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Back home at the Ambassador East Hotel, Clifford took an extra hot shower to get the aches out after his fight with Moody. He had some nasty bruises, but most were from falls, not the punches the has-been bully had landed on him.

Ricky had gone home, too, to get cleaned up. Afterwards, he was going to come over and eat dinner with Clifford in the Pump Room. Gramma was having drinkies with her new friend Mr. Dobbs, and his dad Larry was missing in action, so he and Ricky would be eating alone in the restaurant.

They both ordered the steak with mushroom gravy, mashed potatoes, and peas. For dessert they had apple pie with vanilla ice cream. Ricky washed it all down with three glasses of milk.

Temporarily full, they took the elevator up to the lived-in suite the Peache family called home.

"Where can I smoke?" Ricky asked. He wasn't dressed up the way he had been the first time he'd come over for dinner. He was wearing a blue plaid long-sleeved shirt, tan corduroy pants, and his beat-up suede hiking boots.

Clifford walked out onto the terrace. Ricky followed him and they sat down at the patio table. Ricky smoked without any style at all, just got the nicotine in his lungs and then stubbed the cigarette out almost as if he hated it.

Clifford stood and looked through the telescope.

"Anything good?" Ricky asked.

Clifford circled the telescope slowly, aiming it at the windows of the high-rise opposite. "It's too early. Two in the morning is the best time."

Ricky didn't smile, but his non-smiling expression was different from the way it had been before. Now it looked like he had just smiled, or was about to, not as if he had never smiled.

"How late can you stay?" Clifford asked.

Ricky shrugged. "I don't have to go home tonight." He stood, elbowed Clifford out of the way, and looked through the telescope. "Maybe I'll stay out here all night. You ever sleep out here?"

Clifford was indignant. "This is a hotel. We can sleep wherever we want."

"How's that?"

"They don't sell out on weeknights. Nearly half the rooms are empty."

"You mean we could take one?"

"Yeah, on the top floor. We can take the telescope with us."

"Won't we get in trouble?"

"Who's going to tell on us? The night staff sneak into empty rooms and take naps. They won't say anything."

They went down to the lobby where Clifford pretended to look for his dad so he could check the room roster and get keys. It was easy for him to get around unobserved. That wasn't the case with Ricky, who was already bigger than most adults, so Clifford made him stay by the newsstand. He got several keys, just in case they ran into any hotel employees.

Back in the Peache suite, he showed Ricky the keys. "We'll have to wait until midnight to make sure the rooms are empty."

"Sure," Ricky said.

They watched ChiPs, Mork & Mindy, M*A*S*H, Taxi, then the news. Gramma hadn't turned up, so she must be staying the night with Mr. Dobbs again. His dad had stopped by briefly, rummaged in drawers in his bedroom, then left. He had looked relieved to see that Clifford was not alone and had Ricky with him.

"Your dad sure works a lot," Ricky said.

"Not tonight. He's banging a stewardess."

Ricky looked impressed. Clifford felt the need to exaggerate.

"He has a whole string of them. He could screw a different woman every night if he wanted to."

"He doesn't want to?"

"Naw, he's too old."

"What a waste."

At midnight, Clifford grabbed a few things, then they took separate elevators to the top floor, meeting at an empty Premium Room with two double beds and an extra big bathroom.

Clifford checked the room and bathroom quickly. The coast was clear. They switched the TV on and lay on separate beds.

"I've never watched TV in bed. Or smoked in bed." Ricky lit up.

The late night movie was Hitchcock style in black and white. They had missed the beginning, so they couldn't figure out who the actors were, or what it was about. They watched it anyway with all the lights out except for the light coming from the TV. Ricky put an ashtray on the floor next to the bed and smoked a cigarette every thirty minutes, a lot for him. He usually got through only a half a pack a day.

The movie ended and a test pattern came on. Clifford got up, took off everything but his underwear, and got under the covers. The room wasn't too smoky thanks to the high-powered air-conditioning.

Ricky went into the bathroom and came back out. "I don't have a tooth brush."

"You can use mine," Clifford said.

Ricky went back into the bathroom.

When he came out, Ricky was undressed down to his boxers. It was the first time Clifford had ever seen him out of his layers and layers of clothes, because Ricky didn't get dressed for gym. He sat on the bleachers and read instead, even though he was the biggest guy in school.

Clifford was the only kid at school who knew why. To hide the scars on his wrists, Ricky always wore long-sleeved shirts and his army jacket.

Looking at his friend, Clifford realized he had imagined that Ricky would look less impressive out of his clothes, like a turtle without a shell, but Ricky didn't. He looked like a man, with lots of hair on his chest and legs. He was leaner without all the padding, but he sure wasn't skinny. The Ricky show ended when he got under the blankets.

Clifford folded his arms over his skinny, hairless chest and cursed genetics. His gramma was practically a midget.

He guessed that Ricky wasn't any sleepier than he was, so he started to talk about strange things people had left behind in their hotel rooms. Ricky didn't say much, but he was obviously wide-awake, too. After Clifford had exhausted his repertoire, he moved on to more current topics.

"I don't get it, Linderman. Why didn't you fight Mike at first?"

"You know why."

"Because of your little brother, yeah, but why exactly?"

"I was afraid."

"Of Mike?"

"Of me."

Clifford thought it over. It made sense, sort of.

"I was afraid to feel anything, even mad," Ricky said.

Clifford thought back to two years earlier, when his mom had been killed in a car accident. It had only been a year since Ricky's little brother had died.

The TV stopped blinking the test pattern and switched to a film of an American flag. What a weird thing to make a movie of, Clifford thought. A flapping flag on a pole. He still wasn't sleepy. "If I looked like you, I wouldn't be afraid of anything."

"I don't feel the way I look."

"What do you mean?"

"Neither do you, Clifford."

"Yeah? How do I feel?"

"Like the way I look."

"That's insane."

"I feel how you look."

"So let's switch."

"Can't," Ricky said immediately, as if he had thought about it already and concluded it was hopeless.

"You're weird, Linderman."

"So are you, Peache."

Clifford stood on his bed, jumped up and down a few times, then leapt the four-foot gap to Ricky's bed, making Ricky bounce. Ricky grabbed his legs and Clifford fell on him.

"Now who's weird," Ricky said as Clifford lay next to him.

"Hey, Ricky, can I ask you something?"


"After I beat up Moody, when we were still at the park, were you about to kiss me? You looked like you were about to kiss me."

"Me kiss you? You'd have to break a whole lot more noses first."

"Then I will."

"Shut up."

Clifford had never shut up in his entire life. He wasn't in the mood to start now. "Ricky, who do you think has the sexiest lips in our homeroom class?"

"I don't know. Who?"


"Shut the hell up."

Ricky was right. Clifford wasn't afraid, and he never had been, no matter what he looked like. He leaned over Ricky and kissed him fast on the mouth.

Ricky lay perfectly still afterwards, then touched his own lips, feeling them as if he had never noticed them before.

Encouraged, Clifford lay on top of Ricky and got comfortable. There was plenty of room. Go ahead, climb aboard.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Ricky said.

"You're not afraid, are you?"

"Of you?" Ricky squeaked. It was a deep squeak that rattled both their chests, but still a squeak.

"Yeah, of me."

Ricky froze again, like an enchanted cartoon princess waiting for a kiss from a cartoon prince.

Clifford kissed him like one, hard and with his mouth closed. When he stopped, Ricky twisted and dumped him off, then Ricky pulled the blankets up over his head.

For the first time, Clifford worried. He hadn't thought about how Ricky might feel about getting kissed. He had just wanted to kiss him. He had wanted to ever since Ricky had let him out of the locker. Maybe he shouldn't have done it. Maybe he should back off. Maybe, but not likely.

"You okay, Linderman?"

"Leave me alone," Ricky said faintly from under the blankets. He put a pillow over his head for insurance.

But Clifford had never been able to leave Ricky alone. He jumped back on the bed and wrenched at the blankets until Ricky was exposed. It was a long, hard fight, and he was gasping by the end.

"Don't you know when to quit?" Ricky said, beating him with a pillow.

He didn't. Ricky ought to know that. But it was sinking in that maybe a kiss was all Ricky could handle right now. That was fair. But it ought to have been a better kiss.

"Give me a real kiss and I'll stop," Clifford said.

"You promise?"

He lay on top of Ricky again. "Yeah, cross my heart and hope to die."

Ricky closed his eyes.

When their tongues touched, it was like Batman. Pow! Zap! Clifford's thoughts turned into huge capital letters with exclamation marks after them.

Ricky pushed him off.

"Hey!" Clifford protested.

"That was long enough."

"It was not!"

"Was, too."

"Just one more, then I'll go to sleep."

"Jesus! All right!"

Clifford took both of Ricky's hands and brought them to his mouth. Ricky watched, looking almost bored, until Clifford turned his hands over and kissed the insides of his wrists, first the right, then the left.

When Ricky tried to hit him, he hung on to Ricky's hands until Ricky stopped struggling.

"Are we cool, Linderman?"

"I swear to God I'll hit you if you ever do that again."

"With a pillow?" Clifford said. "You don't scare me, Linderman."

Ricky pulled the blankets over his head again.

"I'm going to sleep now," Clifford said. He got up and turned the TV off, got on his bed, slid under the covers, and lay on his back with his hands clasped on his chest, imitating sleep.

They were only sophomores, so he had lots of time. Good thing, as some spells couldn't be broken by only one kiss.

"You always get what you want?" Ricky had asked him once, but hadn't waited around for the answer.

Clifford always did.