What happens when two lonely boys meet in a shopping mall food court?
When the boys were again walking down the main aisle, Josh had his first opportunity to really look at Bryan. When he did, he stopped walking. Bryan walked several steps ahead before he realized Josh was no longer beside him. He stopped and turned around. Josh was standing staring at him.
“What’s the matter?” Bryan called back to him, puzzled.
Josh just stood, looking at Bryan with a startled expression on his face.
Bryan walked back and stopped in front of Josh. Josh kept looking at him a moment longer, then blushed and turned away.
“What’s going on?” Bryan asked, puzzled.
Josh looked back at him. “I just hadn’t had a chance to see your new haircut. It really looks, well, it looks really good.”
In fact, Josh was stunned. Bryan’s hair had been shampooed, conditioned and styled. It was still long, but now was sparkling clean and feathered so it hung down slightly over his ears in layered cascades, the ends curled slightly outwards, his part slightly off center, his bangs parting as they crossed over his forehead and then falling to the sides and over his ears. The style complemented his face, seeming to lengthen it, and changed his boyish attractiveness into a look that was downright striking. Instead of the sloppy, slightly mussed up, disheveled and shaggy kid who had come to his table in the mall, he was now confronted with a guy who could easily be a teen model. Josh couldn’t take his eyes off him.
“Thanks,” Bryan said with an almost bashful grin. “I thought it looked pretty good, too. Oh, Jerry wanted me to remind you not to forget to pay them.”
Josh had to almost shake himself to stop staring. He forced himself back out of his imagination. “Okay, let’s go do that now, then maybe take off. See whether Dad can come pick up the clothes.”
Soon the boys were on their bikes, riding back to Josh’s house. When they arrived, Josh saw his father’s car was still missing.
They went up to Josh’s bedroom, and Josh fell onto the bed.
“Scoot over,” said Bryan, and then he too lay down. “Whew, it feels good to rest a minute. How are you, Josh? I’ll bet you’re still feeling funny from those guys in the restroom, huh? And maybe from the dressing room, too.”
“Yeah, a little. Those guys really scared me. And then that guy made me rub his dick, and I was feeling really helpless. I hate that feeling! He was about to force me to have his dick in my mouth when that kid ran in and said the cops were coming. Hey, you know, I heard your story to Paul about this, but it just now occurred to me, I just realized, I didn’t have to do that with that guy because of you! You saved me!”
“I was scared too, scared for you. I saw those guys following you, and knew what they’d done to that little kid before. You’d already spent a lot of money on me, and I knew they’d take the rest of what you had, and maybe do more, do stuff to you, more even than they did with the little kid. I didn’t know what to do. I was sort of panicking. I started to go down that hall, but as soon as I started I knew that wouldn’t really help. I wouldn’t be able to stop them. Then I saw Paul. If I hadn’t, I just don’t know. . . .”
Josh was looking emotionally at Bryan now. He’d rolled onto his side facing him, and he had a look in his eyes that embarrassed Bryan.
“Bryan, you saved me. I don’t know what to say. No one has ever done something like that before. All the other kids, if they see me being picked on or something, they either watch and laugh or just look away like they’re embarrassed and walk off fast. You cared. You did something and saved me. No one has ever done that before.”
Bryan felt distinctly uncomfortable. The fact was, he did care. But boys aren’t supposed to tell each other that.
Bryan was having a problem. He knew what Josh wanted, what he needed. He needed reassurance that Bryan liked him and was his friend, but the unwritten code for boys said they didn’t discuss this sort of thing, and Bryan felt distinctly uncomfortable talking about being best friends, about caring for each other, and had had to force himself to do so earlier. The situation had seemed to demand it, then, and so he’d done it. But it wasn’t something he was comfortable with. He didn’t mind so much showing affection through actions, but sitting with Josh and saying it in so many words sounded dorky. He’d already done this once, but saying it over and over was mushy and not very manly, and he’d rather skip it. But, he knew Josh wanted, in fact desperately needed, that kind of support.
“Josh, you’re helping me. What kind of a lousy friend would I be if, when I saw you in trouble, I didn’t try to return the favor? Let’s not talk about those guys any more. What I did, what you’re doing for me, that’s what best friends do. Let’s just leave it at that.”
“So we really are best friends? Really?”
“That’s what we are!” Bryan smiled at him. In his heart, he didn’t think that label fit. It seemed to him that that particular status was reserved for friends who knew each other intimately and had for a long time. But he knew Josh wanted such an affirmation.
Josh couldn’t contain himself. He wriggled over across the bed to him and hugged him. “Thanks, Bryan. That means so much to me.”
Bryan hugged him back. Boys weren’t supposed to do that, either, but this felt good and he didn’t care. He hugged him back.
Eventually, Josh released Bryan and pulled away. Both boys felt a little embarrassed and looked away. Josh rolled over onto his back again, and copied Bryan in looking at the ceiling. After a few minutes of silence, he spoke up.
“Could you tell me the rest of your story, what happened after you got back to the mall after the end of school that day?”
“Sure. I’m not sure about finishing it. The way I’m telling it, there’s a lot more. But I can continue from where I was. We’ll see how far I get.” Bryan propped his pillow up against the headboard of the bed and slid up so he was sitting back against it. He wiggled a bit, getting comfortable.
“Okay, this was after school had ended for the day that first day. I rode back to the mall and locked up my bike. It was around 4 PM. The mall wasn’t crowded, but was busier than it had been in the morning. I didn’t feel conspicuous at all at that point. I walked past the secondhand baby clothes store just to see whether they did much business or not. They were pretty busy, which was good. If the store started emptying out, it would be harder to do what I wanted to do.
“Then I just wandered around. I looked at hallways between stores, found where restrooms were located, looked for all the exits I could find, just looking to better understand the layout of the place. Eventually, I went to the food court and had dinner, a burger and a coke. I had my schoolbooks with me in my backpack so I sat at the table where I ate dinner and did my homework. They closed the food places at 8 PM, but that didn’t affect the tables any. I felt a little strange, though, because shortly after they closed I was the only one sitting there. I didn’t want to look conspicuous, sitting in the food court doing homework all alone, so, pretty soon after that I packed up my school things in my backpack. Then I had to go get my duffle bag and somehow get it into the store. Now that I had to do that for real instead of just thinking about it, it was starting to seem like it might be a lot harder than I had thought it would be.
“I went outside and when no one was around recovered my duffle bag from the bushes. I carried it into the mall, which was much less crowded now since it was well after 8. I walked around, stopping to glance into stores, trying to appear as casual as I could as I made my way back toward the baby clothes store. I stopped across the main aisle from it and looked in. That’s when I got upset. The place was empty except for a clerk who was sitting at the check-out counter reading a book. There was no way I could go in there now and do anything at all without being noticed.
“I started panicking a little. The only other thought I had was I could leave the mall and try to sleep behind the bushes, but I hadn’t really seen a place I could do that. Plus, I didn’t really want to. I wanted to sleep somewhere inside that seemed safe. While I was worrying and trying to think of an alternative plan, I saw a couple walk into the store, and then a few minutes later, another couple entered too.
“I realized this might be the only opportunity I’d have. There was one clerk, two couples to wait on, and it seemed unlikely to me at this time of night with the mall emptying out I would get a better chance. I picked up the duffle bag and strolled into the store.
“The clerk was over by a rack of clothes talking to one couple while the other browsed. The clerk looked up when I entered. I mouthed to her ‘RESTROOM’ with my lips, and she nodded and pointed to the back. I smiled and nodded and started walking when she spoke up. ‘I’m sorry, but could you leave your bag and backpack here? Just stick them by my counter. Thanks.’
“Damn! Did she think I was going to lift a pair of newborn booties or something? Now what was I going to do? Well, first off, I set my stuff down where she could see it. Anything else and she’d be watching me. This way, she turned back to her customers. I went to the back of the store, then took a quick look in the back. No light was showing from under the office door, and no one was in the back. The clerk was the only store employee present.
“I went into the restroom, waited about a minute, then came back out. I walked up to the front, picked up the duffle bag and slipped on my backpack and said out loud, ‘Thanks!’ The clerk looked over at me, nodded, and turned back to the customers.
“I took a step towards the front door, then stopped and reached back, patted my butt and acted like my wallet was missing. I turned around, trying to look confused, then nodded and looked relieved like I’d remembered something and started for the restroom again, this time carrying my bag and backpack. I checked out of the corner of my eye. No one was looking at me and the clerk had her back turned. I got to the back and kept going. In the back storeroom, the wall on the far right from the door was entirely made up of shelves on which boxes were randomly stacked. I quickly tossed my duffle bag onto the top shelf and pushed three boxes together in front of it to hide it, then slipped back to the doorway into the store.
“Carefully looking out while staying as far back as possible, I could see the clerk at the counter and one set of customers paying for some things they’d put on the counter. The other couple had left the store. Very soon, I’d be alone in the store with the clerk.
“I started worrying right away. It was very clear now. There was no way I could get into that pile of balls and bury myself without making some noise, or without her just happening to look up and see me. While it was an excellent hiding place, with the clerk in the store and no distractions, I just couldn’t get into it.
“I had two choices. One, I could just open the rear door and leave, or two, I could find a place in the back room to hide.
I stepped back into the storeroom and looked around. The room was lighted with overhead fluorescent lighting so it was pretty bright. One wall had the shelves where I’d put my duffle. They were floor to ceiling shelves that were about four feet deep. I thought I might be able to climb up and then lie down and put boxes in front of me just like I did the duffle, but I’d have to lie on my side and move a lot of boxes to do it right, and I didn’t know how much time I’d have. It was almost 9 o’clock. What if she decided to close up early? The store was empty. Maybe she’d head this way any minute. Not being able to figure anything out because I didn’t know how things worked was driving me crazy.
“There were a few racks of clothes, but baby clothes don’t hang to the floor like men’s trousers or women’s long skirts. I couldn’t hide in the racks.
The washer and dryer were standing against the wall opposite the racks and at right angles with the back wall that had the door to the alley. A worktable stood next to the machines. I noticed the table was set back against the wall, and it extended back beyond the two machines, actually touching the wall. I stepped over and saw both machines were standing about two feet away from the wall, possibly to allow for easier maintenance on them, or at least to allow access to the water shut-off valves for the washing machine. The space behind them was tight and cobwebby, but if I took off my backpack, I was pretty sure I could squeeze into it. I’d be OK there as long as the clerk didn’t actually walk over and look behind them. If she did that, of course, I was sunk.
“Just then, I saw the lights in the store dim. She must be closing up, I thought. I was out of time. I took off my backpack but didn’t have time to do anything with it other than throw it behind the machines. I then turned myself sideways so my back was against the wall and wriggled into the space myself. I was very conscious of trying to get hidden just as quickly as I possibly could.
“My feet were still exposed when I heard her footsteps approaching. I froze, thinking it was more likely she’d notice my feet moving than if they were still, even if they weren’t entirely behind the machines. Her footsteps stopped, and then I heard the office door opening. While she was inside, I finished pulling myself totally behind the machines as noiselessly as I could.
“It was a very tight fit, but I put up with it knowing I wouldn’t have to be there too long. I hoped that was true because one of the water shutoff valves was pushing into my side, and it was beginning to hurt. I rested my head on my backpack and just lay there. I knew I’d just have to wait it out. The clerk must have been in the office. I hadn’t heard her leave. So, I waited.
“It was about ten minutes. Which is a very long time when you’re crammed very tightly behind two large machines, can’t move at all and don’t know if you’ll be caught. Then I heard the office door close. I heard steps coming into the back room. I held my breath. The steps came toward the machines, then turned toward the door. I heard the push bar rattle, and guessed she was checking that the door was latched. Then the footsteps retreated to the door back into the store, and after a short pause all the overhead lights went out except one row in the middle.
“I didn’t move. I waited, and then heard the sound of the outside metal grill lowering. I finally figured I was safe, so began crawling out. Except I then realized in the time I’d been behind the machines, wiggling a little bit to ease my discomfort, I must have somehow settled, because I couldn’t just slide back out. I was stuck!
“That might sound silly, but I really couldn’t move. I tried a couple times, but the leg I was lying on had gone numb, I didn’t have enough strength or the room to push myself upright and I didn’t have any room to wiggle. I started to panic. Then I thought, I just have to do this. I braced my back against the wall and pushed with all my might against the washing machine. It moved! It moved only about an inch, but that little bit was enough that now I could wriggle my body just a little. Then, with lots of effort and taking I couldn’t even tell you how long, I eventually managed to work myself out.
“I was exhausted and sweating, and when I looked down, I saw I was filthy. Great idea, Bryan, I told myself sarcastically. But I felt some relief, too. I had accomplished what I’d wanted, even if it had been a lot more spur of the moment than I’d wanted it to be.”
Bryan stopped, and Josh turned his head to the side and looked at him. Bryan had been reliving his adventure as he’d been telling about it, and Josh could see the effects of the drama in his face.
“I sat down on one of the chairs at the worktable to rest. I thought about my situation, and realized, even though I was still feeling sort of tense, I was in pretty good shape. I had a place to stay, and that place had a bathroom, which I hadn’t even thought about. I now saw getting in here for the night every night was going to be very hard. I’d been lucky tonight, very lucky. But at least for tonight, this was going to be great.
“Eventually, I got up and walked over to the shelves. There was definitely room to hide on the top one. There were several boxes up there, but I stood on a chair and looked and saw there was enough room for me behind the boxes if I moved a couple that were slid back against the wall. All I had to do was climb up, move a few boxes forward, rearrange some others and get behind them. So if I wanted to hide there other nights, I could easily do so. The problem would be getting in here at night unobserved. I didn’t see how I could count on doing that.
“For now, I just put that out of my mind. I needed to make a place to sleep. Again, the boxes might help. What I wanted were baby blankets. I had to open and look in quite a few boxes, but at last I finally did find several with blankets and crib sheets in them.
“I took down my duffle bag and took out some clean clothes for the following day. Then I stripped down to my boxers and went into the restroom, where I washed myself. Then I thought, what the hell, and took off my boxers too. It felt really strange, being naked in that restroom, but I then washed all over. I even got my shampoo from the duffle and did my hair. I had brought a towel from home so was able to dry myself without resorting to paper towels. I did use some of those to wipe up the water I’d dripped on the floor. Then I walked back into the back room. If it felt strange being naked in the rest room, it was even more so walking around in that store that way. It sort of got me excited.”
Bryan blushed, and Josh giggled.
“Anyway, I laid out a couple piles of baby blankets, then put one of my blankets over that. I still had another one to cover myself up with, but the room was about 70 degrees, so I didn’t have any worries about being cold.
“It was only about 9:30, but I was exhausted. I found a couple more baby blankets and folded them and used them for a pillow, then lay down and pulled my blanket over me. It wasn’t the most comfortable bed in the world, but it worked fine. I was asleep in minutes.”
Bryan stopped. Josh looked up at him, then heard what Bryan had. The kitchen door. Josh’s dad had returned.
Josh asked, “Do you want to go to the mall and get your stuff, or do you feel like continuing with this?”
“I’d rather take a break, if you don’t mind. It seems like it’s taking me forever to tell about this. Would you like me to skip all the details and make it faster?”
“NO! You’re making it so real I feel like I was there, worrying right along with you. I can’t believe you did all this. Not only did you have the nerve, but whatever problems came up, you found a way to solve them. This is incredible. I could never do anything like that.”
“You’d be surprised, Josh. I was sort of desperate, you know? Yeah, I got really scared a few times, but I realized real quick that being scared wasn’t going to help at all. But I was, still am, a little surprised I was able to work through things as well as I did. I guess I’m able to think well in situations like that. I never knew that about myself before.”
“I think I’d be too scared to do anything. I can think all right when I’m not in trouble, when everything’s calm, you know, when I can just sort of plan things, but if there was danger involved, I think I’d just be petrified. I was today. I was zoning out. You’re amazing.”
“No I’m not. But as I say, I surprised myself quite a bit. And being able to get away with what I have, I’ve developed a little more confidence in myself now than I used to have. Hey, let’s go see if your father can take us now, okay?”
Josh jumped off the bed and Bryan followed. Downstairs, they found Dr. Warren in the kitchen, looking in the refrigerator.
“Hi, Josh, Bryan. Bryan! You got a haircut! Looks great. Now, what do you guys want for dinner?”
Josh answered. “We’ll have to think about it. But Dad, before that, could you drive us to the mall for just a few minutes? We bought some clothes but couldn’t carry everything on our bikes. We need to put them in the car, if that wouldn’t be too much trouble.”
“You need to do it tonight?”
“Yeah, Bryan bought some clothes and stuff that he forgot to bring with him. Tonight would be a lot better.”
“Okay. It’s no problem. If you decide what you want for dinner and we don’t have it, we could pick that up while we’re out. Or did you want to eat out?”
Josh looked at Bryan, and then remembered Bryan had been doing nothing but eat out for the past few weeks. “I think we’d rather eat here. We’ll talk about it in the car.”
They all got in the car. Josh had Bryan sit in front. He was thinking that the more comfortable his father got with Bryan, the better.
They discussed dinner possibilities and all decided steak sounded good. After stopping at the mall and collecting their things, they drove to a grocery store. Dr. Warren picked up three thick ribeye steaks, three baking potatoes and a bottle of merlot.
When they got home, the boys carried their bags from the mall into the house and up to their room while Dr. Warren brought in the food.
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