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On Thursday, February 21, 1985, John Bender dropped out of high school. There was no specific reason or precipitating event; he was just done with all of that bullshit. It took his father almost a week to notice and only 30 seconds of shouting to start throwing punches.

"Get out of my house, ya deadbeat!" his father yelled, jabbing his finger at the front door. "If you're not going to school, then I don't have to pay your way no more. You get a fuckin' job, asshole. You're outta here."

John's mom stood in the hallway, her arms folded and face pinched in displeasure. He didn't even bother to look to her for help.

"Fuck the both of you," John said, yanking on his coat and slamming out the front door. He walked 2 miles over to his friend Jay's house and slid into the house through the open basement window. Jay looked up from the bowl he was smoking.

"Can I crash here tonight?" John asked.

"Whatever, man," Jay said easily.

That was one thing you could say about John's friends; they never put up a fuss. Never asked how he got that shiner. It was easier that way, with nobody to disappoint him.

The next afternoon John smoked most of his last pack of cigarettes in the parking lot of a strip mall down the road from his parents' house, waiting for his father's car to drive by on his way to the local bar so he could get in there unnoticed and pick up all of his shit.

It smelled like snow. John's nose wouldn't stop dripping.

The asshole finally drove by, windows cracked, and the foul stench of his cigar drifting into the parking lot from the road. John jogged to the house and tried to unlock the back door, but his key didn't work and he had to jimmy the lock with a stolen credit card. He quietly stepped down the basement stairs in case his mom was home sick or had switched shifts at the plant. At the bottom of the stairs, John found the hanging chain on the overhead light by feel and yanked on it. He flinched away from the brightness of the bare bulb and blinked away the purple spots for a moment, finally registering that the basement looked different.

It was empty. Every single fucking thing John owned was gone.

His clothes. His stash. His small but prized collection of records. His toolbox. Even the goddamn sagging twin bed.

The fucker must have hired someone to do it, because John had barely been gone 24 hours and there was no way his father could do it himself with his bad back. John sat down on the bare floor and laughed in disbelief at how much it hurt, far worse than any punch.

"Got to hand it to you, old man," John said to nobody and nothing. "That was an extra special effort at being the world's biggest shitstain. The trophy's coming in the mail."

Eventually John stood up and rummaged around the house for clothes. He grabbed a scarf and some gloves from the messy pile in the coat closet. He stole a couple of his father's shirts, a toothbrush still in the package, and a lighter. Tossed it all in a paper grocery bag.

There was a jar of spare change on the kitchen counter near the door. John emptied it into his pockets and left before he decided to set the house on fire.

It was dark. Lights were on in neighboring houses. From the street he could see families sitting down to dinner, and John hated all of them fiercely. Why did they deserve to be normal? And who did he have to suck to get parents who were a little more Ward and June Cleaver, and a lot less miserable excuses for human beings?

John spent most of last night examining his options, which were sparse. Prison would just be playing into everyone's expectations. He could try to pick up some work in Chicago, but the city was so close to Shermer that it didn't feel like an escape, wasn't a big enough fuck you to everyone in this town.

The light was still on in the Army recruiter's office in the strip mall. A young guy in a green uniform looked up from his desk when John opened the door. He could see the guy taking in his over-sized coat and his black eye. The recruiter's name badge read 'Díaz'.

"Can I help you?"

"Yeah, uh," John said shoving his hands deep inside his pockets. "I'm interested in perusing some of your recruitment literature."

Díaz gestured at the chair across from his desk and said, "Sit down."

John ambled to the chair. He sat on the edge. His leg started jittering and he forced himself to stop.

"How old are you?

"I'm 17," John said. "That old enough for you?"

"Why you do want to join the Army?" Díaz asked.

John took a deep breath. Díaz was a total stranger, and that almost made it easier when John opened his mouth and said, "I have to get out of here before I turn into my old man."

Díaz took that in with a face of stone. "The service is for hard-working adults, not runaway kids."

"I've thought this through, okay? All I need is a chance," John said. He'd never get one in Shermer; people had made up their minds about who John Bender was years ago. "Please."

Díaz narrowed his eyes at John. John swallowed hard, but kept his mouth shut.

"First things first," Díaz said. "You'll need your GED."

John nodded. "And how do I get that, sir?"

"I'll help you," Díaz said.

And for the first goddamn time in his life that someone had said something to him like that, John took Díaz at his word.

Díaz turned out to be a pretty cool dude. He liked horror movies, had a toddler named Sam, and a cat called Loogie. He helped John get a withdrawal letter from his school, helped him study. John hocked Claire's diamond earring to pay for the GED Test registration fee, glad for the first time that he'd held onto it for sentimental reasons. The test sucked monkey ass, but John wasn't stupid. He paid attention, and sometimes even went out of his way to learn things if it meant he could use it to fuck with Vernon. John wasn't that shocked that he passed it on the first try.

The ASVAB took three hours. John was fucked on the math beyond the basics, but found the auto and shop and mechanical sections almost insultingly easy. John spent two weeks waiting for his scores to come back, crashing on couches and floors and scrounging for enough change to buy some food. And not smoking, because presumably he'd need to be passing some drug tests soon.

When John walked into the recruiter's office, Díaz grinned at him. "You did good."

"Seriously?" John asked, stopping in his tracks.

"Would this face lie to you?" Díaz asked. "I can take you to the Chicago MEPS tomorrow, if you want."

Stunned, John said, "Yeah. Yeah, thanks."

John left the office and walked in a random direction. He needed someplace to crash tonight where he could get clean, where nobody would hand him a joint. Where nobody would give him the opportunity to fuck up his one chance to get out of Shermer with some dignity intact.

It was more out of desperation than curiosity that John found himself on the Johnson family doorstep ringing the bell. A woman with big hair and a sour expression opened the door.

"What do you want?" she snapped.

"Is Brian home?" John asked as pleasantly as he was capable of being when half-starved and smelling like butt.

"What do you want with my son?"

"Uh, to hang out?" John said.

She narrowed her eyes. "You don't look like one of my son's friends."

"No, I wouldn't. Also I take that as a compliment."

"Mom, who's at the door?" Brian called from inside the house. His head appeared over his mother's shoulder. "John?"

"This... boy is a friend of yours, Brian?" Brian's mother asked.

They were more like nodding acquaintances, really. John had helped Brian with shop a couple of times last year. Sometimes John sat with him at lunch to mock Brian's nutritionally balanced food items, and because it riled up everyone at the school when he didn't play by the rules of social interaction.

Stunned, Brian opened his mouth a few times before rallying. "Yes, yeah. He's my friend."

"I suppose he can come in provided that you don't neglect your homework, young man."

"Of course I won't," Brian said quickly.

"See that you don't," Mrs. Johnson sniffed, and then disappeared inside the house.

"I admit that I'm curious as to the contents of your bedroom," John said, ambling through the door. "I'm picturing Thundercats."

"What are you doing here?" Brian asked. "I mean, where have you been? I haven't seen you at school in weeks. I mean, I even looked for you in the parking lot. Your friends wouldn't stop staring at me. One of them tried to sell me dope."

"Where's your bedroom? Is it upstairs?" John jogged up the staircase.

"It's the first door on the left. Wait, why are you – why do you want to see my room?" Brian said as he followed on John's heels.

"I dropped out," John said, poking his head inside Brian's bedroom.

Brian gaped at him. "You what?"

"Relax, genius," John said, looking around at Brian's desk. Space was mostly taken up by a Compaq computer, the rest held a neat stack of comic books with turtles and robots on the covers. Other than a Wham! poster on the wall, the room was as plain as the navy bedspread. Neat. Books everywhere. A couple of nerd trophies on a shelf. Brian even had his own bathroom, and John had a moment of seething envy. "I already gots my GED."

Dumbfounded, Brian said, "How did you do that?"

John picked up a comic book to cover the fact that he was offended. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Really?"

"No, seriously, you passed the test?" Brian said.

"Not as stupid as I look, apparently," John snapped.

"Sorry," Brian said immediately. "I mean – never mind. That was a shitty thing to say."

"It's all right. Most people set their expectations low when it comes to me."

Brian shook his head. "I don't want to be like that."

John eyed him. "I came here to ask you for a favor."

"I'm going to state up front that I categorically refuse to do anything illegal," Brian said.

John suddenly felt the urge to yank Brian's underwear over his head. "It isn't illegal, genius. More of an imposition."

"Shoot," Brian said. He grimaced, and then laughed at himself. "What do you want?"

"A sleepover," John said.


"Well, we're certainly not having a sleepover at my place, because my old man evicted me over a month ago."

Brian's eyes bugged out. "What? How can he do that? That can't be legal. Where have you been staying? Are you okay?"

"Slow down, brainiac. You'll blow a fuse."

"No, seriously. Are you okay?" Brian asked.

John had a frog in his throat when he said, "I get by."

"Of course you can stay here, but we don't really have a spare bedroom."

John shrugged. "Floor's fine. I can use my coat as a pillow."

Brian rolled his eyes. "We have pillows."

"You sure your parents are going to be okay with this?" John asked, because he didn't want to get comfortable if he was going to be shown the door.

"I'll talk to them," Brian said, his shoulders hunching. "I'll be right back."

John poked around Brian's room while he waited, more gently than usual. There were raised voices downstairs. John hadn't yet located Brian's porn when Brian reappeared, looking triumphant but very grim.

"Please don't steal anything. They're going to hold me personally and financially responsible for you," Brian said.

"Noted," John said.

The family dinner was stilted and nutritious. Mostly it seemed to involve a lot of aggressive chewing and lecturing of the children. John kept quiet, and when asked how he knew Brian, only said, "We have a mutual interest in engineering."

John sat on the floor and read comics while Brian worked on his homework. After a while, John got bored and asked, "Mind if I use your shower?"

"Sure, of course," Brian said.

"Excellent." John stood up and began stripping off his gloves and outer layers. Brian failed at pretending he wasn't totally watching. John went into the bathroom and shut the door behind him. It smelled musky in there, like cologne and teenage boy. While he got clean, John thought about the one thing he'd always been too afraid to do, and once he enlisted, he probably wouldn't be able to do for a good, long time.

Nobody in Shermer was going to let John Bender get away with liking dick.

John dried off and wrapped a towel around his waist. The bedroom lights were dim, a pile of blankets and pillows on the floor. Brian sat on the bed wearing a pair of plaid pajamas.

"Parentally mandated bedtime," Brian said.

"I find your home life alternatively terrifying and intriguing," John said, checking that the bedroom door was closed. He sat down too close to Brian. "Before I blow this popsicle stand, I was thinking that I could help you out with that problem of yours."

John put his hand on Brian's crotch. From Brian's face, it seemed like Brian's brain had exploded inside his skull. John rubbed him a little through his clothes, eyeing Brian's reactions curiously.

"Jesus," Brian gasped, his eyes huge. "But I'm not –" he protested, stopping himself abruptly as though he suddenly realized that he was turning down sex. John rubbed him a little more. Brian whimpered high in his throat and spread his legs. "Yes, yeah, okay, do it."

"You got lotion or something?"

"Night table," Brian said, his voice breaking.

John squirted some lotion on his right hand and wedged himself against Brian's side. He let the lotion warm up for a moment before he pushed his hand inside Brian's boxers, closing his fingers around Brian's hardening dick. Brian's eyes practically rolled back in his head when John started jerking him. He'd never done this with another guy before, but John approached sex like he did most things: with determination and an innate mechanical understanding of how stuff worked.

"I can't believe you're doing this," Brian whimpered. John just grinned at him and squeezed his dick a little tighter. John was getting into it a little, maybe, when Brian scrambled out of his pajamas and boxers, staring at John, all skinny, naked, and vulnerable.

Brian surged up and kissed him. John flinched back a little, then stopped himself, cautiously allowing Brian a chance to do it again. Brian had braces on his teeth and clearly had no idea what to do with his hands, or anything else for that matter, but John liked it anyway. Brian's lips were soft and warm, and he wanted John.

"I'm not gonna punch you if you touch me," John said.

Brian petted him. "You have a lot of scars." Bumping his forehead against Brian's, John kept jerking him, thumbing at the head of Brian's dick. Brian tugged at John's towel. "I want to – can I?"

John whipped off the towel one-handed, and said, "Knock yourself out."

Brian explored John's dick like it was a sculpture or some weird foreign object, touching it with his fingertips before grasping it hesitantly. Brian came about a minute after he started giving John the world's most ineffectual handjob, so John just finished himself off while Brian lay on the bed breathing heavily, and babbling, "Wow. Wow. That was... wow."

Eventually Brian noticed that John was jerking himself; he watched, rapt, head resting on his arm. It didn't take John long. He thought he knew what he liked, but he didn't know that he liked being watched so much. Brian reached out and put his hand on John's thigh, and then John shot his load.

"What you said about my problem – I mean, does it count?" Brian asked after a moment. "We didn't..." Brian made a circle with his fingers and poked another finger through it.

John felt a little fond of the dork. "Another person gave you an orgasm, genius. It counts."

John cleaned up, put some clothes back on, and crawled into a nest of blankets on the floor. He was asleep within minutes.

It was at the airport that John began to have real doubts about what the hell he was doing. John had never been on a plane, had barely even left the state. Now he'd passed his medical and signed an enlistment contract, and was about to get on a plane to Missouri with little more than the clothes on his back and the stuff Díaz said he'd need for boot camp.

Not to mention the fact that he'd had sex with a guy and liked it.

There was this brand new life ahead of him, and it scared the shit out of him, but it was too late to change his mind, because getting stuck in Shermer scared him even worse. He'd take the unknown over the near certainty of prison and cirrhosis of the liver.

John got on the plane and didn't look back.

BCT at Fort Leonard Wood was harder than anything he'd ever done, and not just because the first couple of weeks were a lot of hurry up and wait where John got his shots, lost his hair, and learned how to make hospital corners. Once they got sent to their Drill Sergeant, John took petty comfort in the fact that everyone was getting yelled at, not just him.

John was a burner, sure, but he could run and climb like a motherfucker. He'd already spent years with older men screaming in his face, and he learned pretty quickly how to watch his mouth and to figure out what the Drill Sergeant wanted him to say. Nobody there knew who Private Bender used to be, so there was no reputation to uphold; he sweated out all his rage in about a week. And maybe getting to the firearms training and grenades and night operations in the field was worth a little torture and humiliation.

Once he graduated and made it to Advanced Individual Training, John was pretty much having the time of his life, training with C4, earthmovers, and armored trucks. He was using power tools and driving tanks, and learning how to blow shit up. If only he didn't have to maintain this stupid buzz cut, it would have been perfect.

John hoped his hair and his dignity were enjoying their time apart from him just as much.

A couple of days before he was going to be deployed for the first time, John called his mother.


"Hey, Mom, it's John. Just wanted to let you know that I'm in the Army, not in prison. In case you were wondering."

There was silence for so long that John thought she'd hung up. "Are you calling for money? Because you won't be getting any."

John sighed. "No, Mom. I get paid. It's a job."

"Well, I don't know what you want, then," she said.

John didn't speak to his mother again for almost four years.

The battalion had just returned from some South American country that John couldn't have identified on a map before they'd gone there when he was called in to see the Lieutenant Colonel. John didn't know why, but his copious experience with authority figures indicated that he probably wasn't going to like the topic of conversation.

"I'm sorry to inform you that there's been a death in the family," Lieutenant Colones Flores told him. "Son, your father has passed."

John didn't feel anything, and he was pretty sure that wasn't an appropriate reaction. He hadn't thought about his parents much in the last couple of years; he certainly hadn't seen them since his father kicked him out of the house.

John half-listened to Lieutenant Colonel Flores tell him details about a commercial flight to O'Hare for the funeral, the blank feeling growing until it was almost palpable. He left the Lieutenant Colonel's office. Staff Sergeant Davis was patting his shoulder.

"I'm not going, Trevon," John said. "Fuck him. He was a bastard and I'm not sad that he's dead."

Trevon gave him the hairy eyeball. "You're going for your mother."

John shook his head. "She wasn't much better than my father."

"I don't care if your mother is Imelda Marcos, you go home and help her with the funeral. You'll regret it if you don't." Trevon poked John's forehead with his finger. "You think I don't know what goes on in that whiskey tango brain of yours?"

And because his Staff Sergeant was right, John packed his bag and went. Flying commercial while in uniform was interesting. It was a mix of people either avoiding his eyes or shaking his hand and thanking him for his service. Occasionally a guy in a business suit bought him a beer.

His mom picked him up in his father's brown Buick LeSabre. She mostly looked the same, with a little gray in her hair. She took one look at his uniform and Army duffel and said, "I've been waiting for over an hour."

Halfway to Shermer, his mom broke their aggressive silence. "It was a heart attack. I was at work. He was watching the TV and had to crawl on the floor to call 911. They tell me he died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital."

John didn't know what to say to that opening salvo, so he went with, "I need a suit for the funeral."

His mom sniffed. "I'll take you to JCPenney's."

John was waiting in line at a register with a black suit tucked his arm when he felt a hand come down on his shoulder. Tired and twitchy, he almost didn't stop himself from reacting violently.

"Son, I'd just like to thank you for your service."

The voice was familiar. John turned around to see Dick Vernon trying to rock a Don Johnson Miami Vice white suit with a turquoise top. Vernon did a double-take, and then his face went ugly with condescension.

"Bender? What are you doing waltzing around the mall wearing that costume? I mean, Halloween was months ago!"

John didn't say a word. He was still kind of blinded by Vernon's choices in modern fashion.

"This guy," Vernon drawled to the clerk, who was all of 16 and getting totally freaked. He jerked his thumb at John. "This high school dropout pothead has the temerity, the gall, to sully the good name of our United States military service by wearing the uniform as a joke."

Quietly and clearly, John said, "Excuse me, I don't believe we've met. I'm Sergeant John Bender of the United States Army."

Vernon sneered at him. "Shut up, you worthless piece of shit."

John held onto his anger as though it were a volatile explosive. He turned to the clerk. "Miss, could you call store security, please? I'm concerned that this man might be intoxicated."

"What the hell are you doing?" Vernon shouted when the girl picked up the phone.

John stepped in close to keep Vernon away from her, because she didn't deserve to be the victim of his tirade. He lowered his voice and got in Vernon's face. "I know you think this is a joke, because in that tiny brain of yours, you can't conceive of me being in a position worthy of respect. But face facts, Dick. I'm a soldier. I've seen action. I am a goddamn Combat Engineer. I handle explosives and carry a gun. Who do you think they're going to believe if I tell them you're harassing me, Dick?"

For a moment, Vernon gaped at him, but something had gone sour in the man years ago, and so he shoved Bender back a step to point his finger in John's face. "I promised to beat the shit out of you one day, and that's just what I'll do."

Movement out of the corner of his eye had John stepping back and raising his hands slightly. "Sir, if you continue threatening me with physical violence –"

"Excuse me, sir, is this man bothering you?" the store security guard asked, looking at John.

"Hey, he's the delinquent criminal," Vernon said. "I'm an upstanding citizen!"

"Look, I really don't know who this guy is. Maybe he's some kind of war protester. I'm not trying to cause any trouble. I'm just here to buy a suit for my father's funeral tomorrow," John said.

The store manager showed up and was all apologies. "I'm so sorry, sir. We'll have this patron removed from the store immediately."

"Please come with us, sir," store security told Vernon. John took great pleasure in Vernon's outraged expression as he was escorted to the exit.

John bought a suit, shirt, tie, socks, and shoes, and then went searching for his mom in the women's department.

As she drove them back to the house, his mom said, "He didn't say what he wanted, so I had him cremated."

Probably because it was cheaper, but John didn't say it aloud. He was a little more selective about telling people the truth these days.

The funeral home was uncomfortably warm. All the expressions of sympathy made him deeply uncomfortable, so John kept his head down, helped with setup and carrying flower arrangements. He didn't volunteer to say any words during the service. He didn't cry. Neither did his mom.

Most people at the funeral came back to the house afterward for a potluck, and John felt claustrophobic after five minutes. His extended family all seemed to be in attendance, and John hadn't seen most of them since the last family reunion when he was 14.

"Here," Great Uncle Phil said, shoving a crumpled bill into John's suit pocket.

John pulled out the bill and smoothed it flat. "Why are you giving me $5, Uncle Phil?"

Uncle Phil pointed at him. "It's to help you get back on your feet."

It took John a moment to work out what he meant, and by that time, Uncle Phil was moving away with his walker and his one good ear pointed in the wrong direction.

"Aunt Marge," John said as she passed by with a casserole dish. "Did Mom tell you I'd been to prison?"

His Aunt Marge patted his hand. "Oh, she didn't say need to anything, Johnny. We're all glad you're out now."

John looked around at his family, and realized that if he stayed there any longer he was going to say or do something he'd regret, like get up on a table and invite everyone to go fuck themselves.

"Fuck this noise," John said instead, and went to a bar that he'd never seen his father patronize. He sat on the closest empty stool and ordered a beer, idly glancing at whatever game was on the TV while he loosened his tie and unbuttoned his shirt a little. It took some time for John to notice that the guy sitting next to him was staring.

"What happened to your hair?" the guy sitting next to him asked.

John looked over. It was Brian Johnson, a little less skinny and hair dyed platinum blond. "Dude, what happened to yours?"

"I've been telling people I lost a bet, but honestly I did it because I thought it would look cool," Brian said. He seemed different. More confident, maybe.

"Stick with the lost bet story," John advised. "I joined the Army."

"Are you shitting me? That's where you disappeared to? I looked for you, but nobody knew where you went," Brian said.

John sipped at his beer and ate a couple of peanuts. "Yeah, the only person I talked to about it was my recruiter."


"Ran into Vernon yesterday when I was in uniform. I think I blew his mind," John said.

Brian threw back his head and laughed, clutching at his stomach. "I wish I could have seen his face!"

"It was epic," John said. "So what are you up to, genius?"

"I'm on winter break at UC Davis. That's in California," Brian said.

"I've heard of it," John said dryly.

"Their College of Engineering is amazing," Brian said. He went on to describe some of his professors and classes, and John just let the flood of information wash over him as he drank his beer, signaling the bartender to bring him another one. Eventually John noticed that Brian had stopped talking. When John looked up, Brian said, "I saw the obituary in the paper. I guess that's why you're here."

"Yeah," John said. He didn't say anything else.

"Look, I have this family thing I have to do tonight. My mom, it's like she has to schedule everything and there's no deviating from the plan, because you'll never hear the end of it. I have to get out of here in a couple of minutes, but if you're going to be here for a few days, I'd really like to meet up with you later. What are you doing tomorrow?"

"Flying back to base," John said.

"Shit," Brian said. He looked honestly disappointed. "I have to go."

"I'll walk you out," John said and finished off his second beer. He was already paid up, and he didn't want to be at the bar all night because it would only remind him of his father.

The sun had set while they were in the bar. It was so cold that the snow squeaked under their shoes. Brian led him around the corner to a little red Ford Fiesta. John had his hand raised halfway to shake Brian's hand when Brian said, "There's something I've wanted to do for years, okay, and I hope you won't punch me very hard for doing this, but –"

Brian kissed him. He had to lean down a little to do it, and his lips were shockingly warm in the cold winter air. John dropped his hands on Brian's hips and opened up, causing Brian to make a happy noise and proceed to kiss him within an inch of his life. The guy clearly had been getting some experience at that college of his, and in that moment John decided it was money well spent. Brian turned him around and pressed John against the side of his Fiesta, kissing him with a slow intensity, like he was savoring it.

"I wish you were staying longer. There are so many things I want to do to you. You have no idea. I used to get so turned on by thinking about you in high school," Brian said in between kisses. "Shit, I have to go."

"Fuck," John said, because he didn't even know how long they'd been making out where anybody could see, and he wasn't sure he cared if anyone had.

Brian cupped John's face and kissed him once more, smiling. "I guess I'll see you around."

"Your people can call my people. We'll do lunch," John said.

Brian laughed, then got in his car and waved goodbye. John watched him go, thinking that it was the first time in his life that he didn't want get away from Shermer as fast as he could.

John went to Panama. He went to Kuwait and Iraq. He was promoted to Staff Sergeant, and got more soldiers to babysit and intimidate as the situation warranted. Other guys in his company would gleefully show photo albums of their shot-up Humvee to anyone who asked, but John didn't really like to talk about it.

Most of the time it was all about alleviating boredom, training while waiting for something to happen, which wasn't nearly as glorious a story to tell as combat. It required patience and a steady hand. So did guiding young soldiers. Sometimes John wished he'd paid a little more attention to his Drill Sergeant's methods at BCT, but he drew the line at sympathizing with Dick Vernon.

He was good at his job, and he loved doing it, even when it meant taking fire from enemy combatants while trying to build a bridge over a river. But most of his superior officers were so stupid that they'd lose to a fart sack in a game of Trivial Pursuit, and that didn't really inspire confidence.

On the bright side, John had far more impulse control now than he did in high school, and at least his LT tried to shield them from the worst of the clusterfuck.

It was a life. He was mostly happy with it. Probably not happy enough to put in the 20 years in order to get a pension, though.

When John fulfilled his military service obligation and was honorably discharged, he moved to Chicago. He signed a lease on an apartment. A friend of a guy John served with got him a job. John made a couple of friends at work, went to a couple of ball games with Keith and Andre.

It was weird, though, because John had never functioned as a civilian adult until now, had never cooked or gone grocery shopping or paid bills. He had to buy dishes and towels, cleaning supplies, a toilet brush. John bought furniture in stages, starting with a bed and a mattress. He got a deal on a couch, but it didn't include delivery, so he borrowed Keith's truck to pick it up, and Andre helped John get it upstairs when they realized it wouldn't fit in the elevator.

"What did you do," Andre asked as they played couch Tetris in the stairwell, "walk into the showroom and say, 'Give me the heaviest motherfucker you've got?'"

John let out a fake gasp. "That is precisely what I did. However did you know?"

"Budweiser is not an acceptable reward for this favor. I am expecting the good shit," Andre said.

For the first month John mostly got by on takeout, grilled cheese and tomato soup, and food from cans and boxes. Then he got his library card and borrowed some cookbooks, and got a little more Betty Crocker about it, but he still ate out more often than not.

After a few months he started going to bars on Halsted, figuring that if anyone on the construction crew found out and wanted to give him a hard time about it, he could always get a job someplace else. He had his CDL. Also, fuck them, he was a combat veteran. He had sex with a couple of guys, but none of it turned into anything serious. A lot of guys didn't seem too thrilled that John was bisexual rather than full-on gay.

He wasn't seeing anyone and most of his friends were doing the family thing, so when John's mother called and asked him to visit for Thanksgiving, he said yes, knowing full well that he'd spend the day taking a look at her car and fixing things around the house.

"Here, I forgot this. Make yourself useful for once and go to the store for me," his mom said about a second after John walked in the door on Thanksgiving morning.

"Nice to see you, too, Mom," John said, turning on a heel.

The grocery store was packed. John finally found an open parking spot after circling the lot three times. He wandered around the store, dodging carts and trying to figure out the layout. He was carrying a couple of cans of green beans and some fried french onions when he bumped into a guy as they were both reaching for margarine.

"Excuse me," the guy said, and then did a double-take. "John?"

It took John a moment to place him. He was tall and broad shouldered, with light hair and blue eyes. It was the eyes that had him asking, "Brian?"

Brian smiled, his grin still dorky, but the rest of him had changed. He'd filled out and grown into his face; he'd become unexpectedly handsome.

"Look at you," John said. "You look like a grown-up."

Brian rolled his eyes, and said, "Your hair's long again. Guess you're not in the Army anymore."

"Put in my 8 and got out, yeah. What are you doing here?"

"I was sent for Crescent Rolls," Brian said, holding up a couple of tubes of Pillsbury dough.

John waggled his hands. "Green bean casserole. Which I don't even like."

"Look, you wanna hang out later? Catch up?"

"Sure, absolutely," John said. "I think The Hideaway is open."

"Meet you there around 6? How early does your family eat?" Brian asked.

"Historically we ate early in order for my father to get back to the heavy drinking, but we haven't really done this in the last decade," John said. "But fuck that, 6 is fine."

Brian looked amused. He pulled a slip of paper from his pocket and fished a pen out of his inner jacket pocket. "I'll give you my parents' number just in case."

"Sounds like a plan," John said, examining the number as Brian waved goodbye and got in line at the register. John turned the paper over to see a receipt for a dry cleaner. The address looked like it probably was in Andersonville.

John's mom wasn't that great of a cook, so the family who came to dinner mostly didn't have anywhere else to go. This included John's cousin Frank, who sold used cars and apparently was very eager to learn what John was up to these days.

"They let felons handle explosives?" Frank asked dubiously when John told him.

"Yes, Frank," John said. "And it's unconscionable. You should take it up with your Congressman."

While his mom and Aunt Marge were cleaning up, John got the ladder from the garage and fixed the gutters. He changed the oil in his mom's car, replaced a light bulb that his mother was too short to reach, and fiddled with the toilet until he got it to stop running all the time.

Around 5:30, John cleaned himself up and drove to The Hideaway. When he went inside, Brian was already there.

"Hey," John said.

Brian smiled. "My sister provided a distraction by announcing that she was getting married even though she still has a semester of high school to go, so I took advantage and got here a little early."

"Is she pregnant?"

"I absolutely am not going to be asking her that question," Brian said.

"So what are you doing with yourself these days?" John asked, genuinely curious.

"I started this software company after I graduated from college. I'd tell you about the software, but I've been assured by many people that it's incredibly boring."

John smiled. "I thank those people who suffered in my stead."

"Yeah, you don't even know," Brian said, shaking his head. "About six months ago I sold it to Cisco for, like, an obscene amount of money. It was ridiculous, and it made me think, hey, I could retire on this. And that made me think about why I didn't want to work even though I had a couple of nice job offers, and I realized that I just didn't like what I was doing. I didn't like any of it."

"I guess I need to change your nickname to moneybags," John said.

Brian nudged John's elbow with his own. "So I left Silicon Valley for Chicago. Invested my bags of money in a restaurant."

"You have a restaurant?" John asked.

Brian shrugged. "I like cooking."

"That's funny. You create, I destroy." When Brian gave him an inquisitive look, John said, "I got a job in Demolition after my discharge papers were processed. They actually liked my history with explosive materials and heavy machinery. Although I do admit that I miss my gun."

"That's great. You really did something with yourself," Brian said sincerely. "That's awesome."

John wasn't that great at taking praise, so he asked, "Where's your restaurant?"

"It's on Clark Street in Edgewater," Brian said.

"Cool. I live in Lincoln Square."

Brian's face lit up. "You should come over sometime."

Brian wrote down the address on a bar napkin. John carefully tucked it in his pocket. When they said goodnight a couple of hours later, John went back to his mother's house and slept on the couch. In the morning he drove back to the city, making sure the bar napkin came with him before he left.

On the Wednesday after Thanksgiving, John went to Brian's restaurant. It was called Osteria something or other, and it was pretty busy. John got a table for one and ordered the spaghetti. When the waiter brought the check, John asked, "Hey, is Brian Johnson your chef?"

The waiter gave him a wary, "Yes?"

"Could you tell him that his friend John thinks his spaghetti doesn't suck?" John asked.

The waiter disappeared into the kitchen, and a moment later Brian came into the dining area in his chef's whites and sat at the table across from him.

"My spaghetti doesn't suck? Seriously? You're a Philistine."

John smiled. "I spent 8 years eating MREs. I lost all of my taste buds as a defense mechanism."

"I need to get back to the kitchen. Hey, are you doing anything tomorrow night? Allison – you remember Allison?" John nodded. "She has a gallery showing, and I was planning to go. What do you think? Do you want to go with me?"

"Sure," John said.

"Hey, come here, I'll show you the kitchen," Brian said.

They walked in to the kind of controlled chaos that John hadn't seen since he'd left the Army. It was hot and loud, and when all the cooks and dishwashers and other people whose jobs John didn't know the name for turned and looked, John had to fight the urge to flinch. It was all visible piercings and tattoos and mean looks and scary eyes.

In short, exactly John's sort of people.

"Everyone, this is John Bender. He's my friend, so be nice," Brian said.

"Bender?" one of the cooks called out. "Hey, man, I think you served with my cousin Hector. He tells everyone your dirty joke about the naked lady and the goose and the salami."

And just like that the level of malevolence in the room dropped by a notch.

John leaned in close. "Damn, Brian. When did you grow a big enough set of balls to deal with these guys?"

Brian stared at him with a look of miserable desperation. "Oh, my God, John. Engineers are so much worse."

It kind of made John want to fuck him right there in the kitchen.

The next night found John staring at his closet because he didn't know what people wore to art galleries. He settled on a nice shirt and some jeans, and Brian showed up at his place about five minutes after he finished getting dressed.

"You look good," Brian said when John came to the door. He was wearing a fancy peacoat.

"Thanks, so do you," John said, because Brian was looking pretty handsome. "Let me get my coat."

When they got to the gallery, John followed Brian around for a while. He didn't know much about art, but he thought Allison's paintings were pretty good.

"Hey, Allison!" Brian said, waving at someone. Allison turned around. She had a chic haircut and was dressed all in black. She looked happy.

"You came!" Allison said, coming over to hug Brian. Then she unexpectedly greeted John with a hug, too. She leaned in and sniffed his neck, purring, "You smell fantastic."

A moment later someone pulled her away to ask about one of her paintings.

"Someone's been hitting the free champagne," John said.

Brian leaned in and said, "Well, in Allison's defense, you do smell really great."

John stared at him, and then hooked two fingers in the waist of Brian's pants. "You want to get out of here?"

"Yeah, yes. Absolutely," Brian said.

The walk back to John's apartment was short, but it seemed like it took forever. Halfway there, Brian reached out and tangled his gloved fingers in John's. John walked a little faster, and Brian didn't have any trouble keeping stride.

John unlocked the door and took off his coat, taking Brian's and hanging it on the rack next to the door. Brian pressed his hand to the small of John's back and kissed the side of his neck.

"Jesus," John said, turning around to kiss him. He was aggressive, pushing his tongue in Brian's mouth the way he'd been thinking about doing for the last week. Brian pulled him closer and slipped his hands in the back pocket's of John's jeans. "What do you want to do?"

"Can I – I want to fuck you," Brian said. His eyes were bright and his mouth was red, and he looked so good that John was beginning to suspect that Brian might be out of his league.

"Let's do it," John said, pulling Brian into his bedroom. He'd done it a couple of times and was reasonably sure he would enjoy it. He got undressed quickly, delayed only when Brian ran his hand down John's back and put his mouth on John's shoulder and then his bicep. "I guess you like the tattoos?"

"Mmff," Brian said as he switched his mouth to John's other arm.

John climbed on the bed and got out a condom and some lube. Brian was naked when he rolled over, and John took his time appreciating the view. Brian's hands and arms were a little scarred up from the kitchen, but he was leanly muscled and he had a nice dick. John wanted to touch it.

Brian joined him on the bed. John tossed a condom in his lap before leaning close to kiss him and palm his dick. Gasping a little, Brian got his hands on John's ass and squeezed. He said, "How do you want to do this?"

Biting at Brian's lower lip, John said, "I'm reasonably flexible."

Brian made a low noise and kissed him hard, pushing John down onto his back so Brian could straddle his thighs. He put on the condom and lubed up his fingers, moving back to press two of them inside John. The stretch was uncomfortable for a moment, but John wanted it, so he stroked his dick and relaxed into it. After some more lube and another finger, John said, "Come on, do it."

"Fuck, okay," Brian said, and slowly pushed his dick into John.

"Oh, fuck," John said. "Keep going."

Brian hooked John's knees over his shoulders and fucked him. John was filled up, turned on, jerking himself off and saying whatever filthy thing came to mind because it made Brian flush and groan. Brian shifted him around a couple of times as if he was looking for something, and John knew when Brian found it because it felt amazing.

He was sweaty and could feel his heartbeat in weird places on his body. John circled the head of his dick with his thumb. He made a soft noise and came.

"Shit," Brian said, fucking him a little harder, and groaning softly at John's whispered encouragements. He didn't last that much longer than John, and about a minute later he was coming. They stayed like that for a little while, but when the position started getting uncomfortable, John nudged Brian's head with his knee.

"What are you doing tomorrow?" Brian asked with a smile after they cleaned up in the bathroom and threw away the condom.

"I don't know," John said. "But I'm pretty sure it's going to involve you, and end with me getting in your pants."

Brian smiled. "It'll be extremely late before we can meet up. Weekends are always like that in the restaurant business."

"I don't mind waiting for you," John said. From the expression on Brian's face, it was exactly the right answer.