1. As the Night the Day
'This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.'
Wm. Shakepeare, Hamlet
A warm gust of wind blew in off Lake Michigan, carrying the smell of diesel fuel and dead alewives. Todd Peterson slapped a hand down onto the pages of his sketchbook. Too late; the paper ruffled beneath the tip of his number seven pencil, spoiling the carefully drawn straight line meant to indicate where the water met the sky. Muttering in annoyance, he tore off, crumpled the banal sketch of sailboats and cabin cruisers out on the water, and tossed it at a nearby trashcan marked 'Chicago DPW'. Intent upon his aim, he barely registered the subtle shift of the boards beneath his butt as someone sat down on the other end of the park bench.
Todd looked around for something more exciting to draw. A mallard duck and his hen, from a nest nearby in the shrubbery at the edge of the lagoon, waddled past, trailing a line of recently hatched ducklings. Flashes of white appeared at the corners of his vision as his bench-mate began to toss chunks of bread to the ducks.
Another mallard drake appeared from the trees and sidled in to pick up a stray piece of bread, only to be chased off by the first male in a flurry of flapping wings and angry quacks.
"Love can be a real bitch." Todd heard laughter: a light voice as smooth as chocolate. He turned his head toward the source and stifled a gasp, feeling suddenly clumsy in his solid Scandinavian body.
His first impression: hair, long, dark and flowing in the breeze off the lake like a pennant in a chivalric pageant. Hair that he knew would feel like silk running through his fingers.
The man was beautiful. No other words could do him justice.
As Todd stared, transfixed, a stray gust lifted the hair off the stranger's left ear, just enough to reveal a tip too pointed to be normal. Good, he thought, reminded of one of his roommates, Assif, who was fond of recounting, in his own frequent moments of screwing up, how oriental rug makers customarily put a single flaw into their creations in the belief that perfection was reserved for Allah alone. Without this obvious birth defect, the man at the other end of the bench would have been an affront to the gods themselves.
Faced with such impossible near-perfection, Todd made the only reply that popped into his mind. "Huh?"
"I watched those three court last spring." The stranger grinned, revealing even, white teeth. "I guess that lucky fellow there had the more impressive plumage."
"Sucks to be the other guy," Todd said, feeling quite the oaf. He began to make a quick sketch of the ducks to busy his hands, although what he really wanted to do was to draw the dark-haired man, to capture on paper the delicate, chiseled planes of that marvelous face. "You come here a lot?"
"Since the weather turned nice, yes. I work in the Rivers building, down in the Loop. I like to get the fresh air on my lunch hour and the walk does me good. The view's nice too."
Yeah, the view was nice. Todd resolved to come here to sketch more often, even if he risked a nasty sunburn on his melanin-challenged Nordic skin.
The stranger held out a hand. "My name is Gary. Gary Brooke."
"Todd Petersen." As he returned Gary's firm grip, he could feel himself pinking up already. Flustered, he returned to his sketching.
"Not bad," Gary said, jerking his chin in the direction of Todd's sketchpad. "You ought to do that for a living."
"That's the plan -- ever since I was a kid and realized I liked my crayons better than my toy trucks. I'm studying at the Art Institute, just starting the second year of my Masters program. I figure I'd better be prepared to teach, just in case it turns out I can't do."
Gary laughed, a sound like bells against the hum of distant traffic and the high-pitched childish shouts of a nearby softball game. "I wouldn't worry about that. From the looks of things, you can do just fine."
Before Todd had a chance to wonder how his new friend knew enough about art to make that judgment, the strains of Metallica's For Whom the Bell Tolls rang out from his pocket. He extracted his cell phone, stifling a groan as he saw the number on the caller ID screen. 'Smile,' he told himself. 'She'll hear the tone in your voice if you don't put on a cheerful face.'
With a quick apologetic smile at Gary, he hit the button and put the phone to his ear. "Hi, Mom."
He loved his mother, he really did, even more now that he'd moved out of Highland Park and down into a shabby third floor walk-up on Rosemont with three other guys. The neat bungalow in which he'd grown up smelled of Pine Sol and baking cookies rather than reefer and unwashed gym socks, but the obligatory Sunday dinners had begun to be a strain, and the phone calls were developing into a disturbing pattern.
"Yeah, Mom, I'm good. And you?" As Todd talked and nodded, Gary did the polite telephone thing and pretended to stare out over the lake. His hands were busy, tossing the remainder of his bread to the ducks. "Of course I'll be there on Sunday. Wouldn't miss it . . . Ah, no, not this week."
Todd crossed his right leg over his left knee and began to bounce his foot. "Of course, I know I can bring . . . Yes, Mom, I'm dating girls but --" He lowered his voice and turned his head, uncomfortably aware of the man at the other end of the bench, " . . . just not one I'm ready to bring home to meet the parents." He said it with a nervous laugh, hoping that whatever Higher Power existed in that wide blue sky above Lake Michigan would forgive him for lying in a good cause.
"Okay, Mom, see you then. Love ya. Bye." He snapped his phone shut with a sigh of relief and returned it to his pocket. He turned to find Gary looking at him with a raised eyebrow. "Heh. Mothers. Can't live with them; wouldn't be here without them. You'd think my older brother's three would be enough grandkids to make her happy, but no."
Gary's expression seemed a bit wistful, at least to Todd. "I wouldn't know. It's been so long."
Todd cocked his head. Gary didn't look much older than twenty-five or six. Not that much older than Todd himself, who had barely cut the apron-strings. On the edges of the path, the ducks muttered and squabbled over the leftover fragments of bread.
Gary squinted at the angle of the sun. Todd noticed he wasn't wearing a wristwatch. "I suppose I had better be getting back to work now. My boss is a mellow guy, but I have some pressing projects to finish before the day is over."
Todd held back a sigh. He wanted to say something, anything, to prolong the moment, but he stayed silent.
"Tell you what," Gary continued. "I know it's a while before you finish school, but I'm always on the lookout for good talent. Take this." He held out a business card.
Todd took it and read, noting the oddly old-fashioned Rivers Enterprises logo of a stylized oak leaf: G. Brook, Director of Conceptual Art, Dale Toy Co. & Ithilien Landscaping Services. "Dale Toys . . .?"
"We're branching out into video games."
Then it hit him. "Quest for the Lonely Mountain? Dude, that game is awesome!" He trailed off in embarrassment, realizing he was gushing like a teenager.
"Yeah, that would be my job."
"I'd give my right arm to have the chance to work on a game like that." Todd winced as he said it How much more of a noob could he possibly sound?
Gary raised an attractive dark eyebrow. "Todd, are you old enough to drink?"
Now he really blushed. "Of course."
"Sorry, it's so hard to tell with you m-- ah, with some people. Can I have my card back?"
Dammit -- he'd gone and blown it. But he handed over the card obediently, if reluctantly.
"I'm here most nights after 6:00," Gary said, pulling out a pen and scrawling an address on the back of the card. "Why don't you drop by sometime? If you're in the neighborhood, that is."
"Yeah, if I'm in the neighborhood."
"I'd like that." Gary, rose and gave a parting nod. "Later."
As the lanky figure disappeared off down the winding blacktop path, Todd watched, clutching Gary's card as if it were a precious thing.
'You love her, but she loves him, and he loves somebody else, you just can't win . . .'
"Steve, will you turn it the fuck down before the neighbors complain again?"
'Thanks, Jared,' Todd thought, in the privacy of his room. The damn walls were shaking.
Jared was the responsible one of their symbiotic collective of housemates, the enforcer. Steve was a good roommate too, always paying his share of the rent on time, but eight years of playing in a garage band had left him a little deaf. He had no idea the effect his expensive sound system had on the poor slobs around him.
'And so it goes till the day you die, this thing they call love it's gonna make you cry . . .'
Todd was going to cry if it went on much longer. What's more, he worried that Jared might snap and actually punch Steve out. He looked into the mirror, adjusting the open collar of his shirt 'just so' for what must be the tenth time.
He hadn't gone that first night, or the second, not wanting to look too eager, but tonight was the night. Todd shot a quick glance at Gary's business card, propped carefully in the corner of his mirror, with the penciled address plainly visible.
'I've had the blues, the reds and the pinks . . .'
"Steve, turn it down, or I will be forced to come in there."
Todd gritted his teeth. "I'm living in a zoo," he muttered. Things were getting bad if even the normally meek Assif was complaining.
Enough, he decided. He'd never look tall and mysterious, no matter how long he posed in front of the mirror. Tall, yes. But with his blond hair and open face, he looked about as mysterious as an Iowa cornfield in the bright sunlight.
He gave one last visual sweep of his tidy room, with the easel and paints standing in one corner and a photograph of his mother staring out reproachfully from his bedside table. It would be nice some day to have his own apartment, a place where he could spread out, be as neat as he wanted, and not waste wall space on the obligatory Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition pinup poster. Half the time he hung clothes over it anyway.
Someplace all his own, with no need to put on an act to fit in . . .
'One thing for sure: Love stinks . . .'
He rushed through the common living area, ignoring the shabby Salvation Army furniture, almost slipping on a pile of Steve's Playboys on his way to the front door. "I'm out of here, dudes. Don't wait up."
Todd walked the two blocks to the El and headed south into the heart of the city. He found the place he was looking for on an oddly quiet side-street downtown: a generic little Irish neighborhood bar, with a green neon shamrock in the front window and chipped gold paint lettering on the glass front door announcing it as 'The Harp, Est. 1956'.
He took a deep breath for courage and pulled open the door. A tinkling bell announced his arrival, and the exotic scent of incense and fresh rain washed over him. Todd found it odd for a bar, but it was certainly an improvement over the smell of cigarettes and stale beer that he'd experienced in most of the other places he'd drunk in.
To his vast relief, Gary stood at the end of the bar, glass in hand, his face brightening. "Todd, my man, you finally showed up!"
"What'll it be?" asked the bartender, a middle-aged man with reddish hair showing its first streaks of grey.
"Anything you want," Garry added helpfully. "I'll be paying tonight."
Todd hesitated, wanting to make the right impression. Truth be told, he wanted a nice dry white wine, but his usual choice of drink was mocked by his roommates as effete. "A light beer," he finally said.
"Love in a canoe -- effing close to water," said a deep voice from a corner booth. "You should try wine. It's a man's drink, no matter what the rest of these horse-piss drinkers will tell you."
Todd turned to the source, having the odd feeling that some total stranger could read his mind. He saw a blond-haired man in a custodian's uniform, but sure enough -- the guy had a glass of red wine in his hand. Dammit, he thought, if a janitor can drink a glass of red, then an art student could have some white without sacrificing his masculinity. He turned to the bartender. "I'll have a glass of your house white."
Todd shook his head. Chardonnay gave him a headache. "Chablis."
"Thanks, Sean," said Gary, as Todd settled gingerly onto the stool next to him.
While the bartender poured, Todd took stock of his surroundings. He had always thought of himself as reasonably good-looking, but now he had begun to feel like a drab duckling that had waddled by accident into a flock of slender herons. Other than Sean, there didn't seem to be a person over the age of thirty in the place, and they all were impossibly attractive fashion-model types like Gary. And the hair -- such hair -- in shades from black to seal brown to the janitor fellow's golden blond, all long and flowing down to the shoulder blades.
The women were no exception. A pretty brown-haired girl bent over the pool table, lining up a shot. She paused to laugh and shoot a mock glare when a young dark-haired man in a tweed jacket put down his glass of wine to pat her on the seat of her jeans.
The janitor in the booth had a willowy brunette cuddled up against his chest, partially obscuring the 'Ran-' embroidered on the pocket of his green and brown uniform. He looked to Todd as if he were fighting a losing battle against the urge to put his hand down the neck of her tee-shirt.
Up against the back wall, a tall young man with long hair of Todd's own pale tow color stood with his chin atop the dark head of another slender dark-haired woman, who leaned with her back against his chest. The two of them swayed gently to the music of the jukebox as his arms cradled her gently rounded belly.
Lovely, so incredibly lovely. Todd should have been like a kid in a candy store, but the presence of women disappointed him just a little. He had hoped that Gary . . .
"Your wine," said the bartender.
Todd took the glass, feeling the cool beads of moisture against his fingertips. In the corner booth, the blond-haired janitor raised his own glass of red with his free hand. "Le chaim!"
The wine was incredibly good for a house wine, cool and crisp on his tongue. "I'm glad you came," said Gary.
They made small-talk about everyday things -- the weather, the Cubs' losing streak, which of the twenty-some candidates had a shot at next year's presidential nominations. Then they moved on to more important matters. Meanwhile, the couple at the pool table started another game, the janitor dude had two more glasses of wine, and Todd couldn't help noticing that Gary studiously avoided looking in the direction of the big Wurlitzer jukebox, where the blond-haired man and the pregnant woman stood lost in a world of their own.
So that was the story. Sucks to be the odd one out, he thought, recalling Gary's remark about the ducks. It must sting to see a former flame with a new person, not to mention having the proof of their fruitfulness waved under your nose. He felt sad for his friend . . . and for himself too.
In the middle of a deep discussion about the virtues of oil paints versus acrylics, Todd heard the jukebox spring to life. He looked over to see the guy in the tweeds wearing a wicked grin as he returned a pile of extra coins to his pocket.
'If you start me up, if you start me up I'll never stop . . . '
"Glenn, your taste in music is going to get you into some serious trouble one of these days," said the dark-haired pregnant girl.
"I don't know about that, Linda," Glenn said with a laugh. He took a generous sip of his wine. "I've never gone wrong yet, have I, Leif?"
The young man laughed shyly and shook his head, never letting go of Linda. "No, Glenn, not yet."
Todd failed to see what the fuss was about. He couldn't think of anyone who didn't like the Stones. Sure enough, the pretty brunette in the booth had slid off her boyfriend's lap and had him by the wrist, tugging him out onto the floor. She seemed to be getting some resistance.
"You know I don't dance," he muttered.
'I've been running hot, you got me ticking gonna blow my top . . . '
"Come on, baby, don't be such a spoilsport," she wheedled.
"Yeah, come on, Randy, don't be such a party pooper," Glenn said, earning himself a look from the janitor.
"All right," Randy said, with a shake of his bright mane. "But remember, you asked for this." He looked the brunette in the eye and snapped her tight to his chest in a gesture worthy of Rudolph Valentino in his heyday.
'You make a grown man cry . . .'
Todd swallowed hard and held out his glass to Sean for a refill. It would make a grown man cry, all right. He hadn't thought it was possible to close-dance to Start Me Up at all, but somehow this Randy guy had managed to turn it into a tango.
'Slide it up . . .'
The bar had gone quiet, other than the beat from the juke as Randy stalked and twirled his partner. The men seemed to hug in closer to their women, and the room felt awfully warm. Todd shifted on his barstool and crossed his knees, flicking a quick sidelong glance at Gary, hoping he hadn't noticed how Randy's show had affected him. The guy was pure sex on two legs.
'Love the day when we will never stop, never stop. . .'
Randy finished by dipping his partner backward until her newsboy's cap fell off, loosing a flood of dark hair that swept the floor behind her. She giggled.
'You, you make a dead man cum . . .'
He straightened up with a flourish. "I thinks it's time for us to leave," he announced.
"Calling it a night, Randy?" Glenn said with a grin, earning himself a backwards dig in the ribs from the pretty brown-haired girl beside him.
"Nope -- just going home."
Leif's face wore a pinched look. "I'll give you a lift . . . Randy." He seemed to have mastered the trick of looking both uncomfortable and aroused at the same time.
'You, you make a dead man cum . . .'
"Well, there went the boss," Gary laughed as the door swung shut behind the two couples. "We can all relax now."
"Your boss?" Todd asked.
"Loose lips, Gary my boy," Glenn said with a quick shake of the head. He began to rack up the balls for another game.
"Uhhh . . . Yeah. Leif is the founder of Ithilien Landscaping Services and Vice President of Rivers Enterprises. That makes him my boss. Kind of."
Todd shrugged. Leif hadn't looked old enough to be boss of anything, and it was an odd sort of company where a janitor gets driven home by one of the highest-ranking executives. He thought it might be a nice place to work, when and if -- for many reasons.
He ended up having three glasses of wine, which was a lot for him. Glenn invited him to play the next game of pool, while Gary watched, and Todd learned that Glenn's wife, Mariposa, or Posey as she insisted he call her, was an artist herself, one of the illustrators in Gary's department. He talked painting with her while Glenn and Gary shot a round. Then they all moved on to darts.
It was a little past ten by the time he checked his watch and said good night, pleading an early class. He went out into the warm night, ever so pleasantly squiffed, heading for the El. He had left with the impression that he'd be welcome back anytime, and he told himself he'd be a fool to cut himself off from such a rich source of professional contacts.
The apartment was mercifully quiet when he let himself in. Jared and Assif worked jobs that had them up early. Steve lay passed out on the couch, surrounded by empties. As Todd tiptoed through the darkened front room, Steve let out a loud fart.
Todd shook his head. 'It's all about career. Just keep telling yourself that . . .'
The heat of July and August peaked and subsided, and the wind off the lake began to blow chilly. The summer term ended, and fall classes began. Todd came to the park almost every day, and every day, Gary was waiting on the same bench. Long since, Todd had given up the pretense of sketching. Now they spent the time in conversation, learning about each other, talking about anything and everything -- except the most important. Todd still wanted desperately to sketch Gary, to capture that exquisite face on paper, but he still lacked the courage to ask.
At least three nights a week, often more, Todd went to The Harp. He got to know the regulars and came to feel accepted by them -- as if he could ever be part of such an exotic crowd. Never did it escape his notice how Gary continued to avoid looking at Leif and Linda whenever they were present. He felt for his friend, pining after a lost love, someone he could never have. It must be torture.
And yet he kept coming himself, doing the same.
One evening in late October, as Todd hurried along the darkening street, turning up the collar of his new leather jacket against the cold, a voice hailed him. "Mr. Peterson, we've noticed you come here a lot. Do you know what kind of people you're associating with?"
Todd turned to see two men in suits, one short and waspish, one taller, with the build of a college athlete running to fat. They wore almost identical crew cuts and narrow ties, and everything about them screamed Law Enforcement. 'Oh, Jesus, what have I done now?' Todd wondered, feeling certain they could smell the remainder of Steve's joint on him. 'Play it cool, be nice. Make Mom proud.'
Aloud he said, "Can I help you, gentlemen?"
"Agent Angus Duncan," said the short one. "This is my partner, Agent James Fitzhugh. We've seen you coming here over the past months. This establishment is frequented by employees of the Rivers Corporation."
"Um . . . yes?"
"Have you heard the name, Aaron Rivers, before?"
Who hadn't? He nodded. "Bill Gates, Howard Hughes, Aaron Rivers, Warren Buffet, Daddy Warbucks. So . . .?"
"What do you know about him?"
"He's richer than God?"
The man called Duncan frowned. "This is no joking matter, Mr. Peterson. We have reason to believe that Aaron Rivers isn't on the up and up. And it's only a matter of time before we prove it."
"Yeah, well good luck with that one." The two agents jumped and Todd grinned as Randy strolled past wearing his customary green and brown uniform. Still in short sleeves, he seemed unfazed by the chill in the night air. "See you inside, Todd."
Duncan glared as the janitor let himself into the bar to the sound of the tinkling doorbell. "And that's the problem with that outfit -- damned uppity employees bribed into silence with ridiculous salaries. It's like a shoal of clams."
"Bunch of commies," Fitzhugh muttered. "Rivers' father was a union sympathizer back in the nineteen-forties and fifties. Like father, like son."
That earned a deeper scowl from Duncan, but Todd paid it little heed, having suddenly realized that these two so-called agents knew his name without having been introduced. They must have been watching him already. What the fuck had he gotten himself into here?
"Randolph Rivers left the country in 1952 rather than answer a subpoena to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities," Duncan said. His face turned dark. "It was the end of my father's career with the FBI when that one got away. I know it's the same with his son. No one can be that rich and still be honest. Tax evasion, money-laundering, drugs, gun-running -- it has to be something."
"I don’t see what any of this has to do with me," Todd put in.
"You're a smart young man, and a patriotic one," Duncan continued. "Keep your eyes and ears open when you're around them. Even the smallest thing you can tell us might be useful. That is, if you're on the right side. If you're not, well, we realize that there are people who have secrets, skeletons in their closets that they would rather not have known. By their school, or their roommates. Or even their parents."
Todd swallowed. The look on Duncan's face told him that this was intensely personal. Oh, Jesus.
"Take this. My name and number are on it. I'm sure you'll do the right thing with any information you may come across."
"Yeah." Todd accepted the card numbly and watched as the pair went off down the street. It felt like a knife-blade between his two fingers.
Inside, the warmth of the bar enveloped him like a cloak. Todd drank in the smell of the place, the sounds of the laughter. One look at the crowd of exotic faces, their welcoming smiles such a contrast to those two creepazoids outside, and he shook his head.
He motioned to the bartender, O'Dell. "Sean, do you have a book of matches and an ashtray?"
"Sorry, young man, you know the rules: no smoking in here."
"It isn't that. I have something I need to get rid of."
"Then I'll throw it in the trash for you."
"Nope," Todd laughed, holding up Duncan's card between in first and middle fingers, "this is something that needs to be terminated with extreme prejudice."
O'Dell smiled his crooked Irish grin. "In that case -- just for you!" He rummaged under the bar and pulled out a heavy glass ashtray, pausing to blow a fine layer of dust from it. He proffered a book of matches. "Here you go."
Todd took one last look at Duncan's card, a cheap thing anyone could have had printed up at Kinko's, and struck the match. As he watched the edges of the flimsy paper blacken and curl, he sensed Gary at his side. "Nice going, Todd," he whispered.
"I see you've met Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum," Mariposa Butler said, as her husband handed her another drink. "They tried to pull the same nonsense on me last year."
"What is it with those two?" Todd asked, imagining just how far they would have gotten with the no-nonsense Posey.
Leif laughed and made a circling motion around his head with a slender forefinger. "Ancient history."
"Completely crazy," came a deep voice from the corner booth. "But even crazy people can be annoying if they put their minds to it. The important thing is to stand your ground -- if you have nothing to hide." Something seemed different about Randy tonight, Todd thought. The laid-back surfer dude demeanor had vanished, replaced by an air of quiet authority as he held up his glass of red wine. "Le chaim!"
Todd raised his glass in an answering salute and drained it. "That's the last for you tonight," Gary said, when he made as if to signal Sean for a refill. "I want you to have a clear head."
Todd raised an eyebrow, his outward calm disguising his racing heart. What could Gary have planned that would require sobriety?
"I was sort of hoping we could get out of here and go back to my place this evening. I'd like to show you my etchings."
"Huh?" Todd decided he was really going to have to work on that witty repartee.
"Ah, don't people invite other people up to look at their etchings anymore?" Gary asked, with a very becoming wrinkle of perplexity forming between his eyes. "I know I've been out of it for a while . . ."
"No . . . no," Todd hastened to say. "I'd like that a lot."
"Come on then." Gary gave a little wave good night to the rest of the group, and the two of them went out into the night.
"Is it far?"
Gary nodded. "Too far to go on foot. My car's back in the garage at the Rivers Building."
They walked two blocks to a tall steel and black glass building overlooking the lake, where a pale-haired security guard whom Todd recognized from The Harp buzzed them into a basement garage. Todd let out a soft whistle as Gary unlocked a forest green Acura RL coupe. "Sweet Ride!"
They were all nice rides. Looking around, Todd saw a variety of expensive looking automobiles among the scattered few still parked in the garage, including a silver Ferrari and a burgundy Mercedes limo with dark glass shielding the passenger compartment. "Whose is that?" Todd asked as he slid into the Acura's leather passenger seat and fastened his shoulder-belt.
"Aaron's . . . ah, Mr. Rivers' car."
"And he's still here at this time of night? He must be one of those hard-working driven types."
Gary grinned as he turned the key and the Acura roared into life. "Not really, but he's . . . around." He smoothly backed the car up and steered it out onto the darkened street. "It's about a ten-minute drive this time of night, better than the forty-five minutes up to Lake County. I've had this little pied a terre for a while for whenever we wanted privacy, and I spend most of my nights there now that three's a crowd in Lake Forest. It still feels odd to be alone."
"You were in a relationship?" Todd sensed he was veering into dangerous territory, but he felt the need to make polite small talk.
Gary shrugged and shook his head. "Friends with benefits was more like it. On again and off again a couple of times over the years, but we always seemed to come back. I'm kind of surprised how adrift I feel now that it's off forever."
Todd raised an eyebrow. 'Forever' seemed kind of . . . final.
The Acura eased up onto Lake Shore Drive and headed north. "How about you, Todd? You got somebody?"
Todd looked out at the dark expanse of the lake to his right, broken only by the occasional red pinpoint of a solitary boat out on the water. How to answer? "I took a girl to Homecoming my junior year of high school," he said finally. "Nothing really came of it. Other than that . . . no." That was one way of putting it.
They got off at Fullerton and went only a block or two west before Gary pulled the car to the curb and parked in a quiet residential neighborhood where subdued lights burned behind the stained-glass transoms of bay windows and tall trees strewed the sidewalks in a carpet of fallen leaves. Halfway up the block, Gary led him up four steps to the vestibule of a three-story brownstone and let them into the first floor apartment.
"Make yourself at home," Gary said, flipping on a light. "I'll get us something to drink. Wine okay?"
"Sure," Todd replied offhandedly, looking around at the overstuffed leather armchairs and the oriental rugs on the hardwood floors. He made a mental note to ask Gary what kind of air freshener he used -- the place smelled like rain and fresh leaves, a welcome change from the miasma of beer farts and sweaty feet at his own apartment.
While Gary disappeared into the back, Todd took off his jacket and laid it neatly over the back of the sofa. Then he followed the instructions to make himself at home by acquainting himself with his surroundings.
Over the working fireplace hung a large oil painting of a forested river spanned by a stone bridge. The scene reminded him of the setting in one of the later levels of Quest For the Lonely Mountain, and he grinned to himself to discover the source of Dale Toys' inspiration.
On the west wall of the living room, just inside the front bay window, he spied a grouping of prints in simple frames. Todd sighed.
"You've actually got etchings," he said, as Gary returned and handed him a glass of white.
"Of course, what did you think?"
God, he could be such a fool at times. Todd turned his head and made as if to examine the prints more closely. He blinked hard, really seeing them for the first time. "Gary, this is a Degas! The only time I've ever seen one of these it had a strike mark through it. How did you get them?"
Gary smiled over the rim of his glass. "If I said I knew the man personally you probably wouldn't believe me."
Once again, the planes of Gary's face lit by the soft lighting of the green glass shades and the refracted glow of the street lamp coming in the bay window held such an unearthly beauty that Todd felt overcome with a helpless desire to capture it on paper . . . or to do more. 'Too bad he's straight,' he thought wistfully.
"But I'm not. Not for the most part, anyway."
Todd barely caught himself from spilling wine on Gary's Kirman. "But I thought you and Linda . . .?"
"Linda?" Gary chuckled softly. "No . . . not Linda." He reached out to stroke Todd's hair, gently fingering a short yellow curl. "I have more of a thing for blonds."
He took the glass from Todd's unsteady hand and set it down on an end table. "Dammit, Todd, I've been patient, waiting for you to make the first move here. How much plainer can I be how I feel about you? Oh, hell . . ." he said and kissed him, hard and hungrily, his teeth grinding into Todd's lips.
'This can't be happening,' Todd thought, tasting wine and Gary. And then, 'It's happening. Oh please, God, don't let me wake up!' He had imagined such a moment so many times, himself in Gary's arms, that he hesitated to breathe or make a sound for fear it would dissolve like any other dream, leaving him alone and frustrated in his morning-tangled sheets.
"You're not asleep," Gary said, finally breaking off the kiss and stepping back. "If I'm wrong -- if you don't want this -- just say the word and I'll stop."
Todd shook his head. "No. Don't stop."
"Good," Gary said and kissed him again. He soon left Todd's lips and began to trail little nibbles down his chin to the hollow of his throat. Todd felt the buttons of his shirt coming undone one by one beneath Gary's hand, and the kisses moved lower, teeth and tongue grazing his right nipple before slithering down the center of his belly to his navel. "Still good?"
Todd nodded wordlessly. Leaving the waistband of his khakis still fastened, Gary unzipped him and freed his rapidly growing erection from the folds of his briefs.
"Nice . . ." Gary murmured and sank to his knees. Todd hitched in his breath as he felt himself engulfed in warm wetness.
'Oh, dear God . . .' He let his head fall back, his mouth falling open in stunned pleasure. He had expected, feared, his first time for this, when he finally gave in to it, would be in some anonymous glory hole of a downtown bar or the men's' room of some seedy truck stop up Highway 41. Instead . . .
He reached down with a trembling hand to stroke the dark head at his groin. Gary's hair felt like silk in his fingers, just as he'd imagined, and the pointed ear tip beneath seemed a thing of beauty rather than a deformity. At the touch, Gary moaned, his tongue twitching as it circled the head of his erection. Todd twitched and moaned too. He was going to . . .
"Oh no you don't . . ."
Todd groaned with frustration as Gary pulled away and the sensation of delicious heat left him.
"Not just yet. I have other plans for you tonight. Better plans." Gary grinned up at him and rose gracefully to his feet. He held out a hand. "Come on."
He led Todd into a back bedroom, pausing only to whip off the down comforter and toss it over an armchair in the corner. "I want to see you naked," he said. "Help me out of my clothes."
Todd was only too happy to oblige. He went to work on Gary's buttons, while Gary slipped the already loosened shirt from his shoulders. He shivered, half from chill, half from anticipation as the cold air hit his bare skin. Next, the waistband and fly of Gary's jeans came undone. Todd barely noticed his own trousers slipping to the floor. Already, his own erection had become a painful ache between his legs.
Todd drew in his breath at the sight of Gary's naked body, smooth and hairless except for a light dusting of dark hair at the armpits and a slightly more generous nest down below, out of which his sex jutted. Unable to resist, Todd took it in his hand, enjoying the heft of the long, thin shaft with its budlike pointed tip. The oddest thing -- the hair at the base felt as silky as the hair on Gary's head. "Oh, God, you're so very . . . beautiful."
"And you. Look at you! Do you have any idea how gorgeous you are, Todd?" Gary laughed again and kissed him, and the two of them fell onto the bed, their bodies grinding frantically together. Todd gritted his teeth seeking something, something more.
"I'm sorry," he said at last. "I don't know the first thing about what I'm doing."
"That's all right. I do. I'll talk you through it." Gary rolled over onto his back, lifted his knees, and curled his spine ever so slightly.
"What? You want . . .?"
Gary nodded. "Maybe later we'll do it differently, but tonight, for your first time, I want you to take me, and I want to be able to see your face while you do it."
"You sure?" Toss replied, stunned at his good fortune. "I'd like that too, but I don't want to hurt you."
"Very sure. It's what I like." Gary smiled up at him. "There's a container of Astro-Glide in the drawer of the bedside table. So much better than cooking oil."
Todd felt around and found it. "Um . . . condoms?" He could think only of his wallet, and the Trojan he'd put there on his eighteenth birthday just in case, in his pants down on the floor. The last thing he wanted to do was to move from that spot.
"No need," Gary said.
No need? "You test negative?" Todd asked, his growing lust not quite overcoming caution.
Gary nodded. "Trust me, Todd, of all the people in this world, you're safe with me."
With the same trust that had inspired him to burn Duncan's card, he believed Gary. Todd felt as if he had fallen into a dream as he heard Gary's velvet voice instructing him, "Use your finger," then, "a second," and then, "another," and finally, "now, you . . ." Gripping Gary's legs he poised himself, feeling tantalizing resistance until, drenched in Astro-Glide, he suddenly slid home.
"Hot," he whispered. So hot, and held tighter than his own fist, it took his breath away and shocked him into immobility.
"Move. Please, move," Gary demanded, and Todd began to pump, hesitantly at first, but soon falling into a rhythm that was entirely involuntary. Lost in the sensation, he barely noticed when Gary shuddered and flooded his belly and chest with warm fluid. The spasms surrounding his flesh spurred him to the brink. Three more thrusts and he let himself go.
When Todd came to, he found himself collapsed against Gary's chest. Gary smiled lazily up at him, grey eyes grown soft and unfocused with sexual surfeit. Todd felt he could look into those eyes until the end of his days.
"That can be arranged," Gary whispered.
"It's almost as if you can read my mind," Todd said, basking in his good fortune.
"That would be a useful talent in a lover, eh?" Gary replied, untucking the blanket from the corners of the bed and pulling it up to wrap around the two of them. "Rest now, beautiful boy. We'll talk about it later."
As he lay in Gary's arms, gathering his strength for the rest of that incredible night, Todd thought, 'I could really get used to this . . .'
The green Acura pulled up to the curb, stirring up a flurry of leaves raked from the neighboring lawn into the gutter. Outside the passenger window, on the sidewalk, children in bright costumes walked past in groups of twos and threes, carrying their orange plastic pumpkin-pails and brown paper shopping bags of Halloween loot. As the engine ticked to a halt, Todd stared down into his sweating palms.
"It's going to be all right," Gary said, pulling the keys from the ignition and stuffing them inside the breast pocket of his sport jacket. "I was just as nervous when it came to telling you, and you were just fine."
They'd had The Talk. About who Gary was and what he and the others were. About why condoms were unnecessary in their lovemaking, because nothing could touch Gary. Not AIDS, nor cancer, nor the ravages of time itself. Todd, who was already spending most of his nights at Gary's place while arranging for a new roommate at the Rosemont apartment, had only just begun to get his mind around the existence of such beings in the world.
At night, he often lay awake in soft sheets, surrounded by warm arms as Gary slept, envisioning a future with a lover who would remain as perfect as the day they met until the end of his life. Todd found the prospect astounding, and just a little bit frightening.
He felt Gary's hand grip his shoulder reassuringly. He turned and gave him a shaky smile. "Come on."
Dodging a group of giggling Disney princesses and a witch, the two of them went up a flagstone walkway that led to a tidy brick bungalow with spreading yews on either side of the front porch. Todd put his hand to the doorbell, and after a short time, the door swung open, letting the aroma of lasagna come wafting out. "Hi, Mom," Todd said, giving the plump blonde woman who greeted them a dutiful kiss. "We're here."
"Oh, Todd, I'm so glad you finally made it. Your Dad and I have been on pins and needles waiting to meet your date." She gave Gary a smile and peered eagerly past him. "Where is she? Still in the car?"
Todd took a deep breath. "Mom, this is Gary. Gary is my date."
Todd braced himself for tears or outright anger. He watched his mother's face as her expression turned from shock to comprehension. Yet, in her eyes, somewhere in the middle of the metamorphosis, right before her perfect hostess persona dropped back into place, he saw a flood of relief, as if a very large elephant had finally left the room.
She extended her hand, smiling warmly. "I'm pleased to meet you, Gary. Welcome. Now let's go see your father, Todd. He's got the game on. You know how he is about the Bears."
"Thank you, Mrs. Peterson," Gary said, flashing her his melting grin. "I'm a Bears fan myself."
After ushering Gary in, Todd's mother stood on tiptoe to give him a quick peck on the cheek. "Your father and I love you Todd. You'll always be our little boy, no matter what."
"I love you too, Mom," he said.
As he followed his mother into the house, Todd felt a great weight leaving his shoulders. He had borne it for so long that he had long since ceased to notice, but now that it had lifted he seemed to stand an inch taller. And maybe, just maybe, in a world of rediscovered magic, with such beautiful beings in it, there really was such a thing as happily ever after.
The beta reader for this story is Oshun. Thank you, Oshun!
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.