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Higher Education

by Resonant

John William Bender attended Shermer High School for the last time on Monday, October 12, which was two days after his sixteenth birthday.

He made it all the way to fifth period, when Mr. Bradley, the English teacher, sent him to see Assistant Principal Vernon for the second time that day and Assistant Principal Vernon gave him a detailed assessment of his flaws and shortcomings, at which point he made Assistant Principal Vernon some detailed and anatomically improbable recreational suggestions, kicked in the glass in the trophy case, and leapt down the front steps, a free man.

Bender did not, of course, object on principle to breaking the law. But if he'd dropped out before turning sixteen, he wouldn't have put it past his mother to have him hauled back to school in a black-and-white just to get him out of her hair, which would have been an assault from which his dignity would never have recovered.

As it was, he got about three days of the rest which he had so laboriously earned before she dragged him out of bed by the ear and said, "If you ain't in school, you're gonna get a job, you good-for-nothing bum."

After that it was a matter of figuring out which pool hall the old man was at and then spending the day at a different one, which was a life with its own pleasures. However, one day the old man caught Bender removing from his mother's purse a twenty to which he himself felt he had a prior claim, and when he made a threatening gesture, Bender suddenly discovered that he was taller and slightly more sober. He laid his father out with one punch and then took a couple of penalty kicks, and after that he had to find another place to live.

He crashed on Mitchell's couch for a while, but after a couple days Mitchell's girlfriend started bitching about his shirts on the floor and his roaches in the ashtray, and Mitchell quite sensibly chose pussy over friendship.

After that, his tale of woe got him a couple of nights in Lori Bauer's basement, with some fringe benefits from Lori herself. But Lori's stepdad made Dick Vernon look like a gentleman and a scholar. When it actually came down to threats, it occurred to John that he was, strictly speaking, a trespasser, and thus Lori's stepdad, unlike Vernon, probably wouldn't go to jail for kicking his ass, and therefore getting the hell out of there was the better part of valor.

He slept at Union Station a couple of times, which wasn't bad -- it was October and still not too cold, and the chair arms didn't connect to the seats, so you could squeeze under them and lie flat. Vending machines would give out double if you knew where to kick them; tourists' bags were pretty easy to get into; Salvation Army chicks with bad haircuts would give you food and money for a big-eyed look. And once you saved enough, it was always possible to go and get a bulk shipment of something illegal at Cabrini-Green and subdivide it to sell to teenage yuppies out back of New Trier High School, once he'd broken back into his parents' house to get his baggies and his scale.

He tried out a couple of jobs -- delivery, inventory -- and quit them both in a rage. He was absolutely not going to work at Mickey D's like some little teenybopper saving up to take his girl to the prom; if he'd wanted to take orders from social defectives, he'd have stayed in high school.

Still, those social defectives would grow up to be these social defectives: Claire would be the bitch who never tipped, and Andrew would be that smug supervising asshole with a clipboard, and Brian the Brain -- well, Brian had probably invented the space shuttle, or a new kind of hamburger.

Whereas he was lucky to even be able to buy a hamburger.

There were guys at Union Station who'd give you money to let them blow you, and that right there convinced John that being a faggot did something to your brain. Some of the guys from the old neighborhood would let them do it. Mouth's a mouth, right?

Mostly they were either furtive, fumbling fat guys with suits and wedding rings or yuppies who figured guys like John were always for sale one way or another. But there was one tall pale creep in a long camelhair coat and a purple scarf who liked to wink at John as he went by.

The idea of his dick in that guy's mouth was enough to make John sick to his stomach.

He could have gone on indefinitely like that, except that one afternoon when he'd staggered out of the station and was headed for a bar, he ran into his old man, coming down to cash his workman's comp check and drink the proceeds.

That really woke him up. Because the name of the game was that John had to win. If he quit school because it was for losers, and moved out of the family home because it was for losers, then he was the most pathetic thing in the world if he ended up an even bigger loser than the old man.

He wasn't a drunk; he wasn't a retard; he hadn't knocked anybody up that he knew of. It stood to reason he could succeed where the old man had failed.

So he went down to Shermer Import Auto Service, and Roy Wysocki gave him a coverall and an advance to pay his security deposit.

Wysocki's look said he'd seen a million pothead underachievers come and go, and John would wise up and apply himself or else he wouldn't, and either way Wysocki was only out six bucks an hour and an embroidered patch, which could probably be reused since a shitload of guys were named John.

Wysocki wasn't a total waste of skin. John was smarter than him and he knew it, but he was smarter than Dick Vernon, because he understood something. He owned John. John's brains worked for him.

John was smart enough to quit rebelling against his own best interests, eventually.

The car part of the job was actually pretty cool. A fuel injector wasn't scheming to get an advantage over you, or beat you down to raise itself up, or make you do a bunch of mindless busywork because its boss was making it do a bunch of mindless busywork. A fuel injector was a complex system where every part depended on every other part, and if you screwed up one thing, you'd see a cascade of ever more spectacular fuck-ups until something exploded, sometimes literally -- but if you knew what you were doing, the whole thing went together beautifully.

Engines had quirks, for sure, but they didn't want anything from you.

Customers were a whole different ball game. Some of them wanted to lord it over lowly manual workers, and some of them wanted to hide their ignorance, and some of them just wanted the whole world and everything in it to work like a big machine dedicated to their convenience. Like money had any effect on friction.

Claire came in with the cherry-red Beemer her daddy gave her for Sweet Sixteen. Claire, who'd spent six months letting him do her in storage closets and pretending he was a cockroach the rest of the time, and now she wanted him to fix her fucking car for her.

And he had to. Had to replace the fuel pump and wipe his hands on a rag and say "Thank you" and "Have a nice day" and "You'll be getting a call from our parent company asking for your input on this transaction, and if for any reason you do not feel that you can say you are completely satisfied with your service today, please let one of us know first, because we want to do everything we can to make sure that you're happy with today's visit," and afterwards he went home and put his fist through his closet door and fuck, because there went the security deposit.

She did tip him. Twenty bucks. That was the worst.

Next day, Dejuan, who was training him on the diagnostic computers, said, "Tell you what. From now on, I'll take the customers that piss you off if you'll take the ones that piss me off, right? 'Cause if we fuck up the job and get docked, we ain't fucked anybody over but ourselves."

John could feel his heart speeding up in fury, and inside his head he heard himself snarling, I don't need help from you or any other fucking moron, so fuck you and fuck this job too, and he stalked off without a word because that was all the maturity he could manage. Fucker thought he couldn't handle it? Fuck him.

And then that afternoon a blonde in a power suit came in and said to Dejuan, "Now, you clean off my upholstery when you're finished, do you understand? Because if I smell Jheri-curl in here, I'm not paying a penny."

So afterwards, when Dejuan dropped the socket wrench twice and swore at it, John said, "If you still want to swap your asshole customers for my asshole customers, I'll do this one."

"Now, this is the kind of teamwork I like to see amongst my employees," Wysocki said through the open door of his office, and John and Dejuan looked at each other and rolled their eyes.

He'd never had an ally before. It wasn't bad.

After a couple of years had gone by, he had an apartment, and a red 1970 Fiat convertible that he'd bought off a customer who hadn't had the skill to keep it up. He was training the latest pothead underachiever, and he had five or six customers who'd ask for him in particular, and he realized that Bender didn't exist any more. And even though Bender had been a creature constructed entirely from a poisonous mixture of rage, contempt, fear and boredom, he still kind of missed the guy.

The first year or so, he'd been constantly on his guard for when he'd see the old man again. He was still officially a minor, after all, and he didn't know anything about the law, but he thought probably the old man could drag him back to that stinking house again and nobody would stop him.

Later he realized how stupid that was. If he was still a minor, he was still his parents' responsibility, and the old man certainly never went out of his way to get more responsibility.

So he quit thinking about it. Shermer was a small town, for sure, but if he stayed away from the loser bars and the Payday Loan, it was a pretty sure bet he wasn't going to run into the old man buying milk at the Jewel. That was chick work, anyway.

The safest place would have been the library, but let's be reasonable here.

Anyway, it took him by surprise when the old man showed up at Wysocki's. His initial flash of fear surprised him and pissed him off, too; he was a legal adult who worked for a living now. In the old days, when the old man beat the shit out of him, it was fatherhood. But if he tried it now, it was assault.

He had on clean jeans and a plaid shirt over his undershirt, and he looked like what he claimed to be, a guy who'd still be working hard on the shop floor if he hadn't had the bad luck to injure his back.

He called Wysocki "Sir." He called John "son."

He went through all the sad news in the family, starting with his mother's descending uterus and going all the way out to his cousin Angie's no-good boyfriend, and then it was no surprise when he got around to what he came for, which was money.

"You're healthy enough to work, son, and your health is a gift from God," he said. John had never heard him say God without adding Damn. "Of course I can't force you to share your good fortune with your family ..."

By this time he could tell that Wysocki and Dejuan and Michelle and Kevin were all watching this pathetic spectacle. He thought about giving the old man money, and he thought about kicking him out, and then finally he got his checkbook and very slowly wrote out a check for two hundred dollars. He left the To line blank until he was sure the old man had gotten a good look at the amount, and then he put his mother's name there. Not that she was any better than he was, really, but it was worth it just to piss him off.

When the old man reached for the check, John yanked it out of his reach. "You write me a receipt first," he said, shoving a legal pad at him. "When I give money to poor unfortunates, I get to take it off my taxes."

So later that afternoon, when somebody came in the door and just stared at him while he was doing his paperwork, he thought at first that it was the old man back for more, until a vaguely familiar voice said, "Bender?"

He turned around slowly, and a blond guy in a really dorky striped sweater said, "You, you probably, um, don't remember me, but --"

Brian the Brain, genuine and life size. Little bigger than life size, actually, because, jesus, he'd gotten even taller. John wiped his hands on a rag and stuck one out. "Course I remember you. You're the idiot who couldn't make a lamp."

He hadn't been an asshole for years, but apparently it was like riding a bike, that instinct to find the sore spot and push. But the Brain had been gone from Shermer a long time, and instead of flinching and quivering, he laughed. Actually looked pleased. "You do remember me."

"You're a memorable kind of guy." He looked at the car, a boxy practical Honda probably chosen by some formula involving gas mileage, warranty, and the negative square root of 3. "What did you do, put Mountain Dew in the gas tank?"

"Only the once."

What he'd done was driven his radiator almost dry, and probably been too busy thinking about how much water a ship displaces to smell the burning antifreeze.

"We'll need to keep it till tomorrow afternoon," John told him. "I'm off in a couple minutes. You need a ride someplace?"

"I can walk. My parents' house is pretty close." And then he seemed to think for a bit. "Or -- you want to get something to eat? I haven't had a stuffed pizza since last summer."

"Whatever happened to your lamp?"

"Oh --" Brian swallowed an enormous bite of pizza and wiped his mouth. "Carl took pity on me. I took the class over in summer school and he got me through it with -- a C, I think, or maybe a B-minus." He took another huge bite, licking tomato sauce off the corner of his mouth. "M cdmt mk m lmp mw," he said, and swallowed, "but I made one then, and they substituted the grade."

"You still have it?"

"Course not. Who the hell wants a lamp shaped like an elephant?" He finally wiped the sheen of grease off his mouth.

"Surprised you're not encouraging me to imitate your outstanding persistence."

Brian made a dismissive noise. "You've got your own place, got people working for you, don't have to worry about what you'll be doing in a year. If you like what you do, you're in better shape than I am." He leaned forward over the table. "You really do it with Claire Standish?"

"Course," John said. "Nothing gets a girl faster than calling her a tease. They're all so eager to prove you wrong they'll do anything. Morons. Scared virgins, though. Suspense is a lot more interesting than the sex." He finished his beer, which was warm and disgusting. "And I guess you're nailing lots of juicy little dork girls. Or do dork girls even have sex?"

"Probably, but not with me," he said cheerfully. "I'm gay, Bender."

It was only by a great effort of will that he managed not to spit his beer, but the effort made his eyes water. Across the table, Brian was actually laughing. "You did that on purpose," John said, pointing his mug at him.

"Guy's gotta get his entertainment someplace."

"You don't look like it," John said. Brian rolled his eyes and didn't even bother to answer an observation that stupid. "You were a queer even in school?"

"Will you say 'gay,' for God's sake? You sound like something out of the fifties." He took the last swallow of beer, grimaced, and waved the empty mug at the waitress. "I cannot say that I've missed drinking Old Sty. Pizza sucks in Boston, but the beer is amazing."

"Yeah, very good, they've taught you how to duck a question you don't like," John said as the waitress brought fresh beer.

Brian blew him a raspberry over the rim of his new mug. "I think I was born like this, but I really didn't want to know about it for a long time." He looked up at John and shrugged and looked away. "I had some, some dreams about, you know, about girls. So I figured the rest was just, I don't know, just typical adolescent confusion or something. Plus, you know, it was pretty clear that nobody was going to want to have sex with me, like, ever, so it was all academic anyway who I was thinking about. I mean, I didn't have that dangerous-delinquent thing going for me that apparently makes prom queens give you rhinestones."

"Hey, that was a real diamond." He'd only gotten fifty bucks for it at the pawnshop, which he still thought was a rip-off. "And don't change the subject," he said. "We were talking about your bad adolescent love life, not mine."

"Thought you didn't want to hear it. Seemed like it was making you uncomfortable. I was just trying to be sen-si-tive."

John blinked at him. "Brian Johnson. Are you making fun of me?"

Brian's chair came back down on all four legs. He was grinning, and John noticed absently how light his eyes were. "It's not satire so much as homage. See, when I first left Shermer, freshman year, I used to, uh, I pretended to be you."

"Oh, there's a strategy for long-term academic success."

"When I was nervous," Brian explained. "Because Bender would never be nervous, you see? Here's where you tell me you were nervous just like the rest of us, just on the inside, right?"

"Nah. I was never nervous." It was true, too. Hopped up on adrenaline and anger, bouncing off the walls, half-suicidal, but never nervous. "I just didn't give a shit."

You could hang around at Pucci's for hours with a pitcher without getting harassed away from your table, which was exactly what they did. He would have been surprised he had so much to say to Brian the Brain, but all his surprise was used up on the fact that Brian the Brain fucked guys, that those hands -- that that mouth -- and compared to that, one shock that he couldn't even make himself think about, but was having to work pretty hard to keep his brain away from -- compared to that, everything else seemed kind of normal.

Eventually he had enough beer in him to make it seem like a good idea to tell Brian about writing a check for the old man. Brian laughed for about fifteen minutes over the receipt.

"No way," he kept saying, "no way," until John fished the yellow sheet out of his pocket to show him.

DECMBER 18, 1990

with an illegible scrawl out of which you could sort of pick out the W in William.

"You ought to frame this," Brian said tipsily. "This is like your diploma, Bender. This, this says you're a free man."

"A fucking free man!" John roared, waving the paper in the air, which was the first time he noticed they'd both had a little too much to drink. "C'mon," he said to Brian. "I'll walk you home. You might get mugged by a dropout or something."

Brian looked up from piling money on the table. "I think I just did."

Turned out John's basement apartment was only a couple blocks from Brian's parents. Brian even had a nodding acquaintance with the old lady John rented from. "Man, this neighborhood is really going downhill, Bender," he said, following John right down the stairs, which was OK; if he went home, his mommy would probably send him up to start on next semester's homework.

"Now, I think I give the place a touch of class," John said. "Call me John, anyway. I'm a responsible adult now." Brian was standing in his living room, looking around. John looked with him: couch, coffee table, television, carpet that was some indeterminate shade of beige under the dust, kitchen through here, bedroom through there. It was bare and not very clean, but at least there was nothing here that was embarrassing, no women's underwear, no broken windows. Closet door long since repaired.

Brian looked back at him. "Not spending a lot of time at home these days?"

"Nah." Brian's lips looked soft as a girl's. The filter between John's brain and his mouth gave out suddenly, and he blurted, "You just fuck guys? Or you kiss 'em too?"

"I kiss guys." Brian was watching him out from under his colorless eyelashes. "Do you want to kiss me, John?"

He shook his head and said, "Maybe." One corner of Brian's mouth went up, but other than that he didn't move, just stood there very still. Waiting.

John crossed the floor in two long steps, and Brian's eyes fluttered shut as John rubbed his mouth across his pink lips.

It felt good. No different, really, warm lips and quick breath and the winter smell of beer and wool. Brian didn't move, except to nudge back with his mouth, but to John it still felt like his whole body was straining closer, taut with eagerness and the effort it took to keep still and see what John would do next.

That thought made him want to surprise him, throw him off balance. He raised his lips a fraction, from touching to almost touching, and hung there for a long moment, feeling Brian breathing. And then he ran his lips down Brian's rough cheek and jaw and opened his mouth over the side of Brian's neck, all lewd wet tongue.

Brian's whole body jerked, and he said, "Ah!" softly but fervently, and John felt one big hand threading into his hair as Brian tugged his head up and licked into his mouth like he was starving.

Christ, it was good. He didn't get nearly as much being John as he had being Bender, and he wanted, he wanted, and when Brian nudged him toward the bedroom, urged him down onto the mattress on the floor, he went easily, gratefully, even, willing to do anything just to have this warm, willing body in his arms.

Brian was more aggressive than John would have thought if he'd ever thought about it, hauling his own sweater off, shoving up John's undershirt without bothering to take anything else off, hands sweeping up over John's hungry skin and making him gasp. When Brian's thumbs brushed over his nipples it surprised a grunt out of him, and Brian raised his red face and said, "OK?" and he gave him the best scary glare he could manage under the circumstances and said hoarsely, "Anything's OK but stopping, genius," and Brian swallowed hard and dropped his head to John's chest and bit him.

Hard. "Fuck," he said, and Brian did it again, a little more gently, and it was starting to occur to John that his previous experience, while broad and pleasurable, had really left a lot out, and not just the part that involved having a second dick in the bed.

Though that was plenty different. Brian humped his cock on John's leg shamelessly, and even through two pairs of jeans John couldn't believe how hot it felt. Hot like burning and hot like sexy, too, and with some usually silent part of his mind he discovered he wasn't even really surprised to find that he wanted to touch another guy's dick. The one thing he would have beaten the shit out of anybody for saying about him -- somehow for that very reason it made sense that it would turn out to be true.

Anyway, it was true what Brian had said. He was a free man, and fuck anybody that thought they could tell him what to do, because John Bender did what he liked. And what he liked right now was to shove down Brian's jeans and jockeys and grab himself a nice big double handful of dork ass.

"You ever think about this, Bri-an?" The taunting tone came back almost without effort. He rolled Brian over -- they were almost sideways on the mattress by now -- and pinned one flailing arm with his hand. "You imagine this, back then?"

"Yes," Brian whispered, grabbing him with his free hand and dragging him half on top of him.

John kissed his pink mouth, bit it, pushed up to look down on him. Bed full of panting turned-on megadork, glory be. "You picture me, pinning you down, shoving you over, shoving my dick into you?"

Brian arched up against him in a long beautiful wave, rubbing his dick against John's bare stomach where his shirts had ridden up. "Fuck yes."

"Well, I'm not going to," he said, "because I never did any of this shit before, and hell if I know what I'm doing."

Brian's eyes flew open. "You -- never --" he gasped, and then his hips jerked, and he was coming all over John -- inside the shirts, jesus, and much hotter than John expected.

"I hear there's therapy for guys with that problem," he said.

Brian opened his eyes. "Give me a break," he said, still breathing hard. "You just turned all my old fantasies inside-out. Jesus, I think I pulled something." He hauled at both shirts, and when John had shed them, he used them to scrub at John's stomach, like there was nothing at all weird about spunking all over another guy. "You never? Really?"

"Hard of hearing, too?" He flopped down to his side.

"Hey, I'm not complaining." He ran his fingers consideringly over John's stomach. "You'll like it," he said, grinning up at John. "Mostly it's not that different."

He laid one of those huge hands over John's open fly with a thumb tucked knowingly between John's balls and his leg, which was already very different. "Whatever you say, Einstein," John said.

He really would not have thought Brian's dorky smile could be quite so dirty. "See, an agreeable attitude like that will get you far," he said, and shoved John over on his back, and went to town.

He didn't bother with kissing his way down like a girl would, just shoved John's legs apart and lay down between them, and the next thing John felt was a big hot tongue on his balls.

"Shit!" Jesus, he was amazing. His mouth was everywhere, dipping into John's navel and swiping wetly up the crease of his leg and lapping a circle around the base of his dick, and wherever his mouth wasn't, his hands were, but somehow nothing was touching John in the spots that would make him come. "Christ -- please -- please -- Brian, jesus, do it!"

And Brian finally, finally stopped fucking around and went down. And down and down and way down -- jesus, John had figured Tracy Kunhardt was a freak of nature but she wasn't the only one, because here was little Brian the Dork with John's dick all the way down his throat. God, incredible, even when he pulled off and went at it with his hands it was still incredible, slurping away at John's balls and squeezing his cock until he had to, had to --

He came howling, heels drumming on the floor. A couple minutes later he was still gasping for breath, and Brian had slid off to kneel on the floor, sucking in air and clearing his throat. John unclenched his fist from Brian's shaggy hair and then propped himself up on his elbows and looked down at him.

"Jesus," he said. "Sorry."

"What for?" Brian boosted himself up beside him, grinning this goofy grin, and John remembered him in detention clipping a pen onto his lower lip. Maybe Freud wasn't completely full of shit.

"You liked that, huh?" Brian was looking way too smug. And hard again, too, so he must have enjoyed it himself.

"Yeah, it's not unpleasant for me to have my dick sucked. Shocking, I know." Normally he'd be falling asleep by now, but he had the feeling that was just what Brian was expecting him to do. He dragged Brian back onto the mattress. "What do you like?"

Brian pushed his cock up against John's hip, which was, jesus, weird; John shifted to get his still-oversensitive cock out of range and jammed a thigh between Brian's legs instead, and Brian sighed and said, "This, yeah, I like this."

And he really did look like he could get off just like this, but John had a dawning suspicion that the goal here was to do something that didn't require John to get either his hands or his mouth involved, and his dignity demanded that he object to this.

"Right, don't scare the straight guy? Fuck that," he said, and grabbed his first feel of another guy's cock.

"Not -- a contest, John," Brian said, and then he bit his lip and gasped, pushing up into John's hand.

John hadn't really looked at Brian yet. Skinny, still. Hairier than John would have expected, but blond so it didn't show up so much. Flushed all the way down his neck and the top of his chest, blotchy and painful-looking -- and he opened his eyes and grinned, and John grinned back and jacked him harder.

"Oh, yeah," Brian said, and it looked like he was trying to keep his eyes open but couldn't quite manage it because it felt too good.

"Yeah," John growled, getting into it. "Come on."

"Oh, christ, Bender," Brian whispered, and came.

It wasn't too bad, feeling another guy's spunk. It was actually kind of hot.

Afterwards he hunted up a kitchen match and lit it on his teeth just to watch that little flare of admiration on Brian's face -- it had been a while since he'd impressed anybody but bored North Shore housewives.

"Don't you know that stuff will stunt your growth?" Brian said.

"Done all my growing already," John said around a mouthful of smoke. He offered the cigarette to Brian, who took one puff and handed it back, like just to be polite. John expected him to choke, but he didn't.

"Your mommy would be shocked at the skills you're picking up at that school," he said.

Brian snickered. He hadn't even bothered to cover up. It hadn't seemed too weird to have a naked guy blowing him, but it was very weird to have one talking to him. He averted his eyes, looking up at the spiderweb that was still hanging around in the corner of his ceiling.

"Hope we don't get any more snow," Brian said. John sneaked a look, and Brian was looking at the ceiling, too. "I've got a long drive back to Boston tomorrow."

"Better get a good night's sleep, then." Dark this time of year, but it was early yet. "Want a shower before you go home to Mommy and Daddy smelling like a goat farm?"

When Brian was all dressed and brushed and re-dorkified, John blew a smoke ring at him and said, "See you 'round," and Brian bit his lip and stuck his hands in his pockets and slouched out the door.

In the shower John discovered his cheeks and his stomach and his inner thighs all had tender spots. "Must be allergic to dweebs," he said to the mirror.

He was halfway through a power steering flush when a thought hit him and he went hot all over. "Hey, you all right, John?" Dejuan said. "You're kind of a funny color."

Beard burn, he thought. After a minute he said to Dejuan, "Yeah, I'm all right."

So that was it, then. January was slow, and John poked the memory over and over like a sore tooth. He had had sex with Brian the Brain, and it had been good sex, and his dick hadn't fallen off, and he hadn't mysteriously developed the desire to wear eyeliner or suck off teenage delinquents in the men's room at Union Station.

Not that John sat home and pined. He nailed Michelle Arnesen the day she quit as the garage's receptionist, and when he tried the biting thing on her, she was most appreciative. And it was kind of a relief to discover that pussy still turned him on, that breasts still did something for him, that he hadn't just made up his whole enjoyment of the female sex out of some sort of pathetic conformity.

On the other hand, Brian had gotten off on giving head, almost literally, and he had to admit he kind of missed that.

There were at least two gay bars in Shermer, and if he saw anybody he knew there, they'd be just as incriminated as he was, but he drove into Chicago and went to Clark Street instead.

He walked up and down the street considering his options. He was not going to any fucking drag bar, or any place with a lavender foil curtain, or any place with a stupid name, or any place that guys came out of in leather pants.

Finally he found a place that looked just like a normal bar. He paced back and forth across the street for an hour, until he couldn't even feel his toes any more, and then he crossed, falling unconsciously into his old Bender walk, coat flapping in the icy wind.

As he got close to the door, a couple of guys came out. Just regular-looking guys, one still in his work clothes and one in jeans and a big down coat and a White Sox hat. The suit guy put his arm casually over the down coat guy's shoulders and left it there.

John spun on his heel and went back to the car.

He didn't even know if Brian was coming back to Shermer. For all he knew, the guy would get a summer job in Boston, doing whatever it was that dweebs did for money.

He wondered if Brian was back in Boston using his Bender imitation to score some dork ass.

John looked at other guys. Sometimes they looked pretty good to him. He got caught once, and had to take the offensive pretty fast.

"What?" John said loudly.

"Mm?" said the new mechanic, a stocky Brazilian guy with a gold hoop in each ear. He didn't look anything like -- well, anybody John knew.

"You're looking at me." He put as much menace in it as he could, but he was out of practice. Plus it was in the back of his mind that the guy had been looking at John, which was how he'd caught John looking at him, and that maybe he wouldn't follow the script and deny it -- maybe he'd say, Yeah, so? I can look at you if I want. Maybe I like looking at you. And then what?

What he said, though, was, "Sorry, man."

You idiot, Bender, he said to himself. You'd think you were disappointed.

In April, they got an old lady customer who had totally burned out the engine of her Cadillac. It turned out that there'd been a slow leak she hadn't noticed, because checking the oil had been Harold's job, and Harold had died a year ago Easter.

John had to basically rebuild the entire engine, and when he was done he got the little old lady leaning under the hood and said, "Look, a full-service gas station should check your oil for you, but those guys are lazy bums who won't do anything unless you tell them, so, look, this here's your dipstick, right?"

She wrote Wysocki a letter, in which she called John a "nice young man, a breed I had thought all but extinct," and he thought, jesus, my luck -- I just rescued a goddamned English teacher.

Wysocki had enough sense to know better than to make a big deal of it. He just handed the letter to John and said, "Put it on the wall behind the coffee machine, will you? Sometimes the new guys need some inspiration."

One spring day, John came back from coffee break to find a Mustang II so greasy with Armor-All that you could smell it through the open window. He was wondering who would drive such a thing when he heard the familiar voice of Dick Vernon through the shop door.

"And do it right, because if you cut corners I will know, Pedro, you comprende? And I will go across the street to North Shore Motors so fast it will make your head spin."

Serve him right if he did. The yuppies over there wore ties like they were salesmen, and they were smooth, but they had no skills -- people that Wysocki turned down because they were all talk went over there and impressed the yuppie customers and kept everything for a week and fell all to pieces if they were faced with anything more complicated than a flush-and-fill, and then eventually their screw-ups came over here for John and the rest to fix.

Carlinhos said, "Yes, sir," and refrained from rolling his eyes -- you got customers like that sometimes, and everybody knew that the best you could do was restrict your conversation to yes sir and no sir and escape into the work area as quick as you could, and definitely not point out that anybody who looked at a name tag that said Carlinhos ought to be able to figure out that he wasn't talking to a Mexican.

"If you'll take a seat, I'll be back in a few minutes with your estimate, sir," Carlinhos said, and then Vernon turned around and caught sight of John, and his beady little eyes just lit up.

"Well, well, well." His wardrobe had finally left the seventies behind, but it hadn't quite caught up to the present day -- he had on heavily overstitched jeans and probably the last Members Only jacket in the free world -- and his hairline had receded considerably, but the tan and the sneer remained. "If it isn't John Bender, my very favorite dropout." He looked around to make sure he had an audience, making especially sure to catch the eye of Becky, the new receptionist. "I'm surprised to see you working, Bender. I thought you'd be in jail by now. But I'm gratified to see that you've confounded all expectations and become a contributing member of society."

He went over and leaned over the top of Becky's high desk. "Please tell me he sweeps the floor and makes the coffee. I certainly hope you're not letting him touch any of the cars." He smoothed back what was left of his hair in a move he'd probably learned from watching Miami Vice. "I'm assistant principal of John's high school, so I know what he's capable of. The very little he's capable of. You'd be surprised what a good biography you can piece together from a student's personal files."

Becky hadn't encountered this level of malice yet in her five weeks on the job, and the poor girl was blushing and stammering. John took pity on her and drew fire. "I promise I won't lay a hand on your car, sir," he said, and then Carlinhos took pity on him and stuck his head in through the work area door and said, "John? Got a second?" so that he could get out of the reception area and look around for something to kick that wasn't either expensive, useful, or tougher than he was.

"You want me to piss on his upholstery for you?" Carlinhos said. "Pedro. Jesus fucking christ."

"Nah," John said. "It would just bead up and run off." There was a purple plastic cassette box on the passenger seat, and he flipped it open -- he hadn't promised not to touch the contents of the car -- and discovered a wonderland of crap. K-Tel seduction collections, Barry White, Lou Rawls, the Tijuana fucking Brass.

"Want to bet he's named the car?" Carlinhos said from under the hood. "Want to bet it's a girl's name?"

The door clicked shut and Becky came in to pick up the estimate. "John, what did you do to him? He's absolutely obsessed with you. He's spent this whole time telling me everything you ever said and did when you were in high school."

"Hey, I'm a fascinating guy. Everybody thinks so."

Vernon stuck his head in, and John ducked out of sight. "Don't be bumping up the charge, missy," he said to Becky. "I know what things cost, don't think I don't."

"Oh, sir, we can't have customers back here. We'll lose our insurance." Becky hurried over and took his arm. "And I'd just hate it if anything got on your jacket."

The sad thing was, the guy was probably convinced that he'd filled John and Carlinhos with healthy respect and Becky with uncontrollable desire.

"Poor Becky," Wysocki said through the open door of his office. "It would probably be easier on her if you could find a problem that required keeping the car overnight, Carlinhos. Can you manage that?"

Carlinhos grinned. "I'm insulted you have to ask."

Brian came back on a slow day at the end of May. John was trying to add up his hours in his head and figure out if he had the money to buy a bigger television this month, and he looked right at Brian for a second without seeing him, and then his brain caught up with him and he blushed like an idiot.

Brian actually hugged him, right in front of everybody. Granted, it was a guy hug, complete with back pounding to knock the queer cooties off, but John liked it more than he wanted to and was inclined to be touchy. "Hey, hey," he said, and backed off out of reach.

Brian didn't even look hurt. He looked at John closely, like he was asking him something without words. What? Did I turn you queer? Are you going to beat me up? Did you miss me?

It was possible John would have had an easier time reading Brian's face if he could have made himself look at Brian's eyes rather than his mouth.

"I've got to do the family thing tonight," Brian said. "You working tomorrow?"

Now, that, that right there, that was an invitation. If he said no to it, he could say no to all of it. No, I'm happy being normal, thanks just the same.

"I get off at noon," he said instead. He resisted the temptation to lower his voice, since there was nothing that would get these nosy fucks' attention faster. "Want to come by?"

"Yeah." Brian might have been blushing, or it might have been John's imagination.

"You remember the way?" Funny how everything had a double meaning now.


He very carefully did not watch Brian go out the door, but he watched Becky watching Brian. "Your friend's cute, don't you think?" she said.

He shrugged. "If you like that kind of thing."

An oil change turned out to be an oil leak, and he was half an hour late getting out. As soon as he came around the corner he could see Brian, pacing back and forth in front of his apartment and talking to himself, waving his hands even. It looked like quite an involved conversation, possibly even an argument, but as soon as Brian spotted him, he stopped instantly, and stuck his hands in his jeans pocket, and hunched his shoulders.

He was nervous.

He couldn't even make a decent pretense at not being nervous.

The old Benderish reaction was still there, underneath the surface layer of responsible adulthood -- you see weakness, your reflexes and heartbeat speed up, your senses sharpen, your muscles tense. All the glorious anticipation of a fight. He could feel his stride changing, center of gravity dropping, balance shifting to the balls of his feet.

And, yeah, there'd always been something like arousal thrumming behind it, but now it was all arousal. Oh, yeah.

Brian saw him then, and John's heightened hunting senses showed him the momentary freeze reaction even before he was close enough to see the uncertainty on Brian's face, the nervous bobbing of his adam's apple. When John's hand moved, Brian's came up instinctively, and so it was in exactly the right place when the keys hit it, and his long fingers closed around them.

"In the house, dorkboy," John said, low and promising, and jeez, he could smell Brian from here -- who knew Brian had his own smell, never mind that he could miss it, that it would make him hard. "In the house now," he said, "unless you want me to blow you on the porch."

Brian tripped over his own feet, he turned around so fast, and he screwed up opening the door every way possible for a human being of allegedly above-average intelligence -- wrong key, wrong way in, right way in but turned the wrong way -- until John peered around at his face to see if he was stoned or something, at which point Brian left the keys dangling from the lock and shoved him against the side wall of the porch and kissed him, first fast and hard and then slow and thorough.

Christ. Nobody had ever shoved John up against anything except to threaten him, but it turned him on like crazy to have Brian the dork casually pinning him to Mrs. Verhoeven's porch wall and making a three-course meal of him. John grabbed Brian's ass in both hands, because there was no sense in half-doing things, plus it felt great, not to mention the way it made Brian gasp and grind him into the wall, and then he decided feeling Brian's hard-on against his hip wasn't as good at feeling it in his hand, and Brian panted so nicely then that he just slithered down to his knees.

"Bender!" Brian whispered, and then, "Shit! Shit, John, don't --" as awareness of where he was returned.

"I told you," John said. Brian had on khakis, big baggy things, and John put his left hand on his cock through the fly and just left it there while his right hand got the zipper and button undone. "You're the one who can't manage to unlock a door." The khakis nearly fell down when he started peeling down Brian's white jockeys, and Brian made a shocked noise and grabbed them by the pocket, where they hung, sagging from his white-knuckled fist, while John got the white elastic down his hips.

Brian's cock was seriously hard, a testament more to anticipation than to any skill of John's, and John stared at it for a moment. He'd never seen one this close, or from this angle, and it was sort of a ridiculous-looking thing, really. He ran his thumb up the underside -- smooth dry skin, hotter than he expected -- and above him Brian's breath went in in a loud sudden rush, and came out in a breathless "John, hurry!"

No further arguments about "not here," John noted with a smile, and he ran his tongue up the same path his thumb had taken.

How many of Brian's dork buddies had done this to him? Maybe John should have done some practicing while Brian was in Boston, because usually if he couldn't do something better than everybody else, he didn't care to do it at all. Why expose yourself to ridicule? But on the other hand, it smelled like Brian down here and also like sex, and as a guy he totally understood that sex was like pizza in that even when it was bad it was still pretty good, and before Brian could catch his breath or remember that he'd been arguing for privacy, John was all over him, licking his cock all over.

Christ, it turned him on, and that surprised the hell out of him. It wasn't just listening to Brian pant and squeak and try to keep quiet, and it wasn't just imagining how it would feel if Brian were doing this to him -- which he probably would, later on. It was the hot rounded crown rolling smoothly over his tongue, Brian trying so hard not to move his hips and his hand holding up his pants and the other hand spread out on the porch wall behind him like he'd like to dig his fingers right into the vinyl siding. "God, oh, god," he whispered, and swallowed convulsively -- and John backed off a little, loosening the hold of his mouth, taking his hands off Brian's balls and smoothing them over his hips instead, and he thought, I could keep you here like this as long as I felt like it. Till the sun came up, if I wanted to. I could wait till Mrs. Verhoeven came home, and I could make you come just as her headlights swept over the porch, and jesus, that was hot, that power, hot enough that he couldn't keep teasing but had to give it everything he had all at once, and above his head Brian went, "Oh, fuck, Bender," and pushed him off.

"What the fuck?" But Brian was rubbing his cock, frantically, his hand bumping John's on every downstroke, and John watched, turned on as all fuck, while Brian shuddered and gasped and came messily all over his shirt and his hand. "God," he sighed. "So good," and was still putting out little spurts that ran down his fingers.

I wanted that in my mouth, John thought. What the hell is happening to me?

Brian was trying to haul his underwear up without dropping his khakis or causing himself major pain. "You are insane," he said with as much rancor as a person could generate this soon after coming.

John stood up and turned the key with some of his old Bender flourish, even though one of his knees didn't want to straighten out. "This is news to you, genius?" he said, and opened the door.

"I would have written you." Brian's mouth was even pinker than usual, and he was taking up way more than half of John's pillow. John figured in about half an hour they'd be able to do it again. "Or called, whatever, but you've got these, these rules. I didn't know, I didn't know what you'd put up with. I didn't know if you'd hang up on me." On 'up' his voice squeaked.

John ran his hand over Brian's shoulder, over his ribs and his hip and down his long hairy thigh and his knobby knee. The temptation to say something sappy was almost overwhelming.

"I missed you," Brian said plaintively, burrowing closer.

John put his arm around Brian's shoulders and put his face in Brian's hair, which smelled like drugstore shampoo and coffee. "Yeah," he whispered. "Yeah."

John had never actually had a long-term relationship, unless you counted his arrangement with Debbie Lugner, which had been more like, "Yeah, come on over any time, unless I have an early shift tomorrow or I'm seeing somebody who actually lives in town." He surprised himself by kind of liking it.

Brian didn't come around to the shop all that often -- every couple of weeks, a frequency finely calibrated so it didn't look like he was ashamed of John or scared of his co-workers, but not often enough that they got to expect him or think of him as John's best friend or anything. Mostly Brian met him at the house after dinner, or called him up and told him to save a table at Pucci's, and he'd come straight from the el station still in the clothes he wore to his summer internship at Chicago Edison, tie with a short-sleeve shirt like the dork he was.

And, see, John wasn't turned on by him in his work clothes. John actually thought he looked ridiculous. Either he had no sense of style at all or his mommy still bought his clothes. But it was weirdly endearing just the same.

Plus he didn't end up keeping them on most of the time, because pretty much every night they ended up screwing in John's apartment till Brian got up at midnight and put on his wrinkled clothes and went back home to spend the rest of the night in his single bed under his old Albert Einstein poster.

And that was another thing: It was the first time in his entire life that he'd ever had as much sex as he wanted, and it was amazing the difference that made in his outlook. He was so totally relaxed that he was hardly himself, so relaxed that he couldn't believe nobody noticed, but evidently either he'd been faking it better than he'd thought or nobody paid that much attention to him.

Brian noticed. Brian looked at him melted all over the sheets and totally fucked out, so relaxed he could hardly lift his head, and he grinned this big smug grin and said, "Sweet dreams, John," all singsong, so that John really had to pull together the energy to flip him off as he backed out the bedroom door.

It was different going to bed with Brian, but he wasn't sure how much of that was him being a guy, and how much was that he'd hardly ever liked the girls he'd fucked, really. Or anyway, if he had, it had always seemed sort of beside the point, which was that they had something they couldn't give to everybody, and he wanted to be the one that got it because that meant some other guy didn't, and so he won.

When he thought about it like that, some of the names they'd called him started making more sense to him.

One thing that was different was that Brian was taller than he was, and rougher than any girl, or rough in a different way. A girl might scratch or pull his hair -- he'd always liked that -- but Brian, though he was no heavyweight, could, when he wanted to, bodily heft John from one position to another -- could flip him and pin him to where he couldn't shake him off, at least not without a serious application of strength, which probably shouldn't have turned him on the way it did.

There were more options with a guy, too, which at first he found kind of irritating -- at a certain point, he just wanted to roll over and put his dick someplace warm, not think about what to do.

It was odd, though not unprecedented, not to be the most experienced person in the bed, and he didn't know which pissed him off more, the way Brian was extra careful like anything too queer would send him running for the hills, or the way he was kind of right.

The thing that made him say yes to doing the queerest of all queer things, finally, was that the thought came into his head: "Bender doesn't take it up the ass," and as soon as he thought that, he shoved back against Brian's hand and muttered, "Yeah, yeah," because Bender was a loser like his old man, and whatever Bender didn't do, John did, by definition. Q.E.D., like the math dorks said.

And Brian, being the good little gay boy he was, didn't do anything just then, but afterwards he said, "You want to try it?" and John said, "I said so, didn't I?" and Brian said, "You sure? 'Cause I'm good like this," and John said, "What, scared, Johnson?" and Brian rolled his eyes and said, "And thank you for dragging everything down to the peer-pressure level," and that was the end of that conversation.

First thing Brian did was drag him into the shower and stick a soapy finger up his ass and give him a blow job that probably broke several laws of physics, so intense that after the first couple of seconds John didn't really even register his finger as a separate sensation. The second thing he did was insist on the two of them drying off and going to Walker Brothers for breakfast right then, even though John hated the preppy-infested place. The third thing he did, when they came home smelling like maple syrup, was fuck John with two spit-slick fingers while John held both their cocks in his hand, and that time he did feel it, indescribably dirty, like he was getting away with something; he'd never realized he squeezed when he came, but with something in there it was amazing.

The third time Brian did him with fingers and nothing else, John gave him the good Bender shit-eye. "Is this some kind of technique, Bri-an? Did you read this in a book or something?"

Brian blushed and said, "Well, sort of -- I figure it's less likely to hurt you."

John said, "You think I'm scared of a little pain?"

Brian blushed more and said, "And I like, you know, getting you out in public and looking at you, you know? Looking at you and knowing that any day now --"

John rubbed his hair. "You want to put 'Property of Brian Johnson' on my ass, that make you happy?"

Brian groped him. "Yeah, right here --"

So by the time he actually did it, days later, he'd as good as trained John to where a couple of fingers up his ass meant "Come your brains out."

Hurt, just the same. "Ow, shit, stop it, you fucker, that hurts," and Brian said irritably, "Jeez, I told you, but you had to be macho," but he didn't stop, and John hadn't gotten through half his list of names before he realized that it was done.

In some ways it was actually less weird than fingers -- it didn't bend -- and then Brian said in a shaky voice, "Move when you're ready," and he pushed back and felt a bloom of something he couldn't even describe coming up through the pain.

Brian rocked in him for a long time, hardly moving, whispering things that got him hard all over again when he remembered them later. He was only halfway there when Brian lost it, and when Brian sucked him afterwards, his fingers felt weirdly small, and John gasped, "Please -- please -- give me another one -- "

While it was happening, it was all nerve endings and gasping breaths and too fast to think. Afterwards he had a surge of adrenaline, like he'd had the time he car-surfed on the hood of Mitchell's Mustang all the way up Dempster and taken a flying leap onto the guardrail. Cheated death, fucked the rules, grabbed what he wanted, won! because assholes like his old man would beat the shit out of somebody for even suggesting this, but he could have it. And survive.

Brian rolled over and looked at him closely, like John's manic grin wasn't reassuring him. "You OK?" he asked.

John took him by the back of the neck and stuffed his head under his arm, muffling his laughing protests, and said, "How soon can you do it again?"

It had been the Bender policy always to be the person who cared the least. Who didn't care at all, if he could manage it. If you wanted something, then somebody had the power to control you by giving it to you or taking it away; if you wanted to be free, you had to not give a shit.

Obviously it was different with guys. Nobody'd ever told Brian he was a slut if he fucked anybody he wasn't in love with, so he didn't need to kid himself about what this was. He didn't have to have compliments, promises, public demonstrations of ownership.

"You need it?" he said once, when he'd already come and was using this advantage to tease the everloving hell out of John. "Need me to do something for you?"

"Don't -- need -- shit," John said between gasps, shoving his cock up against Brian's cheek and jaw and neck in a vain effort to get it back into his mouth.

Brian gave him an amused look and said, "Whatever you say, John," and sucked him down again about five seconds before he would have had to beg.

The first thunderstorm of the fall came early, barely into August. The rain hit the window like handfuls of rocks while John leaned his folded arms on the sill and Brian fucked him slowly from behind until he couldn't speak, until he laid his face on the cool pane and watched his breath plume out in fog, and plume out again, faster than it could fade, and Brian called him Bender the way he always did when he was coming.

Afterwards Brian flopped back on the mattress with the condom still hanging stupidly from his dick and said, "Christ, I'm going to miss this."

The wave of rage he felt surprised him. It was a Benderish rage, blind and heedless and suicidal, the kind that made him want to fuck up everything in the universe, including himself. Especially himself.

In his head he could clearly hear five or six separate things he could say that would guarantee that Brian would never come back, would spend these last three weeks going straight home to his parents' house every night, walking a couple of blocks out of his way to avoid passing either Wysocki's shop or John's apartment on the way home from the train. Make him flush and flinch and stammer the way he used to in school. Hell, with just the right words, John could probably make him cry.

He didn't say any of them. He smoked a cigarette in feverish haste while Brian lay on the mattress and watched him with an unreadable expression, and then he got on the mattress and threw a leg over Brian's chest and said, "Suck me."

He wasn't even hard again yet, but it didn't take too long. He came all over Brian's chest and then jacked Brian with it, and there were a couple of seconds, looking at Brian's face when he came, when the urge to break something faded out.

Nothing he did could stop it coming back, though.

"I'm not expecting anything, you know, exclusive," Brian said the next night, after a fuck so fast that he'd never managed to get his left leg out of his jeans.

"The fuck?" John sat up, overturning the ashtray that had been lying on his chest. "Oh, because Bender will stick his dick in any hole he sees, right? Because the underclass just want to fuck like bunnies, right?"

Brian blinked at him. "Maybe I want to fuck like bunnies," he said mildly. "You have these fits often?"

"Maybe you ought to just stick with your little Boston boyfriends," John said. "Maybe you ought to bring one of them home with you and introduce him to your mommy and daddy, because I'm just the guy that sucks your cock and fixes your car."

Brian blinked uncomprehendingly at him. "You want to meet my family?"

"You trust me with your little sister?" He grinned a humorless grin. "You shouldn't."

"Look, just out with it," Brian said, not even mad, just impatient. "You want me to blow off my senior year at MIT to stick around Shermer fucking you?"

"Right, genius, that's exactly what I want. Because all this time you've been fucking a teenage girl without noticing."

Jesus, he hated that knowing look.

"John -- I'd come back. If you wanted me to."

"Right, because what I want is to be a good little menial and wait around for my fucking boyfriend to come home from college. You wanna give me your class ring to remember you by? Sign my yearbook?"

The thing you learned, when you grew up with an asshole who would haul off and deck you for anything or nothing, was that the one thing you could control was the timing. You could end the suspense at any time. It didn't take much to make him hit you, and then you were in control.

So now it was like the whole universe was his old man. Since the blow was coming anyway, why not call it down now?

Either that or he was screwing himself out of three weeks of really good sex for no good reason.

Still, at least this way he'd spare himself the indignity of another time of watching Brian leave, waking up on crusty sheets not knowing whether he wanted to jerk off or vomit.

"Maybe what I want is for you to get the hell out," he said through lips that felt numb. "Maybe I'm ready for my queer summer to be over so I can get on with my life."

Brian unfolded himself from the mattress, not looking either angry or cowed but just kind of puzzled. He raised his hand, and John tensed to slap away any kind of caress, but instead Brian tapped his skull like it was a door. "What on earth is going on in there?"

The pure goofy dorkiness of it deflated John. "You don't want in my head, Dr. Livingston," he said wearily. "It's all fucked up in there."

"Yeah," Brian said, and when his hand opened up to cup John's cheek, John turned his face into the touch. "Join the crowd."

If he'd hoped that Brian would come by again before he took off for Boston, he would have been disappointed.

But he'd never hope for anything that stupid.

So now he was free. Not that he hadn't been free before. Not that he couldn't have fucked anybody he wanted to, if he hadn't been getting so much that he had no desire to go trawling for more.

What he discovered was that there really wasn't any challenge to getting a girl to sleep with him now. She'd look him over and decide then and there if she wanted him, and if the answer was yes, it wasn't unusual to find that out by having her drag him out by the belt loops or tuck a condom in his shirt pocket.

The problem came afterwards, when she either said, "Thanks, sweetie," and refused to give him her number because she never did the same boy twice, or, if he saw her again, she pretty much took it for granted that they were dating, or in other words moving towards seriousness and houses and taking him to dinner with her parents. "Because I'm twenty-two," one girl said when she broke off a relationship he hadn't really been aware he was in. "I got all my messing around out of my system in college."

After the second time this happened, he lost enthusiasm for the whole thing. He couldn't really even say he didn't want a relationship, because he remembered how if felt and it was good, better than squinting through the smoke trying to guess by looks alone which girl wasn't a psycho and wouldn't start talking about babies day after tomorrow and wouldn't take money out of his wallet, or come back to his house and sit on the porch waiting for him, or burst into shrieks for no discernible reason, or call her mother on his phone without putting clothes on first.

But he didn't want a relationship with any of them.

The slick and the last two condoms stayed shoved between the head of the mattress and the wall. John's hands touched them in his sleep sometimes and woke him up with fury barely covering his yawning loneliness.

Dejuan left to open up his own place down in South Carolina, and Wysocki hired some scrawny rat of a kid named Chris who was barely literate and about one step up from homeless. John and Carlinhos worked a lot of overtime in the time it took the kid to decide whether he was going to bolt or stick around and grow up.

It was OK, though. Carlinhos said about two words an hour, but they worked together like four hands with one brain. The money was good. And it wasn't like John had anything else to do with his evenings.

The first job they let the kid touch was this weird little electric-blue thing like the dune buggy from a Matchbox Car set, with a set of handcuffs dangling from the rearview mirror. "Done by noon, sweetheart, or not a penny," said the guy in the tanktop who dropped it off, and Chris banged around in the back room hissing, "Fucking cocksucker faggot."

"Hey," Wysocki said, sliding back his rolling chair so he could look at them out through the office door. "Let's not have any of that kind of language in my shop."

"The guy really was being an asshole to him, Wy," John said, because the kid was a little rodent, but fair was fair.

"Now, that's different," Wysocki said, "Calling a customer an asshole is a God-given right guaranteed to Chris by the Constitution. Calling a customer a faggot will cause Chris to lose a very good job."

John looked straight at the far wall, breathing fast and shallow through his nose, because, fuck, what did Wysocki know? And then the kid muttered, "Right, sorry," and John looked at his red ears, and suddenly it all made sense, and he wanted to laugh. Jesus, what was the guy doing, running a shelter for bent delinquents or something? He didn't even have to wonder about Carlinhos; that question was answered as soon as it was asked. How the hell did Wysocki know?

And then that question answered itself, too.

Jesus, Wysocki. Some guy wanted Wysocki? Even though he was old and sweaty and shaped like an ice-cream cone with a head?

Shit, what a bunch they were.

Still better than those yuppie scum over at North Shore Motors, though.

All through December he half expected to see Brian, but Brian didn't come around. John took a different route to work to stay off his street, just in case.

In March a Miata pulled up and let out a really hot redhead, and John ogled her from the back room and then choked on his Coke when he realized it was his cousin Angie.

He was still coughing when she spotted him, but he could see her eyes getting big.

"Johnny?" She took a couple of running steps and gave him a great big Eternity-scented hug. Damn it, somebody with tits like this would have to be blood kin, wouldn't she? "When they stopped talking about you, Ma figured either jail or the Marines, you know?"

"Man, Ange, you grew up!" Last time he'd seen her she'd been all skinny and pizza-faced. And definitely not a redhead.

She grinned, and then she pulled over a big tall fat guy with a shaved head and a huge gold chain around his neck, just like a rapper only white. "This is my fiance," she said, squeezing the guy's arm. "Mason, this is my cousin Johnny, feast your eyes, a Bender with a job! Johnny, you've just got to come to the wedding. I want to see Ma shit herself."

He didn't offer Mason his hand in case there was some kind of secret handshake he was supposed to know about. He wrote down his address for her on the back of an invoice sheet so she could send him the invitation.

"You got a girlfriend you want me to invite?" Angie said. He shook his head. "I'll just send it to 'and guest,' then."

Wysocki took two days off that spring, which was so unprecedented that it was all they could talk about.

"Think he's sick or something?" Chris said.

"He never gets sick," John said.

"He's old, though," Carlinhos said. "He's got to be at least sixty."

"When he retires, we're screwed," said Chris, who was still ill at ease about his place in the world, probably because he could never remember to reconnect the damned radio antenna without somebody reminding him.

John looked at Carlinhos and found Carlinhos looking at him. "When he retires," Carlinhos said slowly, and John nodded and said, "Think we could save enough in five years to buy him out?"

It was another slow day in May, and John was staring idly into space. He stood up when he saw a silver Honda drive up to North Shore Motors.

It was stupid. There were probably five thousand silver Hondas in Shermer alone. The whole point of a silver Honda was that there was nothing special about it, nothing to make it stand out.

Still, he had a feeling.

"Going out for a bit," he shouted at Wysocki's office, and he didn't even wait for Wysocki's grunt of acknowledgment before he was out the door, jaywalking across Dempster in the easy pre-lunch traffic.

The license plate said BRAIN. It was just way too easy.

He leapt lightly onto the hood and lay back against the windshield, crossing his arms. Like a lot of Bender poses, it had the advantage of looking totally relaxed and of being such an outrage that it put the other person at a disadvantage before a word was spoken.

It would have been good to be Bender. Bender would never be nervous, because Bender didn't give a shit.

Brian came out the door with Trip Braxton, which proved that he really didn't know anything about cars, because you could never trust your car to a guy with hands that clean. Brian was a step ahead, and when he spotted John, he stopped short so that Trip almost bumped into him.

John nodded at them both like he'd met them at a cocktail party. "So, Trip, I saw a customer of yours yesterday. Cherry-red Jag. Doesn't do any good to recharge the battery if you don't fix the alternator." He jumped off the hood, landing neatly in front of Brian, whose eyes widened a little. Good to know he still had what it took. "You know your license plate's got a typo, moron?" he said. "These guys can barely fill a gas tank. C'mon across the street. You don't have to let your car get fucked up."

"This is a whole new advertising direction for Shermer Import Auto," Trip smirked. "Do I have any other customers you'd like to poach?"

"Nope," John said. "Just this one. Personal friend."

Something in Brian went still for a second. "Thank you for your time," he said to Trip, and to John, "Get in. I'll give you a ride back over."

A car couldn't jaywalk. It was going to take Brian six blocks to travel the distance that John had walked in a minute and a half. The car hadn't been cleaned, and it smelled like a road trip, and there were empty Pringles cans and pop bottles rolling around on the floor. Brian's hands looked big and capable on the wheel.

If he'd thought Brian had expectations, he would have gone to hell and back to frustrate them. But Brian just put the car in gear, and braced a hand on John's seat as he backed out, and said, "So, how you been?" like he was perfectly willing to be John's "personal friend" now, no questions asked.

John slumped back against the slightly sticky seat and said, "Jesus, it's good to see your dorky face."

"I'm driving here, John." But Brian was sneaking little looks at him in between watching the road, and smiling with every part of his face except his mouth.

"Hey, look who I rescued from the clutches of Trip Braxton," John shouted to Carlinhos and Chris. "Fuel pump's iffy on this model, so watch out for that. I'm taking off. Brian and me got some catching up to do."

It was only when Brian was in John's car that uncertainty hit him, and he sat there a minute with the car running. "You wanna get a pizza?"

"Pizza's good." Brian was looking at his hands.

"Maybe Italian beef instead. You probably can't get good Italian beef in Boston."

"No, can't say I have."

His skin prickled with nervous sweat. He cleared his throat. "Or you could just come back to the house, get a beer, catch up a little."

Brian's head came up. "Yeah," he said in a hoarse voice. "Let's do that."

There were a hundred things crowding his mouth as he let Brian into his apartment, everything from How's it going? to Sometimes I dream about sucking your cock. "Brian," he said instead, voice a little scratchy.

"Miss me?" Brian said in what was probably supposed to be a light, casual tone.

"Fuck yes," John said, and grabbed Brian by his T-shirt, and pulled him close enough to kiss.

A biting, hungry kiss, and Brian kissed back just as hard, like he hadn't kissed anything for nine months, either. Nine fucking months without so much as hearing his voice on the phone, and shit, this hunger was way more than just his body, how could he have missed that? "Let's not do anything so fucking stupid ever again," he growled against Brian's mouth, and Brian muttered, "I won't if you won't," and that was all the talking that really needed doing. That was pretty much the whole thing in a nutshell.

John stripped him as best he could between ravenous kisses, got his own clothes off somehow or other, shoved him down on the mattress and came down on top of him, dizzy with the feel of his skin and still clawing like he could get closer.

Brian bent one knee and wrapped a leg around John's, and already he had John's ass in both hands, groping and squeezing, holding him open with one hand and strumming the fingers of the other over his hole, christ, where he didn't even touch himself because he didn't want anybody's hands there but Brian's. John's hips jerked, rubbing his cock along Brian's, and Brian's hands pulled him down harder.

"Let me fuck you," John gasped, so turned on he could hardly shape the words, and Brian made a high-pitched whining noise through his teeth and came all over him.

"Yes," he was saying even while his cock was still twitching and spitting against John's belly. "Yes. John. Please."

John dug the stuff out from the space between the mattress and the wall, rolling the condom on without looking away from Brian's scrawny body sprawled all over his mattress. Brian had bought the slick, last summer, their second batch, some fancy expensive stuff in a narrow clear bottle; John remembered getting a lecture about its superior qualities, half heard over the roaring in his ears and his own panting breath while Brian stroked it into him with his long blunt fingers.

His own hands were shaking a little, but Brian's cock twitched and lengthened as John rubbed a shiny circle of the stuff around his asshole, over and over until he couldn't stand it any more, had to put his fingers in, and Brian sighed and lifted his hips into the stroke.

"You done it this way?"

"Long time ago," Brian said. "I like it. I want you to."

"You'd better." He was taking two fingers with no trouble. "Christ, you're hot in there."

"John," Brian said, looking at him with great big eyes in his flushed face, and John turned his hand and crooked his fingers, searching. "Yes," Brian hissed, and John tried to give him a dangerous Bender smile, but his mouth didn't seem to work quite right.

As soon as he took his fingers out, Brian scooted over until his ass was balanced right on the edge of the mattress, which put him high enough that John would be able to kneel on the floor and get in him, and hooked a leg around John and urged him closer.

God. Hot. Tight. His hips shoved forward before he could stop them, and Brian's face contorted, eyes shut and mouth open, breathing fast. "Shit! Shit, Brian." He only had one hand clean, and he stroked Brian's face with it, pushed back his hair, rubbed a thumb over his eyelashes. "Sorry, sorry, sorry --"

"Just be still," Brian grated, and John held himself motionless, braced on his knees and one hand, for a small eternity until Brian took a deep breath and said, "Now."

Oh, fuck. In and in and all the way in, and Brian below him not looking tormented any more but just like he was concentrating, like he'd probably looked up in the library in Boston, frowning over his books. John couldn't be still, but he could go easy; he had that much control left. He rocked in and out in small slow motions, and Brian ran a hand up his arm and said, "You're doing good."

"I thought about this," he confessed breathlessly.

Brian took his cock in a loose grip, just playing, like he didn't even know he was doing it. "Yeah?"

"Yeah." He tried to match the rhythm of Brian's hand, making his strokes a little longer, a little slower, and Brian shivered under him. He didn't know how to tell him about it, how he'd imagined hurting him, pounding him, tearing him, how sometimes he'd tried to think about making Brian feel the way Brain had made him feel, rubbed and stroked inside and out, like every nerve was being stimulated at once, like his whole body was shivery and hollow with pleasure like a bell waiting to be struck.

"Me too," Brian said, and moved his hand faster. "I imagined everything."

The moment he matched Brian's new speed, he lost that stillness, sliding deep and fast into the hot grip of Brian's ass, hardly even able to draw breath.

"Oh, yeah," Brian said, and raised one leg to hook his knee over John's shoulder. Either his hand or the new angle finished him in a flurry of hard clenches that hit John like punches made of pleasure.

"Come on," Brian panted, still working his cock in his hand, making slippery noises. "John. Come on. Been wanting -- to see you come --"

"Brian," he groaned, and his whole body shook as he gave it up.

"Ow," Brian said afterwards, rubbing the inside of his knee.

"What?" There'd never been anyplace to put a condom, but that had always been Brian's problem, so he'd never known how irritating it was. He tied it off and lobbed it at a corner, where at least neither of them was likely to step on it. Thought about whether Brian would know what it meant if he went and bought a wastebasket.

"You bit me." Brian let his legs fall open. There was a big red bite mark on the inside of his thigh, just above the knee.

John grinned. "Didn't they tell you I was dangerous?"

Brian rolled his eyes. "Want to put your name on it, too, just to be sure?" He slid back until his head was on the pillow. "C'mere," he said in a softer voice, and John lay down in his arms.

God, it felt good. Brian wound them together from shoulders to feet, and slid his fingers into John's hair, and sighed like that was what he'd been wanting. "So what's new in your life?"

"Now he wants to catch up," John said to the pillow. "Nothing much. Fixing cars. Watching TV. Saving poor idiots from getting scalped at North Shore Motors."

"Mm." Brian went on playing with his hair. John ran his hand up through the reddish hair on Brian's chest and didn't say anything else. "Don't you want to know what's up with me?"

"Figured I could guess. Burning out your radiator. Diddling a slide rule with the other geeks."

"Graduating," Brian said. "Getting hired at DBK Tech."

John's hand went still for a second, and then he made it start moving again. "In Oak Park?"

"Yeah." He could hear a smile in Brian's voice. "I start the first of June. Gotta find an apartment and buy some suits."

John closed his eyes and spread out his hand to cover as much of Brian's chest as he could. One of Brian's hands came down on top of it. John finally felt like he was touching enough of him.

"Suits, huh." Angie's wedding invitation was still stuck in the window frame. "You got any plans for the twenty-second?"

Brian raised his head. "Not that I know of. Why?"

John pictured it. "John Bender And Guest." Good-looking young MIT graduate in a nice suit. Have to get him a tie with something dorky on it.

"I was thinking of using you to freak out my family."











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July 27, 2005