Curiosity Shop
By: Jess Mercer
( 2010 by the author)

  The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent. Comments are appreciated at...

I have the afternoon off and decided to hit my favorite newsstand before going home to my flat. The stand is down a side street where the age of the buildings shows, not clean and bright as those on the main. There is an occasional empty storefront, for small businesses tend to come and go in this area with some regularity.

Though I seldom venture any further, the afternoon is nice and I feel like a walk to see what's changed. In the next block I pass a tiny place that housed a hot dog stand when I was a kid. The name in old gold letters on the small window catches my eye: The Curiosity Shop. I peer through the window trying to see inside, but the gloom prevails.

Now it's my curiosity that's aroused. I push open the door and step inside. As best I can tell in the dim light, there are several nice antique pieces on display. A shame I think to myself that nice things are given such a dingy setting.

"May I help you, or would you prefer to browse?" A quiet voice asks.

I look in the direction from which the voice came and finally locate the source. An unusually handsome young man no older than I is sitting at a small desk at the far corner of the room.

"Just curious. You haven't been here long."

"Less than a month. Would you prefer more light?"

"Not yet. The chest on chest looks to be a fine piece." I rather expect that to cause him to rise, but he remains at the desk.

"One of the finest I've ever seen. It's solid cherry and I can offer a solid provenance with it."

"Your stock seems small."

"I don't often come across items of extraordinary beauty, and I prefer to limit myself to those." He suddenly smiles. "I specialize in more esoteric items which I offer for sale on the web."

"Might I ask?"

"Only a devotee or pretender would have an interest."

I'm immediately interested, for I've long been both, careful to hide those interests in a small town. "Then I'm interested. May I look at your stock?"

"I rather thought you might be." He notices my sudden blush. "Please don't worry, you said nothing to give yourself away. I have developed a sense, if you like, for those sharing my own interest." He reaches behind him for a pair of forearm crutches and pulls himself up. His right leg ends just below the knee, the abducted nub barely showing in the neat jeans he has on.

He flows easily over to me on his crutches. "Those items are in the back. Please follow me."

I walk behind him, waiting for him to push open a heavy door, then switch on some lights. My mouth drops open. There are several racks holding an astonishing assortment of crutches, peg legs, even modern prosthetics. Along the far wall is an assortment of old looking and often crudely made crutches, peg legs, clumsy appearing hooks, and, astonishingly, a hand made of metal.

He notices my stare and smiles. "Those are genuine antiques, some dating to well before the civil war." He swings over and picks up an extremely crude peg leg made for an ankle stump. It looks to have been roughly hacked out of a log. It is entirely surrounded by worn leather which extends enough to have been laced on the stump to the knee. "Can you imagine some poor amputee using something like this? It must have given his stump a terrible beating." He lays it down and picks up another, almost as crudely fashioned, but of better design. Two hinged iron bars extend up to the leather band which would have been placed above the knee. The end of the stump would have rested directly on the bare wood top of the peg. "Or this. I've tried it, and the pain is unbelievable after a few minutes." He holds up a homemade wooden crutch, a simple shaft with a curved piece to fit under the arm. "Imagine trying to walk with this. Your wrist would have to bend most uncomfortably for your hand to grasp it. I'm quite thankful for the ones I use. Please feel free to look at these if you wish."

"They're fascinating, but while I might enjoy seeing someone using them, I'm glad I don't have to."

"Quite. Do you have something in mind for yourself?"

I suddenly feel foolish asking for something with which to pretend when this young man is an amputee. "I ?" I feel my face flush, "I have always wanted a peg leg like the one I saw an old man wearing when I was a kid. There was one in the museum not long ago."

He smiles again. "I recently acquired that one from the family. And please don't feel embarrassed for your interest. My own interest developed after I lost my leg. I thought for a while I was alone, then I found a devotee site on the web. Seeing the many inquires about peg legs and so on, I decided to open this business." He holds his stump out. "I'm not the least sensitive about my stump. But let me show you what I have that might interest you."

He goes to a rack toward the back of the room and pulls out a nice looking peg leg of stained polished wood. "I think this one. It was made by an elderly BK amp for dressier occasions. I also have two others he made for working."

It has the typical leather belt that goes around the lower part of the stump; the outside shaft extending up to a level where top belt goes around the waist.

"I've often wondered why they were made that way. Why not have the top strap go around the thigh?"

"I had often wondered the same until I tried one. It's a matter of long term comfort and stability. Here it is." His eyes go up and down my leg. "This might be a good fit for you. Would you care to try it?"

How can I resist? I rest my knee on top of the peg as he tightens the straps. I'd swear he's coping a slight feel when his hand reaches between my legs to grasp the top strap, but he tightens it and steps back. "Just remember that you will have to swing the peg out and around instead of taking a straight step."

I try a few steps in the confined space and like the feeling, but unstrap the peg with regret. "I wish I had room to really try it out. It feels good, but just a little short."

He smiles again. "A large crutch tip would take care of that nicely." He sets the peg aside, as I start to look at the modern prosthetic devices.

"How do you manage these? I inquired one time and was told all prosthetics require a prescription."

"I have in uncle in the business. He was complaining about the accumulation of used and rejected legs and arms, so I told him I would dispose of them for him. He was delighted and asked no questions. I have seen his people at work often enough to know how to adjust them to fit pretenders who wish one. He made my leg, but I prefer my crutches unless I'm going to a formal occasion."

The words slip out before I can stop them. "I'm glad. You're quite handsome."

He lays his hand on my arm. "Thank you. I find you very attractive also."

Never in my wildest dreams! "Would you care to have a drink and possibly dinner with me this evening?"

"I'd like that very much. I don't have any close friends, because of lack of compatible interests. I think we share at least a few. I need to check my e-mail for orders, then I can close. Shall we meet somewhere," he consults his watch, "at six?"

"Why not drop by my flat as soon as you close? We'll have drinks there."

"I do need to shower and change first. With all this stuff dust is inevitable." He motions toward the door and I stand outside while he switches off the lights and closes the door, locking it.

I walk to his desk and hand him my card. "About four, then?"

"Perfect. I feel stupid for not having introduced myself. I'm Michael Atkins."

I take his hand. "Steven McKensie. Until four then."

I walk fast to get my car from the lot and get home. On the way I stop at a store and pick up a small assortment of wine and some crackers and cheeses. I don't often drink anything stronger.

Hoping he will dress casually, I lay a new pair of cargo pants, a knit shirt, and cordovan loafers on my bed before I shower.

Promptly at four, the bell rings. I open the door to see Michael standing there, a rather large cardboard box in his arms. He's dressed almost identically, but I feel a pang of disappointment, for he's put on his leg.

"Come in."

"Thanks." He crosses the room and sets the box on the floor, then smiles at me. "I hope you don't mind, but you can fulfill a fantasy of mine."

"Oh?"

"You mentioned that you would like to try that peg leg where you had plenty of room. After you left, I realized how nice you looked on it, so I took the liberty of bringing it along. I put a new tip on it, so the length should be about perfect."

Thoughtful of him, for I was already regretting I hadn't asked the price. I slip my right foot out of my loafer. "Let me put it on before I fix us a drink."

"I was hoping you'd say that." He opens the box and takes it out, holding it toward me.

I walk over and stand in front of him. Without a word, he adjusts my knee on the peg, then fastens the straps. This time there is no mistaking that he feels me up for a moment before cinching the top strap.

It feels wonderful as I start for the kitchen. "Is wine okay with you?" I ask.

"Very much so. I'd like white Zinfandel if you have it."

"My favorite."

With his smile at seeing me walking on the peg leg, I deliberately take two trips to the kitchen for the wine and cheese, though I could have carried it all on a tray. When he thinks I'm not watching him, he shifts and adjusts the bulge in his slacks. I am even more hopeful.

Sitting is a bit awkward with the peg, but after a few tries I find a comfortable position.

"You are very graceful to have had such a short time on a peg. Quite beyond my expectation."

"It feels awfully good, but a bit awkward, especially with my lower leg extending out."

He smiles. "I don't have that problem, of course." His eyes roam over my living room. "You're quite surprising, Steven. By your card, you're an architect, so I had expected to see a contemporary room, but this is wonderful."

My room has dark teal carpet, two burgundy leather chairs, and the teal and burgundy plaid sofa where he's sitting. "I like quiet dark colours for my personal living space. I had quite enough of contemporary in school. There isn't much call for contemporary design in a town as conservative as this."

"I can believe that. I prefer earth tones myself."

"Is that why you keep your shop so dark? Such nice things as you have out front need good light to be appreciated."

He grins. "Why did you come in this afternoon?"

"I was curious, as the name implies."

"Quite. Most of my antiques I sell to decorators. As for the other goods, my sales are on the web. The darkness discourages idle people. Disappointed?"

"Yes."

"How so?"

"That you aren't on crutches now."

"Easily remedied. They're in the car."

He returns a few moments later, and without hesitation drops his Dockers and removes his leg. Pulling his slacks back on, he stands. "Have you a few pins? These slacks crease badly if I roll the leg."

It's a thrill to fold the empty part of the slacks leg up and pin it in place. I take advantage of the opportunity to feel his stump.

"You are a true devotee," he says.

"Just getting a bit of my own back."

"I should have been less obvious, but I do find you attractive." He sighs. "In fact, I wish you could wear the peg when we go out. You're incredibly exciting on it."

"I feel that way. I think you've made a sale if the price is not beyond my reach."

"I think you'll find it reasonable."

I sit back down and reach for my wine. Our talk compasses our tastes in music, art, then moves to web sites. He names a few I haven't discovered, and promises to show them to me after dinner.

At six, I reluctantly remove the peg and slip my foot back into the loafer. "Shall we go?"

"As I am, or do you prefer the leg?"

I grin. "If you have to ask, I question your powers of observation."

"Just as I thought, but a few people do feel uncomfortable being seen with an amputee in public."

"Not I," I say emphatically.

I've made reservations at a nice waterfront restaurant and requested a secluded table. Michael nods his approval. "I like this restaurant. Not often I eat here, though. They don't approve of jeans at dinner, and I prefer to wear them in the shop."

Our dinner is excellent and I enjoy our table talk, but I want to be home where I can see Michael's stump. I suggest returning there for cappuccino, to which he agrees quickly. "I do want to see you on the peg again."

The web sites he shows me are so nice I ask him to bookmark them after we've discussed our favorite amputee pictures. "Why don't you put your picture in one? You're far better looking than any I've seen tonight."

He actually blushes. "Not at all."

"Don't underestimate yourself. Even our waiter couldn't keep his eyes off you, and I happen to know he's married."

"It must have been you he was admiring."

"No way. I've been at his table before and never gotten such attentive service."

Michael slaps his forehead with his hand. "How could I be so stupid? Let me take your picture on the peg. I play with pictures some evenings. I can remove your leg at the same spot as mine, and you'll look a perfect amputee."

I'm excited at the idea. I'd not known it could be done until he pointed out that all the pictures on one site were subjected to electronic surgery. "Yes! Shall I get my camera?"

"I brought mine. It's digital, so much easier to use with the computer. I'll send it to you by e-mail tomorrow night."

He's exacting, and the six pictures he takes of me takes over an hour. I demand that he pose for me and use the last two shots the camera can accommodate at high resolution. One shot of each of us is taken after we've stripped to our briefs. Then I hand his camera back to him, he hugs me, then plants a kiss on my lips, which I'm quick to return. I'm thankful my bed is a king, for there's no question where he's spending this night and hopefully many more.

The pictures? We post them on a site Friday night with a caption 'which is real?' and spend the weekend chuckling at the posted guesses, for most think I'm the real amp. A few say flatly we've both been made amps by e-surgery.

Oh, yes, Michael's moving in with me next weekend, and I've been promised I can try pretending with anything he has in the shop. He's hoping I'll go out with him to dinner some evening after I become proficient with a hook.

As planned, Michael moves in with me the following weekend. It turns out that he'd been living in a furnished studio flat that he heartily despised. Beyond his clothes and personal prosthetics, he has only two pieces of furniture, a chest and a small table both in solid cherry, both so beautiful he tells me he could not bring himself to sell them. It's easy for me to find space for them. I wish I could afford the chest on chest he has in the shop. It's a perfect match for these pieces, but I know if I mention it he will insist on it bringing home, and the profit from the sale of it would keep us both for a month.

In less than a week, we've so perfectly adjusted to each other that it's hard for me to imagine that we've not lived together for years. Naturally I'm delighted now that I bought the king-size bed, though at the time I cursed myself for the extravagance of it.

Michael, Mike is not suitable for such a man, is delighted that I can't keep my eyes off him, and changes into shorts the minute he arrives home so I feel free to caress his stump at any time. I repay him by using the peg leg most of the time I'm at home.

He comes in one evening with a broad smile. "Let's get to my other fantasy."

"What?"

"This." He holds out a modern split hook adapted to fit my arm by placing my hand in the leather socket.

I strip off my shirt and hold out my arm. He slips my hand into the socket and adjusts the straps over my shoulder. He's done a remarkable job, for there's no discomfort.

"Did you think I'd ask you to use something that's not comfortable?" He asks when I mention it.

"Of course not, but I'm surprised at how good it feels."

"Maybe I should have gone to work for my uncle, then."

I give him a kiss. "No way! I'd never have met you."

"True. I might have made more money than I do with the shop, but," he looks around, "I'd have missed you and all this."

He becomes a little impatient at my slowness in learning to use the hook though I wear it often. The next Saturday morning he stops me after I have the hook on, pulls my right arm behind my back, and quickly pulls my sweat shirt down with the empty right sleeve pulled inside. "What are you doing?"

He grins. "Today you're going to be without your right arm, so you'll use the hook or nothing."

"Isn't this a bit extreme? I do like to have one hand at least, and I'm right handed."

"Too much so!"

I can't get mad at him, because he's always so thoughtful and loving, just what I've needed. But he has another surprise for me.

"I know you think I'm obsessed with this, but I do love seeing you as an amputee. When you master the hook, I've planned a little business holiday for us so you can use it in public. I want to take several pictures of you using it, also using the peg leg."

"For what?"

"I want you to take a few shots of me, too. I've been thinking of opening my own web site to advertise the shop's special items. The pictures of us will be an excellent 'come on', so to speak."

I'm awkward for several hours, trying to adjust to using my left arm and a hook for all my needs. To be blunt, I have a hell of a day, but he's always close by to help when I need him, and his smiles and frequent hugs when I perform well provide the encouragement I need to persevere.

I'm surprised at how just one day with only a hook to use improves my performance. I use it the next day and almost feel normal, though I still prefer the peg. Michael, on the other hand, likes the hook because I look a true amputee when I wear a long-sleeve shirt.

The next Friday, we leave as soon as I get home, put on the hook and put his things in my car. Three hours later we're checking in at an intimate bed and breakfast in a small town Michael has chosen, because he wishes to look in several of the antique shops he's learned about.

I even surprise myself at the ease with which I use the hook at dinner. He's using his crutches so we receive double the attention from others a single amp would have. One older woman, dining with friends, is obviously a devotee herself for she flatly stares at us with an admiring smile instead of taking the usual covert glances.

Michael is lavish in his praise when we're walking back to the B&B. "I wish there were an Oscar for best performance as a pretender, love. I'd award it to you right now."

I smile. "Then I pass?"

"You're totally convincing. It was even hard for me to remember you're not for real."

The next morning, we hit the shops. Michael finds one piece he wants, and after some dealer to dealer haggling, buys it and arranges for the shipping. In a shop run by a prim lady who reminds me of my third grade teacher, I'm told in no uncertain terms to put the hook in my pocket and keep it there so I won't accidentally strike and damage the merchandise. Michael goes livid, telling her in a cold haughty voice explicitly what she can do with her shop if amputees are not welcome. From her expression, I half expect her to start throwing things at us before we can get through the door.

We have to drive to the last place on his list, for it's several miles out of town. Michael simply smiles when I mention my surprise that it's an old barn. "You'll see."

The place is gloomy and has little in it, but Michael finds a pair of small matching tables in cherry that will go well with the pieces he brought into our flat. "These will be perfect for end tables."

"What can I help you with?" A voice calls from the door.

I turn and see an elderly man coming our way. He's stumping along on a peg leg that's a near duplicate of the one Michael gave me.

"I'm Michael Atkins. I called about your special products."

The old man smiles. "Looks like you could use one of my special products as you call 'em."

"Have one, but I may be able to increase your business if you're willing."

The old man scratches his head. "Now how's a young feller like you gonna do that?"

"I deal in such merchandise over the internet. Now here's my proposal ?"

They settle in for a serious haggling session. It takes half an hour before they shake hands.

"I'll show you what I done got made up," the man says, and beckons for us to follow him to the back of the barn. When he switches on the light, I'm floored. There must be twenty some nicely made peg legs of uniform height lined up against the wall. "These here," he points to one like he's using, "is made fer below knee stumps like mine and yourn. All they need is cuttin' to length and the straps. I'll send 'em wid long straps. No reason you can't cut 'em to fit proper." He points to a few longer ones set apart. "These here I fix with a lace-up leather holder fer stumps above the knee. Course, you're gonna have to send me proper measures fer length fer all of 'em, but I gotta know how big around the stump is and how long it is to do these here. I don't do no exchange."

"What type of finish do you use?"

"Don' do none. I'll leave that to you, cause some people like 'em nice and shiny, 'n some don't. I don' use nothin' on mine, cept the one I use on Sunday. I done put that there urethane stuff on it. Been five year and I ain't got hardly no scratches on it yet."

Michael turns to me with a grin. "You into doing a little finish work, Steve?"

"Why not? Won't take long with the fast drying type. We can get some tints and create any color stain the customer wants from basic clear urethane."

"Now that's using your head." He turns back to the man. "What if you turn the pegs, cut the leather straps and stump holders, and let me do the fitting and final finish work?"

He scratches his head again. "Some people is awful hard to please. I gits my pleasure from working tha wood. Tell you what, if you goin' to do all that I'll knock five dollars offen the price."

"Excellent. Would you put on your nice peg and let me take a picture of it to show people what we're offering?"

"Guess I could."

"And if you have one made up with the leather work for an above the knee stump, I'd like to get a picture of that also."

"Ain't got one made up, but I could put a leather piece on one of 'em temporary like."

"That will be fine."

The old man stumps off towards his small house. "Well, love, what do you think?"

"I hope you're going to get enough orders to make it worth all this trouble."

"Believe it. I've had enough inquiries to sell every one he's got now and keep him in business for the rest of the year if he makes just one every day, which he doesn't. He's retired and does a lot of fishing."

Michael takes his pictures. The one he takes of the old man would remind me greatly of Grant Wood's painting American Gothic if the old man's wife had been standing next to him.

When we go back into the old man's shop, Michael waves his hand around. "I'll take every peg you've got here, so you can start making some new ones. When I get low, I'll call you. Be certain to ship by UPS when I give you an order. I'll send you a few sturdy boxes and some printed shipping labels to use." The old man nods. "And I'll take those two tables also."

The old man gives us a toothless grin. "The way you talked, I thought you might be the kind would 'preciate 'em. That's how come I got 'em down from the loft."

"Hell! You got any more treasures hidden up there?"

"These here is the last o' my stock. Glad to git outen the antique business. Too fer out to get many people wantin' to buy."

Michael whips out his chequebook and starts to write as the old man and I put the peg legs and the tables in the back of my Cherokee. I think to wrap the tables in the old blanket Michael insisted I throw in the back, being very careful how I use the hook. Apparently the old man hadn't noticed it before, because he asks to look at it.

"Peculiar lookin' thang, ain't it? Would think after all this time they'd of come up wid somethin' looks more like a hand."

"Oh, they have. I've seen one that's almost impossible to tell from a real hand."

"Then why don't you got one?"

I think fast. "They're frightfully expensive and the electronics occasionally tend to give trouble. This is totally mechanical and easy to repair."

He nods. "Ain't into all that there fancy stuff myself." He slaps his peg. "This here is solid. Done lasted me five year. They does wear down after a bit."

Michael's deal completed, we return to our B&B for the night. He's quite pleased with himself. "Didn't think I'd get him to make the pegs quite so cheaply, but he says he likes to keep busy, especially in the winter when he can't fish much."

After a sumptuous breakfast, we make the drive home a leisurely one, stopping frequently at some place of interest along the way. The tables look lovely once they're polished and in place. They match the other two pieces Michael brought with him perfectly. That evening I watch him set up a web page with pictures of us and the name of his shop in Gothic lettering. On the second page, he puts the picture he made of the old man wearing his peg leg and pictures of other items in his inventory. The third page is an order form with detailed instructions on how to measure for a proper fit of a peg leg, and for the prosthetic arms he has available. Last, he adds a secure credit card payment form. It's past midnight when he finally posts it and places links on the devotee and wannabe sites.

He stretches. "Now we'll see what happens. Let's go to bed, I'm beat."

We agreed the day he moved in that our computers are strictly private property, especially as mine is loaded with an extensive CAD program I use for design, while his holds a top quality accounting program. While I'm fixing breakfast the next morning I hear him let out a long whistle, then he calls me.

"What?"

"Take a look at this!"

I guess a lot of people stay up much later than we, for he has eight confirmed orders for peg legs waiting. Neither of us expected such a rapid response, even at the reasonable price he's placed on them.

"You certainly know your market."

"Hell, I never thought it would hit this fast," he replies. I'm about to turn away when he stops me. "Look at this."

It's an e-mail from a kid. 'Dear sir, I sure would love to have one of your peglegs. I have $35 I saved from my allowance. Do you maybe have an old one I could buy for that? Thank you, Danny'

I'm wondering how Michael is going to handle this when he types a reply. 'Dear Danny, I can tell from your server that you're nearby. If you live in Bay City, perhaps you could drop by my shop and see what I have. Send me a reply first so I can make an appointment for you. Sincerely, Michael' He pops Send and gets up.

"So what are you going to do?" I ask.

"He's obviously a well brought up kid who likes to pretend. If he replies I'll make an appointment to see him alone. I do want you present though."

"Why?"

"You should know how risky it is to be alone with a kid these days, especially considering what it is he wants. I not expecting anything out of the ordinary, but I'll feel better with you present, and so will he, I expect."

"Fine with me." I smile. "Wish there had been a place like yours when I was a kid. The peg legs I tried to make always fell apart, or hurt like hell if they didn't. I would have sold my soul for a real one back then."

"That's why I'm hoping I can fix the kid up."

That evening Michael has a reply from the kid asking if Saturday morning is okay. Since I won't be working, he sends a reply that it is and that 10 will be a good hour.

Seconds later, the kid sends a reply that he'll be there.

Saturday morning I accompany Michael to the Curiosity Shop. He locks the door behind us, and turns on more lights than I had expected there were in the front.

"I don't want to spook a kid, especially if he's very young," he says.

For the next hour we stay busy with packing peg legs for shipment. About a quarter to ten, we go back into the front for a cup of coffee. I'm looking out the window when a kid that can't be more than thirteen rides up on a well used bike, and gets off, leaning it against the wall. He looks at the lettering on the window and reaches for the door. I unlock it and pull it open. "Danny?"

"Yes, sir. Are you Mr. Michael?"

"No, but come in. He's expecting you."

I can tell the kid's nervous, probably wishing by now that he hadn't come, but I lead him over to the desk where Michael is seated. Michael holds out his hand. "I'm Michael, Danny. I'm glad you came. You're a fine looking young man."

"Ugh? Thank you, sir." He shakes Michael's hand, then turns and shakes mine.

"I'm Steve, Michael's friend, Danny."

"Nice to meet you, sir." He looks around the shop. "Where's the ugh ? peg legs, sir? He asks Michael.

Michael smiles. "Please have a seat, Danny. I need to ask you several things first."

"Gee, I just wondered if you had an old peg leg."

"I understand that, Danny, but I don't usually see the people I sell them to. They buy direct from the web site."

"Oh. I'm sorry."

"Don't be. I always like to help a young man if I can. Now, have you told anyone else about our messages to one another?"

"Oh, no, sir. I mean if I can get one I don't want nobody to know." He blushes. "It's just for fun."

Michael looks at me.

"Of course. I tried to make one when I was your age," I tell the boy, "but it hurt and fell apart pretty quickly. I wanted a real one as badly as you."

He gives me a tentative smile. "You did, sir? I never could make one didn't fall apart. I'm not very good at making things."

"Do you have a good hiding place so no one will find it?" Michael asks.

His smile is genuine now. "Yes, sir. We live on a farm just outside of town. My dad don't farm; he rents the land to somebody else. There's an old shed back in the woods he let me have for a clubhouse. Nobody goes there but me. The stuff I don't want nobody to see I put under a loose board in the floor. If I had a real peg leg, I could walk in the woods on it and all. Wouldn't nobody see me."

"If I can find one for you, do you promise not to ever tell anyone where you got it?"

He puts his hand over his heart. "I swear I won't, sir."

Michael looks at me and nods. I put my hand on Danny's shoulder. "I think you're an honest young man, Danny. Don't you, Michael?"

"Indeed I do. Let's go see what we can find."

Danny's smile alone would light the room if Michael had left the lights as he usually does, but it fades rapidly as Michael stand and adjusts his crutches.

"Gee, sir, you ain't got but one leg," Danny blurts. "Don't you ever use a peg leg?"

Michael smiles at him. "Not often. I prefer my crutches. I also have a fine prosthetic leg."

Danny looks embarrassed, so I try to ease his situation. "I have a nice peg leg Michael gave me to pretend with. I enjoy wearing it when we're home because Michael likes to see me use it."

"You do? Really?"

I nod. "I expect you were thinking you're the only one that likes to pretend, but there are many people who do. Like us, they just keep it a secret, because others wouldn't understand."

"You keep it a secret, too?"

"Of course. Just because I'm an adult doesn't mean other people would accept my pretending any better than they would yours."

"I thought maybe it was different when people got older." He stares at Michael's stump in fascination. "I hope some day I have a stump like yours, sir. It's awesome and you look really cool on crutches."

"Why thank you, Danny. That's a lovely compliment." Michael winks at me.

Michael unlocks the door to the backroom and switches on the lights. I wish I had my camera to get a shot of Danny's face when he sees the racks of crutches and peg legs. His eyes are big as saucers and his jaw drops to the floor, I'll swear.

"Oh, wow," he finally gasps out.

Michael walks to the far rack and sorts through the contents, at last pulling out a small peg leg. "I think this one might do, Danny. I'll have to cut it off to fit you." He holds it out. "Do you like it?"

The kid's eyes are glowing like Santa Claus has just come. "Oh, yes, sir! It's beautiful."

"And it's real. Steve, measure from Danny's knee down to the floor."

I tell Danny to stand straight and hold his right leg bent back from the knee, then measure with a handy yardstick giving Michael the figure. I take it over to his workbench and hold the peg while he cuts it to length, then take it back to Danny and lift his knee back in place on top of the peg.

"Needs to be just a little shorter for the tip. Otherwise it's fine."

"Okay."

Danny just stares at us while we trim the end, put on the rubber tip, and add the two straps. This peg is made so that the top strap fits around his thigh. Michael props against his workbench and watches as I strap the peg to Danny's leg. I hold the boys' arm, using my other hand to guide the motion of the peg, showing him how to walk on it. Two steps and he's got it down pat.

He walks the length of the room and back. "Oh, sir, this is just what I dreamed a real one would be like!"

"I'm so glad, Danny."

The boy's smile fades. "You ain't told me how much it is, sir."

Michael's smile is beautiful. "Would you consider ten dollars too much, son?"

"Really!" He's across to Michael in a flash and hugging him. "Gee, sir. I thought it would cost a lot more. I was hoping I had enough money."

Michael pats him on the shoulder. "Special customers get special prices. Isn't that right, Steve?"

"Absolutely. You look terrific on your peg leg, Danny. Would you mind if Michael takes your picture?"

"Oh, no, sir. I want to see what I look like."

"How are you going to get your peg leg home without anyone seeing you? You are riding your bicycle, aren't you?"

"Yes, sir. I'll go up the back road to the woods. Won't nobody see me."

"But what about here in town?"

"Can't you wrap it in something, sir?"

"I can, but what if someone you know sees you and wants to know what you have?"

He looks crushed. "I ? I didn't think of that, sir."

I put my hand on his shoulder. "I have a Jeep Cherokee, Danny. We can put your bike in the back, and Michael and I will take you up the back road. Your picture will look much nicer if he takes it at the edge of the woods."

I get hugged, too. "Oh, thank you, sir."

Danny directs me to the back road. When I have to stop because the road has played out, he says, "It's just through the woods a little. I can make it fine from here."

He straps on his peg leg and poses willingly. "When can I see 'em, sir?" He asks when Michael is finished.

"I'll drop the film off for fast development on our way home. If you pull up my web site tomorrow night, your picture will be there."

"Oh, thank you, sir. Thank you for bringing me home, too."

"You're most welcome, Danny."

By the time I'm home from the office the next day, Michael has scanned the best picture of the kid and 'amputated' his leg so skillfully no one would suspect it's not real. I watch as he posts it on his web page with the caption 'Young Pretender.' It's less than an hour before Danny mails us. He loves the picture.

"He's very handsome on his peg leg, but I hope you aren't planning to lose money like that on every deal you make with a kid."

He gives me a broad smile. "Oddly enough, that one didn't cost me a penny. I got it with two full-sized pegs from the man I wanted to supply me, but he was retiring. That little one he'd made for a sample."

"I'm glad, because I don't think I've ever seen a kid as happy as Danny when he walked on it."

"Yeah. He's really cute. I like him."

After I've done some work on my computer, I log in to a devotee site and check the messages. One attracts my immediate attention. It was posted this afternoon by a man I remember as having bought the first peg leg from the new supply. I call Michael over to read his posting: Hey, you guys, if you've ever wanted a peg leg, now's your chance. Check the links and order it from the Curiosity Shop. That guy knows his business! I got mine this morning and haven't taken it off since. It fits perfectly and it's giving me the greatest thrill of my life. Would love to hear from any other pretenders, specially if those getting a peg from the Curiosity Shop, cause you're gonna be as happy as I am. Pegleg at Last!

Michael high-fives me. "That's the kind of endorsement I was hoping for. Things will really take off now."

"And I thought you were nuts bringing twenty-four peg legs home with us."

The next morning I check the site again out of curiosity. There's another posting: Hi, peg leg, just got mine, too. You're right! This guy really knows what he's doing.

Michael checks his mail after dinner and yells for me. "Look at this! Nine more orders. I've got to call Mr. Smith and tell him to get busy. I need a part-time assistant at the shop."

"You've got one."

"Who?"

"Me. If I don't get more work soon, we'll have to live off what you make."

He gets up and hugs me. "What's mine is yours, love. You know that."

"Yeah, but I figure this ought to be fifty/fifty.

"And I thought we promised each other 'for richer and for poorer' and all that."

"We did, but ?."

"No buts, love. You brought more into this partnership than I, and don't you forget it. Besides, this run isn't going to last forever."

"Why not?"

"As soon as all the serious pretenders get their pegs, orders are going to slow down to a trickle, and everything will be like before."

"I hadn't thought of that. But I'll help you as much as I can until then."

He grins. "When it does, I'll post a picture of you using double hooks to see if I can pick that end of the business up."

"Whatever it takes, babe."

For the next few weeks, all my spare time is spent helping Michael cut the pegs to measure, putting urethane on them, and packing them to ship. Amazingly, he has only one complaint from some idiot AK wannabe that didn't read the instructions for measuring. Though Michael states plainly in his purchase agreement he won't, he asks the guy to send the peg back, makes the proper adjustments, and returns it, charging the guy only for shipping. The guy's good enough to post a message saying the Curiosity Shop can't be beat for reliability and honesty. This sparks more orders.

Michael is unfailingly kind when dealing with kids, and gives them special prices he thinks they can afford. Three separate ones send their pictures to him. If nothing else, their expressions of joy are worth the loss in revenue. One of them, a nice looking high school junior, is a real BK amp as it turns out. He's thrilled because his father can't afford a prothesis for him, and had no idea where to get a peg leg. His father has added a note of effusive thanks to the kid's response. It was he who took the picture, and he tells Michael he may use it if he advertises. Michael immediately sends the boy a check for half the price he was charged.

A few days later, we get another message from the father, asking why. Michael sends back a message saying that his policy is to let real amputees have a peg at cost plus shipping because they have an actual need for one. He adds the address for the shoe exchange, to save them further money.

He gets another note of thanks; the father telling us he's used the money for some things his son has needed, and had no idea that a place like the shoe exchange existed. His son now has three new shoes he needed on order.

I finally get a nice commission to design a house, and the workload at the shop has leveled off enough Michael can handle it with my help on weekends.

Our routine continues smoothly and happily for over two years. I'm helping Michael at the shop one Saturday morning when there's a rapping at the door. Through the glass I see a distraught looking man in his forties.

"We're closed," I yell.

"Please! It's urgent," he yells back.

Michael has come in from the backroom and nods at me. I open the door.

"Are you Michael?" He asks.

"No. He's at his desk. Come in."

The man drops down in the chair by Michael's desk. "My son told me you've only got one leg."

"That's true, but I don't believe I know your son."

"His name's Danny." The man's tears begin to flow.

"What's wrong?" I ask.

"He ? he's in the hospital. He wants to see Michael awful bad."

"How can I help him?" Michael's as puzzled as I.

The man fights to compose himself. "We live on a farm, but I rent the land out. Danny was always fascinated by some of the machines." He wipes his eyes. "Somehow, he got to playing on a tractor a couple of days ago. He got the engine started and was going to drive it, I guess. Anyway, he ? he fell off and the tractor run over him. They ?" He starts to cry again. We wait until he's composed once more and continues, "they took his leg off yesterday. Would you be good enough to go see him?"

"I'm so sorry. Danny is a fine young man, as I remember. Oh course we'll visit him. We'll go this afternoon."

"Oh, thank you. He said you are a kind man." He shakes our hands and leaves.

Michael looks at me. "Wonder if Danny is still pretending?"

"I doubt it. He's bound to have outgrown that little peg by now."

"That's why I'm wondering why he wants to see me."

"Probably for reassurance that his life isn't over because he's lost a leg."

"I hope. I can help him with that."

When we enter his room, I hardly recognize Danny. In two years he's gone from being cute to being what given another year or two of maturing will be an astonishingly handsome man.

"Mr. Michael, Mr. Steve! I was hoping my dad could find you."

"He came by the shop this morning. How are you doing, Danny?" Michael asks.

For a moment I think he's going to cry, but he says, "He told you, didn't he?"

"Yes, he did. We're both so sorry. What can I do for you, Danny?" Michael asks.

"I've seen you around a few times since you were so good to me about the peg and all, and you don't act like having one leg bothers you a bit."

I'm as surprised as Michael by this. "It doesn't. I lost it in an accident when I was about your age, Danny. I won't lie to you. At first it bothered me a lot because it made me different from the other guys. I felt better after I got my first leg, but there were times, like when we went swimming, there was no hiding my stump. I was lucky to have a good buddy who didn't treat me any different after than he did before. He made me see that once the other guys satisfied their curiosity about it, they didn't care. Then I learned something about myself, so I quickly didn't care about my stump, and I haven't since."

"What was that?"

Michael blushes slightly. "From the time I was a little kid I have always been fascinated by amputees. Once I realized that now I had a stump of my own, I was really happy with it."

"Is that why you sell peg legs and all that stuff?"

"Yes. I want others to be as happy as I am. I can still see how thrilled you looked that day when you put on a peg leg for the first time. Do you still pretend?"

"Not any more. It got too short when I started growing. Then I started playing football and got to hanging around with the guys, so I didn't have much time." He turns a pleading look on us. "Don't know what I can do now."

"Once your stump is healed and you get a leg, you'll be able to do pretty much what you've always done. I read not long ago of a high school senior who plays football on his school team. He has no stump at all."

"Really? I don't care about it all that much, but I guess you know what it's like when you're in school and all."

"I do, Danny," I say. "In a small school the top jocks are king."

"Yeah."

"No reason you can't be back with them soon. You might just find some people will admire you more for hanging in there, and some will think you're even better looking for being an amputee."

"For real?"

"Absolutely. Steve thinks I look better on crutches than when I'm using my leg. That's why I'm always on crutches."

"And Michael likes to see me using a hook. I do like my peg leg better, though. I'm an architect, so I need both hands."

"When you got your peg leg you said someday you would like to have a stump like mine, Danny. Do you still feel that way?"

"No, but I got it anyway."

"How high?"

Danny reaches down and tosses the sheet to one side. His stump has been fitted with a temporary prosthesis, but it's easy to see his right leg was taken just above the knee. He pulls the sheet back up. "You got a peg leg for a stump like mine?"

"Of course. You won't be able to use it until your stump is perfectly healed and able to bear your weight. By then you'll have a prosthesis, I'm sure. Why do you ask?"

"I got to thinking about my old one and how good it felt. I think I want another one, you know, for working around the place and all."

"I'm certain we can fix one you'll find very comfortable when the time comes." Michael smiles at him. "I make it a policy to sell pegs at cost to real amputees, so come to see me when you're ready."

"I will. I ? ugh? well, you think I could maybe come see you sometime when I get out of here?"

"We would enjoy that. But are you sure you want to spend time with two older guys like Michael and me?"

"You aren't that old." He looks at Michael. "I figured if I could watch you I could learn a lot how you do things on crutches and maybe show me how."

Michael looks at me, and I nod. Having this beautiful young man around occasionally will be a pleasure.

"If you father has no objections, we'll be happy to have you spend a Saturday with us."

"Gee, thanks."

"Just let us know ahead of time in case we happen to be busy."

"I will."

We visit him often until he's released from the hospital. It's several weeks before we get a phone call from him asking to spend a day with us, and tells us his father will drop him off at the shop. We have a couple of shipments to get ready to go out on Monday, so it's no problem.

I tell Danny's father we'll bring him home later that evening. Danny is still using the temporary leg aided by crutches. He watches us pack the last order, and helps me with the sealing tape we use on the boxes, while Michael is typing up the mailing labels.

"What would you like to do, Danny?" I ask when we're in my car.

"Just watch you guys do what you do every day."

I laugh. "That's not much, buddy, but if you think of something, tell us."

At our flat, he's fascinated by our having two computers. Then he remembers. "Mr. Michael ?"

"Please, Danny, just call us Michael and Steve. You're quite old enough to do that."

"Yes, sir. I was gonna ask how you made that picture of me look like my leg was really gone."

"I have a digital camera, and you're using your leg, so I'll take your picture and show you."

Danny watches in disbelief once the picture is scanned and Michael begins to change it. Within a few minutes, it depicts Danny standing on his good leg, supported by his crutches, with his jeans leg folded neatly over his stump and pinned up.

"I really don't look that bad with one leg, do I?"

"We told you you're very handsome, Danny. Now do you believe us?"

"Guess I got to. You mind if I take my leg off? I ain't supposed to, but it's hurting."

"Then do. I thought we might drive down to a place on the river for lunch. Would you like that?"

"Yeah, but don't go to no trouble for me."

"We won't. I want you to see how nice Steve looks with his hook. He doesn't pretend in town where he might be seen by someone who knows him."

Lunch is a roaring success. Danny watches me use my hook, then begins to open up and reveals a keen sense of humor. I can see instantly why he must be popular with his peers. "That was fun," he says as we're headed home. "I feel good when I'm out with somebody like me. Don't feel like everybody's looking at me."

"The waitress was certainly looking at you," I say.

His face turns crimson. "She ? she was kind of cute, I guess," he stammers.

"You dating seriously?" Michael asks.

He shakes his head. "Don't have a lot of time. I mostly hang around with one or two of the guys."

"I'm surprised," I say.

He blushes again. "I've never been much interested. When I was in the hospital, you said there was a guy played football with one leg. I wish I could see a picture of him."

"Then I'll show you when we get home. I have four different shots of him."

Danny's mouth drops open when I bring up the picture. He looks closely at all four, then says, "If he can do it, I can. I'm gonna ask the coach to let me try."

"Not before your stump is completely healed and free of pain," Michael warns. "We don't want you hurt again, and you will be subjecting your stump to a lot in a rough and tumble game like that."

"I will, but it'll be fun."

I show him the hundreds of thumbnails and how to enlarge each. He looks amazed. "I never knew there was so many guys with one leg or one arm before."

"Quite a few. I have another collection from a web site run by a college student. All of his pictures are e-surgery."

"What's that?"

"What Michael did when he took your picture and removed your leg."

"Why's he do it?"

"Because he likes to look at amputees. He admires them just as Michael and I do." I show him how to enlarge and shrink the pictures, then let him sit down and go through them all.

About five, Danny gets up. "Guess I better be getting' home. I sure have had fun today."

"We're glad to have had you, though we certainly didn't do anything to entertain you."

"You gave me a great lunch and then let me see all those pictures."

When we stop to let him out at home, I get out to help him because my Cherokee is higher from the ground than a car and I don't want him to fall. He responds to my grasp on his arms with a quick hug. "Can I come back again?"

"Of course you may. Michael and I have enjoyed your company."

"Thanks."

"I heard him ask to visit us again," Michael says as I start to drive off. "I wonder why? I can't think of anything he could find so attractive about a day with us that he'd want another."

"Probably because we accept him as he is, and he's comfortable with amputees now that he's become one.'

"Even if one of them is faking it." Michael loves his little joke.

"Yeah. He watched me using the hook all the way through lunch and didn't once ask why. I think he actually forgot I have my hand."

"You're absolutely convincing. You've almost convinced yourself, too."

"Why would you say that?"

Michael chuckles. "Have you forgotten the other morning when you put the hook on immediately after getting out of the shower, then got dressed for the office before you realized you had it on."

"I had to take my shirt and tie off to get rid of it, damn it."

Michael smiles and shakes his head. "You are such a grouch in the morning."

"I just hate getting up, especially when you're in such a frisky mood the night before."

He grins. "Oh, well, at least the part of you I'm most interested in after we go to bed seems willing."

I steer with the hook and throw my arm around his shoulders and squeeze. "So is the rest of me."

Danny surprises us by send an e-mail asking if he can come for another visit the next Saturday. Michael shrugs, so I tell him it's fine.

First thing, Danny wants to look at my pictures again. This time he spots the one Michael took when he got his peg leg. "Cute," he says. "I'd forgotten how little I was."

"And now you're tall and handsome instead of a tow-headed kid." I tell him.

He blushes modestly. "Guess I'm tall, but I ain't that good looking."

"Don't dispute your elders, boy." Michael tells him with a grin. "You are handsome, especially now that you're an amp."

Danny's face grows serious. "Can I ask you all something?"

"Of course."

"Are you guys ? I mean ? are you gay or somethin'?"

Michael looks at me and I look back. We've not gone to any lengths to hide it, but neither have we openly displayed our affection for each other in front of Danny.

"That's rather personal, Danny. Why would you ask?" I say.

He drops his eyes and stares at the floor. "I ? I ? ."

"Go ahead," I urge.

"I think I'm gay. I don't know how to tell."

So this is why he's back for a visit. It's not just being with another amputee. I'm pleased when Michael who hops over to the sofa and sits down next to Danny, putting his arm around Danny's shoulders.

"Yes, Danny, we're gay. Why do you think you are?"

He looks at Michael. "While I was I the hospital most of the guys on the team came to see me just once, but my best buddy came a lot. After he saw my leg, he kept wanting to touch it. So I let him."

"That's the mark of a devotee, Danny, not a gay. You don't think having a stump suddenly turned you gay, do you?"

He shakes his head. "I know that, but after that when I was trying to go to sleep, all I could think of was how he touched me and how good it felt. One night I had a dream about him and me sleeping together and he kept rubbing my stump and kissing me. When I woke up I was real embarrassed, cause I couldn't get out of bed to go wash and I knew the nurse was gonna see. I was real lucky I got the man nurse first thing. He just laughed and said I was a very healthy boy."

"Do you still dream about him?"

Danny nods. "Most every night."

"Hmmm. I think you do have a problem here. Have you told your friend about your dream?"

"I can't do that. He'll never talk to me again."

"Why are you so sure?"

"Cause he tells a lot of jokes about queers." He looks beseechingly at both of us. "What am I gonna do?"

"Will you be spending any time alone together any time soon?" I ask.

"Maybe some afternoon after school if he ain't got practice. He takes me home from school most days."

"If you can find some place private to talk, let him know he's your best friend and if he wants to touch you, he can. Let him go as far as he wants and don't try to stop him unless it begins to be repulsive to you. You can always call us or use e-mail, and we'll try to help you sort out your feelings."

"Thanks. I knew I could count on you. You've been good to me. First the peg, then coming to see me in the hospital. Lettin' me come here and being honest with me. I don't know anybody else I can talk to like I can you guys."

"We appreciate your confidence in us. Let us know how thing work out."

"I will."

"What would you like to do today?" I ask.

"Can I look at some of your books?"

"Certainly. Help yourself."

He goes to the small collection I have of autobiographies by amputees, including a couple by former jocks. Next to them are three or four fiction books about gay sports players. He takes two or three from the shelf and sits down to look at them. I have a little work I need to get out of the way, so I go back to my computer. Michael is already working at his.

After lunch Danny settles back to his reading. Suddenly I hear him yell, "Damn!" I look up to see him struggling with his leg.

Michael hops over and sits on the stool in front of him. "Let me." In a few seconds he has Danny's temporary prosthesis off. "What's wrong?"

"I'm not using that damn thing no more. It's hurts!"

Michael runs his hands lightly over Danny' stump. "It needs adjusting. Why don't you take it back and see what can be done?"

Danny shakes his head. "No way. I'm gonna use crutches like you do."

"Don't do something you'll regret later on. Even a leg like mine needs adjusting once or twice a year."

"You don't never wear it, neither."

"You've just never seen me. I use it on formal occasions and when I'm out of town on business. If you are going to use one, you must wear it frequently to keep the muscles in your stump built up, otherwise they'll lose tone and the leg will be hard to use."

"I don't care."

"Just keep in mind what I've told you."

"I will."

When we carry him back home, I help him out of my Cherokee once more, then pick up his leg to carry to the house for him. He asks me to put it in his room, then hugs me when I've set it down. "Thanks. I'll let you know what happens with Hank."

"Hank?"

"My buddy."

"Please do."

"What a revelation today has been," Michael says as soon as I'm in the car.

"I'd never have guessed. I'm just sorry he's so confused. Dealing with his leg is enough, but to be worried about his sexuality at the same time, is enough to overwhelm any kid."

I try to put Danny to the back of my mind, but I can't help wondering what's happening with him. I'm hoping all goes well, because he has about all a kid his age should carry just now. If his friend responds positively, it will help him.

It's Thursday night before the phone rings. Michael answers it. I hear him say, "Good. We'll see you Saturday then."

I look over at him. "Danny," he says. "He wants to bring his friend over to meet us. He sounded so happy I couldn't say no."

"I'm glad you didn't. Shall I fix lunch?"

"Let's take them out. It'll make Danny feel special. Use the hook."

"Why?"

"I expect he will tell his friend about devotees and pretenders." He chuckles. "I'd love to see the look on his friend's face when he finds out you're pretending."

I grin. "Bet Danny forgets to tell him, so after we're back from lunch, I'll take the hook off."

"Great."

When I answer the door Saturday morning, I'm surprised. Danny is nicely dressed in slacks and sports shirt, using his crutches. "This is Hank, Steve."

I certainly didn't expect what I see. Hank looks every inch what I'd expect a football player to be. He's big enough to make two of Danny. Not fat, but brawny. He has an ordinary face, and a soft voice.

"Come in, Hank. Since Danny has forgotten his manners, this is Michael, my partner."

"Hello, sir." He barely manages to control his expression on seeing Michael's stump, then my hook.

"Hey, Hank, want a Pepsi?" Danny yells from the kitchen. He quickly started making himself at home here.

Hank looks at me and I nod. "Sure, he yells back.

"Hey, Steve. Can I show Hank those pictures on your computer?"

"If you want."

I sit down beside Michael and we both watch Hank's expression when Danny opens the file and a screen full of thumbnails appears. Michael punches me in amusement as Hanks' eyes get bigger and bigger.

"Told you," Danny says. "You believe it now?"

"Wow!"

They spend the next hour going through the pictures, Danny enlarging his favorites. Hank makes him go back to a few. From his expression, I've decided he's as big a devotee as I.

A few minutes later, I tell them it's time for us to leave for lunch. Danny looks over. "I sure hope it's that place we went last time. The food's awesome."

"As a matter of fact, it is."

Hank seems as fascinated by my hook as Danny was. He watches me use it intently. After we've eaten, he excuses himself to go to the restroom.

"Happy, babe?" I ask Danny.

His eyes glow. "You don't know how much. Hank's so sweet and gentle. He told me he'd been trying for the past year to get up the nerve to tell me he's gay. I couldn't believe it."

"I'm glad he finally did. What changed his mind?"

"Would you believe it was almost like with you and Michael? He said he couldn't believe how wonderful I look with my leg gone. He wants me to get a peg leg. He thinks they're sexy."

"Good. When you think you're ready I'll make one up special for you," Michael says.

"The doctor said I could get a leg in another week or two. He was really pissed when I told him I wanted a peg leg instead. Something about it making it harder for me to learn a leg. I don't care. It's me using it, not him."

"What does your father think?"

"He'll go along with anything I want. I couldn't ask him for a leg right now, anyway. Things have been a little tight, what with the hospital bills and all. Do me a favor. Act like normal in front of Hank. I mean I want him to see how you guys love each other. He's still scared."

"You've told him we're gay?"

"Yeah. But nobody else."

"Please don't."

"'Kay."

When we're back at the flat, Michael and I make a point of sitting together on the sofa with our arms around each other. A moment later Hank pulls Danny down on his lap and holds him snugly. For a guy Danny said was scared, he seems rather uninhibited, particularly in front of Michael and me who he's never seen until today. I'm hoping for Danny's sake this is real love and not just an infatuation.

When I pull away from Michael and take my shirt off to remove the hook, Hank watches me goggle-eyed, especially when I flex my fingers to ease a slight cramp. "You mean you was just faking?" He gasps out.

"For Michael. He enjoys having me pretend to have one hand."

"Wow! I guess he ain't."

"No. He's leg is gone just as Danny's is. Does it bother you?"

He shakes his head vigorously, and strokes Danny's stump. "No way, man. Danny's awesome. I don't think I'd have ever got the guts to tell him how much I love him if he hadn't had the accident. I never thought there might be somebody else like me getting hot from seeing a guy with one leg."

"There are many people who like amputees. They're called devotees."

"Yeah, Danny told me, then showed me one of the web sites. Soon as I get a computer, I'm goin' to join the club, too." He grins. "But I already got my man. Ain't none of them guys in the pictures come close to him."

"I feel the same way about Michael."

"Yeah, you guys are okay like Danny told me."

"Michael would you take Hank's picture with your camera and make him one-legged like you did me?"

"Certainly. You take his picture, Steve, so he can use my crutches."

"You're by far better than I. Get your peg."

Michael comes back in few moments and hands Hank his crutches. "Go stand against wall over there."

Hank just stands there staring at Michael's peg leg. "That what Danny's gonna look like on a peg leg?"

"Pretty much, but his peg will be made differently because he doesn't have his knee."

Hank hugs Danny. "You're gonna be awesome, babe. I'm gonna love seeing you on it."

Michael takes two shots of Hank from different angles, then plugs the camera into his computer and starts work with the rest of us watching.

"Unbelievable!" Hank says when Michael has finished. "Can I see what I'd look like with a hook like Steve's?"

"Sure."

When he's finished with the second shot, Hank looks at Danny. "Which way you like me best, baby?"

"You're too big for a peg to look really good. I like the hook, best."

"Me, too. We'll be like Steve and Michael." He looks at Michael. "Soon as I can save up enough money, I'm gonna get a hook."

"A hook is a lot harder to learn to use than a peg. Ask Steve. I made him go a whole day with only the hook to use before he learned well."

"Michael is right. But I did it to please him."

"If Danny wants me to use a hook, I'll do it. Anything for my baby." He glances at his watch. "We'd better get going. I gotta help the old man with the milking. The machine ain't working right." He looks at Danny and giggles.

"What?" Danny asks.

"Bet a cow would kick the shit out of me if I tried milking her with a hook and it pinched her tit."

Michael and I both roar with laughter. The more I think about it, the funnier it gets. I wind up with Michael supporting me until I quit laughing.

Hank's grinning when he holds out his hand. "I sure am glad Danny made me come. I've learned a lot. All of it good. Thanks."

Michael and I both shake with him and see them off. "Nobody's dream man, but he certainly seems to love Danny."

"I hope so. Danny can't keep his eyes off him."

Wednesday afternoon a couple of weeks after Danny and Hank spent the day with us, I've checked on the construction of the house I designed, then come by the shop to help Michael get three pegs completed and ready for shipping. It's about 4:15 or so when I hear the chime on the street door. Michael is busy so I go out to see who it is. It's Hank.

"Is Michael here?"

"Just a moment." I slip into the backroom swiftly, closing the door behind me. "It's Hank, asking for you."

"Crack the door a little." I do, then Michael calls, "Hank, I'm busy, but if you can keep your mouth shut about what you see, you may come in."

"I promise."

At Michael's nod I open the door for Hank. I have to snicker because his expression almost matches the one Danny had when he saw what it is that Michael really sells.

Michael winks at me then says, "What can I do for you, Hank?"

"I ?ugh?got a favor to ask."

"Let me finish this peg leg and pack it, then we'll have a cup of coffee and you can tell me about it."

"Let me help you." Hank's across to the workbench in an instant. He steadies the peg as Michael measures, then cuts it to length. The straps and tip are added, and Michael wraps it and seals it in the shipping box.

"Thanks. Now let's have that coffee."

Since I take the chair by Michael's desk, Hank perches on the edge of the desk.

"Now what's that favor?"

"Ugh? well, Danny told me how much he liked seeing me with a hook like Steve's. He said you got it for him, but I thought you ordered it or somethin'. Anyway, I know I ain't got the money fer one, but I was wonderin' if maybe you'd like let me try one to see how it feels, and maybe," he blushes, "like let me borrow it to use the next time me and Danny come to see you."

Michael mulls the request over on his mind for a few moments. "If I were to take your request seriously, Hank, do you think you could keep quiet about it? There's nothing illegal about my business, but in a small town like this the slightest hint of gossip could make my life and Steve's a misery. Both of us like it here, and Steve is still getting established as an architect. We'd have to move somewhere else if word got out that we're gay and devotees."

"Aw, I couldn't do that to guys Danny likes so much. He'd hate me and I love him. I like you, too, cause you gave him the courage to tell me he loves me."

"Hank, I've got an old prosthesis I think will fit you with a little adjustment. I can't sell it unless I spend quite a bit of time and money refurbishing it. Would you object to using that one?"

A grin splits Hanks face. "Don't care, long as Danny likes it."

"Then let's find it."

I've never seen Michael fit an arm before, so I'm fascinated watching him replace the plastic socket with leatherwork similar to that he used on mine. Hank's left handed, so Michael fits it to his right arm.

Hank lifts it and stares at it. "How do I open it?"

I show him how to shrug his shoulder slightly. With his bulk the hook goes fully open, then he relaxes and it snaps shut. "Wow! How you make it work like you do, Steve?"

"Takes a lot of practice."

"You have ything else to do this afternoon?" Michael asks.

Hank shakes his head.

"Then I'll close up and you can come to the flat with us. If you have your car, leave the hook on and meet us there."

"Thanks."

Michael and I are both beginning to wonder where Hank is when he knocks at the door. He's grinning when he comes in. "Gotta tell you guys somethin' funny. 'Bout two blocks from here I got stopped by the cops for the loud muffler on my truck. Took some doin' to hold my wallet with the hook while I got my license out for him to look at. He asked me how long I'd had the hook. I told him I just got it and that's why I couldn't use it very well. Well, he told me to get my muffler fixed and get a spinner for the wheel since I had a hook, then let me go without a ticket. Told me he was sorry 'bout my hand, but it wasn't no excuse to break the law."

The way he tells the story has Michael and me in hysterics, because he mimics the cop perfectly.

His grin gets broader if possible, and he holds up the hook. "Sure glad I had this cause if I'd of got the ticket, the old man would ground me."

"I'll have to remember that, Hank. Maybe it'll get me out of a ticket sometime." I put my hook on and spend an hour teaching him how to control it. He maybe a jock, but he learns fast.

"Gotta be going'," he says later, taking off the hook. "Thanks a lot."

"Come back another afternoon after school and I'll give you another lesson."

"Thanks. I want to learn real good so I can impress Danny if we got out to eat with you guys again."

"Do that, and I can promise we'll take you guys out." Michael adds.

"Wonder how much more local business you're going to get?" l ask Michael.

"None, I hope. I hope those kid's keep their mouths shut, too."

"I think they will."

After a couple of more afternoons of instruction, Hank can use the hook fairly well. At least to the degree that he doesn't remind me of a clumsy cub bear any more. However the crack in the plastic portion holding the hook widens to the point the hook becomes unstable. Michael looks it over carefully, then asks Hank, "Do you have twenty bucks you're willing to pay for this?"

"I got that much, but this costs a lot more, don't it?"

"Ordinarily. But I couldn't sell it to a serious pretender without spending a lot more than that on repair and refinishing. Twenty will be enough to cover the materials, if you're willing to come to the shop Saturday morning and do the work yourself. I'll show you how. Interested?"

Hank's face lights up. "Sure am. Ain't no body gonna see nothin' but the hook anyhow, cause I'll wear a long sleeve shirt."

"Fine."

As Michael guessed, Hank's good with his hands and listens closely to what Michael tells him. When he's done, the hook looks almost like new to me.

"Let that plastic cure for twenty-four hours before you try putting it on and using it."

"I will, Michael. Thanks a lot, man." Hank doesn't hug Michael but he shakes his hand and mine in a bone crushing grasp.

"Steve and I will take you guys out to eat next Saturday."

"Great! Just don't tell Danny 'bout my hook."

"He doesn't know?"

"No way. I wanna surprise 'im. You take this back to your apartment and keep it. I'll put it on after we're there."

The kids show up in high spirits and spend some time on my computer. When Hank gives me a questioning look, I nod. He gets up and goes into the spare bedroom. This time Michael's has his camera ready. Danny doesn't notice the hook on Hank's right arm at first, but then I have to grab him to keep him from falling, he's so surprised.

Hank can't stand the suspense. "Well, baby?"

Danny falls into his arms. "You got it! You look wonderful!"

Hank kisses him. "I'm glad, cause I did it for you. I love you, baby."

This time we really draw some stares because the restaurant is nearly full. But two good looking men on crutches and two guys with hooks, especially one as big as Hank, really attract attention. But Hank has another surprise for us. During lunch, he looks at Michael.

"When I was fixing my hook up, it was like I found something I'd really like to do. Do you have to go to college to learn how?"

"To get a degree and certification as a registered prosthetist, yes."

Hank's face falls. "I was hopin' maybe there was a way. I can't afford to go to college, an' this bein' our senior year an' all ?"

"Are you really serious about this, Hank?" Michael asks.

Hank nods. "Yeah. I liked doing it more than anything I ever done before."

"Then if you will be satisfied with learning to make prosthetics as a technician, I think I can get you into an established shop as an apprentice. The pay won't be high, and the hours are sometimes long. You'll be working at some risk with certain types of thermoplastics, too, but I think you have the mechanical skills to succeed."

"You mean there's a real chance?"

"Let me make a phone call or two and see what I can line up."

"Gee, thanks, man."

I see Michael suddenly smile. "You ever do any woodworking, Hank?"

"Yeah. I'm taking shop at school. I'm gettin' real good with a lathe."

"Excellent. Think you could turn a peg like those I have in the shop?"

"Snap, man. Why?"

"The man who makes them for me is hanging it up. I still get an order for one occasionally, so it would be nice to have someone local who can make them for me."

"I can do that. I can copy Danny's."

"You have a lathe?"

"Old man's got one. It's a metal turning lathe, but I can put a head on it fer workin' wood and get a few tools."

"Hmmm. Since you know how to work metal, I have an interesting idea. We'll go by the shop on the way home and try something. Danny's stump will be perfect."

Hank's happy again and that carries over to Danny. We enjoy our meal and more of Hank's mimicry. As we start out after finishing our meal, Hank says, "Man! I thought some of them people was gonna fall over watchin' us."

"Ddi it bother you?" Danny asks.

"Hell, no. I know who they was lookin' at, cause you're so beautiful, babe."

They go into a clinch that lasts for quite while. Michael and I are both surprised when the young driver of a convertible glances over while passing and gives us a thumbs up.

At the Curiosity Shop, Michael takes us into the backroom, pulls a piece of solid metal rod about one inch in diameter from a rack and tells Hank to cut it off at a certain length, then thread it to fit a small flange. Michael assembles two gallon jugs of viscous liquid, telling Danny to sit on a stool and drop his jeans. He then hands Hank a can of white cream and tells him to spread it thoroughly on Danny's stump.

"For what?" Danny asks.

"I'm going to cast a mold of your stump in plastic to hold the rod. If it works as I think it will, you'll have a new peg leg that weighs less than the wooden one, but just as sturdy." He smiles. "I think you'll like the look. It'll be high tech and sporty, too, instead of looking old fashioned."

Danny grins. "Let's go for it."

"Don't get too excited. I'm not sure how well this is going to work. It's an experiment on my part. There's no way I could use this technique on anything but a real stump like yours. If it does work, I'll want you to wear it every day to see how it holds up."

"Promise. Hank's gonna like it too, aren't you, love."

Hank hugs him. "Anything you want, babe."

Michael has found a gently tapering plastic tube with a rounded bottom about an inch larger in diameter than Danny's stump. He cuts a hole in the bottom center just large enough for the threaded female coupling of the flange to stick through. He has me mix a small amount of the plastic compound and pour it into the tube holding the flange up enough so that the liquid plastic flows underneath to embed the flange. He waits a few moments until it's beginning to firm, then has me mix a much larger amount with less hardener in it. He asks Hank to hold Danny up on his leg and slips the tube over Danny's stump. "Please don't move your stump, Danny, and let me know if this starts to get too hot." Then he has me pour the plastic in the tube. Danny begins to smile.

"What?" Michael asks.

"It's so warm it really feels good."

"Not too hot?"

Danny shakes his head. "Just real warm. How long I gotta stand still?"

"Think you can make five minutes?"

"Sure."

Michael begins timing the process.

Danny asks, "You sure it ain't five minutes yet?"

Michael shakes his head. "Three and a half."

"Seems like an hour to me."

"I suppose it does. Just forty-five seconds to go."

Michael finally begins to pull on the tube gently. It slides free easily, but Danny lets out a little yelp.

"I'm sorry," Michael says. "What happened?"

Danny grins. "Think you got a few hairs off my stump."

"I thought the grease would take care of that. If I do it again I'll ask you to shave your stump."

"That I'd like," Hank says. "Be so much fun to love a nice smooth stump."

Danny kisses him. "Tonight, love."

Michael points to a plastic bucket. "Hank, get some warm water from the sink, the liquid soap, and wash Danny's stump."

Hank gives Michael a big grin. "Oh, boy! Now I got a real reason to play with it."

Danny makes a fist and hits Hank on the top of the head. "Since when do you need a reason? You hardly let me get any rest."

"Cause your stump's so sexy, babe."

As soon as Hank has washed Danny's stump free of the stuff he put on it, we gather around to watch what Michael is doing. He slips the casting from the tub, examines it carefully, then nods. "Worked better than I thought. Now if it'll just hold up."

He drills two small holes near the top, careful to allow for the bolt heads inside the casting to be flush with the plastic, then he buffs it down against a wheel. The casting is transparent. He puts a round thick pad of felt in the bottom, and bolts on a narrow leather cuff similar to those he uses on his above the knee peg legs. Last, he screws in the rod Hank had prepared and pushes a crutch tip on the end.

"This should be set up enough for you to try, Danny, but just for a moment. It'll need to cure overnight. See if you can get your stump in."

"Sure is snug."

Michael holds out a thin strip of plastic. "Put this down the inside then try."

After Danny gets his stump in easily, Michael pulls the plastic strip out. "It's snug enough you're trapping air below your stump. You'll have to use this strip to get it on. Try standing on it."

A look of delight crosses Danny's face. "Hey, feels good."

"Hank, hold him up and let him put all his weight on his stump. How about now? Hurt anywhere?"

"Just feels a little funny, but it don't hurt."

"Very good." Michael tightens the one strap. "See if you can walk on it."

Danny takes a few steps. "This is great. How I look?" He asks Hank.

"Fantastic! Like something from Star Wars."

Michael's obviously pleased with himself. "Wait until I polish it up. Slip it off, Danny."

Michael holds the metal rod against another buffing wheel until it glistens like newly polished silver. He looks it over. "Next time I'll tint the plastic black. It'll make a nice contrast, especially with a black leather strap."

"That will be striking," I say.

"Hey, we gotta get going," Hank says.

"Did take a little longer to do than I thought. Wait until tomorrow to put it back on, Danny, then use it all you can. Let me know if anything, and I do mean anything unusual happens. If it bothers your stump, take it off immediately."

"I will. Thanks, Michael." He gives Michael a big hug, followed by Hank.

"See about that apprenticeship for me, Michael. I really like the way you made that peg."

"I will. Take care guys and remember what I told you, Danny." He turns to me. "Let's go home."

"Where'd you get the idea for making the plastic stump holder from casting resin?"

"One of mother's friends was into crafts. She gave mother a spoon holder she'd made from that stuff. I wanted to try making a peg for myself, but I couldn't do it alone and I didn't have anyone to help me. I tried to get one of my uncle's apprentices to help me, but he wouldn't. Said my uncle would skin him alive if he caught him messing around like that." Michael snickers. "He was probably right. Uncle is a bit strict."

On Tuesday evening, Michael brings up his mail and calls me over. "Read this."

Danny has written: 'Oh, man, that new peg is wonderful. Don't weigh nothing compared to the wood one. It feels good to my stump and my dad thinks it looks great when I'm wearing shorts. I went down to the locker room at school and the guys couldn't believe I wasn't using my crutches. I dropped my jeans and let them have a look. Now they all call me Darth, you know, from Star Wars. They think it's way cool. One problem. I have to take it off to get in Hank's truck, cause it don't have enough room for it. Course Hank loves that <grin> Thanks again. Love you guys, Danny'

"Looks like you have a winner there. Going to try making them for the market?"

"No. Far too involved. I just wanted to see if my idea worked and Danny was a perfect subject. He's so happy with it I hope it holds up. If I ever do one again, I'll make it a little differently."

Danny does come by occasionally to get a replacement for the felt pad which has a tendency to compress and become hard, but we don't see him often. Hank has started making a few pegs now and then, when Michael runs low on stock. After the first one, his work compares nicely with the ones Michael got from the old man. Michael has raised his price to pretenders so he can pay Hank more, and Hank is happy for the money.

Michael and I attend their graduation from high school, afterwards telling Hank an apprenticeship is coming open in his uncle's shop, and he's arranged for Hank to share a small flat with another apprentice if he wants. I had expected Hank to be overjoyed, but he looks downcast.

"I thought this is what you told Michael you wanted." I say.

"I did, but now Danny and I ain't gonna be together."

"Yeah we are."

"How?"

"I didn't want to tell you 'til you heard about the job, but I got a letter from the college there. Dad says he can swing it if I get a part-time job. I already got one lined up."

Hank grabs him in a hug. One of the passing graduates sees him. "Jesus, the love birds are at it again."

Hank snaps back, "Jealous!" He tells us that the team caught on and were pretty cool about it. "Besides," he says with a grin, "I'm bigger than any of 'em and they know I'd stomp their asses in the ground if they said anything. But they all like Danny, so that was that."

"Still using the hook, Hank?" I ask.

He grins. "Any time Danny and me are alone. Gonna be nice goin' somewhere nobody knows us so I can use it a lot. Maybe even fix it up real good after Michael's uncle teaches me how."

"Hell, after you're there a few months, root around in the discard pile he sets aside for me and get enough parts to make you one like new. The next time I see you, I want to be convinced you're for real."

"Thanks, Michael. Got to thank you guys for the nice checks you give Danny and me. It's goin' to help a lot while we're gettin' settled."

"Our pleasure. You guys keep in touch now."

Both Hank and Danny hug us when we leave. I guess Michael and I will fall back into our old routine once again, but the kids have brought us a lot of happiness.

The End

Posted: 10/22/10