A/N: One of my first attempts at a long-ish story. I'd like to know what people think.


Caution: There is no real sexual content in this, but contains two teenage gay boys and humanity, so naturally there is some.


The summer was unusually hot and humid the year Lawrence Patrick McCarthy II turned 16.

Every other day, thunder crackled and lightening crashed as the heat became too much, thunderstorms developed, and managed to cool nights off enough for sleep, only for the heat and humidity to start again the next morning. The residents of Baile, New York grumbled that they weren't the Midwest and their climate didn't deal out things like that, but they had to tolerate it since it was beyond their own control. Besides, it didn't stop them from doing their usual summer things.

L.J. McCarthy went to the pick-up games of soccer every evening. When he was lucky, he got in and played on a decent team. He technically wasn't allowed to be at the pick-up games (his father said they were a breeding ground for disorder and lawlessness), but there wasn't much anything else to do in Baile. He told his mother he was going to the library or B.J.'s and went there anyway.

Besides, if he stared too long at Scott D'Ambrosio running around without his shirt at the soccer games, no one cared.

Staring at Scott in elementary and middle school made L.J. have vague suspicions he was gay. When the staring turned to secret dreams that made L.J. ashamed in the morning, he was pretty sure and terrified, considering his father's vehemently anti-gay stance on everything.

The third week of July, L.J. was sitting on the sidelines at one of the soccer games when Mark Powell was actually knocked out by the ball flying through the air after it bounced off the goal post. After Mark was revived and taken home by a friend, Scott turned to everyone on the sidelines and L.J. really had to control himself because Scott was wearing just his soccer shorts and cleats in the heat (which, incidentally, made him sweaty and look oddly sexy).

"B.J., Paul, who can fill in for Mark?"

Scott's teammates sauntered from the field and looked at the boys sitting on the sidelines. L.J. really didn't want to be chosen, but he saw his cousin, B.J., eyeing him and poking Scott in the side.

He had told just B.J. about his suspicions and Scott. L.J. wanted to fall over dead before any scheme of B.J.'s came into play.

He didn't fall over dead and Scott pointed at him a few minutes later.

"B.J. says you should play. You want to?"

L.J. couldn't talk, but he nodded his head. Scott jerked his head back.

"We're skins, so take off your shirt and let's go."

Well that was something that L.J. had only dreamed about Scott saying to him, although in a different context. He took off his shirt and walked out onto the field. B.J. was the goalie and grinning at L.J., who ignored him.

L.J. proceeded to play the best game of soccer of his life. He kicked the ball to Scott three times, two of which led to goals, and scored a goal himself. Scott grinned at him after the game was over.

"You should play with us more often."

L.J. smiled shyly and shrugged. He found his shirt and put it on. He looked up at Scott putting his shirt back on and then looked away, relieved that it was dark and no one could see his blush well.

"Scott asked if you wanted to go back to his house with us," B.J. said, coming up behind L.J. and making him jump.

He could actually feel it hurt when he replied in a nonchalant voice, "no, I've got to get home. You know how my dad is…" He trailed off and rubbed the back of his neck.

B.J. shrugged and shook his head. "Yeah, I know how your dad is. Too bad."

L.J. couldn't control it, but he hated the pity in B.J.'s voice and sympathy in his face. He distracted himself by looking up at the night sky.

"I probably should have gone home a long time ago," L.J. said quietly. "He might even be out looking for me."

"Well, if the boy was smart enough to figure that out, then one would think he would be home at the correct time."

L.J. felt his stomach stop fighting gravity and plummet to the ground. He didn't dare turn around to actually acknowledge the presence, but he felt oddly cool breath on his ear.

Looking up, he saw Scott and some of the other boys looking decidedly anywhere but L.J. or behind him. Even B.J. had retreated to the group of boys, although Dr. Lawrence Patrick McCarthy I would probably filet B.J. later.

Or sooner.

"Well, Liam, I'm surprised that you haven't run off like your father would, if one of his friends were in such a position. I'm also surprised that—well, you would even assist your cousin in such obvious rule breaking. I wonder what your parents would think."

B.J. had frozen while trying to fade back into the crowd. His eyes were wide and L.J. felt sorry for him, because he wasn't used to it.

Maybe he ought to feel sorry for himself for being used to it, but well, that wasn't much in his mindset. After all, one couldn't change their parents.

"If you'd decide to have some courage and turn around to face me, Law-rence, then maybe I could get an explanation as to why you are where you've been told to avoid and an hour and a half past your curfew."

"I didn't realize what time it was," L.J. whispered. He still hadn't turned to see his father because he knew either way that he'd be angry and there would be punishment, but to take real notice of the anger would lead to expectations.

His expectations were invariably underestimated.

"You 'didn't realize what time it was'?"

It was the truth and L.J. had learned years ago to forgo lying, but he was pretty sure his father didn't realize that. The flat tone told him that much.

"I didn't."

"And how did you not realize that it's 10PM?"

"I-I wasn't paying attention. I was being stupid."

"That's such a common occurrence, that I should very well think you're telling the truth-" a pause- "but I don't."

"'Snot a surprise," L.J. said. He sighed and turned around, then up.

Dr. McCarthy was a reasonably sized man at 6'5" and L.J. couldn't remember a time when he didn't have to look up at his father. It had not changed, of course, and he saw the familiar anger etched into the familiar face. Chances were good that he might weasel out of this one without a beating.

L.J. knew it was coming, but still flinched when his arm was seized and he nearly tripped as he was pulled forward. He barely registered the barrage of verbal abuse and made it a point to look at the ground. Keep quiet; don't say anything stupid that'll make him angry, think of things that make you happy-

He should have expected it, but right before his father shoved him in the car, he heard someone say, "who has parents that actually come look for them?"

L.J. turned around awkwardly and looked back to see even Scott and his cousin laughing. He hung his head and felt a heavy hand on his back a second before he fell into the Lexus.

--


At home, Brendan's mountain bike was leaning against the house on the porch. The hand on his shoulder, which had been just a pressure, made certain to claw into tendons. His father shoved him in the house, shut the door, and L.J. stumbled over a fallen umbrella stand. He rubbed his upper arms and glared halfheartedly until his ear was snatched. The offending fingers twisted painfully and he knew where he was going and thought that he had underestimated his father, as usual. He caught a glimpse of his mother in the kitchen, holding tightly onto a supper plate and staring out of the window.

Brendan was sitting at the kitchen table and L.J. wished he had half the courage his brother had when he used to get beatings. Brendan held a cup of coffee between his hands, glanced up when L.J. and Sharky entered, and turned his head away with purpose.

"My study, Lawrence."

L.J. stood in front of his father's desk and wished he had remembered his watch. He probably would have been late, but for some reason it seemed worse to not remember a watch and be late than have one.

After making sure L.J. was sufficiently uncomfortable, Sharky entered and sat in his chair. He raised an eyebrow and stared until L.J. looked at the floor with his face burning in humiliation. His father had always been good at that. His father was good at most things that caused shame.

"So. What's your excuse, Lawrence? Your real excuse-"

"I was telling the truth last time, Father."

"Then it is the lamest excuse for truth I have heard in a long time."

"I'm sorry."

Sharky paused. "Do you have any suggestions for your punishment?"

"I-I don't know."

"I suppose I can take until tomorrow and think of a suitable one for you."

L.J. jerked his head up and looked at his father fearfully.

"I can come up with something by then, sir."

"No, no. I think it will be more appropriate if I were the one to come up with it."

"I promise it'd be a good one, sir."

Sharky looked down his nose at L.J., who looked down in shame again. He hated looking at his father with that look in his eyes.

"No. You don't know. I'll assume that you will not know tomorrow or your thoughts of punishments won't be sufficient."

"Father-"

"I said I'll think of something. I suppose all that running did something to your brain and is preventing you from any common sense or sense of when to shut-up."

L.J. did shut up, mostly so that his father would stop the usual verbal barbs. Sometimes he thought Brendan was lucky that he had been physically punished, because sometimes he thought that the verbal criticisms were worse.

Then came a physical reprimand and L.J. would be reminded that those sometimes were only when he hadn't had to deal with his father's real temper.

"May I go then, sir?"

Sharky glanced at L.J. and turned to his computer.

"Don't think you'll get any supper-"L.J. might have objected when his stomach did, but decided that right now he was lucky and shouldn't push that.

"Tomorrow, when I return from my summer class, you'll come down to my study. You will not go anywhere tomorrow or talk to anyone. Stay in your room."

"Yes, sir."

L.J. stood and so did his father. Sharky walked around the desk and L.J. hardly realized what happened before Sharky slapped him across the face. He nearly fell and didn't, but turned and in the kitchen he could tell Brendan and his mother wanted to say something to him. He felt some warm blood creeping towards his eye from a cut caused by his father's wedding ring and went to his room instead.


--

L.J. didn't know what he was expecting when woke the next morning. He thought there might be a list of tedious or unbearable chores to do, some sort of essay on rule breaking, or…well, anything that involved him suffering somehow. He finally got up and found out that his bedroom door was locked.

Well, that sucked.

He stayed in his room until four and read restlessly. He would read a few chapters, stand, pace, and checked the clock before reading again. At four, he heard his father's car pull into the driveway.

The front door slammed and L.J.'s throat constricted right as his stomach clenched. There were a lot of ways that humans could show nervousness and L.J. had long mastered many of them.

The front door was always a good indicator of his father's mood. Sometimes, very rarely, the door was opened and shut so softly he couldn't hear it and other days, most days, he could detect it and some days it was slammed.

Well, that sucked too.

Fully expecting it, he still jumped when his father yelled for him from the other side of the door, unlocking it before he marched downstairs. L.J. shoved the book under his mattress and dashed downstairs. The study door was closed and he noticed his hand was trembling when he lifted it to knock. He shook himself and hoped that the tremors went away because there was no living down noticed fear.

"Enter, Lawrence."

Later, he'd look back and realize that licking his lips when he thought he'd be beaten wasn't the best move. At the time, he saw Sharky narrow his eyes and lean back in his chair, looking haughtily over his nose.

"Any thought to your punishment?"

L.J. looked up. "I thought you said-"

"I would have expected you to at least think of your own punishment."

"I didn't think you'd let me come up with my own."

Sharky smiled and crossed his arms. "So, it appears we're at mine again regardless—unless you can think of something suitable in the next minute."

Half a minute later, L.J. realized that his father was serious. He tried to think of something, begged himself to think of something, but couldn't. Sharky looked at him with a crooked smile and L.J. averted his face.

"Anything, Lawrence?"

L.J. shrugged half-heartedly.

"Nothing? What a surprise."

L.J. looked up and saw Sharky leaning on his desk with his elbows, intently watching L.J. for a reaction.

"As it is, I've done my homework. I know exactly what your punishment will be. Pull your shirt up and close your eyes."

L.J. furrowed his eyebrows and looked at Sharky again, who only stared contemptuously. He lifted his t-shirt and shivered as the air conditioning hit his chest. With complete reservations, he shut his eyes.

A squeak, a pungent smell of…

Permanent marker?

The cold tip was pressed to his stomach and Sharky said, "clench up your muscles."

L.J. did and wondered what sort of epithet his father would put down. The marker was cold at first and smelled horrible, but L.J. felt every muscle thanking him for not being stupid enough to earn a beating.

The marker was lifted away after numerous strokes.

"Don't you like my handiwork, Lawrence?"

L.J. didn't like that tone.

He looked down at his stomach.

Late Queer.

He couldn't breathe. He fell back and grabbed at his throat for a few seconds before he managed a few raspy breaths. He averted his face, felt his eyes burning, and whispered.

"I'm not gay, Father."

"Isn't that the beauty of the statement though?"

L.J. didn't think there was any beauty in the statement.

"In my defense, son, you were the one licking your lips in anticipation of a beating."

"Can I go to my room?" Permanent marker or not, he was certain it came off of skin.

"I'm entirely sure that you can go to your room."

"May I go to my room?"

"Go ahead."

Sharky was probably the most intelligent person L.J. knew, so he had to know that L.J. would wash it off and L.J. wondered why he received no warning not to.

Should he wash it off or was there some ultimate plot based around that? Was there further punishment for washing it off?

Would Sharky check or expect his hold over his family to stop L.J. from washing it off?

L.J. made sure to shut his bedroom door, took the forbidden book from between the mattresses, and hid it behind a loose plank of wood in his closet.

He sprawled out on his bed and stared at the ceiling.

Had his father found out he was gay? Wouldn't there have been snide remarks, some punishment for that too? Given his anti-gay stance on everything, it seemed like there would have been more punishment, something to beat the gay out of him.

L.J. figured he was what he was, but sometimes he wanted to deny being gay no matter how much he liked Scott without a shirt off. He would have even told Sharky that he never chose to like shirtless-Scott and boxer ads, he just did, but somehow he didn't see that fitting in with Sharky because it meant he'd have to accommodate a new idea within his narrow schema of the world. Sharky liked the world his way, tended to get it his way, and would settle for no less.

Besides, he thought that his father's inevitably harsh rejection would hurt more than he liked to pretend. He pretended that being disowned would be a great thing (and it would be for a lot of reasons), but—

He'd always been Lawrence. His father had always made sure to introduce him properly. Lawrence McCarthy II, not L.J. He liked L.J. for a lot of reasons, but he liked Lawrence too.

He was Lawrence, he was the rarely beaten one, and he was the one his father favored (which didn't say much). Brendan had never been a Brendan; he'd been 'boy' and would probably continue to be 'boy' for years, even though he was seven years old than L.J.

He had his father's favor, which meant a lot when he didn't get much of anything from Sharky. Sometimes, when he was being overly introspective, he thought he might have even loved Sharky.

Which, really, was funny when L.J. thought about it.

What was there to love about Dr. Lawrence Patrick McCarthy I?

Then again, L.J. didn't think there was much to love about himself either, so karma probably had a good laugh over that one.

He rolled to his side and lifted his shirt.

Late queer.

L.J.'s face burned in shame as he jerked down his shirt to cover up the slur.

The introspection ended.

--


By seven, L.J. was frazzled and would have denied being gay to anyone who asked. He was confused, tired, and wished that he were straight. He went downstairs and saw no one in the living room or dining room. He opened the sliding glass door and saw his father's back to him while Alex was staring out at the yard. Brendan was whispering and smiling with his fiancée, who Sharky loathed on generally principles. She made Brendan happy, after all.

He took a seat at the patio table and leaned back in his chair, forgetting all about the events of earlier with the wind rifling through his hair. There would be a thunderstorm later, but he liked storms.

"Lawrence, your steak this evening?"

L.J. looked up from the table and stared for a moment before saying, "Medium-rare."

When he was younger, staring at inanimate objects was his defense against the glares and he thought that he hadn't changed much. The glass in the table was rippled and weak rays from the sun broke through dark gray clouds to glimmer off the glass. L.J. traced one area of light and dropped his hands back to his lap. He felt stupid and useless, but he didn't know what to talk about. His mother glanced over at him and he managed to smile for her and she smiled back. L.J. wished his father hadn't taken that too.

It was Rachel who broke the silence by asking L.J. what he was interested in.

He shrugged and felt resentment creeping up, even though he knew it was immature and illogical.

She made Brendan happy, but she'd taken Brendan from Sharky's house by inviting him to move in with her. L.J. knew that it was a good thing, but he felt the jealousy seep in his blood at the worst moments. She didn't understand how L.J. needed Brendan or how Alex would cry sometimes when Sharky was out because without Brendan it was worse, somehow, even though there was less brutal violence.

L.J. glanced up at a laughing Brendan and his throat constricted again. He dropped his eyes to the table. His jealousy was stupid, but he harbored it with pleasure.

If she hadn't taken his brother, L.J. was confident Brendan would know what to do about the shameful words on his stomach.

Making his rounds and slapping a steak on L.J.'s plate, Sharky cuffed the back of his head.

"Be respectful, Lawrence."

So L.J. pretended like he was happy for the conversation.

"Oh, I don't know. There's a lot of stuff I like. I'm not very good with math, but I like chemistry and physics and biology. I'm OK with them too. I might try to get my M.D. or something."

"Brendan says that you've never gotten less than an A in sciences."

Sharky stuck a fork in his rare steak, sawed off a piece, and held it up. "I should hope not, considering the resources he has available."

L.J. liked his father's grilling, but saw blood spurt out of Sharky's steak and his stomach decided that he didn't want any. He'd have to eat it though because he was pretty sure it was sirloin and his father abhorred food waste.

The silence continued.

Sharky turned on the radio.

"The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled today that the state cannot forbid civil same-sex marriage based on a clause in the state constitution that denies the creation of second-class citizens-"

Sharky raised an eyebrow, glanced back at the radio, and sneered. He continued eating while L.J. thought that even when all the states, even Texas, approved of gay marriage Sharky would sneer and call it unnatural.

"The Court gave the legislature 180 days to adjust the law-"

Sharky snapped off the radio.

L.J. didn't bother to look up when Sharky started a lecture on the immorality of gays. He tried tuning it out, but his own paranoid thoughts floated around his head and he would swallow and resist the urge to lick his lips.

"I cannot understand their need to think they're members of real society when they're clearly such a minority-"

Of course, no one spoke.

"It seems to be rather abnormal to me. If men were intended to be with men, then it would be that way-"

L.J. listened and rubbed his stomach, wondering if his father had somehow found out or if he was just on another tirade. He had his eyes at the table, absently cutting his food into smaller and smaller pieces, and didn't see Rachel narrow her eyes and throw Brendan's hand off her arm.

"Dr. McCarthy-"

Sharky smiled coldly. "I've told you to call me Lawrence outside of classes, Rachel."

"Sorry. Lawrence. I was going to ask a question regarding gays. Men are with men, so can anyone say whether or not homosexuality is truly unnatural or not?"

"Certainly. Why do they not have biological children together? Why is it such a minority of the population?"

"Why do the rights of a small minority bother you then?"

Sharky's eyes hardened and L.J. saw real malice, not amusement to keep Rachel going. "Children do not need to learn by example in this case. It is learned behavior and completely unnatural-"

L.J. looked at his plate and up to his father, who was coolly looking over the table at Rachel. He didn't stop to think about the consequences, if he had he would have just ignored Sharky as usual, and stood quickly. He turned away from the table, the words on his stomach almost burning, to walk upstairs and into his room. When he shut the door, he leaned against the wood and strained for sounds of pursuit. No stairs creaked, he heard no angry whispering, and after he'd settled himself on his bed with a book, he heard the expected anger from downstairs.

"Don't even try to interfere, Alex! He was rude and acted like--Christ, he acted as though the conversation itself upset him and I won't have my son sympathizing with fags!"

L.J. drew his comforter around himself, holding the book loosely in his hand. Although he was fairly sure he'd be in therapy, disowned, or beaten if his father knew the truth, he still wondered if Sharky intended to let L.J. think his secret was safe, only to jump on it at the most opportune time.

At one time in the house's long history, L.J. was sure that there had been a lock for the inside of the door. Perhaps even as recently as when they had moved in, but the lock had long been dismantled. His eyes darted to the door when the doorknob turned and Sharky stepped in with narrowed eyes. He didn't stride over and haul L.J. up by his shirt; instead he leaned against the wall with arms crossed over his chest.

"Well, Lawrence?"

L.J. licked his lips again and avoided Sharky's eyes. Legilimency was a completely made up art, but he was certain his father would have been expert at it.

"What, sir?"

"What is your excuse for your behavior?"

"I felt sick. I had to-"

"Sick? Dare I ask what sort of sickness?"

L.J. may have been submissive and shielded his eyes, but he heard the sharpness in his father's voice.

"Just…my stomach hurt and I thought I might throw up. So I ran up here instead of upchucking all over the deck."

He knew his father was examining him. "Ah. I see. Well, Lawrence, with that sort of sickness, I think that you should stay home for a while. For the next week, so you can stay restful for while. School starts soon and it wouldn't do to get seriously ill. You understand, of course."

L.J. sighed and nodded, but felt Sharky grab his chin and force his head up. Laughter filled his eyes and L.J. saw him smile.

"If you're feeling this unwell, perhaps you should stay in longer."

"I think the next week will be OK."

"Oh, dear. You thought?"

L.J. jerked his head away. He hated that cruel amusement. He hated everything about Sharky right then, from his silver-dark red streaked hair, his tall frame, his lined face, highly logical intelligence, and, most of all, that cruel amusement. He didn't think anyone would like that amusement if it were aimed at them, even if they enjoyed when it had been aimed at another before.

"I'm pretty good at it," L.J. said and waited for a slap. He was not disappointed. It stung badly and he managed not to rub the tender spot. That would have been the perfect excuse for Sharky. He would have been weak.

"You're nothing but a weak, foolish little bastard, boy. You'll do well to remember that so you don't forget your place in the world. Do you understand?"

Although he did not understand what made him weak or foolish (or a bastard, considering his parents had been married 14 years at his birth), L.J. nodded sullenly.

"Now, I must ask you a question regarding schoolwork and I expect an honest answer. Your summer project for A.P. Chemistry must be complete by the time school starts in a month?"

"Yes."

"How much do you actually have completed? I know you've been at those lawless soccer games all summer and not the library."

"Only a quarter of it."

Sharky scowled. "Luckily for you, I have some researching that needs done. It won't be the public library, but you'll come with me to finish your summer work while I'm at MacGregor Library."

L.J. sighed and nodded. "Yes, sir. When are you going?"

"I'll start going tomorrow at seven."

"In the morning?"

"Of course. I have a lot of basic research to complete before writing my articles."

"OK, Father."

Sharky studied him for a moment before leaving. L.J. found his abandoned backpack and shuffled through it to find his A.P. Chemistry and his A.P. English summer work. It would be long, tedious, and probably painful. He doubted Sharky would just let him work quietly, even if he was researching.

Though he tried to work on his homework, he couldn't concentrate. Eventually, he gave it up and went back to his bed to read. His mother came in and offered him the remains of his supper. He shrugged.

"Where's Father?" She wouldn't offer him the rest if Sharky were home.

"He went to drink."

"Oh."

L.J. pulled a loose string out of his comforter and let it float to the ground. Alex leaned over and pressed her cheek to the top of head for a moment. She kissed his cheek, smiled sadly, and left his room. He put his book in his hiding spot before he stripped to his boxers.

He laid in the darkness for a few moments, tracing the words on his stomach, and wrapped the comforter around himself. The central air was always on in the summer and he was always cold.


He couldn't remember what he had been dreaming about, except maybe that he'd been falling. He thought about it and decided it didn't matter. The comforter was lying in a pile on the floor. L.J. leaned over to get it and listened for Sharky. The front door had just slammed shut.

When there was no shouting or identifiable tantrums, his eyes drifted to his alarm clock. It was just after one. He shut his eyes to fall back asleep--

The light hit him then and he groped for his glasses on the nightstand. Just as he shoved them on, his blankets were pulled off and he looked at his father, clutching the bedpost with one hand and the blankets in the other. L.J. scrambled out of bed just as a belt came down and snapped against the mattress.

It must be an inspection night.

He got off the floor and pulled his boxers farther up.

"Go," Sharky said and L.J. saw his eyes were glazed over and the malice was still there.

"Go where, Father?"

"Go-"and Sharky looked uncertain, let go of the bedpost, and nearly crashed back down- "go into the hallway."

L.J. went into the hallway and shut his bedroom door behind himself. Just a few moments later, his father came out with the pungent smell of whiskey trailing behind him. He looked at L.J. with puzzlement, as though he didn't remember what he was doing or who his son was, and staggered down the hall. He entered the master bedroom.

His room was messy with clothes pulled out of the drawers, out of the closet, and papers formerly stacked on his desk scattered on the floor. He halfheartedly picked up his papers and clothes, but instead crashed back into his bed.

Faint sounds from the master bedroom caught his attention, but he ignored them.

He fell asleep and dreamed again. He remembered little of the dream; except that when he woke up he was blushing. He was fairly certain from his reaction that his dream had something do with another boy; though he didn't think it was Scott.

He lay in bed for several moments, noting that his clock said it was close to 6 AM. After deciding against continuing to lay in bed and masturbating (which he was tempted to do on simple principles), his mother entered and walked over to shake him. He rolled towards the wall with his face still blushing.

That was too close for a lot of reasons. He grabbed for his glasses, put them on, and whispered, "could you just start knocking on my door, Mama?"

She ran her hand through his short hair and made him feel filthy.

"Of course, L.J."

She left and L.J. felt secure enough to climb out from his blankets to get ready.

A half hour later, he entered the kitchen. His mother had made eggs and black pudding (which he found disgusting, though his father sneeringly called him un-Irish for that). He choked two sausages down, with a few eggs, and a cup of his father's excessively strong coffee.

Sharky glared at him over the issue of The Wall Street Journal. He ignored the glare and swallowed a mouthful of scalding coffee. Since he hated Sharky's coffee preferences and thought Sharky needed it more, he declined a second cup.

With his eyes bloodshot, hair unusually out of place, and slightly trembling hands, L.J. thought it was a great thing that Sharky's binges were finally starting to catch up with him. The coffee cup was now clutched instead of the paper and Sharky gulped down his coffee.

"Come on, Lawrence. I haven't got the entire day. I'm meeting Melissa Charles at MacGregor."

Sharky went to his car, L.J. went upstairs and gathered his books to shove them in his backpack, and Alex kissed him on the cheek when he ran out the door. Still embarrassed about the near miss earlier, L.J. muttered goodbye and went to his father's car.

As soon as Sharky shifted into gear and started driving, he began a lecture on the behavior he expected. L.J. was pretty sure he could figure it out on his own and tuned him out.

When the sight of MacGregor Library came into view, L.J. stopped tuning Sharky out and listened carefully.

"I expect you to stay where I put you for the day, unless you're looking for books. If you need a book, I will check it out since you are neither student nor faculty. At noon, I am going home for lunch and may come back-"

L.J. would only ruin his mornings with Sharky, not his last summer afternoons. When he was ungrounded, he would either resume his illegal soccer watching or see if B.J. wanted to do something else and struggle through morning studying with Sharky hanging over his shoulder.

Sharky pulled into an empty space and turned off his car. Instead of unlocking the doors, he looked over at L.J. to study him for a few moments. He leaned slightly over and lifted L.J.'s shirt to find his words faded and grayish.

"I'll make sure to fix those later."

Sharky flipped the locks off. L.J. attempted to get out, had the door open a few inches, and Sharky grabbed his arm.

"I won't tell you this more than once. Melissa Charles has a son named Richard who is a flamboyant fag. You'll do well to stay away from him."

He heard the rule and accepted it. He might be hell bent to break the rule about the soccer games for the pleasure of staring at Scott, but not a rule based on a boy he did not know.

He followed Sharky to the front entrance, waited for Sharky to slide his ID through the door scanner, and held the door open for Sharky, who carried an obscene amount of books and materials for a man who said he still needed to do semantic research.

There were a few other people at the library in the obscure hour. A stunning woman sat at a table stacked with books, she looked up and waved to Sharky with enthusiasm.

That wasn't the first time L.J. had seen a beautiful woman wave to his father (he supposed Sharky could be considered good looking by some people), but the familiarity and…passion bothered him. He sat at the designated table with his back to them.

He pulled out the A.P. Chemistry packet and realized shortly after that he was drooling on the papers with his chin perched on his left hand. He switched to the A.P. English novel he had to read and, though he didn't like analyzing, managed to scribble a half page of symbolism, themes, and imagery. He put the book on the table with the spine facing upwards, pages splayed out to mark his place.

He started to scribble more notes down and was tapped on the shoulder a few moments later. He set his pencil down and looked up. It was a dark haired man he'd seen when he'd first arrived. He looked annoyed and was staring critically at L.J.

He pointed at the novel. "Is that your book?"

"Yeah--well, sort of. My father's friend loaned it to me."

The dark haired man quickly pulled his messy hair into a ponytail. "My guess is that you're a McCarthy spawn and that the man who loaned you that book is Alastair MacTavish. In that case, if you wish to live to see your high school graduation, you ought to properly mark it with a bookmark. That damages the spine."

L.J. folded a piece of notebook paper and marked his place. "And, yes. I am a McCarthy. Lawrence McCarthy."

"Junior, I shall assume."

"No, I got involved in a horrible physics accident, you see. I'm really Sharky McCarthy-"

"You wouldn't be. Only his friends know him as Sharky and he introduces himself as Lawrence."

"Well, you caught me. You know my old man?"

"Yes, fairly well. He drank me under the table last night. I lost a hundred dollars on that bet."

"Too bad. What's your name?"

The man surveyed him, apparently found him harmless, and offered a handshake. L.J. took the handshake.

"Michael Willoughby."

"Oh. That guy. The psych professor."

Sharky did not care much for anyone, but thought Michael's constant deadpan style was hilarious and it was something that brought a hideous smile to his face. L.J. often wondered if all of his father's smiles were hideous or if it was just his opinion.

"They're fucking you know."

L.J. nearly choked, despite that he wasn't drinking anything.

"I don't know why. I certainly never thought Melissa would lower herself to fucking a married colleague in his car-"

L.J. felt his blood pudding coming up. He had just sat in the passenger's seat of the Lexus barely an hour before and when Sharky had wanted to go to New York a week before, he'd stretched out on the backseat to take a nap.

"Oh, well-"

"I'm fairly sure it happens-"

"That's OK, mister."

Michael smiled. "No need for that. I am Michael, unless I was to become your professor. I've enjoyed my chat here, Lawrence, but I must be going. Syllabi to review and all that."

He sauntered off. L.J. twisted around to look for his father. Sharky was not there. Neither was Melissa. He didn't know what to think and stopped himself because he didn't want to think about it. Tempted though he was, he did not go out into the parking lot.

His chemistry actually looked tolerable now and he stood to go find books he might use to help him with the essay section. The chemistry section was easy to find and he let his hands brush over the books. A lot of them were regular texts, but every then and again there was a leather-bound first edition of some texts donated by the Warren Roberts before he had died.

He pulled out some promising books, turned around, and jumped in fright. His books slipped out of his arms and the boy who had been standing near him leaned over and deftly stacked the books back into a pile in the crook of L.J.'s arm. L.J. knew it was purposeful when he let his hand linger on L.J.'s elbow.

L.J. didn't mind at all, but jerked his arm away with a face burning in embarrassment.

"I don't know what you're playing at," he said. "But I need to go."

The boy looked completely non-offended and watched L.J. hurry off.


As soon as he slid back into his seat, L.J. felt his heart slow down. He pulled one of the chemistry books towards him with his hands slightly trembling. He looked around and saw the research materials still on the table his father and Melissa Charles had shared and no adult near that table.

He was sure that boy had been Richard Charles, "flamboyant fag". He looked like a lot of boys, but was taller, more slender, and held himself with a pride that couldn't be identified. Besides, he'd been wearing tight jeans cut off slightly above the knee with what was either a girl's shirt or really tight men's shirt.

L.J. didn't know much about being gay and he hadn't gotten a leaflet on how to dress or act. He assumed, however, that flaunting it in that style led to people like Sharky watching you with narrowed eyes. He glanced through the chemistry book without interest.

Melissa and Sharky reappeared a few minutes later. Thankfully to L.J., both looked as they had this morning with no mysterious change of clothes or wrinkled clothes. He immersed himself back into his chemistry just enough that when his father tapped him on the shoulder, he yelped and nearly fell out of his chair.

"Skittish much?"

"No," L.J. lied.

"Is the library helpful?"

In a few ways you don't want to know about.

"I haven't used it very much, but I just started my essay."

Sharky nodded and left. L.J. resisted the urge to look around for his father and Melissa.

Although he managed to get a lot more of his A.P. Chemistry work done than he'd thought he would, his mind kept drifting and thinking about Richard Charles.

That reddish-blonde hair was beautiful and hung slightly over his shoulders. He had a strange sort of beauty about him and L.J. thought his face was perfect. Those dark blue eyes were set just right over high, defined cheekbones and L.J. wished he had more courage because those lips were as set and shaped as the rest of his face. Richard's face was masculine, but not overly so and just feminine enough to suggest weakness.

For some reason, L.J. didn't see Richard as being weak. He would be one of those gay men Sharky objected to strongly, one who refused to deny he was gay to almost anyone and unafraid to take risks that mattered to him. L.J. figured Sharky didn't have a problem with a gay man who would happily stay closeted.

After a few minutes, L.J. realized that even though he knew he wouldn't tell Richard he was gay or thought he was beautiful, he'd break just as many rules to see Richard as he would to go to a pick-up soccer game and see Scott.

Maybe even more, really.

L.J. went with Sharky for three days to MacGregor Library to see if he could have another look at Richard Charles. On the fourth morning, he watched Melissa leave the library and Sharky followed her ten minutes later. Resisting the urges to gag or get extremely angry, he turned back to his novel. He'd neglected to read the damn thing, working on his chemistry essays instead.

"They're at it again."

L.J. thought the voice was vaguely familiar, but ignored it. He didn't know who it was.

"I think they went out to her car, if that's any comfort."

Oh. It was that psychology professor.

"It's not much of a comfort, Michael."

Michael leaned on a chair nearby. "He's a douche bag, your father. It wouldn't be so bad if he didn't flaunt it when I'm here. Miserable prick."

"It wouldn't be so bad if he and my mother haven't been married thirty years."

"Well, true. Though not to trivialize your complaint, I've wanted that woman for years. He knows it and rubs it in my face. Bastard."

L.J. looked over his shoulder casually as he could.

"If you're looking for Richard Charles, he's in the study area behind the magazines and newspapers."

Viciously, marveling at how easy it was, even though it hurt, he said," why would I be looking for that fag?"

Michael was either unfazed or unconvinced. "Well, he's back there."

He left.

L.J. looked down at the novel. Its covering was a burned orange. It reminded him of Richard. There was nothing like a beautiful boy to take his mind off something.

He set back to working for a few minutes, until he came across a reference he didn't understand. He wandered around the rows of books and stood in the last row before the magazines and newspapers started.

Feeling foolish, he found the jumble of chairs and tables behind the magazines. Richard sat at a table with his legs crossed, hair hanging carefully as he scribbled in a notebook before looking back at a textbook.

L.J. watched him for five minutes before he looked up, straight at L.J., and said, "you don't have to hide. I'm not going to inject you with AIDS-" Richard paused- "well, I meant that in a different context than it may have implied."

L.J. set his mouth in a thin line reminiscent of his father and walked to stand by Richard's table. Richard set the pencil to the side and looked up to see who it was.

"Well, I'm Rick Charles."

"La--L.J. McCarthy."

Rick smiled faintly and looked up. L.J. blushed when he remembered that this was Melissa's son and she was having a not so discreet affair with his father.

"Mom adores your father."

"I don't see why." L.J. traced the words on his stomach that had been reapplied that morning.

"Because he fucks her brains out, I suppose."

Rick smiled again and leaned back in his chair. "There's no reason to look that scandalized. It's certainly obvious and I'll be honest, I'm the first one to cheer about my dear mom getting laid on a regular basis. She leaves me alone, then, you see."

L.J. leaned against the back of a chair. He looked over at Rick, who was examining his notes without a single indication of shame or discomfort.

L.J. thought that he liked that. Quite a lot.

"Well, go ahead and sit down. I haven't banished or bored you away yet, have I?"

L.J. sat down.

"Well, fucking my mom aside, your father is a right bastard, isn't he? I've heard so-"

"He's not as bad as everyone says-" L.J. felt every part of him screaming liar-"he's OK at home- he's worse you dumbfuck- "but I know he's a jerk to most everyone, even though most people think he's charming and all."

Rick turned that beautiful face to L.J. and said bluntly, "I've heard some people whisper that he's abusive. My old man was and my mother kicked him to the curb a decade ago. It's no shame."

"He doesn't hit-"

"My father was a psychological bastard. Besides-" Rick's casual tone became kind- "if he wasn't, I don't think you'd be so riled up."

"Anyone has a right to be mad when people say things about their father just because of how he acts in public."

"That's true, I'll agree with that. I've just found that my mother and I were always the most defensive about him."

"So?"

Rick smiled and L.J. found himself attracted more than ever to Rick's charisma and straightforward nature, but he hated that smile because he knew what it really meant.

You know what I mean; you just don't understand or don't want to understand.

"I like you, L.J. I'm sorry for acting like that, most especially because I'd like to be friends."

"That's OK. It happens."

"But before we go further, I do have to ask if you really are that vicious when referring to fags as you were with Michael earlier?"

L.J. cringed a bit. "I'm sorry about that, but my father-"

"Doesn't like gays, I've heard. It's one of the few things my mother is not star-struck on when it comes to him. I'll gather that you do know I'm gay from that unfortunate comment."

"Oh, well, yeah. I've--I've heard."

"The jocks at Baile High School don't like me. They've made sure to let everyone know. My mother cares not a jot, which surprised me, but it was a pleasant sort of surprise."

L.J. glanced at his watch and stood up quickly enough to knock over a chair. "My father told me to stay at the table he told me to sit at-"

"Ah, the innumerable acts of control. Well, I'm usually back here and I notice you've been frequenting the indelible services of MacGregor for several days. I suppose I'll see you tomorrow then."

L.J. gave a quick wave and immersed himself in a random book just in time to see his father ambling through the stacks of books.

"There you are, Lawrence. I was wondering where you'd gone off too."

Taking one of his few chances where he might make Sharky speechless, L.J. smiled flawlessly and said, "I was wondering where you and Professor Charles had gone to. I needed you to check me out a few chemistry books and thought I'd let you know beforehand."

Sharky didn't go speechless, but L.J. was greatly amused to see a slight paling and mild tic form. "Of course, Lawrence."

"Great," L.J. said brightly. "Thanks, Father."

Sharky strode away and L.J. watched him rejoin Melissa at the table. He smiled and looked down, starting his work again.


Although he finished his summer work a few days later, he kept going with Sharky to MacGregor--even if it meant he had to stomach the knowledge his father would leave on occasion with Melissa and take an hour to return. During those times, he snuck to the study alcove behind the magazines and talked with Rick.

He'd never had such good conversations with someone. Rick liked to talk about politics, mostly, but would listen with interest while L.J. told him about history and science. Sometimes he would ask with a touch of melancholy about how it was growing up with a large extended family.

A week and few days after they met, Rick finally asked him the obvious question.

"So, I know your father expects you to be where he sets you everyday, but why can't we just meet at your table so we have more time? My mother doesn't mind-"

"Oh, well-I-"

Rick looked at him. "Your father told you stay away from me?"

L.J. looked down. "Yeah, but-"

"So why didn't you? I'm not worth getting in trouble for, love, especially with your father being Dr. McCarthy."

"I was just there when you called me out and we started talking."

It was a horrible lie. L.J. knew it was.

"No. I could tell someone was there and they were staring. For a long time."

L.J. blushed.

Rick tilted his head to the side curiously. "Why were you staring at me?"

"I wasn't-"

"It was you and you were. Please don't insult my intelligence by pretending otherwise."

L.J. slumped back in his chair. "I don't want to lie, but I can't tell you. You're already of the best friends I've ever had and I don't want to lie to you-"

"Then don't lie."

"I can't tell anyone! Even if I trusted them, I know my father would find out and he'd hate me more or kill me because I'd be even more of a disgrace-"

L.J. had not cried in public for a long time and was surprised that he did cry. He hadn't thought that Rick would affect him this much. Especially over some, stupid simple question.

Rick looked over and it was one of the only times in his life that L.J. didn't hate the compassion shown in someone's eyes. He stopped himself crying and looked down at the table. Rick pulled a grubby handkerchief from his pocket and slid it to L.J. without saying a word.

"My father always carried around one," he said, "I picked up the habit. I'm sorry mine isn't very clean, but it's just some dust from cleaning a shelf."

"I'm sorry I'm so stupid, Rick. And dramatic."

Rick angled L.J.'s face up to meet his eyes. "Be honest, love, when I ask you this. I'll ask it as a yes or no thing, so that you don't have to admit it so blatantly. Will that hurt?"

Swallowing and rubbing his eyes with the handkerchief, L.J. shook his head.

"Are you gay?"

"Yes." It wasn't much more than a whisper.

"That's all, love," Rick said kindly. "That's all. So you are."

L.J. looked at one of Rick's books on the table, shrugged, and thought that though he felt a bit better, he felt even more trapped for some reason.

"You'll feel better when you tell the people you're scared to tell," Rick said. "I did, but I suppose everyone is unique."

"I can't tell him. My mother wouldn't care and neither would Brendan, but they're not the ones that scare me."

"Your father scares you that much?"

"When it comes to that. You've never heard him go on tirades about it after the news is on."

"A tirade doesn't make it all that bad-"

"I can't tell him now, Rick. Maybe years from now. Besides, have you told your dad?"

Rick smiled sadly. "I did a couple years ago when I wasn't entirely sure, but sure enough. He used to make trips here from England just to see me. He only comes a few times a year now when he happens to be in New York or Boston for concerts."

"That's stupid."

"I think so too, but it's how he is."

"There's a difference. My father would flip out completely. I'm afraid he'd kill me."

Rick studied L.J. for any trace of a joke, but didn't find one and was not surprised.

"Well, he certainly can't find out then. I've met a few people who would have liked to kill me and might have tried if they hadn't been such cowards. Not my own father, admittedly."

"Who were they?"

"A couple of the jocks at Baile High School. They were expelled at the end of last year because they tried to jump me behind the gym. Their coach didn't like that, though, and busted them. Great thing too, because I'm quite fond of myself."

"Oh."

Rick brushed some of his hair from his face. "I'll go ahead and let you know, love, that my mother had enough of that school by then. I'm going to St. Peter's this year."

"That doesn't make much sense-"

"I've already talked to the priest in charge there-"

"Father O'Reilly and Father DiSantos."

"He said he'd do what he could. That's more than a lot of them at Baile gave me."

"What if St. Peter's doesn't work?"

"Then my mother is calling in some old debts and I'll be home-schooled, I suppose. I'd like to at least be left alone at St. Peter's."

L.J. looked down at the table and studied the wood while Rick began to write in his notebook again.

"What happened to that coach?"

"Oh, he's still there. All he did was follow through on the expulsion of a few students that didn't appreciate their academics, anyway. He visits my mother and I once in a while. He loves her, I think, but I couldn't tell you for sure."

"Did your dad hear about those jocks?"

"He's a concert violinist. He has better things to hear about, I'm sure."

"I wouldn't think so."

"In an odd way, that's one of the kindest things someone has ever said to me regarding this subject."

L.J. smiled shyly. Rick loved that smile.


After lunch that day, L.J. was summoned into his father's study. It was inevitable, he knew, that Sharky would realize he didn't go looking for books for an hour at a time, even if he was off banging Melissa Charles. He was more surprised that Sharky didn't bring it up when his mother was around so that he'd feel enough guilt to confess without any major issues.

Sharky shut the door and L.J. took the hard wooden chair while Sharky reclined in his office chair. There was a surprisingly amiable atmosphere and L.J. thought that if his father were going to kill him or interrogate him, he'd have at least given a proper atmosphere.

"You've completed your projects?"

L.J. looked a bit dubious that this was the beginning of what should have been a long, painful interrogation.

"Yes, sir."

"I'll check both of them over tomorrow night, of course. Were you planning to go somewhere tonight?"

Watching that look in his father's eyes, L.J. immediately said that he had plans.

"To the library, I'll assume?"

"Yes."

L.J. thought he'd go ahead and glance by the pick-up soccer game. Maybe he'd go somewhere else.

Sharky finally asked his big question. "Why do I not see you sitting at your table for an hour or more at a time? It can't take that long to find a book."

"Why do you and Professor Charles disappear together for an hour or more at a time?"

Sharky looked at L.J. with a scowl. Instead of continuing with his interrogation, he made a dismissive gesture. L.J. knew the issue would still be pursued and didn't care. He left the study at nearly a sprint and casually began searching for the phone book in the living room. He found it and flipped through the pages to Ch so that he could find Charles. M. Charles, 143 Black Street. That was almost next door to the Black Street Apartments.

"I'm going out now, Father," L.J. said. There was a rumble in response, coming from the general area of the study. L.J. left and started walking towards Rick's house. When he got there, he stood on the porch for a few minutes and wondered if he should knock or just leave. He hadn't called, after all, and maybe Rick wouldn't be home. L.J. didn't want Melissa Charles to answer the door, although he didn't see her car in the garage, because she might just mention something off hand to Sharky.

He looked through the frosted glass on the front door and heard dogs barking on the other side. Though he still hadn't knocked, his hand was poised to just as the door opened. Rick stood there with just pairs of athletic shorts and shoes on, sweaty, and looking thoroughly surprised to see L.J.--but not unhappy, L.J. noted cheerfully.

"Oh," Rick said. "What brings you to my neck of the woods?"

"I just live down the street, at the end-"

"West or east?"

"West."

Rick opened the door wider for L.J. to step inside, which he did, and the air conditioning hit him just as the barking dogs stood by the stairs watching him curiously.

"West…wouldn't happen to be that dreadfully sinister Victorian, would it?"

"Of course. My father just likes the house, but he doesn't realize how melodramatic it is."

"It's no wonder you're so pale. I always expected to see Severus Snape walk out of there and Apparate away."

Although there was a faithful, loving Doberman Pinscher at his house, L.J. watched the two dogs with concern while they came up to sniff him.

"That's just Thor and Janis," Rick said. "Thor is the abominable, massive mound of dog fur that is black. Janis is the German Shepherd."

Thor looked up and wagged his tail enthusiastically when he heard his name from his boy.

"They're harmless, curious beasties."

L.J. allowed himself to be sniffed for a few minutes before Rick ushered him into the kitchen. The dogs followed them and flopped on the floor.

"I was just making myself something to drink. Would you like any iced tea?"

"Sure."

"Our basement is a makeshift exercise room and I just finished when the dogs let me know someone was here."

"Our basement is too, but the only time I work out is with my father. He says he'd kill me if I ever got my neck pinched on the bench press."

"How much do you bench?"

L.J. shrugged. "No idea."

"How much does your father bench?"

"I don't know, but he won't let me spot for him. He has Brendan come over to do it."

It had nothing to with trust, as far as L.J. knew, because Sharky trusted him more than he had ever trusted Brendan.

"I'm a lightweight myself," Rick continued, ignoring the small lapse of conversation. "I do it for the exercise because I don't get out of the house much."

L.J. shrugged. Rick poured two glasses and set them on the table.

"I have to go change and shower, but I'll be just a moment. My father's coming later. He wants me to go his concert."

"Oh—sor-"

"It's not a problem. Go watch T.V. or something."

Rick left and L.J. stayed in the kitchen. He felt odd sitting in that pristine kitchen with no one else around but the dogs. The shower came on. He left the glasses on the table and wandered into the living room and turned on the T.V. manually. He didn't see a remote anywhere and certainly wasn't going to look on his own. He found it stuffed halfway into the couch as he sat down.

He watched The Weather Channel, CNN, and turned it to a local station showing the reruns of an old sitcom. The station wasn't really so local as it was based out of New York. After he watched the show for a while, he heard the shower turned off.

Thor came in and jumped on the couch. L.J. got ready to turn the channel when a commercial came on for a concert. He heard the name "Charles" and it took his attention.

There was video of a tall, slender man with bright red hair and more freckles than his uncle Billy playing a violin. L.J. played the violin as the third of nine first chairs and watched the man as he played. There was so much passion in his playing that it seemed obscene.

"Mom says he has more passion in playing his violin than he does in bed."

L.J. jumped and twisted around to look at Rick watching the commercial with a touch of sadness. He smiled with bitterness and smiled genuinely when he saw L.J. watching him.

"Do you really want to stay here?" Rick asked. "I'd rather go—well, somewhere else."

He looked tenser than L.J. had seen him in their short acquaintance.

"I don't care," L.J. said. "As long as my father-"

"Doesn't see, I know," Rick said. "No worries about that. My car's in the garage."

He left and L.J. followed him, but stopped at the bottom of the stairs.

"Oh, I don't care if you come up here. I'm just going to my room."

L.J. followed him again, up the stairs and past a few doors to Rick's room. He nearly tripped over a violin case. It was wonderfully messy with the only organization being on the music stand. The music was alphabetized with a tuner flipping from sharp to flat.

"Is that thing OK?"

Rick looked from where he was looking for his concert clothes in the closet. "Oh. It went wonky a few days ago. I tried fixing it, but now it won't even shut off. I have to ask my father to fix it or get me a new one."

"I'm surprised you don't tune by ear-"

"Oh, that's no problem. I prefer to have one though, so that I'm more accurate."

Rick pulled out a suit covered in plastic and ran his fingers along the plastic.

"That works," he said. "Is it hideous or not?"

"No. It's cool. My father has boring suits."

Rick looked at the pinstriped suit and set it on his bed. "I always liked a good pinstriped suit, myself. I'll wear a white dress shirt, I think, but I'm not so sure about the tie. I rather like not wearing one."

L.J. shrugged. "I just put on whatever my mom or father tells me."

"It's no wonder your clothes are so boring. They should have a little flair, at least."

"I like my clothes."

"I like them too—if I thought a colorblind priest would wear them."

L.J. thought he should feel offended, but didn't. "It's what my father buys me."

"You should try going with him once in awhile."

"I'm OK."

"Either way, though we've only been friend for a few weeks, and I'll let you know that I offer my services for any fashion related incidents. I think that if you don't improve in a few weeks, we'll go out and buy things for you that suit you and not your father."

"With what? My looks?"

"No. I've got plenty of money-"

"I'm not-"

"Oh, yes you are. I refuse to be seen with someone who wears clothes envied by a colorblind priest."

L.J. rolled his eyes. "Where do you want to go that's not here?"

"There's a place in the woods that the Murphy's own. I go to it a lot. It's very nice and very peaceful."

"But Tobias Senior-"

"He's a few strings short of a full violin, but he doesn't shoot. At least, unless he feels threatened. Like a fanatical cobra—well, if cobras were Catholic."

"Just as we don't get shot," L.J. said. "If I get shot and killed by Tobias Murphy, I'm gonna be pissed."

Rick laughed and gathered his concert clothes. They went downstairs and Rick set his clothes on the dining table. Thor rubbed his head against Rick's leg and Rick petted him absently. L.J. hated being in someone's house for the first time. He always had to look around.

"You play guitar?"

Rick looked to where L.J. had roamed. "Oh, I play it. I'm not spectacular, but my mother is much better. She just likes physics and chemistry more."

L.J. looked at the guitar case and wondered if he might convince Sharky to get him one for Christmas or his birthday, though he doubted it. It would probably be another year of clothes and books (approved and educational, of course).

"Grab the case," Rick said. "I'll teach you a few chords while we're there."

Trying not to show his enthusiasm, L.J. picked up the case and carried to the garage with Rick leading. Rick told him to put the guitar in the backseat and L.J. climbed into the front seat after that.

When Rick drove in town, L.J. clutched the car door with his right hand and the base of his seat belt with his left. Sharky was a bad driver, but he was more rude than anything else. Rick seemed to think the speed limit was just a suggestion.

The Murphys lived just a few miles out of town in a renovated Baptist church (L.J. found this hilarious, as Tobias Murphy Senior had 15 children and exceeded a priest's love of Catholicism). Rick pulled sharply into a drive and drove for a hundred more yards. He stopped and got out, making sure to grab the guitar from the backseat.

They walked in silence for a half mile, until Rick entered a very small clearing under the boughs of ancient, massive oak trees and sat on a dead log. It might have been a large, central branch at one point for all L.J. knew, but it seated Rick with plenty of room left over. L.J. sat by him and appreciated the shade's relief from the sun.

After a few minutes of lounging on the log, L.J. looked over at Rick. He had slid onto the ground and rested his head on the log. The guitar had been taken out of its case and Rick strummed it gently from time to time, humming along with the chords before they ended.

"I told you it was peaceful here," Rick said a while later.

"What time do you have to go to your father's concert?"

"It doesn't start until eight-thirty, but he's coming to get me at seven-thirty. He actually wants to be seen with me in public afterwards by going to supper with the rest of his playing group."

"Thought he didn't care much for you?"

"Well, s'not so much that he doesn't care about me. I don't think he understands about me being gay or he wants to understand. He still cares, I'm sure, because he sends Mom half of his money from concerts, albums, and things like that--and he does come to see me when he's in America. He loves that I play the violin so well. I'll never play at his level-"

"Is he a certain rank?"

"In the world's top five and ten, depending on who you're asking. I'll never play at his level, but he's still proud of me. I'll tell you that it was priceless playing at the solo and ensemble contest with him as my pianist. The judges were speechless until about halfway through."

"That sounds brilliant," L.J. said. "What was your score?"

"A one in Class A. Did you ever do solo and ensemble?"

"I have. I only got a two-"

"What class, though?"

"Class A."

"When?"

"Freshman."

"That's still fairly impressive."

"I suppose."

"It is," Rick said. "Plenty of seniors never make it past class B."

"What year were you?"

"Freshman-"

"Well, you got a one and I didn't."

"There's a difference though. I've been playing violin since I could understand and hold it properly. I doubt you've played as long."

"I started when I was eight."

"See? Here, take the guitar. I'll show you some basic chords."

Sometimes, Rick was impatient and took the guitar from L.J. when he played a chord incorrectly or held his fingers just enough above the strings to stop their vibrations. He would show L.J. how to do it over and over, until he learned the chord.

After a few hours, Rick checked his watch and stood up. "I've enjoyed this, but it's nearly seven and my father will be coming for me soon."

L.J. expected it for some reason, but when Rick handed him back the guitar and let his hand linger on his arm, he felt his entire body start to burn with something that
wasn't shame or distaste and realized he hadn't expected that.


The Monday after the unplanned guitar lesson, L.J. dutifully got up at six to go with Sharky to MacGregor Library. During his shower, he looked at his stomach to see the words still there and faded. Sharky hadn't demanded to reapply them in a few days. L.J. hoped he had forgotten about his punishment. He finished getting ready and went downstairs for breakfast. After he sat at the table, he looked up to smile at his mother and stopped himself when he saw the bruise around her eye. She smiled at him despite that and kissed the top of his head after putting some scrambled eggs on his plate.

Sharky looked up from his newspaper and watched L.J. eat. After a few bites of eggs and several strips of bacon, L.J. looked up to see him staring.

"Yes, Father?"

"I'm surprised to see you up so early," Sharky said.

"I thought I'd go to MacGregor with you."

Sharky folded his newspaper, set it off to the side, and drank some of his coffee. He wiped his mouth carefully with a napkin.

"Well, there are two things wrong with that logic. The first one being that I am not going to MacGregor. The second one being that you have finished your projects and would not need to go."

"So why are you all dressed up? Aren't you just going to write your article here?"

Sharky narrowed his eyes and his nostrils flared (which was the only funny thing about his anger). "That is none of your concern, but I am going to be with Professor Charles since we are collaborating. We're meeting at my office."

"Oh."

L.J. watched Sharky get ready to leave and he kissed Alex on the cheek before he went into the garage. He called L.J. into the garage. Mystified, L.J. went into the garage to see Sharky holding a permanent marker loosely in one hand.

Oh.

"They're--the words are OK."

"Let me see them," Sharky said quietly.

"They're fine, sir."

"Now, Lawrence."

L.J. looked up at his father and back down to the concrete before he lifted his shirt up. The grayed words stood out against his pale skin. Sharky retraced the words and capped the marker. He handed it back to L.J.

"Put the marker back in my study."

L.J. felt those hateful words burning into his stomach and turned with his eyes burning too. Luckily, Sharky didn't notice his son crying and left. L.J. opened the study door a few inches and threw the marker. It hit something and hit the floor. He shut the door and wiped his eyes. He didn't bother to go finish his breakfast.

On his way up the stairs, he literally ran into his mother while she took a basket of dirty clothes downstairs. The clothes spilled on the stairs. L.J. helped her gather them back up and carried the basket to the laundry room. He helped her fold the clothes in the dryer (which were his father's and when he accidentally grabbed a pair of boxers, he dropped them on the floor squeamishly).

"Why did he want you?" Alex asked.

"Oh, he needed to ask me something private."

"What was it?"

"It was-" L.J. felt himself blushing- "it was private. Guy's stuff, I guess."

"Ah, well, I'm surprised he takes in interest in that sort of thing with you."

"So am I."

L.J. hung two dress shirts on the hangers and threw a few pairs of socks in the basket. Though by the time he finished with those, his mother already had the rest of the laundry folded.

"Take your father's clothes upstairs and bring your basket down," Alex said. "I'll get it done sometime today."

L.J. placed the dress shirts and pants on hangers over the laundry basket to carry them upstairs. He had to set them down to open the door of the master bedroom. He took the basket in and set it on the tall bed. As he turned to leave, his eye caught the shine from a bottle on the floor. He went to the dresser and pulled it out. He turned it over in his hands.

It was a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey. L.J. set the glass bottle off to the side of the dresser and fished around under it. He pulled out three empty cans of Guinness. He took them with him as he went to his room and set them on his basket of dirty clothes to take them to the recycle bin in the garage.

Of course they were Sharky's cans and bottle. He was the only Irishman L.J. knew who secretly loathed being Irish and continued to drink Irish whiskeys and beers. In L.J.'s opinion, vodka would have suited him better than things like Jameson.

He set his laundry by the washer and took the cans and bottle to the recycle bin. When he reentered the laundry room, he heard Alex calling him from the kitchen.

"Yeah, Mama?"

"Come here and put these in the cabinet, would you? I can't."

L.J. got to the kitchen and put the champagne glasses back in the top cabinet.

"It's your father's birthday today," Alex said. "And it's the first year since we married that he didn't want at least a cake. He--he told me to not even expect him for supper."

His mother didn't cry often anymore and hid it from him when she did, so L.J. wasn't surprised that she turned away from him and left the kitchen.

L.J. made tea because that was what his grandmother had always done when someone was upset. The tea bags were done stewing by the time Alex returned to the kitchen and he set the sugar dispenser on the table with a cup of tea. She smiled, very nearly laughed, and put a small amount of sugar in. She sipped, grimaced, put more sugar in, and took another sip.

L.J. sat at the kitchen table with her and they were both silent for ten minutes.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I don't know what got into me."

"The same thing that gets into all of us at some point," L.J. said. "Father."

Alex smiled again and stirred her tea absently.

They were silent again.

L.J. looked at her while she pushed her hair away from her face and wondered what she would say if she knew he were gay. Even if she was disgusted by it, he knew she wouldn't tell Sharky. That would be tantamount to homicide, really. Or some sort of exorcism.

"Mama?"

"What is it, sweetie?"

"If I told you I was…different from other people somehow, would you-"

"Of course I wouldn't treat you badly."

"Oh. OK."

"Do you want to tell me?"

Looking into her eyes, L.J. thought about it. Then he saw the black around her eye, a cut on her cheek, and a bruise and he couldn't. He couldn't saddle her with that sort of information when Sharky was so brutal to her for no other reason than cruelty.

"No. I don't think I could anyway. I just wanted to know."

"That's fine."

L.J. looked down at the table and wondered if he could ever tell anyone but B.J. and Rick. He wondered if could or would tell her about Sharky going off to see Melissa Charles. Maybe, but he knew he couldn't right now with her misery compounded by Sharky's refusal of any acknowledgment of his birthday. Her cooking was one thing he had never faulted her on and now she probably thought that he was tiring of it or it had lost quality rather than he was going off to screw a colleague and have supper with her.

Instead of trying to explain the Melissa situation, L.J. studied her face.

"Why'd he do that last night, Mama?"

Alex touched her face. "Do what?"

"Why'd he black your eye? Why d'you have a cut on your cheek and bruise?"

Alex watched him, unwilling to explain her beating. "Why did he call you into the garage this morning?"

L.J. blushed and pressed his hand to his stomach. "I told you it was guy stuff."

"Well, then. This was marriage stuff."

"Marriage stuff doesn't usually cause bruises."

"Guy stuff shouldn't make you blush when you talk about it with your father."

L.J. felt resentful at Rachel again. This stalemate would have never happened if Brendan were there. Brendan wouldn't have let them argue because he would have told them matter-of-factly what happened to him and expected the same in return.

Maybe, though, it wasn't so hard to do on his own.

L.J. tried to speak but didn't and stood to lift his shirt instead. The words were upside down, but basic enough words if you lived with Sharky that you could read them upside down. Alex traced one and L.J. let his shirt fall back down to sit.

"Why did-"

"I was--I was late a couple weeks ago, remember? Brendan was here for supper and I left-"

"But if you had been just late, he would have not let you out the next day. What else was it?"

"I was at one of the soccer games."

"Oh, L.J. Why? You know he hates those games."

L.J. scowled and finished his tea. "Only because he never got to be on a team when he was a kid since he was such a bad player."

"That doesn't matter. He doesn't want you over there."

"I know, but there's nothing else to do around here. Besides, it happened a few weeks ago and, trust me, I haven't shown my face at one since then. I haven't even talked to B.J."

Alex finished her tea. The day was the first real rainy day of the summer and she watched the rain falling.

"Mama?"

She turned her face to him.

"Why-"

Alex smiled bitterly. "He was drunk, honey. Does he need a reason if he's drunk?"