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High-school gossip peaked sometime between middle school and graduation. Around the ten-year-reunion mark there was a second, smaller spike during which complex sums were worked out (receding hairline -2; law school +1; appearance on Wheel of Fortune +3) to create a whole new map of failure and success. After that, though - after the reunion - you were pretty much listening to dead air.

Take high school. By 9am on the Monday after the Saturday, Brian knew that Claire Standish / the princess / that girl who dumped Mark Ashmer last year had been seen making out with the loser with the hair / the criminal / for real, man, John friggin' Bender - maybe that means we're all in with a chance. Also, some guy had been caught with a gun in his locker. That was some scary shit right there.

Take the reunion. Brian sat at the bar, pretending not to feel overdressed in his expensive suit. He'd thought about the reunion a lot since graduation. He'd imagined telling people: "Me? Oh, I'm doing pretty well" in a tone of casual self-effacement.

When he said it to Julie Kwan, she replied: "Get this: Dave Torook - remember him? He married someone from that show with the vegetable puppets. The voice of the potato". She said that Andy was a gym teacher. She thought that Claire had married rich or divorced rich or maybe she was running a conglomerate. In any case, someone had seen her at the mall in a fancy car. As for Bender - who knew? He was probably in prison.

Brian thought about saying: "I drive a Maserati. My job is awesome". But that seemed boastful, and it was somewhat untrue. His job wasn't challenging and the hours weren't great. Also, he didn't so much drive the Maserati as accompany it back and forth from the shop every few weeks. He was more of a caregiver than a driver.

He swallowed his drink. "You really think Bender could be in prison?" he asked Julie. "I kind of knew him back in school."

"Oh, you did?" Julie said. She pulled a pin from her hair and then tucked it back in again. The finished placement was crooked. She sounded uncomfortable, like she thought Brian was lying about knowing Bender, and like it was weird thing to lie about. She gave him a look, as though she'd just remembered that back in high school she'd been a cheerleader - about twenty snacks above him on the food chain.

"Yeah," Brian said. His neck felt hot. "I mean-" But she was right, really. He hadn't been Bender's friend. He'd spent eight hours with him in detention once. He'd said 'Hi' to him in the corridor, and sometimes Bender had lifted his chin in acknowledgement. Occasionally, Bender had said 'Hey' back.

One time, Brian had bought pot from him in the parking lot. "You wanna buy what?" Bender had said. There had been nothing in his expression to indicate he'd ever seen Brian before in his life.

"Ma- marijuana," Brian had said. His throat had felt strange. Drugs. He was buying drugs. It was a cold day, but his hands had started sweating inside his gloves. He thought about all the things that could happen if he got caught. He could get arrested. He could get kicked out of school. He pictured a line of Fs on his final report. It was sickening, but strangely exciting as well. It was exciting just to be talking to Bender.

"Ma- Marijuana," one of Bender's friends repeated - a big guy with bear paws where normal people had hands. There was a half-smile on his face, like Brian had given him an unexpected but delightful gift just by showing up with his stutter and his skinny arms.

Brian took a step back. Then another step. And then Bender was unslouching from his perch against a car door. "It's okay, Jack," he said to his friend. He tilted his head at Brian. "You got cash?"

He charged Brian thirty-five bucks for a small bag. "Guess I'm a bad influence, brainiac," he said. He sounded half-mocking, maybe even a bit mean. But if he'd noticed that Brian's hands were shaking, he didn't mention it. When he handed the bag over, his mouth quirked up. "Don't fucking smoke it all at once, okay?"

Now, at the reunion, Brian caught the bartender's eye again and ordered another drink. He looked at Julie. "I mean- I sort of knew him," he said.

That was the last high-school gossip Brian heard for a long time. For years after the reunion, there was just dead air.

~~~

People liked stories to have a trajectory. Upward or downward, they liked a journey. So if there had been gossip after the reunion, Brian's life might have looked something like this:

"Remember Brian Johnson? I heard he did pretty well for himself."

"You mean the dweeb with the crush on Claire Standish?"

"Yep, him. He has his own start-up. Dot-coms, man. That's where it's at."

"Wow, I just heard about Brian Johnson. Car got repo'd and everything."

"Dot-coms, man. What a fucking bloodbath."

"Yeah, and now he's back in Shermer."

"Tough thing, starting over. Might have to learn some new skills."

"Then again, he could just be fucked."

"Weird thing is, I always thought he'd be a success."

But that was the thing about gossip. It tended to tell all the wrong parts of the story.

~~~

1. Remember Brian Johnson? I heard he did pretty well for himself.

VentureTech's least important client probably could have bought Brian's entire hometown and turned it into a theme park - Shermerland - with guys in Richard-Vernon suits, and a Weedcoaster down where the burners hung out.

"I always knew you were going to be our success story," his mom said when he got the job.

She probably wouldn't have been so happy if she'd known he'd be spending eighty per cent of his time shuttling rich clients from stripclub to stripclub, and accepting the occasional line of coke. (It was company policy to politely decline, but never at the expense of a contract.)

Brian handed in his resignation about a year after he'd joined. It was an amicable parting. Over drinks, his manager told him how unsuitable he'd been for the role.

"You're very sincere," she explained, quite kindly. "It unsettles people. Especially people like our clients. And especially when they're watching hot girls with their hands down their pants." She poured him another shot. "What you want is to cultivate an aura of low-key sleaze."

Brian drank the shot, and nodded thoughtfully. "I'll work on that," he said. He tried not to say it with sincerity.

~~~

2. You mean the dweeb with the crush on Claire Standish?

The last time Brian saw Bender in school was the Monday after Bender's eleventh week of detentions - nearly three months worth of Saturdays. Brian hadn't deliberately been counting, but sometimes numbers just stuck around in his head.

"Hi," Brian said to him. As always, there was a slight flutter in his stomach when he said it. It was the risk of rejection, he'd decided. There was always a chance that Bender would ignore him, or maybe even knock him on his ass. It hadn't happened yet, but Brian figured it was only a matter of time before this new tentative acquaintanceship - or whatever it was - got stretched to its limit and snapped back into the normal relationship between a burner and a nerd.

Bender glanced at him. "Hey, dweeb," he said shortly. He was pulling stuff out of his locker and shoving it into his backpack: a denim jacket, a Mars Bar, two fingerless gloves. When the backpack was full, he untied the guillotine from the locker and tucked it tenderly between the pages of the lone book in his bag. Brian suspected the book was disposable - only there to protect everything else from the blade.

"Here." Bender reached into his locker again and pulled out a zippo lighter. He tossed it to Brian. Then he tossed him a cigarette pack as well. "Another nasty habit," he said. "On me."

Later, Brian found out that Claire and Bender had broken up that afternoon.

"It was like a soap opera," Brian's friend Mei said. She'd been right there in the parking lot when it happened - locking up her car. They hadn't seen her - or maybe they had. No-one cared what the dorks and weirdos overheard, and Mei was kind of both.

She re-enacted it in the Physics lab, making Dave Weston do the role of Bender. She was Claire.

"It's hard for me," Claire had said. "My friends are-" Her face crumpled. "My friends are assholes, okay?"

Bender shoved his hands in his pockets. "Don't kid yourself that this is breaking my heart or anything."

Claire started crying for real then. (Or Mei did, anyway. She really got into it.) "You're a real fucking jackass, you know that?"

Bender wasn't at school the next day, but that wasn't so weird. But then he didn't show up the day after that either. He didn't show up the day after that.

When Brian asked Claire about it, her face crumpled just like Mei's had in the Physics lab. "He's just gone, okay?" she said. "Why are you even asking? Why do you even care?"

Brian kept the cigarette pack. He tried smoking a couple, but he didn't like it. Sometimes, though, he took out a cigarette and put it between his lips. He thought about how if Bender had kept the pack for himself, his mouth would have been right there.

~~~

3. Yep, him. He has his own start-up. Dot-coms, man. That's where it's at.

Moving back into programming was like coming home. At VentureTech, Brian had done a lot of sitting around in stripclubs. He'd spent a surprising amount of that time thinking about all the money that companies wasted when their systems snagged on the same few problems. He thought about the ways those problems could have been prevented.

Now, with free time, he got to work designing a better back-end system. Before he was even halfway done, three former clients were demanding to get their hands on it. Brian rented a gorgeous office that overlooked the whole city. He hired a secretary, a marketing guy and two other programmers.

It was right before the bubble burst. Five months later, he downsized to just himself and an office overlooking a parking lot. The new B Johnson Inc had assets comprising a computer, two monitors, a desk, a chair, a telephone, a coffee cup, an R2D2 figurine, a poster of the solar system, and four tacks for pinning the solar system to the wall. There was also a freestanding bookshelf that divided up the room, but that didn't belong to Brian - it belonged to the architecture firm Brian shared the office with (a woman named Marika, who spent most of her time arguing with clients over the phone and chainsmoking Marlboros under Brian's window).

4. Wow, I just heard about Brian Johnson. Car got repo'd and everything.

One night Brian came home to his boyfriend moving out. "Seriously?" Brian said. "This is how you're telling me?"

"Yeah, man," Luke said. "This is how I'm telling you." He didn't look up at Brian when he said it. He was hunched over the CD rack, pulling CDs out in twos and threes.

Brian went and got himself a beer and then sat on one of the bar stools to watch Luke pack. He had to put the bottle down after the first gulp. The back of his throat felt almost too tight to swallow. He guessed maybe he was upset or something.

Luke took out two Coldplay CDs and then put them back again - like Brian would ever listen to fucking Coldplay. Then he tossed all the Smiths CDs into his suitcase.

"Strangeways is mine", Brian said. He couldn't hear any inflection in his own voice. "And you don't even like the Smiths." He took another pull of his beer. It went down a little easier this time. He didn't even know why he was bothering to dispute it. It wasn't like he listened to CDs - that's what iPods were fucking for.

"What would you know about what I like?" Luke said. But he took Strangeways out of his case and shoved it back into the rack.

When he was packed, Luke hesitated in the middle of the living room. "It's just- Look-" he said. He waved his hand at their kitchen, at the bedroom doorway. The apartment was a lot smaller than the one they'd had six months ago. "This isn't what I signed up for, okay?"

"Understood," Brian said. He swallowed painfully. He looked at Luke's suitcase so he wouldn't have to look at his face. There was a rip where the zip was. Luke probably needed a new one.

"Hey, I'm sorry it didn't work out," Luke said.

Afterwards, Brian drank the rest of the beer and then a couple more. He put Strangeways into the CD player. He hadn't heard it in a long time. It was a pretty depressing album as it turned out.

~~~

It was like the apocalypse after that. Over the next two months, Brian watched his client list and investment portfolio shrink and shrink and shrink.

"Brian, you're great and you do great work," the guy from Frame Optics said. "We're just having to cut back all over the place right now."

In August, the Maserati was repossessed. It had been Brian's last luxury. He stood in the parking lot as they guy hooked it up to the tow truck.

"Sorry, man," the guy said. "It's a real nice car."

Brian slept in the office that night. In the morning, he was woken up by Marika's arrival.

"Jesus, Brian," Marika said. She lit a cigarette on her side of the room. "You look fucking terrible."

Brian sat up and scrubbed his hands over his face. "I don't know how much longer I'll be able to afford this place," he admitted.

Marika raised her eyebrows. She blew smoke in the vague direction of the open window. "Brian, if you can't afford this place, you really are in the shit."

 

~~~

5. Dot-coms, man. What a fucking bloodbath.

Six weeks after his car was repossessed, Brian moved back home to Shermer. His mom met him at the airport. When she hugged him, Brian found himself suddenly sucking in shaky breaths. Jesus, he thought. He was back in Shermer. His business had failed.

"We won't even talk about it," his mom said as she hugged him. "The setbacks you're having. We won't even bring it up." She said 'setbacks' like it was an embarrassing disease that Brian had contracted.

They didn't talk about it in the car. They talked about inane things. The weather had turned the night before. Brian's mom hoped he'd brought something warmer than the coat he'd worn on the plane.

When they got home, Brian put his luggage in his old room. Most of his school stuff had been packed away, but there was a Math trophy on the bookshelf. 'Brian Johnson,' it said. 'For exceptional achievement.' The shelf didn't line up properly against the wall. There was a gap behind it at the base. Probably, there was nothing in the gap now but dustballs. Years ago, it had been just big enough for a flare gun.

In the kitchen, Brian's dad was stuffing a chicken with chestnuts and thyme. As a kid, Brian had never seen his father do anything more domestic than filling drinking glasses from the tap, but now that he'd retired he'd discovered the joys of cooking. "It's about accumulating small accomplishments," he told Brian.

Now, he said. "You just wait. This is going to be the best chicken you've ever tasted."

Brian took off his too-thin coat. He helped his dad peel potatoes. He shucked peas. He washed celery. They talked about an article that Brian's mom had read about color-blindness. No-one mentioned the financial crash or the job market.

The chicken, when it was ready, was wonderful. "It should be," Brian's dad said. "A lot of work went into perfecting that recipe."

He asked if Brian had heard from his sister. He told Brian she'd published three papers with Professor Nakano over the summer. She was thinking about the postgraduate program at Harvard Med. She was interested in virology.

The thing everyone had to remember about Lisa, his mother said, was that she was sensible. She was never reckless. She was on a safe track to success.

That night, Brian lay in his childhood bed. There were glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling - Cassiopeia, Andromeda. The room seemed smaller than he remembered. His chest felt heavy. The walls were too close.

~~~

Over the next few weeks, some of the last invoices from old jobs came through. Brian found more work. One of his dad's friends had a six-person office but no computer network. He paid Brian to set one up, and then more to build him a website.

"Just make it do whatever a website is supposed to do," he said, waving his hand. "Oh, and make it better than the one Bob Randall has."

During the days, Brian filled his time. He worked, he went to the library. He helped his mother garden. He talked with her about Lisa's achievements. He watched his father make and remake recipes until they were perfect. At night, he stared up at his artificial stars, and remembered failing and failing and failing and failing and failing to get the lamp to work. He remembered how relieved he'd felt when he'd bought the gun.

By November he'd saved just barely enough to move out.

"Brian, you can stay longer," his mom said.

"I know," he said. He did. But just thinking about another night in that room with the stars and the leaning bookshelf made his heart speed up with panic.

"There's no reason to leave yet," she added.

"I think- I think it's better for me if I do," Brian said. He hugged her. "I love you," he told her. They weren't the kind of family who said stuff like that, but he just really wanted to say it.

~~~

6. Yeah, and he's back in Shermer.

The studio Brian found was downtown in a worn apartment block. The first night, he lay in bed and listened to the pipes groaning in the walls. Nearby, a train roared. It was cold. It was noisy. He fell asleep and slept the whole night through - the first time since he'd come back to Shermer.

He'd got a good deal on the place - probably because the building had been constructed in approximately the Precambrian Era, and was riddled with what Brian's landlord called 'quirks'. The guy's name was Ian, and over the first week he and Brian developed a solid relationship based mostly around mutual dislike.

Today, Brian's computer screen flickered and died around ten in the morning. He got up and opened the refrigerator. The light was out. He leaned his head against the refrigerator door. He wasn't frustrated, he told himself. He was calm.

He phoned Ian to say: "It's me again."

"Mr Johnson," Ian said. His tone was exactly the same as the tone Brian's math teacher had used when she was sick of him asking for extra credit homework. "Is this about the window leak again?"

He said it like the leak was a figment of Brian's fevered imagination, and not an inch of water in the bucket next to Brian's feet.

"It's about the wiring again," Brian said sharply.

There was a long pause on the other end of the line. Finally, Ian heaved a sigh. "I'll be around in fifteen".

He wasn't around in fifteen. An hour later, Brian called him again. "The wiring," he said. He could hear the frustration in his voice.

"Jesus," Ian said. "I'm pretty fucking busy too, you know."

"I would like to be busy," Brian said pointedly. He hung up.

While he waited, he walked R2 over the keyboard. "Doop, doop, bleep," he said. Then he flew him around in front of the solar system. When he'd had enough of that, he left a note on the door - 'WITH HELEN' - and went downstairs for pie.

The lady who ran the diner next door was at least 75 years old, and had been around for as long as Brian could remember. She wasn't so much a Shermer institution as a landmark. 'Meet you where Helen is' people had said even when Brian had been a kid.

Today, she gave Brian a slice of lemon meringue pie the size of a small moon, and then turned her attention to the opening credits of Days of Our Lives. Abe was about to learn that Lexie was pregnant, and Helen needed absolute silence while she gauged his reaction.

The pie was gluggy and too sweet, but it tasted like Brian's childhood. He watched Lexie meet up with some guy - Brandon, Helen said out of the side of her mouth so as not to interrupt the dialogue. Brandon seemed confused. The restaurant was called Dot Com. Brian wasn't sure whether to wince or laugh.

After the show had finished, the guy next to Brian held up his coffee cup for a refill. "What do you put in this shit anyway?" he asked Helen. "Tastes like roadkill."

Helen poured him more coffee. "That's 'cause for you, I add roadkill."

The guy laughed. It was a nice laugh. Brian glanced over at him. Then he glanced again.

The guy noticed. His cocked his head slowly. "What?"

Brian shook his head. His mouth felt weirdly dry. "We were in school together," he said.

He saw the moment that Bender placed him - his expression shifted from curious to faintly amused. "Brian the brain," he said. The half-mocking tone was so familiar that Brian couldn't help but smile.

Bender seemed a lot the same, but there were differences as well. Brian stole a few looks while he ate his pie - he didn't want Bender to think he was staring. Bender still had an earring. There were some lines now at the corners of his eyes. His hair was shorter. He'd put on a little weight.

Brian's stomach fluttered strangely as he stole the looks, and it took him a second to recognize the feeling - the same one he used to get in school just walking past Bender and saying 'Hi'.

~~~

7. Tough thing, starting over.

Over the next week, Ian fixed the wiring. It failed. He fixed the wiring. It failed. Brian worked and stopped and worked and stopped. He spent quite a few hours in the diner while he waited around for Ian. He couldn't often afford pie, but he could usually afford Helen's terrible coffee.

He got a crash course in daytime television. That week, Lexie wasn't so sure if the baby was Abe's. It might have been Brandon's. Or maybe it was someone else's entirely. There were a lot of rumors flying around. Helen was rooting for Brandon. He was hot with his shirt off, she said.

Most days, Bender came in for coffee and a sandwich. It was usually during Helen's enforced hour of Days of Our Lives silence, so he didn't talk much. But sometimes during ad breaks he revealed tiny pieces of information about himself.

Brian found himself listening with his whole attention - the way that Helen watched the show. Bender had lived in Chicago for a while, he said once. He liked pecan pie. He did most of his work in the downtown area, but sometimes had to travel out as far as Avonville.

He dragged information out of Brian as well. "So what - are you working for NASA now?" he asked. "Planning your first space trip?"

Brian guessed he was being mocked. Then again, maybe at seventeen he'd seemed like the kind of guy who might make it into space. That wasn't such a good thought. "I have my own business," he said. "The back-ends of websites."

Bender looked like he was going to make a dirty joke for a second. Then he seemed to change his mind. "Tough times," he said.

Brian held out his cup for another refill from Helen. "Yeah," he said. "Tough times."

He got quite a lot of work done on Thursday. The wiring failed again on Friday in the late afternoon. Bender arrived while Brian was complaining about it to Helen. He told her about Ian's tardiness, his ridiculous fashion sense, his ineptness with repairs.

Days of Our Lives was over, so the order of silence had been lifted for the day. Still, Helen looked thoroughly bored. "Get your buddy to look at it," she said. It was a flat statement with a silent and shut up about wiring at the end of it.

"What buddy?" Brian said. Helen looked at him like he was a moron.

"Look at what?" Bender said.

~~~

Brian's studio was tiny, and under Bender's assessing gaze, it shrunk to the size of a dollhouse. There was barely room for them both to squeeze past the bed and into Brian's little working nook. Brian had expected Bender to make a couple of cracks about the size of the place, or about the unplugged refrigerator, but he didn't say anything at all.

They were crammed into the space between Brian's bed and the desk. There wasn't really room for one person, let alone two. He swallowed.

"So-" he looked around at his apartment. He tried not to look at his bed. "Heating's working. It's just the wall sockets that keep playing up."

It took Bender half an hour to do an assessment of the apartment. Then he did some work on the panel board. He seemed to fill the whole room just by standing in it. His jeans were tight at the thighs and ass. Brian stood by the window where all the cold air leaked in, and looked down at the cars outside.

When Bender had finished on the panel board, he moved to the wall socket next to the refrigerator and then the one under Brian's desk. At the end of it, he pushed Brian's desk back into place. "It isn't fixed," he warned him. "But at least it isn't a fucking fire hazard any more. Here-" He reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card. "Give this to your buddy Ian. Tell him I'll fax him a reasonable quote. And tell him if he doesn't fucking deal with this problem, I'll get a building inspector on him."

Brian came over from the window to take the card. It said 'John Bender. Electrician.' He ran his thumb over Bender's name. "Thanks," he said.

He wondered if he could offer to take Bender out for a drink to say thank you. He wasn't sure how Bender would take that. He could be unpredictable - or at least, in school he always had been.

Brian opened his mouth. Then he chickened out. "Thanks," he said again instead.

Bender looked embarrassed. "Really, you're doing me a favor. I mean-" He looked around. "It's an old building. Could be a lot of work in it for me."

~~~

8. Might have to learn some new skills.

Ian accepted the quote and got approval to let Bender look at the rest of the building as well. It was the new year, and Brian suspected that even without the threat of building inspectors Ian would have made a resolution to spend less time on his hands and knees in Brian's apartment.

Bender was booked up a few weeks in advance, but in early January he got a cancellation on a job. He made arrangements to do Brian's place first.

They met up at Helen's at lunchtime. Bender ordered a club sandwich. Brian ordered coffee. He was eating a lot of ramen that week.

On Days of our Lives, everyone thought that Brandon had murdered Colin. "There's no way he did it," Helen said defensively during an ad break. "It was Bo fucking Brady. That a-hole."

In the next ad break, Bender pushed his plate in front of Brian. "Why don't you finish this?" He wasn't looking at Brian. He was looking at the screen. "I'm pretty much done."

On the screen, two kids were losing their minds over the tastiness of ten-minute mac and cheese. Brian's stomach growled. Half the sandwich was still on the plate. Bender could eat three times that much, plus pie. Brian had seen him.

Brian held out his cup for more coffee. "Bullshit you're done," he mumbled. He wasn't sure when he'd last felt this humiliated. He was fucking fine with ramen. And there was a settlement payment coming through next week from the Capital.com bankruptcy. Plus, Bob Randall wanted a better website than Brian's dad's friend. And eighteen months ago, Brian could have bought and sold this entire diner.

The show came back on then, so neither of them could say anything for a while. It was uncomfortable. Helen dragged her eyes from the screen and glanced between them a couple of times.

Bender seemed restless. He tapped his foot against the edge of the counter. The credits started. "Just fucking eat the sandwich," he said. He still wasn't looking at Brian.

Brian could feel himself flushing harder. He stared at the television screen. The credits ended. There was an ad about a doll who could tell her owner when she needed to pee. That was some pretty impressive technology actually. Brian had been miserable at VentureTech, he reminded himself.

"This isn't-" Bender started. He looked frustrated. Brian had seen that look lots of times - usually just before Bender started jumping around on school desks and breaking people's stuff. Bender took a deep breath and let it out. He looked at Brian sideways. "If you wanted, you could buy me a drink or whatever. Some time."

Brian was still red. He could feel it. He glared down at the sandwich. It looked fucking delicious. "All right," he said. "Jesus. Fine."

~~~

Afterward, they went up to Brian's apartment. Brian shifted his bed and the desk so that Bender could get at the wall. There was only enough room to move them about six inches.

"It's fine," Bender said. He laid out his tools on the desk. His movements were as practiced and precise as a card dealer's. Everything was orderly. Wires here, wrenches, knife, screwdrivers there.

Brian sat on the floor against the wall to watch him work. His neck still felt hot. He hadn't realized that Bender was paying any kind of attention to what he ate and didn't eat. It was unsettling.

He scrounged for something to say. "You ever see anyone from high school?"

"You ever see anyone from high school?" Bender sounded mocking again. Brian thought sometimes it was his reflexive response to pretty much everything.

"No-one you know, probably," Brian said. "Dave Weston and Mei Chen."

"Hmm," Bender said. He loosened something in the panel board with a screwdriver. He seemed more focused on his work than on the conversation. "Saw Allison a couple times," he said after a long pause. "Had a rugrat in the shopping cart." He took a reading with an instrument, then another reading. He wrote down the output in a notepad. He did some more work inside the panel board.

"Mei's in the Math department at Caltech," Brian said, more so there wouldn't be silence than because Bender would care.

"No kidding," Bender said. He held his hand out. "Pass me the soldering iron."

The soldering iron. Brian stood up. He looked at the tools on the desk. He hovered a hand over a thing that looked like a gun and a thing that might look like a flat iron if you squinted.

When he glanced at Bender for help, Bender was blinking at him.

"No fucking wonder you failed shop." Bender came over and picked up a tool that looked nothing like an iron or a gun. "Here. Come here, brainiac." He jerked his head towards the wall. Then he showed Brian how to position the iron under the wires. "Yeah, like that." He put his hand under Brian's steadyingly. "And now put the solder over the joint."

Brian did two wires on his own. The first one was ugly. Bender snipped off the mess, and then set up the wires again.

He tilted his head at Brian's second attempt. "Not bad for a dweeb," he said.

~~~

It took Bender two days to do the repairs. After that, Brian worked for six days without a break, uninterrupted by power problems and phone calls to Ian. He ate whatever was left in the cupboard - ramen, canned tomatoes, crackers. He didn't leave the apartment.

On Thursday, his bankruptcy payment came through. He paid his rent and bought a bunch of food. After he'd put his groceries away, he went downstairs to get some pie.

Bender was already at the counter. He raised his eyebrows and mouthed 'Hi' as Brian walked in. On the television, Lexie was fighting with Sami. Looked like Brian had missed out on a chunk of the storyline.

Brian sat down and waited. Kate yelled at Billie. Roman asked Kate out on a date. Roman arrested Kate.

Finally, (finally) the credits started rolling. Brian ordered a club sandwich from Helen. "You free tomorrow for that drink?" he asked Bender. He said it as casually as he could manage.

Bender grinned down at his coffee. "Oh," he said. "Whatever." Then he looked back at Brian, still grinning. "Yeah."

~~~

9. Then again, he could just be fucked.

Bender knew a place in Northbrook - about forty minutes out from Shermer. He picked Brian up in an oldish Volvo. Brian didn't know what he'd been expecting, but it definitely hadn't been a Volvo. When Bender was working, he drove a truck.

"Looks like something my dad would drive," Brian blurted, and then wished he hadn't.

Bender just laughed. "Your dad fucking wishes," he said. He leaned over and pushed open the passenger door. "Get in the car, dork."

The place in Northbrook was nice in an upmarket suburban sort of way. When the beers arrived, they clinked them together. "Thanks for the sandwich," Brian said.

Bender raised his eyebrows. "Thanks for the beer."

They went pretty easy on the drinks. They both had to work the next day and Bender had to drive. Brian still got a bit buzzed though. He got a bit tongue-tied too. He wanted to know everything about Bender's last 20 years. He didn't know where to start. He didn't know what Bender would allow.

Maybe Bender didn't know what to ask either. They sat there awkwardly. Brian drank. Bender drank. Brian scratched his neck.

"So do you like the Bulls this year?" Brian said finally. He hoped the season of - whatever the hell it was - had started.

Bender flashed a grin at him. "Tyson Chandler did pretty good on Tuesday," he said. "Surprised me."

"Oh." Brian said. He searched for something else to say. "So you saw Allison?"

Bender had seen Allison. He hadn't seen Andy. He hadn't seen Claire - not since they'd broken up. Brian told him what he'd heard at the reunion - about how maybe Claire was running a corporation. How Andy was a gym teacher.

"And what'd they say about you?" Bender said.

Brian snorted. "I guess nothing they repeated to my face." He remembered then what Julie had said about Bender. He swallowed more beer.

Bender saw it in his expression, maybe. He quirked his mouth. "Did they say I'd been in prison? Is that what they said?" He looked dangerous suddenly. He looked like the guy who sold dope in the parking lot - whose friends would beat you up for looking at them a second too long. Or maybe just because they felt like it.

Brian swallowed. "No-one knew."

 

Bender leaned back in his chair. The dangerous expression disappeared. He looked tired. "I did eighteen months after I left school. Long time ago now."

"Oh," Brian said. There were no images in his head. Then there were, and they were all cheesy - Bender in a striped jumpsuit, Bender gripping the bars like Johnny Depp in Crybaby.

"They only got me on possession, but I was dealing as well."

Brian bit his lip. "I did coke a few times," he said inanely. "I didn't- I didn't really like it."

Bender barked out a laugh. His shoulders had been hunched up tight, but he seemed to relax a tiny bit. "When the fuck did you do coke?"

So Brian told him about VentureTech and about the clients who loved stripclubs and wouldn't take no for an answer.

Then he told him about the business, about coming home to Shermer. Bender seemed surprisingly interested - even about the boring bits, like the kinds of sites that Brian had worked on.

Brian told him about his parents - still in Shermer, still the same.

Bender smiled wryly. "My old man died a couple years back," he said. I was living in Chicago. Would never have come back while he was alive."

They drank more. Bender said he enjoyed his work. He said he wasn't good at a lot of stuff, but he was pretty good at what he did. He said he didn't cook much. He ate Helen's food because it tasted like home-cooked meals.

The whole evening seemed weirdly intimate - kind of like a second or third date. Brian caught himself doing inappropriate things like watching Bender's mouth when he tipped his bottle up to drink. Do you have a girlfriend? he tried to say a few times. But he found himself closing his mouth over the words. He wanted to know. He didn't want to know.

They'd been there a couple of hours, and he was on beer number three when he found the courage to tell Bender about Luke. He stuttered over it - "my- my ex-boyfriend", he called him. He took a big gulp of beer after he said it, and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He could feel his hand shaking.

"Okay," Bender said. He was looking at Brian's hand on the table. Brian tried to will himself to stop shaking. "Well, not okay. Guy sounds like a real jerk."

Brian huffed out a laugh. "Yeah." He could hear the relief in his voice. "Jesus." He breathed out. He breathed out some more. "I wasn't sure how you'd take the gay thing," he admitted.

"Really?" Bender said. "Uh- that's-" He sounded completely disconcerted. He reached for his beer, and then put it down again in an awkward movement. "I kind of thought this was a date," he said. The words were all rushed together like a confession.

Oh. Brian opened his mouth and closed it. There was nothing going through his head. He reached for his beer. Wow. He tried to make an 'It's fine' expression, but then suddenly his mouth was trying to smile around the neck of the bottle. "Okay," he said again. He pressed his smile into the glass.

"Okay?" Bender said cautiously.

"Yeah." Brian said. He put the bottle down. "Yeah." He was on a date with John Bender. "I thought about you a lot in school," he blurted.

"Oh yeah?" Bender finally started to smile back. "While you were supposed to be studying?"

Brian rolled his eyes. Actually, yes, he thought.

"So that's why you failed shop."

Brian snorted. On a date with John Bender, he thought again. "Jesus," he said. "Let's- Why don't we get the fuck out of here."

~~~

It was too cold for it, really, but they made out in Bender's car for a while.

"Yeah, this is classy," Bender said. He bit a spot below Brian's ear.

Brian laughed shakily. He couldn't really believe this was happening. "Hey," he said. "It's a pretty classy car."

On the way out, Bender starting driving in the wrong direction. "Damn," he muttered. He did a U-turn halfway up the street, glaring at the road like it was confusing him deliberately. "Next time, let's do this closer to home," he said to Brian.

"Oh," Brian said. He smiled stupidly out the window. Next time, he thought.

They went to Bender's place. It was in a pretty good part of town. The living room had a view of a park, but Brian didn't get to see much of the view. Bender pressed him up against the wall as soon as they got in the door.

"Every day," Bender said. "I've been thinking about you every fucking day since you showed up at that diner."

Brian let his head thunk against the wall as Bender kissed up under his jaw. That was fair, he thought. Because he'd had a crush on Bender since he'd been seventeen years old.

"What about you?" Bender said. "What have you been thinking about?"

"Uh-" Brian swallowed. What had he been thinking about? God. He'd imagined Bender on his knees in the gym changerooms working Brian's cock with his mouth. He'd imagined jerking Bender off in the school library, while Bender huffed and gasped into his shoulder. He'd imagined himself on his knees in the dopers' section of the parking lot while Bender leaned up against the hood of a car. He'd imagined fucking Bender over the counter at the diner.

He'd never imagined any kind of realistic scenario, anything that might actually have happened. He'd never imagined this. He put his hand tentatively on Bender's thigh, and Bender crowded in closer.

"I've thought about sucking you," Brian said.

"Oh yeah?" Bender smiled, and pressed the smile against Brian's cheek. He opened Brian's coat, and then slid his hand down the front of Brian's sweater, down to his belt. "What else? Keep telling me," he said as he unbuckled the belt.

Brian licked his lips. 'I uh-" His belt loosened around his waist, making him gasp. "I've thought about you sucking me. I've thought about jerking you off. I've thought-" Bender licked his palm, and then pushed his hand into Brian's pants. "Oh- oh fuck-" Brian said. He watched fascinated as Bender eased him out of his briefs.

"You've thought-" Bender prompted.

"I've thought- I don't know," Brian said. He felt kind of light-headed.

"You thought about me when we were in school," Bender said, and Brian nodded. Bender grinned. "Did you have a desk in your room? I bet you did? Did you open up your pants while you were supposed to be writing essays? Get your dick out and jerk off thinking about me?"

Brian leaned in and kissed him desperately. Bender grunted into his mouth. His fist tightened and he started working Brian over for real.

"Oh fuck," Brian muttered. He let his head rest against the wall again. "Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck." He jerked his hips into Bender's fist.

It didn't take long. He came messily all over Bender's hand and his own sweater, and then he slumped bonelessly against the wall. He sucked in air. He felt fucking fantastic. He opened his eyes and saw that Bender was staring at him.

"Jesus," Bender said. He was breathing hard. His eyes tracked up to Brian's mouth, then down to the mess on his sweater, down to his softening cock. Bender slid his sticky hand down his own pants, and Brian had to shut his eyes again for a second. When he opened them, Bender was moving his hand slowly, not really jerking himself off, just kind of stroking. When he moved his hips his open belt knocked against his thighs. There was just a teasing glimpse of cock through the open fly.

Brian swallowed. His mouth felt dry. He put his hand on Bender's wrist, and guided his hand out. "Lean up against the wall," he told Bender.

He got down on his knees - a bit gingerly because he wasn't a kid anymore. He looked up at Bender and smiled. Bender's eyes were wide. He was breathing unsteadily, and when Brian put his mouth on him, he made a tight shaky sound that Brian wanted to remember for the rest of his life.

Bender made the same sound when Brian pressed his thumb gently into the crack of his ass. Brian pulled back a little.

"Is this okay?" he said.

"Yes." Bender breathed out. "Jesus, yes."

The intent look on his face when he came was better than anything Brian had imagined.

~~~

10. Weird thing is, I always thought he'd be a success.

Over the next few months, Lexie had a baby boy and named him after Brandon.

At the same time, Brian's client list slowly increased. The independent grocery wanted to take online orders. Helen's granddaughter sold homemade lipsticks, and she wanted a secure online store.

In June, Brian bought a Toyota from an elderly couple in Sandringham. He celebrated by driving Bender out to Make-Out Lake - the artificial lake five miles from Shermer High. He'd never gone there with anyone when he was in school. He'd always wanted to.

The new car wasn't so great as a make-out vehicle, though. Brian knocked his arm against the steering wheel and accidentally hit the horn. He laughed against Bender's mouth. "You know, I think this place might be overrated," he said.

Bender tilted his head so they were kissing properly. Brian lost himself in it. He was panting when Bender pulled back. He guessed maybe it wasn't all that overrated.

"Hey, look," Bender said. Then he produced a joint from his coat pocket, and looked ridiculously pleased with himself. "For verisimilitude," he said. He'd got it off a kid at the mall, he said. Little asshole tried to charge him fifty bucks for an eighth.

"Kids today." Brian shook his head. "No respect."

Bender took the first couple of puffs, and then had to cough for a while out of the window. "Oh, you think this is funny?" he said to Brian hoarsely.

Brian thought there might have been a time when hearing that tone in Bender's voice would have scared him. Now, he just took the joint out of Bender's hand and tried to stop snickering long enough to smoke it.

"Remember the pot I bought off you in high school?" he said.

"I thought you were going to piss your pants," Bender said. He smile was fond. He leaned over and breathed in Brian's exhaled smoke. He kissed the corner of Brian's mouth.

Brian grinned. "You know, I never even smoked it," he said against Bender's mouth. "Just wanted an excuse to talk to you."

They kissed for a while. Brian caught a glimpse of the lake again. There were weeds and trash bags everywhere. "Jesus, this place is ugly," he said.

Bender grinned at him. He took the joint back, and only choked a little this time. "Nah," he said. "It's romantic."

~~~

As more months passed, more people started phoning Brian with job requests. "My friend Amy said you created her online store," a friend of a friend of Helen's granddaughter said. He got a lot of good word of mouth.

His client list expanded to five and then eight. By October, he had all the work he wanted - maybe even a bit more. He had the luxury of turning down jobs. He found he preferred the home-grown small-business kind of stuff.

He ate lunch every day with Bender and watched all the comings and goings on Days of Our Lives.

One lunchtime, while Brian was working his way through a big slice of pear and lime pie, Bender turned to him and said: "Do you want to move in with me? You could still work out of your studio if you wanted." The way he said it made Brian think that maybe he'd been rehearsing it.

On the screen, Lexie was flirting with Brandon's brother. That was going to set tongues wagging for sure.

Brian smiled down at his pie. He was happy, he realized slowly. He was sitting here eating pie that wasn't so great, with a job that didn't pay so well. He was sitting here with Bender. And all of those things made him happy.

He leaned his head against Bender's and waited for the credits to roll. "Yeah," he said when the music started. "That really works for me."

The end