It's hot today, must be in the nineties, maybe, and it's not even noon yet. John's got his shirt off, got it tucked into the back of his cut-offs in case he needs it later, doesn't want to have to go back to the motel room and risk waking Rodney.
John should still be asleep himself. He doesn't remember what time he finally got in, but it was getting light outside. Couldn't get to sleep, though. Not that that's anything new, but he usually manages a couple hours. He'd tried. He'd lain in bed for three hours, at least, but he's got a tooth in back that's real bad and lately even the usual aspirin-and-a-joint treatment doesn't do much. It doesn't help any that his ass was fucked raw, either. That last guy'd been more than a little rough, paid extra for taking John with nothing but a gob of spit, but John's kind of wishing now he'd said no. Still, ten bucks extra's nothing to sneeze at. Maybe they'll go see Return of the Jedi again tonight.
It's only four blocks to the Winchell's and he's already sweating. The place is empty except for a bum at one of the corner tables, and John goes straight for the cigarette machine, digging in his pocket for change. "The usual," he tells Maria as he feeds quarters into the machine, and by the time he's up at the counter, she's got him all rung up - two chocolate glazed, a raspberry jelly, an eclair, three bearclaws, and a large coffee. There's a little carton of milk, too, but the total's still the same.
He pushes a crumpled five across the counter. "What's that for?"
The cash register opens with a ding and she counts out his change. "A growing boy needs more than coffee and cigarettes."
"I'm eighteen," he says, smiling.
"Uh-huh, and I'm still twenty-five." She puts the carton in the bag with his doughnuts, carefully rearranging them so they don't get squashed. "Just drink it, mijo, okay?"
He ducks his head and mumbles, "Thanks." He jams his change into his pocket, grabs the coffee too quickly and some of it sloshes onto his hand, not that hot, but for some reason his eyes are stinging anyway.
He's halfway back home before he realizes he forgot to get any sugars.
It's not that bad if he holds his breath when he drinks it. Not like he's drinking for the taste anyway. He cuts through the cemetery, sticks his coffee through a hole in the fence and then pulls himself over the top. He sits Indian-style on a bench in the shade, the stone still nice and cool. He eats the doughnuts as fast as he can shove them in his mouth and washes them down with the milk and the rest of the coffee. His tooth is fucking killing him. He can never remember to eat on just one side of his mouth.
He punches himself on the jaw. "Eat on the left, retard." It's not like he could go to the dentist even if he wanted to blow all their savings. It'd be their ticket right out of L.A. and back into fucking foster care. A little sore tooth's nothing he can't deal with. He gets up then and trudges out the other side of the cemetery, kicking the balled-up doughnut bag ahead of him and squinting so hard he can feel the start of a headache.
Rodney is probably still sleeping, seems like he always is. Lucky bastard never has trouble getting to sleep, not even in heat like this. Their room's gotta be sweltering. No breeze ever seems to come through the window and the cheapo fan just blows hot air around. 'Course, once John gets to sleep, he stays asleep, never dreams much that he can remember, so that's a trade-off.
At least there's a bit of a breeze now, so maybe he's better off not cooped up inside. He starts running after a bit, still kicking the bag until it goes wild, shooting out into the street, and then he just leaves it. There's no traffic; he could get it easily, but he's picking up speed now, his shirt flapping behind him. He grabs it and tugs it out of his shorts before it comes loose on its own and he loses it.
The only time he slows is when he turns the corner, and even so, he narrowly misses a collision with a stroller. The woman pushing it frowns at him, but he just grins and yells "Sorry!" over his shoulder, halfway down the block already. He shoots past the bus stop, flies off the curb without checking for cars. Just a side-street anyway.
His feet are killing him. These sneakers've been too tight for months and he's been meaning to pass them down to Rodney. They're still good enough; it's just his feet won't stop growing. Maybe tomorrow he'll go down to the Salvation Army again and see what they've got. He keeps hoping for a pair of Vans, those black-and-white checked ones. He wants them bad enough to maybe break down and buy them new. He can't remember ever having a pair of brand-new shoes.
When he finally slows to a walk, the sweat starts pouring off him, like all the sweat the wind blew dry is back and trying to drown him. He mops his face with his shirt and looks around. He's past Sav-On, any thoughts of picking up a pair of cheap sunglasses run clean out of his head. Literally. He doesn't feel like turning back now, not when he can see Shakey's just up the block, and his stomach's growling and his hands are suddenly itching to get a hold of a joystick. He could use a piss, too.
He waits for a break in the cars and dashes across the street, pulling his shirt on over his head as soon as he's back on the sidewalk.
It's cool and dark inside, nearly empty in that afternoon lull between the lunch and dinner crowds. He feels a bit bad at splurging on a whole medium pizza for himself, but what Rodney doesn't know won't hurt him. And more importantly, what Rodney doesn't know, he can't complain about. With that in mind, he orders a pitcher of root beer, too.
He uses the bathroom while he waits, and it's always kind of weird now using a public restroom to actually piss, but it's the middle of the day and it's mostly moms and kids here besides him, so it's not like hanging out in the bathroom'd get him any money.
He scarfs down half the pizza, then gets change for a five. That's all he's going to spend on games today. Maybe not even that if he's good enough. He keeps those quarters in his right pocket, separate from the rest of his money so he's not tempted.
There's a kid playing Crystal Castles already. It's always that way with the new games. John plays Ms. Pac-Man and Dig Dug instead and then Tron for a bit, until the kid's mom finally comes and drags him away. It's nothing but Crystal Castles after that, with a few trips back to his table for another slice of pizza, at least until John's quarters run out. The pizza's run out by then, too, and the last of the root beer is watered down with melted ice. He drinks it anyway.
Between his feet and his tooth and his ass, he's feeling pretty damn beat up. Tired, too, finally. Fat lot of good it does him now, when he's gotta be awake for a good twelve hours or more. He shouldn't've spent all that money today. Rodney'll be pissed off.
His feet hurt too bad to walk home, much less run, but the bus only goes halfway. It's nice while it lasts; he manages to snag a seat by an open window, presses his cheek to the glass and closes his eyes, enjoying the breeze. There are bums who ride the bus to the end of the line and back all day long, and maybe John will try that, too, sometime, just to see where it goes.
He ends up running the rest of the way home after all. It hurts more, but it's faster.
Rodney's still asleep when John lets himself in. The little clock on the nightstand says three-thirty, which John figures is about right, even though it said three-thirty when he left this morning. It's close enough, anyway. He turns on the fan; it's a fucking oven in here, no doubt. Rodney's hair is sticking to his forehead and cheek, his t-shirt dark with sweat, and he's tangled up in the sheets like a mummy. John wonders if that's just the heat or if Rodney's had nightmares again, and now he's kicking himself for going off and leaving him alone.
He toes out of his shoes, pulls his socks off, the right one bloody at the heel, and pads into the bathroom. He'll have to take a shower before going out again later, but that can wait. For now he just takes a piss and gets a drink from the tap. He has to let the water run a bit before it stops coming out rusty.
He strips down to his underwear and climbs onto the bed. "Hey," he whispers. "Hey, it's just me, okay?" The bed creaks and Rodney rolls over, mumbling something John can't hear. John stretches out, trying not to startle him. He lies still, barely breathing, and it's like trying to get a bird to hop into your hand or something. Just gotta wait and let them come to you. So John waits and watches Rodney toss and turn, listens to the snatches of nonsense and the bits he understands all too well, and eventually Rodney recognizes him, even in his sleep, and he curls around John, tangled sheets and all.
It's hot and uncomfortable and John probably won't have any better luck getting to sleep now than he did this morning, but it calms Rodney down, and that's something.
The first time John met Rodney, he was a sullen little girl named Meredith. It was about the seventh or eighth time John landed in foster care, but his first time with the Allens. They had two older boys of their own, high-school-aged, and four foster kids, not counting John. Most of them were younger, the littlest not even in school yet. Meredith was the closest to his age - the same fifth-grade class, but a year younger. He'd never known anyone who skipped a grade before.
She had a funny slanted mouth that always made her look unhappy and just about the shortest hair John had ever seen on a girl, the bangs uneven, like maybe she cut them herself. She played the piano a lot and she didn't like football, but she liked CHiPs and The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, and knew more about comics than John, so they got along well enough.
When Star Wars was rereleased that summer, Greg and Martha Allen took them all to see it, but Meredith was the only one who really got it like John did. They played Star Wars every day after that, fighting over who got to be Luke until they finally agreed to switch off every other day. It wasn't that Han wasn't cool, too, but he didn't have Jedi powers or a lightsaber, so it just wasn't the same. The one time John suggested Meredith be Princess Leia, she kicked him in the nuts so hard he cried and wouldn't talk to him for the rest of the day.
It wasn't long after that John's mom showed up again, new boyfriend in tow. This one was a mean drunk, and by the time he left her, John had what felt like permanent bruises on his arms and spent the hottest weeks of summer sweltering in long sleeves and jeans.
The fight after that was the worst. It started off the same as always: "If you just behaved yourself, Dale wouldn'ta left!"
John just turned the sound up higher and pretended like The Love Boat was the most interesting show ever, even though it was dumb and a repeat anyway. He let her yell. Not like he hadn't heard it all before, and she'd leave him alone soon enough. He figured she'd be drowning her sorrows before the next commercial.
Instead she grabbed his arms, fingers wrapping right around the bruises Dale left, and shook him hard. "You're nothing but trouble!" She was crying pretty hard, and John would've felt bad if Dale hadn't been such an asshole. "I shoulda left you at the home."
It stung more than it should have. She didn't mean it any more than he did when he snapped, "I wish you had!" Her slap hurt more than anything Dale or any other stupid boyfriend ever did, but she hugged him after, like she hadn't done in years, and in the morning she took him to International House of Pancakes and let him order anything he wanted.
He was back at the Allens' before school started.
Meredith wouldn't talk to him at all at first. She didn't even say hi when the social worker dropped John off, just went back to the piano and started playing as if he wasn't even there.
"Don't let her fool you," Martha said when they were upstairs getting John settled. He didn't have a lot, just his backpack and a small suitcase he hadn't even gotten around to unpacking at home yet. If it weren't for Martha folding and putting away his clothes, he probably wouldn't bother here, either. "She kept peeking out the window ever since we got the call this morning." She pushed his suitcase under the bed and turned back to him. "Meredith's been with us a little over three years now, you know, and she's never really made friends..."
Martha said it like she was telling him some big secret, but John wasn't at all surprised. Meredith scowled at him all through dinner and it was only after a week of the silent treatment that she came into his room one afternoon and said, "I'm gonna play Six Million Dollar Man. You can be Jamie Sommers if you want," like nothing ever happened.
"I'm not a girl!"
"Be a boy named Jamie, then, duh."
Being bionic mostly involved running around the backyard or sitting in the narrow space between the garage and the back wall, which Meredith had declared their secret headquarters. It wasn't really all that secret, but it was the closest thing they had, and in the late afternoon like this, it was nice and shady. John wished the Allens had a tree house or a fort or something. That would be cool.
They sat with their backs against the garage and their legs propped up on the brick wall. Their knees were green from the grass. Meredith said, "I hope we're in the same class again this year."
John hoped so, too, but he just said, "I hope the school burns down and we don't have to go at all."
"I'm really a boy, you know."
He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. It wasn't hard to imagine. Maybe if her name was Jamie, he would have thought she was a boy Jamie. She said, "There was an accident when I was born and I came out with a girl body instead, that's all."
John was way past the age where he believed in Santa or magic or stupid stuff like that, but the way she said it, in that same old bossy know-it-all voice, made it sound real somehow, like maybe it was just some disease or something he didn't know about. After all, he never knew anyone allergic to oranges and lemons before, either.
"That sucks," he said finally.
"Yeah." Meredith scrambled to her feet. "I'm gonna go see if there are any Otter Pops left. Gretchen better not have eaten the last one again."
They weren't in the same class. There were a few kids John remembered from fifth grade, and he made friends easily enough. He always had. Meredith declared everyone in her class stupid and said she wouldn't want to be friends with them anyway.
Christmas came and went and John didn't hear a word from his mom. He turned twelve in January and Martha baked a cake just like she had for Travis's birthday in November. The Allens treated him and the other foster kids like their own, which was more than he could say for a lot of the folks he'd stayed with. Sure, Travis got a new bike and John got an X-Wing, but no one else'd ever even asked when his birthday was. Sometimes his mom even needed reminding.
That's probably why she didn't call or come get him or anything. He tried not to worry about her, tried not to think about how maybe if John wasn't there, she might be the one getting hit. But maybe without a stupid kid around, she'd found a boyfriend who treated her good, maybe even gotten married, and he didn't want to think about that, either.
Instead he concentrated on taunting Meredith with the fact that he had an X-Wing and she didn't. They'd both gotten Star Wars figures for Christmas, and he let her Luke fly it sometimes if she asked nicely. A lot of times her idea of asking nicely was arguing that since Han Solo didn't fly the X-Wing in the movie, she should get to play with it more since she had Luke.
Sometimes it was easiest just to give in.
In May he'd been at the Allens' a year, and even with the month or so over the summer he'd been back with his mom, it was still longer than he'd been anywhere else. He didn't want it to feel like home.
Home didn't mean having his own room. It didn't mean eight other people at the dinner table and the same school for the whole year. Except when it did, and then he felt like a traitor for ever thinking it.
Home was wherever his mom was. Sometimes it was the backseat of a car when there was no money for a motel room or a stranger's couch while he tried not to hear what was going on in the bedroom. For one summer when he was six, it was at his grandparents' house while his mom tried to "clean herself up".
He thought about his grandparents sometimes, wondered if they knew he was here or if they thought about him at all. He didn't even know their names or if they lived here in Colorado or somewhere else. All he remembered was that it was a long drive.
He didn't think about them very often, though, and as time went on he thought about his mom less and less, too. If you ignored the fact that sometimes the kids were different if someone got adopted or someone else's mom showed up, the Allens were almost like a TV family, like Eight Is Enough or something, only with seven of them, and John kind of liked it.
In seventh grade, the other girls were starting to get boobs. A lot of them wore makeup and had purses, and they liked to huddle together in the corner of the classroom and giggle. Meredith's hair was still cut short, shorter than John's, even, and he'd never seen her in a dress.
John knew he should like Sandy McKinley, who had bigger boobs than anyone else in their grade, or Jenny Grant, who all the boys said was easy. He knew not to look at other boys in the showers, knew better than to even look like he was looking. It didn't take Jimmy Mancini getting the shit kicked out of him to know the boys here had no more love for fucking faggots than Mom's boyfriends had. If Jimmy didn't know that by now, it wasn't John's problem.
So he pretended to be interested when someone excitedly showed off their brother's Playboy, and when the rumor started going around that Mr. Hunt, their algebra teacher, was sleeping with one of the ninth-grade boys, John took up a dare to write cocksucker on Mr. Hunt's desk after school. He never got caught and he never forgot the look on Mr. Hunt's face the next day, like it hurt to smile.
If he didn't talk to Meredith much at school, he told himself it was 'cause he saw her at home all the time anyway.
He did spend all his time with her: lying flat on his back in the den listening to her play piano or cramped up in their secret hideout doing homework and talking about the newest issue of Superman and what it would be like if Bo and Luke Duke teamed up with Ponch and Jon ("That's the stupidest idea you've ever had," Meredith said, but John still thought it would be pretty cool).
Towards the end of the year, they had to write a paper for English, one of the few classes they had together. It was supposed to be a story about your family. John wrote about his dad and said he was a pilot in the Air Force. He said he wanted to be in the Air Force when he grew up, too, which was true, and for all he knew, the part about his dad was true, too. Meredith wrote about the Allens.
"What about your real parents?"
She was quiet for a long time and then said, "I didn't like them."
He didn't mention that she didn't act like she liked the Allens much, either, or how happy she'd been last August when Patrick went away to college, but he noticed she didn't mention Patrick at all in her paper.
The first time he kissed her was just after he turned fourteen. He didn't think about it beforehand, didn't even mean to do it, not then, anyway. One minute they were lying on his bed reading and the next he was on top of her, their mouths pressed together and his dick suddenly hard against her thigh. The door was open and the house was full of people and it didn't matter.
Meredith's mouth opened and he thrust his tongue in, sloppy and wet, and it took him far too long to realize she was completely still under him. When he opened his eyes, she was crying. He'd never seen her cry before, never seen her so quiet.
He jerked away, sat up and turned his back to her and said, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I thought..."
"I told you. I told you," she said, almost too low to hear. "I'm a boy."
"I know," he said, but she was already gone.
It wasn't like their usual fights. She didn't stop talking to him. She asked him to pass the potatoes and if he'd done his homework and whether or not he wanted to go to the library tomorrow if it was still snowing. She walked to school with him and talked about what was on TV last night and asked if he was looking forward to the Super Bowl, which was not only a stupid question, but also probably the first time he'd ever heard her voluntarily bring up football.
He let her talk because he didn't know what to say, and for days and weeks and months after that it felt like she never shut up. He let her talk because he was afraid the alternative was her pretending he didn't exist.
He kept thinking about it, though. He couldn't not. He thought about kissing her, about touching her. He knew she didn't have a dick for real, but thought of what it would be like to give her a blowjob. It wasn't like thinking about girls at all. He'd tried thinking about boobs and pretty girls when he jerked off, but he might as well have been thinking about what was for dinner.
They were walking to school when he said it. Gretchen and Andrew had already turned down the street to the elementary school, and it was just him and Meredith. She was talking, but he didn't even know what about. He just walked with his hands shoved in his pockets and looked down at the ground and waited for her to pause for breath and then he said, "I like boys."
"I don't like girls."
She walked a little faster, and even though he looked up, he couldn't see her face. He thought maybe she said, "Oh."
"Mer," he said, jogging a few steps to catch up with her.
"I don't like that name."
"I like the name Rodney." She turned and looked at him then, thin lips set in a line, like she expected him to argue. Her bangs fell into her eyes. She looked more like a Rodney than a Meredith.
He said, "Me, too."
She was the one who came up with the idea. Rodney was. He. It was hard to get used to that, especially when everyone else still called Rodney Meredith, and it's not like John could call him that when anyone else was around.
Maybe that was why it was so easy to say yes when Rodney said they should run away, or maybe he'd just been in one place too long. John liked the Allens all right, but the only one he'd miss if he had to leave was Rodney, and Rodney was coming with him.
"I want to go to L.A." Rodney said. "Or maybe San Francisco. San Francisco has a lot of gays, but it's sunny all the time in L.A. and there's probably a lot of gays there, too."
"Either one's fine by me." John squinted up at the narrow strip of sky between the garage and the wall. Their secret hideout was just wide enough for him and Rodney to lie side by side on their backs without quite touching. He wanted to kiss Rodney. He was getting a boner thinking about it and he rolled up into a sitting position, drawing his knees up and hoping Rodney hadn't noticed. "Um. I like." His voice cracked. "Sunny sounds good."
On the last day of school they filled their backpacks with clothes and food instead of books. Not that they really needed books today, but John had come up with the idea of saying they had to clean out their lockers if anyone asked. Rodney'd sneaked down to the kitchen in the middle of the night and gotten some stuff: apples and Twinkies and bologna sandwiches he'd forgotten to put any mustard or mayo on.
John felt kind of bad about it, but he took twenty dollars from Martha's purse and another ten from Travis's room. It got them tickets on the Greyhound to Denver with enough left over that Rodney didn't totally panic. John smiled at the bus driver and said they were going to visit cousins for the summer.
"Your brother doesn't look too happy about it," the driver said.
"Yeah, he gets homesick."
Rodney punched him on the shoulder, but he was grinning. "I do not!"
The driver smiled. "No roughhousing on my bus now."
"Yes, sir," John said, and gave Rodney a push down the aisle.
They flopped into a pair of seats at the very back and Rodney whispered, "He thought I was your brother."
Rodney beamed. "He thought-"
"I know." John laughed, grabbed him around the neck and gave him a noogie. "Shut up. Jeez."
"No roughhousing!" Rodney squawked, and John let go. He smiled at the old lady who turned back to look at them, and she smiled back. The bus would be gone before school was even out. They would be in Denver. He tried not to think about after that.
The cold seeped through the knees of John's jeans as he unzipped the guy's pants. The stall stunk of piss, but at least the floor wasn't wet. The guy's hands fluttered around John's head like he didn't know where to put them, eventually settling on John's shoulders. It was easier than John remembered. His mouth was bigger. He wasn't crying. He even managed to smile at the guy afterwards, the ten in his hand soft and worn.
They ate at McDonald's to celebrate their first night away from home and Rodney didn't ask where the money came from.
It took a while to find a motel they could afford. It took longer still to find one that didn't insist on seeing the dad John said was waiting in the car. There was only the one bed. John was gonna tell the guy they had sleeping bags if he'd asked, but he hadn't.
Rodney kicked off his shoes and pulled down his jeans. He was wearing a pair of John's underwear, the front hanging loose and empty. Before John could say anything, she climbed into bed, curled up on her side and pulled the covers up around her neck.
"Me- Rodney. Um..."
"Yeah. Me, too. I just..." John tugged at the hem of his t-shirt, wishing it would magically grow longer to hide his boner. "Gotta pee."
He jerked off quickly in the bathroom, then stripped down to his underwear and crawled into bed next to Rodney. He had to get up again to turn off the light.
It was hard to sleep far enough away and still have any covers. He thought of suggesting they split them up, but Rodney was pretending to be asleep already. Rodney moved around a lot when he finally did fall asleep. He kept getting his cold feet on John's legs. The rest of him was warm.
John had to get up three times to go jerk off.
He woke up in the morning with the covers kicked mostly off and Rodney wrapped around him. Resting one hand on Rodney's bony hip, John squirmed around and kissed him, and Rodney woke with a start. "Sorry, I. Sorry," John breathed. "Can I...?"
Rodney reached down between them, wrapped his hand around John's dick. John's hips jerked and he pushed into Rodney's hand. "Rodney..." He didn't know where he was allowed to touch. Rodney's hip seemed to be okay. Kissing him seemed to be okay, too, when he tried that. John wanted to feel him without clothes on, but he couldn't ask. He was afraid to say anything that might make Rodney stop touching him like this. And then Rodney moved a little, wrapped one leg around John's and started rubbing his crotch against John's thigh. He was so warm there, burning up, and his hand was warm, too.
It was over too quickly, but they did it again.
They stayed in Denver for a month. It wasn't a bad city, but it was close to home. Not their home anymore. Close to the Allens'. They fought over where to go next: west to Grand Junction or south down to New Mexico.
"We can't be this far north when it gets cold," Rodney said, waving his arms. "I'm not ready to freeze to death!"
"It's still summer."
"Yeah, and look how long it took us to save up enough money to go anywhere."
"Fine," John said, and rolled over on the bed.
Rodney sat down next to him and poked him in the kidney. "Why d'you wanna go to Grand Junction anyway?"
It might be where John's grandparents lived. He didn't even know their names. "I don't."
He rolled back over, ran his hand up Rodney's thigh as Rodney bent down to kiss him. It was easy to think of him as Rodney now. Nobody here knew Meredith. John wasn't sure she'd ever even existed.
Before they left for Santa Fe, John bought a postcard of the city. He addressed it to Greg and Martha and wrote We're OK. Don't worry about us. He thought about the nights there'd been no money for a motel room and the first time Rodney had come back from the restroom with more money than he'd had going in, and he scrubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand and added Thanks for everything. Love, John.
After Santa Fe was Albuquerque, then Flagstaff and Phoenix, and the first thing Rodney did in each new city was find the libraries. John didn't go with him. Instead he got good at finding places to stay that were cheap and didn't ask questions.
They had to be more careful now that summer was over. Not just the cold, which wasn't here yet, but the cops, too, who took more notice of kids when they were supposed to be in school. John could pass for sixteen or seventeen, maybe, but though Rodney was tall, he was scrawny and baby-faced and wouldn't fool anyone. John made him stay inside during school hours.
John turned fifteen in Phoenix, and still they stayed. Money that should have been saved for bus tickets was spent on jackets for both of them, and new jeans and shoes for John, who was growing out of everything. It went to a portable cassette player for Rodney, who then spent even more money on tapes of classical music. John bought a couple ABBA albums.
It was Easter before they moved on to San Diego. They arrived in L.A. a full year after they left the Allens'.
Rodney stands in front of the fan, blocking it, and John says, "It's cooler if you take your shirt off."
"No. It isn't."
The bed creaks as Rodney climbs on top of John. John doesn't let his eyes linger on the slight swell of breasts, but he can feel them when Rodney presses against him. He wants to tell him it's okay, but instead he just worms his hand between them, slips his fingers into Rodney's underwear and finds him hard and slick already. Rodney rubs against John's fingers, eyes squeezed tightly shut.
He kisses back when John kisses him.