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In the deserted men’s restroom at the back of Middleton Community College, Sam Keller knelt on the tile, braced his hands against Keith Jameson’s thighs and broke his mother’s heart.
It didn’t matter that Sharyle Keller had passed away four years ago. Sam knew his mother would consider what Sam did in the handicapped stall a complete and total mockery of everything she’d ever taught him. Sam being gay wouldn’t have made her upset, and she wouldn’t have cared that he was about to give a blowjob at school and risk expulsion for having sexual congress on campus. What would have upset his mother was how Sam wasn’t at all attracted to his partner, that to be perfectly honest, Sam hated him.
“Sex is beautiful,” Sam’s mother had told him. “Sex is a union between two people. Sex is a merging of souls, a holy connection. Sex is sacred, and it should only be shared with those you love.”
When Sam’s mother had said this, he’d been twelve and horny, but he’d also been scared to death of sex, so when his mother told him he should wait for someone who loved him, he’d nodded eagerly. Yes, he would reserve his body for those who knew the worth of it. Yes, he would learn from her mistakes. He’d signed on for it all, trusting in his mother’s wisdom, wanting to be safe and wanting to please her too. After all, wasn’t he lucky to have a mother who looked forward to meeting his boyfriends? His mother had hoped he’d want to adopt or hire a surrogate to have his child someday because she’d be more than happy to babysit. It seemed such a little, easy thing for him to promise her he would give himself in love.
However, even before he’d realized what an incredible dearth of loving male partners there were in Middleton, Iowa, Sam struggled with his vow. His mother found him gay support groups and sex-tip sites online, but Sam found the porn. He’d lost days in the images of beautiful, slender men bent in submission and sometimes degradation, and to his quiet horror, he realized this was his fantasy: he wanted to be used. He wanted to be loved and cherished, yes. But he also wanted to be fucked. Sometimes he didn’t want it to be about love. He wanted it to be about sex, and about semen, and about not quite exactly being in control. He didn’t want to get hurt, no. But he admitted to himself he wanted to come really, really close.
As he swirled his tongue around Keith’s shaft and looked up at the blond boy’s unshaven chin, Sam acknowledged he’d have been a lot happier if he could have found a Keith at sixteen instead of twenty-one. He’d fucked Darin Yarvin his senior year of high school, but that was nothing more than a weekly appointment to kneel on a pizza box in Darin’s dirty apartment and take it up the ass. Blowing Keith flirted with so many taboos, Sam got himself off just thinking about upcoming encounters.
Keith was straight. He wasn’t bi. He wasn’t in the closet. He wasn’t even curious. He simply enjoyed having his dick sucked as much as Sam took pleasure in doing it. He was a big, buff boy, a small-town Iowa ideal, and it was Sam’s fondest wish for this ideal young man to bend him over one of the toilets and bury himself so deep inside Sam he’d see stars. Sam didn’t want to kiss him. He didn’t want to hold him or take him on a date. In fact, outside of arranging their sexual appointments, they didn’t speak to one another. The only conversation they had was the one they were having now, where Keith asked Sam if he wanted him to shove his big fat dick into his throat, to fuck his mouth, and Sam agreed yes, very much please, and thank you.
“You like sucking my cock, don’t you, bitch?” Keith would say, and Sam would nod, and shut his eyes, and let the incredible sluttiness of the experience wash over him in dark, beautiful waves until he thrust himself onto Keith as hard as Keith pushed into him, sucking so intensely he hurt his cheeks, moaning along with Keith as he cried out and exploded, hot and thick and salty into Sam’s open, waiting throat. Sometimes Keith kneaded Sam’s hair as he swallowed, which Sam enjoyed, but it was an unconscious gesture, and if Keith caught himself doing it, he stopped and pushed Sam away.
This more than anything else would have upset his mother, that he would know only such a fleeting bit of tenderness and from such a crude, cruel partner.
Keith’s abrupt removal today had left one last trail of semen to drizzle over Sam’s chin, and he wiped it away with his fingers and reached for some toilet paper. Keith watched him, but when Sam met his gaze, Keith looked away as he buttoned himself up.
Sam waited, remaining on his knees. This part was always the trickiest, and he held still, lowering his eyes, letting Keith decide when they were finished. If Keith had more abuse to hurl, he’d take it, because the last thing he needed was Keith nervous. Keith had to feel strong and satisfied and a little superior so he would want to do it again, which was what Sam wanted him to want. It wasn’t ideal, but in its own way, it worked. So he waited, docile, until Keith spoke.
“You gonna suck it next Wednesday?”
Sam kept his head ducked to hide his smile, and he nodded. He held still until Keith exited the stall, and he stayed on his knees until Keith left the restroom altogether. Then he rose, adjusted his own erection in his pants and went to the bathroom sink to wash his hands.
Sam regarded his reflection in the mirror as he lathered soap across his palms. His mother’s face stared back at him, slender and pretty, brown hair tousled around large, dark eyes. The only differences were the length of his hair and the shape of his jaw and his chin, which in addition to being slightly more defined than his mother’s, sported the tiniest spattering of beard stubble. In his own face, he saw the face he loved so much, the face he had assumed, naively, would be around for a long, long time. He looked into its echo now, remembering what he had done. He acknowledged what she must think of him, and his heart grew heavy.
He wiped the last bit of Keith’s semen from his chin and went to class.
The problem, Sam decided later as he trudged home from campus, was that he really wanted kinky. Yes, he wanted love. He wanted to date and hold hands and make the squeamish conservatives in his northern Iowa town squirm in their twinsets. He wanted to get married. But he wanted hot sex too. Hot sex. He wanted to try it all, every position, every fetish. Well, not every fetish—a lot of them, though. He wanted an orgy, or at least a threesome. All the things about sex his mother had said were bad, all the objectification, all the cold, meaningless encounters—that was what he was after. He didn’t know why. He only knew he wanted it.
As he wove his way through the well-manicured lawns of Cherry Hill Estates, he admitted that so long as he lived with his aunt and uncle, kinky would be hard to come by.
Uncle Norm and Aunt Delia lived on Cherry Hill Court, their three-thousand-square-foot neo-Queen Anne sprawled over the top of the Cherry Hill. In the days when the development had been farmland, the crest had been lined with cherry trees. Delia, who hated mess, cut them all down and replaced them with red, green and yellow shrubbery spaced by perfectly rounded boulders and mulched them within an inch of their uninspired lives. They were the same boring ornamentation gracing every lawn in the development, but they had one advantage—the shrubs, combined with the lack of fences, made it incredibly easy to cut across country.
Sam did this now, singing softly under his breath along with the music playing on his iPhone, sometimes pausing to pull up the texting interface and read an incoming tweet or answer a text. He sighed over Kylie Minogue’s report on her next stop on her US tour, wishing he could be there, memorized the discount code from Los Dos Amigos restaurant, and with a low-grade arousal told Darin, yeah, he could swing by later tonight for a quick fuck.
When the phone rang, he checked the ID, paused his music and clicked answer. “Hi, Emma.”
“Are you on it?” Her excitement pushed her volume so high Sam had to pull the ear bud a little ways out of his ear. “Oh my God, are you on the iPhone?”
Sam beamed. “It is so cool. I mean, the headphones have a microphone. I’m totally talking into it right now.”
Emma squealed. “I can’t wait to see it. You’re bringing it in to work, right?”
“It’s never leaving my side. Ever.” He reached into his pocket and stroked the cool metal lovingly. “I have my whole music library on here. I can’t believe I was nervous about getting it. It’s worth every penny.”
“Yeah, now all you have to do is pay for the monthly plan.”
Sam winced. “Don’t remind me. It’s good this thing plays movies because I’ll never be able to afford going to the theater again.”
“You need to ask your aunt for a raise.”
“Yeah, that’ll happen right about the time she marches in the Pride parade.” Sam hopped over a patch of foliage and veered toward the highway, the last obstacle between himself and Cherry Hill.
“So, I have something to ask you. A favor.”
Sam paused in mid-step, instantly wary. “Okay.”
“I want you to ask your uncle if I can rent one of his apartments.”
Sam snorted and resumed walking. “You want a kidney too?”
“I’m serious. I’m tired of living in my parents’ house. Aren’t you? Of living with your aunt and uncle, I mean?”
“God yes. But I can’t afford to move out, and last I checked, neither could you. What are you planning to pay rent with? Your biology notes?”
“I had an idea about that, actually.”
The sugarcoating on her voice made Sam uneasy. “Yes?”
“I thought we could be roommates. Now hold on,” she said hurriedly, when Sam broke into peals of bitter laughter. “It could work. Come on, admit it. It would be so fun. We get along great, and your aunt—”
“Would never agree to this.”
“Would be happy to get you out of the house.”
Sam ran his hand through his hair. “It’s not that simple, and you know it. She hates me, hates having me living in her basement. But what she abhors above anything else is paying for me, and there’s no way I could afford an apartment without Norm and Delia’s help. My aunt already resents what she has to fork over for part-time classes, which is why I’m part-time, as you well know.”
“But if it’s one of your uncle’s apartments—”
“It’s still money out of their pockets, in their mind.”
Emma launched into another round of arguments. Sam did listen, sort of, making occasional grunts and sounds of agreement or acknowledgment, but mostly he just let her keep talking because it was easier than trying to explain that his aunt and uncle would never go for this plan no matter how she sold it. It was too bad it wasn’t going to work because it would be great to live with Emma. It couldn’t happen, not until he got his own job, which he couldn’t get until he finished school, and at his current pace this might be when he reached retirement age.
He pretended anyway for Emma as he came up the last crest and onto the road. But between listening to Emma and glancing back and forth as he tried not to get hit by traffic, he almost ran smack into the semi parked along the side.
It was huge. The trailer was the same length as normal trailers, but the bright blue cab was an absolute monster, twice as long as the usual ones.
It also had a very nice ass sticking out of the hood.
The driver stood bent at the waist, leaning so far in the only parts of him visible were his legs and a pleasantly shaped, jean-clad backside. As Emma continued to launch her apartment campaign at him, Sam ducked behind a black Dodge pickup and headed as close to the trucker butt as he dared. Still unsatisfied from his bathroom appointment with Keith, it didn’t take but a few seconds of Hot Trucker Fantasy to send all spare blood cells due south. Probably the guy had a face like the bottom of a boot, which made it all the better it wasn’t visible. Sam admired his features from as close a distance as he dared, knowing later tonight he’d be imagining himself bent over a fender with strong, grease-coated hands gripping his hips and sliding back to part him before the trucker—
Sam blinked, stumbled and jerked his attention to the phone. “Huh?”
“You aren’t even listening to me.”
“Sorry.” Sam stepped over another series of bushes and started up the hill toward his aunt and uncle’s house. “Something on the road caught my attention. What were you saying?”
“I asked if your aunt is at the pharmacy this afternoon.”
“Today? You want to ask about the apartment today?”
“Well, yeah. We could be in by the end of the month. It’d be great.”
Sam vaulted the last series of bushes and fumbled with the keys to his basement entrance. God, he’d wanted a few days to plan his strategy. Maybe this would be better—get it over with. “Sure.”
“Yes. Okay—so, I’m gonna head. When will you be in?”
“Give me fifteen minutes. That’s the fastest I can manage.”
“Don’t be late.” She hung up.
Sam tugged the ear buds out and put his keys in the lock.
The house was empty and silent. Sam moved through the immaculate den and down the hall to his room, where he dumped his backpack on the bed before falling onto it himself. He lay there for a few seconds, staring at his bookshelf without really seeing it. Reaching into the plastic crate beside his bed, he pulled out a can of sparkling water and cracked it open. He sipped at it while he surfed the Internet on his phone, not quite adept at it yet but still loving the idea that he could do it whenever he had cell service. He played a word on his never-ending Facebook Scrabble game with Emma, tried to think of something to tweet, but then gave up, put his phone away and wandered upstairs.
Living in Aunt Delia and Uncle Norm’s house was like living inside a Pottery Barn showcase, and it drove Sam crazy. As always, the opulence and waste disgusted him. To Delia, her picture-perfect home was a source of pride. Sam had grown up in a crowded, messy trailer with a mother who couldn’t stand on her own after he was ten, let alone arrange knickknacks and silk flowers. Delia’s house only made him lonelier.
Once in the living room, though, Sam didn’t feel quite so solitary.
The urn Delia had chosen for her sister’s ashes was elegant and gleaming and not at all what Sharyle Keller would have wanted, and certainly it hadn’t been Sam’s vote. Even so, he always felt better when he saw it, because he knew his mother was inside. He went up to her now, placing his fingers on the bottom of the urn and resting the butt of his palm against the gleaming walnut mantle.
“Hi, Mom.” His fingers curled around the vase’s gilded handle. “Miss you.”
He never felt any weird vibes from the urn, never felt ghostly fingers caress his shoulder, no matter how long he waited for them, but it still felt good to stand here, touching the container holding the little bit of her remaining outside of his memories. The anxiety of having to ask Delia and Norm about the apartment eased, and even the shame of Keith faded a degree simply by being near her. That was the way it had always been with his mom. She fixed everything.
He stood there until he felt completely calm. Then he leaned forward and kissed the base of the ornate china. “Gotta go to work. Love you.” He headed for the front door.
He reset the alarm, hurried out and locked the door before bee-lining for his beat-up Civic Delia made him hide around the side of the house behind a boxwood hedge. When the Civic took a moment to turn over, he glanced at his watch and frowned, knowing he’d lingered too long and Emma would be mad. Actually he was so late now he might be tardy for his shift. It was difficult to say whose anger made him more anxious, Emma’s or Delia’s.
Once he got the car going, he had to use the highway to get out of Cherry Hill Estates, and despite his lateness, Sam slowed when he saw the blue semi still parked beside the road. The driver shut the hood and headed for the door to the cab, and as Sam drove past at almost ten miles under the speed limit, he got a good look at the man’s face.
Not the bottom of a boot, he acknowledged, quickly editing his upcoming fantasy. Not the bottom of a boot at all.
Emma waited for Sam at the front of the store when he got there. Delia stood nearby at the counter sorting through a purchase order. Behind them, half-obscured by a shelf of antacids, his uncle blithely surfed the web.
Sam’s uncle Norman was one of the last independently operating pharmacists in the state of Iowa. He owned Biehl Drug, a store so old it had been there since the town of Middleton was founded in 1889. By rights an independent pharmacy couldn’t compete with a Walmart pharmacy and a Walgreens in town, but Norman had some good nursing home contracts, and to pad his income he played the stock market and rented property. He rented a lot of property, to the point he had a near monopoly on most of the apartments in town. Delia managed all of them. Delia managed everything, including Uncle Norman.
She looked up when she saw Sam, and she didn’t smile, only flipped another page on the order sheet. “You’re almost late.”
“Sorry.” Sam reached around the counter to pull out his apron and fumbled with the ties after he looped the noose of the bib over his head. “Did the truck come in yet?”
Emma’s pasted-on smile strained. Sam glared at her. What, he was supposed to initiate the conversation too?
Delia continued scanning her order sheet. “Yes. It’s all in the back, waiting for you.” She lowered the form and gave Sam a pointed look. “The diabetic supplies are almost out, and they didn’t get put on the order list. Why didn’t you tell me when you checked stock last weekend?”
Sam held up a defensive hand. “I did tell you. I put a note in your in-tray.”
“Well, I didn’t see it. Now we’re out, and you know very well Harriet Meeker will talk of nothing else at the Ladies’ League as soon as she discovers it.”
Sam had put the note in her tray, and he was about to point out if she hadn’t found it, it was her fault, when he caught a glance at Emma’s pleading, desperate face. God, woman, but you owe me. “I’m sorry to hear that. Do you want me to go buy her usual at Walmart and keep it on hand in case she shows up?”
Delia waved his offer away. “Just tell me next time.” She dropped the pile of mail in disgust and rubbed her forehead as if trying to grind out a headache.
Sam looked to Emma automatically for some support and found her still giving him intense talk about the apartment already vibes. Sam folded his arms over his chest and stared meaningfully at Emma. No way, he telegraphed right back. You’re starting it.
Emma gave him one last pleading look, but when Sam shook his head, she wiped her hands on her apron and turned to Delia. “Mrs. Biehl. I had this idea, and I wanted to know what you thought of it.”
Delia put down the invoice, softening a little. “Yes, Emma? How can I help you?”
“I talked it over with my parents, and we decided it’s time I got an apartment. You know, for responsibility and all.”
Delia smiled. “I think that’s wise. Were you wanting to rent one of ours? Because I know a perfect place opening up this summer. The one above the bookshop on the hill?”
Emma’s hands stopped bunching in her apron and clasped in front of her chest instead. “Oh, Mrs. Biehl, that would be great.” She beamed at Sam. “Wouldn’t that be perfect for us?”
Sam tried to shake his head in warning, but Delia’s eyes were already on him, sharp as a hawk’s, her smile washed away. “Us?”
Sam held up his hands. “I—”
“I thought maybe Sam and I could room together. Right, Sam?”
They both looked at him, expectant, and Sam faltered. What was he supposed to say? He felt flustered and angry. This was Emma’s scheme—couldn’t she say something?
Back in the pharmacy, Sam saw his uncle glance up from the computer.
Delia folded her arms as she addressed Sam. “How were you planning to pay your half of the rent?”
Sam felt, somehow, there was some answer he was supposed to give, something which, if he could guess what it was, would make this go right. He searched for it, he really did, but his mind was a blank, and the silence pressed on him. “I, uh, don’t know.” Sam looked at Emma and then at his uncle, but he found no help in either place. “I—I don’t know.”
Delia picked up the purchase order and resumed scanning. “When you find a roommate who can pay her half of the rent, the apartment is yours.” She glanced at Sam. “Your stock is waiting.”
Sam’s uncle returned to his computer, and Sam turned away, feeling foolish but not really knowing why. When he headed toward the stockroom, there was no surprise at all that Emma followed him.
“What is wrong with you?” she demanded as soon as the door closed behind them.
Sam picked up a case of adult diapers from the pile by the door. “Don’t yell at me. This was your plan, not mine.”
“But you didn’t say anything. You didn’t even try.”
“You didn’t give me any time to get anything ready.” Sam opened the flaps of the box. “I don’t have money. I don’t know how to pull it out of my ass.”
“It isn’t about money.” Emma pushed the box closed. “I thought you wanted this. You’re always telling me how much they drive you crazy. I thought you wanted out of there.”
“I do.” God, he wanted nothing more. “But she’s never going to agree. You heard her.”
“Why do you always let her roll over you? Why don’t you stick up for yourself for a change?”
“What am I going to say? What sort of leverage do you think I have? They’ve paid for everything for me since I was in high school. They’re paying for my college. They pay for my food, and they give me somewhere to live.”
“They pay for your college because they have to. They feed you because it would look bad if you starved. If J.K. Rowling hadn’t made it such a mark of Cain, I swear they’d put your room in the closet under the stairs. Your mother named them your guardians, and this is the responsibility they took on when they accepted the job. You don’t owe them.”
Sam picked idly at the plastic wrappers visible beneath the open flap of the box. He knew Emma was right, knew he should stand up for himself, but he didn’t know how to explain to her he didn’t know how. “I can’t. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”
Emma opened her mouth to launch into another lecture, but before she could, the door to the store opened and Uncle Norman stuck his head inside. “Emma, I need you up front.”
“Sure, Mr. Biehl.” Emma poked a finger into the center of Sam’s chest. “We’ll talk later.”
I’m sure we will. He wasn’t looking forward to the conversation already. He watched her go then pulled out his phone. He scrolled through his playlists, selected Kylie Favorites, and tucked his ear buds in, ready to let Ms. Minogue take all his worries away.
She hadn’t cleared the first verse of “No More Rain” before the door from the front opened again. This time Delia came into the stockroom.
His aunt was a small, slight woman, but her diminutive size somehow rendered her all the more terrible. Her features were similar to Sam’s mother’s, but while Sharyle Keller had been as soft and cozy as a stuffed animal, Delia was as cold and un-cuddly as a china doll. Sam’s mother had loved yeast and sausage and chocolate, and once her disease relegated her to a wheelchair, she had no hope of burning it off. Hugging Sharyle was a warm, soft experience. Delia ate organic salad with tofu, counted calories and put in at least three miles a day on the elliptical machine across the hall from Sam’s basement bedroom. Even if he’d wanted to hug his aunt, he’d have bruises from her bony frame.
Delia appeared unlikely to hug him now.
She nodded at the half-opened box and folded her arms over her chest. “Were you thinking you should get paid for doing nothing in addition to asking for free rent?”
Sam pulled his ear buds out and started unloading the box. “Emma was talking to me.”
Delia gave his pocket a cold look. “I hope that thing isn’t going to make your job performance even worse. If I catch you surfing while you’re clocked in, I’ll dock your pay.”
“Hey.” Sam shoved the package onto a shelf. “I do my job. I work hard.” A hell of a lot harder than Uncle Norman.
Delia aimed a finger at him. “Remember, young man, I’ve got my eye on you.”
She left. Sam made a face, murmured, “I’ve got my eye on you” in mocking singsong under his breath, put his ear buds back in and hoped he could be left alone to work.
Sam enjoyed doing stock. Sometimes he did tech work behind the counter with his uncle, but he had to dress up and wear a lab coat there, deal with customers and worst of all, put up with his aunt. In the stockroom, people left him alone.
In the stockroom, he could dance.
As discos went, shelves full of shampoo, Band-Aids and rubbing alcohol were poor decor, but he had a wide floor to himself, and he’d long ago developed a trick of reaching into a box, grabbing a bag or bottle and inserting it onto the shelf in time to the beat. Emma teased him, warning if his aunt found out, she’d freak, but Sam had his argument ready. Yes, he spun his way down the aisle and sang into bottles of Pert, but he was a full five minutes faster when he did it than when he didn’t. He’d timed himself once to prove it.
The best of all music to stock to was Kylie Minogue, and she sang to him now. “All I See” took him through the Depends and Charmin, “Giving You Up” gave him the courage to face sorting through a case of makeup with all its tiny, tiny packets refusing to lie orderly on a shelf, and “Sensitized” encouraged him to tap his toe all the way through bar soap, shaving cream and cotton balls. By the time “Kids” came on, he was really in a groove. After breaking down the boxes he’d done so far, he shut his eyes and boogied backward with them out the door. Belting along with the chorus as he spun, he tossed the boxes into the dumpster, swung his hips and shimmied down the wall beside the rail.
Movement out of the corner of his eye stopped him short, and he blushed as he saw a man leaning on the bumper of a semitrailer filling the alley, a trailer which was, he noted, attached to a bright blue cab. It was the same man who’d been climbing into the cab beside the road on Cherry Hill.
The man had a slow, wicked smile on his face, and he was clapping.