What happens when two lonely boys meet in a shopping mall food court?
Eventually, Josh got to his feet. Bryan was smiling at him. “A little out of shape, are we?”
“About halfway back, I thought you were trying to kill me. I had visions of my funeral, then you moving into my room and rubbing your hands together in triumph, cackling gleefully about how you now had it all to yourself. I decided you were evil. Very, very evil.”
“Yeah, but you kept running. You could have stopped and defeated my diabolical plan to build my empire. You kept running. You didn’t let the pain stop you. I’m impressed.”
“Coach Mac talked to me. He said being determined you can do something is half the battle. You have to will yourself to succeed. If he could do it, I can too. But he says you have to work hard, harder than other people are working. That’s what I’m going to do.”
“Then I’ll do it, too. We can both be runners. Taft has some really good runners and a great cross-country team. Going out for it is something I’d love to do. Coach Mac is the team coach. He doesn’t cut anyone. Anyone who wants to be on the team makes it. The strongest runners are the ones who get to run in meets, so there’s competition among team members. But Coach Mac keeps it all friendly.”
“I’m not good enough to be on the team. Look at how I just ran.”
“There you go again! Josh, it was your first day! Within a week, you’ll be a lot better. The team doesn’t begin practice for at least another month. By then, you’ll be just as good as anyone else. I will too. I thought you were talking about being determined?”
Josh didn’t say anything for a moment. Then he looked up at Bryan. “I’ve thought so badly about myself for so long, it’s just a habit I have. You’re right. I have to stop doing that. Coach already told me. Bryan, tell me when I do that. Maybe that’ll help wake me up. I don’t want to be that way any more.”
“Okay. Right now, why don’t we grab showers? You want to go first?”
Josh got a devious smile. “Just one shower would probably save water. You’re all for ecological conservation, aren’t you?”
The boys showered, and, being 14 and randy, took care of business. This was still brand new to both of them, and both of them were eager.
At dinner, Dr. Warren got the full details of Josh’s triumph on the basketball court in gym class. While he enjoyed hearing about the game, he marveled even more at Josh’s excitement and enthusiasm when telling about it. He was used to a studious, subdued and soft-spoken Josh. This was something new, and his son’s newfound spirit astonished him. To avoid making Josh self-conscious, he didn’t mention his observation directly, but did make an enigmatic remark.
“Josh, I can’t help but note how allegorical this game was. Congratulations on what you did. Wish I could have seen it.”
“What do you mean, allegorical? How?”
Dr. Warren chuckled. “Think about it.”
Josh was too upbeat to stop to think about anything literary. He told his father he and Bryan were going to run every day, and maybe go out for the cross-country team. Bryan interjected that that was only if Josh survived the training runs, and that it had been so touch and go today, he’d been ready to call the paramedics and was wondering what he was going to say to Dr. Warren, explaining how he’d killed his son. Josh had a sarcastic rejoinder and the insults started flying. Dr. Warren looked on in wonder. He was beginning to think that Bryan had somehow transmogrified his former son into this new, livelier, happier reincarnation.
When they were eating the cherry pie Josh had made—to the amazement of Bryan, who had had no idea how to make a pie—Josh asked his dad if he could have a friend tomorrow night for dinner and to sleep over. Dr. Warren happily agreed. Bryan looked at Josh curiously.
“You’re going to invite someone over? I thought you didn’t have any, uh, I mean, uh, who?”
“I was going to make it a secret. Guys like secrets. You don’t really want to know, do you? Wouldn’t you like to be surprised?”
“Do I know him?”
“You mean her?”
“You invited a girl for a sleepover!?”
“You don’t mind, do you?”
“You invited a girl!?”
“We’re all men here, don’t you think having a feminine presence in the house might be fun?”
“But where would she sleep?”
“I was thinking you could use the guest room and we could use my bed.”
There was a shocked silence as Bryan assimilated that news. At that point Dr. Warren cleared his throat. He had a stern look on his face. Bryan thought he looked pissed.
“You know the rule, Josh. We’ve discussed this. If we have a female overnight guest, she stays in my bed, not yours. How many times do I have to remind you?”
Bryan looked shocked, and then both Josh and Dr. Warren broke out laughing. Bryan closed his mouth. Josh looked at him.
“Yeah, right, like I’d invite a girl over. My dad knows me better than you do.”
“I’d hope so,” Bryan retorted sarcastically. “So, who is it then?”
“I asked Eric if he’d like to come over. He said yes, and his mom agreed. He’ll come home with us tomorrow after school.”
“Josh! That’s great. Have you become friends with him already?”
Josh felt the presence of his father at the table, so didn’t want to go into too much detail about his reasons for inviting Eric. He told Bryan instead he needed to get started on his homework; he’d talk to him some more about it later.
In their room, he said that Eric had asked about him, Bryan, and needed to know he was okay and was asking questions that probably Bryan should answer.
“You know, I see why you called him special. He’s really concerned about you. I like him a lot. Maybe he’d like to come run with us.”
“He’s got lots of friends, Josh. Well, I think he does. I don’t know him that well, but he’s friendly with lots of kids. I guess I’m just making an assumption about close friends, knowing how he is. We could ask him about the running.”
They both broke out their schoolbooks and settled down to work.
Yesterday had been a light homework day and their teachers had made up for it today. They both had more than two hours of work to do. By the time they’d finished, it was almost time for bed.
“You want to watch a TV show or something? You know, I don’t really know how you used to spend your time, what you liked to do, if you had any hobbies, that sort of thing.”
Bryan got a distant look in his eyes. He didn’t say anything for a moment. Then, speaking softly, he said, “You know, it’s only been about a month, but so much has happened, there have been so many changes, how I lived before is sort of like the distant past, not like a reality to me any longer. First, I was in sort of a nightmare, living in the mall, just getting by, and then you saved me, and though I’ve only been here a few days, you’ve made this feel like home to me. I keep forgetting I don’t really live here. I’m here just because you’re letting me be. I don’t even say thank you most of the time.”
“Don’t talk like that, Bryan. It scares me, because it makes me realize that at some point you’re going to want to leave. I don’t want to think about that. I want you to stay. Since you’ve been with me, everything that’s happened has made my life better. You keep me moving in the right direction, too. You don’t let me get down, don’t let me quit. I need you here, Bryan, probably more than you need to be here.”
“Okay, we’ve both managed to end up feeling sad. Why don’t we go to bed? You’re probably tired from the excitement at gym and then running. And I get a little shaky, thinking about the past, and how uncertain my future is. I try not to think about it.”
They undressed. Josh shut the door, and then looked at Bryan, grinned, and took off his boxers. Bryan quickly followed suit. Josh turned out the light, and they got into bed. Very naturally, Bryan settled back into Josh so he was being held.
“Bryan, I really like how this feels. I like it the other way around, too.”
“I like holding you, too, but tonight it feels good for you to hold me. If anyone knew we slept like this, we’d never live it down, but I don’t care, I like it. We need to figure out how we’re going to sleep tomorrow. We can’t do this with Eric here.”
“We can talk about it with him tomorrow. We’ll figure something out. It’s no biggie.”
They’d been quiet for a couple of minutes and Josh was about nodding off when Bryan spoke again. “Josh? That thing your father said. I don’t get it. What did he mean? I guess I don’t really know what ‘allegorical’ means.”
“An allegory is a story about something that you can relate to something else. As for my father, yeah, he’ll do that. He’ll tell me something, but just enough to make me think, just to plant a seed in my head. Makes me frustrated, but if I think hard enough, I can usually figure out what he’s talking about. If I can’t, and whine long enough, he tells me. But this wasn’t too hard to figure out. It was pretty good, when I thought about it.”
“What was it? I still don’t get it.”
“He was saying the basketball game I told him about was an allegory that describes what’s happening to me right now. And you know, it really was. Think about it. I was playing that whole game on the outside, where there weren’t many problems, but also not much involvement in the game. That’s been my life for a long time now. Then, when I had a chance in the game, when Frank passed me the ball, I had a decision to make. I could stand there and let that first defender bother me, maybe take the ball away. I could just sort of give up or not try, I could maybe pass the ball away and let someone else try to win the game, or I could try to do something myself, make an effort. I did something I never do. I was assertive and moved past that first man by doing what you’d showed me how to do. I didn’t pass off, either. I took the problem into my own hands. And you know what happened? Suddenly, my way was open in front of me. I’d moved past a problem by doing something instead of waiting for something to happen to me, and when I did, things were better in front of me. Then, as I got nearer my goal, a problem I couldn’t handle by myself confronted me. What did I do? I got help. From you, in fact. I let you help me. I passed you the ball. You helped, you gave me a hand with my problem, but then you passed the ball back and I was faced with having to succeed on my own. Just like in my life, I’m trying to do things now instead of staying uninvolved, and it’s going really great. You’re helping when I need it, but it’s starting with doing things on my own initiative, and being successful with them.”
“Your father thought of all that, while you were telling him about the game?”
“He’s my dad, Bryan, and that’s the way I think of him, as just my dad. But he’s smart. He’s real smart.”
Bryan didn’t respond, and after a period of silence, Josh asked, “Bryan? We talked about getting back at Tom and those guys at Kennedy. Are we going to talk about how we’ll do that?”
“Yeah, eventually. I think we’ll see an opportunity at some point. If not, we’ll plan something. I don’t think there’s any rush. Let’s not worry about it yet.”
----  ----
Eric was waiting for Josh and Bryan at the bike rack after school. Kids were noisily leaving the school, free for the weekend and excited about having two days without school stretching before them.
“You got everything in your backpack?” asked Josh. Eric didn’t have anything else with him.
Before he could answer, Bryan said, “Hey, he doesn’t need all that much. We are all sleeping nude, aren’t we? That’s what you said.”
Both Josh and Eric turned to him, shocked, and Bryan, watching them, burst out laughing. “Gotcha!” he laughed. “Both of you!”
Eric gave him a dirty look, then turned to Josh, ignoring Bryan. “Yeah. I didn’t need that much. I’ll wear these same pants tomorrow, so all I need is a change of underwear, a shirt and a couple bathroom things.”
“See?” Bryan broke in. “No pajamas. Naked sleepover! Yeah!”
Josh grinned. “Don’t mind him, Eric. I think he’s feeling the effects of being out of school on a Friday afternoon. School’s not his best thing. He’s a little overmatched here. But don’t worry. He’s not normally this giddy.”
Eric looked back and forth at the two of them. He was a very upbeat guy with little or no apparent shyness in his nature. He turned to Bryan and said, “Hey, I’m the guest. I just follow house rules. Whatever you guys sleep in, or don’t, I’ll go along.” Then he gave Bryan a decidedly challenging look.
Bryan didn’t know how to respond, and Josh jumped in. “Looks like Eric won that round!” Eric turned to him and they both grinned, then high-fived each other.
They arrived at Josh’s house about a half hour later. They all took their book bags up to Josh’s bedroom, then went back to the kitchen. While Bryan began making sandwiches, Josh got a 7-bone roast out of the refrigerator, seasoned and floured it and began browning it in a large, deep Dutch oven. While it was browning, he got three cans each of Coke and Dr Pepper from the refrigerator to go with the sandwiches.
When they were all at the table, Josh spoke first. “Eric, you had some questions for me about Bryan yesterday. I think you two need to talk. Bryan, do you want to talk privately?”
“No need for that. You know everything, and I’m really not that embarrassed or anything like that anymore. Eric, I think I can tell you now what this has been all about.”
Bryan took a deep breath, then began telling Eric the full story, but condensing it greatly, omitting many of the details he’d related to Josh. He spoke about his father, why he left home, and how he was trying to live at the mall, then how he came to be living with Josh. While he was in the middle of this recital, Josh dumped a package of dried onion soup mix on the meat, added some canned beef broth to the pot, then covered it and turned it down to the lowest setting the burner had.
Bryan was still talking. “Eric, the only reason I made it through everything was because of you. You were incredible to me. You gave me what I needed and never insisted I give you reasons. You just kept giving and giving, and we weren’t even friends. To me, even though we don’t know each other all that well, you’re closer to me now as a friend than almost anyone I know. I couldn’t in a million years thank you enough. I don’t know how this is all going to turn out for me yet but at some point I’m going to pay you back what you lent me.”
Eric started to protest, but Bryan stopped him. “I want to pay you back, Eric. Not because I think I have to but because it’ll make me feel better about myself. I feel bad I couldn’t tell you why I needed the money, and why we argued last Saturday. You were so kind to me, it was like the greatest thing. Whatever I was feeling, I knew you were there for me, and you can’t imagine how that made me feel. And I felt I wasn’t being honest with you.”
He stopped and for a moment had a hard time meeting Eric’s gaze. Eric reached out and put his hand on Bryan’s arm. “Thanks for telling me all this. I was curious. Now I know. I was wondering about Josh, too. Josh, you’re, well, I don’t know the word. You’ve taken Bryan in and you didn’t even know him. I wish I could have done that, but I understand why Bryan couldn’t tell me everything. If he had, it would have been tough. I might have told someone, I don’t know. I sure would have felt even more pressure to do so.”
He turned back to Bryan. “I guess now the question is, where are you going to go from here? How long are you going to stay with Josh?”
“He can stay here as long as he wants,” Josh answered quickly. “I like having him here, he’s safe here, and he’s helped me. Eric, I was really shy and having trouble at Kennedy. I’m still shy, but Bryan’s making it so much easier for me to meet people, and you’ve helped too, but Bryan’s the one who introduced us. Bryan also got me out of Kennedy and into Taft. I’m so much happier now. Bryan’s my best friend, even though I’ve only known him for a week. I’m hoping he stays forever.”
“But how can he?” Eric asked. “Won’t your father have some questions if he just stays on and on?”
“I guess. I’m not worried about that part of it. But at some point, Bryan wants to check out what’s going on with his own father, and maybe he’ll go back home.”
Eric looked at Bryan, who looked away.
“Eric, right now, it’s too soon. I know I have to leave sometime, but I’m feeling so comfortable right now after living in the mall, I don’t even want to think about it. Josh wants me to stay, and that is such a good feeling. I’m not having to worry about where I can sleep, or with getting caught, I’m not having to take advantage of your generosity—everything’s just better. It’s better than better. Going from where I was to here, it’s awesome, and I’m happy again. I’m not ready to face up to anything else right now.”
Before Eric could respond, Bryan rushed on, looking him in the eye. “I want you to know how much I appreciate what you did for me. I can’t really express it well enough. But if you ever need anything, anything at all, you’ve got to tell me. You’ll always have a friend in me.”
“Me too,” spoke up Josh. “Bryan’s my best friend, and you saved him. He told me you were special. I think so too. You’re an awfully good friend, Eric.”
Eric blushed, and tried to think how to change the subject. He cleared his throat, which was feeling a little constricted, and asked, “So what are we going to do tonight and tomorrow?”
Josh gave a glance at Bryan. “Right now, if you’d like, we could shoot some baskets. We’ve been doing that a little. Or, if you wanted to, Bryan and I have decided to start running. Maybe even join the cross-country team when that starts. So we could go for a practice run. Or, I’ve got some video games. Any of that sound good?”
“I like the sound of running. I jog a little now and then and like doing it. I kind of like the sound of that cross-country team stuff. I don’t know if I’m good enough but I’d like to try to get better. I know I’m not that good right now. I’d probably wear out before you guys.”
“You don’t have to worry about that. Josh runs about four feet and he’s ready to die, and then I have to carry him the rest of the way.”
“Hey, that’s not fair! I got at least 20 feet last night!”
Bryan grinned. “Don’t worry, Eric. We just started. Yesterday was our first day and Josh isn’t in any kind of shape yet to wear you out. If you jog, you’re in better shape than he is. We’ll just take it easy, if you want to go.”
It was decided. Eric had sneakers, but no jogging shorts. Josh lent him a pair, the boys all got ready, and soon they were jogging down the street, duplicating the previous day’s run.
Josh noticed, on the return leg, he wasn’t struggling as much as he had last time. It wasn’t easy, but he was handling it better.
When they got back to the house, Eric was breathing as hard as Josh. Bryan, in better shape than either of the others, was simply breathing hard, his hands on his hips. Both Josh and Eric lay down on the lawn on their backs.
“That was fun. Are you going to do this every day?”
“That’s the plan, Eric,” gasped Josh. “Nietzsche said ‘What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.’ I’m looking for empirical proof of his postulate.”
Eric looked at him, then looked up at Bryan. Bryan rolled his eyes. “Every now and then, he comes up with something like that. Don’t humor him. Knock him up alongside the head or something if it gets annoying. He’ll snap out of it.”
“It’s the result of too much reading,” grinned Josh. “Just ignore me.”
“You read Nietzsche!?”
Josh blushed and dropped his eyes. Bryan simply laughed. Then he said, “I think it’s shower time. Who wants to go first?”
“Guests should go first. Bryan, you don’t qualify, you live here. Eric? You want to go first?”
“Sure. Lead the way.”
Bryan pulled Josh to his feet, then Eric, and they went up to Josh’s bedroom. Josh asked him if he’d like to borrow a T-shirt so he wouldn’t have to break out tomorrow’s shirt tonight, and he agreed. Eric was a little larger than Josh, but Josh had some shirts that were too big for him and so could produce one that fit. The shirt had a picture on it of Albert Einstein. Bryan looked at it and said that was appropriate for Eric as well as Josh, and Eric blushed.
While he was showering, Bryan asked Josh again what he thought the sleeping arrangements should be.
“We probably shouldn’t let him know you’ve been sleeping in here.” Josh thought a moment. “We have two rooms, two beds and three of us. What do you think?”
“It would be friendlier if we all slept in the same room. You know, you have a queen-sized bed. We would all fit. Why don’t you ask him if he wants to do that? If not, suggest the floor. We could put some blankets down as extra padding and all sleep there.”
“You don’t think he’d feel strange, all of us sleeping together?”
“Ask him and find out. He can always say no. He shouldn’t be bothered by the question. He might like to have us all sleep together.”
They heard the shower cut off, and a few minutes later Eric rejoined them, his hair wet but combed, wearing Josh’s T-shirt along with the rest of the clothes he’d been wearing.
“Okay, who’s next?”
“Go ahead, Bryan. I’ll go last.”
When Bryan had gone, Josh told Eric, “We were talking. Bryan thinks we should all sleep together in here, and was wondering about the bed. Do you want to do that? Sleep there? Or would you prefer all of us on the floor?”
Eric thought for a moment. Then he fidgeted, and looked at Josh, not answering.
“Eric, I don’t mean to put you on the spot. Bryan thought it would be friendlier and more fun to all sleep together in my bed, but we don’t have to. We can all sleep on the floor here, or you can sleep in Bryan’s bed and we can sleep here. Whatever you’re most comfortable with.”
Eric opened his mouth, then closed it again. He was clearly uncomfortable. Finally, looking up at Josh, he asked, “What do you want to do?”
“I’d like for all of us to sleep together in the bed. I haven’t done that before, but why not? We’re 14. We’re all guys, all friends. But are you okay with that?”
Eric looked more comfortable. “Sure. If you want to. I think it’d be fun.”
Josh looked happy. “Good. Eric, both Bryan and I really like you, and I like what you did for Bryan. We want to be better friends, if you’ll let us be. I can understand if you’re uncomfortable with sleeping all together. Right now, we haven’t spent much time together.”
“No, I’d really like us all to sleep together, Josh. I just didn’t know what you guys thought. And, about the better friends part? I’d really like that. I act like I have lots of friends at school, and I do know a lot of people, but I sort of envy you, becoming close to Bryan so quickly. I don’t have any really close friends. This is so cool.”
Josh smiled at him. “I didn’t have any friends at all, of any kind, till Bryan came along. You don’t have to be embarrassed. I think this is cool, too.”
After Josh had taken his shower, it was time to look at dinner. The pot roast was still simmering, and Josh turned it over in the pan, then added a little more broth, some peeled and halved potatoes and some peeled carrots. Eric watched, fascinated.
“You really know what you’re doing, don’t you?”
“Don’t say that yet. You haven’t tasted it yet. He’s probably going to chop up some green pepper and add that at the end. You never know with him.”
“Bryan, you’d be more helpful setting the table and fixing the salad than disparaging my culinary achievements when you have no idea what you’re talking about. Just don’t drop all the plates again. It gets expensive, replacing all the china every other day.”
Eric looked back and forth between them. “You guys talk like this all the time?”
“Pretty much,” grinned Josh.
----  ----
Their dinner consisted of pot roast, potatoes and gravy, carrots, canned corn, a tossed salad, dinner rolls and a tiramisu Josh had taken out of the freezer. Dr. Warren had told Eric how happy he was to meet him and hoped he’d come again, and the boys had climbed to Josh’s room. Eric groaned. “If I ate that way every night, I’d be ten pounds heavier. Damn, but you can cook, Josh!”
Josh blushed. He was trying to work on cutting down his blushing but wasn’t being very successful. Still, he was finding he was now blushing over praise he was receiving, not from humiliation. This was a lot better.
“Thanks, Eric. I have to cook a large meal or Bryan gets on my case that I’m starving him.”
“Hey, how’d I get into this? But there could have been a few more potatoes, come to think of it.”
Eric laughed. “You guys are good together. I love listening to you.”
Bryan smiled, then sobered. “You can’t imagine what it’s been like. I was sort of on the edge, then suddenly I’m here with Josh. The change, well, I can’t really describe it.”
“Hey guys, you want to play a video game? Watch some TV? Shoot baskets?” Josh asked.
“Eric, you’ll learn as you get to know him. He gets uncomfortable—he changes the subject. One of his more polished talents.”
Josh blushed again, and Bryan gave his shoulders a quick hug, which Eric noticed but didn’t comment on.
They played a three-man video game. Josh’s game system had come with four controllers, three of which he’d never used before. Now, he was happy he had them.
Eventually, they tired of the game and decided to watch a movie. Bryan suggested they watch it from the bed, and Josh said they might as well just get in bed, then they could simply go to sleep afterwards if they wanted to. Bryan raised his eyebrows, and Josh told him they were all going to sleep in his bed. Bryan grinned, but didn’t say anything.
All three boys undressed to their boxers, Eric going slowly and watching so he didn’t do anything wrong. Josh was thinking while they were undressing that it might be better if he slept on the side of the bed against the wall with Bryan in the middle and Eric on the outside as Eric was really more Bryan’s friend than his, but didn’t know how to bring it up. Bryan got into bed against the wall, his normal position, and Eric got in next to him as Josh was getting the movie going. He decided not to make a point about it as having Eric in the middle seemed appropriate.
He put the movie in the player and was about to get in bed when Eric said, “Hey, I think I’ll pee first. Don’t start it yet.” Then he jumped from the bed and went to the bathroom.
While he was gone, Josh looked at Bryan, who looked back. Josh smiled, then quickly jumped on the bed and kissed Bryan, saying “I won’t get the chance to do this later. That’s your goodnight kiss.” Before he could pull away, Bryan grabbed his arms and returned the kiss. They were just pulling away when Eric walked back into the room.
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