Chapter One

Wade Harrison stood on the West High School football field, a brown-haired, gray-eyed Adonis. He drew the attention of everyone in his proximity, male and female. He wasn't the best player on the varsity team, but he was easily the best looking and his presence exuded a comfortable grace and powerful charisma with little effort. Beneath the bright stars and cloudless night sky, his tall, muscular body looked almost ethereal, classic in his football whites. Most of the girls and women in the stands were riveted to this image of youthful masculinity. He showed signs of what promised to be the classic virility of an extraordinarily handsome man and they sighed over the vision. It was an attention he didn't acknowledge.

In fact, he didn't show the slightest bit of interest. Instead, the hair on the back of his neck stood on end from one set of blue eyes. With every fiber of his being, he was forcing himself to concentrate on the game. He had a responsibility to his teammates to play the game well and he was going to. He told himself that it didn't matter that Christian was up there, staring at him.

He knelt with the other players at the line of scrimmage and watched as Jonathan called a play. The adrenaline of play ran through his veins and he ran across the field near the offensive line and looked back for Jonathan's position. He pivoted past the defensive lineman and opened his arms for the catch. The ball slid into his hands with an easy force and he fixed his eyes on the end zone. His legs pumped furiously as he made for the touchdown, his heart pounding with each contact his feet made with the turf. A familiar feeling of elation filled him as he crossed the line and he ground his body to a halt. He felt euphoric and showed it by pumping his arms furiously, powerfully in the air. This was the one thing that he knew how to control.

A few seconds later, Jonathan and some other teammates slammed into him in joyous celebration. It was the first touchdown of the season and Wade let the feeling carry him away.

He had lasted this long without Christian.

Seventh grade had been so long ago. Christian wasn't like other boys. He didn't fit in well. With each step he took or movement of his arms, the difference was evident. So many things had changed in the space of five years, but one thing hadn't. He wasn't going to give in to the feelings that went through him every time he laid eyes on the boy. He was not gay. Senior year was just beginning and Wade was determined to live up to every expectation his father had for him.

At the back of the stands, Christian pulled his letterman's jacket closer and stared blankly at the group of celebrating guys down on the field. He should have known that Wade would start the season with the first touchdown. His eyes were like blue ice chips and his face was set in calculated blank lines. He didn't want anyone to read his thoughts, not that there was much risk of that. Everyone was too caught up in the game and no one was paying him the least bit of attention.

Christian wasn't the type to draw the eyes of the crowd the way Wade did. He was tall and muscular from his regular weight room sessions for the cross-country team, but he was as lean and hard as whipcord from the time he spent running. His blond hair was neatly trimmed, but thick, flowing and bright and his eyes were a shockingly clear blue.

When he looked in the mirror, he didn't see anything out of the ordinary. He was practically oblivious to his own charm. Still he knew what set him apart. It was the way he moved that made him stand out, with a fluid and piercing grace, like a dancer. It was the way he spoke that distinguished him, with a deep gentleness and softness that was almost restless.

In total silence and stillness, he could find anonymity and peace.

"Scoot over," his friend Lakiesha was back with two cups of hot chocolate. Christian looked up at her blankly for a moment, forgetting space and time.

"Chris, these are burning my fingers, move over," she complained and he remembered where he was and slid to the right. Lakiesha squeezed in beside him, a waft of some soft fragrance following her, and handed him a cup. "Where were you, in La-La Land?"

He had met her during freshmen year. On the track and field team, she was phenomenal. Her legs had drawn him, though not the way they would other men. She was like a giant horse, sculpted and swift. He had watched her race and been awed. He was never the type to reach out to others, but she had noticed his awe and approached him. The smile on her face had been genuine and bright. Christian could not turn away from her. Over that first year, their friendship had been sealed in so many ways.

"You're gay," she had said, during their first sleepover, out of the blue.

"How can you tell?" he asked, blinking, uncertain and scared. Was it written on him in some weird script for everyone to see?

"You can just tell, Chris," she said slowly, afraid to offend.

He digested this information gradually, numb and wanting to deny it. She lay her head against his shoulder and the warmth of her body seeped into the chill of his.

"Does everybody know?" he asked, after a moment.

"Yeah, I think so," she said slowly. He didn't know how to feel.

"Do you mind?" he asked.

"About you being gay?" she lifted her head slightly.

"Yeah," he said, waiting.

"No," she said. "I don't mind." Just like that. She settled back against his shoulder and he put an arm around her. It was the first time he had reached out to touch her.

"Why don't you mind?" he asked and she sighed softly.

"I don't mind because I think it's cool that you're gay," she said. "I don't think there's anything wrong with it. Some people are straight and some people are gay. Get over it."

He held her for a few more minutes and thought about what she had said. He wondered for a moment why God had given him someone like Lakiesha. Someone who accepted and loved him unconditionally.

"So, people think I'm gay," he mused, sensing the eventuality of it all and she lifted her head.

"Well, not everybody does," she informed him. "Take my father for instance. He says you have to sleep on the couch. He doesn't want you to try anything with me." She started giggling and Chris followed suit. It was the first time he had really laughed in three years.

Back in the present, he sipped the hot chocolate slowly and glanced at the players on the field.

"So, we got a touchdown," she said, blowing on the hot brown liquid at the rim of her cup.

"Big surprise," Christian said stiffly. Lakiesha glanced away from him. He was in one of his moods again. The kind that she was never able to understand and afraid to pry into. There were some things he held back from her, even after she had proven herself in so many ways. She gave him a little more space and stared at the game.

Christian could sense her withdrawal. He hated it when he hurt her this way, but he didn't know how to stop doing it. There were some times when he thought that he was useless to the whole world. He reached out an arm and pulled her closer to him and she sat up straight and stiff for a moment. He kneaded her shoulder with his hand and she slowly relaxed. She sipped her hot chocolate.

"Do you wanna go home?" she asked and he shook his head. He was supposedly there to take some pictures for the yearbook. He had gotten plenty of good shots already and run out of film. Yearbook had only been an excuse to see Wade.

"After the game, can we stop at Frankie's?" she asked. Christian nodded. Frankie's was the only place where he could make her eat anything besides carrot sticks or lettuce. She couldn't resist their thick milkshakes or homemade cheeseburgers.

"Can you believe school starts tomorrow?" Christian grumbled lightly and she laughed, completely relaxed again.

"I just can't believe Mannie's gone for good," she said with a half frown and Christian sighed.

"Yeah," he said softly, quietly not agreeing. Mannie had been something like royalty to Lakiesha and poison to Christian. He was a Vietnamese and black boy two years and one grade above them. Lakiesha had fallen instantly and irrevocably in love with him during their sophomore year, undeterred by the fact that he was bisexual and solely attracted to blondes. In a way, it was a good thing that Mannie had signed up for the Marines after graduation and left early in the summer.

Lakiesha had been devastated and it had taken months and five letters from Mannie for her to come out of her depression. To Christian, Mannie was a constant reminder of one of the biggest mistakes he had ever made.

Christian had only known Mannie for a couple of months during their sophomore year when Lakiesha showed up at his house with Mannie in tow. Mannie had rejected her a million times and Christian couldn't quite figure out why he always seemed to cleave to her. It was a destructive relationship in his eyes. She wanted to be with Mannie, but Mannie wanted no part of it. They were constantly arguing or not speaking. A week before they showed up at Christian's house, he had witnessed a disturbing scene in Lakiesha's backyard.

Their moans and grunts of pleasure had reached Christian before he even rounded the corner of her backyard, but something had pressed him on. In the shadow of a group of bushes lining the corner, he had seen Lakiesha sitting on the concrete steps of her back porch. Mannie knelt on the grass before her, his face buried between her legs. Her skirt was pushed up and bunched at her waist and her eyes were closed, her head thrown back. After a few moments, she seemed to erupt and her moans lengthened and carried on the wind. Mannie seemed almost possessed, not stopping the frantic movement of his mouth until she collapsed against the concrete, deplete and trembling. Afterward, he stood up wiping his mouth with his shirt sleeve, stepping away from her. He stared off into space, looking everywhere but at Lakiesha. She pulled her skirt down and hugged her legs, not looking either.

"Stop doing this to me," Mannie screamed, out of nowhere. She jumped visibly but kept looking at the ground. He turned and looked at her with eyes that hated her. When she looked up and saw this, she let out a sound like a strangled cat and started bawling.

"I'm not in love with you," he growled at her and Christian considered leaving the protection of the bushes and comforting his weeping best friend. At that moment, Christian hated Mannie.

"I'm gay," Mannie said and Christian could read the anger, fear and hurt on Mannie's face. "I'm fucking gay, Kiesha. Stop doing this to me." Lakiesha was nobody's whipping post and she suddenly launched to her feet and marched over to him.

"Then why are you hard?" she asked and Christian had to strain to hear the words. She cupped his dick in her hand and he shuddered. She abruptly let him go, leaving him leaning towards her, seeking. She stared in his eyes for a few moments, then turned away, crying.

"I'm going to take a shower, I'll be back," she said and stormed off into the house. Mannie stood there watching after her for a long, silent time. Christian backed out of the bushes, back the way he had come.

Almost a week later, the two stood on his doorstep a few hours after school. Christian had just finished the chicken his mom had left in the oven for him and was sitting down watching cartoons. He hadn't mentioned the incident he witnessed to Lakiesha or Mannie. He respected their privacy. Besides, he didn't understand what was going on between them. He had invited them in, given them iced tea and parked them in front of the television, wary.

Just when they were all laughing and Christian was relaxing around them, Lakiesha's cell phone rang and she hopped up.

"That's my dad, I forgot about my grandmother coming," she exclaimed, glancing at the phone. "I gotta go guys. Chris, do me a favor and drop Mannie off." With that, she was out of the door. Christian sat there for a moment, shocked and weirded out. He didn't like Mannie and didn't want to be alone with him.

"What time you gotta be home?" Christian asked, sitting up and looking around for his keys. The sooner Mannie was gone, the better. Mannie didn't answer, he just sat there quietly. Christian finally looked over at Mannie and caught him staring. Mannie was tall, way over six feet with a light caramel complexion that was flawless. He was skinny as a rail, though and his nose was too big for his face. If Christian had to think about it, he would admit that Mannie was an alright looking guy. He wasn't drop dead gorgeous or anything, but he could hold his own. There was just something weird about him, some intensity that Christian couldn't fathom.

"I'm not in a rush," Mannie said and the lowness, the tenor of his voice held significant meaning. Christian looked at him, warily. He was certain that Lakiesha had told Mannie that he was gay. At first, Lakiesha had tried to hook the two of them up. She had inadvertently found out that Mannie was bisexual and in her unrecognized love for Mannie, had determined that he and Christian were made for each other. Christian had taken one look at the guy and recognized trouble when he saw it. Then, of course, there were his stupid, unchangeable feelings for Wade.

"Look, Mannie, I'm not interested," Christian said slowly and Mannie grinned. There was something odd about the expression. Mannie got up from his seat on the sofa and knelt in front of Christian's chair. At the look in his eyes, Christian felt himself hardening against his will.

"But you are interested in that jock," Mannie said quietly and moved his hands so that they hovered right over Christian's crotch. Christian tensed. "Who told you that?" he hissed, wary and angry.

"I've got eyes," Mannie smiled, letting his hands rest on Christian's now visible erection. "I can see you drooling over him."

Christian fought the urge to give in to the feelings Mannie was evoking in him. He squirmed as Mannie's hands moved up and down slowly. He would never forget the look in Mannie's eyes. Odd, feverish and panicked.

"You can pretend like I'm him," Mannie said softly and Christian's breath caught in his chest. He had dreamt about being with Wade in just the way that he was with Mannie now. He had never touched another guy, never even imagined that he could. He wanted to do what Mannie said, close his eyes and pretend. He thought of Lakiesha.

"Lakiesha's in love with you," Christian protested and something flashed in Mannie's eyes. "And you love her, too." Mannie nodded slowly.

"Maybe I'll pretend that you're her," Mannie said and there was sadness in the dark pools of his eyes.

Christian moved to get up, but Mannie's hands persisted. Moments later, Christian couldn't even think straight. His eyes were closed and he was like Lakiesha had been a week earlier, head back, trembling and thrashing at Mannie's insistent mouth. When it was over, they never said a word about it.

For awhile, Christian had hated Mannie with an intense fervor that puzzled Lakiesha. Then, Mannie had announced that he had signed up for the Marines and Christian had been relieved. With Mannie, he somehow felt that his friendship with Lakiesha was threatened. The guilt about what he'd done with Mannie ate him up, but he was too afraid to voice it, too afraid to lose the one person in his life that knew everything about him and accepted him.

A month before he was scheduled to leave for boot camp, Mannie had shown up on Christian's doorstep. Christian was on the verge of shutting the door in Mannie's face when Mannie just started bawling right there. Instead, Christian came out of the house and sat down on the porch steps. After a moment, Mannie stopped crying and followed suit. Christian leaned against the stair rail and waited. Mannie gulped a few times and then looked at Christian.

"I hate myself," Mannie said miserably and Christian nodded.

"Why?" he asked.

Mannie looked up at the sky. "I've never loved a girl," Mannie said after a moment. "I always loved guys, you know? I mean, I could get it up for a girl and even do the deed and half the time I like it just fine. But it was never fireworks like it is when I'm with a guy. I got used to that. I adjusted and shit. Then, I meet Kiesha. I'm completely in love, can you believe this? I can't even look at her without getting hard. The way she moves her lips. She gets this look in her eyes when she looks at me. It drives me crazy."

"So, what's the problem?" Christian asked.

"A straight relationship is completely different from a gay one," Mannie said. "It's like when I'm with a guy, we screw anywhere. It's illicit, it's crazy. With her, it's so fucking normal, nobody gives us a second glance."

Christian thought for a moment. "I don't think a straight relationship is so different from a gay one," Christian said. "I mean, you love someone and you're with them the best way you know how to be, you know? What's so different?" Mannie sighed and ran a hand over his face.

"I guess I haven't had exactly normal relationships with guys," Mannie admitted. "They've been kind of wild and completely based on sex."

"Like what you did to me?" Christian asked and Mannie looked away. His throat worked for a few moments.

"Exactly," Mannie admitted.

"That wasn't normal," Christian informed him. "You had me fucked up in the head for weeks."

"Well, I've been fucked up in the head a few times myself," Mannie said.

"So, what's missing with Kiesha is your being fucked up in the head?" Christian asked. Mannie laughed and nodded. Then after a few moments, he started crying again. Christian put a hand on his shoulder when the tears lingered.

"The thing is I keep hurting her," Mannie said through his tears. "I'm screwing her over. She loves me. I don't know what I would do if she didn't love me. I've never had anybody love me the way she does. I told her that we were just going to be friends, but I can't keep my hands off of her. One minute, I'm telling her about some guy I fucked and the next I've got her tits in my mouth. What the hell am I doing?"

"Is this why you're going to the Marines?' Christian asked.

"Yes," Mannie said, wiping tears. "To give her some room. I want to give her the chance to fall in love with someone normal."

Less than a month later, he and Lakiesha waved goodbye to Mannie who was peering out at Lakiesha from his seat on a Greyhound bus headed for South Carolina. The look in Mannie's eyes had been desolate, fearful and glued to her as if he was memorizing every one of her features. At that moment, Christian knew he didn't hate Mannie anymore. Instead, he felt almost sorry for him. Lakiesha's smile stayed in place until the bus was out of sight. Then, it fell and a deep sadness took its place.

"How many guys do you think he'll find down there?" Lakiesha had asked woodenly and Christian put an arm around her shoulders and led her to the car.

All of that had taken place months ago. The summer had drug itself tirelessly on. Lakiesha had slowly gotten over Mannie's departure and this had salvaged part of the summer. Christian got a job taking ID photos at the hospital where his mom was second shift Nursing Director. He had saved most of his money, dreaming of moving to New York or California when he graduated from high school the next summer. He felt restless and trapped. He felt that if he could only get away from the shadow of Wade's presence, things might turn out alright for him.