Pretender's Ball
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 don't do a lot of pretending, but I am a devotee. The only thing that keeps me from making an instant reply is he hasn't included real amputees and devotees.

When I go to bed, the idea won't leave me alone. I finally admit to myself that I'd love the chance to talk with others whose feelings mirror mine. No reason why I can't ask Jim to include real amputees in the invitation, after all, there are a few who visit the site with some regularity.

As soon as I'm home from work the next afternoon, I compose a message.

Hi, Jim,

The idea of a get together sounds great, but you didn't include amps and devs in your message. Why not? When and where will this party be held? I hope it's going to be someplace where we have a fair amount of privacy and not be too much in the public eye.

Ken

His reply doesn't come until the next evening.

Hi, Ken,

Sorry to be so long getting back to you. I was just tossing out an idea to see what kind of response I'd get, not anticipating over a hundred responses. I hadn't thought of creating it myself, and I certainly couldn't do it alone.

It wasn't my intention to exclude amputees and devotees, but do you really think any would attend if this gets off the ground?

I know the owner of a resort hotel that doesn't open until June 1st. Its big advantage is being on a small island with practically no year-round residents. I could ask him if he'd open for a weekend in early May. He caters to gays and is very open-minded, so those who want to pretend the entire weekend can do so.

If you are within a reasonable distance of Hillston, would you care to drive over on a Friday evening and brainstorm this thing with me? I'll post another message asking anyone else close by to help us.

Best, Jim

I'm not a social creature by nature and certainly have no experience at planning parties, but the chance to meet some people outside this narrow-minded community I live in has appeal.

Hi, Jim, I'm surprised we're only 50 miles apart. I can't offer you a lot of help, but I'd like to talk this over with you and see what comes of it. Give me a call at 999-555-2432 any evening after 5, except Thursdays.

Ken

I send the message and fix a drink before going out to pick up the evening paper from the stoop. When I straighten back up, I see the young man who often passes about this time every day. I throw my hand up at him in greeting and he waves back with a smile. I'd like to know him, but our paths have never crossed more than this.

I've settled back in my favorite chair to look over the list of new books requested by our patrons. Even with being only a couple of years past thirty, I'm head librarian of the regional library and responsible for making the final decision on book orders. Fortunate as I am to have an adequate and dedicated staff, some tasks cannot be delegated and our budget can be stretched only so far. I tick off three books on homosexuality and ponder how I can get them past the vocal few who would sanction book burning if they were discovered on our shelves, especially as they are written for teenagers struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. All three books are highly recommended by the ALA. I know there are one or two high school students who look for books on this topic, for I've seen them lurking in the stacks reading the few we have. I'd love to speak with them and try to make it easier for them, but they'd be too embarrassed.

I've finished dinner and I'm looking at the wholesaler's advance catalogue when my phone rings. I talk with Jim for a few minutes and hang up, our meeting for this Friday evening all set. The more I think about meeting him and bringing the party off, the more excited I get, so the rest of the week seems to drag by.

The directions Jim gave me are so clear I have no difficulty finding his farm home, though it's in a sparsely populated area. The surprise is the husky young man in his mid twenties who opens the door and welcomes me. I immediately notice his left arm ends in a hook.

"Damn nice of you to come, Ken. Come on in and I'll fix us a drink before we have dinner."

"I was planning on taking you out."

He smiles and holds up the hook. "I couldn't pretend if we were going out, so I fixed something for us. I hope you like boiled shrimp and a salad. I'm not a very creative cook."

"Sounds good to me."

He fixes our drinks and brings in a plate of cheese and crackers. He's very adept with the hook.

"I would swear you're an amputee and have been for a long time, the way you use that hook."

A large smile splits his pleasant rugged face. "Out here alone I get a lot of practice. When I don't have any hired help around I put it on when I get up and don't take it off until I go to bed. I wish I had told you to come ready to pretend, too."

"I don't do a lot of pretending. I'm mostly a devotee."

"Of?"

"Guys your age with peg legs. But you look great with that hook. How did you manage to get it? I thought prosthetics were by prescription."

"I'll have to show you the website. Guy has old prosthetics for sale very reasonably. I had to make a few modifications to get it to fit comfortably, but as much mechanical work as there is around a farm, it wasn't difficult for me."

"If this party comes off I expect you'll get some requests for help when they see how good it looks."

He shrugs. "We'll see. About ready to eat?"

He refuses my help, and within a few minutes has our dinner ready. I can hardly peel my own shrimp for watching him hold each shrimp by the tail with his hook and strip the shell away. He grins when he sees me watching.

"Only problem with a hook is it mashes the shrimp if you try to hold it for dunking." He holds up his hand. "Gotta use fingers for that cause I never use a fork to eat 'em."

Jim is so open and friendly, any reserve I felt at this meeting vanished almost immediately. I relax and enjoy my dinner immensely. He washes up immediately after, using the hook with the same skill he's demonstrated all evening, then pours our coffee.

"Let's go plan this party," he says, leading the way back into the living room.

"Any offers of help?" I ask.

He shakes his head. "Not yet. Let me check my mail. It's been a couple of days cause I was finishing up planting some early corn."

He brings up his mail, stopping to read two of the messages completely. He shuts his computer down and returns to his chair after putting another log on the fire.

"Got two more guys saying they'll be happy to help if they can. One of 'em's from your town, least ways the number has the same prefix as yours. You want to call him?"

"Be glad to. I would have sworn I was the only devotee in town."

Jim writes down the guy's number and hands it to me, then continues. "Bill sent a message saying he'll let us have the hotel if we can guarantee at least fifty reservations for the whole weekend." He smiles. "Gave us a good rate, too. About half what he gets in season."

"Great. What have you got planned so far?"

"Nothing much, I was waiting to see if you thought this would fly. I expect most would rather just do their own thing."

"I've worked up an invitation to post on the site. See what you think." I pull out my sample and read it to him.

"Amputees, pretenders, and wantabes are invited to a first ever event - A Pretenders Weekend. Mark your calendars and come prepared to pretend with others who share your interests. Meet the friends you have made in the chat room. Two days of fun and relaxation at a private resort. It will be held at ?"

I look at him. "I left the rest blank because I didn't know the name of the hotel, or the dates. I suggest using your e-mail address for the replies since you posted the first message. I can add my e-mail address if you like, but it will be better if it all goes to one person. Have you worked out any cost figures?"

"Not yet. Bill gave me a rate of fifty a night and he said he could cater a special dinner on Saturday night for twenty bucks a head, or he could just run a small menu and let everybody chose what they like for all the meals."

"What about his staff? Won't they be curious?"

"I asked him, but he said he can get a few kids from the area who know how to keep their mouths shut." He grins. "They're mostly gay."

"This might work better if we can give them a package deal. See that Bill will charge for two nights and six meals. There'll be dinner Friday night, three meals on Saturday, and two on Sunday. I expect most everyone will be leaving for home after dinner on Sunday."

"Good idea. I know I'm gonna be cutting it close on money. If Bill's place wasn't so near I couldn't afford go."

"No need for us to go separate. I don't mind driving, so I can stop by for you on the way. We'll need to be there early, so I'll take the day off and we can leave before noon."

"I was hoping you'd say that. Think we ought to have some kind of program?"

"Naa. I think everyone's gonna be talking and having a good time. If it's really warm, some of 'em's gonna want to be on the beach." Then I think. "It would be great if the guy you got your hook from would bring some of his stuff and set up. Wish we could find somebody knew how to make those old-fashioned leg legs. I wouldn't mind having one of those myself."

Jim grins. "Old guy down the road has a peg leg. I can ask him where he got it."

"Great." I glance at my watch. "I've got to hit the road. This has been one of the most enjoyable evenings I've ever had, not to mention the dinner. You're a grand host."

"I've enjoyed it, too. First time I've ever pretended in front of someone else. I hope you'll come back again."

"I expect I'll have to before this is all planned, but next time why don't you come to my place." I wink at him. "I'll enjoy taking a guy wearing a hook out to dinner."

"How can I refuse an offer like that? I should have Bill's figures sometime next week, so what about next Friday night?"

"It's a date. I'll work on finishing up the posting and we'll put it up before we go out to eat. I'm betting we have some replies before the evening is out."

The next afternoon, I call the number Jim gave me. The guy sounds excited about the weekend and offers to help any way he can, so I invite him to stop by for a drink. I'm amazed when I go out to pick up my paper and see the young man I've so often waved at look at me, then my house number, and turn up the walk.

"Ken? I'm Steve."

"I'll be damned! I never dreamed it would be you. Come in."

I fix our drinks and sit down across from Steve. I can tell he's nervous. "Relax, Steve. I'm a devotee and a sometimes pretender. I'm guessing you are, too, otherwise you'd never have answered Jim's posting."

"I ? I am, but it feels strange being with somebody here in town. I didn't know there was anybody else."

"Nor did I. So I'm doubly glad to meet you."

He looks at me. "You're the librarian, aren't you?"

I nod.

"I thought I recognized you. I've seen you in the office a few times when I've been in there."

"May I ask what you do?"

He drops his head. "I ? I just started with Wilson and Barnes a few months ago." He's just named the most influential law firm in town. "Please don't tell anybody about this."

"What we do on our own time is nobody's business but ours. I grew up in this town, so I know what it's like. I'm not saying a thing, because I may need your help one of these days if any of those self-righteous types ever find those gay books I've placed in the library."

He looks up with a surprised expression. "You've got some? I've never seen them."

"I deliberately put them in an out of the way spot. If you're interested, drop by my office. I can guarantee discretion."

"Thanks. I've been looking for some in a mystery series I started reading, but I can't find them in stores."

I shake my head. "I know the series you mean, but we don't have any of those. Mostly I've been buying books on homosexuality for teens. They need good information."

"You know it. When I was in high school, my life was hell. I'm glad someone around here is willing to help gay kids."

"I think you might find the books you're interested in, in my personal library." I smile at him. "I suppose I can trust a lawyer to return them."

"I will."

"Then I'll show them to you later. Let me tell you about the weekend."

When I've finished telling him what Jim and I have decided thus far, he says, "Sounds great, if it's really that private."

"Jim says it is, and I have no reason to doubt him. I met him last weekend and he's a fine man. He's coming up for dinner Friday night. Why don't you join us? After, we're coming back here to plan further."

"I'd like that."

"You'd better know he'll be pretending. He uses a hook and I'd swear he was a real amp if he hadn't told me differently. That going to bother you?"

"Not in the least. I've always wanted to watch a guy use a hook."

"Is that your preference, too?"

He shakes his head. "I like to use crutches. I wish I could find some way to hide my foot. It makes a bulge in my jeans."

"Peg legs are my thing. Jim says he may be able to find out where I can get a real one. But if this party comes off, you may find some guy who can tell you how to make your pretending look real."

Steve smiles. "I'd like that, but where the hell does one go around here to pretend? I don't dare go out of the house on crutches and I'd really like to."

"If you hit it off with Jim, perhaps he'll invite you to his place. He lives on a farm with no close neighbors. He pretends all day long."

"I envy him." He stands. "Thanks a lot for the drink. I'll be here Friday about five-thirty."

Jim calls mid week to tell me Bill is willing to offer us a package deal of a hundred fifty for the weekend, rooms for two nights and six meals, lunch and dinner to offer a choice of three entres. Sounds good to me. I tell Jim that Steve has been by and is looking forward to meeting him Friday.

"I think you'll really like this guy, Jim. I'm hoping to see more of him myself."

"Then I'm sure I will. Will he be pretending?"

"Not in this town, but he likes it. He'd love to visit you so he can, and he's hoping meeting some of the others will give him some tips on how to appear real."

I can tell Jim's amused. "That's part of what gave me the idea for this weekend. I'll tell you about it when I see you. I may have another guy along. Hope that isn't going to be any problem."

"Not as long as we can speak freely with him around."

"No problem. He's a real wantabe."

I take advantage of my position and leave my office an hour early Friday afternoon to prepare for my guests. I pick up the veggie tray and a six pack of beer at the supermarket on my way home, and stop at a specialty shop for some peanuts I like. The cleaning service has my small house looking its best.

I've just changed from my suit into slacks and a sports shirt when the bell rings. It's Jim, accompanied by a beautiful black-haired kid.

"This is my nephew, Deke, Ken. He's spending the weekend with me so he can pretend."

"Welcome, Deke. Steve isn't here yet, but let me get you a drink."

"One beer, Deke," Jim says.

"Ah, come on, Jim." Deke looks disappointed.

"Look, you may be in college, but you know your dad would kill me if he knew I was even letting you have that."

Deke grins. "Hey, it's like what he don't know won't hurt him. I'm not telling. I thought I was going to die when he saw that e-surgery site on my computer."

Jim looks surprised. "You didn't tell me about that."

"Happened last weekend when I was home. I brought it up so I could get the address of the guy has the site. The old man came in just as I was closing it out, so he didn't see anything other than they were pictures. He told me to study and quit wasting my time playing around."

"You know this guy?"

"Yeah. He's a gay college student like me. I sent him a picture so he could amputate my leg. He did, then told me he wished his was gone, too. We've been sending each other e-mail ever since. I sure wish he could come to this weekend. Would be great to have somebody I know that's my age there."

"Damn! I wish you had told me so I could see your pic."

"If you know the address of the site, you can bring it up on my computer. I'd like to see it, too."

"Great. Where is it?"

"In my study. Come on."

Both Jim and I whistle when Deke brings up his picture. I don't think I'll ever see a more attractive young 'amputee.'

"Where did you get the crutches?" Jim asks.

Deke grins. "Buddy of mine at school hurt his leg and uses them. He let me borrow them and took the picture. Sure wish I had a pair to pretend with, but there's no chance at home."

Jim grins and ruffles Deke's hair. "Glad you don't, cause if you did you'd never come to see me again."

"Like hell. I have a great time with you, Jim."

After Deke bookmarks the site for me, we go back for our drink. Steve arrives. The moment he and Jim lay eyes on each other I can see the rapport, especially when he sees Jim's hook.

"This is a real pleasure, Jim. You do look real."

"Thanks. This is my nephew Deke, Steve. We can talk freely around him."

As soon as we're settled, the talk, naturally, turns to pretending. I had wondered if Deke might not be a little intimidated by three adults, but he's sociable in a way he can't be anywhere else. He informs Steve that he really wants to lose his right leg so he can get a peg leg.

"Man, the one the old guy down the road from Jim's has is really cool."

Jim puts his arm around Deke and hugs him. "If this works out, you just might have one to use for the weekend."

"Really! That'll be awesome. Thanks, Jim."

We begin to discuss our plans with Steve. When we finish, he says, "Sounds fine to me. I'm glad you're leaving it mostly unstructured so people will feel free to talk with each other, and a package deal will certainly help those who might not be able to afford any surprises. I would suggest you have a cash bar in the evenings, especially Friday. A drink might help some of them relax so they socialize more readily."

"We hadn't planned on that, so it's not included in the package," Jim says.

"Doesn't need to be. That's why I suggest a cash bar. The younger ones like Deke can have soft drinks if this is open to young people."

"I doubt there'll be any younger than college age."

"Then I suggest you set a limit of eighteen for those attending. It might save you some legal problems."

"Good thinking. Thanks, Steve." I say.

After adding Steve's suggestions to the posting I had prepared, I send it after he's looked it over once more and given his approval.

Steve stands and looks at us. "I think we're all about ready for dinner. I've made reservations at the Dock."

The Dock is a little pricier than most, and dinner for four will dent my budget big time. I'm about to protest when Steve adds, "This is on me. You guys have done all the work, so I can contribute this much."

"That's kind of you, Steve, but unexpected," I say.

"Not at all. This has given me an opportunity to know someone besides a bunch of stuffy old lawyers."

Dinner is a huge success. Steve watches Jim intently as he uses his hook with the same ease he used it at home. I suspect he's a bit of a tease when he eats with the fork held in his hook, the knife in his right hand, especially when he glances at me and winks.

Deke diverts my attention by asking about books about amputees or with amputee characters. Fortunately I remember enough titles that he has to write them down, even so, the list is not very long. Then I suggest a website to him, surprised when he tells me it's linked to the site his friend runs, and that he's read everything there. "It's really great. One guy wrote about a guy my age with a peg leg. I wish I could tell him I liked his story."

"You must not have looked lately. There's a feedback form that's been added. You can fill it out and add your e-mail address. The author can reply if he wants." I refrain from telling him the story is one of mine.

"Thanks for telling me, Mr. Reeves. Wonder if you all have gotten any replies yet?"

I have to smile at his eagerness. "Too soon, I'm sure. The replies all go to Jim so I have no way of knowing."

"He can check from your computer. I know how to access my mail from anywhere, so it'll work for him too, if he remembers his password."

We all go back to my place for coffee. Deke talks Jim into checking his mail and types in an address before getting Jim to add his password. I'm as amazed as Jim when it works. He scans the list picking the ones to open. By the time he's opened the last one we're all surprised that we have nineteen acceptances in just over two hours.

Steve looks gratified. "The four of us will be there, so that's twenty-three. I'm sure we'll have no trouble getting the other thirty-seven we need for this to go. Who do we pay and when?"

"I'll give Bill a call when we get to forty, then we can send our checks directly to him. I'll post that as soon as I know for sure."

"Good. Give me a call at home as soon as you know, Jim."

"How'm I going?" Deke asks plaintively. "I can't wring that much money out of the old man."

"You don't think I'd leave you out, do you? Save up what you can and I'll find a way to make up the rest."

Deke hugs him. "Thanks, Jim. I love you, man."

Midweek Jim calls to say the reservations have reached forty. He's posted a message telling everyone to send their checks to Bill, and asks me to call Steve.

Steve drops by after work for a drink. "The more I think about this the more I'm looking forward to it. Why don't I drive and you go with me?"

"I'd like that. No sense in taking two cars, but I've promised to take Jim and Deke."

"That's just four, and it'll give me a chance to see Jim again. I'm spending this weekend with him." He smiles. "On crutches the whole time."

For a moment I'm jealous at not being invited also, but I remember the look that passed between them when they first met. I'd be a third wheel, especially being a few years older than they.

I smile at Steve. "You'll have a great time. Jim's a fine fellow."

"He is that." He looks at me with a twinkle in his eyes. "You do realize I'm hoping this turns into something."

"I wonder why I had that feeling when you guys first met?"

Steve grins. "I couldn't possibly imagine. I'll always owe you for inviting me to meet him."

"My pleasure. If you enjoy this weekend, then you can imagine just how much fun the party is going to be."

"I'm not sure about that, but it will certainly be interesting."

A few e-mails from Jim during the next week keep me up to date. The reservations have reached sixty-five. Jim tells me Bill is delighted and has hired a few additional kids to help out. One of them is his usual driver for the shuttle he maintains to run guests to the airport; he also drives the boat to the island. Transportation for those coming in by air was one thing Jim and I hadn't thought of.

Friday at noon two weeks later, Steve drives up in a Mercedes sedan that has me envious. "Didn't know you were so loaded, but I should have guessed. You're a lawyer after all."

He grins. "My grandad gave it to me when I got the job with the firm here. Said I had to keep up the image. I like it, but I was hoping for a Jag XKE."

"Wish I had a rich granddad. Trade you my Buick."

He grins. "No way. Not knocking your car, friend, but the big boss looked pleased when he saw it."

It is nice to ride in pure comfort, and Steve is a good driver. We're at Jim's almost before I know it. He and Deke have two large boxes in addition to their luggage.

"What's all that," Steve asks.

"Hope you've got room for it all. Deke's going to do a little work while we're on the island."

"Must be some project."

Deke grins. "You're gonna be surprised. Wait til we're there and you get a look at me."

"You're a very attractive young man already."

"Maybe so, but I'll look even better. Hi, Ken."

I've gotten out of the front and opened the rear door. "Good to see you again, Deke. Let's share the back and let Jim ride up front with Steve."

Deke winks at me. "Think you got the idea. Looks like I'm gonna have to put my knapsack in with us. Those boxes filled up Steve's trunk."

For most of the hour-long trip Jim and Steve talk quietly, while Deke raves to me about the assortment of gay books he found in the college library. He's happy there will be a new course in gay literature staring fall semester. He's talked with the professor and intends to sign up for it. He's also joined the gay student union. He's only disappointed is that thus far he's seen no amps on campus.

Jim directs Steve to the parking area reserved for the hotel. As soon as we've gotten everything out of the car and down to the end of the dock, Jim opens a box set on one of the posts of the pier, picks up the phone, and tells someone we've arrived.

"Where's the island?" Steve asks.

"That green patch out there." Deke points to a wooded spot far enough away that I can barely discern the man walking toward the boat moored at a dock. He grins. "No way anybody can tell how we look from this distance."

"Perfect," Steve says.

"Which reminds me, Jim. Is the guy you got your hook from coming?"

"Said he couldn't get off and it was too far. He did send me a list of what he has on hand and said if anyone asked, I could take their order. If I adapted it to fit, he'd split with me."

Sounds good, but I'm sorry he isn't coming. He would likely sell more if the guys could see them."

"Yeah, but this is a fun weekend."

The boat is almost to this side when another car pulls up in the lot. Jim is the only one who doesn't seem surprised when the door opens and the driver gets out. He's a handsome young man of college age. He stands supported by forearm crutches because his right leg is missing just above the knee.

Jim walks over to greet him. "Gary, I'm Jim. Glad you could make it. Deke is that kid with the stupid expression on his face."

Gary looks at Deke and grins. "Damn, man! He's cuter than his pic. Thanks for telling me about this."

Gary flows smoothly over to Deke and holds out his hand. "Good to meet you at last, stud."

"Who?" Deke finally manages to gasp out.

Gary grins again. "Who the hell you think you've been talking to all year on the net? I'm Dude."

Deke shakes his head. "Dude? Really? Oh, man, I ain't believing this! How'd you know, I mean ?"

"Been exchanging e's with Jim. Didn't he tell you he had a surprise for you? Well I'm it."

Deke grabs him in a fierce hug. "Man, you're beautiful. We gotta share a room, cause I ain't gonna stop looking at that great bod."

"Like what you see?"

"Damn straight! You're awesome." Deke drops his hand and rubs it across the end of Gary's stump. "Can't wait to see your beautiful stump."

"You forgot one thing."

"What?"

"What we promised we'd do if we ever met." Gary grabs him and gives him a lingering kiss which Deke returns.

"Wow, man! I didn't think you'd want to after you saw me."

Gary pushes Deke back a little and looks him over. "Best looking dude I've seen yet. Yeah. Having this weekend with you is going to be the best time of my life."

"Okay, love birds, break it up. The boat's here," Jim calls. "Get your stuff, Gary."

"I'll get it," Deke say quickly.

After we've loaded our things in the boat. Jim introduces us to Bill. "Thought you were getting one of the kids to run this," he says.

"They'll be coming over soon as school is out. Most of 'em go to the community college in town. Danny should have been here by now." He looks up at the sound of a pickup approaching. "Here he is now."

Danny is a gangly beach boy type, and quickly takes over the boat. Bill casts off the lines and Danny backs away from the dock smoothly. As soon as we're in open water he pushes the throttle forward, the boat moving far faster than it did with Bill at the wheel.

I see Danny look back, then frown. I turn to see Deke and Dude in a clinch. Obviously Danny is not fond of gays. Bill must have seen my expression, because he makes his way over and sits down next to me.

"Don't fret Danny. I know he don't like gays, but he likes his job, so he'll keep his mouth shut and not give anybody a hard time." He jerks his head toward the kids. "Them boys sure do like each other."

I have to smile. "It's the first time they've met in person, but Jim says they've had a thing going over the net."

"Makes me wish I was younger. There's a woman or two in town I wouldn't mind having a fling with myself."

"You're not gay?"

He shakes his head. "Naw, but I got some friends like Jim who are. Most of the people who come to the hotel are, too. I like 'em. They don't give half the trouble straight folks do." He grins. "Course there's a squabble now and then, but they don't make near the noise a woman can screeching at the top of her lungs. I don't allow any of those men like to dress up like women, either. Had one, one time and it cost me by best helper."

"Oh?"

Bill grins. "Yeah. He thought he was a woman and put the make on him. When he found out it was a man, he busted up the room. Would have hurt the guy, too, if I hadn't got up there soon as I heard the ruckus. I fired his ass fer bustin' up the furniture."

"I don't think you'll have that problem with the people coming. A lot of them are professional people, but don't be surprised at what you see."

"You mean like Jim and his hook?"

"Then you know it's not for real."

"When I remember it. He's used it so long a body wouldn't guess he's still got his hand." Bill glances down at his sturdy weathered hands and shakes his head. "Can't figure why he likes that hook so much, but I'm happy if it makes him happy, and it sure seems to. They don't come any nicer than Jim." He stands up. "We're comin' in. Leave your stuff. Danny'll take it up to the hotel in the lorry." He indicates what appears to be a golf cart with a small truck bed added to the back.

The hotel is a rustic, brown shingled, two story building natural to such a setting. It's nothing fancy, but looks comfortable. When we've sorted out our bags we go up the stairs. I'm glad to note there's a small elevator. I'd hate to try stairs on crutches. Jim and Steve are sharing a room, the boys in the room next to theirs. I have a single room on the other side of the boys.

I've hardly unpacked before there's a knock on my door and Deke's standing there with Gary. "How do I look, Ken?"

I look, blink, then look again. Deke has a wooden peg on his right leg. "Beautiful, guy. Where'd you get it?"

He grins. "Thought you'd like it, I sure do. Jim found out where that old man got his. We brought along five more to sell anybody who wants one. The man showed me how to fit 'em when he fixed mine."

"How's it feel?"

"Awesome! I wish I had one for Dude, but he don't have enough stump. His would have to be made special. You want to try one?"

"If it's as good as you say, you might just make a sale."

Deke grins and stumps off toward his room.

"All of this doesn't bother you, Gary?"

"Please call me Dude. But naah. I've been without my leg so long I don't even think about it." He shakes his head. "Deke's so awesome I don't mind anything turns him on." He grins from ear to ear. "I'm in love, and it's great!"

"I'm happy for both of you, then. I haven't known Deke long, but he's a nice guy."

"You know it! We're going to be spending a lot of time together. I'm changing rooms so we can be together soon as we get back to school."

"You're at the same college? Deke told me he hadn't seen any amps on campus."

Dude smiles. "I wear a leg all the time, and we're in different dorms. Kind of funny the way we've been e-mailing each other all year and never mentioned what school we attend."

Deke comes back carrying a nicely made peg leg. "Try this one, Ken. It's just about right, I think."

I strap it on, feeling a little foolish with Dude watching. But my first steps are all I imagined walking on a peg would be. It is fun, but my leg sticking out behind makes me self-conscious. I take the peg off and hand it back to Deke.

"Let me think about it. I want to use crutches for a while."

"Okay. Let me know. Come on, Dude, let's take a look at the beach."

I fold my leg up and put on a pair of wide legged slacks I bought in Europe while attending the book fair a couple of years ago. They've never been fashionable in this country, but are perfect for pretending. I get my crutches and open the door just as Steve starts to knock.

"Damn! You really look convincing," he says.

"You do, too." He has on a pair of camouflage pants with the empty part of the leg tied in a knot. Very appealing on a man as young as he. His crutches are the forearm type while mine are the standard wooden underarm type.

Jim is wearing the hook over his T-shirt. He is still totally convincing unless he happens to stand with both arms at his sides. Then the hook is obviously lower than it would be on a real amp.

"Where did the kids go?" Jim asks.

"Down to the beach. I don't think I've ever seen two happier kids. How'd you meet Dude, Jim?"

"On the dev site. When he finally told me not long ago he was in college, I told him he needed someone his own age. I sent him a shot of Deke, and we've been planing a way for them to meet. I had no idea they were at the same school until I asked Gary to come for the weekend. He wanted to surprise Deke."

"He certainly did that. I wish I had a picture of Deke's face when he realized who Gary was. Ready for a drink?"

"Always," Steve says. "Let's go down."

The bar is filling with people chatting with each other. The younger ones are already pretending, but a few older men have yet to start. Probably their natural reserve, while the younger ones appear uninhibited and are comparing notes.

The crowd is largely under thirty, a number of them college students. I see one who's a RAE amp, talking with another his age whose left sleeve is empty. If he had on a loose shirt, no one would notice his arm is strapped behind him. The minute he sees Jim's hook, they both come over to him.

"You're a real amp like me, aren't you?" the one armed kid asks.

Jim grins. "I feel like one, but I have my hand."

"Told you," the pretending kid says. "That hook really had me fooled for a minute."

"What gave me away?"

"You dropped your arms to your sides. If it hadn't been for that I'd of lost my bet. I want one just like it. Where'd you get it?"

"Found a guy on the net has them. If you'll look me up tomorrow I can show you some pictures of what he's got and if you get one, I can fit it so it's comfortable to use."

"Great! My aunt told me she'd send me some money if I saw anything special I wanted."

Deke and Dude join us just then. The real amp looks at Dude's stump. "Another real live amp," he say, eyes wide.

"Yeah. I'm Dude and that's Deke."

"I'm Randy. My buddy is Mike. Damn, I'm glad to see you guys. Let's get a drink."

The kids walk off towards the bar. "Looks like the kids aren't going to bored this weekend. I'm glad Deke wanted to come," Jim says.

"He and Dude would have had a great time even without the others."

Jim nods. "I'm glad Dude isn't the only amp here. I was afraid he might feel uneasy around the rest of us."

People start drifting off to the dining room, so we join them. Deke, Dude, and the other two kids find a table for six a little apart from the others, and continue their animated conversation.

I happen to look up from the menu and see a tall, slender, good-looking young blond guy standing in the doorway looking over the room, before going toward a single table well away from the others. I give the waiter my choice and look toward the young man just in time to see Dude get up and walk over to him, say a few words, then the young man joins the foursome at their table. I'd like to see more, but Jim speaks to me.

"See Dude has rescued the loner."

"He did look sort of lost. Wonder why he didn't join some of the others his age?"

"Probably from a different school and shy."

After an excellent dinner, many go back to the bar and the mingling really begins. A few drinks have loosened up the most inhibited and some have obviously formed some new friendships, just what Jim and I wanted to happen.

About nine, Bill crawls up on a table and shots for attention. When the conversation dies out, he begins: "It's mighty good to have all you folks here and see you enjoying yourselves. I ain't making no speech, but I think some of you would like to know who's responsible fer this, cause I've been asked a lot. Jim, you and Ken and Steve come over here so folks can get a look at you."

We simply lift our hands, well, Jim lifts his hook, and there's a round of applause, then people start to come over to speak to us. I'm surprised when it's the younger ones first. Deke and his group come over. It's then I notice the young blond walks differently.

"This is Mike. He has a real peg leg. I wish I had one like it."

We speak to Mike, noticing he now seems at ease.

He smiles. "I was feeling out of place until Dude got me to join him and Randy, and the other guys. Now I'm having a great time." He smacks Deke lightly on top of his head. "This guy's nuts, but I like him."

"Good. I didn't think any amps would want to come to a party for a bunch of pretenders," Jim says.

"Why not? You're an amp."

Jim grins. "Nope. Wish I was, but I'm not."

"Told you," Deke says.

Mike shakes his head. "Sure fooled me."

The kids wander off and Jim's surrounded by several asking how he pulls his pretending off with such ease. A little later we go up to bed.

The next morning on our way to breakfast, Deke's bubbling over. "I wish you guys could see Mike's stump and peg, they're awesome! His peg's got a suction socket, then just the straight rod with a crutch tip on the end. Exactly what I want."

"Pretending's one thing; reality's another," Dude says.

"I guess, but I can't wait til you get one like Mike's."

"Are you planing to do that, Dude?" I ask.

He grins. "Yeah, but it might be dangerous to my health if it turns Deke on anymore than he already is."

Deke grabs him and plants a big kiss on his lips. "Stuff it, Dude."

For the rest of the weekend everyone seems to enjoy themselves thoroughly, for Jim, Steve and I are told by many of the departing guests they've never had a better time and ask for a repeat.

The three of us with the boys are the last ones to cross to the mainland. Bill tells us it's been the nicest group he's ever had and while a few of his staff, like Danny, are a little freaked out by the pretending, he's willing to have us again next year.

Life settles back into the usual routine until the books I ordered come in. Unfortunately, the woman who unpacks them is an old maid homophobe and calls me indignantly when she sees the three books for gay teens. I take her into my office and, when she refuses to be rational, I lay it on the line.

"Maddie, the purpose of a public library is to provide information. Whether we agree with that information or not, our personal feelings have no place in what we make available. I made my choice of books based on the demand. Now go do your job."

I get a glare instead. "How can you say that? There are no filthy people like that in this town."

"You are quite wrong," I snap. "There are a number of gay men in town. Further, they are fine upstanding citizens."

"How would you know?"

"It just happens that not long ago I spent a weekend with a friend. His nephew and his roommate were visiting. I've never met two nicer boys nor seen two more in love."

Her mouth drops wide open. "I ? I'm told it's normal for growing boys to be curious." She blushes furiously. "I wouldn't know personally of course."

"These young men are in college."

She sniffs haughtily. "Might have known. College students have no morals."

It's then I remember that Maddie never went to college. She was head librarian for this town when the area libraries were merged into a regional one a few years ago. She rightfully resented being replaced by a professionally trained man, but I've managed to keep her feathers fairly well smoothed. Since she's from the old days, she has to be nearing retirement. I make a mental note to check.

"Please go back and do your job, Maddie. You've been faithful to the library, the community, and to me. I appreciate that deeply, but do try to keep an open mind."

"You're a good man, Mr. Reeves. Thank you for saying how much I mean to the library. The others act like I'm just in the way."

"You are important, Maddie. I've seen how our older patrons always wait for you at the desk. You know every one of them by name, always speak nicely, and try to help them. I wish the younger staff would follow your example about those courtesies people seem to appreciate."

She finally smiles. "I try. Thank you."

I have to wipe my brow after she's gone. Another crisis averted, but I'll be glad when she retires. I make a note to be certain that in the future she does not unpack a shipment of books that might disturb her sensibilities.

I still see Steve on his walk home many days, but now he always stops for a short chat. I'm happy that he and Jim have a thing going. He spends nearly every weekend at Jim's farm unless the weather is bad and Jim comes to town. Then they invariably invite me to dinner and pleasant company. On one occasion, Jim tells me that Deke and Gary have moved in together and couldn't be happier.

I can tell Jim is worried while the three of us are eating dinner Saturday night.

"What's the problem, Jim?"

He shakes his head. "I don't know, but I've got a funny feeling Deke's goin' to do something stupid, and I don't know how to stop him."

"Have you talked with him?"

"Not recently. He and Gary are coming to the farm soon as school is out week after next."

"I'll be glad to help if I can."

"I know. You and Steve are real friends."

Late on a Friday night two weeks later I get a phone call from Steve telling me to get out to Jim's farm; it's an emergency.

I'm praying that Jim's not hurt and that I don't get pulled for speeding. When I arrive, Steve is sitting with his arms around Jim who has his face buried in his hands, muttering, "Stupid little shit," over and over.

I sit down on the other side of Jim and put my arm around him as well. "What's happened, Jim?"

He looks up with tears streaming down his face. "It's Deke. Stupid little shit got stoned and cut his leg off."

"What!"

Steve looks at me and nods. "Deke's father called Jim just after I got here. Will you go with me to take Jim to the hospital tomorrow morning?"

"You know I will. What time?"

"We'll leave about eight if I can get this guy to bed."

"Anything more I can do?"

"Just help me get Jim to bed."

I've never seen anyone so distraught as Jim. Between Steve and myself we finally get him undressed and in bed. He's pleading with Steve to stay with him, as if that wasn't a given.

The trip is an ordeal, for Jim's inconsolable. He breaks into tears again when he looks at Deke lying in the bed, but Deke's smile is contageous. "I did it!" He exclaims when he sees us. "Now I can get an awesome peg like Dude's."

Deke's expression sobers. "Jim, can Dude come to your place until I'm out of here? Dad made him leave, said he was a bad influence."

Jim fails to reply, so I say, "He's welcome to stay with me, if he'd like.

"I hope you can find him. I don't know where he went."

I happen to remember the closeness the boys seemed to develop over the weekend of the party. "Do you have Randy's address? He might have gone there."

"Yeah. He lives in Pottersville." He rattles off the address.

Steve and I leave Jim and Deke for some private chat and go down to the hospital shop for coffee.

"Deke seems happy, I hope he doesn't have any later regrets," I tell Steve.

"I hope so, too. After you left last night, Jim started blaming himself for this. Said if he hadn't pretended Deke wouldn't have done what he did."

"Poor guy, but surely he's intelligent enough to know it's not his fault. This was Deke's decision, pure and simple."

Steve nods. "You know that, and I know that, but Jim's too upset to think rationally." Steve looks around the empty room, then says, "I love that guy, Ken. We've made a commitment with each other. I love Deke as much as Jim. Now that Deke's dad has thrown him out, I want him to live with us."

"I'm glad. Deke's going to need a lot of love and guidance to get through this. When we go home, let's stop in Pottersville to see if Dude's there. I think he's going to need some help with this as well. He can stay with me for a while."

"Thanks, Ken. I know it'll make Deke feel better knowing he's with you or Jim. Let's go back up and tell Jim we're leaving. He's going to stay a few days."

By good fortune my hunch was right; Gary is at Randy's. Randy's parents are out, so Steve and I talk quietly to Gary who is trying to blame himself for Deke's leg.

"Look, Gary, it's not your fault any more than it's Jim's. Deke is old enough to have known what he was doing. I know he's deeply in love with you and admires you as a strong young man who overcame his loss."

"But," Gary wipes his eyes, "I should have let him know how lousy it is with one leg. I just couldn't get him to stop playing with my stump. He loves the way it turns me on. I can't help it, it just does."

"Imitation is the sincerest from of flattery, Dude. Now Deke needs you and your strength. Will you love him as much now that he's lost his leg?"

Dude throws himself at me. "I love Deke, no matter what."

"Good. Get your things and come home with me. As soon as Jim in back home you can stay with him if you want. Deke will be there as soon as they let him out of the hospital in about two weeks, if I'm right. Until then, I'll bring you up to see Deke any time I can."

"Thanks, Ken." He stands and hugs Randy. "Thanks for letting me crash here, buddy. Go see Deke if you can."

Randy's one arm goes around Gary. "I will, buddy. I want to come see you, too."

"You're welcome any time, Randy," I tell him.

As two young amputees, Deke and Dude make a striking couple. They're as much in love as ever, and spending the summer with Jim, so Steve and I see them often. Jim throws a small dinner party with just the five of us, plus Randy who's come for a visit, the evening Deke first wears his peg leg that matches Dude's. I keep the picture I took of them on my desk simply because of the beauty of it. As for Jim, Steve, and I, we're even closer friends, but no longer pretend. If the party took place this year we don't know about it. Or care.

The End

Posted: 11/12/10