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He was nearly fifteen, and Dexter was getting too old for it. He should have been relieved, but it was the only thing he was really good at, besides skiing, and now his father was angry all the time, and getting stoned or drunk almost everyday.

 

“If you weren't so fucking ugly you'd still be some use,” the man complained. “I mean, look at you. You're too old to be cute, and too damned scrawny for anything else.” He sprawled back on the couch, tried to put a leg on the coffee table. He was at the sloppy drunk stage, and his foot missed, knocking take-out boxes and half eaten pizza to the floor. “Now look what you did,” he slurred, and threw his empty can at Dexter's head.

 

At least there was Teej. And winter was coming in another few weeks, so they'd be able to ski soon. In another few days they'd be able to smell the snow. There were good things, things to look forward to. Even though it was the middle of the afternoon, his father passed out drunk in front of the television, and Dexter slipped out the back door, started jogging down the road. It was a good day for it. Cool, but not too cool, and the sky was bright and blue. There would be stars tonight.

 

Teej wasn't in, but his Mom was. She was washing flour from her hands when Dexter came into the kitchen, and looked up, smiling. “Hey, Dexter. How are you?”

 

“I'm fine, Mom.” The first time he'd called her Mom he'd been eight, nearly nine. Actually, he hadn't called her Mom, he'd called her Mommy, and started crying, and she'd tucked him up onto her lap, and wiped his snot, and started rocking back and forward, saying 'hush baby, it'll be all right.' So now he called her Mom, but only in front of her and Teej. If he said that in front of Teej's Dad the man got weird about it, and Dexter never liked making people angry. Not that Teej's Dad had ever hit him, or anything else, and he even seemed to like him most of the time. He took him and Teej to ballgames and the movies, and bought him his first ski set, when he was ten... Which musta been expensive, but he didn't expect anything for it. "I was getting some for Teej, and there was a reduction if you got two. Besides, I got 'em from a friend of mine... don't worry about it, kid, they weren't that expensive." Teej's Dad worked at a factory though, so Dexter knew he musta saved up for them. But even after all these years the man still looked at him kinda funny sometimes. It was his own fault though. Dexter realised now that he should never have tried to kiss him.

 

He remembered hunkering under the table sucking his knuckles, like when he'd been a really little kid, and hearing the voices in the kitchen. Teej's Mom sounded cross with her husband. “For goodness sake, Tony, he's just a little boy. He didn't mean anything by it.”

 

“I'm telling you, there's something not right...”

 

“Well, if it's not right, it's not Dex's fault, and I'm not having you upset the poor kid. Let it go.”

 

And Teej's Dad had mumbled something, and gone out, and Teej's Mom had come and fished him out from under the table, and hugged him, and he'd started crying, and buried his head in her bosom, and said, “Mommy,” and her voice cracked, as she rocked him, and told him it would be all right.

 

At the time it hadn't been all right, because Teej's Dad went to the cops, and Dexter's father found out when his cop friend came round to tell him it had been dealt with, and not to worry. His father had been really angry then, called him a slut and a whore. “You don't come onto people unless I tell you too. I don't want you seeing those people any more. They're no good for you. Do you wanna get sent to prison?” And then Dexter cried, and his father made him give the cop a freebie as a thank you for looking out for them. “You gotta look out for your friends, son,” he said, as he settled back to watch. Though the cop wasn't so bad, and let him use his hand.

 

About a week later Dexter was lying awake in his room, when there was a scratching at his window. His heart froze for a minute. He'd never thought of his window... He always shoved a chair up against his bedroom door, so he wouldn't get caught out in the middle of the night, but he'd never thought of his window. He sat up, braced himself against the back of the bed, and tucked his knees up to his chin.

 

“Dexter,” came a voice through the glass, “you gonna let me in?”

 

Dexter sprang off the bed, and ran to the window, opened it. Teej climbed in, grinning. “Hey, Dex, why you been hiding?”

 

“Dad won't let me out,” he said, “I'm in trouble.”

 

“What'd you do?”

 

Tried to kiss your father, he thought, and looked away, ashamed. He really was a little slut. “Dunno,” he told Teej.

 

Teej nodded. “Well, that's a shame, cause I miss you. Do you think if I asked real nice he'd let you come and see us again?”

 

Dexter thought of Teej asking his father 'real nice', and felt sick. “No,” he said, “you don't wanna talk to my Dad. Anyway, he says I'm not allowed to play with you any more.”

 

Teej scowled. “I'll have to set my Dad on him,” he said. “I bet my Dad could beat your Dad.

 

Dexter thought about it. He liked that idea. “I bet he could,” he agreed. Teej's Dad worked at the factory after all, and he had big strong arms and shoulders. Dexter's Dad went to work, but what he did was all to do with ponies, and making secret deliveries... he didn't do lifting and stuff. And sometimes he'd lie around in his underwear for days. Dexter laughed suddenly. “I bet your Dad would put my Dad in the hospital, and then I could come and live with you.”

 

“That would be cool,” Teej said, and plonked himself onto Dexter's bed. Dexter sat down beside him. There was a silence, and Dexter started gnawing his thumb.

 

“Is your Dad angry with me,” he blurted out, just as the silence became unbearable.

 

“Why would he be angry with you?”

 

“He called the cops.”

 

“Oh,” Teej smiled. “No, that wasn't about you. That was cause he thought your Dad had hit you or something.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Does your Dad hit you?”

 

“Sorta.”

 

Teej looked sad, and angry at the same time. “Thought so.” He turned round on the bed to face him, crossing his legs, and took Dexter's hands between his own. “When I grow up, you can live with me, and if your Dad comes round, I'll be big and strong like my Dad, and your Dad'll be old, and I'll kick his head in.”

 

Dexter laughed again, then started crying. Teej put his arms around him.

 

“Hey, I'm sorry. I won't really kick his head in, I mean, not unless you want me to.”

 

“I'm stupid,” Dexter mumbled into Teej's shoulder. He was getting his friend's shirt wet.

 

“No you're not,” Teej patted him affectionately on the back. “You're smart. Poindexter, remember?”

 

“I'll see you at school,” Dexter said, pulling away, and pasting a smile on his face.

 

“When are you coming back to school?”

 

“I think tomorrow. My Dad says if I stay away too long people will ask questions.”

 

“Well, come and sit next to me. I've saved your chair.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“I gotta go now,” Teej said, “but I'll see you tomorrow, okay?”

 

“Yeah, okay.” Dexter smiled, feeling strangely lighter. Teej got up, went toward the window.

 

“You'll really be there?”

 

“Promise,” Dexter said, even though he knew it wasn't really his promise to give. “Well, I'll try.”

 

“You'd better,” said Teej, and climbed out the window.

 

He was late to school the next day, but not too late. He only missed the register. Mrs Khrushchev was cross with him for skipping school, and kept him in at break to do lines, but that wasn't so bad at all. It was worth it, because Teej had looked up when he came in, and smiled, and it was like someone had turned on the sun.

 

His father picked him up after school that day. He'd been waiting in the truck for a while, watching.

 

“Your boyfriend's pretty,” he said, when Dexter got in.

 

“My who?”

 

“Your boyfriend. That TJ kid.”

 

Dexter blushed. “He's not my boyfriend.”

 

“Sure he is,” his father smirked. “I was talking to the doctor, and we saw him climbing outta your window last night. What were you two doing in your bedroom?”

 

Dexter looked at his father, and chewed his lip. If he'd been talking to the doctor, that meant he had a job tonight. He wished the men hadn't seen Teej, hadn't thought a bad thing like that about him.

 

“Cat got your tongue? We know all about you,” he said. “Little slut, you can't help putting out, can you?” He didn't sound angry though, just rather pleased, like Dexter had learned a new trick.

 

“I'm sorry, Sir,” Dexter whispered.

 

“You don't deny it then?”

 

“We're not... he's not...”

 

“He's not like you,” his father agreed, “that's for sure. Kid's got class. I'da made a fucking fortune out of him.” Dexter blinked. He didn't want to cry. His father carried on talking. “You just keep it in your pants, that's all. Don't let his old man know, or his Mom, or you won't ever see them again.”

 

A little flicker of hope curled inside him. “Can I see them again?”

 

“If you manage to keep our little secrets, then yeah. I like your little friend. He's cute. Cuter than you.”

 

“You won't...”

 

“Won't what?”

 

“Won't hurt him?”

 

“I don't hurt you, do I?” Dexter's father smiled, squeezed his thigh. Then he sighed. “Sadly, though, no. That boy's out of bounds. For me at least. But you like him, looks like he likes you... just make sure you tell me all about it.” He licked his lips. “Maybe tonight, when you're seeing the doctor. Tell us then.”

 

There was nothing to tell, but Dexter knew already that his father would invent stories enough for both of them. So he would have to keep an eye on his father, and his father's friends, to make sure Teej was safe.

 

If he was a real friend, of course, he would have told Teej's Mom and Dad. But Teej's Dad had already called the cops on him once, and he knew that if he said something this time, then he really would be taken away, and then he'd never ever see Teej again, and he'd have no friend at all.

 

In the end, he didn't say anything. For years he didn't say anything, even when Daddy's friends would say bad things about Teej, and even when his father managed to get photos of Teej and him swimming in the lake, and passed them round. If he'd been a real friend he'd never have let that happen. He wouldn't have been stupid enough to go swimming where anyone could see them. He would never have let the men look at Teej's picture. And if he was a real friend, he'd never have kept one of the photos for himself.

 

Teej thought they were brothers, and Teej's Mom thought he was her son, and Teej's Dad was right to look at him funny sometimes. Because yeah... Dexter was good at keeping secrets.

 

Today Teej's Mom had been baking. He could smell the cookies in the oven, and there was still a bit of flour on her elbows, even though she was washing up in the sink.

 

“Let me do that,” Dexter said, and she smiled, stood aside. “You're a good boy,” she told him, and he felt a small glad glow inside. When she said that it was different from when men said it. She said it like she really was his Mom, and like she didn't know what kind of boy he really was. He grinned crookedly at her. She made him happy. “I'm not that good,” he said, “I'm only doing it so I get some cookies.”

 

“You'll always get cookies here, Dex,” she said.

 

“Where's Teej,” he asked.

 

“Helping his Dad with the car. Carburettor or fan belt, or... I dunno what. Something's gone wrong with it, that's all I know. So they're tinkering. I'd say go join 'em, but they're at the garage. It's a bit of a trek.”

 

“I'll come by later then.”

 

“Yeah, Teej would like that.” She sighed. “Tony and I are both on night-shift, he'll be lonely. You can stay over if you like.”

 

“Thanks Mom.”

 

She pecked his cheek. “Thanks Dex. Listen, can you pull those cookies out in... fifteen minutes? The timer's set to go off, so you'll know when. I gotta go feed Mrs Murphy's cat.”

 

“That's cool. When's Mrs Murphy getting outta hospital?”

 

“We don't know.”

 

Dexter nodded. “When you see her, tell her I said hi.”

 

“Will do, son.” And then she was out the back door, and he was alone in the kitchen.

 

Alone.

 

Dexter and Teej would be alone tonight. It wouldn't be the first time they'd been alone, or that he'd stayed over. Teej's Mom and Dad were working the night shifts more often now that Teej was older. They needed the extra money, so they couldn't say no. And for the last few weeks Mrs Murphy had been in the hospital, so they didn't have a babysitter anymore. Not that Teej and Dexter needed one, of course...

 

Alone...

 

No, he was just daydreaming. Nothing was gonna to happen. It never had before. Sometimes they'd even fallen asleep on the same bed, because they'd been talking all night, and nothing happened then. But... He shut his eyes, and felt a stirring in his groin. He kinda hated it, but he'd gotten to really like it too. And he might like it even more if it was with Teej. Was Teej old enough?

 

Yeah, he thought. Probably, yeah. Because Teej's voice was getting a bit deeper, and he had a little bit of fuzz on his upper lip that he was really proud of, and he had shaved three or four times already this year. And even if his little bit of fuzz on his upper lip was nearly invisible, and made him look kinda goofy in some lights, like a baby Charlie Chaplin, it was still cute, and Dexter wouldn't mind licking it. If Teej would let him...

 

And Teej was real pretty, and Dexter wasn't, and if Dexter didn't do something soon, then Teej would grow up and meet someone better than him, pretty, and smart, with class, and then he'd lose Teej forever. He had to do something to make him stay. Dexter had no illusions. He'd seen himself in the mirror, and his father was right. He wasn't a dog, but he wasn't cute any more, not like Teej. And Teej would realise one day that he was drop dead gorgeous, and could do better, and then Teej would be gone.

 

They were going to be alone tonight.

 

The timer went, and Dexter pulled out the cookies, put the tray to cool on the windowsill, and remembered to turn off the oven. He took two cookies, wrapped them up in some tissue, and put them in his pocket. They were warm against his leg, and a little bit sweaty. They'd get crumbled, but that didn't matter, they'd still taste as good. He'd eat them on the way home. His father was asleep, so it would be safe enough, and his father's friends didn't come around for him as often these days.

 

He'd get a pizza, he thought, for him and Teej, and they'd go up the mountain (even though Teej said it wasn't really a mountain.) Maybe he'd pinch some of his Dad's beer. Teej had never done anything before, and beer was good. It stopped you being scared, and he didn't want Teej to be scared. It didn't have to be scary, did it? The men had always told him that it got better as you got older, and most of the time, these days, he actually enjoyed it. If it was the right person...

 

He grinned. He could do this. He might be dumb, he might look kinda scrawny, and Teej might be outta his league, but this was something he was good at. He was gonna make Teej real happy, he knew it. He couldn't wait for tonight.