contemporaries provoked impressions of God’s waiting room. Gardening provided some relief and he kept at it, yet remained unfulfilled. Other quests had left a similar emptiness.

Sheer process of elimination led to pursuit of the physical. He had never expended energy that way. But doctor’s recommendations--- no: demands--- borderline diagnostic test results and a waning verve for life pushed Derrick toward untried disciplines. Long walks, calisthenics, aerobics, yoga, Tai-Chi. These and others whelmed him in motivational routines which grew a sense of endorphined ease.

On a low-sky dawn morning, Derrick surged exertive breaths as he turned the bend marking Elkin Brook, approaching the little foot bridge spanning the robust rapids draining the namesake pond in a constant flow. He was approaching the now-recognizable stage of effort where a flood of calm would suffuse him. Assigning a new meaning for bated breath, he reflected, giggling to himself.

Suddenly from behind came a sense of company. Glancing back, he viewed first Spotty then Jake come bounding from a swathe of undergrowth. Spotty saw him immediately and wagged a furious greeting while Jake eyed the rear, perusing a trail joining the one which Derrick now traversed. His long, tangled mass of untamed curls bounced, almost nervously, while he progressed heedlessly forward.

When the boy finally turned toward him, his face reflected an angst never seen until then. He caught sight of Derrick and darted an evanescent grin. Friends joined up in seconds, the youngster’s pace outstripping the exerciser’s significantly. He hastened to keep up.

“Master Jake. So good to run into you, sir. Are you enjoying the morning energy?” He noted the blue jean workout get-up. A peculiar choice, it occurred to the stylish exercise newbie. His own two-piece warm-up suit in burgundy with blue leg stripes and high-performance cross trainers contrasted with 1960’s style white-tipped black track shoes and a tattered, dusty t-shirt.

“Hi, Derrick. Spotty told me we might be being tracked, so I was lookin’ out,” the worried demeanor projected concern. Still peeping over his shoulder, he slowed a little to match the walker’s stride, falling in next to him. Spotty took the other side, licking the older man’s swinging hand.

“You’ve mentioned you and Spottiswood commonly run together in the morning. Do you have routines and trails for it? Or are you more the free spirit type who follows his nose?” More questions were forming in the elder man’s mind. He held his tongue to see what might be offered.

“Spotty likes certain ways but we try to visit new places every time we can, so unless there’s something after us I guess we’re kinda noser’s. What about you? I’ve never seen you down on this side of the pond.” The intermittent glances behind continued.

“Oh, I am branching out, young Jake. Extending my footprint if you will. My wind is getting better and the distances are lengthening.” Derrick wiggled his fingers in response to the continuing Spot licks, the day gone by when he retracted in distaste for the wet tongue. He presently found it almost pleasant. The increasing testosterone levels must be flooding him with masculine attributes, the retiree presumed. Part of the rejuvenation process, he ventured. And it felt so… manly. Derrick wondered why he hadn’t perceived the effect before.

Focusing on the earlier comment, he queried, “Something after you… like maybe a bear, or the like? Should it be a source for alarm? I have mace,” this as he reached for the inside pocket to reassure its presence.

“Naw. Nothin’ like that. My sisters and brother sometimes tail us. They don’t like that we disappear and are always tryin’ to see where we go off to.” Jake’s reconnoitering was intent…Derrick noted that the boy disliked the idea it was needed.

“Are you supposed to be somewhere else? Or do they just want to join you?” Derrick knew of the siblings, but details had never been divulged and he was wondering about an unknown home life. He had overlooked the fact of the Marshall home’s existence here when he had set out on this earlier-than-normal exercise loop. It was one of only four houses bordering the good-sized private pond.

“They are spies for my parents. Neither of them can figure where I go when I leave and they want to keep me under their control. But not because they like me… just because they don’t like not knowing. Pretty sure they wish I wasn’t there. And I wish that too. So, I leave.” The words pierced Derrick. The visage of angst just envisioned moments before returned. It was disturbing and warped the youth’s outer beauty. The older man’s heart ached by the knowledge. He conjectured how the negative flow must be affecting the boy’s inner beauty.

“But, Jake, I thought you loved the time you spent with your Dad. You have spoken more than once how you and Spottiswood enjoy doing things with him.” The busy tongue went into high gear upon hearing the familiar rendition of his name.

The three kept stride around the several mile perimeter of Elkin Pond as the exchange withered. Morning sounds were breaking out and Derrick fixed on the plaintive calls of the black-throated loons as they sought one another. He awaited the boy’s response. Jake cocked an ear at the song, as well, pondering the haunting tune.

“Mr. Derrick, my real Daddy died four years ago. He was real sick and we weren’t supposed to talk about it. Mamma’s new husband is Wilbur--- he almost spat the name--- and he hates me and Spotty. I don’t think he likes Jill or Michael or Avery either, but they try to get him to… I don’t. He’s evil. I hide from him a lot of times and Mamma too, because she does only what he wants. She’s not the same anymore. I think she’s getting sick, like my Daddy, but she won’t say anything. I just see it.”

All this unseemly information poured over Derrick. The inward cringe almost conjured tears. He could feel the little boy’s emotions streaming in increasing waves of fear and revulsion, just by voicing these things. It hurt his soft soul to know of so much pain. Gathering the boy under his arm, he hugged the boy close, kneading tiny, tense shoulders. The act shook something loose. Jake sagged into him, suddenly sobbing in release of the pretend strength he projected. Spotty whined and came to his side, nuzzling empathetically.

It was all Derrick Diogene could do to keep composure, aware he must. Steeling himself, he reached to Jake’s chin and turned it tenderly upward, taking in tear-stained cheeks. “This Wilbur. He doesn’t hurt you, does he?” His defense mechanisms were on quick alert by the notion. The mother hen in him feather-ruffled at the thought.

Two huge moist eyes peered into his, wallowing in the sympathy, and shook his head. “No. Not anymore. He used to get out his belt when he first came. To all four of us. But Mamma stopped that. Now, he just pretty much ignores me. But he tries to kick Spotty. I tell Spotty to stay away at night when I am in my bedroom, ’cause he isn’t allowed inside anymore. Even though he used to sleep with me and Michael. I’m afraid Wilbur might do something to him when I’m not there. So, he sleeps somewhere in the woods. He’s very smart.” The dog nuzzled harder at repeating intonations of his name.

Another sharp glance darted back. Jake pulled away from Derrick, signaling Spotty. Looking up, he pronounced, “Derrick, we have to go now. But thank you for listening, and…” Trailing off, the two high-tailed it off the path into the nearby underbrush again, disappearing in fractions of a second. It shocked the older man. He was confounded by this sad information.

Turning backward himself, he saw a dark-haired boy, a bit older than Jake, thirty yards behind. The furtive movements let Derick know it must be Michael. Had he seen his brother? More, had he seen the two sharing that sorrowful moment?

His background made him wary of contact with children, what with the current social climate, priest debacles, and antipathy borne by many toward his ilk. A wave of anxiety coursed through him. He attempted cover by a friendly wave, receiving a half-hearted response with a limp-wristed pre-teen mannerism toward all things adult. By body language, it appeared he hadn’t come upon the two before Jake had escaped. Thank goodness.

Reaching a large smooth sitting rock, a little further ahead, just a short way off the path and almost out of sight, Derrick halted. He had visited it before and found comfort. The shaken man sank to it. Both boys were gone, along with the dog.

He propped knees to chin and clasped arms around them, introverting to a familiarly remote place. There, on previous occasions, he had contemplated deep thoughts…and always found succor. The melancholy call of the loons cajoled from offshoot angles as profound musings inundated a wise old mind.

“Chad. I was so affected by it. The boy has been putting up a brave front since we met him, never once letting on what he is carrying around. At least, until now. What may we do, Dearest?” Derrick was distraught by the morning’s tidings. Both the conversation, the mangled emotions and the stalking were combining to wilt his defenses. He needed his own back-up for wherewithal to deal with it. That back-up sat across the cozy study from him.

Professor Elkin, emeritus faculty of one of the most prestigious universities in the world, had grown grave and serious upon hearing of the ‘confession’ by Jake hours earlier. For that was what it was. Along with a cry for help. Albeit a chance one, a cry, nonetheless. The two mulled things by firelight as the merry flames warmed the familiar nest shared by the men. It was inner sanctum of their sanctum sanctorum. Where all subjects of moment and import were debated.

This was both momentous and important. In the three short months of knowing little Jake Marshall, the couple had fallen heavily for him. He could not comprehend the depth of their feelings. They had purposely kept the times as light and airy, or as ‘teachable moment’ as possible with the youth to protect all three. His person had taken on that much magnitude of meaning with them; there was no desire to compromise the budding relationship. Or the boy’s phenomenal potential.

Acute awareness existed of the optics now holding sway in the present day and age. Too many naysayers and ne’er-do-wells with malevolent intentions were abiding in the world, probably nearby, who would dearly love to infer nasty, small-minded meaning to the triple friendship. With corruption of so many things religious in these modern times, tradition had been turned on its head and good objectives skewed topsy-turvy.

Chad reflected on historical times past when age and wisdom had maintained gravitas as a force for improving the world. Youth were immersed into settings of older, wiser, preparatory settings for the exact goal of furthering the progression of Humanity.

Now, however, a rank cynicism had taken hold of great swaths of society. Not unprecedented: the stutter step of human progression had surfaced multiple times before--- just look at the Spanish Inquisition, for one--- when powerful interests had succumbed to the basest of fearful instincts. Yes, it did occur through history, he mused.

But that it was taking form now under the guise of ‘protecting’ the younger generations remained particularly galling to the two sage retirees. How had it happened that they must now shield themselves, and a youthfully promising protégé, from callously misguided malcontents bent on pursuing another agenda of hegemony in the name of God? Which One, they understood all too well, did not really matter. Any religion’s deity could be bent toward narrow-minded human-based methodologies in pursuit of influence over others. Such was happening now. A crying damn shame.

Because a small number of deviants had been outed in their improper malfeasances, a far greater group of ill-advised fools with little or no education, let alone common sense, had taken up arms in the name of ‘defending the innocents’. So, sadly, prodigies like Jake must suffer consequences of people unable or unwilling to separate sexuality and life experience.

More and more, Chad and Derrick bemoaned the fact that those who were at the forefront of the movement were very often sexually stunted. Understanding nothing of the balance of learning with the fullness of life. Conjuring wickedness from innocence and using it for perpetrating nothing but ambitions of supremacy.

All this they had hashed over before. Hence, now, reposed in the haven of their lair, the pair of wise persons pondered options for effecting benevolent intent with regards to the young man. Without upsetting the proverbial apple cart.

’Ahem’, they both evinced together. Glancing into each other’s eyes at the same moment threw both into fits of hilarity. They were just too much alike… birds of a feather. La cage aux folles.

The moan of the night breeze through the cracked window and the prickling of Jake’s neck by its arrival proved prescient. The boy awakened with a start. Instantly, he felt something was awry. Sixth sense on alert, the boy just knew.

Glancing to his side, the view of his older brother, Michael, verified no wakeful commonality in the signal. Closed eyes, open mouth, light eleven-year-old snore, body strewn in childish haphazardness; all assured that Jake was alone in awareness. The boy was keen to the need for getting out of the house. Unseen and unnoticed. His brother was a heavy sleeper yet had been known to sabotage his little brother by booby-trapping the bed with triggers sure to arouse the elder one in case of surreptitious leave-takings just such as Jake now aimed.

He silently traced fingers in a path around his naked body--- he had taken to the clotheless sleep mode to lessen chances for traps--- until he had completely circled himself, verifying no string attachments. Then, carefully but quickly, the boy touched feet to floor, testing for IED’s--- aka: trip wires--- and maneuvered to the chair bearing his shed clothing. Sneakers were double-checked for encumbrances of any sort. Boxers--- check. Socks--- check. T-shirt… jeans… both missing. Darn it, the boy swore inwardly. He should’ve seen that coming.

Well, he figured, he’d just have to make do. Who needed pants and shirt? At least the shoes were here. Creeping to the cracked window, Jake ran fingers along the sill and up over the top pane. Ah-ha! He tipped the glass gewgaw--- normally sitting on the living room end table--- as it leaned precariously against the glass. Barely catching the fragile thing before it crashed noisily to the wood floor, he set it aside, then inched the window open. Using the unobtrusive dime hidden close by, the screen was unscrewed. A light hop through the cleared path to cool grass beneath and… freedom.

The new moon left him shadowless and light cloud cover provided easy escape to the adjacent tree line one hundred yards away. The forest of dense hardwoods, as well as birch, spruce and pine, hugged familiarly as he was enveloped within. Hurrying, he made for the shrouded clearing Spotty holed up most nights, the dog being prime concern.

A soft whistle brought no response. Not waiting, he made his way along a covered wildlife pathway to the next most common lay-up site. Again, no answer. Now, Jake was worried. His best friend always showed himself lickety-split anytime he went looking, as though his dog radar was synced to the boy’s frequency. That Spotty hadn’t responded was a bad sign.

As he stood, deciding his next move, there came a low reverberative rhythm of human conversation. The buzz of anxious voices remained unintelligible, but discordant waxing and waning injected a sense of anger and anxiety to the speakers. He headed for the sound.

Less than a quarter mile to the east, Jake came upon the more than three-century-old county line rock fence which marked the Marshall property. The voices were low and masked, evidently on the other side of the five-foot wall.

It stood three feet thick. Constructed of smooth river rocks by old time Vermonters from the seventeenth century, the boundary had stood the test of time. Not a smidgen of mortar bonded big building blocks, yet the solid fit was masterful. Jake crept next to the ancient structure. Finding a free stone of some size resting by it, the boy boosted up to peek over.

There came a dim light from the far side. Standing slowly, allowing his eyes to accustom properly, he beheld a gut-wrenching sight. Below and ten-feet to the side were three men and a woman. They stood circled in conversation, discussing something disagreeable.

The appearance of each was disheveled and creepy. Unkempt greasy hair, rags for clothes, ropes for belts, unlaced boots or shoes described all four. The smell of them was horrendous, bodily funk ripely rife around the small clearing where they stood.

Much worse, a few feet to their far side sat a wire cage. Inside, Jake regarded a forlorn Spotty. Corralled and roped, tightly bound to the heavy metal enclosure. So tight was the restricting truss that Spotty exhibited distress. His tongue hung out one side of his mouth, lips red and swollen. The poor loving eyes bulged mournfully. The proud tail was tucked between muscled hind legs and he could barely tiptoe the cage floor with front ones, leaving him virtually suspended by the neck. On the floor of the cage lay a scrap of raw meat, answering the baiting method used to trap him.

Jake almost cried out at this but caught himself. That would do no good whatsoever. He had to devise a way to get to his friend and free him. As he took stock, the kidnappers conversation became more distinct. “O’sK. Try it again. We’s a got the mutt. Gotta get it to the road to Grafton before 2 AM. Ah still says we’s outta jus’ up an grab the cage an’ a’haul it through them woods yonder, an’ get ’er done.” This from the obese big man with oily cords of shoulder-length matted hair. His horribly dirty pocked skin bore open sores visible from Jake’s vantage, reminding him of his real Daddy’s sickened body.

The ugly woman disagreed. “Buzz, ah bein’ tellin’ ya agin: you maybe can but we cain’t be a’pickin’ that damn cage all up fer long. It be all solid steel, or sumpin’, and heavy as Hell. Ain’t no way we’s gonna get that damn thing all’s the way a mile an’ a half through them woods, thick as they is. Ain’t a single trail through ’em, and it ain’t a option.”

The greaseball hag appeared to be de facto leader. A cigarette hung from her lips, wagging throughout the harangue. Of course, she was right, Jake shouted to himself. There were no practicable traces except for the hidden tracks of deer and other wildlife passing anywhere near a line heading for the distant farm-to-market road into Grafton.

She continued. “I’s be a’thinkin’ it’s a gonna be best if’n we just slay and butcher the bitch right here an’ now, an’ carry it out in pieces. We still collect on the bounty. That idiot Howard ain’t a’gonna be a’carin whether the beastie’s on the hoof or pieced up anyhow. So, let’s jus’ do it.”

No! Jake almost shrieked at the horrible idea. He could see Spotty trembling in the cage, soulful eyes bulging more by the minute. The hanging tongue seemed more swollen and turning purple, too. The boy was frantic.

One of the other lowlifes, a scrawny mugwart of a fellow piped up. “Ya does ‘member, Gladys, don’ ya now, that the jerk tol’ us that he’d pay extry for the return o’ the cage, right? He bein’ wantin’ the damn thing back. Why don’ we jus’ take it on down the damn creek like we said?” The nasal voice cut irritatingly, grating the others’ nerves.

“Jus’ shaddup, scrawnbone, who done a’asked ya sorry ass anyways? We’s bein’ mighty tired o’ hearin’ ya pipsqueak ass voice. The creek be takin’ us a mile the wrong way an’ we gonna’ havin’ ta be doublin’ back then. We’s gonna miss the van if’n we don’t get a goin. An’ now!” She was adamant.

The men wanted the extra pay the cage promised and insisted on the point, so the hag was forced to back away from her perceived easier method. The closer wooded direction was agreed upon. Within minutes the four had hoisted the weighty and bulky cage to their shoulders in heading toward the dark perimeter, apparently meaning to blaze a trail as they went. Spotty was tossed back and forth, increasing the dog’s distress with each step.

The two smaller men had machetes slung to waists and unsheathed them as they got close to the underbrush. It occurred to Jake to wonder how the four had transported the bulky cage here in the first place until discerning hinges, figuring it must collapse on itself… but still. Precious little space to maneuver even in a flattened state. The thing would sure be easier hauled if it were collapsed… and empty. Hopefully the stupid people wouldn’t figure that out, he prayed to himself.

Wielding the dull tools made for slow progress in hacking through dense brambles and thorny bushes. This would take a while, Jake surmised. If Spotty could hold on, maybe, just maybe, the boy could devise a way to distract the group and get his friend out and away.

Thirty minutes later, Jake lay prone, hidden in a small covered path along what he hoped was the trajectory of the kidnapper’s progress. He was having serious misgivings for the measly plan he’d come up with but figured it would have to suffice. A quick trip back to the house and storage shed had secured several items. He’d managed to stay quiet enough to not rouse the still-darkened house, then stolen away again through the woods. Now, laying on the little-used moss-covered animal trail, he willed things to work out.

In the near distance, progress of the bungling band could be heard, cussing and griping at obstacles, and one another, in drawing closer. Jake apprehended that he had, indeed guessed the proper path after a fast scouting of the area. As dark as the night was, a lot was left to chance.

Several strategically placed good-sized rocks had been positioned in a wedge formation, gradually narrowing in their placement. Meant to force a rough course toward the spot he now waited. By simply stumbling into tactically placed stones, the lead men had veered inward in the manner Jake desired, seeking a path of least resistance.

A long piece of strong twine had been secured to a suitable tree trunk. The diminutive size of the boy had allowed stringing of it in a transverse fashion across the hoped-for path. He was able to access the woods in ways adults could not easily navigate. Loose end now pulled taut, the twine encumbrance hovered at a ten-inch height above the forest floor.

The vague arc of weakening flashlights wavered unsteadily toward the trap. As the troupe neared, the front two stumbled over the stretched rope. One tumbled forward, sticking himself in an eye by catching branches on the way down, dropping his light in the process. The thing blinked out as a fallen miscreant’s high-pitched scream pierced the others.

The second fell sideways, twisting an ankle in failed attempt to regain footing lost to the unseen snare. Buzz and Gladys, in the back, stumbled over the two in front, capsizing the cage. The second light was doused by its smash-landing. Jake couldn’t visualize Spotty, but heard him grunt in strangled anguish as the thing toppled.

At the same moment, the little boy snapped the ‘on’ button to the cassette player, begging for it to play. He had the volume set to maximum. A split second passed. Suddenly, harsh sounds of a soundtrack from the horror movie, ‘Cujo’, stabbed through darkness, compounding the first man’s cries of anguish. He’d pre-set it for a several minute scene when the rabid St. Bernard attacked mama and little boy in their stalled car. It sounded ferocious in the close, unfriendly woods. Raving dog, mad in its diseased state, and shrieks of both the victims plus their own compatriot, provoked a sense of panic in the men. Even Gladys was freaked. Just as Jake had hoped. Not knowing what could be attacking them in the murkiness made for quick chaos.

The cage lay forgotten as the greasers fled in states of fearful uncertainty, tripping over each other amidst the unexpected din. Jake listened for a few moments as the clashing clatter of smelly scoundrels diminished steadily back down the path they’d cut. Then, he whipped out the fish-cleaning knife gifted him by Chad and hastened to the deserted cage.

Quickly accessing the door and breaking into it, he severed the nasty rope encircling a nearly unconscious Spotty. Pulling the suffering dog out by hind legs, the two lay together for a few moments gathering wits. The dog gasped air and the boy massaged his buddy’s tender neck, watching to see if the beautiful dog would have strength to respond. Horrible swelling of tongue and jowls along with bugged-out eyes made him appear cartoonish.

Jake knew they would have only a few minutes at most to vacate the site and get safely away. As the eight-year-old cried tears of pain and relief, his best friend looked up at him. He weakly thumped an exhausted tail in recognition. A sluggish tongue attempted a weak lick of the familiar face. Jake bawled into the dog’s head, hugging him.

Recognizing continuing threat, both struggled up together. Acquiring bearings and cocking heads toward still raucous sounds of close-by shouted curses, the boy realized they were out of sight. Prodding Spotty, the two crept in the opposite direction using another burrowing animal track for an escape route.

Spotty struggled mightily but managed to keep up with his rescuer. Only upon reaching the rock wall and boosting awkwardly over did they feel a little more secure. Without stopping, they kept heading away. Ears perked for any sounds of pursuit, the friends trekked to the easier track around the pond. Carefully keeping to darkened edges, the pair finally reached Elkin Lodge.

With a huge sigh at reaching the place, Jake rattled its door with a pounding knock. And waited. After a seeming eternity, a nightlight peeked on inside. Jake could see the countenance of a groggy Chad. Spying the night visitors, surprise overtook grogginess and the door opened in a fast second. “Jake? And… Spottiswood? You look awful. What’s happened, my boys? Get on in here right away.” The two scurried inside and collapsed as the lock clicked into place.

By Jake’s insistence that Spotty get looked at first, Chad put together a cold epsom salt compress, mixed in lemon and honey, and salved the still badly misshapen face. A similar poultice was prepped and wrapped tenderly around the dog’s neck, with added baking soda. Then an injection of a quick-acting steroid was administered in conjunction with an antibiotic from the ever-ready first-aid kit. After a nerve-jangling time, Jake finally fathomed an effect. Swelling and inflammation began to recede; his friend was breathing easier.

Only then did he loosen up. At Chad’s continued chiding, a wracked little boy tearfully summarized what had just occurred. A mug of soothing hot cocoa appeared in little hands. Chad just sat, listening. Smoldering in rising anger at the attack.

In the middle of this sordid tale, a dazed Derrick wandered into the kitchen, unaware of any urgency. He had slept through the pounding, raised voices and hubbub during the nursing care. Stumbling on to the situation, he frazzled himself to a tizzy in trying to make sense of the meanness.

Spotty fairly purred his approval of the attention, accepting Derrick’s maternal intervention and coddling. The tongue looked more like it could return to normal; within the hour all three heaved another sigh of collective relief. Looks of consternation passed between elders as they appraised awfulness. Next on the agenda, though, was quest of rest for the taxed little guys.

A guest bedroom embraced dog and boy within minutes after that. Providing a nest of security, tucked into warmth of fresh sheets and fluffy comforter. Together. The men insisted Spottiswood climb in with his boy. The two fell asleep in seconds. One another’s arms and legs intertwined in adorable repose. They remained unmoving over several hours under watchful eyes of a very worried couple.

“Yes, dear, it is what must be done at this point. This is horrendous. But I emphasize vigilant need regarding Jacob’s well-being. If the step-father is capable of such a dastardly deed, what’s to assure that a next step won’t be assault on the boy himself? We have seen studies demonstrating parallels between animal cruelty and human cruelty. Even though the ogre didn’t perpetrate it himself, there is little difference by the intent. Do you agree?” Derrick hadn’t slept a wink after the deplorable event the night before. Every few minutes he was tiptoeing to peek at two angels through a door left ajar. Hackles were up and Katie-bar-the-door should he intuit any further hooliganism. Not if he could help it… and he could.

“We are in agreement, Derrick. On all. Though we must tread carefully. Ramifications of an overstep could be disastrous. The plan must be comprehensive, yet sublime. We have both connections and wherewithal. What we lack is legal standing.” Dr. Elkin was as resolute as his partner, though acutely aware of necessity for nuance.

Derrick arose. Coming across the study to his beloved, he circled behind the big leather easy chair and rested his hand on Chad’s neck. He kissed the top of his head as he whispered, “And this, Professor, is why I cherish you so.” The two followed the flickers of flame dancing before them as they contemplated the coming possibilities. Hoping to avoid a maelstrom.

July, 1998

“Mrs. Eton? Would you mind joining me for a moment, please?” Dr. Elkin could hear the matronly woman rummaging in the solarium next to the study and decided now would probably be as good as any for the discussion. Windows were all wide open and a summer breeze lifted curtains in pervading the rich maple wood room. The fireplace, of course, was cold. At least until evening when the pond chilled the air even on high summer days. Close to eighty degrees Fahrenheit presently, the breeze did its job of securing summertime comfort quite well.

The silver-headed gentleman squire sat back from the solid heartwood cherry replica of the Resolute Desk, a piece of furniture the man valued highly. He put down his pen and awaited the lady’s appearance.

After a moment, an aproned woman appeared around the corner. Her hair was pulled up in a loose bun, reddish tresses wisping around her face and shoulders in partially successful attempt at escape. Whisk broom and polishing rag in one hand, a finger of the opposing one pushed an errant strand behind her middle-aged ear.

She entered wearing a kindly pensive smile. “Yes, Doctor?” She insisted on the title, despite many attempts at getting her to drop the formality. To no avail. Chad was aware that the housekeeper kept to it more for her own sensibilities than his, yet failure to break through still gnawed at him. Well, never mind it, he thought, she was who she was.

Stoutly built, the handsome woman was wife to Headmaster of the Collegiate School for Boys in upper Manhattan: Habersham Eton. For twenty-five years, the couple had exemplified Vermont traditionalism. Ten of those had been in close confidence with Chadwick Elkin while serving as headmaster of the oldest and most prestigious preparatory school in New York. Weill Cornell Medical College recruited regularly from the esteemed institution.

Collegiate School for Boys predated New York City itself, having been founded circa 1628 in Nieuw Amsterdam as a Dutch West India Company school. In coordination with the Dutch Reformed Church. Now secular, the private boys’ establishment existed as the oldest independent school in North America.

Having entered into a two-year sabbatical during Habersham’s convalescence from lingering illness, the couple had settled, after persuasive insistence from Dr. Elkin and Mr. Diogene, in the carriage house adjacent to Elkin Lodge.

The place sat back away from the pond in a small copse of cherry, maple, hemlock and spruce trees, opposite the home lodge which lay situated pondside amongst old growth oaks and hickory. It had been remodeled simultaneously with the main home and endured as a charming cottage from where the two based themselves.

After a year of abiding there, Mrs. Eton had requested, firmly, to take up housekeeping duties for both houses. Suffering feelings of need for recompense, since the retired male couple refused payment for such a living space, she kept the main lodge spotless and functioned as chief cook plus laundress. Her childless status in combination with strong, unrequited maternal instincts made for an arrangement which worked.

“Mrs. Eton, sit with me, will you?” Chad wanted her comfortable as well as settled to discourage a brush-off should the coming topic prove unnerving for her. Derrick had purposely vacated the premises, accompanying young Jake in his hired capacity as pantry stocker to the Grafton Dry Goods and Grocery, choosing avoidance of overwhelming her by similar reasoning.

Spottiswood lay curled on the hearth and lifted his head at the lady he liked as she turned the corner. The friendly thumping of his tail always disarmed her, big brown eyes following as she alighted on the loveseat divan.

“As you are aware, Master Jacob will all too soon be gearing up a departure for the prep school in commencement of his fourth year. Or seventh, should we measure by scholastic accomplishment.” Chad beamed as he extolled achievements already accrued by the young prodigy. By the current scale, Jake would graduate the prep school in the coming year. At a projected age of only thirteen, the boy would rank among the top ten youngest graduates, age-wise, in the entire long history of the institution.

Her curt nod expressed contentment at the boy’s mention, having become as attached to him as the same-sex retiree couple. Chad continued, “Though he doesn’t live under our roof, and we have no familial ties, there thrive strong sentiments for ensuring the young man’s chance of success.”

“As you also know, he abides amidst rather trying circumstances at the family home across the pond from us during summers away from school. Hence, the in-session living arrangements at the West End boarding home in the City. You may not have been mindful of the extent of our role in way-paving for the boy.” Not blowing his own horn, he nevertheless felt necessity to lay proper foundation in order to impart proper import to the coming query.

The woman signaled cognizance of a moment of consequence by straightening her apron and posture. Habit again pulled a finger to taming one ever free-spirited lock. Dr. Elkin read trepidation by the shift and worried inwardly. He did not desire alienating the matron, yet knew that to continue their present course her blessing was crucial. Habersham was already on board with the men’s proposal but would not speak for his wife.

“Your husband operated in my behalf several years ago, securing a spot at Collegiate for Jacob. Both of us are deeply indebted for that effort. The young man’s potential has been well-documented since that time. Should present rate of advancement continue, need for decisions involving placement into an institution of higher learning may be upon us before any had anticipated.”

“Rarely has Collegiate provided a student of such promise with the foundation for as early a passage on to the next level. In that endeavour, the coming months’ groundwork will be key. Unfortunately, hindrances posed by the boy’s erstwhile family lay as a major barrier toward advancement of that aim.” The poignant point in the soliloquy had been reached. Chad drew a deep breath, then barreled into it.

“The fact that Jacob’s patronage is underwritten by an alternative lifestyle couple might prove an undesired encumbrance. At least from the perspective of the boy’s mother and stepfather.” He studied the woman’s features for signs of antagonism. “I am hopeful that Mr. Diogene and I may count on you and your husband to sponsor our protégé, only titularly, in light of your established respectability not only in the realm of education but in this community as well.” Having said maybe too much, Dr. Elkin now quieted to await a response.

He sat externally calm yet percolated uncertainty on the inside. Having been overtaken too many times throughout his long career by unexpected, and sometimes untoward, reactions when opening a vulnerability in the present manner, consternation was palpable. He felt like an untried kid at a first recital.

Mrs. Eton remained poised, immobile and worse, inscrutable, before the old professor’s gaze. Body language gave away nothing. Ensuing silence stretched to minutes. Even Spottiswood absorbed an increasing level of anxiety invading the study. Sitting up, the dog peered back and forth between the two people. Chad noted this action as well and took it as a negative sign, though continuing still and mute. Determined to wait the woman out. Had he totally overestimated the matron’s character heretofore? It took every bit of self-control to hold in check.

Finally, Mrs. Eton blinked. The far-off gaze faded and she centered up to Chad’s face. “Dr. Elkin. Forgive my introspection, Sir. I needed a few moments to assess the words and idea proposed.”

“In frankness, Mr. Eton and I have had conversation on the very subject you have broached. Though behind the scenes, I spent years at Collegiate passively grooming students passing through the doors in their transition to adulthood. In all the time there, my husband and I agree that Jacob Marshall is a rare entity indeed. Seldom, if ever, have we encountered a more roughened jewel with less roundedness than him. The youth holds a peculiar mishmash of traits we find befuddling and enthralling at once.”

“Much of the uncouthness derives from the fact of so severe a lacking in his home life. This was easily determined. One of many advantages gleaned from the generosity of our inclusion here these past two years has been a vantage of observation as the boy has been exposed to the civil and cultured ways by which you and Mr. Diogene live. Not to mention the school’s ambience. He fairly inhales this way of life, so contrastingly alien and yet of seeming second nature. Our hearts have been wounded and warmed by dichotomies of his reality. The two of us are convinced that should the youth be given free rein to fly, heights attainable should be limitless.”

“I must confess taking a liberty ungiven. Perusing public records and sifting verifiable information, I have already evaluated the background and circumstances young Jacob has been--- and is--- allotted. Appalling is the word that summarizes my conclusion after surreptitious study. I may be knowledgeable of things even you and Mr. Diogene are not. It is with no little discomfiture that I confess this. And may address the long pause rejoined before making reply now. Even so, our erudition of the situation has served only to burnish the youth’s exceptional promise by its perception.”

Here, Mrs. Eton took a breath, focusing in on the professor’s eyes. “The shorter answer to your noble mission and enquiry is that Habersham and I would not only accede to the invitation for sponsorship, we would consider it a singular honor.” The deliberate blink and nod accentuated the declaration.

The long explanation and quick acquiescence took the man aback. Not once through all of that, Chad reflected, had she alluded to the one stymying subject so feared. Derrick and his relationship. By merit of omission, he garnered intended relegation to superfluous status. It made no difference to her…

A tear of gratitude involuntarily escaped an eyelid as he blinked to squelch the inadvertency.

“I can’t figure this out, Burt,” Lois was mystified. By many things, to be sure, but presently by the fortuitous circumstances surrounding her younger son. The one living at a boarding house in New York City. Her youngest boy kept the woman in a perpetual state of an emotional roller-coaster. And now, by merit of a missive arriving with the day’s post, she was unsure whether to feel blessed in the sight of the Almighty or fearful for her immortal soul. One could never be quite certain when dealing with godforsaken secular humanist schools to where she had given permission for his attendance. Why had she done that, it was wondered again? No telling to what the boy was being exposed. But, by the act, God had provided a way for things to even out around the house, so there was that blessing.

Glancing over, she saw that her husband hadn’t heard her comment. Or was ignoring her again. He reclined in the birthday gift she’d gotten him two months before: the faux-leather Barcalounger. There were times when she thought that he loved the rocker-recliner better than he did his own wife. The man certainly shared more intimacy with it than her. If she wasn’t such a God-fearing woman it would just make her cross, she thought.

“Burt. Burt… can you hear me? Burt?” Nothing. “Wilbur. Jenkins. Howard!” Only by intoning the man’s God-given name did one eyeball make a belated showing in her general direction. That lazy eye of his amazed her in the way it could do that, she marveled. The ways He worked were shrewd, to be sure.

“Whaddayawant?” came the reticent response. At least Lois thought it was a response. It was hard to hear over the roar of engines as hotrods raced in circles at the NASCAR stadium festooned with ads pushing guns, liquor and… duh… auto parts. The occasional Dixie Flag completed bedecking of the stands filled with rabid auto-racing fanatics. Lois could not for the life of her find anything redeeming in the noisy ‘sport’. It befuddled the woman that it was even classified as such… a sport.

For goodness sake, the stars, or drivers, sat on their fat rear ends through the whole endlessly circular ordeal. The most exercise expended was by pit crews when fixing or replacing something or dashing to avoid being run down by other race cars. Even the winning of the puzzling events was unfathomable. One could never tell when the race was finished or if a declared winner would remain so after interminable challenges by the losers…amen, she tittered. God give her strength.

“I said, I cannot figure this letter out. Could you come and take a look at it and tell me if you can?” She received the expected reply--- well, bring it over here. Don’t make me get up again--- and obediently arose, doing so. Heaving a bored sigh as he took the paper, the man was clearly put out to be interrupted during the ‘race of the century’, as she had discovered all NASCAR events were dubbed.

Putting on the RiteAid over-the-counter reading glasses, the unshaven weekender reluctantly skimmed the official letter. Lois had noted the return address bearing the ‘Collegiate School for Boys’ insignia. But the wordage eluded the high school graduate. Why she felt that her less-educated second husband would fare any better did not occur to her, except possibly by the adage of ‘two-heads-better-than-one’.

Anyway, he was the husband, and the man of the house was the power-that-be, so… she genuflected to his overlordship. Lois certainly recognized the teachings of the most read and revered Book ever written. The rules were plain. She stood, waiting.

“Well, Hell, woman, this must be another one o’ them notices from that place the devil’s spawn is at. They sends at least one ever dangdable month. Says here, the boy done got given some ‘nother useless paper-chaser A-ward. It isn’t asking for money, at least, so what difference does it make? He don’t try to explain none o’ this stuff when we do hear from him, so what’s the fuss? Are you that crazy ’bout making sense of it, now? Lemme get back to the race--- this is one that’ll never happen again. It’s once in a lifetime. And can I get another beer--- dear--- a cold one this time, maybe?”

He was adept at two things, Lois noted for the umpteenth time: orders and sarcasm. He didn’t mean the ‘dear’ part, she knew. It simply rhymed and he remained impressed by his own witty abilities. Just ask him, she deadpanned. Wordlessly, of course.

For a minute, on her way to the fridge, fleeting memory of an earlier time flitted through her head. One picturing a robust figure of Beck--- Beckham--- her first husband, as he shouldered baby Jake around the backyard on his shoulders, capering with the leaping dog--- Spotty, she seemed to remember, wasn’t it? --- and her deflated heart leapt for a second at the energy and love evoked from that temporary time of happiness back in the far reaches of her dulled mind.

The thought thread continued in regards to the bad ending for that dog. The flea-bitten thing had taken to a life outdoors after being let to live a life of luxury in the beginning. Inside the house, sleeping with the boys… everything laid out on a silver platter for the ungrateful mongrel.

Then, suddenly, all Hades broke loose when Beck had taken ill and died--- she preferred suppressing that sorry period once the perverted nature of that man had come out--- to be replaced soon enough by God’s gracious blessing of Burt’s appearance. God had provided rescue from the lassitude of life as a single mother in lonely widowhood. The dumb critter had shown its gratitude following that by revealing itself only when Jake went to find him in the forest.

She remembered the day that Burt had come in the back door, sorrowfully announcing he had come across the poor thing’s torn, lifeless body in deep woods. Apparently attacked and partially devoured by wild animals… he hadn’t the heart to allow innocent children sight of horribly mangled remains. Having done his best by the thankless beast, he’d informed the family, a burial was carried out beside the brook. Such a man of compassion was he.

Lois had felt badly on hearing of it, yet she noted that none of the children were particularly upset by the loss. Even little Jake had acted peculiarly detached at the news, disappearing, per his usual wont, for a day or so. The boy was a total puzzle to her. It was as if the boy covered his emotions in a shell of deceit, she surmised.

The idea had crossed her mind that perhaps the boy might be a chip-off-the-old-block, in the vein of the sinful, and dead, husband. God have mercy on his errant soul. Well, she decided, if so, best that it stayed buried and not be brought into light of day. God would not put up with such malfeasance, as she had already witnessed. His immutable ways of forcing atonement upon sinners, such as they were, were just that: immutable.

Pulling her mind back to reality, Lois wondered anew at the mysterious methods through which He worked. How else could it be explained in any rational manner that her younger son had seemingly fallen into a life of book-learning as had turned out? It boggled her brain.

The day that the Grafton schoolmarm, Rita Johnson, had knocked on the Howard front door next recurred to her. Bearing news of surprise acceptance into an exclusive boy’s school down in Manhattan, of all places. Where in the world had that all come from, she still pondered? Mrs. Johnson had been baffled, too. Something about a work-study program for deserving youths was the explanation. As the ambiguity had allowed for one less out-of-pocket expense with which to deal, the concept had appealed to her. God be praised.

Signatures allowing Jake’s admittance had been delivered along with the difficult boy. He was to be housed in a respectable boarding home, at a church, less than a block from school. And would only be home for summers.

All of it became official once assurance was procured that there would be no bills appearing in the Howard mailbox to cover unforeseen costs. In writing. Wilbur had been vehement on that score. He’d even had foresight to insist on a notarized statement of guarantee. Strength of the Godly man’s will once again had won out. She had borne witness. It amplified the sense of awe in which she held the pedestrian man who saved her. In actuality.

He might have his shortcomings, the good Lord knew, but the wherewithal he brought to table in dealing with hard questions of life were a Godsend. And she was properly thankful. What would she ever do without him? She set the chilled beer can next to his recliner and sat back down.

“I coulda’ sworn that I read something about medical school in that thing, but I must be mixed up, like usual, I guess.” Lois quite sensibly deduced that that was a misprint. Or her misunderstanding. Only a dunce would think that a twelve-year-old could be associated with medical school. That was for college and doctors, for heaven’s sake. People older than herself, she rationalized. Wilbur hadn’t seen that, so of course it had to be some sort of mix-up.

As she laid the letter aside again, there came a knock at the front door. Who would be interrupting the Sabbath, Lois thought? Didn’t anyone respect the holy day anymore? She ‘hrrumphed’ her way to her feet and went to answer, affixing her Sunday-go-to-meeting visage in place. The severe demeanor would bear more impact, she reflected, without the background noise of revving engines.

Opening just a crack, she found a respectable looking well-dressed couple on the step. Looking a bit nervous, she noticed. “Yes, may we help you on a Sunday afternoon, such as it is?” Lois meant to milk the moment, a bit cross by the intrusion. But, the couple did seem quite decent in appearance. Not selling anything, either. She opened the door a tad wider, brushing her hair down at the same time.

“Mrs. Howard?” The well-heeled female spoke up. At Lois’ affirmation, she went on. “Hello, and so sorry to burst upon you unannounced. We were unable to locate a working telephone number and decided to take a chance.” Pleasant-looking, the woman appeared dressed for late church service, as did the gentleman with her, mollifying the matron of the house. But she still didn’t reply, wanting to know why they had come before expending energy in any sort of welcome.

“If you please, I am Olivia Eton and this is my husband, Habersham Eton. We come from the far side of the pond and desire to greet you and your husband, if we might. It has been far too long that we have been in residence as far-side neighbors. And, thought to rectify that. As well, we do have an additional reason for dropping by. May we have a few moments of your time, please, to do so? If it is not too inopportune?” The cultured eloquence defused Lois’ defensiveness. And the name of the couple struck a chord. The Etons.

Changing disposition, Lois now smiled and opened the door wide. “Well, I’ll be. Mr. and Mrs. Eton. I had no idea we were neighbors. Won’t you come in?” She stepped aside and further patted her disheveled hair in haphazard welcome. Half turning, she hollered back toward her husband. “Wilbur? Dear? We have company. Why don’t you turn down the television a smidge and see who has stopped by for a visit?”

Wilbur, visibly unhappy, grumped up and ratcheted down the volume, just a little, then edged toward the door. Eyes still glued to the screen. His ribbed undershirt sported stains of spilled food and a few chip remnants, Lois saw. She reached to brush the crumbs away. Thin, rumpled, unwashed hair spiked around his head. And remained that way.

Finally deigning to pull eyes from the race, he grudgingly greeted the two slicked-up people interrupting his Sunday. “And just who might you be?” Totally unimpressed.

“Why, Wilbur, this is Deacon Eton and his wife, of the First Missionary Methodist Church of Brattleboro, and our neighbors from other side of the pond, Dear. Surely, you remember us speaking of them before?” God always forgave white lies, she reminded herself. Looking back, she ushered the couple to seats in the cluttered room. “We have had it in our own minds to come visit services at Missionary but keep so busy… time just seems to fly by.” Lois was now nervous as the gravity of such a respected couple paying a visit hit her. She was prattling.

“It would be a distinct pleasure to see you there, should timing become right,” Olivia was overflowing in her affected pleasure, showing nothing of the distaste fueling her brain as she took in the unkempt couple and home. She did not like the place in the slightest, especially in light of the fact that young Jacob must suffer living here. Even if for only part of the year.

She made small talk over the next quarter hour, looking to carry through the mission upon which the two had set out on, yet not wanting to come across rushed or uncaring. To her credit, Lois kept up a welcoming manner, attempting repeatedly to draw Burt into the conversation. Olivia continued in her professional mode, quite able to affect the desired front, after years of having to do so in undesirable circumstances. This ranked right up there, she assessed.

Acquainting and conversing finally ran its course, however, and the deacon delicately broached the subject for which they had truly come. “You may be aware, Mrs. Howard, that we are intimately involved with Collegiate School in New York City. Jacob, your son, is presently a student there. A commendable one, at that, I might add.” Habersham’s eloquent articulation held attention without need for volume, even amidst auto engines in the background.

“We are certain that the two of you must be so very proud of the young man. It is actually for this reason that we would ask your forbearance, if we may.” He watched the faces of both people as he spoke, noticing the appearance of mild distaste at mention of the boy. How odd, he thought. “On sabbatical, as I am presently, I nevertheless keep close tabs with goings-on at Collegiate. Your prodigy of a son is high on the list of those for whom I keep those tabs.”

“He’s done something bad, I am figuring, then? Am I gonna have to come fetch him from the place? You know I still have those papers guaranteein’ no financial responsibility for him, even if he acts out. Right?” This from Wilbur, who was confusing prodigy with prodigal. Sourness in the man’s face spoke volumes, matching the man’s breath. Habersham, like Olivia, was less and less impressed.

“Why, on the contrary, Mr. Howard,” Olivia smoothly cut in, “Have you not received mailings the school regularly sends to communicate with parents? Young master Jacob is at the top of his fourth-year class. More than that, the lad has set himself apart from the rest of his classmates as a role model of exceptional acumen, already having attained scholastic status of a junior year student. On his present trajectory, he shall finish all requirements and then some, by the end of next session. The boy will have completed an eight-year curriculum in a span of only four years. An unheard of four-year-early graduation accomplishment. Hasn’t he informed either of you?”

Not pausing to wait for a reply, she went on, “Never in my husband’s tenure has a student achieved so much in so short a time frame. We couldn’t be more pleased by his performance. The maturity and scholarly attributes the boy displays have put him into the upper echelon of students ever to have attended the institution. You are only to be applauded for having foresight to send him our way.”

The atmosphere in the room could have been cut with a knife, so thick was it.

Mrs. Howard, nonplussed past the point of cogency, stared from one to the other of the visitors, looking for all to see as if she had swallowed the proverbial canary. Wilbur had nothing to say. Period.

Seeing the two in their speechless state, Mr. Eton continued. “We are here today, besides our desire to acquaint with the two of you, for the purpose of asking a favor in your son’s behalf. You see, he has expressed ongoing interest for three years now of intent to enter medical school. He holds an almost unique position for choosing where he would like to attend, rather than being chosen, as is the traditional method.”

“There is an increasing list of medical schools around the country, as well as two in Europe, who are actively pursuing the young man’s entry to their programs. Eight of the institutions have interviewed your boy at the Collegiate campus in Manhattan. All of them show exceeding interest in having him. This, despite his age.”

“Our quest today is bent toward the idea of sponsoring your young man, as guardian mentors, due to his minority status. There would be, of course, no obligation whatsoever put on either of you for underwriting such a venture. The boy has earned his way to placement in unprecedented fashion. Any additional financial obligation would be of no concern, should you allow us this honor.” Now, finally finished, the cultured gentleman sat back, content.

Olivia was not finished, however. “I am so very regretful that neither of you is apparently current with any of this information. Should we find that the school has been remiss in sharing all of this good news over the previous three years, I fully intend that there be an investigation into reasons for such a lackluster performance.” This was stated as she fairly glared at the open letter on the end table next to Lois’ chair. Implication purely apparent. Looking from the letter up to Jake’s mother’s face, she plastered a sickeningly sweet smile in place. And sat stock still, staring holes through the woman.

Even through the haze of her slowness, Lois reaped the meaning. She straightened up and cleared her throat with as much dignity as she could muster. “No, Mrs. Eton, we have sure been receiving letters from that school. We are very much proud of my son’s progress, of course. As much as a good Christian has the right to be. Pride being a sinful attribute, as we all well know. But, we were just not quite understanding all these other things and all of my Jake’s accomplishments. We are only country folk, I am afraid, and some of this highfalutin language may be just a little above our heads.”

She had enough sense to be slightly embarrassed, at least, thought Olivia, and could see she was proud. On the other hand, Mr. Howard was simply distracted. The blank look and continual glances toward the television made the man’s true interest all too obvious.

The stepson factored to nil, by the look of things. Not even a true stepson, she reminded herself, as the public records showed no proactivity toward attaining guardianship of any of four children here. Seeing this, she thought best to push the point right away rather than allowing any time for puerile mercenary purposes. This man would surely hold the boy’s future for ransom, given the slightest chance. She didn’t intend for that to happen.

Reaching into her purse, she withdrew a stack of papers. Then proceeded to browbeat the mousy woman in the sweetest fashion fathomable. Headmaster Eton sat back in mute disbelief at the whole scenario, from parents’ ignorance to his wife’s hutzpah.

Within minutes, she had obtained all proper signatures necessary for the purposes of the couple, and their elder retiree friends, in furtherance of securing Jacob Marshall’s future. Then and there. No compunction for remorse was registered by the technique. She found herself almost surprised when Wilbur, in his apathy, did not sign the dotted line with X’s.

As she and her husband reiterated their firm desire to see the two in Brattleboro for services very soon, Mr. and Mrs. Habersham Eton, headmaster-in-absentia of Collegiate School for Boys and his wife, took their respectful leave. Now, newly designated legal sponsors of the youngest graduate from the prep school in more than a century and a half.

November, 1998

“What? No green cheese?” Simon was dead serious and perplexed. What a sheltered life he led, thought Jake. A home-school education by helicopter parents living in a 56th story Fifth Avenue apartment for the first five school years had left the boy lost in real world scenarios. Now, at eleven-years-of-age, the first-year enrollee sixth grader had little basis for comparison in measuring the experience of most boys at Collegiate. Though only a year-and-a-half younger than Jake, the kid was psychologically miles and years distant in regards to maturity level.

Jake continued currying Diego as he contemplated the silly reply to the posit made about the recent verification by NASA that the moon provably harbored water. The core studies of the lunar samples collected by the Athena probe had stoked Jake’s interest in space travel and such subjects. Mixed with lunar ‘soil’, and in frozen state, it was nevertheless H2O. The discovery would revolutionize planning for extraterrestrial travel in decades to come. Water could be ‘harvested’ from the lunar surface rather than transported from Earth. Of that, Jake was certain.

A little less so was how ‘simple Si’ reached the age he had still holding the belief that the moon was made of cheese--- green, cheddar or Gorgonzola. But this had to be measured alongside the surprise the boy exhibited upon being made aware that the ponies masquerading as unicorns during birthday parties here at the stable were not truly unicorns. So, he quietly reassessed before answering.

“Well, Simon, maybe there is still hope for the far side of the moon hiding something from us but the Sea of Tranquility has officially been designated as non-dairy.” He smirked inwardly a little as he pulled tangles from the donkey’s coarse mane. Grooming the draft horses, ponies and this particularly precocious Provence Donkey, misnamed with a Spanish appellation such as he was, provided a savored and soothing pastime for Jake.

He had sought out Chateau Stables a year before during Thanksgiving break in search of diversion during his first solitary holiday. Some thirty blocks south of his boarding house at the church on 77th, he had run across the urban horse stable during a morning run a year-and-a-half before and made mental note of the place.

An intensely antagonistic atmosphere at the family home on Elkin Pond left the boy with little desire to return. He felt sure the feeling was mutual by the non-committal reply to the decision upon informing his mother and step-father. The boy hardened a resolve to ignore apathetic emanations from there. His friends, Chad and Derrick, were away on a European holiday. Without the older gentlemen at home on their side of the pond and by the fact of Spotty accompanying the Etons to upstate New York for the break, the rural setting provoked little appeal. No big deal, he reminded himself. More than once.

So, finagling a volunteer position at the venerable equine stable close to Central Park, adjoining Tavern on the Green, the then almost twelve-year-old boy had been conciliated to familiarize with yet another new animal family. A nonjudgmental one at that. Continuing working on intermittent weekends and some other off-days, too, it had been only a few months before Mrs. McGill offered Jake a part time caregiver position. Quite enchanted with the gentle resident equidae, especially this non-rideable ‘pet’, Diego, he had jumped at the chance. This much enjoyment and he got paid for it…? What could be better?

The donkey and boy had struck up a rapport which the stable owners were stumped to understand. On the first day of Jake’s tenure, while grooming the big lovable old French Percheron, Blackjack, an inquiring set of curling lips and large velvety nostrils had appeared through the wooden slats dividing stalls. Comically twitching and blowing his direction, the invitation toward the strange-smelling newcomer had been unmistakable. Expressing interest in the boy combing the donkey’s sole friend and comrade. Everybody agreed the common French heritage had to be the reason for the friendship, hence the side-by-side quarters.

Jake had approached the beast and tickled the presented anatomy. A friendly snort later and the two had taken to a game of hide-and-seek up and down the narrow openings. The little bugger liked the tweaks and tickles as Jake extended fingers in boyish acquaintance.

After minutes of the game, he had purloined some carrots and an apple from the tack room, then slipped into Diego’s forbidden corner stall. Without hesitation or second thought the eleven-year-old proffered the delectable tidbits and progressed to brushing the little guy’s body. The donkey shuddered in delight at the gentle, brazen, heretofore unexperienced handling by anyone, let alone an obvious innocent.

By the time Nick, veteran overseer, guide and handler, had returned from lunch break, the two were enmeshed in prankster one-upmanship. The handle-bar mustache residing above the surprised upper lip had jolted in disbelief upon rounding a corner to a view of long-lost buddies.

No one had befriended the mercurial beast to that point; something unbeknownst to Jake. Nick unobtrusively observed as the little reprobate bent his neck around to nuzzle Jake’s belly, setting up a giggling fit which the two proceeded to share. The donkey and boy danced a jig of camaraderie, alternately poking, prodding, rubbing, needling and just touching together in humorous conviviality.

Brought in years before as a guard for the stable, the diminutive big-eared lout had not exactly endeared himself with the staff. More than just stubborn, donkeys can be certifiably territorial, vocal and defensive. Often cantankerous. The disagreeable young cuss dubbed Diego quickly instituted a practice of non-discriminatory aggression toward friend, foe, familiars and strangers alike, from the outset.

The obnoxious temperament was only tolerated because of a defined proclivity for fending off interloping bandits and thugs who periodically targeted the enterprise. He was let to wander the stable yard during off hours. As word spread of an irascible ass’s presence, break-ins had declined and stopped over the past two years. A routine had been developed for corralling the biting, kicking, pitching devil-of-a-security-guard each and every morning before functionality could be established. The inscribed nameplate above his stall was emblazoned appropriately. ‘Diego: Attack Donkey’.

For some unfathomable reason, the loner had imprinted immediately on Jake during that first Thanksgiving holiday. Within three days, whinnies of greeting informed all present of Jake’s arrival. The two bonded. Closely. Love nips devolved to just that; previous damaging bites suffered by all in proximate reach diminished to gentle nips by the donkey’s recalibration to his new love: Jake. This Thanksgiving break, untangling the mane and tail had achieved status of a recurring love tryst.

Diego contentedly munched timothy while Jake and Si carried on with their tasks. “So, are you telling me that the tests eliminated cheese as a moon element?” Simon had vocabulary to come across informed at times, yet instances like this reinforced lack of concomitant knowledge to back it up.

“Really, Simon? You do get the premise that cheese comes from milk, which derives most commonly from cows, right? Where would be the source?” As much as the option presented itself, Jake chose not to be derisive. He had no desire to ridicule the fellow student, who he liked. But this was difficult to believe. “Not to mention,” he added, “milk is not an element. It is a complex organic molecule.”

“Well, you do know, Jake, that milk comes from other sources, too, don’t you?” The pre-teen was coming right back at his older friend, not giving an inch. “Like goats and deer and monkeys… and mothers? Just figuring that the old Man-in-the-Moon’s wife has to feed her kids somehow. And the kids gotta have pets. It’s only logical. So, maybe, they make a lot more up there because of less gravity. I bet they store it. There’s lots of free space…huh?”

Jake had no ability to reply on that level of illogic and gave up. As he smiled quietly, working through a tough knot, Nick, the stable guide came into the stalls. “Hey, Jake, can you come up to the office in a minute? Anita wants to talk with you.” Jake signaled he’d be right there. Patting Diego affectionately, he put away the curry and de-tangling comb. Knowing he would not be left alone with the donkey, Simon did the same. The two headed to the front office.

Taking the steps three at a time, Jake finished the run home, nicely winded, on the rock staircase entrancing the old West End Collegiate Church where he stayed. He raised a bent leg onto a rock finial for post-run stretching, mind still centered on the conversation with Anita. The two boys had been released early from afternoon chores at Chateau without much explanation. Only that there was news sent by Collegiate which needed Jake’s presence.

Simon’s parents had been called for a pick-up of both boys, but Jake had declined so as to get in an early evening run back to the boarding house. A signed release by his guardians allowed for just such forays. Independence which he dearly appreciated, the boy regularly availed himself of the perk. Running permitted him an autonomy not common for those in his age group.

The salt-caked running sweats and upscale cross trainers which Derrick insisted on replenishing twice yearly ensnared him in a clamminess of which he’d soon be shed. He methodically worked through the regimen set for cooling down in accustomed manner after exercise jaunts. The big city had been a bit scary at the beginning, Jake remembered. Second nature to be absorbed by its energy now, the boy reveled in it. So many people and sights.

Slowly stretching a tightening left quadriceps muscle group, he wondered again about what his advisor and the headmaster had to discuss. During a holiday break, no less. Finishing calf extensions and flexions, he made way through the heavy brass doors in ascent to home. Upstairs, the lock clicked familiarly as the door fell shut and Jake stripped casually on the way to the closet.

Robing up--- he had gotten used to the ‘no nudity in the halls’ rule over three and a half years--- Jake grabbed a clean towel, soap and flip-flops for a trek to the communal shower down at the end of the hall. Deserted now, the holiday break gave Jake a reprieve from almost the entire Collegiate student body. Of 600+ boys, about a hundred of whom resided in this church boarding house, maybe six had been sighted these past two days. He liked the solitude.

The heat of targeted double spigots hitting him was another cherished perk when others were away. Jake immersed a curl-sprigged head under their confluence, leaning against smooth bricks in splendid plenitude. No shortage of hot water right now, he basked, breathing deeply of heavy steam building in the spacious shower area.

Lights were dimmed for the break. Without any windows, a resultant gloominess felt cozy. His ears were useless under the streaming spray. Smelling fresh pine-sol application for control of fungal-challenged male shower surfaces, he kicked off flip-flops. Another comfort, he thought. Total privacy… and totally nude: no drawers for modesty, per usual. He remained ensconced for a good quarter hour, reflecting on multiple things…school, stable, Vermont, the moon experiments, the new movie Titanic, and then the sudden uncalled-for hearkening… Thelonius.

The prickly heat of the water bathed his groin in a deluge of aphrodisiacal bombast. Nascent hormonal release exacerbated the effect, augmenting quick onset engorgement. In downright unbounded indulgence, Jake felt his junk swell precipitously with the conjuring of his favorite and feared erogenous picture-thought.

Thelonius. Basketball captain and teammate. And, now: biochemistry lab partner. The darkly handsome sixteen-year-old junior had chosen the youngest classmate out of twelve in lab class on first day of fall semester, ensuring the youthful Jake’s absolute loyalty by the respect paid him in the act.

If Jake hadn’t been both nervous and enthralled before, he was from then on. Every time he was near the mature, accepted leader-of-boys who was Thelonius, there came similar effects. Hard-ons sprang awkwardly unsolicited; problematic by cumbersome noticeability.

The twelve-year-old did not understand. Not at all to say he didn’t enjoy the effect, just plain didn’t get it. Biology class had illuminated ‘normal’ over preceding three semesters. The male: female bond had been the only sex-ed option broached, so what Jake felt when the older boy came within proximity was bewildering. It wasn’t something that was supposed to happen. And, it never had… until Thelonius.

By that standard, when school was in session, Jake never allowed contemplation of the sexy name, let alone mind’s eye provocations, whenever his developing young mind wandered. Surrounds such as this were potentially ruinous. But he allowed it now.

The video-streaming memory, tucked deeply away, remained crystal-clear. At the time, the humiliating event had been extremely disturbing by its public context, happening in the middle of a practice as it had. But now it hovered subconsciously as a talisman of profound impact.

He had innocently initiated contact by merit of a missed attempt at a steal. Thelonius’ superior athleticism had guessed the move and dribbled away from the darting hand which grasped the older boy’s crotch--- in a fully encircling grope--- by mistake. Thelonius had pulled up short, locking eyes on Jake’s, as errant fingers had snatched a feel of the fleshy shaft and balls nestled deep inside those shorts. An intense shared moment had ensued. Then it was over as Jake hastily extracted girdling fingers. Through a full body flush, there erupted a stammered apology for the misdeed.“No problem, little dude.” That was all he’d said. And the episode was past. Gone and forgotten. By Thelonius… but not Jake. Subsequent reenactments erotically invaded randomly blossoming dreamscapes deep in the night when his mind would revisit that instant. Usually, though, in those closed-eye scenarios, the ebony junk was not covered by anything, the half-second was elongated to seconds or minutes, the shaft always stretched out to an amazing darkly pigmented foot-long hotdog and once, very recently, the ante had been upped when he’d made dreamy contact with the whopper as it wiped a lewd path back and forth across his cheeks.
Upon finally surfacing from those uncalled yet begged-for recurrences, he most commonly awoke to find himself smeared in stickiness. Salty-sweet smell of the obnoxiously unmannered stuff had a name, learned theoretically, several years before. Sperm. A viscous fluid filled with tiny wiggly spermatozoa. Millions of them.

The reality of the gooey mess was not how he had pictured it in that academic introduction. The pre-teen worried he may suffer some exotic condition needing medical attention but was too ashamed to address the matter with anyone, coming on the heels of such iniquitous dreams as it did.

The unpleasantness required stealthy intervention. To cover the guilt. Copious rinsing in the dorm room sink, surreptitious Clorox soaks to cut the smell, Febreze soakings afterwards to minimize multiple odors. Such a giveaway. Hanging huge white sheets anywhere and everywhere after his roommate departed grew to be hazardous and anxiety-inducing. Much worse, it was snowballing. In both frequency and volume. He lost precious hours of sleep by time wasted, as well as needful hassles for de rigueur cover-up.

The morning his roommate, Garth, busted his ass bigger than Dallas would rank right up there with the worst in his short life. That is, if the fourteen-year-old hadn’t empathized.

“What’s up with this, Jake?” The boy melted of mortification upon hustling back to the room, returning from a fast clean up down the hall. Garth had arisen earlier than normal and found stickily soiled sheets wadded by his bed. Rushing around the corner, Jake nearly smacked chest-to-chest into the amiable roommate who stood holding the dripping things above his head near the doorway. Examining it. The stains looked a lot worse under lights.

Stuttering a nonsensical reply, Garth drilled him with a curious look, “I didn’t mean that, Jake. I meant, what are these nasty things doing wadded up here, drenched? Why didn’t you put ‘em down the laundry chute instead? You savin’ it for something?” The light bulb figuratively burst in both boys’ heads almost simultaneously. “You didn’t know to do that, did you, Curly?”

Still faltering in a trapped state and flabbergasted to have overlooked the oh-so-apparent solution in a twelve-year-old mind before this moment, Garth chortled at Jake’s overt discomfort. “How long you been at this? Didn’t anyone ever tell you? You sure don’t want that around stinkin’ everything up, right?”

Another bulb popped. “Wait, dude…Jake… You don’t get any of this, do you? No wonder I’ve been smelling all that bleach and Febreze when I come back to the room. Hey, bud, sit down a sec. You’re shakin’.” He patted his rumpled bed, inviting. “Jake, nobody’s talked with you about this, have they?” The nervous head shake said it all. “You do realize that we are in Collegiate--- you know--- Boy’s School. Almost all of us here are doin’ the nighttime gush. It’s normal, bud. There’s no reason to be embarrassed. Here, let me show you.”

With that excruciating scene came a teachable moment. Garth walked through the accepted method for disposal of offending bedding. A running dialogue shed light on a bunch of mysteries. By the time they re-entered the room, grinning had infected both.

So, it was a boy thing, huh? He wasn’t dying, after all. Jake’s relief made him giddy.

Finally piping up, “Wow, I feel better, Garth. Thanks. I was losing sleep doing that every night… couldn’ta kept it up much longer, I… don’t…… think.” One totally astounded roommate’s face made Jake trail off.

“You mean you weren’t saving that sheet up? That was just one load? What the hell are you… a damn volcano?”

All these discordantly tumultuous thoughts cascaded through Jake’s mind in tandem and parallel at the pleasantness provided by hot water and bouncing boner. The pendulous thing was enjoying this rare freedom of expression. Closed eyes amplified the erogenous episode and rush of the water over his head made a virtual cocoon from which to suspend time for a short interlude of private excess. Such an extraordinary extravagance.

His fingers massaged in heavenly swirls up and around smoothly soaped pubescent groin, stomach and chest, exciting sproinging twerks from a ready organ between youthful runner’s legs. Knowing that any touch of the tumescent appendage would result in immediate cresting, he avoided direct contact with the independent-minded member, letting himself slide slowly to the shower floor. It felt absolutely divine just the way it was. The desire for prolongation was paramount at the remarkably sensate moment.

A sudden realization butted him. Imagination could enable anything a horndog mind might devise in the heated circumstance now unfolding. Naturally, the latent Thelonius illusion bubbled up through the deepness, in rich virtuality. Jake concocted his fantasy’s slow, creeping approach across the wet area. Smooth espresso hand and fingers stretched forward and around him--- no: those luscious full dark lips surrounded him--- in his pipedream caprice: Thelonius.

The full thickness of his lab partner’s sexy pair wrapped sensuously around the virgin shaft now bobbing for the unattainable. Something so obviously verboten that Jake shuddered in the sinfulness of the idea. And, with such a superbly wicked thought, the simulated effect pinpointed every hot dot of illusioned contact. The massive boner gave way to surging capitulation, fruitful eye spewing copiously.

Now, in release, Jake’s fingers finally came up to offer guidance and succor to the unmatchable effect roiling his body. A cry of surprise in the middle of this pleasure erupted from Jake’s own lips as his fingers encountered not the expected spasming shaft, but Thelonius’ cheek instead.

Seizing back reality, he popped to standing again, out from under the shower’s cascade. Flooded eyes opened to the sight of actual lips--- though not Thelonius’ set--- busy at the treasure trove.

The almond-eyed youth attached to those spongy chops stared straight into Jake’s astounded eyes. The full mouth, having followed the ascension, obligated itself to an oblong-shape by the enormity of its prey. Jake recognized the janitorial boy commonly cleaning up after messy students’ routine sullying of the wet area. Having engaged short friendly dialogue with the diminutive teenager, he knew the boy worked part-time alongside his dad, Wang Ho, to augment family financial needs. The two enjoyed an affable acquaintance. This scenario stepped past that level, assigning new meaning to ‘sullying’.

Jake remained in thrall to the mouth currently favoring him with the sweetest satisfaction ever experienced, seeing rolling expressions waltz across Junior’s face in evocative fulfilment. He clearly liked the present position. And, Jake deduced, was not new to it. Greedy lips availed themselves of the harvest from the rigidness presently obsessing him. Had the event proven less gratifying, Jake would have felt used. Or something. As it was, he simply endorsed the idea that whatever had just occurred, it could just keep right on occurring. Thank-you-very-much.

After an indeterminate time, a sapped fantasist leaned against the smooth tiled wall. Incredulous of that just experienced. Discerning that the newest look from young Wang Ho was now auguring oncoming communication of other than that which had spoken wordless volumes already, Jake watched a slow, inching retreat.

Smiling almond eyes peered diffidently upwards, accompanying a look of repletion. “Excuse me, but you appeared to be in need of assistance. Nobody else was around, so the onus was mine to render aid. Hopefully not delivering insult.” The ancient art of Chinese diplomacy made Jake cede control by the disarming effect. He slumped in a sliding plop back down to the shower room floor, putting the boys on eye-level with one another. The curling of his lips informed the eastern boy of, at least, no anger. When the toothy grin emerged next, he knew all was probably good between the two.

“What the hell just happened?” Jake’s warbling voice pitched in skewed vocal conflict. The funny trill of sounds made Wang Ho giggle. The two boys relaxed, Jake unabashedly naked and Ho only a little self-conscious in his besmirched condition.

The next bit of time found the two conversing on a level not achieved to that point. Both recognized that by the event just shared, no need for much in the way of obfuscation or affectation was either necessary or appropriate. In true teenage fashion, they assumed a familiarity which Jake felt would persist for the remainder of his tenure.

Arising, Ho braced a hand familiarly against Jake, who watched as he turned into the spray still waterfalling them both. Already wet, he drenched himself under cleansing spray, pulling the drawstring from his stomach to allow it to wash telltale stickiness down insides of pant legs. Jake realized the boy had peaked, too.

Next saturated was the silky black shoulder-length mop of hair. Backing away from the cascade, he shook his head and body in a markedly canine fashion. Jake’s turn to laugh, he arose too, rinsing off. Ho removed his sopping clothes and they dried together, sharing a towel.

The reveal of his body exposed Jake to a new idea of maleness as he took in the golden-shaded skin, complementing almond eyes. Smooth hairlessness and the compactness of build was very pleasing, Jake thought. A fast friendship had been forged. Retrieving discarded flip-flops, he toweled-up as Ho dressed. Then the cleanly sated boys exited the shower area together, Jake’s robe shouldered and Ho wearing the damply wrung-out outfit in which he’d entered.

As they neared Jake’s door, Ho’s father rounded the corner, obviously surprised to see friendliness so evident between his wet son and the towel-draped American student. It caused some muddle. Jake introduced himself, quickly winning over the older man by mannerly respect and elocutionary skill; attributes highly prized in the father’s country. He told Jake so. The boys parted amidst promises to keep touch and get together.

Turning the key in the lock to his room, Jake sensed, more than heard, a dull, pummeling racket from inside. Pushing carefully to peek, he was rudely blasted by a hot spray of water. Puzzled, he widened the crack, exacerbating the effect, and visualized the dorm sink. The faucet had somehow blown off the spigot, permitting an eruption of hot spray to pelt him directly in the face, head-on.

He squinted into the strong stream, palming his hands out to thwart the inundation. Rushing inward, he whipped off the now-sopping towel, ineffectually covering the geyser smashing into his face and body. It only diverted the flow. So, he leaned over in blind search for the shut-off valve beneath. Locating the handle, Jake twisted it hard, clockwise. The blasted hardware broke off in his hand, leaving the cascade still deluging him.

Sinking to the floor, the spray seemed to follow his descent, never letting him escape from its flooding blitzkrieg. Frustrated beyond coping, he wiped a hand down head and face to clear his vision just a smidgen. Then, he peeked through the torrent to try assessing another solution. The view confounded him. There, from floor level where he had sunk, he visualized the faucet, somehow back in place, jetting directly onto him.

Focus on the conundrum--- how did the stupid thing get back on--- compounded itself as he found it not only back on the spigot, the spigot no longer emerged from the sink. Instead, it was attached to the wall. What was more, the cinder block wall had transformed into subway tile… the same kind as in the shower… down the hall. Whoa, Jake mused, this is just plain weird.

Shaking to clear his groggy head, the youngest senior dipped to the side, finally managing to move from under the frustrating spray jet. His eyesight cleared. And, there, he found himself. Staring at the still spewing double wall jets, just where he had positioned them. He was, to be sure, in the big communal shower. On the floor, all right… and alone. The familiarly tapering leg snake lay there, bouncing languidly on and off one thigh. Dribbling, like always, it occurred to him.

The dawning was a strange one as he grasped the reality. All that had gone on before, fantastical as it was, was just that. Fantasy. A night dream, very normal, but during the middle of the day. He had blown a fuse, for sure. Sweet feelings verified that. Wow, he thought. And, no sheets to strip or deliver to the chute… he should shoot for this again.

Picking himself up, Jake rinsed off again, rotated the handles on both shower heads to closed, reached over for the waiting dry towel… and purred. All the way back to the room. The dry room…

Residual buzz waxed through Jake’s body as he dressed and descended to the walkway connecting the church to quadrangle on his way to the headmaster’s office. Never having been through such a powerful release, pheromone saturation left him flushed in unprecedented mellowness.

He walked into the secretary’s foyer guarding the headmaster’s own office and found a busy young woman. Chrissie, as the student recalled from previous visits, sat deluged in stacks of records around her cluttered desk. With two phones ringing and a borderline frantic look about her, a perfunctory smile greeted him from this vantage and a quick hand gesture indicated for him to go right on in through the closed door.

Jake opened it hesitantly, stopping in the doorway before entering. Before him sat Mr. Readoner behind his big antique desk. The man was engaged in conversation with Mrs. Bonnier, the dean of students, who was also his advisor. Mr. Eton’s fill-in as interim headmaster and formerly the assistant headmaster, Mr. Readoner looked every bit the part. Long silver locks combed straight back over his head, a wool plaid vest with immaculate white shirt and perfectly knotted bowtie: the man exuded academic gravitas.

Seeing Jake appear, he interrupted the conversation. “Greetings, young Master Marshall. We have been awaiting you, Sir. Do come in and take a seat.” His and the dean’s friendly demeanors dispelled Jake’s rising trepidation, still ignorant to the reason for a Thanksgiving break summons. It eased his mind that at least he wasn’t in trouble and nobody had died. Not with this evident good mood. He came in and took the proffered seat.

“Jacob, it appears by your appearance that the physical labor with Chateau agrees with you. You are fairly beaming. Am I under a correct assumption?” Everybody was aware of the headmaster’s ability for sizing things up. Jake nodded, momentarily questioning whether the man also guessed his recent upstairs pastime. That thought was a little jarring.

Assuring the man of his positivity regarding the riding stable, he waited expectantly, looking back and forth between the two administrators. Dean Bonnier opened dialogue to the subject at hand. “Jacob, it’s good to see you doing so well. We do have hopes that you are finding some enjoyment over the quietude of the break.” Again, Jake debated the allusion, innocent as it seemed. He rationalized it must be only paranoia.

“There has been news this morning of some significance concerning you. We felt it best to have you in straight away to discuss it. Don’t worry, it is all very good news, so relax,” she added, apparently picking up on Jake’s underlying consternation, despite the ‘beaming’. If only she really knew, he thought.

“As you are no doubt aware, we have been receiving communications over past months, and will continue to do so over coming ones, regarding our students’ various applications and interviews with higher institutions.” A look of satisfaction was unmistakable. Master Readoner went on.

“We are presently in possession of four different institutions’ positive responses to applications sent in your behalf. Your state of age minority required special dispensations from the school for contravention of normal protocol. Nearly perfect scores on the MCAT facilitated a concession. Well, that and the status of personal comportment noticed at your interviews, of course.”

“Head of the respondents are Princeton and Yale. There remain several others outstanding. It would seem we all have some weighing to do…” The smile on both administrators’ faces were effusive. And contagious. Jake lit up at the news.

The subsequent hour was spent mapping a plan for evaluating alternatives, a list of pros and cons drawn up. Besides the Ivy League schools, Stanford had replied, as had The University of Texas at Austin. Harvard, Cornell, Cambridge, Leipzig and others were yet to send news of their determinations. Jake, indeed, had choices.

All four of the first institutions would require three to four years of pre-med programs to ascertain Jake’s disposition for medical curriculum, which was fine by the boy. His own uncertainty on the state of readiness had been a dogging concern. Fear of underperforming hit the overly young candidate like a ton of bricks. He wanted to confer with Derrick, Chad, along with the Etons. But he was nonetheless ecstatic at the possibilities.

In his heart, he already recognized a decision, though unready to let it be known. Something in the deepest reaches of his Id had informed him. A warm sentience on the mind’s veiled horizon provided assurance. That, and some youthful heart palpitations.

Leaving the headmaster’s office, he floated to his room, then lay levitated in bed, contemplating the future. His real Daddy had to be happy at the news. After long absence, dreams of shoulder romps with Spotty nipping ankles pervaded a boy’s dreams that night.

May, 1999

“Texas? That is your verdict, Jake?” This from Derrick after an in-depth discussion of the matter once again before them. Graduation would be upon their young ward within weeks and the boy had pondered the dilemma for months. With input of much sought-after advice, all his wiser confidants had presumed pronouncement for an Ivy League institution entry. Up to now, Jake had been almost maddeningly non-committal. This declaration surprised the couple. Chad and he looked equally puzzled by it but sat quietly, pondering ramifications.

It was Chad who broke the silence. “You have done your homework on all this, we are sure, but this is unexpected, Jake. Care to fill us in?” Chad was secretly pleased. Were he in a similar position, he would like to think he would’ve struck out in such a free-spirited manner. Points unknown. Totally new perspectives.

And after all, he reasoned, the Texas flagship Tier One University ranked in upper echelons of America’s premier medical colleges, so there was no lessening in quality by this decision. Just the fact of the destination made him think. A ‘hinterlands’ venue riled his paternal instincts somewhat. But, good for the boy, he reiterated to himself. He thought to bone-up on the capitol of the Lone Star State.

Jake sat tacitly a few more moments. Deliberately, he looked first to Derrick and then to Chad. Correctly deducing the one rooting for this decision. “I know I’m probably too young to be going so far away,” this was directed at Derrick, “but it is true; I have been really meditating about it.”

“There are a lot of things favorable for me here. Mainly, the two of you. I know I would never be in this position were it not for you both. But, I hope you can understand the feelings going on inside me.”

“I watch the things you share when we are together. I’ve seen the other side by the goodness that you have brought my way and will be forever grateful. With no means of ever re-paying either of you. Money isn’t what I am referring to, though there is that, too. It is the love and compassion you have demonstrated to and for me. I would still be fighting from a dark hole in the basement wall if it weren’t for your involvement. You gave Spotty his best home, too,” as he patted the graying friend at his feet. Thumping that tail softly.

Derrick was blubbing by this time. Even Chad felt a rare tear course his cheek at the maturity the youth exuded. The penchant was becoming a habit in this regard, he reflected. Knowledge of the boy’s recognition of their feelings for him was the best of all... They grasped he felt the same in return. The boy went on.

“Ever since the name of the Austin university came into the options, I have had a feeling about it. I can’t put it into words. But it is there. Something to do with the way I see you when you don’t know I’m watching. You have an ease of existence between yourselves. I haven’t ever seen that between two people, not even the Etons. The best part is that you don’t seem aware of it.”

“Something in my future is connected to Austin, Texas. I feel it holds a prospect like yours there for me. Don’t ask me how. I have to go there. Someone is waiting. Does that make any sense at all, do you think?”

Jake knew he saw things others couldn’t. He had always paid attention to the inner facet of himself. Difficulty making the present decision derived from self-doubt of following indecipherable innatism to such an extreme end. Not whether the feeling was correct or incorrect. He already knew it was. Could these special men ever understand that? Jake was very fearful to leave all that was familiar and comfortable, yet if he were to live to the potential which his inner being assured could exist, he realized he must. So, there it was. He observed the men now, awaiting their thoughts.

“Jake, you are way too young in my eyes to leave us. I just can’t get away from that thought. But I--- no, we--- are also mindful that you are an uncommonly unique person. We will have to recognize and deal with that. Know that both of us feel blessed to play a role in your life. That it may set in motion events which put you on your Life’s path makes us very much desirous of respecting that. But I am going to blubber the whole way, regardless.” And he did. Sinking over into Chad’s shoulder.

“You go, big boy,” was all that an almost-sniffling Chad managed.

And so, the die was cast.

December, 2002

“Tell me again why you signed up for an entomology course? It’s not like it’s a requirement for med school--- are you changing majors?” Cullen wasn’t accepting the logic. In his second year of college, the sophomore hadn’t yet contemplated elective courses. Pre-requisites dominated his academic life. That somebody might take a course just for jollies remained outside his rationality. Girls and social life collectively constituted anything close to electives in Jake’s roommate’s world. They were sometimes more important than classes. Jake had figured that out early on. Luckily, the sophomore was serious about school and a degree, so all was good.

“I’ve always liked insects, Cullen. They’re really fly beasts. Don’t forget, they make up most species that inhabit Earth. And, to boot, there’s bunches more yet to discover. More are identified every day.” Jake was studying taxonomic charts in readying for a final exam two days hence. It was more fun than work and he laughed with Cullen more than at him for misunderstanding. It was a way to divert attention from the approach of more pressing matters.

The two boys sat across the dorm room from one another, breaking off for a minute from dead week studies as finals week loomed. Jake could see out the twenty-seventh-floor window of Dobie Center high rise. Memorial Stadium stood statuesque in the distance. The campus spread out below them as he contemplated the recent turn of events. Beginning with this new roommate. Easy friendship had budded between the duo over the previous year since they met one late afternoon at nearby Town Lake…

…Dusk was arriving as Jake had finished his daily run at Congress Avenue Bridge that late summer day, intending to take in the fascinating phenomenon about to erupt. He loved awaiting the daily event, enjoying assignment of make-believe life stories and circumstances to interesting characters converging on the site for the same purpose. Austin was chock full of weird inhabitants. The process provided appealing amusement in which Jake had taken pleasure over two years since settling in the central Texas capitol. Strangeness always drew the young misfit. This place he frequented accessed a venue availing nourishment for two appetites at once.

As the western drop of the sun advanced, the fiery orb hypnotized him. Using the waiting minutes, he methodically stretched used muscles. Per habit, since engaging the running hobby as a very young kid intent on vacating an unpleasant home life on Elkin Pond back in his home state of Vermont. The mainstay recreational diversion followed him faithfully though all that time. Presently, he hiked a sweat-socked ankle by the crook of an elbow up behind back and butt, toe-touching his mid-dorsum. It loosened quad muscles before spasms ensued, thereby draining lactic acid and avoiding painful charley horses.

Balancing on the stairway railing, absorbed in thoughts and blinded by the quickly sinking sun, he was abruptly bumped, hard, off the step, when another runner back-slid stepwise down the stairs without so much as a glance. Jake barely caught himself as the blond boy turned in surprise at the obstruction. He reached to help balance Jake upon seeing what he had done.

“Whoa, sorry, man. Didn’t see you there. I was just doin’ my moonwalk-downs to loosen up. You OK?” He obviously meant no insult and the boy’s hand-brace kept Jake from toppling one-legged down eight steps to the gravel trail below. A smile accompanied the surprise and concern, lessening any chagrin maybe engendered by the collision.

“Nah. I’m good. It’s all right. I should have been keeping an eye out anyway. The sun’s bright.” He took in the handsome face and athletic form of an obvious running acolyte like himself, further allaying any umbrage.

The steadying hand grasped his tricep and the two pulled close in the save, evaluating each other. Jake thought at first he might have detected interest but after a couple minutes of banal banter he deduced this straight boy was not of his own persuasion. No biggie. All good-looking men aren’t gay. Just the majority. He wouldn’t hold it against the guy. The thought made Jake smile. The two continued a dialogue as the sun disappeared. Comparing running shoes, cool down techniques, running apparel and loop preferences, they became a little familiar. Dusk set in unobtrusively during their chat.

Suddenly, a swoosh of black wings engulfed the pair, along with other gathered watchers, causing a low upsurge of excited murmurs amidst a flapping torrent. It took the new boy by utter surprise. He ducked and dropped to the steps as if under attack, covering his head, wondering what the hell was happening.

Jake’s turn to help the other boy. He reached out, grinning, and handed him up, reassuring that the onset of the dusk occurrence now unfolding was one not only expected, but anticipated. The boy rose only warily, despite the explanation. The rush of passing wings continued in a seemingly never-ending flow. Chirping and clucking noises added quirkiness to anyone happening upon the phenomenon. As this runner plainly had done. “What is it? Birds?”

His anxious visage tried vainly to control an emanating fear, seeing others around them affected in a positive way but still unable to come to grips with an unknown entity.

“It’s the bats, dude. Aren’t you here for their emergence? Everyone else is. If this is your first time, don’t worry, they don’t bite or sting or anything. They won’t even touch you. We’re just like a tree or bush to them. They have great radar. They’re on the way up to hunt all night.” Jake explained all of this as the guy collected and settled himself, gradually accepting Jake’s words. A bit hard to do under the circumstances.

A few minutes helped, along with calm clarification. Ooh’s and ahh’s all around them convinced him finally that all was well and he stood straighter, observing the winged maelstrom wax over the succeeding minutes, then gradually begin to wane.

When the fluttering receded to just a few stragglers at a time, the boy took in the whole situation and fixed Jake with a stare. “You say this happens every night? Where do all those things stay? And why aren’t they attacking? I always thought bats bit and that we caught rabies from the buggers. We kill ’em quick when they show up back home, but then there’s never any more than one or two at a time and they’re usually lost, or something, seems like.”

Jake replied, “This is a colony of nearly two million that predates the bridge. They’ve lived here in caves for eons. We are the interlopers. Not them. The colony took up under this bridge after the last caves were closed off. Everyone used to think the same way you do but now recognize the super-coolness of it. Hundreds of people come here to watch every summer day.”

“These smart mammals--- they’re not birds--- eat night insects. If you let them alone, there’s a whole lot fewer mosquitoes to suck your blood after sunset. You get bit a lot, I bet.” A quick nod of surprise acknowledged that fact. “Yeah, vampire bats live only in Central and South America in the Western Hemisphere, so blood-sucking isn’t an issue. And, since mosquitoes much prefer blondes…and kids… you’re a prime target.”

This comment brought a defensive response. “Me? A kid? Hell, man, I’m blond, sure, but I’m legal--- turned eighteen in May. Hardly a kid. Look who’s talkin’. You and your big ole’ fourteen-year-old self.” The great smile warmed Jake. A notorious loner and hermit, he preferred solitude, running and books to people. Precisely because of his kid-like looks. He tired quickly of explaining the age thing. By the fact that those his age almost always lagged in educational accomplishment, Jake was overly careful to display confidence and communicative skill beyond his years. The disparate factors left little common ground. It rankled him to be pre-judged. Therefore, he most often kept to himself.

But he liked this guy. “Wow, thanks a lot. I’m seventeen next January. So, go on with your own stuck-up person.” Smiling as he joked. “I’m only a year back… or so. You live here? In Austin, I mean?”

“Yeah… well I do now. I’m from south of here--- Cotulla--- and I go to UT. I live in Brackenridge Hall on campus. Just about to finish freshman year. You?” Jake’s nod engendered more. “So, if you’re only sixteen, man, how’d you get in early? Are you at UT, even? Or ACC… or St Edwards?”

Jake was used to this, so proceeded cautiously. Responses varied from surprise to disbelief or even derision. He generally shied from the subject. ACC was an eastside community college for remedial work before applying to more established schools while St. Edwards University was a small private school to the south of where the two now stood.

“No, I go to UT. I live at Prather Hall now, but am not happy there and hope to move for fall semester. I have a roommate-from-hell who never studies and party’s non-stop. It makes me spend most of the time in Library or at Ransom Center to get anything done.” He left it there, hoping to change subjects, but the boy wasn’t having it.

“So, UT… at sixteen. That’s pretty good. What are you taking? I’m going into Business Admin and in the fall, I’m gonna move, too. Wanna get outta Brackenridge Hall. It’s prehistoric. Built in the 1930’s or something. Prather is too, huh? Just over from Brack. So, what’s your major, man?” He must want to know, by the repeat. “And, where you from?”

Well, so what, thought Jake… here goes. “I’m from Vermont and in pre-med. It’s a long slog.” Jake conveniently left out that he was finishing his junior year, not desiring to bring attention to the fact. “How do you like business admin? You working for an MBA?” He noted bat-watchers thinning out. The two were less jostled now. They sat down on a nearby bench looking at the lake. Jake awaited an inevitable third-degree.

“Oh. OK. Vermont? Up by New Hampshire, right? Why’d you come to Texas? Had to be a Longhorn, huh?” He joked. But didn’t third-degree. What a relief. “Hey, wanna go over to Starbucks and get a latte? You can tell me about these blasted insect-eating birds some more. It’s kinda straight-up. ’Specially that they miss you when they fly by. Oh, by the way, my name is Cullen. Cullen Porter.”

An hour of chit-chatting at the coffeehouse left Jake ‘in like’ with the freshman. Personable but not nosy; self-deprecatingly congenial. The two began running miles together after that, usually ending at Congress Bridge, then walking up to the dorms through downtown. By end of term the boys had agreed to keep in touch over summer and try finding a room together for fall term when Cullen returned. Jake was gung-ho at a chance to pick a roommate after five semesters and five roommates assigned by Prather Dorm RA’s.

Summer sessions flashed by quickly. August arrived and Cullen turned up with his mom who needed to meet this new boy wanting to be her baby’s roommate. A protective woman, she wasn’t having any more of the types her son had been stuck with his first year. By the end of the dorm search weekend, the svelte country mom turned to Cullen and, right in front of Jake, issued a statement, “Honey, this young man has his head on straight and knows where he is going. I think you should take the Dobie Center room and be done with looking.”

The sweet smile informed Jake he’d passed muster. Cullen hated the parental acceptance, but liked Jake enough to overlook the invasion into newly sprouting autonomy, so acquiesced. Besides, the two ran well together: like paces, like loops, like timing, like habits. So, it happened. Three months into teaming up, the match was proving a good one…

… “Jake, we Texans are brought up to hate insects. They’re all pests down here. The only good insect is a dead insect.” He was adamant about it. In a semi-arid region, the mindset was understandable. Insects killed crops. Fast. But Jake still loved the tiny beasts, actively seeking them when he was on runs or hikes, anything taking him outside.

“You have to admit that they are pretty cool-looking even if you don’t like them, though, right?” The colors, the exotic anatomical and locomotive diversity, all stoked Jake’s curiosity. “Do you know that in one square mile of forest there are more insects than there are people on earth?” He thought that factoid amazing. “And, also, an ant can carry fifty times its body weight? That’s like if you weigh a hundred and fifty pounds, you could carry your own car around… gnarly, huh?” How could that fail to impress, Jake reflected.

“Boy, oh boy. Yeah, man. Think of the gas money I’d save…” Cullen, with no car, remained unenthusiastic. “But, seriously, you took it on purpose and didn’t need to. Is that right?”

“Yes. That is correct. I like insects.”

“All of ’em? Even the bad ones? You know there are a bunch that only do bad things and spread disease and stuff. How is that interesting?” He was at least trying to relate.

“The more we understand them, the more we are able to control them and limit any damage they do. That makes sense, right?” He was glad Cullen was picking his brain, needing a break.

“So, you think bugs like black widows and brown recluse spiders and damnable blood-suckin’ ticks are cool? I knew a guy who put his boot on with a recluse spider in it and the thing bit him. In three days, his whole calf rotted off. He’s never been the same since. What’s up with that?”

“For the major point, none of those are insects, Cull. They are arachnids. I’m not studying those. But, dang, those are killing machines, aren’t they?” Cullen was mystified at that exuberant comment. “Probably the most interesting thing about the insect world is the way medical science can harness toxins, anatomical oddities and other things for good purposes. Like medicines and orthopedic devices. So, there is that. What if the recluse toxin could be targeted somehow to eat cancerous tumors?”

“OK, I’ll give you that point. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, huh? Well, check this out. What about those bugs that the wife eats the husband? Right after he gives the bitch the goods? That is sick. Where’s anything good there, now?”

Jake thought about that a minute. He debated amongst ‘himselves’ and decided to. “Roomie, I agree, not a whole lot of good to be seen there--- at least from the male’s standpoint. But there’s a little bit of a story I read on that, if you want to hear it.” Cullen nodded OK. “You may not like it. But here goes.”

“I read about a study done by a grad student in Arkansas who observed habits of praying mantises--- or mantids--- in the wild. First one ever done. It encompassed two years. Results showed the females didn’t always eat their mates after mating. Sometimes, he would eat her. And other times, when a group of males surrounded the female, vying to be her mate, she would snap all their heads off in a big serial-beheading and then mate with all of them. Headless. They gave her the goods even after that… pretty skanky, huh? That happened in about 2% of wild-setting matings. In those cases, after the babies hatched and Mom died, too, the siblings all came out fighting. They devoured each other. Last mantid standing, so to speak.”

“Damn, Jake. That really is cold-blooded. They could still get it up? There must be bug Viagra, I'm guessin’. That’s what I call fucking your brains out!”

“Yep,” Jake replied, “and they are truly cold-blooded.” To himself, he thought, it also made a good case for ‘it pays to be gay’. But didn’t say so.

April, 2004

The odor of formaldehyde was overwhelming. Jake could see people walk wide paths of avoidance whenever he approached, wrinkled nostrils offended a block distant if winds were right. Upon happening on others unbeknownst, many exclaimed in gagging vexation. Were it possible, he would avoid himself, he considered, hoofing his way by back paths to Dobie Center following the thrice weekly introductory anatomy laboratory session.

As a first-year med student, he had taken to waiting patiently a fair distance from the elevators until a lull in riders happened. Traveling in close proximity had prompted bouts of heaving fits within such close confines. He found himself praying that no one would hitch a ride somewhere along the traverse from the lobby up to the twenty-seventh-floor domicile where he bided time with his near-mutinous friend and roommate, Cullen.

The three-hour marathons, while remarkably interest-provoking, left all those departing the clammy, smelly cadaver-laden settings open to ostracism and occasional threat to physical safety by disdain for the stench absorbed along with knowledge in the macabre venue.

The putrid pong permeated not just clothing during hours of exposure. In its molecular state formalin penetrated skin, resulting in cadres of walking pariahs throughout the four semesters required for a foundation to medical training. It remained the bane of every first and second-year med student’s existence.

Everything involved with medicine derived in some manner from the noxious laboratories housing preserved and dissected bodies so magnanimously bequeathed prior to departing the physical vessels we all inhabit until we don’t. ‘Donating one’s body to science’ holds a ring of dedication to perpetuation of humankind. How noble, think the masses. Right, Jake wincingly deduced, after the revelation broadsided the incoming class on the first day of their noble pursuit.

Medical students the world around thought of it in an entirely different way. One which the remainder of humanity would, as well, were they to be subjected to reality of such an ignobly messy demise. Rending of one’s former unique bodily components to pored-over, separated, dissected and torn-apart-limb-by-limb methodology was what accurately occurred.

Enlightenment would likely make the most honorable of beings rethink themselves. Should they ever hover as a proverbial fly-on-the-wall in watching green medical apprentices wade through the process, that is. The process shaded students with a greenish tinge over the course of study. Yuck, Jake reasoned.

Yet, what could be any viable alternative? He, like all who had preceded him, would therefore simply carry on. Unable to partake in common day-to-day activities by merit of reviling ripeness. Ahem, he conceded.

Approaching the door to room 2713 where he and Cullen had called home these past school years, familiarity drew him. Thankfully, the hallway was deserted. The reality that he would most probably revive upon entering caused foreboding. He disliked the antipathy arising from his presently loathsome state. It had taken the boy thirty minutes to maneuver his way here from the lobby. Now, Cullen’s distaste loomed.

Before entering, Jake unleashed his latest stratagem for battling the dilemma. Unzipping the flight suit procured from the Army Surplus store the previous day, he pulled out the also newly purchased heavy parachute-silk backpack dedicated to the cause. He hoped the impervious nature of it might stifle some stink.

Stripping off the new ‘travel attire’ for the hike through campus along with the more offensive lab coverall underneath, he turned both inside-out and wadded them into the Air Force issue bag. The protective suit donned upon departing lab had noticeably smothered the aroma on traverse to Dobie and that was a good thing. Hopefully this method would mitigate the noxious effect enough to salvage his longtime roommate’s goodwill.

Grasping the doorknob, he turned it and pushed, expecting an onslaught of dissent to the bouquet he shepherded. Every other day, now. Waiting a pregnant moment before entering, nothing greeted him. Peeping in to Cullen’s side of the room, he found a napping blonde, book open on his chest, hands gripped behind his head.

Whew, he exhaled. Quickly, Jake moved to hide the pack deep in his emptied closet, closing the door securely. All his sparse wardrobe now resided in stacks under the desk along with running shoes. Next, he stripped off underclothes, hiding them in yet another dedicated bag. Putting it into the closet also. The downstairs laundromat would see a triple vinegar soak and wash late that night. His newest plan was a go.

Clean drawers later, along with the signature headband, used for years now in taming riotous sprigging curlicues covering him, Jake settled on his bed with a book on parasitology to review for a didactic lecture the coming morning. Not too bad, he reflected. This was the best entry after a lab to date. Maybe he could make it work after all and save driving his friend to other accommodations.

A good three hours passed before Cullen snorted to consciousness. He knocked the business tome to the floor and sat up abruptly. “Hey, Jake…man. You snuck in, huh? I was waiting up for you.” A glance out the narrow window as he swiped his wavy blond locks back from a groggy face informed him of not having done so. “Wow, what time is it?” The digital clock stared up at him. “9:30? Already? Can’t believe it. I was gonna be finished studying by now. How come you didn’t get me up?” He finally focused over at his settled partner.

“You were sleeping like a baby. I didn’t have the heart to do it. You haven’t been doing much of that lately, I noticed. That’s why.” He avoided mentioning the elephant in the room. The pervasive preservative was only very mildly perceptible and Jake was hopeful it wasn’t just his inured sense of smell missing it. The non-response proved telltale. Cullen hadn’t even remarked on lack of smells or that Jake had taken drastic action. Great news, sighed a relieved anatomist.

“So, why were you trying to wait up, you night owl you?” Looking pointedly at the clock, he glanced back. Teasing him always provided Jake fun in the watching. It took a minute to dawn on the blonde. He grinned and rose, heading to his desk. The briefs he preferred were hiked and twisted up on his hips and crack a bit, leaving round ass cheeks delectably exposed. It was a cute visual. Way too cute for a straight boy. Jake chewed on that premise regularly.

Cullen’s current main squeeze, Ashleigh, commonly commented on the boy’s globular pair of tight cheeks. The couple drug Jake along to meals downstairs sometimes in the food court or at one of the affordable student hangout restaurants on the infrequent chance that he was not in class or studying. He pictured her slapping the taut buns in public venues like that and wished for the chance himself… “Jake? You hear me?” He was looking back over his shoulder, matching orbs flexing sexily in the turn. “You checkin’ out my butt, man? Ha. You must be hard up. Need to get you some pussy. You know that, right?”

He never let the subject rest; hadn’t for the whole tenure of their friendship. Jake had never shown predilection toward persons of either sex in a romantic context. Cullen apparently worried about the lack. Though he didn’t boast his sexual prowess, Cullen didn’t hide his appetites. More than once, Jake had walked in on his roommate in the sack with more than one pretty female.

Jake had suggested the old sock-on-the-doorknob as signal after each of those episodes to spare everyone’s sensibilities, but never had he been forewarned. It was his estimation that the guy wanted to be walked in on during the action. Jake’d probably never know, but it sure made him wonder.

“No, I really did want to talk to you, man.” Neglecting to rearrange the skewed briefs, on turning around, the primo buns disappeared and the nestled junk rotated into view, exhibiting some residual effect of just awakening. Remnants of swelling still bloomed inside, tenting the front in lewd demonstration.

Cullen let all stay where stuff posed, walking four steps toward him, holding out a news clipping. “Did you know we stay in the same room--- 2713--- where Michael Dell stayed when he was enrolled at UT? I couldn’t believe it. But I checked it out at Ransom and downloaded this.” Jake was surprised by the fact and perused the clipping. Sure enough, he skimmed a bit of an interview Dell had done a couple years before.

Now, the CEO and sole owner of Dell, Incorporated, resided in opulence befitting billionaire status, having made his mark over the time since then. But sure enough, here was the evidence, in print, verifying it. “Pretty cool. How did you figure this out, Cull?” Jake was still glancing sidelong at the half-awake basket snake. Having seen it bare several times--- even partially hard--- he was still drawn to the sight presently leaving something to the imagination through those sexy white briefs. Cullen seemed oblivious to Jake’s further browsing.

“That’s the funny thing, Jake. A guy came by our room about noontime today, knockin’. He asked me if I knew it. Said he just wanted to see the spot the big man had stayed. He came in and we talked a while. Sat right there on your bed. Dude looked like a big jock but said he was an MBA candidate--- pretty gnarly, huh? He’s got some inventions in the works trying to be the next Mr. Dell, I think. Nice guy. Hope he gets some of them going. He gave me some advice on my degree plan. I told him he could stop back by if he wanted. Anyway, that’s when I went over to the Center and downloaded the info from UT Housing records.”

“That is pretty neat, Cullen. So, the guy’s ahead of you toward his MBA? And a jock, too? That combo is pretty unusual, huh?” Jake watched as Cullen’s hand nonchalantly rearranged the junk-store while looking in his desk. Delicious looking, Jake still thought. “What was his name?” Only half-listening.

“Yeah, said he was about to start his dissertation. Couple of more years, maybe three, and he says he’ll be golden. Big guy, like I said. Tall--- like 6’6” or so. I thought he was a basketballer or a wide receiver or something. Said no, though. Cal. Yeah, I think he said his name was Cal…something.”

Junk flopped over inside those shorts as the good roommate laid back and picked up his capsized book from the floor. “Hey, what happened to the damn smell? It didn’t follow you in today, huh? You quit that crap, or what?” He smirked at Jake as he settled back.

“Abigail Van Stavern! You are incorrigible, girl! I can’t believe you just said that!” Jake grinned at his best girlfriend, amazed.

“What… you mean to try and tell me it isn’t so?” She was grinning, too, but the two were miles apart on thought process. “You know perfectly well that it wasn’t when we went to sleep and when we woke up it was rock-ripped rigid. I didn’t just see it--- I even felt it. Tell me that wasn’t in your mind. You just aren’t willing to admit that those luscious boy buns get that big thing all excited. I’m glad you aren’t into girls because that is one fearsome weapon.” Pointing between his legs. “Don’t be looking at me like that, boy, you know I am right. Girls have a feel for these things…just like gay boys do… so there!”

Jake had to admit--- inwardly--- the girl was spot on. Though he wasn’t about to give an inch. “Abby, you have no idea what goes on in this head. For all you know, I was dreaming about waking up in the Delta House naked with three sisters giving me head.” Though both knew there was fat chance of that. Jake had been busted by the girl as he nearly drooled over a video of Puff Daddy yanking his shirt off at the finish line of the NYC Marathon months before. Unbeknownst to him, she had observed his behavior. And then confronted the subject. Though Jake had been mortified, blushing five shades of purple, it had finally put to rest her scenarios of the two hooking up. Abby had harbored secret ideas of such silliness to that point.

Now, the pair fairly reveled in the sharing of tete-a-tete’s such as that currently happening. Both loved the idea of the ‘secret’ between them. Like now, as they sat cloistered in a private study carrel inside Ransom Center where they studied together. Abby had been teasing Jake about his shyness to come out to his longtime roommate. She contended that the lengths to which he went covering up reality were patently ridiculous.

The time, only a week before, when he had begged her to be ‘caught’ together in his dorm bed when Cullen walked in was just the latest source of amusement. Hatched as Jake’s attempt to divert Cullen’s innuendoes about Jake checking out his ‘stuff’ on more than one occasion, the scenario had been staged. Very successfully, it might be added.

Late that afternoon, the disrobed, platonic couple had lain, entwined, in the single bed on the twenty-seventh-floor dorm room. Napping together until the key in the lock had alerted them of Cullen’s arrival. Assuming positions and locking lips, the roommate had been confronted by the surprise hook-up upon walking in. By lucky circumstance, Jake had awakened from napping with a huge boner hovering over his bare belly, engendered by something from a dream playing out inside his subconscious. Cullen couldn’t have missed sight of it. A faint gasp had escaped the unassuming blonde’s lips seeing the entanglement.

The business major ladies’ man thought he was unheard by fakery of noise accompanying the shadowy act ‘occurring’ before him. And, in fine straight boy fashion, backed unobtrusively out the door, quietly clicking the lock as he gave them space. A thoroughly bemused look as he tiptoed away was not seen by the lovers.

Abby continued teasing her bosom bud over appearance of the boned-up appendage so squishily inert between the two prior to that preparatory naptime. “You know better, Jacob Winslow Marshall. How long have I known you? We are both very aware of the triggers for Rowdy there,” again implicating the white-boy behemoth living between his legs.

“I am not any sort of liverwurst when it comes to looks and you damn well get that. If there had been any inkling of interest in my gender, it would’ve ‘come up’ before this. God knows, I gave it a shot…” She smirked in allusion to the charade that had played too long between them from their meeting that first day of medical school. Now, Jake determined the pretense may as well just be shucked.

“OK…OK... uncle, already. I give in. Let me alone, woman. So, I get my rocks off over the same thing as you. It’s not like you have competition. Straight boys aren’t exactly abandoning the fairer sex to get into my pants, you know. The boys I am scoping out are simply not on the map yet. I’ve got an agenda. And I intend to follow it through. Just because some of us are able to juggle a social life while navigating med school doesn’t mean the rest of us can. Give me a break, ’K?”

She did hound him mercilessly on two scores. Coming out was the major one. Getting laid was the second. It was antithetical to Jake’s perception of what he knew about women. Men were the constant hornhounds, he conjectured, while girls were supposed to fit roles of centered and reasonable on the topic of sex. Not so much with this girl, he had deduced. Abby seemed bent on getting Jake’s sexual needs met. Even without knowing what those may be. And she read way too much into a lot of things that weren’t real, too, he inferred.

The girl worried over his lack of a sexual outlet yet at the same time fantasized a very active and covert sex life for him. His mind remained boggled by where that all came from. Other than off-handed comments and chance occurrences, she had no actual basis for knowledge of his appetites in that field. Were these truly the conversational proclivities women had amongst themselves when apart from the male gender, he considered? If so, then by jiminy, girls were every bit the horndogs men were. They just covered it better.

“Well, I still say, you’d better watch out boy. I’ve seen some mighty interested glances by that ‘super straight stud’ roommate of yours. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if he jumps your bones one of these days. Like when there is a pussy drought, or something. Mark my words.”

Some women can be so blind, it occurred to Jake. Did she really think that the faked sexcapade for Cullen’s benefit hadn’t assured the boy of Jake’s tendencies? That man didn’t have the slightest intent regarding him. They’d been rooming for years now, in the same place… seen each other’s junk at various compromising stages of inadvertent arousal… showered together regularly and slept within feet of each other. If that possibility was relevant it sure would have happened before now. How ridiculous.

“Man, you must not be plowin’ da’ furrow lately, huh?” Cullen was curious. Again. For the previous two weeks, multiple allusions to Jake’s sex life with Abby had been plaguing the running buddy’s mind. Jake was puzzled by it. Now, as they rounded the bend by Zackary-Scott Theatre off Lamar Avenue, their pre-dawn run had been peppered by the blond boy’s continuing dialogue on the subject.

“What? Why do you keep saying things like that, Cull? Abby and I are just fine; no problems. We’re doing great.” Jake grasped neither the reasoning behind the reiterative comments nor the conclusions.

“Well, ya’ll sure haven’t been shaggin’ up in the room or nothin’, man. When you getting the goods? Just ‘cause me and Ashleigh are kaput doesn’t mean I want to see both of us living a monk’s life. Dude, you need to fill me in… I ain’t getting’ nothing these past weeks. Blue ain’t my favorite color and it’s soakin’ into my damn balls. Gotta get me some kinda input to stoke the fire. You need to at least lemme in on the 411 how ya been sewin’ the seed…” A five-second pause, then, “So, things are good and ya getting’ what ya need, huh? Spill it, bud.”

The line of thought was bizarre, thought Jake. “I’m tellin’ you Cull, there’s nothing but good between Abby and me. And who’s to say we’re not getting it on at her Delta House? Or the study carrels? Or, hell, the alley? You think we’re only capable of the deed in our dorm, or what?” That should put it to rest. And, indeed, Cullen seemed placated, introverting to a quietly subdued state over the ensuing couple of miles. Jake contemplated things he might be able to do to help the poor guy out. A couple thoughts came to mind, mostly involving the supple roundness of the twins residing trunkside in the nylon running shorts beside him. Damn, those buns were cute.

Descending a small hill at a lake-feeding tributary filled with quacking ducks, they followed beside clear green spring water sluicing through it, burbling riff muffling ever-present background city sounds. Crossing the footbridge, the boys turned a corner trail back from water’s edge in making toward an underbridge traverse beneath MoPac Expressway.

The water sounds themselves were now drowned out by motors whizzing over them on the busy bypass. The roar gradually diminished as distance was traveled from it. Morning sounds of awakening animals and birds became discernible. Quiet padding of four cadenced feet, matching gait, provided both with comforting regularity of the physical exertion so enjoyed.

A more raucous birdcall signaled from ahead, around a bend in the trail. They keened to see what species made the call, not recognizing it as familiar. It rose and fell, undulant and almost plaintive, like a mating call maybe. The sound increased in volume as they neared the source. Emerging up a small rise centered by a shrouding copse of trees, all four running shoes clopped to a sudden halt. Both sets of eyes widened in surprise and disbelief as the sweaty pair beheld a peculiar and unusual sight. Blurry in dim pre-dawn shadows.

Before them were a pair of men. A toned white guy kneeled in bent position over a tree stump. A tall, muscular mahogany-colored athlete hugged close behind him. Both wore cross trainers. Nothing more. The tight round set of curving buttglobes backing the man-of-color rotated in a deliberate rolling fashion, melding with the white ass directly in front of it. The elastic white melons, perked upwards, bounced to a beat. The whiteness was edged by deep tan lines demarcating the torso and smoothly muscled legs above and below them.

An ongoing erogenous dance had been stumbled on out here in the open. For anyone to see. The conjoined couple was oblivious to anything other than their present pursuit. One dark hand gripped one pale cheek while the other repeatedly slapped the opposing side in rhythm to their pace. A delectably slow and sensuous one.

Facing almost perpendicular to Jake and Cullen, the angle allowed for verification of additional connecting parts as the butts chugged in and out by opposing thrusts. The connector showed itself as one beautifully thick uncut monster of an endowment. Its silhouette glistened intermittently between pushes.

Both astonished voyeurs stood still, mesmerized by the vision. Unable to do anything more than ogle the rutting duo while assessing the finely-toned anatomical specimens. Cullen’s eyes were physically bugging out of his head. Jake noted the effect as an errant question flashed through his mind whether his friend would be offended by the ongoing episode. To the contrary, though, the blonde seemed more drawn than repelled. Oh, yeah, those blue balls, he remembered. Interesting…

Panning downward, Jake noted a set of fingers form a cup over the clearly swelling jockstrap. Sweat perfusing the runner had soaked his shorts to semi-transparency. Knit fabric of the Bike brand supporter showed plainly through. Barely supporting anything. Cullen’s straight boy crotch was having second thoughts, Jake reflected, as he watched the engorging pipe and sweaty ball sack appear.

In slow-motion, the package stretched the cloth containment past its limits. A pretty helmet head strained its way out the edging in obvious attempt at an ‘eye’ view of the goings-on from its own level. Jake’s head wagged the mess of head-banded curls back and forth in trying to see both the action and crotch growth. It was difficult, but had to be done. Cupping fingers soon switched from only covering to massaging. Jake found the entire thing extremely arousing, feeling his own jock stretch.

For several minutes, Cullen’s eyes did not leave the exploit blundered upon. Never once thinking to see what Jake was doing. The roommate’s tongue took to licking full lips, lending credence to Jake’s observation of an ‘other-than-straight’ reaction to the queer tryst. His friend was liking it.

Likewise, for Jake. He simply couldn’t decide which to watch. Sounds of butt slaps augmented sight of the sexy scenario. Jake identified the twangy banjo theme from that disturbing old thriller, Deliverance, adding flavor. The dark slim top man hummed the tune to the beat of his pumping; laughing and smacking like a bronc-rider.

White boy was enjoying every single inch of acoustic-laden attention. Evidenced by his own very sizeable rigid prick bouncing on and off the log over which he had assumed position. Tight fat balls hugged and bounced right along with a fleshy shaft. Yup, Jake could see, the boy definitely liked what was being done to him.

Jake’s hardened piece felt an abrupt tap. Distracting himself from the pump action, he found Cullen staring at him. “Man, you LIKIN’ this shit, ain’t you? Look at that whompin’ hard ass thing standin’ right up right there like it was proud,” as he tapped the bobbing thing another time. The grin was telling.

“Look who’s talking, Cull. Yours looks just like I’ve seen it when I walked in on your big pussy-boning self. Like you wanted me to. Well, it’s sure happy right now. What’s up?” Jake wasn’t having any of his roommate’s BS under the circumstances. Too much lay open and revealed to put it back in the box, he surmised.

Knowing he was busted, bigtime, with nowhere to hide, the blonde leered over at his similarly affected bud, “Well, then, what the hell you waitin’ for, man? Do your job!” He laughed as he took Jake’s piece in his hand. Jake spit on fingers and followed suit.

Damn, this was hot. The next minutes were spent stroking each other by the emerging light of dawn, seeing the involved jungle fever duo carry on in ignorance of an audience.

With a long down stroke, Jake’s arched dick strained upward, head swelling to magnificent size. First a pearlescent bead appeared and then the cyclops popped several big streams of thick creamy juice. The force of it splattered Cullen’s thigh and cock. That sizzling delivery set the splattered dick over the peak; it evicted a blossoming load, too.

Through the haze of ecstasy, the two heard and saw the hooked pair twist heads around, finally sensing presence. By the sudden clarity of their unplanned show, the white boy’s hard-on spewed its response in jets of answering spurts. Still to the beat of the black mamba inside him.

The tall stud must’ve been likewise affected, feeling a contracting prostate gland signaling him inside that burning chute. Rumbling emanations of satisfaction came from his throat as his pelvis bumped time and again against the hard butt being poled. No juice was seen from it, impaled as it remained. The black man wasn’t there for a show: he was getting that nut. Copiously, by sounds of it.

As the four slowed themselves down in aftereffects of the group gusher, they discovered an additional set of eyes peering from a nearby bush at clearing’s edge. A brown-haired boy also stood, pants lowered, feet spread. The self-stroked production of spunk informed the others of his own singular enjoyment.

The connected couple grinned in embarrassment as they pulled apart. The distinct ‘splopp’ sound announced the biggest member of the circle. All three observed at least nine inches of uncut, big-headed ebony silkiness. Showing itself in its entirety for the first time. Without pumping butt, that is. Utterly beautiful, the huge piece hovered, driveling, between the extremely handsome pair who now showed resolve for retrieving discarded shorts from close by tree branches. Amidst those shit-eating grins.

They took off for the shadows just as the morning sun popped its head from beneath the nighttime horizon. That was a sign. The other youth grabbed shorts back into place, disappearing as well. Leaving only Jake and Cullen in the small clearing. Holding each other’s spent and slobbering prongs.

“Damn, Jake. I ain’t never gonna ever be this busted again in my whole damn life, man. What did we just do? Abby ain’t gonna hear about this… right?” He was worried. Straight men are weird that way.

Of course, had any been present, Jake would have been better able to comment on the oddity…

January, 2006

“Jake, you need to get out more. All you ever do is study, run, or sneak away to that dumpy old theatre on the Drag. It’s right next to that loony Scientology church and one of these days, those crazy people are going to kidnap you… I’ll wake up some morning and you’ll be gone. Boy, think about it. School and that place shouldn’t be your whole life.” Jake side-angled his closest confidant and fellow med student these past four years. Meeting the very first day, the two had bonded immediately. Abigail got Jake like no one ever had and, likewise, Jake read the girl like a book--- an open-book test, for sure. He knew all her answers.

“Well, Abby, it’s top of my list to get through med school and I don’t like missing classes--- it wastes money. Maybe if you were paying your own way, you’d be better about showing up, girl… besides I don’t have a photographic memory like some people.” The mellifluous voice sounded like a Pachelbel melody to Abby. It was what had alerted the girl to the curly-topped kid back at orientation so long before. She cherished its musicality, reminding him more than once he could easily find another profession should need arise. “And, I don’t get what you have against the Bijou. It plays all the old classics and hardly anyone goes there. It costs a dollar and I feel like I’m in my own little world.”

“Boy, now pay attention to me. Someday soon I am going to drag your ass out to experience some of the world. Pledge week is coming up and Delta Gamma puts on good parties. They network with the Greek men, too. Our big brothers are the Sig Eps. There is a real world, you know, and Jack Nicholson said that ‘all work and no play, makes you a dull boy’…or something…” the girly giggle still made Jake smile, even by its memory when she was away. The now twenty-year-old medical student had found his niche here in the heart of Texas, he cogitated, as the two bantered their way down four flights of stairs on the way to the student union.

He missed his benefactors back in Vermont, writing long, old-fashioned, newsy letters regularly. They reciprocated by snail mail, too, keeping him current. But he taught the old couple how to communicate online, as well, contacting them along with his old Spotty dog, back up on Elkin Pond in the Green Mountains of southern Vermont. Chad, Derrick and he shared weekly conversations together. With the new viability of Skype as a mode of visual communiqué, the three rambled on and on from afar. Spotty even seemed to recognize him, yipping comically in compounding the only bouts of homesickness he ever experienced.

The boy’s blood family had made contact only once since his departure. On purpose, anyway. There was little love lost, though there was contrition suffered by deserting the family home which his ‘real Daddy’ had built so many years before in the beautiful forest. With his own two hands. The thought of that loss still brought tears. And with them, perseverance in his little-boy pledge.

Barging through the big doors of the union building, Abby insisted on coffee before parting. The chilly weather was enough to make him agree. He was glad for the ski parka Derrick and Chad had gifted him with for Christmas. The old worn jeans he wore complemented by contrast, though. The threadbare condition of them made his junk shrivel. He loved the pair, holey knees and all, but weather like this demanded more.

Standing in line, awaiting ordered lattes, Abby revisited the subject of Jake’s worldliness issue. Insisting he was going to have to break down and join her for at least one mixer common to the spring rush season. She figured by battering Jake with inevitability, he would break. It hadn’t worked, to date, but some cracks in the veneer were detectable.

Several of the girl’s sorority sisters were forever badgering her to bring him along with her. Having been introduced on occasion to some of them, they had, to a girl, swooned over the boy’s beauty. That was the only apt description: handsome didn’t cover it, cute was just trite. Beautiful was the adjective even Abby recognized. The wilding of curls topping him framed the whole Cherokee genetics look--- derived from his real Daddy--- in a way that drew people to him. Often to the point of invasive discomfort. So, he hid away, mostly. Coming clean with only Abby, and, recently, his years-long roommate, Cullen.

The two were settling into seats on the side of the big food court to chitchat when a kerfuffle of raised voices and noisy discord filtered down toward them. Someone upstairs shouted a loud comment, “That guy is nuts--- what’s in that bag he’s got?” In a post 9-11 era, that was all it took for the area to clear. Abby reacted quickly, dragging her boy backwards by the parka into an adjacent women’s restroom. Their hot coffees lay abandoned on the table, backpacks alongside them.

From the sanctuary of a big special-needs stall, locked behind them on entry, they sat wondering what the heck was happening. A girl that had rushed in with them seemed to know it all. “There was a huge, tall guy acting crazy out there, rushing all around the walkway, then up and down stairs, pushing people in his way. He was carrying a backpack and acting wacked out. Some people started yelling he was nuts and what’d he have in the pack? That was when all hell broke loose. What if it’s a bomb? Or a gun?” She was breathless and nerve-wracked.

The two tried settling her over an ensuing eerie period of a half hour. A person in the next stall madly punched buttons on a phone, apparently contacting everyone in their phone book. Except for the easy number: 911. The person never spoke, only texting, which added to the creepiness.

“Should we get our phone and call 911, do you think, Jake? It’s awful quiet out there. We haven’t heard any shots. Maybe it would be good to get outdoors.” The quiet was affecting them all. Jake reminded that that, in itself, was the best thing they could hear. They stayed hunkered down another stretch of time. Sitting wordlessly. Everything needful had been said. They wanted to know something.

Finally, emerging warily, four hideaways stuck their heads out the door. There was foot traffic. Walkers. And not uniformed. Heartened, Jake and Abby returned to their cool coffees and luckily untouched backpacks. Dumping the drinks, in case of sabotage while they were away, the two searched their packs and made way through normal appearing halls of people to the big main entrance. Scoping out the surrounding plaza, they finally parted, promising follow-up calls to assure each other’s safe arrival home.

What was all that weirdness about, Jake ruminated, back in the safety of his room. He wondered who the strange person with such bizarre behavior might have been, informing a sleepy Cullen of the unnerving occurrence.

Crickets provided reply.

“Jake Marshall, so help me, if you go there instead of with me, like you promised, I am going to divorce you, boy!” Abby’s mouth pouted as she harangued her closest boyfriend, never mind the one’s she dated sporadically. Jake, while not her sexual partner, nevertheless provided a sense of continuity and contentment. While she desired for the both of them to find suitable partners with whom to take on the world, she shared a special bond with the young man that wouldn’t ever completely disappear, regardless of love interests.

She deeply wanted the pure-hearted boy to find his soulmate. Knowing his story and the reasoning employed for deciding to enroll at UT Austin, yet not knowing whether such serendipitous metaphysicality or predestination held sway in the real world, she believed he believed in the feeling. So, she held to it with him. And for him. Like a protective mother hen, she conceded that not one suitable candidate had come on the scene in four years since their introduction. Likewise, for herself, she echoed. The difference: she was keeping irons on the fire in anticipation. Jake pursued a veritable hermit’s life.

Now, he was threatening to renege on the commitment to join her at the Delta House big brothers’ rush mixer. It was always the best one up and down Greek Row, the stately old chapter house providing an excellent venue. The venerable Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity chapter, one of the few which successfully bridged the social-vs-service chasm, improved the public’s perception of the Greek world’s worth.

She recognized he was not only fearful to put himself ‘out there’, he was conspicuously unmotivated to do so. It made no sense, yet he had clung religiously to the anti-social existence. Now, final days of the showing of the classic musical, Funny Girl, at that seedy theater on the Drag looked to be the latest obstacle in Jake’s--- and Abby’s--- path.

“You gave me your solemn word, Jake, so follow through. It won’t hurt you; we’ll have fun. Besides, I will give you cover… and protection. No harpies are going to be jumping your bones. Cutie.” She drew a smile from him by the tactic. He reluctantly concluded that the Barbra flick could be caught sometime in the coming days before it went off. And relented.

By sundown, the two arrived, arm-in-arm at Sig Ep House. Multiple frat members loitered with sorority girls in the yard and around the grand entryway. All nursed bottles or drinks. Mainly alcoholic. Several Delta sisters met the couple, happy to see them together at a mixer.

Inside, the music hit them first, followed by a sweet odor of pot smoke. Abby navigated them through the cavernous house and winding hallways to the bar. All the while greeting, being greeted, eyeing and being eyed by dozens of college-aged attendees. As agreed, Jake ordered wine. Figuring he could nurse the glass without partying hard.

Jake was fairly overwhelmed by the noise, the smells, the raucousness. The attention. It wasn’t his niche. As they awaited the mixologist to deliver the red libations, his eyes were pulled different directions, absorbing a busy room. Everybody seemed exceedingly extroverted. Conversing, joking, dancing, having a good time. Though not as freaked as he’d thought, sensate overload persisted. But not so bad, he decided. This was doable.

He and Abby headed out the back door to the pool and backyard where games with more ‘laid back’ partying was happening. Less clothing was certainly the norm here, the two noted. Lots of attractive skin wandered. An interesting plus, Jake thought. A blunt passed to Abby and she put it to her lips, quizzically checking Jake’s response. She’d never partaken around him and didn’t know what to expect. Surprisingly, the boy accepted the smoking ember, inhaling a healthy toke voluntarily. That will make him relax, Abby conceived.

And, it did. Already huge emerald eyes grew larger over the coming minutes. Perusing of the partying people widened; he even sipped the wine. Not bad, the thought was reinforced. As he conversed more easily with a couple of Abby’s friendly sisters, they turned to a sudden ruckus breaking out across the pool. Two pretty girls intentionally combined to bump a vocal guy into the deep end. Timbering in lost balance mode, Jake noticed an exceedingly tall black brother, waving arms in helicopter flaps as he hooted his way awkwardly under the water.

The huge splash reached most partiers within twenty feet. Jake and Abby backed up, laughing at the comical antics of the handsome man. Momentary assessment left Jake with an impression of a superbly athletic body. Fully clothed as he entered, it had been difficult to ascertain. But the snap evaluation left the impression of feline agility masked by a clownish affectation meant to entertain.

The clown stayed submerged a minute or so, submarining around the pool, then toward them. Surfacing, he shook, then reversed course, leisurely backstroking in retrograde, continuing the comedy act by spitting pool water in high arcs as he stroked. Bumping the far side, he wrapped arms over the tiled edge for a few moments, surveying the scene.

Hoisting upwards in a single push, another demonstration of athleticism elevated him out and to a standing position in the motion. There, the lean man stood, huge feet planted widely apart. Again, he shook. Boisterously. Looking for the girls who pushed him, he pointed, promising retribution: they were going in, for sure. In the moment of the promise, Jake and Abby watched in surprise as two dozen or so other revelers plunged into the pool. Fully clothed. The man was a trendsetter. The two girls joined them, beating their threatener to the punch.

The next unexpected moves by the sopping wet giant mesmerized Jake. Inhaling another toke passed from Abby, who had taken up conversation with several friends, the curly-headed youth viewed in fascination as the guy began slowly stripping. For effect. Like a pro. The shirt slowly unbuttoned and disappeared, the shoes then the socks were slung away. The undershirt lifted over his head and was flung at someone who didn’t seeing it coming.

The revealing act uncovered one of the most ripped bodies Jake had ever seen in real time. It was utterly perfect. Silky dark chocolate skin covered him. Stunningly sculpted pectorals, pointed by luscious-looking erect nipples gave way to an epic set of six rippling abdominal ridges. Not an ounce of body fat covered the honed torso. By the powerful arms--- perfect tricep/bicep groupings--- and the thick, sinewy neck, along with shaved head and attractively apportioned facial features, Jake astutely assessed in anatomically correct detail the breathtaking fineness of the stud.

Dark piercing eyes, broadly flaring nose, strong mouth and square chin chiseled the man’s patrician features. He dripped both water droplets and inherent sensuality. Jake had never beheld such a well-put together male. The swarthy complexion only served to intensify the effect. A lone strip of black hair bisected his abdominals. That stripe disappeared under the loose-fitting Bermuda shorts. Exceptionally proportioned thighs, knees and calves narrowed to handsome ankles and the sexiest, wide, two-toned feet Jake had never known existed. He was totally taken by sexy feet. These two immediately topped the list.

Exquisite, the shy med student deduced. He didn’t desire to take his eyes away. Apparently, no one else did either. Forcing himself to look around for self-protection purposes--- to avoid obsessing--- he saw every eye in the backyard enclave latched to the slowly disrobing behemoth of a man. ‘Magic-Mike-of-color’ crossed Jake’s mind. He sure knew how to move. Actually, it was more a sultry slink. A black panther couldn’t have done it better. And he posed, like a marble statue. The verb coined by Madonna fit: vogue. Mind-blowing in sex appeal, Jake watched him play to the crowd. Totally aware of his own effect.

Jake could feel his junk lurching in inadvertent response, reprising the sex scene on the Town Lake running trail. Damn, he thought. No. Not here. Turning away, he grabbed his girlfriend’s arm and pulled her inside with him. The surprised Abby, stoned as she was, followed and listened as Jake described the striptease. As if she’d missed it.

“Do you think I am blind, boii? Everyone watched. I think every woman out there leaked a little during that. And, I’ll bet most of the boys had the same reaction as you did. No biggie.” This, as she grinned widely at her boy, then glanced purposefully downward at the swollen, zippered shorts. “Oooh, boy... Jake. You liked that! I didn’t ever think to see the day anybody could affect you that way. Zing, boy... we found him.”

Her stoned state made for giddy effusiveness. She forgot to keep her voice down. Too many other people in like mental states served as cover but Jake nevertheless hustled to untuck his button-down shirt, letting the tails cover his crotch. Couldn’t do a thing for his face, though. Abby was totally tickled by the boy’s blush response. “Jake is in lust!”

He drew her further into the room with the long bar. Taking the two of them to a far corner allowed time for relief from the inflammation and crotch swell. His wine glass was suddenly empty. Abby continued the ear-to-ear grin as she rehashed the episode. Jake heard next to nothing of her chatter, still mind-bent toward the replaying striptease performance. His hazy mental state gave wide latitude for the indulgence.

In the middle of it, two fresh glasses of something appeared between them: clear fizzy liquid, lemon-rimmed with funky looping straws. They turned to find Abby’s friend, Shelley, proffering the highballs. “Ya’ll looked thirsty, girl. You shouldn’t be letting this handsome man go without, Abby. Drink up.” She winked, then pinched Jake’s butt, as she disappeared. New redness bloomed. But he was happy. And super lightheaded. No more drinks after this one. His internal trigger was signaling.

Abby sidled close, cuddling with him, “You know, Jake, that guy is the big man around Sig Ep House. Name’s Cal Something… and he’s just back on the scene. Someone said he’s just coming out of about a two-year funk after being dumped. By his TWO girlfriends… from France. Doesn’t seem like he’s suffering much now, does it?”

She made a good point. Jake couldn’t picture the supremely confident man ever being jilted, cuckolded, deserted or anything else. He exuded an aura of the-always-in-control person. In any situation. Jake couldn’t believe anything else than that truth.

The mind’s eye picture couldn’t break from repetitious playback of the stud as he stood stripping by the pool. During one freeze-frame second, he looked up and nearly lost it. The man had appeared in the doorway. Cal, did Abby say? Where had he hear that name recently? Cal stood for a long moment, looking inward before strutting toward the bar.

That body was still exposed. But now, the man had lost the obstructing Bermuda’s somewhere outside. Present state of reveal left extremely little to anyone’s fancy. The handsome lower thighs now curved into superb definition of middle and upper thighs which disappeared under the super brief speedo underwear. A massive mound inside them depicted a sleeping python. Epic proportions of an S-curve lay in fleshy repose. The starkness of the uncut status was unavoidable to the naked eye.

Rising above the upper boundary, fat-free smoothness segued into the ‘inny’ belly button encompassed by rolling muscle cords. The almost-covered butt curves in back synced with more dark smoothness. Gorgeously proportioned, the tininess of a tight waist broadened to the deeply wide filled-out shoulders and chest--- already evaluated poolside--- of at least a 52-inch circumference.

Upon making a way to the beautifully carved mahogany bar, the man named Cal bounded, cat-like, up on to its surface, assuming the stance of a ship captain surveying a vast sea. All that was lacking was a spyglass. He leaned down to the tapping bartender, accepting a double shot of some dark liquid. Peering over to the DJ in a questioning manner, he ranged upward to full majestic height, tipping back the glass in a fluid one-cock.

Then began an erotic dance of immense coordinative exhibition. It hypnotized the entire room. Doorways were poked full with curious faces, glimpsing the sex appeal rolling off the tall male in waves of erogeneity.

Both sexes present watched the unfolding of the sleeping python as it fed on the attention, burning through the thin nylon/spandex brief briefs. In moments, its burgeoning inside the pocket displayed uncontainable proudness. The stretchy cover served more as an outlining of the thing than a mask. Thankfully, in Jake’s perception, everyone was as mesmerized as he. It allowed for full frontal perusal of the virility blasting the room.

Over the next minutes, all melted, at least internally, under the scorching vision. Conversational sounds diminished as overt gawking won out. The sexual lyrics of the hip-hop song accompanied as if written for him. The man clearly basked in the adulation. Shamelessly. Jake was more and more taken by the scene. Glad that he’d decided to come.

Just when that thought gelled, disaster struck. While scanning the crowd, slow deliberation singled out individuals. In a methodical sweep, the man named Cal set those deep dark eyes directly on Jake. They widened as if in recognition. The strength of the gaze left Jake awestruck and he lipped his drink’s straw in abrupt mortification. Attempting nonchalance and failing miserably. He blushed like a boiling lobster, the burn rising through even his hair. He couldn’t move. Or look away.

The sole cogent thought perfusing the targeted boy’s fuzzy mind was that the urbane and sophisticated guy must think him to be the dweeb-out-of-Hell.

Through several minutes, Cal continued the gyrating and fully-sexed onslaught, staying locked on to the big green eyes of the young med student. After an endless period providing painfully self-critical awareness of more and more people following Cal’s stare, Jake thought he’d blister to a crisp, leaving only ashes to float out the open window. He felt many eyes turned toward him, but saw only one pair.

The dark eyes never once wavered.

Thankfully, the song finally melded into the next, slower one. Heaving a sigh of relief, Jake thought the worst must be over. He observed the stud nimbly descend from the bar and nearly choked, spewing spiked ginger ale out his nose: still lock-staring, Cal stepped directly toward him, on a collision course.

Multiple hands attempted way-laying him on that path, but to no avail. Within short seconds, the bare-naked male faced Jake up, stopping a solitary inch from nose-to-nose contact. His masculine breath and musky body smell nearly floored Jake.

The drink dropped away from his mouth. Breathing deep of the sweetest male musk imaginable, Jake felt more than saw the man’s hand reach over his shoulder, brazenly bracing the wall behind, fingers outstretched against it. A deep armpit halted within a foot of his face. Jake’s knees nearly buckled as the whisper into his ear bespoke the totally outlandish pick-up line, “Hey, sexy, come here often?”

With that, the jig was up. Jake, hooked like a one-eyed flounder, frantically flailed for escape, while simultaneously never wanting to leave the man’s side. Ever again. The thought broadsided him as he ducked under the arm and toward the far door.

Holding his position, Cal’s smile burned Jake’s backside in the escape. Abby tucked a folded note into the scant elastic band at his waist on the way after her friend. Flipping it out, he read seven hastily scrawled digits… and a name.

The smile swelled to a toothy grin… Jake’s digits.

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