What happens when two lonely boys meet in a shopping mall food court?
Josh was very close to the same size as Bryan. He merely had a smaller frame. He gave Bryan a pair of boxers — actually, he had Bryan pick out a pair of boxers — then asked him if he wanted to borrow a robe, too, or whether just a towel was enough. Bryan told him he didn’t need either right now. He simply undressed down to his boxers and walked into the bathroom. He showered and brushed his teeth, then came back into Josh’s room wearing just the boxers. Josh then did the same thing, and when he returned, Bryan was already in the bed on the side next to the wall, his pillow propped up on the headboard, and he was sitting back against it, under the covers.
“Which side is yours, Josh?”
“I usually sort of sleep in the middle. I’ve never had to pick a side. It doesn’t make any difference. You’re fine right where you are.”
Josh propped his pillow up like Bryan’s, closed the door, picked up the remote, turned on the TV and turned off the light. He punched the DVD on, then by the light of the TV set crawled into bed.
He felt a little nervous, a little excited. This was the first time he’d been in bed with another boy since he was seven, and this boy made him feel funny. Just the idea of sleeping with him awakened strange and unsettling feelings in him.
Bryan didn’t share those feelings at all. All he felt right now was a deep sense of safety, a release of weeks of tension, and an overwhelming drowsiness. He found himself blinking before the credits had even finished. He was sound asleep five minutes later.
His deep breathing caused Josh to look over at him. There was enough light that he could see Bryan’s eyes were closed, and the slack appearance of his face made it obvious he was asleep.
Josh watched him for several minutes. Without having to worry about being caught staring, he simply feasted his eyes on Bryan. There wasn’t much light from the TV set, but enough that he could study his face, the way his hair hung over his forehead, his thick eyebrows, his full lips, all the features of his face. Josh couldn’t stop staring. Bryan was beautiful.
Eventually, he pushed the remote buttons to turn off the DVD player and the TV set. Then he got out from under the covers and gently lifted them off Bryan, too. Crouching on the bed next to him, he slid his arms under his back and lifted him just enough to enable him to ease him down so he was lying flat on his back on the bed. He then positioned the pillow and gently lifted Bryan’s head and laid it on it. He pulled the covers back up, then quietly walked to his closet, grabbed his robe and left the room, softly closing the door behind him.
When he got downstairs, his father was sitting in the living room, reading. He had a large pad of paper next to him and was occasionally making notes. Josh looked in the kitchen and saw the dishes had been done.
“Where’s your friend?” his father asked when Josh came in and sat on the couch.
“He was really tired. He conked out as soon as the movie started. It’s a little early for me, so I just covered him up and came back down here.”
“Have you spoken to me about him before? I don’t remember hearing the name Bryan.”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember. But he’s a good guy and he needs our help right now. That’s okay, isn’t it?”
“Sure it is, Josh. I trust your judgment, you know that. If you like him, he’s a good guy. I’m glad we can help him.”
Josh smiled at his father, said, “Thanks, Dad, I thought that’s how you’d feel,” and went to the kitchen to get a drink. Then he returned, picked up a book he was reading from the end table, and sat down. His father returned to his book, and the room was quiet but for the sound of pages turning and notes being scrawled for the next two hours.
Eventually, Josh yawned, put down his book, told his father goodnight, and climbed the stairs. He quietly entered his room. Bryan had rolled over so he was sleeping on his side, his back to the door. His breathing was deep and regular. Josh shrugged out of his robe, letting it fall on the floor, then carefully inserted himself under the covers. He very much wanted to move over so his front was up against Bryan’s back. He very much wanted to wrap an arm around Bryan’s chest, pull him back against his chest and hold him. He did neither. Instead, he rolled over so his back was to Bryan and a good distance separated them, and ignoring his new feelings, soon was asleep.
In the morning when Josh woke, Bryan was still sleeping, still in the same position he’d been in when Josh had gone to bed. Josh rolled over and looked at him. His breathing was the same as it had been last night after he’d fallen asleep. Josh watched him breathe and thought about how tired he must have been to sleep for more than 12 hours straight without hardly even moving. Josh realized it must have been mental exhaustion as much as, or maybe even more than, physical.
As quietly and carefully as he could, he got out of bed, trying not to awaken Bryan. He grabbed what clothes he’d need, then went to the bathroom to put them on. After dressing and doing his morning bathroom ritual, he stuck his head into his father’s open bedroom, then headed to the kitchen.
He didn’t see his father in the living room, either, and there was a dirty plate and cup next to the sink. Josh concluded his father must have left. It was common for him to go to his college office on Sundays. He had books there he liked to reference when researching and writing his reviews.
Josh decided to make waffles for breakfast. He got a package of bacon from the meat drawer of the refrigerator and put six slices in a frying pan and started them on the stove, plugged in the waffle iron and set about making his batter.
When the bacon was almost done and the waffle iron hot, he went upstairs. Bryan hadn’t moved.
Josh looked down at him for a moment. His feeling of attraction hadn’t abated in the slightest. He thought him absolutely beautiful, but there was something even more than that, more than superficial looks. He couldn’t identify it, but he could certainly feel it. He gently put his hand on Bryan’s shoulder and rocked him slightly, at the same time saying, “Bryan, breakfast is about ready. Maybe five minutes. Bryan, time to get up.”
Josh took his hand away and stood back up straight. After a few seconds, Bryan groaned, rolled onto his back and tried to open his eyes. He wasn’t very successful, and the combination of half-opened eyes and an early morning scowl caused Josh to break out laughing.
“What time is it?” Bryan asked.
“Almost ten. You’ve been asleep for almost 14 hours. Breakfast is ready. Come on down as quickly as you can.”
Bryan’s eyes were still reacting to the light, still not opening all the way. Finally, he just closed them again.
“Can’t it wait? I feel like sleeping another 14 hours.”
“Nope, the bacon’s done, the waffles are ready to go in the waffle iron. I’m eating in five minutes. And I only cook breakfast once a day.”
Bryan groaned again, louder. “Who ever heard of eating breakfast in the middle of the night, anyway?” he complained.
Josh just grinned. “I’ve got to go take the bacon off. See you downstairs in a minute.”
Bryan just lay still after Josh left, but then realized he had to do something about the problem he’d been ignoring, the huge need to relieve himself, one that was growing progressively more urgent. He kicked the covers off, wriggled off the bed, and made his way to the bathroom. When he came back, he suddenly realized the only clothes he had were the ones he’d worn yesterday. Damn, he thought, I wonder if I should borrow some of Josh’s? Josh had told him last night, rather emphatically, that he should accept his help and not feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. He’d told him they’d work things out. But it still felt wrong to go into Josh’s closet and dresser and just take what he wanted.
The problem was, the shirt he was wearing yesterday was also the shirt he’d worn the day before, and it was starting to look like it. He picked it up and took a sniff, and decided he really didn’t want to wear it for a third day. The pants, even the socks, were okay, but he needed a different T-shirt.
Sighing to himself, he dressed himself all except for the shirt, then found a tee shirt in Josh’s dresser. Without putting it on, he took it to the kitchen.
Josh was putting a pitcher of syrup in the microwave to warm, the bacon was on a plate on the table, and steam was coming from the waffle iron. Bryan waited till Josh had set the microwave and turned it on, then asked, “Josh, is it all right if I wear this?”
Josh turned to look at him, and saw Bryan standing naked from the waist up. His body was slender with just the beginnings of some musculature being noticeable. His shoulders had begun to broaden, the stomach was losing its baby fat so a slight V shape from shoulders to waist gave his developing body an athletic look. His skin was smooth and hairless. Josh was unable to speak for a moment. Then he pulled himself together and said, “Sure you can, Bryan. You don’t even need to ask, but if you feel you need to, go ahead. But anything of mine you need to use, please do so.”
Bryan thanked him and quickly put on the tee shirt. Josh asked him what he wanted to drink. “I always drink milk with waffles because orange juice and syrup are about the worst combination possible. I don’t drink coffee, but I can make you some if you want it.”
Bryan told him milk was fine, and Josh asked him to pour two glasses while he took the first waffle from the machine and added batter for the second.
When they were both eating, Josh told him he’d figured out what they needed to do today. They needed to go back to the mall and get Bryan some clothes.
Bryan looked at him, then dropped his eyes. “I don’t have any money. I can just wash what I was wearing. If you can lend me a couple of tee shirts, that should be enough.”
Josh wouldn’t accept that. “Bryan, you need some stuff. You need some of your own clothes, your own toothpaste, your own shampoo, your own belt, you know, all the stuff that everyone else has. I’m happy to lend you anything I have. But for your piece of mind, I think you should have stuff that you know is yours. I’ll buy it. Don’t worry about the money.”
“Damn it, Josh! I DO worry about the money. Buying a bunch of clothes and then other stuff too is expensive. And I don’t have any way to pay you back! And I have too much to worry about already to have to add worrying about that to the list!”
“Bryan, the money isn’t important! I told you my father’s a college professor. He’s chairman of his department, and probably because of his name, the chair was endowed a couple years ago, meaning he gets his salary and then a generous stipend on top of that. And, he gets paid really well for his book reviews and endorsements. So we’ve got plenty of money coming in, and we don’t spend much of it at all. That’s not Dad’s thing, and about the only thing I spend money on is clothes once in a while, and books. When he started getting checks from the publishers, I think he started feeling guilty that he wasn’t spending more time with me, and he began giving me an allowance of $100 a week. That was pretty cool at first, but I discovered I just didn’t need that much, even with all the books I buy, and most of that allowance ended up just sitting on my dresser. Pretty soon, all I was doing with it was putting it in the bank.
“That didn’t seem right, so finally I told Dad that I didn’t need that much money, and instead of the allowance, how ’bout just having some cash at home and I could take what I needed when I needed it. That way if I had to go get some groceries or something for the house or pay the paperboy, stuff like that, I didn’t have to keep all that separate from my allowance money. He thought that was a good idea, so we have a box that has probably something between $1,000 and $2,000 in it. When it drops much below that $1,000, I tell him and he gets me some more to put in. He never even looks in it. We’ve been doing this for a while now.
“So look, you need some clothes. I’ve got the money to pay for it. I want to do this, Bryan. And you need it. Why argue about it?”
“It’s just too much, Josh. It feels wrong to me.”
“I thought we had this conversation last night. Look, if what had happened to you had happened to me instead, would you just walk by me, or would you help me? If I were desperate and you could help me, would you? Answer me that.”
“Well of course I would, but that’s different!”
“No it isn’t! It’s the exact same thing. Now can we stop discussing this? You need clothes, and I want to help you pick some out. We can go after breakfast.”
Bryan didn’t say anything. Josh was being too persistent, and besides, the idea of having some things of his own again was very appealing. He clearly remembered the devastated feeling he’d had when he realized his duffle bag and all his possessions were gone.
They ate in silence for a few minutes, then Josh asked, “Do you feel like finishing your story? I’d like to hear the rest of it.”
Bryan thought about it. “I guess I can tell the rest of it. You’ll bug me till I do, and this way I won’t have to listen to that.” He grinned to show he was kidding.
“Okay, where did I leave off? Oh, yeah, I’d just spotted that kids’ play area full of balls, and realized I could spend the night in that store by first hiding under the balls. If I could manage to get into the play area just before the store closed, I could then just wiggle down under the balls and wait till the store closed for the evening and everyone had gone. I hadn’t seen any motion detectors, so after the store was closed I could just go into the back room, sleep there, then leave by the back door in the morning.
“I left the store, stopping on the way out to check the sign on the front listing the store hours. They closed at 9:30. I decided I needed to be outside the store quite a bit earlier than that to see what was happening. Also, I had to decide what to do with my duffle bag and bike. It looked normal for a kid to be wearing a backpack all over, but not carrying a duffle bag. But I needed the bag where I could get at it. It had my clothes in it and a blanket to sleep with and other stuff. I thought I could probably hide it in the back room of that store. If not that, maybe under the balls in one corner of the play enclosure.
“I left the store. It was lunchtime and I was hungry, so I went to the food court. As I was deciding what to get, I looked at the prices. For the first time, I really looked at the prices. Before this, I’d always had adequate money. I got an allowance and lunch money for school, and if I was going to the mall, Dad always gave me extra money. Now, the fact that the money in my pocket was all I had fully sunk in for the first time. I took out what I had and counted it. $43. And some change. That was it. That had to cover all my meals until I felt it was okay to try to get back with my father. I looked at the prices again, and saw that almost any place I bought food here, a meal was going to cost at least $5, usually more. I still had to buy lunch at school and breakfast some place else, like McDonalds. If I spent only $10 a day on food, which was probably figuring low, I still only had enough money for four days!
“I started feeling really discouraged again then. This was all harder than I’d thought. I’d left home in a panic, but then had thought I’d be able to do this. Now, the reality was looking a lot different. There were problems to deal with no matter what I tried to do.
“I sat down at one of the tables as I thought all this through. I’d gone through some highs and lows that day, and although it was only about noon, I was feeling a little drained. I was just sitting there, thinking, when Eric, who was a guy I knew slightly from school, pulled up a chair and sat down across from me.
“‘Hey, Bryan,’ he said, ‘I didn’t see you in math. You didn’t skip, did you?’ Eric had a big grin on his face.
“As I said, I knew Eric from school. He wasn’t a close friend, not even a friend, really, just a kid I knew and was friendly with. But we were in the mall and neither of us knew anyone else there, and in a case like that, someone you don’t know that well can suddenly become a friend. Eric talking to me like this was natural for him to do. I might have done the same thing if he’d been sitting here and I was looking to eat lunch with someone. Especially if I could sort of catch him doing something wrong and sort of semi-tease him about it. Like if he’d skipped some classes that morning and here he was at the mall.
“This situation was like the rest of the morning had gone. I was feeling really down just then, knowing I didn’t have enough money to eat for very long and had no way to get any more, I was wondering if I really could hide in that store and get away with it, I was wondering if I’d been reported absent for missing two classes this morning, I was wondering if I could even afford to eat lunch here, and now here was Eric, all happy and goofing and without a care in the world. This was all becoming like a bad dream, but I knew I wasn’t going to wake up any time soon.”
Josh saw how Bryan’s face had tensed up as he remembered his feelings at that moment. He felt sorry for Bryan, but didn’t know what to say. He thought it might be better to just let him talk through it. But he wanted to contribute something. So he stood up, got some milk from the refrigerator and poured a glass for Bryan, then set it in front of him. Bryan was looking into the distance and didn’t seem to notice.
“I suddenly felt this huge need to talk to someone about all this. I almost began, then realized I didn’t know Eric that well. What if I told him everything, then he got worried and told his parents, or a teacher? That would ruin everything. But this need to talk to someone was almost more than I could handle. I decided I had to say something.
So I did. “‘Eric, can I tell you something? Something you have to keep secret?’
“I think he could hear something in my voice, because the grin disappeared immediately. He looked at me very seriously, and didn’t even answer right away. When he did, he asked, ‘Is everything all right, Bryan?’ And he asked it like he cared, like he wanted to help if he could.
“‘Eric, I’m in trouble. I can’t tell you much about it, but I’m in trouble. You probably think it’s strange I’m telling you, we don’t know each other very well, but you sat down and asked what was going on, and the urge to tell someone something about what I’m going through is too hard to resist. Please, please don’t say anything to anyone else. It would make it worse.’
“‘Sure, Bryan. You can trust me. But what is it? What kind of trouble. If it’s really bad, you should talk to an adult.’
“‘I wish I could. I just can’t. If an adult finds out, things would be worse. Believe me on that.’
“‘Okay. I won’t say anything. How can I help?’
“‘I don’t know. You probably can’t. I probably shouldn’t have said anything.’
“Eric didn’t say anything to that, just sat there looking at me for a minute. I didn’t know him well, but knew something about him, like you do about a lot of guys at school. He was one of those kids who got along with the popular kids but wasn’t really part of them. He seemed to have lots of friends, but I didn’t see him hanging with any one particular guy more than anyone else. I had heard he was pretty smart and got really good grades. He always had seemed like a solid guy to me. Now, he sat looking at me, thinking. Then he said, ‘Bryan, I really don’t need any details if you can’t tell me. But I’ll still help if I can. Look, what do you need? Are you hungry? Are you safe? Do you need a ride somewhere? Money? A place to stay? What do you need?’
“Damn, I was so tempted to confide in him. I so wanted to get rid of the burden of trying to do all this by myself. But what if I told him, and he just decided it was too much and he told his parents? He made me feel I could trust him, but it just wasn’t safe to do it. He might think he was doing the right thing, and I could still get screwed. I just couldn’t take the chance.
“But I could let him help me. ‘Eric,’ I said, ‘I can’t tell you how good it makes me feel, you wanting to help. I wish I could tell you more, but I just can’t. Not now anyway. But you can help. I need money. I think I’ve got everything else under control, but I need more money. I’ll pay you back when I can, but it won’t be right away. But any money you can give me would really, really help. If you can’t do that, though, I understand. Some kid you don’t know well asking for money is weird. Really weird. And it makes me feel really awful just asking.’ I wasn’t even looking at him at that point. It felt funny and awkward, asking a guy who was almost a stranger for money.
“Eric was looking at me, and I was looking down at the table. After a moment, he reached into his pocket and took out his wallet. He opened it and took out a twenty dollar bill. He handed it to me.
“I didn’t know what to do. That twenty dollars would really help. But it felt so wrong to take it from him. It made me feel strange. Thinking of taking it, I suddenly didn’t feel like I was myself any more. I looked at it, then back at him. ‘No, I can’t take it, Eric,’ I said, my voice sounding small to me. ‘Thanks, but I can’t.’ He looked at me a little longer, then laid it on the table next to my hand. Then he asked, ‘You eaten lunch yet?’ When I shook my head no, he told me to wait, he’d get us something. Then he did what you did — he got me lunch. He got it for both of us and brought it back to the table.
“He didn’t say anything, just took my food off his tray and put it in front of me, then started in on his. I looked at the food, then at him, then started to eat too. I don’t know why, but as I took my first bite, I started to cry.”
Bryan stopped. Josh was engrossed in the story, but when Bryan stopped, Josh realized how emotional this was for him. “You don’t have to say all this if you don’t want to, Bryan. This sounds like it’s way hard for you.”
“It is, but somehow it feels good talking about it, too. I want to do this.” He noticed the milk in front of him, gave Josh a grateful if sad grin, and drank about half of it.
“I really respected Eric right then. I was crying, he looked at me briefly, then turned away. He never once asked why. Finally I stopped crying, and we ate lunch together with neither of us saying another word. When we finished, Eric asked if I was going back to school, and I told him I was. So we went together. He had his bike and had just come to the mall for lunch. He told me he liked to do that occasionally, get away from the school and all the commotion there and come here to eat lunch, either by himself, or if he saw someone he knew, eat with them. Just to not be in school any more. He started talking about school stuff, teachers and kids and the like as we rode back to the school. When we got there, I started to thank him, and he cut me off. ‘Bryan, I can tell you have a problem. If I can help, I will. It’s no big deal. If you want to eat lunch there tomorrow, I’ll go with you. I’ll pay for it. Just let me know. I’ve got to run. See ya.’ And then he just took off. I watched him walk away, then headed to my next class, feeling really small.
“My afternoon went just like nothing was different, just normal. I’d sort of been wondering in the back of my mind if when my father woke up and found I wasn’t there, he’d call the school. So all day I was on edge, waiting for a call to the office, but it never happened. After my last class, I just got on my bike and rode back to the mall.”
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