The kids in the group and foster homes had whispered the word like it was 'Mecca' or 'Shangri La'. In California, they said, the sun shone all the time. Well, except when it was night, and the sky was so clear that it seemed like you could reach up and touch the stars.
In California you could pick oranges right off the trees any time you wanted. Agents and movie producers cruised the streets looking for talent, and snatched pretty people off the sidewalk to launch them in careers. Three months later, the kids swore, your face would be on people magazine. And even if that didn't happen there were rich people who'd tip you fifty dollars to park their car or carry their groceries.
Paul hitched his denim jacket over his head, trying to shield himself at least a little from the cold, driving rain. It had been like this all day, and he'd spent his time darting from one temporary shelter to another, always driven away--by suspicious looks and raised voices if he was lucky, by slaps if he was not.
Now night was coming on, and it wasn't going to be one of those crystal clear beauties he'd heard so much about. He recalled Los Angeles, and snorted softly to himself. The night sky had been as clear as curdled milk most of the time there. And there were agents and producers cruising the streets looking for talent, all right. The talent they were looking for, however, might appear on a video tape, but never at the multiplex. And either way, Paul would have been too young to see it.
*Let's see, what else did I hear about California that proved to be total bullshit? Oh, yeah, the picking oranges shit. Sure, you can pick oranges--for about a buck a bushel--IF they hire you. And the face on People magazine. Fuck, no one cares enough to even put my face on a goddam milk carton.*
Paul shifted the drawstring handle of his duffle from one hand to the other. If you carried it too long one way it started to cut off the circulation. As the sum total of his worldly goods, the bag and its contents weren't very impressive, but it was heavy enough to be a bitch.
He had been hoping to panhandle enough money to rent a room tonight. The clerk at the roach motel at the end of the boardwalk had offered to let him have one for half price--and a fuck. Paul had tried to argue him down to just a blow job, but the guy just shook his head. Blow jobs weren't all that hard to come by with all the stray kids hanging around, but a choice piece of blonde ass, male or female, was something else. The guy had gone on to say that Paul should grab the offer, since he was starting look a little less choice. Sleeping rough could do that to you.
Paul had skipped lunch and breakfast, hoping to save enough to pay the full price. With a blow job he could make sure the guy was clean first, then pretend it was someone else he was giving head. The clerk was old enough to be his grandfather, and should have had his remaining teeth pulled a long time ago to make room for dentures. Paul shuddered, and it wasn't just from the damp cold. *I thought green teeth was just an expression till I came here.*
He hadn't had much luck, though. With the weather so shitty there weren't many people out at the beach, and most of them were just as desperate as Paul was.
He sighed. Some of them were more desperate. He'd found this kid who couldn't have been more than twelve trying to beat the alley cats to the best trash in the dumpster behind the McDonalds. He'd given him the six bucks that he'd managed to scrounge. So now he was completely cashless and felt like his stomach was stapled to his backbone, and unless he wanted to take it up the ass from a troll, he'd be sleeping under the boardwalk again.
*If I thought the bastard would feed me and put fresh sheets on the bed instead of the usual come-stained rags, I might consider it.*
Paul paused outside the comic book store. They'd pulled down the shutters because of the weather--their stock couldn't survive wet. He peered through the window in the door. The old hippie couple who ran it were pretty laid back. They didn't say anything about him staying out of the weather, pretending to browse, but their kids...
Two dark heads popped up at the end of one aisle, watching him suspiciously. Paul scowled and walked away. They were only about ten and eleven, but they were really responsible for keeping the shop running. They were probably the one's who'd remembered to put down the barriers to protect the stock. Mom and Dad were too busy reliving Woodstock, or something. Funny, you'd never expect people named Frog to be so hard ass.
Paul continued down the boardwalk. Most of the shops had closed up early, there not being enough business to make it worthwhile to stay open. He tried sheltering in the doorways, but most of them were shallow, and the rain drove in with every gust. He was near the end of the boardwalk. A couple of more storefronts and he'd have to either turn around or go down to the beach.
*What a choice--sex for a crash pad not much better than your average crack house, or a night on the cold, damp sand.* He sighed. *I wonder if tonight's the night I kill my last shred of dignity.*
The next doorway was a little deeper than the rest, and he stepped into it gratefully. He took the jacket off his head and struggled back into the wet, clammy garment. His head was wet already, anyway, his blonde hair plastered to his too-hollow cheeks and straggling down to his shoulders. He checked out his reflection in the door glass. His dark eyes looked too wide, too shadowed. No wonder people ran him off. *This is so bogus. I look like a junkie.* He took in the rest of his appearance--jeans worn to holes at the knees, a faded T-shirt that was about two sizes too small, and scuffed, run-down-at-the-heels boots. *A POOR junkie. A poor MALE WHORE junkie. Not fair. I'm not a junkie.*
The interior of the store was inviting--it was dry, warm, and well lit. The many racks and shelves were lined with brightly colored boxes, the walls papered with movie posters, the counter...
Paul's eyebrows rose. The counter was empty.
He cupped a hand over his eyes to fight the glare from the store's fluorescents and scanned the interior quickly, expecting to see a clerk meandering the aisle with a stack of tapes, replacing them behind their boxes. No one--clerk OR customer.
He glanced back at the abandoned counter, and his eyes widened, while his mouth suddenly flooded with saliva. There was a sandwich lying on the counter beside the cash register. To be precise, there was what looked like a double bacon-cheeseburger, and there were only a couple of bites missing out of it. It sat on the grease-smeared wrapper, and he could have sworn that the sesame seeds scattered over the bun were winking at him.
His stomach shouted down his brain (which was telling him that the person that cheeseburger belonged to had to be just out of sight, and would not take kindly to his supper being stolen. The stomach allowed the brain to function enough to remind him of the bell hung over the door. Paul eased the door open slowly. As soon as he could slip a hand through the gap he reached up and took hold of the bell, stilling it before it could chime. He shut the door, releasing the bell as carefully as he had grasped it.
He paused at the door, eyes darting about the room nervously. Then he crept toward the counter and stretched out his hand toward the burger. He heard a faint clicking sound and froze, looking around. Nothing. Maybe it had started to sleet, and he'd heard ice ticking off the window. That would be about his luck.
The warm, meaty aroma of the sandwich called his attention back. He quickly folded the paper around the burger and picked it up, turning to hurry out of the store. He wouldn't have to worry about the bell on the way out, because no one was likely to chase him out into this weather. He could find a dry place under the boardwalk, and maybe once he had food in his belly the prospect of paying the motel clerk in trade might not seem so tempting. He'd...
Paul froze, feeling a lump of ice crystallize in the pit of his stomach. The aisle back to the door was blocked by a large white German shepherd. The dog's big head came up to the middle of his thigh, the fur was snowy, the nose was pinkish-brown, and the eyes were bright with intelligence. As he stood there, it's black lips wrinkled back from large, sharp fangs, and a soft growl rumbled in its throat as it's ears dropped back flat against its skull.
The sound of the door bell startled Paul, and he looked up frantically, hoping that it was someone with a gun who could protect him when the animal attacked.
The man and boy who entered were vaguely familiar--he'd seen them both around the boardwalk during his week of residence. The man dressed in a heavy tweed coat was very tall, with dark hair and glasses. He wasn't exactly handsome, but his long face looked gentle.
The boy... Well, Paul thought that he shouldn't really call him a boy, when he was at least as old as Paul was. He was shorter than the man, with long blonde hair of a brighter shade than Paul's. He wore a long black leather coat that glistened with rain.
The older man was in the process of folding an umbrella. He studied Paul silently for a moment, then glanced at the still snarling dog and said firmly, "Thorn! No." The growl died immediately, and the dog's ears perked up. It turned and went back to the man, nosing at his hand with a whine. The man scratched him absently behind his ears. He exchanged a look with the boy beside him, then looked back at Paul. He smiled. "Well, I'd say good evening, but it's pretty obvious that it's not, isn't it?"
Paul stared at him silently, not knowing how to react. Should he try to shove his way past them and run? His eyes dropped to the dog sitting beside the man's feet. It was no longer threatening, but he wasn't about to risk those fangs.
The man waited, and when Paul didn't respond he said, "I'm Max, and this is my store."
"I didn't steal anything." Paul winced inside at the near pleading tone of his voice. If they turned him over to the cops he was fucked. He had no ID, and they'd want to hold him till they found out who he was. If they found out who he was he'd be shipped back to the group home, or possibly to Juvie. That's what the director had threatened when he'd run away the first time.
Max didn't say anything, but his eyes dropped to the sandwich clutched in Paul's hand. Paul carefully laid it back on the counter. "It's all right. I didn't actually touch it."
Max continued studying him. Not taking his eyes from the boy in front of him, he raised his voice, "Bernard?"
Paul heard a muffled exclamation (what sounded like 'oh shit!') behind him. A second later a door in the store's back wall opened and a boy a few years older than he scurried out. He was popping a breath mint in his mouth as he came. It didn't do much good. As he neared, Paul smelled the distinct aroma of burning hemp, and the boy's pupils were dilated under the store's bright fluorescents. "Yessir, coming! I was just checking in that new shipment that came in yesterday..." His voice trailed off as he saw Paul.
"...which should have been taken care of YESTERDAY. Bernard, what have I told you about leaving the front unattended?" Max's voice was mild, but there was a steely glint in his eyes.
"I was just gone for a couple of seconds. I was going to bring the shipment up here to check, and..."
"You were in back for more than five minutes. I know--I watched." Paul flinched. That meant he'd seen him casing the place, seen how stealthy he'd been. A simple customer didn't try to sneak in like that. Max continued. "I've given you every chance. I told you what would happen the next time. You can leave now, and I'll close the shop up. There's no point in staying open the rest of the night in this weather."
Bernard gaped. *Maybe the weed slowed down his brain,* Paul thought, with a hint of smugness. He DIDN'T do drugs--of any kind. And the look Bernard had given him had been enough to set Paul's teeth on edge--he'd looked like he'd just stepped in something nasty.
Bernard's voice was high pitched (and very annoying). "You owe me."
"I owe you two days' pay, but only because you occupied space here for that time, not for any actual work. I'll mail you the check. Now get your coat and get out."
"Fine!" Bernard snagged a jacket from behind the counter. He was so angry that it took him two tries to get his arms into the sleeves. He bumped into Paul hard as he headed toward the door. He would have pushed past Max and the blonde boy, but the younger man reached out and grabbed his shoulder.
His voice was low and calm--almost amused. "That was rude, Bernard, banging into him like that."
Bernard tried to shrug him off, sneering, "Yeah? What do you want me to do about it?"
The boy's hand tightened, and Paul watched in surprise as the color drained from Bernard's face, leaving it as pale as cheese. "I want you to apologize to him."
Bernard jerked, but the grip didn't falter. He stared at the blonde boy. Paul studied Bernard's captor. The pale blue eyes were icy, and the faint smile on his lips never reached them. Bernard looked back at Paul and muttered, "Sorry." Even under the coat, Paul saw the other boy's muscles tighten, and Bernard squeaked. "I'm sorry! It was really rude of me, man. I hope I didn't hurt you?"
The idea of someone apologizing to him was a novelty, but Paul said graciously, "It's all right." When the blonde boy looked at him, he nodded. "Really, I'm fine."
When Bernard was released he scuttled out into the rain without another word. Max sighed. "I've been meaning to do that for some time, but it means I'll have to spend a few days working more than I'd like to replace him."
"Max?" The blonde boy cocked his head toward Paul.
"Oh, where are my manners?" Max exclaimed. "This is David. Now, will you tell us who you are?"
Paul tried to keep the desperation out of his voice. "Mister, you don't need to know that. I didn't take anything." The man just looked at him. He sighed. "I'm Paul. Can't you just let me go and leave it at that?"
"I suppose I could, but that wouldn't do either of us any good, would it?" Max came closer and laid a hand on Paul's shoulder.
Paul looked down at the hand blankly, then up into Max's face. "Oh." His voice was flat. *It could be worse. He's not all that old or bad looking, and he's clean.* "Yeah. Sure." He reached down and brushed his hand across the older man's crotch.
Max stiffened, but not in the way Paul would have expected. He got what could only be considered a diplomatic expression on his face, then gently removed Paul's hand. "You mistake me, son. I don't want anything from you."
Now Paul was confused. "I don't understand."
"I wasn't just watching Bernard--I was watching you, also." Paul flushed, remembering how furtive he must have looked. "Paul, the cash register was just sitting there, unattended, and all you took was the hamburger."
Paul's mouth dropped open. "I... it was, wasn't it?"
Max nodded, and said, "Just as I thought--it never even occurred to you to break into it."
Paul shook his head. "I was just hungry." He turned longing eyes back toward the sandwich Bernard had abandoned. "Can I have that?"
Max frowned. "That? Nonsense." He took a wallet from his jacket pocket and extracted a bill, handing it to David. "David, take Paul and get him something decent to eat." When David took hold of the bill, Max held onto it till the younger man looked at him. "YOU feed HIM." David glanced at Paul, frowned slightly, then shrugged. "Good." He released the money. "And you have room at your place if he needs a place to sleep, don't you?"
"Sure, acres of room." David tucked the bill in his pocket and crooked his fingers at Paul. "C'mon, my friend. The pancake house will be open. They'd be open at two am. during a hurricane." He looked at Max. "You're not coming?"
"I need to lock up here. I'll grab a bite afterwards, but not at the pancake house."
David and Max exchanged small smiles, and Paul had the distinct impression that there was a whole river of meaning swirling around him that he couldn't quite catch.
They started out. David paused long enough so that Paul had to step out in front of him. They had gone a few yards down the boardwalk when Paul stopped. "Look, it's not that I'm not grateful. I'm glad that your Dad didn't run me in, but..."
"He's not my father." The boy's voice was a little sharp. "Not... exactly."
Paul studied him. "Is he your daddy, then?"
Now David gave him a knowing smile. "Not that, either. I don't go for the older guys."
Paul fidgeted. "Like I said, I'm grateful, but it doesn't have to go any farther. I won't go around the place again, okay?"
"Max said to take you to dinner. I do what Max says."
"Thanks, anyway. Bye." Paul turned and ran. He was fast--he wouldn't have survived on the street as long as he had if he hadn't been. He was fairly confident that he'd be able to outrun David, since his legs were longer, but he was surprised that he didn't even hear pursuing footsteps.
He darted down the first flight of stairs he came to and went down to the beach, then slipped under the boardwalk. Paul made his way deep into the shadows, weaving among the supporting posts till he'd reached the sheltered spot he'd scouted out earlier in the day--just in case.
He stayed very still and listened. Nothing. Sighing, unable to tell if it was with relief or regret, he decided that he'd use his one towel to dry off a little, rather than sleeping on it, as usual. He glanced around for his duffle, then suddenly realized that he must've left it back up at the entrance to the video store.
Paul slumped to sit on the ground, holing his head. He felt like crying. Every pitiful thing he had in the world was in that bag, and now he'd lost it all. He could never go back for it--not after he'd run away like that. He couldn't hold it back anymore. He curled down, hugging his legs and burying his face against his knees and wept, shaking with deep, bitter sobs.
That had to be why he didn't hear him. It HAD to be. His own weeping and the sound of the rain and the surf MUST have covered David's approach. Paul didn't realize anyone was there till a leather clad arm curved over his back, and a cool body pressed against his side.
He gave a small shriek of startlement, trying to pull away, but the arm tightened, holding him, and David was whispering, "It's all right, it's all right! I'm not gonna hurt you, Paul. You can cry if you want."
Paul tried to push the smaller boy away, but it was like trying to move a brick wall. "I don't want to cry! I'm not pussy, dammit!"
"No, you're not. But sometimes you need to cry." In the dim light that filtered through the cracks between the boards overhead, David's face looked somehow old, and infinitely sad. "I wish I could still cry. It heals."
"No, it doesn't, man. It scalds." Paul wiped his face fiercely. "I didn't hear you." David lifted one shoulder, and one corner of his mouth in a crooked smile. "I'm sorry I ran. It was rude."
"It was understandable. I can see why you'd be suspicious. People around here don't usually offer a hand unless they want something from you, but it DOES happen." He released Paul, turning away briefly, and Paul was surprised to find that he felt no inclination to run again. It was just as well, because it seemed that he'd never be able to escape David--not if the other boy was really determined. There was a soft thump in the sand at his feet, and Paul looked down to find his duffle. "You left that. I figured you'd want it. Now, this time I'll ask instead of just assuming you're all right with the idea. Paul, you want to go get something to eat--my treat?"
Paul studied the young man. David smiled. His expression was open and friendly, but there was a hint of seriousness in his eyes. *I think if I say no, that will be it for David. He'll leave me alone. But Max... I don't know about Max. And besides, I don't think I WANT to break off with David--not yet, anyway.* He remembered the strength of the arm slipped around him, and the solid, comforting presence of David's body. For a brief moment, for the first time in his memory, he'd felt as if someone gave a damn.
Paul wiped his nose. "Yeah. I'd like that." David smiled. He stood up and offered Paul his hand. Paul took it, and almost flinched at the chill. David's touch was cold, but... *It's the rain,* he told himself. *It's the weather, the wind, the damp.* He kept telling himself that as the other boy led him out of the labyrinth under the boardwalk. He told himself that because though David's touch was cool, the light in his eyes had been warm.