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I Saw You First by Darien Cox (1)

Prologue

The Luckiest Boy in the World

 

 

“You wanna sleep over?” Wally asked as the other kids were leaving the party. “I already asked my mother.”

My heart skipped as I watched Wally climb out of the swimming pool. Twisting to look behind me, I checked to make sure he wasn’t talking to someone else. But there was no one there. He was definitely addressing me. I was stunned to be singled out for this honor. Sleeping over at Wally Cook’s house? Me, Jude Applegate? This was blue ribbon stuff.

I wondered what I’d done to stand out in the crowd of other kids that afternoon. I was shy, so it wasn’t like I’d wowed Wally with my wit or sparkling personality. I wasn’t the best volleyball player by half. And I sure wasn’t the best looking. At least for a boy, I guess, since I was used to being teased I looked like a girl. But I suspected that had less to do with prettiness and more to do with my long hair. That, and my less than masculine physique.

No matter how much I ate, or how much firewood I chopped for my folks all year, I was still too skinny, my muscles small and unremarkable. And after a day in the pool, my auburn hair was probably tangled and stringy. Cutting my hair would ease the ‘har har, you look like a girl’ comments, but I hated the way my ears stuck out, so deemed it the lesser of two evils. Regardless, I doubted Wally found me visually appealing. Not that Wally Cook would notice another boy’s looks. Not the way I did.

But I was so humbled by the invitation, I didn’t really care how I’d managed to score it. I’d been thrilled enough to be invited to the party in the first place, since I’d only just managed to work my way into Wally’s friend group in the second half of the school year. I hadn’t thought it could get any better than when Wally called me on the phone once in a while just to talk...although I suspected he called all his friends when he got bored, not just me. I was certain none of his other friends were as thrilled by the calls as I was, however. Last time we’d talked so long it was after midnight when we finally hung up. But to be the only one asked to sleep over? All the jackasses from school would be jealous when they heard. None of them would admit it, but most vied for Wally’s attention. They wanted to spend more time at his huge house, swim in his pool, bask in his coolness. I wanted that too, maybe more than anyone.

But I was also nervous, because I’d recently begun to accept something about myself. I used to think other boys were faking it when they expressed revulsion at the idea of being queer for someone, that they must be hiding their true feelings, like me. But I was thirteen going on fourteen now, older and wiser. I didn’t trust internet searches because that was a good way to get found out, so I’d been reading a lot of books in the library about people like me, albeit privately, huddled in the corner with plenty of magazines to mask the material should someone walk by. I knew now that it was me who was different, so I no longer thought the other boys were faking it. They wanted to hang out with Wally because he was rich and popular and didn’t seem scared of anything. They wanted to be associated with Wally’s position in the middle school social hierarchy. But they didn’t have a crush on Wally Cook, the way I did.

It had to be a crush, because if I really thought about it, there was nothing particularly special about Wally beyond his good looks and magnetism. At least nothing he let show on the outside, though I was pretty sure some of Wally’s toughness was a façade. Every now and then I’d catch a sad expression on his face when he thought no one was looking, deep in his own thoughts. I was probably the only one who spotted this, because I was the only one discreetly staring at him all the time.

Sure, he could be kind occasionally. He’d asked on the phone one night what my favorite candy was, and thereafter would discreetly slip a Peppermint Pattie into my palm sometimes as we passed in the hallway at school. And he smiled at me a lot, sometimes for no reason at all. But at the end of the day, the two of us had little in common. I loved books for instance, but Wally bragged that he didn’t like to read, and was known to steal teachers’ answer keys before tests and pass them around. I never needed to cheat because I’d always done the reading, but one time I accepted the answer key from Wally anyway, just so he wouldn’t think I was a nerd. 

Wally’s confidence was impressive, but it often bordered on arrogance, and he could be mean. Never to me, so far, but I’d witnessed him tease the other boys in a way that went too far sometimes. They’d play along like he hadn’t hurt their feelings, but I caught Emmet Barker crying in the locker room one time. Emmet was so mad that I’d discovered him in such a state, he shoved me against a locker when I asked if he was all right. I knew it was Wally that upset him, but Emmet wouldn’t admit it, said his cat died. Emmet was from Gullport, like me, and I’d been to his house before. He didn’t have a cat.

But I wasn’t wasting much sympathy on Emmet Barker today, because at the party he’d pulled my hair, calling me ‘Julie’ and making fun of my skinny legs. Wally told him to knock it off, and this defense of me clearly infuriated Emmet. Despite the tears I’d seen in the locker room that day, Emmet continually muscled in front of others to be at Wally’s side, desperate to win the ‘best friend’ title, so I selfishly hoped he’d find out I’d stayed over at the Cook house tonight and be sick with envy. Though I supposed I wasn’t much better than Emmet, because I coveted the best friend title too.

I’d first told myself what I felt for Wally Cook was admiration, maybe a bit of hero worship because he was so bold, and I so meek. But after today, that excuse was nixed. Watching Wally’s tanned body as we played volleyball in the pool, his lean form already widening in the shoulders, on his way to becoming a man while I still looked like a little kid. Thinking he was even cuter all flushed from exercise with his dark hair wet and slicked back from his face. Getting lightheaded every time he smiled at me. I knew now it was something else I was feeling. Something the other boys would make fun of.

But that didn’t mean I was going to say no to a chance to spend the night. Just being in Wally’s presence was thrill enough, but at night? Something about the falling light softened everything in the summer, and the thought of being away from my parents, out after curfew with someone I liked more than a friend? It made me feel like anything was possible. Like I was the luckiest boy in the world.

“Yo, Julien.” Wally waved his hand in front of my face. “You hear me? Can you sleep over?”

Wally was one of the only people besides my teachers who called me Julien, likely because he was new to our school this year, and had heard my given name called out in homeroom attendance roll each morning. My family, and most of my old friends called me Jude, but I didn’t bother to correct Wally. He could have called me Frank or Bill or Fuckface and I probably still wouldn’t have corrected him, because at least he was talking to me.

To hide my stunned excitement at Wally’s invitation, I shrugged casually and made a show of squeezing pool water out of my hair. “What about your dad?”

“Screw him, Mom said it’s fine.”

Wally acted like he wasn’t afraid of his father, so I guessed he was just used to him. Because Mr. Cook definitely scared me a little. Throughout the raucous backyard pool party, an end of the schoolyear celebration combined with Wally’s fourteenth birthday bash, his father came out a few times to make sure we were all behaving ourselves. The man was handsome like his son, tall and suntanned with a swoop of dark hair and extra white teeth. Just like Wally, Mr. Cook’s hair had glimpses of golden sun streaks even though it was almost black. Like he was so handsome even the sun couldn’t take its eye off him. He wore a polo shirt with pleated shorts and had the look of a civilized, sophisticated businessman ready for a round of golf.

But Wally’s father shouted a lot, screaming at his son to keep the music down and to tell his damn friends to put their soda cans in the recycle bin, calling us ‘fucking savages’. When he’d nearly tripped over a football left on the lawn, Mr. Cook threw it roughly at Wally in retaliation, hitting him in the face. I could tell that it hurt, leaving him rubbing his cheek. But Wally said nothing to his father, simply shook it off and continued playing in the pool. A short, awkward silence had befallen the rest of us, however. I couldn’t imagine my own father shouting and swearing like that, especially in front of my friends. And I certainly couldn’t imagine my dad deliberately hurting me.

Was this how the other half lived, or was it specific to the Cook family? Either way it was jarring and scary. I’d never spent time with rich people before, not the kind of rich Wally’s family was. Maybe they were just different. Wally was certainly different than any kid I’d ever met. He swore and talked back to teachers, smoked cigarettes behind the gym, and knew more about sex and grownup stuff than most kids. When Wally Cook started going to our school last year, it caused quite a stir. Everyone wanted to be friends with the new kid, drawn by his magnetism, cocky attitude, and rumored wealth. While Eastern Heights Regional served not only Gullport kids like me, but a combination of students bussed in from nearby coastal towns, we didn’t get many kids from Landing, like Wally. Landing was a wealthy town, and the rich kids usually went to private school.

Wally told us private school was boring, and that he’d chosen to attend the local middle school against his parents’ wishes. I couldn’t imagine what could be more boring than Eastern Heights, but Wally claimed there were fewer rules in public school, and the kids were more willing to break them, which he found appealing. 

As my father drove me over for the party earlier that day, I learned fast that Wally’s wealth was more than a rumor. I’d been to Landing a couple times before, but not since I was little, so I’d stared out the window as we drove through the beachside town, noting the establishments boasting the Cook name.

Cook’s Boat Shop. Cook’s General Store. Cook’s Bar and Grill. And high on a hill was a gleaming white structure that looked like a small castle, a sign with an arrow announcing The Cook Family Inn. That made me chuckle, as the name suggested a quaint, family-run bed and breakfast rather than the enormous fancy hotel overlooking the sea.

My own family was in the hospitality business too, but on a far simpler level. We ran Beaver Tail Motel and Cabins back in Gullport, and my little sister Lindy and I had a comfortable life. We weren’t poor, but the Cooks would probably see us as such. Beaver Tail was just motel, but it was a nice one, and we got plenty of regular business from out-of-towners who wanted to get away from it all. And it wasn’t just tourists—the Gullport locals came by to spend the day at Beaver Tail in the summer, since we had a large salt pond with a beach right out back, and our property extended to include a maze of woodsy hiking trails.

We had kayaks and canoes and fishing gear for guests to use in the summer, but we were also open year-round, with cross-country skiing in the winter. While it wasn’t a grand castle hotel like the Cook’s place, it still required constant attention, so we rarely traveled as a family for our own vacations. I wondered now if this had made me naïve or sheltered, since Wally Cook was my own age but acted so much older. He’d been all over the world for his family vacations and had grand stories of all the exotic places he’d caused trouble in. I’d barely ever left Gullport.

But if I was honest with myself, I’d never really felt like I was missing anything. I had acres of woods to call my back yard, and the salt pond was a whole lot bigger than any swimming pool—even Wally Cook’s. So while I was impressed by Wally’s wealth, I felt no envy. The town of Landing was nice, but I didn’t think I’d want to live here. I liked my own town just fine. Gullport wasn’t far from Landing but was so different with its forests and cliffs and wide-open spaces. Spread out over a peninsula at the edge of the east coast, it was scrubby and swampy and woodsy, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I even loved the rotten egg smell of the salt marshes.

“Are you sure your dad won’t mind if I stay over?” I asked Wally. “He seemed mad earlier.”

“He ain’t mad, he’s just always like that.” Wally gave me that arrogant look that made him seem older, chin tilted upward, dark brows lowered. His hair was drying, sparse sun streaks in rich dark brown, nipples hardening against his tanned skin as the sun sank and an evening breeze kicked up. I wished my hair was thick and dark like Wally’s. I even envied his underarm hair, black and silky, unlike my own barely visible blondish tufts. “Don’t worry about my dad,” he said as he stretched his arms over his head and yawned. “Mom said yes so screw him.”

“I’ll have to call my parents.”

Wally shrugged. “So call them.”

I made the call and my parents reluctantly agreed, though it embarrassed me when my mom insisted on speaking with Mrs. Cook first. My folks were a bit overprotective, and while I certainly wasn’t smothered, they cared enough to want to know all the details if I was going to be away from home. It shouldn’t have embarrassed me, but Wally acted like he was completely independent, and the fact that he had parents at all was just an annoying detail that didn’t directly affect his life. I didn’t want him to think I was a baby by comparison. I already felt behind in terms of maturity. More innocent. Less worldly.

But finally, it was done. I would be spending the night in Wally’s room. It made me feel sick with nerves, but at the same time I wanted to be behind closed doors with the other boy now, and not because of my crush. The family made me uncomfortable. A housekeeper scurried about cleaning up, while Wally’s two older teenage brothers, Harrison and Glenn, lingered in the large kitchen, their voices loud and jarring. They weren’t as good looking as Wally, a bit blockier with less refined facial features. The brothers ignored my presence as they strode to the fridge, threatening Wally with death if he told their dad they were stealing beers.

Finally, blessedly, Wally said, “Let’s go upstairs” and I followed him to the second floor where his bedroom was.

Wally’s bed was even bigger than my parents’. I couldn’t imagine my folks springing for a king-sized bed for just me. I still had the same lumpy twin mattress I’d had since I was nine. Wally rested back against the pillows, flipping through a comic book. Nearby, a cot had been set up for me, complete with pajamas laid out. A housekeeper came in and set towels on the pillow. “Some towels for you, hon,” she said to me.

“Thank you.” 

“Thanks, Maggie,” Wally said without looking up. “You’re the best.”

The housekeeper, a thirty-something woman with sandy hair tied back in a bun, gave Wally a passing glance but said nothing, nodding at me before retreating and closing the door behind her. I thought I saw something sour in the housekeeper’s expression when her eyes fell on Wally but couldn’t imagine why. He seemed like a decent enough kid despite a few personality flaws, and he’d been polite to her.

“Doesn’t she like you?” I asked.

Wally looked up, frowning. “Who?”

“Maggie. She gave you a funny look.”

Wally’s face pinched in a grimace and he shrugged. “She usually works at our hotel. Only comes here once in a while when we need extra help. I play jokes on her sometimes but she’s too uptight to appreciate my sense of humor.”

“Oh.” I moved the towels and sat on the cot, feeling awkward.

Over on the big bed, Wally chuckled. “Man, check this out.” He turned his open comic book to show me. And that’s when I realized it wasn’t a comic book Wally was perusing—he simply had a comic book placed outside a porn magazine as camouflage. A large-breasted, naked woman dominated the page, lip curled into a pout, thighs spread, fingers pulling her bubblegum-pink vagina open.

I forced a chuckle. “Wow.”

Grinning, Wally resumed flipping through the pages, legs stretched out in front of him. He was still shirtless in his shorts, and I tried not to stare at his tanned chest and belly. “You can come sit over here if you want,” he said.

“Okay.” I stood and glanced down at the pajamas on the cot, wondering if I should change into them. Like Wally, I was still in only my shorts. The idea of sitting half-naked in bed with Wally...it stirred my penis to a hard little branch, terrifying me.

Wally glanced up from his magazine. “Do you want to look at this with me or not?”

“Yeah, was just thinking about changing, I’m a little cold.”

“Here.” Absentmindedly, Wally pulled the blankets down and shimmied beneath them. He patted the mattress beside him. “Come get under.”

Oh. Crap. Fearing any further hesitation would give me away, I quickly walked over and slipped under the blanket. I stayed near the edge of the bed until Wally glanced at me. “Scoot over so you can see.”

I shuffled over next to Wally. Leaning back against the puffy pillows, I tried to relax and pretend to be interested in the magazine.

“Oh man, look at that furry one,” Wally said, having flipped the page and discovered yet another naked vagina.

I snorted. “Yeah. Pretty furry.”

Wally flipped a couple pages, leaning closer so I could view the glossy nudes. “You jerk off?”

My mouth went dry and I giggled nervously. “I guess.”

Wally looked at me, his pretty brown eyes narrowed. “You guess?”

“I mean...yeah. I have.”

Laughing, Wally nudged me with his shoulder, then flipped another page. “Of course you have. I started when I was eleven.”

“Yeah.” I chuckled.

Our arms brushed together, and I noted the contrast between our skin tones. Despite spending hours outside helping my parents at the motel grounds, my arm was merely pink next to Wally’s tanned one. I’d inherited my father’s fair skin and auburn hair, and knew I’d never achieve that golden color. I pondered again if I was just jealous of Wally. Perhaps it wasn’t attraction, but more of an intense envy. Maybe I simply wanted to be Wally Cook.

But that thought went out the window when Wally reached under the blanket and adjusted his own crotch, shooting me a mischievous grin and making my blood heat. “I have to do it every night,” he said. “Jerk off, I mean. If I don’t I have dreams and wake up with wet sheets.”

“Yeah,” I said, trying to control my breathing.

“A guy I used to know at boarding school said if you use Ben Gay numbing cream on your palm, it feels like someone else’s hand is jerking you off. You ever hear that?”

“No way!” I laughed. “It would burn.”

“Yeah!” Wally cackled, head falling back on the pillow. “Imagine having to explain that to the doctor.”

“Or your mom.”

“Right.” Wally laughed harder, slapping his hand on my thigh over the blanket. “Have you ever had someone else do it?”

Thinking I must have heard him wrong, I squeaked out, “What?”

“Ever had someone else do it for you?” He rubbed himself over his shorts. “You know. Like a girl or something. Ever have someone else touch it?”

“Oh.” I let out a shuddering breath. “I um...no.” Was I supposed to have had such an experience at age thirteen? Was I behind the times?

“Me either,” Wally said, and I relaxed. But my relaxation was short lived, as Wally followed with, “Do you want to try it?”

My face caught fire. “What?”

“You jerk me off and I jerk you off. It’s not gay or anything.”

“I know,” I said, though I didn’t know. It sounded pretty gay to me.

“You want to?” Wally drew back the blanket and grinned down at my groin, which was embarrassingly tented by my erection. “Yeah, looks like you want to.”

“It’s the magazine,” I said defensively.

Wally shrugged. “I know.”

“Sometimes it just happens for no reason,” I continued. I knew I should stop talking, but fear was a panicked rabbit inside my chest, ready to flee, terrified my attraction to the other boy would be exposed.

Stretching back, Wally set the magazine aside. I watched, hypnotized as he opened his Velcro fly and shimmied his shorts down, enough to show the white tan line below his hips and a thatch of pubic hair. Then he reached down, and suddenly there it was. Unable to look away, I stared, heart pounding as Wally took hold of his exposed erection. It looked different than mine, thicker with a slight curve. “Will you touch it for me?” Wally asked. “I’ll do the same for you.”

“Um...okay.” With shaking fingers, I reached over and tentatively rested my hand on it. Wally’s penis was fever hot, the skin surprisingly soft, and I inhaled sharply when it twitched up into my palm.

And that’s when the bedroom door opened and Glenn Cook, Wally’s older brother, stepped into the room. “Wally you little shit did you take my...what the fuck are you doing?”

I lurched away from Wally so fast I rolled off the bed and thumped painfully onto the floor. Wally sprang to his feet and backed up into the corner of the room. His tanned face paled as his fingers made quick work of his shorts, tucking himself back in place.

As for his older brother Glenn, he stared open-mouthed, horror and revulsion evident on his blocky face.

“He made me,” Wally said, pointing at me. “He said he’d kill me if I didn’t let him touch it.”

What?” I climbed to my feet, heart hammering. “I did not!”

Glenn’s face scrunched and he pointed at me. “Him? You’re telling me you were afraid of this little hippie fuck, Wally?”

“He’s from Gullport. You know what kids from Gullport are like! He said he’d kill me when we got back to school! He’s probably got a knife in his locker!”

As horrified as I was by Wally’s words, I was almost more stunned by his demeanor. For the very first time, I was seeing Wally Cook—the kid not scared of anything—looking utterly and completely terrified. And I didn’t think he was faking it. His lips trembled, and he was breathing too fast. I knew it was not me he was afraid of. But paired with his accusation, the reaction persuaded Glenn.

In four long strides, Wally’s older brother closed in on me, gripping me around the neck and shoving me into the wall. “Little fucking perv! You threaten my brother?”

“No!” I squirmed, and the meaty hand tightened on my throat. “Wally, tell the truth!”

“I am telling the truth.” Wally shot a glare of pure disgust my way, so convincing it felt like he’d gut-punched me. “You said if I didn’t let you touch my dick you’d get me when I least expect it. That you’d even hurt my family!

I was stunned at the elaborate nature of the lie, and at how quickly and easily Wally had thought it up.

“Is that right, marsh rat?” Glenn’s face sneered in mine, his breath sour with beer. “You threaten my family?”

“No! He’s lying!”

“Let’s see who my father thinks is lying, marsh rat,” Glenn said.

“No, don’t tell Dad!” Wally pleaded, his face paling further. “Glenn, don’t tell. I can handle this myself. Come on, Glenn, please don’t tell Dad!”

Releasing my neck, Glenn grabbed my arm and roughly dragged me out of the bedroom. Once in the hallway, he shouted, “Dad!”

Twenty minutes later, I was seated alone in the large kitchen. I’d been ordered to stay there by Mr. Cook, who I could now hear shouting somewhere else in the house. “And you’re never going back to that school! Do you hear me, Walter?”

I was terrified, humiliated, but also defiant and angry. I flinched each time I heard Wally’s voice. “Ouch, Dad don’t! You’ll break my arm! He made me! He threatened to kill me!”

Maggie the housekeeper stepped into the kitchen. She removed her apron and sighed, coming to kneel before my chair. “You okay, honey?”

“Yeah,” I said, but my voice cracked. I fought not to cry. “I didn’t threaten Wally.”

Maggie’s smile was sympathetic. “I believe you,” she whispered.

“Why is he telling lies about me?” My eyes stung with unshed tears. “I thought he was my friend.”

The housekeeper squeezed my hand. “Forget about him. You’re going to find a lot of people disappoint in life. You just stick to the ones that value you, okay?”

“How...how do I tell the difference?”

Sighing, she gave me another sympathetic smile. “You’ll learn.”

“Maggie.” Mrs. Cook, a skinny, plastic-looking woman with yellow curly hair, stepped into the kitchen, her lips a tight, straight line. “You can go home now.”

Maggie stiffened and rose. “Thanks, Mrs. Cook.” She discreetly patted my shoulder, then left the kitchen.

Mrs. Cook studied me through narrowed eyes, but said only, “Your father is coming to get you,” before walking out again.

My terror returned. What would my dad think? What had he been told by Wally’s parents? Would he believe them? My father was a kind man. He was big and strong, but gentle. He rarely got angry or shouted, and on the rare occasions he did, Mom would order him to calm down. “Watch your blood pressure, Tom,” she’d say. “Do your meditation.” Dad would immediately get hold of himself and calm, usually ending up hugging Mom and thanking her. I wanted to be like my father when I grew up. I didn’t want to disappoint him.

“Hey! Hey kid!”

I turned toward the whisper and saw a little boy peering around the corner where the kitchen opened to a darkened dining room. The kid was small and spindly and wore white pajamas with colorful superheroes all over them. “Hey,” I said.

The child lingered there, clinging to the doorway, half in, half out of the kitchen. He stared at me with huge, beautiful brown eyes, black lashes like enormous spiders. I figured he must have been Wally’s little brother. He had the Cook look, tanned skin and rosebud lips. Unlike Wally, the child’s hair was honey-blond, and his features were more delicate, but there was no mistaking the resemblance. 

“Are you in trouble?” the little boy whispered.

“I don’t know.” 

“Glenn said you kissed Wally.”

I scowled. While Glenn had obviously altered the facts and given them a G-rating for his little brother’s sake, I found it appalling that he’d said anything at all to the kid. “How old are you?”

“Almost nine.” He stretched his ribs and lifted his chin. “I look older, right?”

“I don’t know. Eight sounds about right.”

He made a scoffing sound, reminding me of Wally. “I’m the second tallest kid in my class.”

“Good for you,” I said. “Now get out of here before your dad finds you talking to me.” 

The boy remained where he was. “Glenn said you’re a marsh rat from Gullport and you’re gonna burn in hell for kissing Wally.”

“Go away, kid. It’s none of your business.”

The little cherub grinned, and took a tentative step into the room, pausing there, one hand still gripping the wall as if for safety. He seemed pleased to have gotten a rise out of me. “You’re gonna burn in hell,” he said, a giggle escaping. “The devil’s gonna make you dance in fire forever.”

“Whatever. I like dancing and I like fire.”

“Really?”

“Really. Now get lost.”

“You should have kissed him on the hand,” the boy whispered.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes.” Letting go of the wall, the tiny pajama-clad imp moved closer, rocking back and forth on bare feet. “I kissed Michael once. He’s my best friend at school. But I kissed him on the hand. Mom said I won’t go to hell for that.”

I found myself smiling despite the events of the night. The kid was adorable, and his innocent sweetness evoked a calm feeling, easing my anxiety. “Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

“I sneaked out. Everyone was yelling. I wanted to know what was going on.”

“Nothing’s going on. I’m just waiting for my father to pick me up. Go to bed.”

“Is your father gonna hit you?”

“No. Of course he’s not gonna hit me.”

“My dad hits me but only when he says I’m being a little shit. To teach me when I’m wrong. You were wrong when you kissed Wally.”

“I didn’t kiss Wally.”

“Glenn says you did and you’re gonna burn in hell.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t care what your brother says. Your brothers are liars.”

“I know.” The kid’s gaze lowered and he shrugged. “Wally says sometimes we have to lie. Sometimes we have no choice.”

I huffed but didn’t comment.

The boy watched me silently for a time, then took a slow step, closing the distance between us. “Your eyes are weird.”

“Why are my eyes weird?

“Because. They look like blue marbles.”

“You’ve never seen blue eyes before?”

“Yes I have! But yours are like, really blue.”

“Okay.”

“I like them.”

“Thank you. I guess you like weird things then.”

He grinned. “So?”

So?” I mimicked, making him laugh.

After another long silence, the child held his arm out. “You can kiss my hand if you want to.”

Chuckling, I said, “That’s nice of you, kid, but no thanks.”

“Are you sure? I won’t tell.”

“I’m sure. But thanks for the offer.”

“Shea!”

The little boy and I both flinched at the booming voice. Mr. Cook stormed into the kitchen and grabbed the child’s arm, flinging him back. “Stay the hell away from him!” 

In his rage, Mr. Cook used too much force to grab his little boy’s spindly arm, and the kid went flying across the kitchen floor. His face connected with a chair and he began screaming.

“Hey!” I got up and ran to the child. A small but deep cut under the boy’s eye bled freely as he howled. “You okay?”

“He hurt my arm!” The boy was seemingly unaware of the cut on his face. He cradled his elbow, back jerking with sobs. “My arm!”

I examined the cut beneath the boy’s eye, then looked up. “It’s deep. He probably needs stitches.”

Mr. Cook glowered down at me. “Are you deaf? I said get away from my son!”

“I hate you!” the child said through his tears. “I hate you, Dad!”

“Oh get up, Shea. You’re fine.” He pointed at me. “And you get away from him!”

I was terrified of Mr. Cook, but when he lunged for his son, something instinctual made me put my body in front of the little boy. The man glared, jaw muscles twitching. “Shea,” he said. “Come here. Get away from that boy, now.”

“No!” Still weeping, the child clung to the back of my shirt. “You’ll hit me.”

“If you keep talking back I will! Get your ass over here, Shea, now!”

I kept my body in front of the kid like a shield. “Leave him alone.”

“Leave him alone? He’s my son!” Mr. Cook grabbed my wrist and yanked, dragging me back to my chair, slamming me down.

“Ouch!” I screamed as my wrist exploded with pain.

“Virginia!” he shouted as the tiny boy continued to scream on the kitchen floor. “Come get Shea, for Christ sakes.”

Mrs. Cook scurried into the room. She scowled down at her son. “Oh, Shea, you’re bleeding. What are you doing out of bed?” She gathered the child up.

My gaze was drawn by movement as Wally darted into the kitchen. Having changed into a tee shirt and PJ bottoms, he glared at his mother, then ripped the little boy out of her arms. “Don’t you touch him!”

“Wally!” Mrs. Cook gasped. “Put him down, you’re gonna hurt your back.”

Wally’s younger brother clung to him, sobbing. It was an odd sight, as the little boy, while slight of form, was too big to be held like a baby, an awkward bundle in his older brother’s arms. But Wally held him tight, hiking him up like he was accustomed to doing so. 

“You!” Mr. Cook pointed at Wally, his rage seeming to double in an instant. “I told you to stay in your room!”

“Wally, come on,” Mrs. Cook said, reaching for Shea. “Give him to me. I’ll put him to bed.”

Wally jolted back out of her reach, his little brother wrapped around him like a monkey. “I said don’t touch him,” Wally hissed, then carried his brother through the doorway, out of sight.

“I hate you, Dad!” the little boy screamed as he was taken away. “I hate you and God is watching you!”

“Walter!” Mr. Cook shouted. “You don’t talk back to your mother! Get your ass back here or you’re gonna be sorry!” 

“Not now, Harry,” Mrs. Cook said. A final glance at me, then she too left the room. 

I stayed in my chair and avoided looking at Wally’s father, praying he’d leave as well. He paced back and forth in front of my chair. “Fucking kids,” he shouted, running fingers through his short dark hair. “Like I don’t have enough shit to deal with.”

“What the hell is going on in here?”

I looked up as my father stepped into the kitchen. “Dad!”

“You all right, Jude?” My father’s face was flushed red, and he looked angry.

“He’s fine,” Mr. Cook said. “Now get him out of my house. Your kid’s caused enough trouble for one night.”

My father glared at Mr. Cook. His eyes drifted back to me when I stood. “I wanna go home, Dad.”

I didn’t realize I’d been holding my own arm until my father’s eyes drifted to it. He leaned over and gently removed my hand, examining my wrist, which had finger marks bruised into the flesh. Rising, he closed in on Mr. Cook. “You son of a bitch. You put your hands on my fucking kid?

“He’s fine. Just get him out of here.”

The two men squared off. Wally’s father was tall, but my dad was thicker, more muscular. They were the picture of opposites as they faced each other, Cook polished and fussy in his shorts and polo shirt, my father gruff and solid in a tee shirt and jeans with hiking boots. My dad’s auburn hair was short and darker than mine, but I’d been told we looked alike, and I prayed that one day I’d be as big and strong. But I’d never seen my father so angry, and it frightened me. Grownups weren’t supposed to fight with each other, but I was suddenly afraid my father was going to hit Mr. Cook. “I’ll ask you again. Did you put your fucking hands on my kid?”

“Your kid,” Mr. Cook pointed at me, “put his hands on my kid.”

My father moved so close to Mr. Cook their chests bumped. “I don’t care what happened. You touch my child I will break your fucking neck.”

Mr. Cook’s bravado faded, and he took a step back. “I didn’t hurt him.”

“Oh yeah? Those bruises on his wrist just magically appeared?”

“He was playing with Walter, it got rough. I didn’t touch him.”

I glared at Mr. Cook. So his sons weren’t the only liars in the family. My dad looked at me. “Jude, is that true? You get hurt fighting with the other boy?”

I didn’t want to see my dad in a fistfight, and I didn’t want to be in this house any longer. So, I lied. “Yes,” I said. “I hurt my arm fighting with Wally.”

“Are you sure that’s what happened?”

“Dad, please!” My tears finally escaped. “I’m not hurt, I just want to go home!

He pointed his finger in Mr. Cook’s face. “If I find out differently, you’ll be hearing from me. Let’s go, Jude.”

I followed my father out of the house and to his truck idling in the driveway. My father said nothing for the first half of the ride back to Gullport, probably because I was sobbing uncontrollably in the passenger seat, the emotional dam breaking now that I was safe. Also, my wrist was throbbing with pain, but I opted not to mention it. I feared he’d turn the truck around and make good on his promise to break Mr. Cook’s neck, and I didn’t want to go back to that house.

When I finally began to quiet, the last of the tears drying on my face, a warm hand squeezed my shoulder. “You all right?”

Sniffling, I wiped my nose. “Yeah.” I glanced at my father. Eyes on the road, he seemed calm enough, but his face was still red. His fingers gripped the steering wheel very tight. “I’m sorry, Dad.”

“You have something to be sorry for?”

“I...I don’t know.”

We didn’t speak again for the rest of the drive. I rolled down the window and let the salt air soothe me as the road grew isolated and we drove past the marshes. Up a steep road, then he took the left at the entrance to our property. Past the recreation center and the motel, finally pulling up in front of our dark wood log home up on the hill out back. I saw my mother peer out the window.

My dad waved to my mother and held up one finger. She nodded and the curtain fell back in place. “We should talk about this before we go inside. Your mother’s worried. I took the call. Told her you had a fight with the Cook boy, that’s all.”

Hanging my head, I nodded. “Thanks, Dad.”

“But that wasn’t the lot of it, was it?” He looked at me.

Shrinking in my seat, I shook my head.

“Did you touch that boy inappropriately, like his father said?”

I didn’t like to lie to my father. Not about anything significant. And I’d already lied to him once tonight, about how I’d injured my wrist. I decided I’d be truthful with him now though, about this. There had been enough lying tonight from the Cook family, and I didn’t want to be like them. “He asked me to. He undid his pants and asked me to touch him. So...I did.”

My dad flinched, then he turned in the seat to face me, blue eyes hard and serious. “You like boys?”

Stomach trembling, I nodded.

“For how long?”

“For...forever, I think.”

“Not girls?”

“No, not...not in the same way.” My father stared at me so long I winced. “Are you mad?”

“I’m not mad. I’m worried.”

“Why?”

“You’ve always been too trusting, Jude. Trusted the wrong person tonight, didn’t you?”

“But how do I know I can trust someone?”

“You don’t! That’s my point!”

I jumped at my father’s raised voice.

Taking a deep breath, he blinked slowly. Calmer, he said, “You don’t know who you can trust with this. So just keep it quiet, at least until you get older.” He sighed, looking me over. “Until you get bigger. A lot bigger.”

“Because it’s wrong?”

“No! There’s not a damn thing wrong about you. I mean because it’s not safe, Jude. I just...I’m trying to keep you safe. Letting the wrong people know you like boys could get you hurt.”

“So I have to lie. I have to become a liar, like Wally Cook.”

“Damn it, Jude.” My father slammed his fist down on the steering wheel, facing front. “It’s not the same thing. This is for your own protection. You have to keep it quiet, understand?”

“But for how long? I’ve been hiding it so long already. What if—”

“Just do as I say!”

I flinched. My father rarely shouted like that. He’d said he wasn’t angry, that I wasn’t wrong to like boys. But I’d never seen him so upset. “Don’t yell, Dad. I hate when you’re mad at me.”

“I’m not mad at you.”

“Who...who are you mad at then?”

Sighing, he shook his head. “I don’t know. That prick, Harry Cook. His little shit of a son. The world.” He looked at me. “Can you please trust I know what’s best for you? Please just trust me on this, okay? Not everyone out there is kind. I want you to be ready for that. Can you do this for me? Please.”

“Okay. I won’t tell anyone ‘til I get older. I promise.”

“Good. That’s good.” My father took slow, deep breaths, facing front again. “You know I love you, right?”

“Yeah. I love you too.”

“Sorry I raised my voice. Just give me a minute, Jude,” he said, gripping the steering wheel and resting his forehead on it. “Give me a minute,” he whispered.

I waited, allowing him a moment to calm down. A moment turned into several. Then as minutes passed, my father still hadn’t moved, his head resting on the steering wheel, silent.

“Dad?” When I got no response, I shook his shoulder. “Dad!”

My father slumped back and my heart hammered in panic. I climbed over and looked at his face. His teeth were clenched, eyes slightly parted, rolled back, showing a sliver of white. He didn’t seem to be breathing. “Dad!” I cried, shaking his face, slapping it. “Dad, wake up!”

When nothing changed, I finally got out of the truck and ran to the house. My mother whirled around when I burst through the front door. “Mom,” I croaked. “Something’s wrong with Dad.”

The rest of the night was a blur of shock. Ambulance. Hospital. Hushed voices of doctors speaking to my mother in an antiseptic hallway. Mom driving us home. My little sister sobbing. Mom tucking me into bed, her lips trembling as she explained that Dad was gone. Dead.

The world spinning as I couldn’t get enough air, my mother’s words distant and far away, barely penetrating my awareness.

“...blood pressure medication...stroke...nothing the doctors could do...nobody’s fault...

But it was someone’s fault. High blood pressure or not, someone got Dad upset tonight. Someone stressed him out. If my father hadn’t gotten so upset and angry, he might still be alive. I killed him. I killed my father. My fault.

I curled up in fetal position, sounding like a wounded animal as I moaned the words out again and again until I cried myself to sleep.  “My fault. My fault. My fault.”

 

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