Man Of My Dreams
By: Jess Mercer
( 2010-2012 by the author)

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

 Prologue
 

My office has closed for the day by the time I get around to opening the mail my secretary has left on my desk. It's no problem, for I have no family, no pressing reason to go home.

I've built an excellent prosthetics business, because amputees know they will get the best possible prostheses and TLC from my employees. These days I seldom get to see a client personally, for I have offices in three other cities, so I'm stuck with a lot more travel and administrative work than I want, especially training new employees in the way I want them to relate to clients.

My people never know whether the amputee they are serving for the first time is someone I have recruited or not. I like to find college age and older teen amputees for this, because they are generally outspoken and truthful in the report I ask from them. Some are unable to afford a quality prosthesis, so I get information I could obtain no other way in exchange. It's worth it to me, and I won't hesitate to immediately discharge any employee who can't, or won't, meet the standards I've set.

I sort through the post and at the bottom of the pile find an appointment form requesting that I personally make and fit a new prosthetic leg from the finest available components, cost no object.

I lay the form down on my desk, mix myself a drink, then drop down in an easy chair. The request is from a man whose picture has been with me constantly through my high school and college years. The day I opened my business, I hung it above a plexiglass case containing a pair of well worn wooden crutches and an old pair of prosthetic hooks, as a constant reminder to do my best for the comfort of every client I serve.

No, I don't have to look at the picture; I can close my eyes and see that beautiful face instantly. Who ever really forgets their first real love, even if it's tragically brief? I take a sip of my drink and close my eyes, transported back twenty years, the memory as clear as though it all took place today.

Part 1
2  3

Though it's August, it's a great day, just the kind I like. My cut-off jeans and a T-shirt feel really good. I got the grass cut like the old man told me to, and the trash out for the city to pick up. After I showered, I went to have lunch with him at a little place he likes, which I do a lot when school's out, because my mom died last year. He was happy when I told him I'd done all the things he asked, and told me to take the rest of the day off. It's mine to do what I want. I wish I had somebody to share all this freedom with, but I don't have many friends and the one or two real buddies I had don't seem to like me much, all of a sudden.

So I'm walking along toward the newsstand to look at the new magazines with hope maybe there's one with the kind of pictures in it I like. I look up and there's this tall blond guy walking toward me. I stop dead still and stare at him. He's drop-dead beautiful. He's got a brush cut like I wish my old man would let me get, and when he comes closer I can see his eyes are not blue like you'd expect, but deep green. He's got on sharp looking chinos and a knit shirt, so he's gotta be a college stud. I'd give most anything if I could look like him when I grow up. I'm kinda short and skinny and have long thick black hair that's always flopping over in my eyes. A lot of folks tell me I'm cute. Cute, hell! I wanna be a real stud like this guy. Boy, would my former buddies be jealous then.

I'm still standing there gawking at him when he stops right in front of me and asks, "Like what you see?"

Even his voice is deep and smooth. This guy's got everything.

"Y... yeah." I stammer. "Why?"

"I was wondering why you've been staring at me without blinking for at least two minutes."

Oh, hell! I mean what do you say when a total stranger asks a question like that? So I tell him the truth. "Yeah. I mean it's because I wish I looked like you."

He holds his hands out and shrugs in a sort of 'why me' way. I can see his muscles ripple under the snug shirt.

"You're kidding?"

"No way. You've got a fantastic bod and the face to go with it."

"I've got a problem with the bod you wouldn't like, but thanks for the compliment. How old are you, kid?"

"Fifteen, but I know what I like." I won't be fifteen for two more weeks, but I like to say it. I know I'm blushing, cause I've never talked this straight to another guy before, specially a stranger. He gives me a smile that makes my legs feel like overcooked spaghetti.

"Why aren't you out with your friends?"

I shrug. "They don't seem to like me much any more. I guess maybe I like different things from them."

"Shame. I should think a cute kid like you would have a lot of friends and be having fun. I've got to go."

"Hope I see you again," I call after him as he's walking on. He turns enough for me to see his smile.

"Yeah."

For a few minutes I stand there reliving the scene. I'm sorry when I wake up to reality, so I split for home to dream about him some more. When I get there, I take a full-page ad I'd torn out of an old magazine I found and flop down on my bed.

The guy in the picture looks almost like the guy I just talked to, but it can't be him, because the stud in the picture is about my age. He has only one leg, his other one being a stump about ten inches long, as best I can tell from the way the pants leg is pinned up. I'd really like to meet a good lookin' guy with one leg so I could touch his stump to see what it feels like and have him tell me what it's like to have just one leg. I wouldn't have my old man to see this picture for anything, but he never comes in my room and my mom's dead, like I said. The woman that cleans for us comes when we're not home. While she cleans the rest of the house okay, but from the mess my room is always in, I know she doesn't clean it very often, so if she's ever seen this picture I know she's not telling anybody that counts about it.

My old man's a lawyer and sometimes has papers and stuff to be delivered to his clients. Most of the time he uses a messenger service, but if school's out he gets me to do it. That night while he and I are eating Chinese he brought home from some take-out place, he says, "I want you to come back to the office with me after lunch tomorrow. I have some closing papers I need you to take to a new client. You'll need your bike, because he lives out in Forest Hills."

"Okay." I don't mind, because it gives me something to do. Besides, I've always wanted to see inside some of those shacks. I mean we live in a good neighborhood, but nothing nowhere near as fancy as those places in Forest Hills.

After the old man and I have eaten lunch the next day and gone back to his office, he gives me a big envelope. "Don't give this to anyone but Mr. Prentice. I've called him and he's expecting you. You'll have to wait while he reads these and signs them, then I want you to bring them straight back to me. No side trips, either."

My old man knows I'm likely to get distracted if I see something interesting. "Okay." I'm happy to ride my new ten-speed on a day like this, cause it's perfect like yesterday. Forest Hills Avenue is one long street making a big circle, coming back to where it starts, so I'm tooling along on my bike having the time of my life looking at all those grand houses and wondering what the people living in them are like. But, heck, I'll find out in just a few minutes when I get to the Prentices. Maybe I can even get to see some of their house while I'm waiting for the papers. As I ride along looking at the numbers on the mailboxes, I see the houses are getting further apart.

When I find the number that matches the one on the envelope, it's on a stone gatepost. I can't believe it when the gates start to open all by themselves. I turn in and ride up the brick drive, stopping in front of a house I couldn't even see from the street. It's one of those big Colonial jobs like in 'Gone With The Wind'. I climb the steps and ring the bell. When the door opens, I almost drop dead. It's the guy I saw on the street yesterday.

I'm so surprised it's all I can do to stammer, "I ... I ... I got some papers for Mr. Prentice."

He turns on the smile full voltage and I almost pass out. "My dad. He's in the study. Come on in. I'll show you." He says.

Somehow I manage to follow him down the wide hall. He knocks at a carved door and opens it. "There's a young man here with some papers for you, sir." He motions for me to go in and he follows. I see this tall man get up from behind his desk. He's getting some gray in his hair, but he looks a lot like his son.

"I've been expecting you," he says and takes the envelope I hold out. "It will take me about an hour to go over these. Are you going to wait for them?"

"Yes, sir."

"Excellent. Son, why don't you find this young man something cool to drink. I expect he's hot after riding his bike all the way out here."

"Sure. Come on, kid."

When we're outside, he asks, "What's your name?"

"Don Wright. How'd your dad know I was riding my bike."

He gives me another of those high voltage smiles. "There's a security camera on top of the gatepost. He saw you on the monitor and opened the gates." He looks me over again. "Don Wright, hunh? Good name for a guy who's all right in my book. I'm Mark Prentice."

I hate all those puns people make about my name, especially one teacher I've got who always says, "Mr. Wright is Mr. Wrong," whenever I give an incorrect answer in class. But the way this guy says it, it comes across like a compliment, so I smile back.

He leads me to the kitchen where a woman in a maid's uniform is cooking, and opens the door of a king-size fridge. "What you want to drink? I'm gonna have a beer."

"Me, too."

"No way, Don. You're too young. Your old man would probably kill me if I sent you back half crocked. There's Coke, Pepsi, and root beer. Which will it be?"

"Root beer."

"Good." He takes out his beer and my root beer, but doesn't hand me the tin like I expect. Instead, he opens the freezer door and takes out a couple of pewter mugs that immediately frost over, and pours my root beer in one of them and his beer in the other.

"Nettie, we'll be on the patio if dad calls," he says to the cook and leads me outside where there are some comfortable chairs on a covered brick patio. Just a few steps away is a big swimming pool that makes me want to strip and jump in right then.

"Oh, wow!"

"You like to swim?"

"Yeah. I'm pretty good at it. The pool at the club is always so full in hot weather I don't get much chance to practice like I should." I don't like to brag, so I don't mention the junior championship medal I won last year. I wish my old man wouldn't brag so much about it, either.

Mark looks me over careful like, then nods. "I can tell from your build you're a swimmer. Tell you what. Why don't you come over tomorrow afternoon and have a swim with me. Dad's going to be out of town and it's Nettie's day off. We'll have the place to ourselves."

I ain't believing what he's saying. "You're kidding?"

He frowns when I say that. "I usually mean what I say. Do you want to, or not?"

"Darn straight I do. I'd like to jump in right now."

"Sorry about that," he says. "Drink up."

He asks me about school and stuff like that, so I finish off my root beer just as the cook sticks her head out the door and says, "Your father wants y'all back."

When I get back to dad's office and dodge Myrtle, his secretary, to keep her from running her fingers through my hair and calling me her dream man, I hand dad the papers.

"Good job, son. You're back faster than I thought you would be. I'll have copies of these ready for Mr. Prentice tomorrow. He told me he's going to be out of town, but he said you could leave them with his son. Will you deliver them for me?"

"Sure thing. Mark, his son I mean, asked me to go swimming with him tomorrow afternoon. They've got a beautiful pool."

"That's very thoughtful of him. I know it's hard for you to get all the practice you need. I wish our yard was big enough for you to have one of your own."

"That's okay. I like Mark; he's a cool guy."

Right after lunch the next day, I can't wait for old Myrtle to get the papers together so's I can go. When she finally hands me the envelope, I'm out the door and on my bike so fast I leave her in my dust. My heart pounds all the way there, thinking about that pool and Mark. I can't wait to see him in swim trunks. I hope he wears a Speedo like I've already got on under my cut-off jeans.

"Hi, guy," Mark says and ruffles my hair like old Myrtle is always trying to do, but it ain't the same. I like the way Mark does it. "Come on up to my room while I change."

It's then I notice Mark's walking funny, swinging his right leg out and around instead of taking straight steps like he was yesterday. When I look down, my heart almost stops. I don't see no shoe at the end of his right jeans leg, just a round metal tube with a rubber tip on the end. He starts up the stairs, putting his left foot on the next step and pulling the tube up before taking the next one. He's up about six steps when he senses I'm not behind him and turns to see me still standing at the foot of the steps gawking at him.

"You coming, or not?"

Then he notices my expression.

"Haven't you ever seen a peg-leg before?"

I just stand there shaking my head with my mouth open.

"Shut your mouth, or you'll be catching flies. Come on, I want to get in the pool."

I follow him up to his big bedroom and watch as he pulls off his shirt, then drops his jeans. The metal part goes almost all the way up to what's left of his leg and ends in a plastic cup sort of thing, above which is a wide strip of leather with a couple of straps to hold it on. He unbuckles the straps and drops the peg-leg on the floor.

"Hand me my trunks. They're on the chair next to you."

It takes a second before what he's said registers on my tiny brain, because I can't take my eyes off his stump. It's about half the size of his good leg, and has a neat scar. I'm wondering how it would feel to have my hand on it when he stands up and picks up a pair of crutches like I've never seen before. They aren't wood like the regular kind I've always seen, but shiny metal and have a cuff that fits around his arms. Man, my dreams would be complete if I could think of a way to touch his beautiful stump.

"Let's go," he says and takes a swing on his crutches toward the door. He moves so easy and fast on them I'm almost left behind with my thoughts. I can swim, but Mark makes me look like a beginner. Even with just one leg he has the smoothest crawl I've ever seen. I jump in and we do laps together for a while with him beating me every time. I can't believe it. A one legged guy swimming good enough to beat me. Sure he's got muscles and he's bigger than me, but size isn't everything in swimming, and I thought kicking with just one leg would slow him down enough so maybe I'd take him on at least a lap or two.

I can tell I'm out of practice, because I'm a little tired when he finally stops and hoists himself to sit on the edge of the pool and looks down at me when I swim up and grab the edge of the pool.

"Had enough?"

I pull myself up beside him. "For now." The sun's beginning to get to me. "I'd better get in the shade. I haven't had a lot of sun this year."

He grabs his crutches and swings over to the chair on the patio he sat in yesterday. He throws me a big towel. "Dry off a little and get me a beer. You don't have anywhere else to go today, do you?"

I shake my head. "I can stay long as you want."

"Good. You want a real beer?"

"You mean it?"

"Yeah. Get one of the lites, though. The one I drink is too heavy for you. You remember where the mugs are?" I nod. "And get that bag of chips I left on the counter while you're at it. There's dip in the fridge, bring it and we'll party."

While I'm getting our beers, I ain't believing my luck in meeting a good lookin' stud who treats me like I'm old as he is. I really like being around somebody who don't treat me like a kid. Mark looks surprised when I take a big swig of my beer and don't choke on it. What he don't know is that I've always gotten a sip or two of the old man's when he wasn't looking. Boy, it's good after a swim on a hot day!

I'm so relaxed from the exercise and the beer I'm almost asleep when I hear Mark grunt. I look up and see him rubbing his stump.

"What's wrong?"

"It's cramping a little. Hurts like blazes."

"Want me to rub it for you?" He gives me that super smile again. "Would be nice." It's only a second, and I'm sitting on the patio rubbing his stump before he can change his mind. He stops me once to show me how it should be done, then leans back in the chair, the smile still on his face.

After a few minutes, he says, "You've got magic hands, Don." He looks me straight in the eyes. "You didn't mind touching it, did you?"

"No way. Your stump feels good, it's so smooth and all. I liked rubbing it for you."

Yeah, I sure did! My dream come true. He's watching me, grinning.

"I think we'd better go shower."

He picks up his crutches and goes in with me following behind to enjoy the view. We strip in his room and hit the shower. It must have been made for him special, because there's seat built in one side of the shower stall, but he doesn't sit on it. Instead, he leans against the wall and soaps up a cloth and begins to wash me. Then it's my turn. I wash him while he's standing on his one leg with one of his hands holding my shoulder for balance. I get a kick out of washing his stump. We hang on to each other for balance while the water pounds down on us from two of those pulsating showerheads. Finally I reach outside the shower to hand him his crutches so he can stand while I dry him off.

Back in his room, he drops his crutches and flops on his king-sized bed, then reaches out and pulls me down beside him. "You're a fantastic guy, Don. I never thought I'd find someone like you when we moved to this place."

"You! Man, where've you been all my life? I know I'm younger than you, so I hope that don't bother you too much." That smile again! I melt.

"I don't give a damn about your age, kid. I like being with you." Hearing that makes me forget how much I've missed the friends I used to have. This guy is all I'm interested in.

I put my hand back on the end of his stump and rub it a little.

"What happened to it?"

I see a shadow cross his face, and I'm sorry I asked, afraid I've screwed up like I usually do. My dad tells me I have a bad habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. I guess that's why most of my so-called friends call me Mr. Wrong.

"When I was about your age my dad bought me a motorbike. I liked to run it wide open, and I wasn't always careful. I met a truck on the road one day that was a hell of a lot bigger than my bike. I had two operations to save my leg, but this is the way it wound up. I don't even think about it any more, unless I'm using my crutches, 'cause I can't carry much when I walk on them. I use my leg most of the time, because dad gets upset if he sees me on crutches or my peg-leg. I like the peg-leg best, though." He grins at me. "It doesn't seem to bother you any."

I've got a catch in my throat, but I say, "No way. You're beautiful with the peg-leg on, but you're really sexy on your crutches. I don't like your leg because I can't tell your real one's gone."

"That's the way I want it, but you're okay, so I don't mind you seeing me without it. Want another beer?"

"Why not? I'll go get 'em."

I start to pull on my cut-offs, but he stops me. "No need to put anything on, there's nobody here but us. Don't bother with the mugs this time."

I sprint down to the kitchen and grab the beers from the fridge, then back up the stairs. Mark's sitting at his desk in front of a cool computer with a big monitor, like I hope Dad'll buy me. When I hand him his beer, he puts it on the desk, pulls me down on his lap, and says, "Since you appear to like amps so much, I got something to show you."

He puts his arms around me and hits a few keys. A site called The Secret Garden comes up, then a menu with a bunch of choices. "What'll it be, guy?"

I point to RAK like I know what it means. Mark clicks on it and the pictures come up. I can't believe they're all guys with their right leg cut off. Heaven can't be no better than this! I mean sitting on a beautiful one-legged guy's lap, his arms around me, and looking at lot of pictures of one-legged guys. The pictures are small, so I have to look close. Then I see one I really like.

"I sure wish that one was bigger."

Mark clicks on it and it comes up bigger.

"Nice," I say. "I wish there was some way I could have it too look at again."

A couple of clicks later, Mark asks me if there are any more I want to save. We spend over an hour going through all the pictures, saving a few more I specially like, then Mark closes the program.

"That all?" I'm a little disappointed.

"There are a lot more, but I'll save them for another time. Let's look at the ones you really liked." He brings up the first one, then hits the plus bar a few times. The picture fills the screen. Oh, man, it's nice to look at. After he lets me play around making the pictures bigger, then smaller, he shuts his computer down.

"Your favorites are saved in here. You have a computer at home?"

"Wish I did. Dad told me he'd get me one for my birthday."

"When you get it, I'll put the pictures we saved on a floppy so you can have them at home."

"Thanks, Mark. You're a great guy."

His arms tighten in a hug, making me feel great. Mark looks at me, serious like. "You don't mind, do you?"

I shake my head. "I got a picture at home of a one-legged guy looks almost like you, 'cept he's younger. That's why I was looking at you on the street. I look at his picture and dream about us being together."

Mark starts to laugh, which pisses me off a little, since he's the first guy I ever told about my dream.

"What's so damn funny?"

He leans over and kisses me. "It is a picture of me, you little idiot. There was a model agency in the city we used to live in. After the Disabilities Act was passed, they advertised for disabled people to use in ads, so I tried out after my stump healed up. They used that shot of me for a clothing ad. My dad didn't want people seeing pictures of me in magazines, so he wouldn't let me do any more modeling after that." He looked thoughtful. "It was kind of fun, though."

That blows me out of the water. My dream man, and I'm with him for real. "Have you got a copy of that picture?"

"I think I have, why?"

"The one I've got is falling apart. I'd sure like to have another."

"But you've seen me in person. Why do you want a picture now?"

"So I can put it up in my room to look at any time I want and remember today."

"You're a sweet kid. I'll see if I can find it for you. When you get your computer, I'll let you use my digital camera and take all the pictures of me you want."

"Oh, wow! You mean on your peg-leg and crutches and all?"

He grins. "I like a cute guy who admires me. You can take all the pictures you want, because we won't have a hassle about getting the film developed if you take some of me nude. But I'm warning you now, you'd better not show them to anyone else."

"No way. I got a great place to hide stuff. There's a loose board in my closet and I put stuff I don't want nobody seeing behind it." Thinking of all the great shots I'll have, I kiss him. This guy is fantastic.

"Why don't you call your folks and see if they'll let you stay the night?" Mark asks.

Oh, man, this is getting better and better.

"There's just my dad; my mom's dead."

"So's mine," he says sadly as I picked up the phone from the bedside table and call. My dad's busy with a client, but old Myrtle says she'll tell him I'm staying with Mark. Good enough. I know my dad won't care, especially since he's so happy at landing Mark's dad as a client. "It's all fixed," I tell him after I hang up.

His hand touches my cheek. "Great. Let's get dressed and go out to eat. I don't feel like messing in the kitchen."

"Suits me. Would you do me a favor?"

"Like what?"

"Leave your leg off and go on crutches. You're so damn beautiful that way."

He smiles. "Just for you, babe."

"We'll have to stop by my house so I can change clothes, too." I tell him while I watch him put on dark green slacks that match his eyes and a beautiful green and white knit shirt. I get a real kick when he asks me to pin up the empty leg of his slacks. I take care to get it as neat as I can, so Mark will look really sharp.

I'm a little disappointed when we go down and Mark gets in a big 4-door Mercedes. I thought for sure a guy like him would have a really cool set of wheels. My dad isn't home when we get to my house, so he doesn't know I having dinner with a great looking stud. I wish he had of been, because I know he'd proud of my making friends with an important client's son, even with the difference in our ages. I change into my best black slacks and a gray knit shirt, then throw a few things into my backpack. I almost bust with pride when I walk into the town's best restaurant with Mark and see everybody looking at us. I see one of my former friends at a table with his parents staring at us, so I can't resist thumbing my nose at him. 'Eat your heart out, turkey,' I say to myself as the maitre d' takes Mark and me to the best table in the place.

After we've ordered I can't take my eyes off Mark.

"Hunh?" He's kicked me under the table. Mark's grinning at me. "You still in this world?"

"I ..., I guess."

"Then let the waiter serve you."

I hadn't even noticed him waiting to set my plate in front of me.

"Oh!"

While we eat, Mark talks about swimming. Even with one leg, he was on the swimming team at the school he just graduated from. He's so cool about it all, I even tell him about my medal. I love him even more when he smiles and says, "I knew you were a winner when I first saw you." He refuses desert and asks for a cup of coffee. My dad has brought me here a couple of times on my birthdays, so I know the chocolate eclairs are beyond description.

"You should have gotten one of these, they're fantastic," I tell Mark.

"I try not to eat too many sweets, because I gain weight easily."

When we go back to his house, we go up to his room.

"Put on something else and I'll see if I can find that picture you want."

I'm out of my clothes in a flash, and pull on a pair of bush shorts. Mark's more careful about undressing. He puts on a pair of cut-off jeans, then asks me to get his peg-leg from the closet. I get a thrill when he stands and puts his hands on my shoulders while he slips his stump in place and lets me tighten the straps around it. I let my hand stroke the little bit of his stump above the leather, then move it down the peg. Mark raises one eyebrow.

"This is beautiful. I never saw one for real before, except for when I was a little. It was an old man, but I think his peg-leg went from his knee down because he had a little bit of leg sticking out behind it."

Mark says, "Yeah. I know the type you mean."

"I didn't know they made 'em like yours."

Mark laughs. "They don't in this country, as far as I know. Dad took me with him to Europe last summer when he went on business. One afternoon while he was in a meeting I was looking around some and happened to pass a prosthetics shop. I went in and asked if they made peg-legs for stumps like mine. The guy showed me one he was working on. I liked it, so I had him make one for me. I had to slip away from my dad a couple of times for fittings, but the guy did a super job. It's much more comfortable than my leg."

"But you said your dad got upset if he saw you using crutches or your peg-leg."

"He does. But he didn't know I had gotten it until it was too late, because I had them send it here so he wouldn't see it until after we were home. He saw me with it one day and didn't like it. I guess it makes him feel guilty about my leg because he gave me the motorbike right after mom died. He thinks it's his fault I got hurt. I never could make him understand that it wasn't, or that I didn't feel that way." Mark smiles. "You really like it, don't you?"

"I sure do. You look beautiful on it."

He ruffles my hair again. "Let's go get that picture, guy."

I follow him down to the basement. It's a big room with a great stereo system and an unbelievable projection TV with surround sound, the whole nine yards. He opens another door, and takes me in a darkroom.

"Photography is one of my hobbies." He tells me when I say something. "I think the negatives are in a file here." He finally holds up a slide. "I'd forgotten it's a slide, It'll be easier to print in Cibachrome. How big you want it?"

I can't believe my luck. "Life size."

Mark laughs. "I've got some good equipment, but not that good. Ten by twelve is the best I can do."

"Great. Could you make me two?"

"Why?"

"So I don't have to ask you for another if anything happens to it."

"Anything for my buddy."

Oh, man! He's calling me buddy. I hope he means it, cause I don't need another friend, 'cept him. It takes about an hour, but when he hands me the prints, the colour is perfect, and they're a lot clearer than the picture I have. I hug him. "Thanks, Mark. These are great."

He slips the prints in an envelope and ruffles my hair again. "Glad you like 'em. Let's go up."

When we're back in his room, he strips, then looks at me. "Want to take my peg off?"

Do I ever! I open the straps, then put his peg-leg in the closet and bring his crutches back like he asked. He leans them against the nightstand. "Need 'em sometimes at night," he explains, then lays back against the pillows. "Don't keep me waiting, buddy."

I strip fast and lay down beside him. He kisses me, then pulls me into his arms. Now I know how a stick of butter must feel when it's melting, cause I'm weak and quivery inside.

"Why do you like being with me so much? Certainly you have friends your own age."

"You know that guy in the restaurant tonight? He used to be my best friend, so I touched him one time. He hit me and he said he wasn't no queer, and he ain't had nothing to do with me since. I guess he told some of the other guys cause they don't like me neither." I hug him. "You're the only friend I got."

He hugs me tightly. "I love you, babe."

I've wanted him to say that so bad, I start to cry. He hugs me against his awesome bod and rubs my back. "Don't cry, buddy. I'll always be your friend."

When I pull myself together, I kiss him. "I'm glad, you know, after all the times I've dreamed about us being together."

He smiles. "Then I'm glad you found me."

I want to make him feel good as I do. I pull out of his arms and turn so I can get to his awesome stump. I rub it first, then put my hand under it and lift so's I can kiss it on the end. When I do, Mark lets out a gasp.

"Did I hurt it?"

"It felt wonderful. I didn't know it was so sensitive because nobody's ever kissed it before. Do it again."

I kiss it, then begin to nuzzle it. Mark makes a little sound and lays back on the pillow with a big smile. I'm still stroking his stump in a dream all my own.

Suddenly he spins me around and kisses me. "You're so beautiful, babe. I've never been touched like that before."

"I thought a stud like you would have to beat off lovers." He doesn't smile like I thought he would, but hugs me close. "I had sex with several guys at school, but I never thought a young guy on his first time would teach me something like you did when you touched my stump."

"You don't care I like to touch it?"

He finally smiles, then lifts his stump. "You can touch it any time you want."

"I wish I knew what it was like."

"What?"

"Having a stump."

"Are you serious?"

"Yeah. Yours looks so cool."

"Let's see what I can do about that."

He grabs his crutches and goes to the closet. He comes back holding a pair of wooden crutches that look like they've had a lot of hard use.

"I had these when I was your age, so they should be just about right for you. Long as you're going to do this, let's do it right. Turn over so you're face down."

He pulls my right leg up and tapes my foot against my butt. He helps me stand, and backs off for a look.

"You're a cute guy, Don, you look good with one leg."

"I wish I could see."

"No problem."

He uses the tip of his crutch to swing the closet door open wide. There's a full-length mirror on it. I hobble over and stand in front of it, with him standing behind me. Mark reaches down and rubs my knee, then runs his hand up my leg.

"That's a nice stump you have there, babe. You ever try this before?"

I shake my head. "Never had any crutches."

"You can have those if you want. They're too short for me now."

"Thanks. I can't take 'em home cause my old man'll see 'em. Can I leave 'em here for when I come see you?"

"Sure. Want something to drink before we go to bed?"

"Yeah. I'm kinda thirsty."

"Okay. Put your shorts on, and we'll go get something."

He puts on a pair of shorts and grabs his crutches. I find out how hard it is to use crutches, specially when I try going down the stairs. He fixes us some cocoa which tastes awfully good. I like it when he sits beside me with his arm around my shoulders while we drink it. After I struggle back up the stairs, I take off my shorts and let him take the tape off my foot.

"How'd you like having to use crutches?"

"It was a lot tougher than you make it look. No wonder you've got muscles in your arms. I guess if I used them a lot like you do it would help my swimming."

He grins. "That's one way to build endurance. I'm glad you like me like I am, but be glad you've got both legs, babe."

After we get another shower, we hit the bed. I've never been so happy in my life as I am snuggling against the man of my dreams.





 

"Up and at 'em, babe."

I open my eyes, disoriented for a second by the strange surroundings, then I see Mark standing by the bed. "Hi," is the best I can manage.

"Your dad just called, Don. He has some errands for you to run. Get dressed and we'll have some breakfast before you go."

"What time is it?"

Mark smiles. "Nine. You usually sleep this late?"

"When I can get away with it. I have to be up at seven when I'm in school."

He slaps me lightly on my butt. "Move it. I'll be down in the kitchen."

When I've washed up and dressed I go down to find Mark sitting at the table with a cup of tea and the morning paper. The cook is standing by the stove. Mark smiles at me. "What you want for breakfast, babe?"

"Most anything. What are you having?"

"Melon, then eggs Benedict. Sound okay?"

"Sure." I haven't the faintest idea what eggs Benedict are, but I'll go with anything Mark likes. The cook sets slices of honeydew in front of us. My first bite is fantastic. I don't often get any this good. When I've finished, the cook sets a plate in front of me. I watch Mark cut into his, and take a bite, then I copy him. There's a half English muffin, then something like ham but better, topped off with a poached egg and covered with some kind of cream sauce. "Oh, wow! This is great." I tell him.

"And fattening. You've never had them before?"

I shake my head while I'm cramming another fork-full in my mouth. He grins at the cook.

"Looks like you've got another fan, Nettie. You've out done yourself this morning."

"I like to see growin' boys eat."

For sure I could eat her cooking any time. Our cleaning woman can't cook for beans, which is just as well, or I'd miss eating with my dad at a restaurant. When I finish, I tell Nettie I enjoyed it. She smiles and says she hopes Mark will ask me back. I'm hoping he will, too. It's going to ruin my day to leave him, but he grins when I tell him.

"I'll take you to your dad's office."

"I've got my bike."

"No trouble. I'll put it in the back of my car."

Car? When I wheel my bike to the garage, Mark opens one of the doors and backs out a sharp Mercedes sports convertible. It's an awesome shade of green, just like his eyes. He lifts my ten-speed in the back and we take off, with me praying some of my former friends will see me. He parks at my dad's office and gets out to help me with my bike. When I've chained it to the rack, I expect him to take off, but he puts his arm around my shoulder. "I'm going in with you. I want to meet your father."

Mark's wearing his leg, neat slacks, and a soft sports shirt. Old Myrtle's mouth drops wide open when we walk in.

"Does Mr. Wright happen to be free?" Mark asks.

"May I say who's calling?"

"Mark Prentice."

When he turns up that smile I can tell she's beginning to drool. She picks up the phone and speaks to dad. I guess he thought it was Mark's dad, because he's out of his office before she even hangs up.

"Mr. Prentice? I'm Donald Wright. Has Don bothered you in any way?"

"On the contrary, sir. I wanted to compliment you on your fine son, and thank you for letting him spend the day and evening with me. He's excellent company and it's a pleasure for me to find someone who shares interests of mine, especially swimming. I hope you will permit him to visit us often, for he's welcome to use our pool any time."

"You are very generous. I know Don would like to get in more practice, but you must not let him become a nuisance."

Mark gives my old man one of his killer smiles.

"Not at all. I haven't had an opportunity to meet anyone my age as yet, so I have enjoyed Don's company. I'm sorry to have disturbed you, but I felt I should introduce myself so you will know with whom your son is spending his time."

"That's very considerate of you, Mr. Prentice. I appreciate it."

"Thank you for seeing me, and please call me Mark, sir."

Dad nudges me to walk out with Mark. When he gets in his car, Mark hands me a card. "Call me any time. This number is my private line. I've got an answering machine, so leave your name if I don't answer."

I want to kiss him good-bye, but I know old Myrtle is probably looking out the window at us, so I shake his hand. I almost cry when he drives away. I drag back in, wondering what my old man wants. The minute I walk back in the door, Myrtle points to my old man's office, and my heart sinks. This is always a bad sign. I go in and my dad closes the door, looking like he just won lawyer-of-the-year or something.

"I couldn't have asked for you to find a finer young man to be your friend than Mark Prentice, but isn't he quite a bit older than you?"

"He just graduated from high school."

Dad looks relieved.

"I suppose it's the way he carries himself, because he looks older, but three years isn't that much. Be on your best behavior when you're at their house. Mark's father is the most important client I've ever had, so please don't upset him."

"I won't. He was out of town last night."

"I know. Mark was very kind to ask you to stay with him. I don't know when I've been so impressed by someone his age. You can learn a lot from him."

"I can go back to see him?"

"Of course. Just don't make a pest of yourself. Now, Myrtle has the papers I want you to deliver. We'll go to lunch when you get back." I'm really disappointed when Dad won't let me go back to Mark's after lunch, so I go home and look at the new picture he gave me, so I can dream about the most beautiful day of my life. I can still feel those strong arms of his around me. If I get a computer for my birthday like I hope, I'm going to fill it with pictures of him.

The next day I have to cut the lawn again. I knew the fertilizer dad made me put on it two months ago was going to be a problem. I'm hot and sweaty when I finish and nothing would thrill me more than jumping in Mark's pool, but my old man has told me not to go again until I'm asked. I shower and ride my bike downtown to see if there are any new mags at the newsstand. I thumb through several and even find a picture of a guy with one leg, but he's too old and no match for Mark in the looks department, so I go back home and read a book until my dad comes home with some take-out for dinner. He calls, "Didn't you check the answering machine?"

"Nothing on it before I went downtown."

"You have one from Mark Prentice."

"Okay."

I trash my room trying to find the card he gave me, but it's the one place I didn't think to look 'til last. It's pinned to the board over my desk.

"Mark wants me to spend the day with him tomorrow and have dinner tomorrow night. Is it okay with you?"

Dad nods. "Fine. I don't have anything for you to do tomorrow, so have a good time."

The gates are closed when I get to Mark's. I'm about to leave when I spot the little intercom box set in one of the posts. I press the button and wait.

"Yes?" It isn't Mark's voice. I feel stupid talking to a box.

"Ugh, Don Wright. Is Mark home?"

"Just a moment," the voice answers, then the gates swing open.

By the time I'm at the door, Nettie opens it. "Mark's in his room. Go on up."

"Hey, guy, come on in." Mark calls when I tap on his door. He's lying on his bed with nothing on.

"You sick?"

"Of waiting for you. Get out of those clothes and come here."

I strip fast as I can and flop down next to him. The next minute I'm being smothered in kisses, which I'm happy to return.

"Why didn't you come yesterday?" He asks.

"I wanted to, but my dad said I couldn't until you asked me."

"Damn. I'll ask dad to talk to him."

"He'll do that?"

Mark hugs me again.

"Hey, if it's reasonable, he'll do anything I ask. He wants his poor little one-legged boy to be happy." Mark grins. "And you know how to make this one-legged boy real happy, babe."

"Yeah!" I roll around fast. His stump is just waiting for loving. Much as I love the feelings I get when we're making love; the world could crash down around me and I wouldn't notice long as I'm in his arms.

I'm almost asleep, when Mark sits up.

"Swim?"

"Yeah. I could use a few rays, too."

I still get a kick out of watching him crutch down the stairs, his muscled leg moving so easy, but it's his slender stump I can't keep my eyes off. I wish I had one, too. It's only ten, but the day's turning into a scorcher. The water feels great when I jump in. I begin to take notice of Mark's swimming style. He doesn't lift his arms as high out of the water as I do, and his muscles really bulge when he strokes. He kicks effortlessly with his leg, but I see his stump is moving, too. Just looking at it is unbelievable.

A few more laps, then Mark and I sprawl out on an air mattress to catch some rays. I'm about asleep when I hear the door from the house close and see Mark's dad walking toward us.

"Mark?"

Mark sits up.

"Sir?"

"I'm going out of town this afternoon. I won't be back until Sunday night. Why don't you ask your young friend if he would like to stay with you?"

I stand up quick.

"I'd like to, sir, but you'll have to ask my dad."

Mr. Prentice smiles at me.

"I already have, son. In fact, he's going with me. I want him to visit our home offices, but he was about to turn me down because you had nowhere to stay."

"Gee, thanks, sir."

"Mark will take you home to get your things. I'll ask Nettie to make up the room next to his for you."

"I'll take Don home as soon as we get dressed. Thanks, dad."

Mark waits until his dad has gone back in the house before he holds out his hand for me to pull him up. He grins. "Gonna be fun, babe, specially since I'm giving Nettie the weekend off. Let's get going."

We get a quick shower and dress. I want Mark to use his crutches, but he puts on his leg.

"Look, babe, if your dad knows I don't have but one leg, he might not let you stay."

"He won't care."

Mark shakes his head. "He'll be worried I can't take care of you if something were to happen. It wasn't 'til we moved here that dad would let me stay alone. He always got some guy from a temporary help agency to stay with me."

"How come he doesn't now?"

Mark grins.

"I caught the last guy he hired trying to steal some stuff and called the cops. I got dad's gun and held it on him 'til they got there. Dad said if I was smart enough to do that, I was okay by myself, specially since this place has better security."

"Wow! You really did that?"

"Yeah. You read a lot?"

"What's that got to do with anything?"

"Then you ought to know some of the tough guys in books have one leg, like Long John Silver and some pirates."

"I used to wish there were more books with one-legged guys in 'em, but not now." I give him my best grin. "I got you, and you're a lot better, cause you're real."

He hugs me.

"Let's go, babe."

My old man's home packing when we get there. He pulls me into his bedroom. "I want you to be on your best behavior while you're at the Prentice's, Don. If things work out, this could be the best thing ever happened to me."

"You know I will. Mark's like really cool. I hope everything goes the way you want it to."

He doesn't often, but this time dad hugs me.

"Thanks, son. Be sure to set the alarm and lock the door when you leave."

"I will."

Mark helps me pack my stuff and we take off. Soon as we're back at his house, he takes off his clothes and puts on a pair of bush shorts like mine and his peg-leg.

"What you want to do, babe?"

"I don't care. Can I use your crutches?"

"It's about time for lunch. After we eat, I'll tell Nettie she can go, then you can do what you want."

"Great."

Lunch is a big plate of chicken salad, potato salad, chips, the dill pickles I love, and a beer. All of it tastes a lot better than what the old man and I get at the deli, and no beer there. Soon as we hear Nettie drive off, we go back to Mark's room and he helps me put my leg up again. He shows me how to use his old crutches correctly, and we go down for a walk around the garden. It doesn't take me long to get used to them, but I'd sure love to have a peg-leg like his. We go for another swim, and I put my leg back up after we shower. Mark says I shouldn't, but I'm having too much fun.

"I'm gonna have one leg like you the whole time I'm here. If I could make it look real, I'd go out with you if you used your crutches, too."

"You're kidding?"

"Try me. You're so beautiful, I want everybody to see you."

"Damn it, babe, what are you trying to do to me? I don't like people staring at me because of my leg."

"Ain't your leg they're looking at, it's you. Just like I was that day on the street. Jeez, you're good looking."

He hugs me.

"Damn, guy! You can be weird, but I love you."

I hug him back.

"Make me look one-legged for real."

He thinks for a few minutes.

"Just might be able to. You got any of those baggy pants the kids are wearing now?"

"No way. My old man would kill me."

"Come on up to the attic with me. I think I've got a pair might fit you, if the moths haven't done 'em in. I got 'em in Holland when I got my peg." Mark opens an old trunk and pulls out a pair of slacks in a dark night-watch plaid. "They still look good. Just about your size, too." He looks at me with a serious expression. "You really want to do this?"

"Yeah. Long as it's someplace nobody knows me."

Back in his room, Mark tapes my foot flat against my butt, which is easy cause I'm almost double jointed, then takes one of his old stretch socks and cuts the foot off it. The sock is big enough to go over his muscular leg, so it goes over my doubled up leg tight enough to hold it in place. He helps me pull on the slacks and pins up the empty part. No matter which way I turn in front of the mirror, I can't tell my leg's not gone for real. He's grinning.

"Last chance, babe."

"You get dressed. I gonna love this."

I put on my dark blue knit shirt that matches the blue in the slacks. By the time I've combed my hair and pin up Mark's slacks leg, I can't believe how good we both look.

"Where we going?" I ask when he starts his car.

"Out to dinner and maybe take in a flick."

"What if somebody I know sees me?"

"Not where we're going. Relax."

I do when he turns onto the interstate. He's heading toward a city about forty minutes away. Not a chance I'll see anybody I know. As we're nearing town, he picks up his car phone and calls a restaurant. The way this guy operates blows me away. I'll never be cool as him if I live to be a hundred, and he's only got three years on me.

When Mark stops in front of the restaurant, the parking attendant runs over with a big grin and high-fives Mark.

"Man, I been missing this beauty ever since you moved."

"Yeah, Freddie. Same rules, too. Put a scratch on it and your ass is grass."

"Not a chance. You know I'll take care of you."

Mark has to help me out, and grins as the kid's mouth drops open when he sees my stump.

"Yeah, Freddie, my buddy's only got one, too."

The maitre d' smiles at us.

"Nice to see you again, Mr. Prentice. Your usual table?"

"A quiet booth where we can talk, please, Andr?."

"Of course, sir."

I'd give anything to walk as smooth and look as cool on crutches as Mark does, but I have to watch what I'm doing. We're shown to a small semi-enclosed booth.

"You okay, babe?" Mark asks me.

"Yeah. Just trying not to fall and embarrass you."

He winks at me. "You're doing great to be such a new amputee. I was clumsy as they come for about three months. I embarrassed hell out of the old man one night. We went out to dinner and I had to take a leak. On the way back from the restroom, I slipped and knocked a busboy down. Wouldn't have been so bad if he hadn't been carrying a tray load of dishes." He grins. "Of course it just had to be the fanciest fucking place in town."

"You didn't."

"The hell I didn't. People stayed out of my way after that."

I let Mark order for both of us. He looks at a card the waiter holds out and orders a half bottle of wine. The waiter comes back with the bottle in a cooler and opens it, pouring a tiny bit into a glass. Mark sniffs it, then tastes it and nods. When the waiter has gone, Mark pours a glass for me. I think it tastes kind of sour.

"What is it?" I ask him after the waiter has set our plates in front of us.

"Mushrooms stuffed with crab imperial."

Mushrooms aren't my favorite food, but one bite of these convinces me I've been missing something.

"Great!" He smiles. "Thought you would like them. I like mushrooms most any way, but Nettie won't cook them unless the old man tells her to. She says they're toadstools and likely to poison us."

"I never liked 'em much 'til now, but these are super." I take a sip of wine since I don't have anything else to drink. It tastes better now. For once I don't want anything sweet, so we skip desert and leave. We get some looks since the place has filled up while we were eating, but I try to match Mark's cool.

We hear a motor roar, tires squeal, then Mark's car stops right beside us.

"Damn it, Freddie, I'm going to make you buy the next set of tires this thing needs." Mark says with a smile.

"Let me borrow it for a weekend, and you got a deal."

"When hell freezes over." Mark slips him some money.

The kid grins. "Only automatic I know can get rubber. Don't be so long coming back, man. I've missed driving this beauty."

"Let's mall crawl, babe," Mark says when we're in the car.

"Whatever."

The parking lot at the mall is full, so Mark pulls into an open space and takes a handicapped emblem from the glove box and lays it on the dash. I wait while he puts the top up and raises the windows. "Tell me when you get tired, babe. Crutches don't bother me."

"Okay."

There are lots of people in the mall, and the way they look at us then look away quickly makes me want to leave, but Mark stays cool. He walks slower than usual so I can keep up. Suddenly, he swings over to a guy about my age who's looking at some CD's in a music store and taps him on the shoulder. "How's it going, Tony?"

The guy's face breaks into a big smile. "Mark! Damn, it's good to see you. How you doing?"

"Great. Want you to meet my buddy. This is Don. Don, Tony."

I hold out my hand, but feel cold steel. I look down and see the kid's got a hook on his right arm. I'm not quite sure what I should do, but I give it a shake. Must have been right because the guy smiles at me.

"You're okay." He looks back at Mark. "Found yourself another amp."

Mark grins. "Why not? Hell, we had a lot of fun, didn't we?"

He suddenly looks sad.

"Yeah. Wish I was having some now."

Part 2
1  3

Mark puts his arm around the guy's shoulders.

"Let's get a cup of cappuccino."

We walk on through the mall 'til we come to a small coffee shop. We grab a table toward the back and Mark orders three cappuccinos. When the waitress sets them in front of us and goes away, Tony picks up his cup with his left hand.

"Use your hook, buddy." Mark orders.

Tony shakes his head. Mark reaches over and grabs his hand.

"You won't ever learn 'til you use it. It was the same with my leg."

Tony lifts his head; I see tears in his eyes. "You're lucky. When you use your leg nobody can tell." He pulls the hook out of his pocket and puts his arm on the table. "This thing's so fuckin' ugly."

Mark squeezes his hand. "It's not beautiful, but it'll be useful if you learn. Drink your cappuccino before it gets cold. Don and I don't care about your hook."

The poor guy's a little awkward, but he picks up the cup with his hook and takes a sip. "So how come you ain't wearing your leg, Mark?"

Mark puts his arm around my shoulder. "Don hasn't gotten one yet. This is his first time out and I didn't want him to feel self-conscious."

Tony looks at me. "Mark's a great guy. He made me go out with him after they cut off my hand. He used crutches then, too." He gives a tiny smile. "After they took the bandages off my arm, he sure did love to rub it."

I grin. "I like to play with his stump, too."

Tony shakes his head. "Where'd you find a guy like this? Damn, I sure miss the fun we had. Wish I could find somebody who liked my arm."

"Damn it, Tony, it's a stump. Get used to it."

He shakes his head. "Can't."

"Yeah you will. Took me a while, too. Hell, my old man still won't look at it."

"I know. I try to keep it hidden, cause my mom still cries every time she sees it."

"You working anywhere?" Tony shakes his head again. "Nobody wants a one armed guy."

"Good. Go home and pack some stuff and come spend a couple of days with Don and me. It'll be just the three of us. My old man's out of town."

"You mean it?"

"I sure do. Let me draw you a map."

Mark takes a paper napkin out of the holder and draws a map from the interstate to his house. He hands it to Tony.

"There's an intercom in the gatepost. Push the button and wait for me to answer."

Tony finally smiles like he did when he saw Mark in the music store.

"Thanks."

"Get your lazy ass moving, guy. I'm giving you two hours, then I'm sending out a search party."

Tony drinks the last of his cappuccino, and says, "See you guys shortly."

While we're driving home he reaches over and squeezes my hand.

"Sorry, babe, but I had to ask him. He's in a bad way."

"How can you tell?"

"I saw him look that way just after they took his hand off. The hospital called me to talk to him because we're about the same age. He was thinking about killing himself. Be good to him for me."

"But what's he gonna think when he finds out I got both legs."

"I think he'll be okay. Hell, might even help if he thinks you like amps enough to pretend to be one. He just can't get used to people looking at his hook. I've tried to tell him it's more obvious when he keeps it in his pocket and only uses his left hand, but he can't see it that way."

"Jeez. Would I feel that way if my leg was really gone?"

Mark rubs my leg. "After tonight I doubt it. You really carried it off, babe. Hell, I didn't even think about it with all those people around. Like being an amp?"

"It's different. Crutches made my arms a little sore."

"Wait 'til you get your muscles toned up. You can't pretend while Nettie's around because she's seen you, so you'll have to wait until after she goes home."

"Long as Tony don't care. I don't want him to feel bad."

Mark slows, then leans over and kisses me. "God, you're a sweet kid. No wonder I love you."

"Keep your eyes on the road, fellow. You can have desert later." I can see Mark's grin in the glow of the dash lights.

"Yeah. Maybe even a double serving."

"Tony's queer, too?"

Mark whips the car off the road and onto the shoulder, stopping so fast the car skids a little. He grabs my face with both hands and jerks me toward him. "Don't you ever call me that again! I'll kill you if you do!" He screams.

Mark's scaring me shitless.

"Wha ... wha..."

"I'm not queer! Tony's not, and you're too young to know what you are. If you don't know, the word is gay, but I don't want to hear that either. Some things are best kept quiet. You got it?"

I start to cry. "I ... I'm sorry, Mark. I ... I love you."

He hugs me tight. "God, I'm sorry, babe. I didn't mean to scare you like that. I just go ballistic when I hear that word." He kisses me. "I'll tell you about it sometime. Let's get home."

He starts the engine, but I hear him mutter, "Oh shit."

He switches the motor off. I hear a tapping on the window and when Mark lowers it there's a state cop shining his flashlight on us.

"Would you get out of the car, please?" He asks Mark.

"Yes, sir."

The cop steps back. Mark opens the door and stands up on his one leg, leans against his car, then hands the cop his driver's license. The cop looks at it, then shines his light on me.

"Damn! The kid's lost a leg, too?"

"Yes, sir. Happened just recently. I took him to dinner in Raleigh. This is the first time he's been out since it happened."

"Why were you parked?"

"We're on our way home. Don was upset from the way people looked at us and started crying, so I stopped for a minute."

The cop shakes his head. "I'd stare, too. Don't see two nice looking one-legged kids like you every day." He hands Mark his license. "Drive careful, Mark, and pick a better place to stop next time."

"I will. Thank you, sir."

Mark gets back in and pulls off when the cop makes a U-turn.

"Sure glad you've got one leg, too, babe." He laughs. "Shook hell out of that cop when he saw us."

"That was some wild story you told him. Wish I could think that fast."

"I had to tell him something. If he knew you were crying because of me, he'd of hauled my ass off to jail." He grabs my hand and squeezes it. "I'm Sorry, babe. Just don't ever say that word again."

"I won't."

What with getting stopped and all, we aren't back at Mark's more than twenty minutes before a buzzer lets go. Mark goes to the intercom.

"That you, Tony?"

"Yeah."

"Put your car in front of the garage. I'll turn on the lights."

He presses a couple of buttons.

"Let's go meet him. He's never been here before."

There are so many lights, the yard is almost bright as day. Tony leaves his old car in the drive and gets out. I see him slide his hook in his pocket and reach for his bag with his hand. Then he walks toward us, looking at the house. "Man, this place is awesome. I didn't know you was so rich, Mark."

"It's just a house. Come on in."

When Tony starts to walk by, Mark reaches over and pulls Tony's hook out. "No hiding it while you're here. You're going to use it, buddy."

Tony stares at him for a minute. "Goin' to make me whether I want to or not, just like you used to, ain't you?"

"You got it." Mark hugs him.

"Come on and we'll put your stuff in my room."

The hall floor's so polished, my crutches slip when I start to turn at the stairs. Mark grabs me to keep me from falling.

"Clumsy." Tony snickers.

Mark grins at him.

"That's better, buddy. Got to laugh when we screw up, don't we?"

"Guess so."

"Damn right. Beats crying about something we can't help. Come on."

Tony sets his bag down and looks around Mark's room.

"Fantastic man. That's a great computer."

"It's okay. Tomorrow I'm gonna show you some things; see if you like them much as Don. Want a beer before we hit the sack?"

"If you're gonna have one."

"Okay."

We go back down to the kitchen and sit at the table. Mark hands Tony and me lites, then gets the one he likes.

"Hunh, unh, buddy," he says to Tony, "hook."

"Forgot."

I'm fascinated by Tony's hook. The prongs make a circle before they come together at the tips. He opens it and grabs the can which fits in the hook nicely. He pops the top and takes a drink.

"Good."

"Looks like you've gotten some practice." Mark says.

Tony grins. "On soda cans when there ain't nobody around."

"How you make it work like that?" I ask.

Tony looks sad and releases the can. He starts to put his hook down where I can't see it, but Mark grabs it. "No way. Don's never seen one before. He's just curious like I was."

Oh, shit! My big mouth's done it again. "I'm sorry, Tony."

He looks at me. "''S okay. It makes me different and I hate it."

"We are different, Tony. When you going to get used to it?"

"I don't know."

"Look, buddy, don't let it get to you. Don's just learning a lot of things. He even taught me something, and I thought I knew it all. Loosen up and have some fun. You might learn something, too."

"If you say so."

"I do. Let's hit the sack."

"Where'm I gonna sleep?" Tony asks when we're back in Mark's room.

Mark grins at him. "You forget that quick?"

Tony smiles. "Naa, but what about Don?"

"Same place. Bed's big enough. You two guys aren't that big."

I can tell Tony's surprised.

"You mean ..." Mark winks at Tony.

"Yeah. You're going to start learning real soon. Help him undress, Don."

"I don't need no help."

"Let the kid get his kicks, buddy. I guarantee he'll surprise you."

I unbutton Tony's long sleeve shirt and help him out of it, then look at the straps and stuff that holds his hook in place.

"What I do now?"

"Slip the strap off my shoulder and undo this." He points to a leather cuff on his upper arm. When I've done that, he holds out the hook. "Pull on it." It slips off easy. He watches me turning it every which way to see how it's made.

"Sure is complicated."

"It's a pain in the ass, too. Wish it had been my leg instead."

I lay his hook on Mark's desk, and reach for his stump, but he pulls it back. When Mark nods, I grab it and lift it so's I can see it up close. Looks like they cut his hand off just at the wrist. I like the way the bones spread a little at the end. I kiss it on the scar.

"Well, shit," I hear Tony say.

When I look at him he's staring at me.

"Like it, Don? Mark asks me.

"Yeah. Looks real nice. Thanks, Tony."

I see tears. "I ain't believing you kissed it. It's so damn ugly."

"Nothin' ugly about you." I squeeze his stump. "Specially this."

Suddenly, he's hugging me.

"You're the first one ever liked my arm, 'cept Mark. I like you, kid."

While I finish taking his clothes off, Mark strips.

"Man, you're beautiful as ever," Tony tells him.

"Not bad yourself. Sit on the bed and watch me undress Don."

I love the way Mark's hands feel me up when he's undressing me, but when he drops my slacks, I hear Tony say, "Shit, man. What's the kid doing playing like his leg's gone when it ain't?"

"Cause he's got a thing about stumps. Surprised me, too, at first, but he really knows how to turn me on playing with mine."

Tony's eyes are wide.

"You don't mind?"

"Mind, hell. He makes me glad I've got one."

"No way."

Mark lifts me up so I can kick my slacks out of the way. "Go get him, tiger."

My leg's gone to sleep, cause I can't feel it, so I hop across to the bed and flop down next to Tony. I grab his stump and kiss it, then begin to nuzzle it. It's not long before Tony's smiling like Mark does. When I kiss his stump on the end and turn loose, Tony holds it up looking at it like he's never seen it before. "How the hell ..."

"Learn something?" Mark asks.

"Jeez! How's he do it?"

"Damned if I know, but when he's here, I'm sure glad I got a stump for him to play with."

Tony's still staring at his stump, so I lean over and kiss it again, brushing my lips along the scar. "It's cool, guy. I like it a lot."

He starts to cry, and Mark grabs him in a hug. "It's okay, babe. Let go."

The feeling's come back in my leg enough for me to walk, but it feels like there's thousands of little needles sticking it. I go in the bath to brush my teeth and get ready for bed. When I come out, Tony's quit crying, but Mark still has his arms wrapped around him. Mark gives me a smile and nods, so I get in on the far side of the bed. I want to be next to Mark, but I can tell he wants Tony between us. Tony pulls away from Mark and goes to the bath. I can hear him peeing, then water running, so he's washing up. Mark gets up and Tony slides into the bed next to me. He props up on his elbow and looks into my eyes, then kisses me.

"Mark sure knows a great guy when he sees one. How you do it? Nobody's ever made me feel like that before."

I grab his stump and kiss it again.

"I don't know, but I sure do like touching a guy's stump."

Tony's hand slips under the sheet and wraps around me. "Damn if you don't. Why's it happen?"

I shake my head. "Don't know, but it has ever since I was a little guy, specially if the guy's good looking like you and Mark."

"You're too good to be true, kid." He holds up his stump. "You've almost got me liking this."

I pull it down and kiss it again, then rub my finger along the scar. "You should, it's beautiful."

Tony drops his head back on the pillow with a smile. "It feels good when you rub it."

Mark comes back and lays down beside Tony. "How you feel, buddy?"

"Incredible."

Tony wakes up first the next morning and wakes me with a kiss and a big smile.

"Man, I thought I was dreaming last night, but you're still here."

"I had my dreams before I went to sleep." I pull his stump up and kiss it. "Morning, beautiful thing," I say and nuzzle it a little.

When Mark mumbles something, I nuzzle his stump, too. It wakes him. He shakes his head, then smiles. "Now that's an alarm clock I wanna keep."

Tony rolls over and kisses him. "Tell me where I can buy one like it."

Mark grins. "Sorry, man, it's one of a kind." He looks at the clock. "Hate to stop this party before it gets started, but Nettie's probably got breakfast ready." He swats me on my butt. "You go first."

"Hunh, unh. Let's all get in the shower. It's big enough."

Tony grins. "Yeah! Let the kid wash us."

This is one job I wish I could keep forever, getting to put my hands all over two cool studs. I save their stumps 'til last, then give them all the gentle attention they deserve. I wash Tony's stump last and kiss it. He stares at it for a moment, then grins at Mark.

"Hey, the kid's about to convince me this ain't too bad."

Mark leans over and kisses him.

"Told you you'd learn something from him."

Tony hugs me.

"You can teach me anytime, kid. I like you."

"I like you, too."

"All right, you guys, knock off the mutual admiration. Time to eat, and I mean breakfast."

We all put on shorts and T-shirts. Mark puts on his peg-leg and makes Tony put on his hook. Nettie doesn't look surprised to see Tony. She just sets another place, hands out slices of melon, and starts making hot cakes and frying up little breakfast sausages. I can tell from the way Mark's looking at Tony he's proud Tony's holding the fork in his hook to eat and doesn't seem to think about it. Though he's not any bigger than me, Tony eats as much as Mark and me put together. He finally shakes his head when Nettie offers him more.

"Thanks a lot, but I've got enough. Sure was good."

"I've never seen you eat like that, buddy." Mark says a little later.

"Haven't felt much like eating 'til now."

We split the sections of the morning paper between us, and read while drinking our tea, 'cept for Tony who's having coffee.

"Swim?" Mark asks.

"Sure."

"Aw, hell, I didn't bring my trunks," Tony says.

"I got an extra pair of Speedos you can use," I tell him. When we got up to change and I hand them to him, he looks them over. "Damn! You sure these things are big enough to hide anything?"

"All competition swimmers wear 'em."

Tony grins at me.

"Maybe I ought to start swimming more often."

He holds out his hook. "Do your job, kid."

I take it slow, enjoying myself. "What you taking so long for? I can do it a lot faster by myself."

I grin. "Making the fun last long as I can."

The minute I've got his hook off, he hits me lightly on the top of my head with his stump.

"Sheesh! Some fun."

Tony can't swim worth a damn, so after Mark and I get in some laps I splash Tony and we get to horsing around in the shallow end. Mark gets out of the pool and calls Tony to help me spread out the big air-mattress. We all catch some rays, until Nettie tells Mark it's almost time for lunch. We grab a quick shower and, after I help Tony put his hook back on, we go down for lunch. Cold salad plates again, but it's good as ever.

"Okay, buddy, show time." Mark tells Tony. He starts his computer and brings up those pictures again, only this time they're all guys with their right arms missing.

"Shit, man, these guys for real?"

"Yeah. You got a computer?"

"The old man's got one. I use it when he ain't home."

"Good."

Mark hits a few keys and a picture of a cute guy without any left arm comes up. "This guy's twenty-four and gay. Why don't you drop him a line?"

"Damn, he's cute. Think he'd be interested?"

Mark clicks in the screen and a profile of the guy comes up. "See? He wants to correspond with another arm amp." Mark gets up. "Switch places with me and send him an e-mail."

While Tony's pecking away at the keyboard with his fingers and a pencil held eraser end down in his hook, Mark opens a desk drawer and takes out the strangest looking camera I've ever seen. He gets to one side of the desk and says,

"Tony," snapping the picture when Tony looks up.

"What's that for?"

"Only fair to send him your picture since you've seen his."

"Aw, hell. No way he'll write back if he sees that."

"Want to bet? He'd have to be crazy to turn down a stud like you."

When Tony's finished with his note, Mark down-loads the picture from the camera. I have to agree with him, the guy would be nuts not to like what he sees. A few more keystrokes and the note and picture are on their way.

"Show me how to use that camera, Mark," I ask.

"It's just like any other. Here's the shutter. Why?"

"Cause I want a picture of you and Tony. Stand over there." I point to a blank space on the wall. Tony's suddenly camera shy. He tries to stand on Mark's left so his hook doesn't show.

"Shift sides, Tony. I want to see your hook real clear."

With his hook and Mark's peg-leg this is going to be one great picture. I take it, then go over and take off Tony's hook and T-shirt. I hand Mark his crutches and take off his peg. "Hold your stump up a little, Tony. Yeah, that's good." I get another picture. "I saved the best 'til last. Strip."

Mark grins, but Tony shakes his head. "No way." "Please. Nobody but Mark and me will ever see it, 'less you want a copy. 'Sides, you guys look great." Mark pushes Tony's shorts and briefs down, and Tony steps out of them, kicking them out of the way. I couldn't ask for a better shot.

"Okay, you little sex fiend, let's see what you got."

Mark takes the camera and plugs the cable from his computer in the back. The first shot is okay, but in the second one, Mark has lifted his stump, too. Both stumps show up real clearly just like I wanted. I lift Tony's stump and kiss it. "See how beautiful it looks in the picture? I really want to remember how good it feels."

Tony sighs. "Hope I can remember how good you make it feel."

The third shot blows me away, those two studs are fantastic. They look almost better in the picture than they do for real. Mark takes a floppy from the drawer and loads the pictures to it. "All yours, babe."

"Thanks. These are special."

"Mark, make one of Don and me."

"Sure, buddy."

I stand on Tony's right with my left arm around him, and my right hand holding his stump up so's I can kiss it.

"How'd you know what I wanted?" Tony asks after Mark's taken it.

"You said you wanted to remember how I made it feel."

"Yeah."

He runs his stump through my hair. What a feeling! He can touch me anywhere with it, and I'll complain only when he stops. When we go to see the picture on the screen, Tony stands behind me with his arms around me. I wrap one hand around the end of his stump. It's a great shot. Tony hugs me tighter when he sees it, then kisses me on the forehead. "No way I'll forget you, Don."

Mark grins.

"You trying to steal my guy?"

"Would if I thought I could get away with it. You damn rich guys got it all."

"If you get that guy you e-mailed, you've got no room to complain. He's cute."

Tony shakes his head. "Not gonna happen."

"Get rid of that negative attitude, buddy. Don thinks you're cute and so do I. And if that guy's got any brains, so will he."

"Don't I wish."

I pick up Tony's hook for another look. He comes over and takes it out of my hand, giving me an evil grin. "Want to see what it's like?"

"Oh, boy, I sure do."

"Make a loose fist and see if it'll fit."

It's tight, but I finally get my hand in the plastic part that goes over the end of his stump. Tony fastens the leather cuff around my upper arm, and loosens the straps enough so they fit over my shoulder. Then he backs off and grins. "Pick up something."

"How?"

He shows me how to shrug my shoulder a little to make the hook open. I fumble around with it for a while before I manage to pick up a book.

"This is tough. How you do it so easy?"

"Practice. I'm still not too good with it." He grins at Mark. "Since our little buddy here likes it so much, what say we make him use it for a while?"

"Okay. Nettie's gone, let's go down for a beer."

They're both laughing at the way I struggle to get the hook around the can, but I finally do, and pull the tab with my finger. When I lift it to take a drink, the opening's at the wrong angle, so I have to set it down and open the hook a little to turn the can. This time I get it right.

Mark looks at his watch. "We've got to get dressed. We're eating out tonight."

Tony shakes his head. "No way."

Mark smiles. "Wanna bet? If you didn't need it, I'd make Don wear the hook, but we'll be on crutches like last night." He winks at Tony. "We're gonna give some people a real thrill."

It was fun getting to try it, but I'm glad to take off the hook, now I know how tough it is to use. No wonder Tony wishes it had been his leg. I help him put it on and readjust the straps the way he wants them.

Because Mark's car only has room for two, he drives his dad's big Mercedes. I sit in back and listen to him cracking jokes about his problems learning to walk on crutches. When he tells Tony about the whore that tried to pick him up in Amsterdam when he was wearing his peg-leg, Tony starts to laugh, and tells a few about trying to use the hand that isn't there. He's so loose by the time we get to the restaurant, he doesn't even think about hiding his hook, and uses it to eat. We got lots of looks when we went in and more when we leave.

Even Freddie looks at us when he brings the car around and says, "God, Mark, if I was around three studs like you guys I could turn gay."

Mark grins at Tony. "Okay, guy, was that the ultimate compliment, or what?"

Tony just shakes his head. "I ain't believing it."

When we get home, Mark checks his e-mail.

"Tony! Get your ass over here. The guy's sent you a message."

We let Tony read it in private. When he's done and turns around, there're tears in his eyes.

"What?" Mark asks.

"He thinks I'm good looking and wants to write me. He said he's jealous of my hook, cause he hasn't got a stump and has to do everything with one hand."

"Told you. Write him back right now and give him your e-mail address, buddy."

Tony smiles. "Yeah. This is great. I wish he weren't in New York. I'd sure like to go out with him."

"Give it time. It might happen, buddy."

After breakfast, Tony pulls his stuff together to go home. When we get to his car, he tosses his bag in, then grabs me in a hug. "You're a great kid, Don. Don't ever change, cause you've taught me a lot. I'm coming back if Mark'll let me, and I want to see you when I do."

"I want to see you, too, Tony. I like you a lot, and I like your stump. I'm gonna miss fooling around with it." I lift it up. "Sure wish you didn't have your hook on so's I could kiss it good-bye."

He smiles.

"Hey, when a guy kisses me, I want him to kiss my lips, not my stump."

"Okay."

I give him a good one.

He throws his arms around Mark. "You're a real friend, buddy. Keep this guy around, cause he's special."

"You know it. Don't be so stingy with the e-mail from now on. I want to know how things go with you and that guy in New York, and the next time the old man leaves town, I want your butt in my bed."

"You won't have to ask twice. Thanks, buddy. I mean it."

They kiss and Tony takes off. Soon as we're back in his room, Mark gives me a big hug and a kiss. "Thanks for being so good to Tony, babe; he needed it bad. Now it's just us, and I want all your attention."

He gets it, too. All weekend.

When Mark's dad comes home Sunday night, he's really loose. "It's been very nice of you to stay with Mark, I'm certain he's enjoyed having you."

"I've had a fantastic time, sir."

"I'm delighted. However, your father is home and wants you there. Mark will drive you."

"Thank you, sir."

All the time I'm packing my stuff, I'm thinking about how much I'm going to miss being with Mark. When we're in his car, I kiss him and tell him how much I love him.

"I love you, too, babe. I'm going to miss you. Come back every time you can."

My old man shocks me when he hugs me the minute I walk in.

"Mr. Prentice has made me his personal counsel, son. It means I'll have to be making some business trips, and you can't stay home alone, but we'll find some way. Do you mind?"

"No, sir. I'm glad everything worked out."

He smiles.

"Better than I dreamed. We may be able to move to a place large enough for you to have a pool."

"Don't. I like it here, and Mark wants me to swim with him. He was on the swimming team of his school, too, so he can teach me a lot."

"That's nice of him. He's a fine young man."





 

It's two long days before I get to see Mark again. I had to cut the grass yesterday, and I spent most of today delivering stuff for the old man. When he comes home, he takes me to my favorite place to eat.

"I'm very proud of you, son. Mr. Prentice and I had a conference this afternoon and he told me his son couldn't say enough good things about you."

He passes me a business card. On the back four numbers have been written in ink.

"I wouldn't have taken this, but Mr. Prentice insisted. You must memorize the numbers, then burn the card."

"What are they for?" He leans over and whispers, "It's the security code that opens the gates at their house. He says you're to use the pool any time you want."

I'm blown away, wondering what Mark told his old man, cause this kind of thing doesn't happen to me. When I look back up after tucking the card in my billfold, my old man's looking like the cat that got the cream.

"Mr. Prentice wants to see you tomorrow morning before nine, so ride your bike over there and don't be late."

I'm wondering what he wants with me, but I know it's nothing bad, because my old man's too happy. The next morning I'm at Mark's early. Sure enough the gates open when I punch the numbers in the keypad. Nettie smiles when she opens the door and takes me to the breakfast room. Mark's dad sets the morning paper aside and smiles.

"Have a seat, Don. Mark is still asleep, so I'll send you up to wake him in a few minutes."

He stops for Nettie to set a cup of tea in front of me.

"You take after your father in many ways. I'm impressed with him and now you, because I've not seen Mark so happy since his accident. I might wish you were closer to his age, but you are mature beyond your years and it pleases me that you and Mark have become friends so quickly. I want you to feel welcome here at any time and, with your father's permission, I'm asking you to come stay with Mark anytime I have to be out of town. Will you do that?"

I've died and gone to heaven. Mark's old man is asking me to spend time with my dream.

"Yes, sir, I sure will. Mark's the coolest guy I've ever met. We have a great time together."

"Thank you, Don. Now why don't you go see if you can get him out of bed."

Out of bed, hell! I'm getting' in it with him. He's asleep, so I tip-toe over and lift the top sheet off carefully. Damn, he's beautiful. He moves a little, but doesn't wake, so I gently lift his stump and begin to lick along the scar. He smiles a little, then all of a sudden his eyes fly open.

"What the hell?"

"Your alarm clock."

"Don! What are you doing here?"

"Your dad wanted to see me."

He props up on the pillows and frowns.

"What for?"

"He told me I got to come stay and take care of you every time he's goes out of town."

Mark grins.

"He may not be out of town, but I need some care bad."

"I saw when I came in, that's how come I'm dressed for work."

"Undressed, you mean. Well, get to it."

He does a little work, too, so we both need his shower.

When we go down for breakfast, Nettie looks at me and says, "I'm sure glad when you come here. Mark's a grouch in the morning, but you puts him in a good mood."

"Damn right, he does. Everybody should have an alarm clock like this one."

"Wouldn't need no alarm clock if you didn't stay up half the night messin' with that computer."

"That's when the most interesting people are on-line."

"Hunh." She fixes a full breakfast for Mark, but I just ask for another cup of tea and a slice of the melon.

After Mark finishes, we go back to his room so he can check his e-mail.

"Look, babe, here's one from Tony."

He pulls me down on his lap so we can read it together.

Hi, guys! I'm betting you're there, Don, so this is for you, too. Jace, that cute kid in New York, sends me a long message every night. I can't believe my luck, and it's all cause of you guys. I'm using my hook a lot more, and people don't even pay it no attention, less I go to shake hands with my left one. Don't shake with the hook 'cept with two guys I know named Mark and Don. I got a job at the library puttin' books back on the shelves. It's only part-time and it don't pay much, but it's spending money and I like the people I work with. I can still get off any time your dad goes out of town, buddy, so give me a call. Hugs and kisses to you both, Tony

Mark's arms tighten around me.

"You really got to him, babe. He hasn't sounded this happy since I've known him. Thanks."

"You were the one got him Jace. That's what he's happy about."

"He's happy, so who cares? Let's swim."

After Nettie leaves, I put my leg up and use Mark's crutches. I like it more every time I do it, cause he uses his crutches, too. Mark sits down and puts his arm around me. "Don't you think you're going a little far with this pretending, babe?"

"Naa, it's fun. I wish you weren't so tall so's I could try your peg-leg. It's cool."

"I like it, but I have to have it. You don't. Promise me you won't go getting some crazy idea about being an amputee. You've got two good legs, so enjoy 'em."

I put my hand on his stump and rub it.

"I'm sorry you don't have your leg and Tony's hand got cut off, but you guys are the best. I want to be cool as you."

Mark hugs me. "Being cool is all in your attitude towards people, not whether you're missing an arm or a leg. You are a cool guy, Don. If you weren't, you wouldn't be so accepting of Tony and me, and you wouldn't have tried so hard to make Tony feel good about himself. You got him to think when you kept touching his stump, then tried his hook. Your smile when you put it on let him know you didn't find it ugy, just a tool to be used when needed."

"I was having fun. I want to know all about things like your leg and his hook. They teach stuff like this in school?"

"In several universities. It takes a lot of training to make a leg or hook fit right and work as they should. I was lucky, cause I got a guy fresh out of college. He had a leg, so he knew how to make mine fit perfectly. Are you interested?"

"Might be, but I got to finish high school first."

"You'd be good at helping people, babe," he grins at me, "unless you started feeling up their stumps."

"They'd have to be good looking studs like you and Tony."

I rub his stump. He grabs my hand.

"Give me a rest, babe. Damn, I'd better send you home."

"No, don't. Show me some more of those pictures."

Mark won't show me more than one category at a time. He says it gives us something to do besides swim, and I like sitting on his lap with his arms around me and looking at the pictures. He sends me home about dinner time, and I find my old man's got a lot of stuff for me to do tomorrow, which means I won't get to see Mark. Dad shakes his head when I mention it.

"I'm sure Mr. Prentice didn't invite you to move in with them. Mark must have other things to do besides entertaining you."

"But dad...."

"That's enough, Don."

I know better than to argue.

"Yes, sir."

By the time I get all the stuff done, I must have ridden my bike all over town, and there's some more to be done tomorrow - my birthday. I was hoping I could at least get some time with Mark. He don't know it's my birthday, but being with him is better than any party I can imagine. I'm hurt when my old man don't even say happy birthday when I get up. He just tells me to ride my bike to his office to deliver some more papers. He doesn't mention my birthday when we're having lunch, either, so I guess he forgot. He just tells me I'm not to go see Mark, because he wants me to be home when he gets there.

Once I get the last bunch of papers delivered, I go home, and after a shower, I lay on my bed and look at Mark's picture, feeling awful sorry for myself thinking of all the fun I could be having. Heck, now that I've got the real thing, even Mark's picture isn't that exciting any more. I hear the front door open, and my old man calls me.

There are two boxes on the coffee table. Dad holds out a card. When I take it, he hugs me.

"Happy birthday, son."

"I thought you forgot."

"How could you think that? Open your presents."

He hands me his pocket knife.

"Open the boxes carefully, so I can exchange them if it's not what you want."

I cut the tape and open the small box first. It's a lap-top computer! In the second box is a color printer. I just stare at the computer for a minute, not believing it. When I look at my dad, he's smiling.

"Mark helped me pick it out this morning, Don. He said it's the same one he will be getting when he leaves for college."

Wow! I can't believe dad actually asked Mark. If he picked it out, it's got to be the best. I fly to my dad and hug him hard as I can.

"Thanks, dad. It's perfect! I wanted it more than anything."

"There's more to come. Mark suggested I get the docking station, whatever that is, so you can use a standard keyboard and a big monitor with it. I had to order those, so it will be a few days."

"Gee, this was enough."

"I hope you'll take a keyboarding class when school starts so you can make the best use of it."

"I sure will. This is going to make doing reports and things a lot more fun."

"That's why I wanted you to have it now. Mark said he would teach you to use it, so you'll be prepared when school starts. Now go get dressed, we're going out to dinner."

Dad blows me away when he drives to Mark's and asks me to get out and open the gates. I'm hoping he's asked Mark to go with us. That would make my birthday beyond words. When he stops in front of the house he gets out and motions for me to do the same. Mr. Prentice opens the door with a smile.

"Happy birthday, Don. I'm delighted you could join us."

"Thank you, sir."

We go into the living room, and there's Mark holding out his hand.

"Happy birthday, guy. Glad you came."

I shake hands with him, wishing I was getting a hug and a kiss.

"Thanks."

We take a seat, and Nettie brings in drinks. When she serves me, she says, "Happy birthday."

That clues me we're going to eat here. "Thanks." I sip my drink. There's no booze in it, but it's good. Nettie comes back with a silver tray with a fantastic looking shrimp tree on it. I love boiled shrimp and dip.

"Mark told me you like shrimp. I hope these suit you."

"Wow! They look great. Thanks, Nettie."

"I was glad to fix 'em for a nice young man like you."

"Go ahead, Don. It's your special day." Mr. Prentice tells me. I dip one in the sauce and pop it in my mouth.

"Thank you, sir. I've never had any good as these."

Mark and I talk about my new computer while his dad and mine are talking business. By the time Nettie calls us to dinner, the shrimp are gone, and I'm guessing I ate most of them. But dinner is a big surprise. There're the crab stuffed mushrooms, a stuffed potato and a salad bowl. Nettie's a fantastic cook. I pig out despite all the shrimp I ate and I notice my dad's doing pretty well, too. No way I can eat another bite by the time Nettie clears the table, but then she comes back with a big chocolate cake with fifteen candles on it, and they all sing Happy Birthday to me. When they sit back down, Mr. Prentice hands me a manilla envelope. I pull out a fancy piece of paper, to see he's given me five shares in Prentice Industries stock.

"Now that your father represents our interests, Don, I thought you should join us also. I know at your age you're not interested in business, but I hope this will be a beginning."

"Thank you, sir. It's very kind of you."

My dad's smiling at me, so I've said the right thing for once.

"Not at all, considering your friendship with Mark."

Mark hands me a slender box. When I open it, I see a heavy gold chain. He gets up and puts it around my neck.

"Happy birthday, babe."

I squeeze his hand.

"I'm glad it's just like yours. Thanks."

Nettie's chocolate cake melts in my mouth; the best I've ever eaten. Soon as we've finished, Mark excuses us. I tell him I want to thank Nettie, so I go to the kitchen. Without thinking whether it's proper, I hug her. "That was the best dinner I've ever had. Thank you, Nettie." She hugs me back. "I'm so glad. Mark told me what you like, so I tried to make it special. You're a real nice young man."

Soon as the door of Mark's room closes behind us, I grab him in a hug and give him a kiss.

"Thanks for my chain and everything."

He kisses me back.

"This is what I wanted to do when I put the chain around your neck, babe. Come here."

He takes a floppy from the storage box.

"Now you've got a computer, here're your pictures of Tony and me and the address of the site with all the pictures you like. Just be damn sure your father doesn't find it."

"The minute I get home, I'm puttin' it in my hiding place. I promise I won't look at it when he's home."

"I wouldn't have given it to you if I hadn't thought you could be trusted. Want to look at some more pictures?"

"You kidding?"

"Figures. We've got a couple of hours at least."

What a birthday! I've gotten a lot more than I dreamed I would, I've gone through a whole day without my mouth getting me in any trouble, and my old man's just complimented me on my perfect manners at the Prentice's. He's proud of me being able to turn my new computer on, I type a message to him, thanking him for the computer and printer, and save it, then show him I can call it up again. He knows zilch about them, so Myrtle does all the computer work at his office. When he says it's time for bed, I take my computer and printer up to my room. I'm not even tempted to take the floppy out of hiding and sneak a look at the pictures, cause Mark finished my birthday for me in a great way. I'm exhausted.

The next morning, I ride my bike downtown to the computer shop and use my allowance money to get a carrying case for my computer, a box of floppy disks, and the instruction book Mark told me about last night. Soon as I eat lunch with my old man, I'm headed for Mark's and my first computer lesson.

I've always had fun with Mark, but this time it wasn't fun and games. He's tougher than any teacher I've ever had in school. I've got lots of pages of notes he made me take, and he makes me repeat everything until I make no errors.

After two hours, he finally says we've done enough, and we go down for something to drink and a swim. After a shower and I'm dressed to go home, Mark kisses me.

"You learn fast, babe. I won't be so hard on you from here on out. I'll see you tomorrow."

When my dad gets home, he asks if Mark taught me anything. I show him the pages of notes I made, and he smiles.

"Mr. Prentice told me Mark knew quite a bit about computers. I'm glad he's being so thorough. This is a profitable way to spend some of your summer."

"He taught me a lot today, but he makes it fun. Thanks for getting it for me."

"You're most welcome. Have you written your thank you notes to Mr. Prentice and Mark?"

He knows I hate writing notes, and tend to put them off.

"I'll go do it now."

One thing about having a lawyer for a dad is you learn quick how to use formal language, so once I get started, it's not too bad. I know Mark's going to laugh, because my note's so stiff, but I don't dare put down what I really want to say, in case somebody else should read it. But, hell, I told him all that on my birthday.

I sleep-in the next morning, so it's after ten when I get to dad's office to mail my notes. I didn't have any stamps at home, but I can always get one from Myrtle. I'm about to leave when dad calls me in his office.

"I have to go out of town on Thursday with Mr. Prentice. We won't be back until probably sometime Saturday, so you will be staying with Mark again."

"Great!"

"I'm glad you enjoy going there. Don't give Mark or Nettie any trouble."

"I won't. With my computer lessons and swimming, I won't have time for anything else."

Thursday morning I've hardly gotten out of bed and grabbed some milk and a donut for breakfast when Mark shows up for me. He comes up to my room with me, when I go to get my stuff together. Except for my desk where the computer is, my room's a mess as usual.

"Jeez, babe, how do you ever find anything? You could keep things a little better, you know."

"Woman who cleans hardly ever gets in here. I don't want her poking in my stuff anyway."

"I don't blame her for not coming in here. Hell, I'm almost scared to take a step, might catch my foot on something and fall. For sure I couldn't use crutches in here. I want to see this room in order."

"Okay. Let's go."

"I mean like now."

He pulls out my desk chair and sits down.

"Put those dirty clothes in the hamper or wherever you put them, and put those books and CD's where they belong. Pick up those empty drink cans and trash, and make up your bed."

"You're kidding."

"The hell I am. Get moving, or you're not getting any fun and games."

I'm not very happy, but for him I'll do it. By the time I've picked up my clothes, the place looks a lot better. Mark helps me put my books and CD's away, then shows me how to make my bed tight enough to bounce a quarter on. Finally he's fairly happy.

"Put things away when you're through with them, then there won't be so much to do. It's really easier to be neat than it is messy, once you get in the habit."

"Where'd you learn all this stuff?"

"Dad sent me to boarding school after my mom died. I hated it, but I learned something."

When I walk in Mark's room, there's a box on the floor.

"I see UPS came," he says.

"What is it?" He grins.

"Something for you. But you can't open it until Nettie leaves after lunch."

My curiosity is about to kill me. I mean why do I have to wait for Nettie to leave? But Mark just grins when I ask, and makes me sit at my computer for another lesson, this time on how to use the modem for e-mail and searching the web for stuff. I've been waiting for this. I pull up a bookmark and click on it.

"Dogpile?"

He snorts. "That's what the neighbor's dog used to leave on our lawn."

"It's a super search engine. What you want to look for?"

"See what happens if you put in amputees."

A second or two later the screen fills with hits.

"This thing used ten search engines and the first one has nearly five hundred hits! I'm not believing this, babe. How'd you find out?"

"I started reading the computer column in the newspaper. When I got the address put in right, I bookmarked it."

I scroll down the page and stop on one.

"This is the one with all the pictures we've been looking at."

I click and the home page comes up.

"That's it."

"Wait a minute."

I bring up the next list of hits and find the one I want. "Look at this. Tony ought to see it, cause all these pictures are fake. I mean these guys sent pictures in and the guy used a computer to make them look like they're real amputees. If I could find somebody with a scanner, I'd send him a picture of me so's he could cut my leg off like yours is."

Mark looks excited.

"Bring up Dogpile on my computer and bookmark it for me, then do the same with that site."

Takes me just a couple of minutes, and Mark's grinning like mad when he opens the site and reads the instructions for what they call e-surgery.

"Hell, babe, you don't need a scanner. With my digital camera this is gonna be a snap. Put on your speedos and get your crutches. I'm going to take this by the pool."

"What about Nettie?"

"She just left to go to the market. It'll take her about an hour. That'll give us plenty of time."

His idea doesn't work. He says there's not enough contrast, so he moves me over to the boxwood hedge.

"Yeah! Perfect. Lean on your crutches just a little, so this looks real."

He makes six picures with my right leg in various positions, then we go back to his room and look at them. He goes back to the fourth picture when we've look at them all.

"This is the one, babe. It's beautiful."

He opens his e-mail and writes a short note about how my stump should look, then attaches the picture and sends it.

"I hope he does it quick. I can't wait to see it. Can't you do this stuff?"

"Never tried, but I've got a program should work. I haven't used it, so I'll have to learn how first."

"Do. Then you can teach me."

"Maybe I should. That way you can draw and all that stuff."

His phone rings.

"Lunch time, babe. Put your shorts and a T-shirt back on."

"I got your dinner all fixed, 'cept for the salad, Mark. I'm leaving now, so put them dishes in the washer when you're done eatin'."

"Will do. Thanks, Nettie."

After she's gone, he says, "Okay, babe, after we eat you can open your surprise."

Surprise, hell! I almost drop dead when I open the box and take out a pair of hooks.

"Where'd you get these?"

"Guy on the net has some used prosthetics for sale cheap. You'll look good with two hooks, babe. They'll fit, too, cause he put lace-up leather ends on them for your hands to fit in. Let's try 'em."

By the time he has my hands in the leather things, the cuffs strapped to my upper arms, and the straps crossed on my chest and over my shoulders, I'm feeling like a turkey all trussed up for the oven, but Mark's grinning. "Damn, looks real, babe."

I look in the mirror and can't believe it, it really does look like I've got no hands. He takes my picture. The illusion is complete when he puts a long sleeve shirt on me, buttons it up, and tucks it in. He hugs me. "Damn you're beautiful, Don. Stay like that for a while."

He takes another picture, then we go over to look at them. He pulls me down on his lap and puts his arms around me, nuzzling the back of my neck, while we're looking at my picture with the shirt on. "Poor baby's got no hands," he whispers, and looks at me like he could eat me up. "You're a winner, babe. I'm gonna keep you around."

"I sure hope so. Show me how Tony uses these things."

With a little practice I can open and close them pretty well, but picking up things is a bitch. I have to use both hooks to do it. It's when I have to take a leak I'm in trouble. No matter how I try, I can't get the hook on the zipper tab to pull it down.

"I need you, man."

Mark pulls the zipper open.

"Tony had the same trouble. He uses his hand."

"But I don't have one."

When I'm in bathroom, fishing around in my shorts for my dick isn't any easier. I finally get the hook under it and lift it out, then open the hook so I can hold it while I pee. Big mistake! When the hook closes on it, I scream. Mark hops in and pulls the hook open.

"Jeez, babe, you trying to cut it off? I thought you knew not to put it in the hook."

He holds it for me while I struggle to pee. After I finally do, he drops my shorts and wraps it in a cold washcloth to keep it from swelling, then takes a bottle from the cabinet and gives me a tablet.

"It's codeine the dentist gave me. It'll help."

After I swallow it, he lays beside me on his bed, holding me in his arms.

"I'm sorry, baby. I didn't want you to hurt yourself. Let me take 'em off."

The pain's going down and I'm floating a little, liking the feel of the hooks.

"Naa. My own fault."

When I wake up, Mark's still holding me.

"How you feel, babe?"

"I feel pretty good, and it's mostly stopped hurting, but it's bruised all to hell."

"God, you had me scared. I was about to call 911. Your dad and mine would both kill me."

"Looks like you're gonna have to help me pee if I'm wearing this things." He grins.

"Then maybe you should wear 'em all the time." He gets up. "Want a beer?"

"Yeah."

He helps me get my shorts back on and we go down to the kitchen. Holding the can's not hard, but getting the hook under the tab to pull it open takes some doing. I finally succeed.

"Damn, you learn faster than Tony."

"Have to. Got no hands."

"Let's see how you eat. It's time, anyway."

He opens the fridge and takes out a big bowl of boiled shrimp, a bowl of sauce, and two bowls of salad. He puts some shrimp on my plate and a fills a little bowl with the sauce, then hands me a fork. After he shows me how to hold the fork in the hook, he fixes his own plate. If I twist my arm I can stab a shrimp with the fork, dunk it in the sauce, then bend my elbow and get it in my mouth. After about the third shrimp, it's kind of fun just knowing I can do it. I find out I can't put the fork down and pick up the beer for a drink, cause then I can't pick the fork back up, so I use the left hook for that.

Managing the salad is a little harder, but I get it. Mark has to wipe my mouth with a napkin to get the sauce off, then he kisses me.

"That was beautiful, babe. I never thought it wasn't real while I was watching you."

"It was real enough for me."

"I hope my dad takes yours out of town for a weekend, so Tony can see you. He won't believe it."

"Okay, but I still like my leg gone better."

"I don't know, you're cute either way. I'd hate to have hooks 'stead of hands, though."

"Me, too. I'm having fun, but there's lots of things I can't do without hands."

He takes the hooks off for me, and rubs my hands 'til they stop cramping, then he spends the rest of the evening teaching me more about my computer.

He won't let me pretend the next day. We swim, then get some rays. I've gotten a lot darker tan than he, because I'm not a blond. Makes me look good. We grab a burger and fries for dinner, then go back to the computer.

Monday morning Mark's grinning like a Cheshire cat.

"Dad's going out of town for the weekend and Tony's coming. I want you here, babe, because I'm planning a big surprise for Tony."

"What?"

Mark shakes his head.

"You'll find out Friday. I'll pick you and your dad up about nine-thirty."

My dad seems excited about the trip. Mr. Prentice is driving, so Mark and I sit in back. When we get to the airport, Mr. Prentice doesn't stop at the terminal like I expected, but drives to some small buildings off to one side. There's this small jet on the strip with Prentice Industries painted on the side. I can't even imagine what it would be like to have your own plane. We all get out and a steward in a sharp blue uniform gets their bags from the boot.

"We should be in about nine Sunday night, Mark, so try to be here no later than eight-thirty."

"Yes, sir. Have a good trip."

We get back in the car, and Mark drives to the parking lot at the main terminal.

"Why are we coming here?"

"Got to pick up the surprise I have for Tony."

Mark checks the arrivals board, and says we've got a few minutes, so we get a soda and stand by the window watching the planes come in. He looks at a landing jet, then at his watch, and says, "That should be it, let's get to the gate."

The guard won't let us go all the way, so we stand on one side of the hall, Mark looking at each face that passes. Suddenly he smiles and walks toward a guy carrying a bag in his right hand. His left arm is gone.

"Jace?"

The guy stops and looks at Mark and me.

"Mark?"

"Yeah. Glad you came, guy. Tony's going to be surprised."

"He doesn't know I'm coming?"

"Not yet." Mark puts his hand on my shoulder. "This is Don."

I hold out my hand. Jace sets the bag down and shakes with me. When he starts to pick it up again, I grab it.

"Let me."

He's even cuter than his picture, and I'm dying to see how his shoulder looks with no arm.

"This is really great of you, Mark." Jace says when we're in the car.

"It's for Tony. He's still depressed. Don helped him a lot the weekend he wrote you, and since you answered, he's been a lot better. I figured a weekend with you would set him straight; give him a lot of fun, too. Tony's a great kid."

"I sure hope he likes me. Getting to know somebody by e-mail is a lot different from real life." He grins. "Hell, I'm nervous as a mail-order bride."

"A hell of a lot cuter, too. I'll take you if Tony don't."

"Like hell!" Mark says. "You're mine. You start running after another man and I'll cut your legs off."

"If that's a promise, get running Jace, cause I'm chasing you hard."

"Smack the shit out of that kid, Jace. I can't do it in all this traffic."

Jace's laughing.

"Why've I got a feeling this weekend's gonna be a trip?"

"Wait 'til you see Tony. When we get there, you and Don switch places, so you and Tony can sit together." He grins at Jace. "Wouldn't want you to hurt that one arm trying to feel Tony up from the front seat."

Jace winks at him. "You might be surprised what I can do with just one."

Mark stops in front of a small house in a development on the edge of town. Jace and I change seats, then Mark leans on the horn. The door opens and Tony comes running down the walk. He opens the rear door.

Part 3
1  2   

"Hi, guys."

When he climbs in, he sees Jace. His eyes get huge.

"Nnnn ... no way!"

Jace grins.

"Hi, Tony. I'm glad to see you at last. You're beautiful."

Jace's arm goes around Tony and pulls him into a clinch. Tony hugs him and plants a long kiss on his lips.

"I told myself I was goin' to do that the first time I saw you, no matter where."

He pulls away and looks Jace over.

"Damn! You're a lot cuter than your picture."

He puts both arms around Jace and kisses him again. When they come up for air, Tony asks, "How'd you get here?"

"Flew. Mark set it up."

"I'm damn glad I didn't know before hand."

"Why?"

"Cause I'd be scared to death. You're such a beautiful guy, and ... well I'm nothing special, and I got this ugly thing." He holds up his hook.

"At least you've got it." Jace turns so Tony can see. "I've got nothing."

He looks surprised when Tony runs his hand inside the empty short sleeve and rubs his shoulder.

"Feels good to me."

"If I weren't already, I'd be falling in love with you now. Nobody's had guts enough to touch it before."

"You better watch out for Don, then. We get to Mark's and he's gonna be all over you. Only kid I ever met goes ape over a stump. Hell, even my hook turns him on."

"You're kidding."

"Wanna bet? I put my hook on him one evenin' and almost didn't get it back."

"Don't want it no more, Tony. Got two of my own."

"Come on."

"No kidding. I can use 'em almost good as you."

Mark nods.

"Looks, cute, too." He reaches over and pulls me closer. "But he's still my boy. He likes crutches better."

By now Jace's looking blown away.

"He really likes to play around like that?" He asks Mark.

"You'll see when we get home. He wanted to wear his hooks today, but we brought our dad's up to catch a plane. Besides, I wasn't sure how you'd feel about it."

"It would have surprised me, but it's okay. I've run up with a few devotees before, but not quite young as him." He pulls Tony closer. "Like this guy here. When I saw his picture, I was afraid it was faked. I couldn't believe he was for real."

"I'm real, and you're gonna find out how much."

They go into a huddle and don't say anything else the rest of the way home, so I lean against Mark until traffic gets heavy and he pushes me away. When Mark stops in front of the house, Jace looks up and says, "Oh, hell, are you that Prentice?"

"I'm a Prentice. Which one you mean?"

"Prentice Industries," he sighs. "My old man. What's the big deal?"

"Your dad's my boss. The company I work for is a Prentice subsidiary."

Mark grins.

"Wonder if he's got any more cute one armed guys on the payroll. I'll have to check that out."

I grab both Tony's and Jace's bags and take them to the room next to Mark's that Nettie had made up for me.

"You guys want to sleep together?" Mark asks.

Jace's arm goes back around Tony. "Now I've got him I'm not lettin' him go for a second."

"Yeah you will, cause if you keep your arm around me you won't eat." Tony grins. "Course if you want, you can hold me and I'll feed you."

"Now that's a good deal if I ever heard one."

"Come on, babe, let's give the lovers time to settle in," Mark says to me. "Our room's next door. Get ready for lunch and come on in."

"What you think, babe?" Mark asks me when we're in his room changing into shorts and T-shirts.

"Jace is cute for an old guy. I'm glad he likes Tony."

"Old guy?"

"Yeah. He's nine years older than me, but I still want to see where his arm was. Take his picture for me."

"I expect he and Tony will want a few, so no problem."

"I mean when he hasn't got a shirt on."

Mark looks at me and shakes his head. "What am I gonna do with a stump crazed sex fiend like you?"

I give him my best smile.

"I can think of lots of things."

I stroke the end of his stump.

"Startin' with this."

He grins. "Tonight, babe."

Nettie blinks hard when she sees Jace, and calls Mark into the kitchen for a minute. He comes back and sits down. Nettie's slowly shaking her head when she sets a plate of sliced ham and potato salad with all the trimmings in front of Jace. Tony just reaches over and pulls Jace's plate in front of him and cuts the ham, then pushes it back without a word. Nettie tells Mark she's leaving, but our lunch for tomorrow is in the fridge. I'm hoping it's shrimp again.

When we've finished eating, Jace reaches in his pocket, then holds out a dollar to Tony.

"What's that for?"

"Your tip."

"This ain't no restaurant."

"Right. But you cut the ham for me. I always tip waiters in New York when they do it."

Tony catches on that Jace's teasing.

"Marks' got a different system around here. All tips are collected at night in bed." Jace smiles.

"I'm going to like this."

"You guys gonna tip me for carrying your bags?"

Tony grins.

"If you're a real good little boy I might let you play with my stump just before Jace and me go to bed."

He looks at Jace. "Give him the same tip. You won't believe what happens."

"This I've got to see."

"No see, love. Experience. I can guarantee it's like nothing you ever felt before. Wish I'd found him before Mark did."

Jace says something to Mark about his computer while we're eating, so after, we go up to Mark's room and Mark pulls up the picture he took of me to send off for e-surgery. Jace shows him how to use the program to make my leg look amputated mid-thigh. Then, with Jace's help, Mark puts my leg back and cuts off my arms about half way to my elbow.

"This is great. If I get a picture of a hot guy, I can make him into an amp. You work with computers, Jace?"

"I spend a lot of time on the road helping set up servers. After that I mostly do trouble shooting when a computer malfunctions."

"Like it?"

"A lot. I specially like the travel I get in." He looks at Tony. "I wouldn't mind staying in one place if Tony and me could live together. Of course, that'll be a while, because he's got another year of high school, then college."

"I sure wish we could do it now, cause I want to get away from home." He holds up his hook. "I'm tired of mom crying over this and wanting to do everything for me. My sister's just as bad, but my brother won't have anything to do with me cause he thinks I'm gay."

"You haven't told him?" Jace asks.

"Hell, no! He hates gays. He thinks I'm gay cause I'm working in a library. Told me only a bunch of fruits would hire a useless cripple. My old man doesn't say anything one way or the other."

I want a swim, so I change.

Jace looks at Mark. "You got a pool?"

"Yeah. You want to swim with Don, go ahead. Let's all go."

Jace shakes his head.

"Didn't bring any trunks."

"I've got an extra pair."

He pulls them out of the chest and throws them to Jace.

"You need mine, Tony?" I ask.

"Came prepared this time."

"Aw, heck."

Tony grins. He knows what I had in mind.

When they come back, I just stare at Jace. He must work out some, because his abs are almost as great as Mark's, but it's his shoulder that fascinates me. The shoulder bone tapers kind of roughly to a rounded end. The scar is underneath running from the end into his armpit.

I start dreaming about what I'd like to do if I got in bed with him, then it dawns on me Tony's laughing. "Told you, Jace. The kid's got the hots for you."

Jace grins. "I think I'm going to like giving him his tip."

I'm blushing, but I'm hoping I do get my tip. I don't want to screw up what I've got going with Mark, and I don't want to piss Tony off, so I keep my mouth shut.

Jace can swim. Not fast, but he does way better than I thought a guy with no arm at all could. Mark and I start making laps, and Jace goes back to the shallow end and splashes around with Tony, until we're done. Then Tony and I get the beer from the fridge and we relax. Jace doesn't have a lot to say, but he can't keep his eyes off Tony, and Tony's just as bad. Mark's looking awful happy and plays with my hair when I lean back against his leg.

After we shower and start to dress for dinner, Mark tosses me the cut off sock with a grin. "No way I'm odd man out, babe. We got two arm amps, so you're going on one leg to balance the scene."

Jace's face is a study when he and Tony come in Mark's room and he sees me.

"You actually going like that, kid?"

"Sure. It's fun and I like Mark on crutches. He won't use 'em, less I'm usin' 'em, too."

Jace shakes his head.

"You're something else. I've got to admire you for going out like that."

"Where we go I ain't going to see anybody knows me, so I don't care. Besides, ain't often I get to go out with three great looking studs like you guys."

"What an apple polisher!"

Tony grins.

"Told you, Jace. This kid makes me feel good about myself, that's why I love him." He walks over and hugs me.

"Careful, boy. That's spoken for." Mark says. "Besides, you've got what you want."

"Sure as hell do."

This time Freddie's eyes really bug out.

"Where the hell do you keep coming up with good looking guys, Mark? I could go for this one," he points to Jace.

"Stick with the girls, Freddie. You haven't got a prayer." He grins.

"Maybe I should turn gay, cause all I get is pigs. Why didn't you drive my baby tonight?"

"So you couldn't wear out my tires. If you value your ass, you'll be damn careful. This one's the old man's."

"Thought I recognized it."

We've got on ties, but no coats, so when the Maitre d' comes up and sees four young amps, his smile falters a bit, but he takes us to a table in the center of the room. We get lots of looks from people around us, but none of us pay any attention, even Tony.

We've all ordered steaks. When the waiter sets Jace's down, Jace smiles.

"Perfect service," he says to Mark then picks up his fork and stabs a piece. He sees me staring at it.

"What?"

"I thought for sure your steak wasn't cut."

"Almost fooled me, too."

Watching Tony, I wish I'd put on the hooks. No way, stupid, I tell myself. Not the same place where you've been on one leg.

At bedtime, Jace turns out to be shy. He does hug me when I lay down beside him. I'd love to kiss him, but I can tell it ain't in the cards, so I begin to stroke his shoulder gently, then kiss it. It's when I start to nuzzle it and lick along the scar, he begins to yell. Damn, I haven't even gotten started and he's letting me know my fun's over.

"What the hell were you doing to the poor guy?" Mark asks me.

"Just what I like to do to you."

"The way he was yelling I didn't know what to think."

"I know what I think."

"What?"

"I love you and you need me bad."

He pulls me down beside him.

"You got that right."

 

Next morning Jace and Tony go out in the garden, so just before lunch, Mark helps me put on the hooks. I've got on a T-shirt he says I have to wear to keep the straps from slipping. He's put on his peg-leg. I've learned enough control of the hooks to help him set the table, and Nettie did fix shrimp, so I'll have an easy time eating. Mark yells out the door for Tony and Jace.

They come up the path, their arms around each other. I'm at the table with the hooks in my lap until Mark passes me the shrimp. I take the bowl and use the serving spoon to heap my plate. When I set the bowl down, Tony's staring at me.

"Damn! You did get hooks."

"Mark got 'em for me."

"You're getting' weird as Don, Mark."

"Naa. Just helping the kid have fun."

Tony keeps watching me eat.

"You're doing pretty good with 'em, specially two."

"Eatin's about all I've learned yet. I found out one thing."

"What?"

"You don't grab yourself with a hook. It was sore for three days."

Tony starts to laugh.

"You did it, too?"

"Guess I was stupid."

"Hey, I had somebody warn me, but I was right-handed, so I forgot. I'm sorry for laughing, but I thought I was the only one dumb enough to do that."

"Maybe it's just as well I don't ever use mine," Jace says.

"You have one?" Mark asks.

"Yeah, but with no stump it feels like hell hanging on my shoulder, and I can't get much motion in it. Had to learn how to lift it, then open it. Too damn much trouble."

Tony smiles.

"I like you better without it anyway."

After lunch, Jace asks Mark if he has a camera. He wants pictures of all of us. Mark lets him use his digital camera. He gets shots of Tony and me with our hooks and Mark on his peg-leg. Then we all take off the hardware and I take a picture of the three of them standing there in their briefs, Mark standing on his one leg. Tony wants one of the three of them nude. I also grab a quick one of Jace alone.

Jace helps Mark grill burgers for supper. Only when I start to pick up my burger do I realize I don't know how I'm going to do it.

"Tony, how do I hold a burger with hooks?"

He's holding his in his hand. He grins.

"Looks like you're going to have to squash part of it. Open your hook wide and slide it in. Better use both."

They all get a laugh, specially when I ask for help.

"No way, kid. What would you do if you were all alone?" Jace says.

I struggle, but I finally pick it up. I thought the fries would be easy, but the hook squashes them so bad, they break in half before I can get them in my mouth.

"They're not finger food for a guy with hooks. Use a fork," Tony tells me.

 

Sunday afternoon, Jace suddenly says, "Mark, you better take me to the airport so I can get a flight home."

"It's all fixed, buddy. I'll take you when we go to pick up my old man."

"What if I can't get a seat? I've got be at work tomorrow, or they'll fire my ass."

"Don't sweat it. Like I said, it's all fixed."

Tony reaches across and takes Jace's hand.

"I wish you could stay."

I see tears in his eyes.

"I love you."

Jace hugs him.

"I love you, too, guy. Write me every day. I'll ask the boss to put me on this area, so I can come see you once in a while."

Jace looks at Mark when he parks next to the airstrip where we took his dad and mine.

"This isn't the terminal."

Mark points to the jet taxiing toward us.

"You're taking that one."

"No way, man. That's a private plane."

"Yeah. Soon as our dads get off, it's headed back to New York. No reason they can't take you."

"No way your dad's going to let me on his plane."

"He will if I ask him. I'll introduce you."

Mark gives Jace an evil grin.

"You can hold that over your boss's head cause I know damn well he hasn't met dad, much less been on the company jet."

"Man, you're too much."

Soon as the steward opens the door, Mark yells at him to tell the pilot to wait up a minute. As our dads come down the steps, Mark walks with Jace to the steps and stops to introduce him to his dad, then he waves me and Tony over.

"Come on, guys, you can get a quick look inside."

Jace is just looking blown away, when Mark says to the steward, "Take good care of my buddy, here, Troy."

He grins.

"Sure will, Mark. He's a doll. Wish you were going with us."

He takes Jace's bag.

"Sit anywhere you want. I'll be with you soon as we take off."

Tony and I get just a few seconds to look around the plush interior before Mark says we gotta go. I hope I get a chance to see it again, cause I've always wanted to see what the cockpit on a jet looks like. The steward doesn't bat an eye when Tony and Jace kiss each other good-bye.

Mr. Prentice lets Mark drive since he knows where Tony lives, then he takes the wheel and Mark gets in the back seat with me.

"Mark, did you say that young man going to New York is one of our employees?"

"Yes, sir. He's a computer consultant at Com-Con."

"How did you meet him?"

"You know that program I told you I couldn't figure out how to use? Well I asked about it on the net, and he answered. He said it too complicated for him to tell me how by e-mail; it would be better if he could show me. So I got him a plane ticket and asked him to spend the weekend showing me and Don how to work it. I knew you were sending the plane back tonight, and the guys wouldn't mind if he went back with them."

"Did you and Don learn anything?"

"Yes, sir. Jace seems to know everything about computers. He might be good in the job you've got coming up at the plant. Would be nice if you asked personnel to check him out."

I see Mr. Prentice frown.

"He looks awfully young for a position like that."

"He's twenty-four, dad. Most of the computer guys are young."

"You are right about that. When I look at computer services I sometimes think I'm running a college instead of a business. Do you think he would be interested in making a change?"

"I'm sure he is."

"In that case, I'll ask personnel to check him out along with the other applicants. I want the best possible person in that job, but I like to promote from inside, as you know."

"It would be good to have him, sir. It'll show that Prentice Industries hires good people with handicaps."

"A shame about his arm, Mark, but I've been wanting to improve our record in that area. How do you feel about that, Donald?" He asks my old man.

"Mark has a point, sir. The Disabilities Act is getting a strong push from the current administration. If this young man has the qualifications, it would be a good move from several standpoints to hire him."

"Hmmm. Let me talk with our personnel director. You might sit in on our talk."

Mr. Prentice glances back at Mark. "And who was that young man we dropped off?"

"Tony. He's the one I visited in the hospital after they took off his hand."

"Oh, yes, I remember now. I was proud of the way you conducted yourself, son. I had a note of gratitude from his father. He seems to believe it was you who kept his son from committing suicide. I notice he had a bag with him, also. Did both of those young men stay at the house with you and Don?"

"Yes, sir. I asked Tony because I thought it would help him to see a man like Jace do so much with one arm."

"You might have asked my permission before inviting young men you know nothing about into our home." Through the rearview mirror, I see him smile. "I suppose the house is still standing?"

"Yes, sir. You wouldn't even know there had been anybody there but Don and me."

My dad chuckles.

"If they are all messy as Don, William, your help is going to have a full day tomorrow."

"Wait 'til you see my room, dad."

"I'm afraid to. That's why I never go in it."

"Mark made me clean it up."

"Dear God! This I've got to see. Mrs. Smithson won't even go in there to clean. How did you do it, Mark?"

Mark grins at my old man.

"Told him he couldn't come swimming if he didn't, sir."

"Ah, ha. Picked his most vulnerable spot. Good for you."

Mr. Prentice is laughing.

"Ah, youth. Remember how wonderful it was, Donald?"

"That I do, William. That I do."

 

The next week is all I ever dreamed it could be. Mark takes me out to a small restaurant one night for dinner. It's turned a little cool, so I put on a sweater. Mark cuffs the sleeves where the hooks fasten to the supports on each arm. With all the practice I've gotten, I eat my dinner as easy as Tony ever did, even cutting my hamburger steak myself. When we get in his car, I'm glad I carried it off so well, because Mark thinks it's great how convincing I look. He says it's his way of getting back at people because when he wears his leg, we're both fooling them.

The sky falls in on me Friday when I open the mail. It's my class schedule and school starts Monday. Hell, and damn! All that time I could be spending with Mark, and I gotta sit in a stuffy classroom and listen to some old teacher droning on about nothing that interests me.

I jump on my bike and head to Mark's. I got to make the most of the time I got left, cause the old man will make me stay home Sunday night so's I can get to school on time.

"What's wrong, babe?" Mark asks when I bust into his room.

I hug him. "School starts Monday. I don' wanna go. I wanna stay with you."

He tips my head back and looks at me.

"Don't you know next Wednesday I'll be leaving for the university."

"Take me with you!"

He pulls me over to his bed and sits down beside me, his arm around my shoulders.

"If you were old enough, I'd love to have you for my roommate all the way through college, babe, but that's impossible and you know it. You can stay with me this weekend and I'll help you set up your computer for term papers and stuff, but after that I won't be here." He leans over and kisses me. "You're a great kid, Don, and I'll always remember you. You've made these past three weeks some of the best of my life, but our time together is over. You'll make some new friends at school and soon forget me."

"I won't ever forget you, Mark, I love you!"

I don't know how I'm going to make it without him.

"Oh, babe, babe, don't cry."

He holds me and strokes my hair until I calm down.

"If you have a good place to hide them, you can take the hooks and crutches home. Think of me sometime when you pretend."

"I don't want 'em. It won't be no fun without you, and ain't no place I can go if I use 'em."

"Okay, babe, leave them here. I'll be home a few weekends and on holidays, maybe we can go out together then. Let's do something special together tomorrow night."

"Yeah."

Mark calls my dad who says I can stay until Sunday evening, so Mark takes me home to get my computer and stuff. After we're back, we take a swim, then he sets up a 'wizard' on my computer for doing term papers and shows me how to use it. It'll even do footnotes, so I'll save lots of time.

Mr. Prentice invited my dad to dinner, so the four of us sit down to a great dinner Nettie's fixed. He talks a lot about Mark's going to the university, then to Wharton for an MBA, before coming into Prentice Industries full time. I have a horrible feeling it's really over for us, because that's going to be six years Mark'll be away. I try to smile and look happy, but my heart's breaking.

Later when we're in Mark's room making love, the feeling only gets worse.

Saturday, we do all the things I've enjoyed doing with Mark, but none of them seem as much fun as before. I put my leg up because Mark asks me, then we pick up Tony who's having dinner with us, so Mark can say good-bye to him, too. Tony comes out to Mark's car happier than ever and squeezes in. I sit on his lap with his arm and hook around me.

"Guess what, guys, Jace's being interviewed for a new job next week."

"Where?" I ask.

"Here! I can't believe it! If he gets it, he's going to rent an apartment and I'll move in with him. Oh, man, that'll be wonderful. I won't ever forget it was you got him here for that weekend, Mark."

He gives me a little kiss.

"Got to thank you, too, kid, for showing me my hook don't make me a freak."

I know I should be happy for him, but I can't feel anything but pity for myself, specially when Freddie brings Mark's car around after we've eaten, and Mark says, "Kiss it good-bye, Freddie. We're off to school, so you won't see it for quite a while."

"Aw, hell, man, I never did get it for a weekend."

"Sorry about that. Take care."

As if I didn't feel bad enough already, it's raining when I wake up Sunday morning. I make love to Mark twice, making it last as long as I can each time. When he takes me home, I hug him and kiss him hard on his mouth, then run to my room and slam the door. Sometime later, my dad comes up and asks if I want something to eat. When I just shake my head, he comes over to my bed and puts his hand on my shoulder.

"I know you don't have a lot of close friends, son, and it hurts to see one you've enjoyed so much leave, but Mark is preparing to take on big responsibilities and won't have time to spend with you. When you go away to college as he's doing, your life will change, too. Try to make some friends your own age to enjoy these next three years. I know I don't say it, but I do love you, Don. I only want what's best for you."

I start crying again, cause it's been a long time since he's said he loves me.

When I come out of school Tuesday afternoon, I can feel the eyes of everybody staring at me when I walk over and get in that sporty green Mercedes with a super looking stud at the wheel. Mark drives me home and stops.

"This is it, babe. I'm off at the crack of dawn tomorrow. I'll send you my e-mail address, so let me hear from you once in a while, okay?"

I nod, because I can't speak. He squeezes my hand.

"I'll never forget you, Don. You're the best."

I hug him, give him a quick kiss, and walk slowly away from the love of my life, tears streaming down my face. 

The End.

Posted: 02/24/12