Catch Me If You Can
© Z.A. Maxfield, All Rights Reserved
Another hundred California miles swept under Jared’s truck as he headed North on the I-5 freeway. He’d come originally on the I-15 from Las Vegas, stopping in Baker at the Mad Greek’s for strawberry shakes and fat, juicy gyro sandwiches. He visited a fallen soldier’s family in Orange County, and headed up the interstate on the final part of his journey home. Crawling past Los Angeles he traveled northward into the rich and vibrant San Fernando Valley. He passed cotton and rice fields, olive groves, nut trees, vineyards and the endless yellow undulating hills that always reminded him of the contours of human bodies. Jared smiled and played the radio as his truck ground up the miles, content simply to be the one at the wheel.
Returning to autonomy was a slow business for Jared, who now had the freedom to choose where he wanted to go, and what he wanted to do, for the first time in twelve years. He was a total neophyte at making even the smallest of ordinary decisions. In the military he commanded men and earned the respect of his peers. He’d done his job well and faithfully. Now he had to start over, with no set plan by choice, learning about America by exploring it.
At first blush, independence felt like a daring free-fall through space. Slowly, carefully, he learned to put on the brakes, to cling to things that meant something to him and to steer toward home. Jared was as close to home as he’d been for all those long years. Ascending into the mountains of northern California beginning around Lake Shasta, every mile and every evergreen tree fanned a spark of longing within him.
Even as he thought the word home, he knew it was impossible to return. Jared’s parents were not there, and the family’s warm chalet-style home had long since been sold. They weren’t dead, for which he was grateful, but were traveling where the wind blew them in a million-dollar RV. Jared and his parents had connected up in Las Vegas, where he’d played poker in the high stakes room at Mandalay Bay with his dad. He’d won too, which meant that for the time being, he didn’t have to dig into his savings for living expenses. Dusk was coming to the mountains; a purplish kind of gloominess that was so familiar, Jared had to work to keep his eyes on the road and not on the sky. By the time full dark arrived, he was so close he could almost hear the wind brushing through the needles on the fir trees. The small, quirky town of Mount Shasta winked and twinkled just ahead.
Jared rounded a corner and saw lights. A California Highway Patrol car stopped on the side of the road had its flashers running, amber, red, and blue. It took him just a fraction of a second to comprehend what he was seeing. A CHP officer was trying to help the driver of a car that struck a light pole hard. Flames began to lick at the tires due to a spreading puddle of gasoline leaking from the steaming wreckage. In the headlights of Jared’s truck, the image came to him all at once, like a scene on a stage in a darkened theater, and he skidded his truck to a stop next to it.
If Jared Strickland had ever stopped to think in a situation like this, he would not have been a decorated war hero, or the man his fellow soldiers walked through hell for, or an amputee when he returned home. If he thought about it as much as his neglected beard stubble, he could not have reacted with the speed which made him first, a famous high school athlete, and then, a lethally competent Marine. It was, in fact, without any conscious consideration at all that Jared pulled the fire extinguisher from his own pickup so he could hold off the flames long enough for the other man to pull the injured teenage boy to safety. He’d already dragged off his outer tee shirt to staunch the bleeding from a bad laceration on the boy’s leg when the officer returned from calling for fire trucks and paramedics.
Jared felt a shadow fall over him in the headlights of the patrol car, and he looked up to see the officer for the first time. He was still absorbed in the task of halting the bleeding from the victim’s leg when he heard a voice say, “Damn, Jared, you always did like to make an entrance.”
At last, Jared looked at the face of the man in uniform. Something familiar about him teased at Jared’s brain, some indefinable combination of features that nagged at him and reassembled themselves into the face of a beloved childhood friend.
“A.Z.!” cried Jared, still putting pressure on the injured man’s leg with one hand while holding the other out. “A.Z.! I can’t believe it, how the hell are you?”
“You are the only one on the planet who still calls me that,” laughed John Faber. “I haven’t been Arizona John since the third grade, when there were two other John’s in the classroom. I hardly remember that myself.”
“I’ll probably always call you A.Z.,” said Jared. He stared at the other man’s face. “Man, are you getting old!”
“Of course, you’ve stayed exactly the same,” said John, still smiling. He turned when the fire truck pulled up, back on duty. It wasn’t until the scene was secure and the victim transported that he had a chance to return to Jared, who was waiting. This time, he met him with a bear hug.
“Tell me everything.” He tugged a lock of Jared’s shoulder length red hair. “Your hair is too long. Obviously you’re not a marine anymore. I’m due to go off shift in about an hour, but I have some paperwork. How about you meet me for dinner and catch me up.”
“Sure thing, name a place in town that I know, and I’ll be there,” said Jared, returning to his truck.
“I’ll meet you at Dos Geckos; it’s open late. You can find it on Mount Shasta Boulevard; you can’t miss it. I’ll be able to get there by, say,” A.Z looked at his watch, “ten-thirty. Will you meet me there?”
“I will, give me a pen, I’ll write my cell number down,” Jared accepted a pen from John, and wrote his number on a gas receipt he had stuffed into his pocket. “Cell phones beat the heck out of two cans and a string,” he said.
“Tin cans and strings were bleeding edge technology up here until last week,” said John, smiling. “Later, Jared. It’s really, really good to see you,” he called out, returning to his patrol car.
Jared opened the door to his truck thoughtfully. Arizona John Faber, the boy who moved into the neighborhood in the third grade, and unfortunately landed in the class with two other Johns in it. He became Arizona John, because he had just moved from Prescott, and the name stuck all the way through high school. Jared had been the first to shorten it to A.Z., the state’s postal abbreviation. After high school Jared left right away to go to Annapolis, while John stayed in California and attended UC Santa Barbara in the fall. How he’d ended up a Highway Patrol officer Jared couldn’t imagine.
In high school, they were rivals on the track team. A.Z. chased him every track meet, trying to catch him, but he never had. Sometimes, even now, Jared had dreams like that. More times, lately, since he’d lost his left leg during a car bombing in Mosul. He dreamed of A.Z. chasing him around the track field, always trying to beat him to the tape, but never quite catching him. Sometimes his face was furious and intense, sometimes laughing and smiling. He’d had the dream several times in the hospital, although the starting gun at the beginning of a race came from an enemy sniper’s rifle, and it got all mixed up with the life he’d led since high school. At those times, in his dreams, he frantically raced his way down dirty foreign city streets looking back to find A.Z. wasn’t running with him at all anymore, only to search grim enemy infested alleyways in an agony of fear for him. More than once he’d awoken soaked in a terrified sweat.
John Faber drifted along the highway in his patrol car, marveling that the one man he thought about most often in the world had just probably saved him from a bad burn at best, and at worst, a flag draped coffin. Geez. It had been so stupid to try to get that kid out of the car when it was on fire, but he’d seen the boy’s young face and couldn’t walk away. Sometime the consequences of his actions were like films he could watch as he acted on his impulses. Tonight, he clearly saw what it would be like to tell that kid’s family he was dead, and his body moved on its own. But then Jared… Jared had been by his side. Jared was the one thing he never had to think about at all.
John cruised along slowly in his patrol car. The last time he saw Jared was the night before he left for Annapolis. He cringed to think how young they were back then. Jared was…always Jared. John had a perfect memory of short red hair and freckles on skin that was creamy, yet not pale, and intensely blue eyes. Always, always, those eyes mocked him. His adventures with Jared were the most powerful memories of his childhood. The last was one incredible, reckless night in his mom and dad’s game room, where they sat watching the X-files after filching some beer from his dad’s stash in the garage refrigerator.
Jared watched the show and John, as always, watched Jared. Eventually, Jared tired of the attention, turning to him, “What?” he said, around the neck of his Corona bottle. Just looking at Jared’s lips touching that bottle made John’s face flame up.
“What do you mean, what?” asked John, his glance sliding away from the sharper, franker gaze of Jared’s blue eyes.
“You’re staring at me,” said Jared. “This is a scary show, dude, you’re creeping me out.”
“Sorry,” said John, his face now crimson red. He looked at Jared out of the corner of his eye. “It’s just that…” He broke off.
Jared took another long swig of his beer, catching a drip going down the side of his mouth with a swipe of his tongue. “It’s just what?” he asked again, turning away from the television, now showing a commercial for garbage can liners. “Just spit it out, A.Z., do I have stuff in my teeth or what?”
John closed his eyes and said, “This is so messed up, Jared, but sometimes… I wish I could kiss you,” he looked at the other boy, finally, his face a picture of misery. “I’m a total loser,” he added, “you don’t have to say anything. I know it’s totally gross.”
“Shit,” said Jared, looking away. As always, he was way ahead. “I don’t think it’s gross, exactly. It’s just… Do you know what would happen to me if I did anything like that? I’m going to friggin’ Annapolis tomorrow, A.Z. What if I tried it and I liked it?”
John could not believe his ears. “You mean you’d even consider it?” he asked, totally shocked. “Are you freaking kidding me?”
“Hey, you’re the one who brought it up. I just said I didn’t think it’d be…” John didn’t think about the consequences. As far as he knew, he hadn’t heard ‘no’. He reached out, removing the beer from Jared’s hand.
“I know I’ll probably regret this,” he told the surprised boy, but then he hooked a hand behind Jared’s head and kissed him with all the longing and passion a boy his age could feel. He teased Jared’s mouth open with his tongue, working it between the beer-flavored lips and around tentatively on the inside, probing and tasting the sticky warmth and softness and sucking lightly on Jared’s own sensitive tongue. He pulled back to see how his kiss was being received, afraid of what he’s see, but blue eyes met his own brown ones unflinchingly, even a little defiantly.
“Did anyone ever tell you that you have the world’s worst timing?” Jared asked, leaning in for a second kiss, this time initiating it himself. He pulled John closer with both hands as he kissed him back. Jared kissed him deeply, digging his fingers through John’s blonde hair. “Oh man,” he moaned, pushing John away. He slapped a hand over his mouth as his eyes widened in shock.
“Shit,” said John, “I’m sorry.” He practically held his breath. “Do you hate me?” he asked.
“No,” Jared whispered. “What the hell was that? Is it because of the beer?”
“No.” said John, he’d come this far, and it made no sense to pass it off as a joke. He reached out to Jared and took his hand; placing it on the erection he’d had all night and all his life, it seemed, since he’d met Jared Strickland. “It’s not the beer. It’s me. Well, no, it’s you… I don’t know.”
Jared pulled his hand away as if it were burned. “Geez,” he said. “Do I look like a woman to you?”
“No,” said John, “what an asshole, are you going to make me say it? You don’t look like a woman. You don’t feel like a woman. You don’t kiss like a woman. I want you because you’re not a woman.”
Jared raked a hand through his hair. “You must trust me an awful lot to tell me something like that,” he ventured.
“I don’t care if you hate me, I just couldn’t let you go away without ever telling you,” said John. “I kept wondering how I’d feel if I never asked…”
“Asked what?” said Jared, who could at times be dense, John thought.
“What a tool,” John said, rolling his eyes. “If I never asked you if you could ever… uh… I mean, is it possible that you’d ever,” he swallowed hard, “feel something, you know, like that… for me?”
“Ah, geez, A.Z. you know I…” he started, but never got to finish. A loud bang and a mechanical grinding sound indicated that the automatic garage door was opening and John’s parents were home early from the movies. “Shit,” said Jared, grabbing up his beer bottle to toss it into the trash. They scrambled to clean up while listening to the rustling sounds coming from the kitchen.
“John!” Mrs. Faber called, “I’ve brought you some pizza,” she said. “The film projector broke in the middle of the movie and they couldn’t fix it so they gave us all passes to see it some other time.” She entered the game room, “Do I smell beer, young man? I thought we had a talk about that. Jared, let’s have some pizza, and then Mr. Faber will drive you home. I understand you’re leaving early for Maryland tomorrow. My word. We’re all so proud. You need to be home sleeping and not out drinking beer with my hooligan son.”
Jared looked relieved. John didn’t meet his eyes. When, at last, Mr. Faber drove him home Jared said a sincere goodbye and left. Thinking about it now, in his patrol car, twelve years later, John still blushed. If he closed his eyes, though, he knew he could remember every detail of those two hot, hot kisses. He brought his hand to his lips, as if he could feel Jared’s lips on them even now. He’d never gotten the answer to his question, and he knew, he knew, that still unanswered question might be the most important one of his life.
Jared opened the door of the Kamping Kabin at the KOA Campground in Mount Shasta. He didn’t know when it occurred to him that he’d like to camp, but having no camping gear yet, for now, this was the best he could do. He thought he’d like to spend a little time in an uncluttered place, with trees and earth around him, instead of the endless desert sand he worked in or the city hospitals where he ended up. He had an unholy longing for evergreen trees lately, almost viscerally so, and whenever he saw even the scrawniest, sickest city tree it always made him think of these, here, at home. He took in a deep lungful of conifer-scented air. He was home, at last, alive, and home.
Jared sighed and sat on the wooden swing each of the tiny cabins had on their mini porches. He thought about getting a beer, but decided against it since he’d be going out for dinner later, with a cop, no less. It wouldn’t do to drink and drive. He lit a cigarette, a really filthy habit he knew he’d have to give up soon if he planned on looking at himself in the mirror for the rest of his life. For right now, it calmed Jared’s brain, and quieted his hyperactive senses, which still worked with sudden ferocity as though he were in some sort of danger even when he knew he was not.
Except from A.Z., he thought, there was always danger from him. Of all the idiotic things, pulling a boy out of a burning car. How like A.Z. to do something stupid like that without thinking it through. Jared, who had, as a child, seen a car on fire with someone in it, had never driven without a fire extinguisher in his truck. If he allowed himself to think what might have happened to A.Z. if he hadn’t been there, he’d have a nervous breakdown. Geez, A.Z. Didn’t they give you instructions with that uniform?
Jared closed his eyes. The last time he’d seen A.Z., they kissed. Not just closed-mouth, ‘let’s try it for fun’ kissed, but ‘get a room’ kissed. He took a long drag off his cigarette but it didn’t stop him from remembering it. Experimentally, he ran his tongue over his lower lip, closing his eyes. There it was. He could still feel it. No matter how many years it had been, that kiss remained to this day on his lips and his mind as fresh as it had been the day A.Z. planted it there. The bastard. The kiss that teased his first cruel days as a summer plebe in a military academy and haunted his nights ever since had been delivered by a guy. A guy, nothing less, and Jared had burned alive alternately with desire and shame.
Now, looking back, Jared saw the incident as a fork in the road. Jared knew that if John’s parents hadn’t returned from the movies early any decisions would have been left up to him. He still didn’t know what he would have done. Life had taken the decision out of his hands, and because of that, he sat on a porch swing today, a veteran, but a good soldier who returned badly repaired from a job in a war he hadn’t wanted and refused to discuss. For all that, he had done his job with honor. It made him a man he liked, and he was proud of his life. It wasn’t that he didn’t have regrets. He’d married a fine woman, but she hadn’t found the life of a soldier’s wife to her liking. He would have liked kids, but always put it off until he returned stateside for good. Now here he was, and he hadn’t dated anyone since he’d left the hospital. The choice was his, he had the opportunity, but psychologically he’d lost more than his leg. Since then Jared lacked the courage to probe the depths of what, exactly, that might mean.
The first thing Jared noticed, even in the hospital, was a strict unwillingness to treat his time lightly. Gone was his desire to spend one second doing anything to waste it, like television, or meaningless small talk. He reconnected with lost friends and family, and cherished time spent with his parents. As Jared drove his truck across the country, he visited the families of fallen comrades, finding a fragile repentance in talking with them.
With John, Jared had an opportunity to mend another fence, the tenuous bond between him and A.Z. broken by adolescent confusion and poor penmanship. The last time he wrote was a Christmas card to the whole Faber family years ago. He had no idea what John’s life was like now, and imagined it had gone rather like his. Perhaps he even had children of his own. Even as Jared thought this, he rejected it. A part of him had always thought, always known, John was different. Jared hoped life had treated him kindly.
Dos Geckos was one of the many establishments in Mount Shasta driven by the restless new-agers now retiring in the picturesque town, offering drive-through enlightenment and hippie-flavored, self-help hype for the tourists. John’s own mother had opened one of the first upscale coffee houses in the early nineties, and done rather well for herself. He ordered a beer and sat down to wait for Jared. He still wondered if Jared would actually come. After the first excitement of the accident, Jared probably had a chance to think everything through, at which time, no doubt, he’d remember their last encounter. John closed his eyes and blew out a long-held breath. Either he’d hear the annoying noise of the electronic door-chime or he would not.
There were not a lot of customers here at this hour. He smiled at the teenager behind the counter, hoping it seemed sincere. Everyone in town knew he was CHP and often he found it made them behave with forced and nervous friendliness. This kid, he knew, had run into a little trouble before. He heard the door chime, and turned his head. Jared walked in a little uncertainly, searching for the uniform. Having taken the opportunity to change into jeans and a white oxford shirt, John thought Jared wouldn’t immediately find him, even in this empty restaurant. He lifted his arm, and Jared caught sight of him, his face breaking into a friendly smile.
John took the other man’s hand gratefully, acknowledging at last, how truly relieved he was to see him again. “Hey there, home is the hero. You saved my sorry butt today. Thanks again, man, I owe you,” he smiled.
“This might be a good time to remind you that your safety matters too. I’m going tell your mom on you,” he said, the age-old threat still having the desired effect for a second.
“Don’t you dare,” Jared rolled his eyes. “What do you want to eat, I’m buying,” he got up to order at the counter.
“Whatever you’re having unless you’ve become a vegan or something,” said Jared, looking around at all the signs reading ‘Everything vegetarian, except for the meat’.
“Yeah right,” John said, “Like that was going to happen.” He ordered two chicken burritos with everything and some chips and salsa with guacamole on the side. He came back to the table with a Corona for Jared, a slice of lime wedged into the neck of the bottle. As he handed it to him, he remembered Jared’s mouth around a beer just like it and he blushed like a schoolboy. This was lost on Jared, who took the beer gratefully.
“I was afraid to drink a beer before I came here tonight, Officer, thanks,” he said.
“I trust you to drink responsibly” John murmured, “Don’t tell me the uniform gets to you? Are you someone who drives differently when you see a black and white?”
“Guilty as charged,” said Jared. He took a sip of his beer, letting the icy cold liquid fill his mouth with bubbles, tinged by the bitter lime taste. He sighed. “Truth be told, I’ve driven all across the country and it’s a wonder God didn’t strike me dead for the liberties I took with the law.”
“I’ll just bet,” said John, “you always did have a thing for speed.” The boy brought their burritos with a forced smile on his face for John. “Thanks,” John told him, digging right in. He was hungry, and grateful to have something to do besides look at this man, whom he still found terribly attractive. “You’ve got to admit, though, I always came in a close second,”
“Yeah, but you never caught me,” Jared smiled, then, realizing how that sounded, his smile faded. A silence fell between the two men.
“Hey look,” said John, “there’s an elephant in the room.” Jared didn’t look up from his plate. “It’s okay, Jared, times change. I’m not a boy anymore.”
They ate in companionable silence. “How are your folks,” said John, after a while.
“They’re the terror of the open road,” said Jared. “I think my dad sees himself as some kind of land pirate cruising the wide prairie. My mom has started writing RV cookbooks. We met and played poker in Vegas.”
“I’ll bet you won.” Jared had the grace to blush. “You always win, Jared.” John swirled the amber liquid remaining in his bottle contemplatively. “It was like you were the most beautiful sight I ever saw, all that spiky red hair, just out of my reach, breaking the finish line, again. Remember when I broke my collarbone in the tenth grade? I watched from the sidelines. You were so fast. That year you broke the state record. Like the freaking wind, I’ll never forget it.”
“That record’s probably been broken ten times since then.” Jared said.
“Probably,” agreed John. “But I still see it sometimes, or I dream it. Your hair’s a lot longer now. I guess your dad’s not riding you anymore, huh?”
“Nah, it was a reaction; all that newfound freedom.” Jared absently touched his hair. He was still processing what John told him. He remembered being fast. He wondered if anyone else remembered him like that. It was new to hear it from John’s point of view, and really rather startling. John was like a time capsule of what he’d been but could never be again. Suddenly, unreasonably, it mattered to Jared that John carried that image in his head.
“What have you been doing since then, I heard you got married,” said John, “do you have kids?”
“No, I was married once, but no kids. I guess I’m just not cut out for it. I’m going to Berkeley in the fall, for graduate work in Political Science. I’m planning to teach,” said Jared, this time, drawing a surprised look from John.
“Finally, you managed to shock me, I never saw you as the teacher type,” he said.
“What did you expect?” asked Jared, snatching the last of the guacamole right out from under John’s chip and giving him an unrepentant smile.
“I don’t know, fire, police, treasury agent, government assassin,” John smiled back. He didn’t have any idea how close he’d come to what Jared originally planned.
“Nah,” he said. “I’ll leave it to the real heroes like you.”
John looked at him, wondering if Jared was mocking him. For a brief second a flicker of pain crossed his face. “Yeah, I guess,” he said. “As long as there are guys like you to bail us out, right?” he started to gather up his trash.
“Whoa,” said Jared, “what the hell are you talking about? I saw you pull a kid out of a burning car.”
“Yeah,” said John, “I’m still chasing your shadow.” He relaxed in his seat, finishing off the last of his beer. He signaled to the boy to bring him two more, not asking Jared but just handing it to him. “It’s a small town, worse comes to worst you could walk home. Where are you staying?”
“I’m actually at the KOA,” said Jared, laughing at himself. “I don’t even have any camping gear with me so I’m staying in a cabin.”
John shook his head. “Come on, let’s take a walk, it’s a nice night and I don’t want to spend it sitting here,” he said.
“Okay,” said Jared, picking up his beer. They left money for the food, and moved out onto the sidewalk. Jared looked up at the sky. He sighed when he saw the stars. “You know, I saw those stars so bright and so clear in some of the most reeking, awful places on earth.” He moved along beside John, who immediately noticed his rolling, loping gait.
“Hey, are you limping?” John asked him.
Jared stood frozen. No answer immediately came to his lips. Even as he opened his mouth, he found he had nothing to say until, desperately, he murmured, “Stiff I guess.” John seemed to accept that. Jared fell silent. It was unlike him to prevaricate. He’d always been frank, especially with his friends, but for some reason, he was unable to tell John that he had been injured. Jared saw himself through John’s eyes at dinner, and found he liked it. It was a place where he could remain unchanged by the horrors of what he’d seen and what he’d done. He left it at that, as if he were a prehistoric insect frozen in the amber of his friend’s memory. It was John, and if he lived forever unchanged inside of John, that would be all right.
John watched his friend wordlessly and made up his mind. “I guess you know about me,” he said.
“What?” asked Jared.
“You’re still a tool.” John rolled his eyes. “Never married, no kids, spends a lot of time with his male companions,” he waited for the light to go on. “Tivos ‘Prison Break’ and watches it nude.”
Jared shrugged it off. “That ship kind of sailed when you put your tongue in my mouth,” he said.
They found themselves standing in the dark recess between a home that had been turned into a bookstore and another building that housed a coffee shop. “You never answered my question,” said John quietly. “Since then I’ve cursed the movie theater every time I drive past it.”
Jared knew exactly what question he was talking about. “I see,” he said.
“Can you tell me? If my parents hadn’t come home that night,” he stopped in the shadows, taking hold of Jared’s forearms with both hands. “If they hadn’t interrupted, what would you have answered?”
“I don’t know,” said Jared, and John made a noise like tree branch snapping. “I think, maybe… it would have been no.”
“Ah,” said John. “Well,” he started walking again. “I guess I felt like I had to ask.” He seemed to shake off his quiet mood. “So, are you going to teach high school?”
Jared had more trouble transitioning. “Uh, maybe,” he said. “Maybe I’ll try to teach at the junior college when I have my master’s degree. I don’t know.”
“Well, you’ll be good at whatever you do. No matter what, you’ll be able to outrun the little bastards if you need to.” John was smiling again, and for some reason, it was breaking Jared’s heart. Empathy was a side effect, he thought, of almost dying. He moved along beside his friend and engaged in a carefully neutral conversation. At the end of the evening, when Jared was once again in his truck headed for the KOA, he was awfully glad that John had asked his question in the past tense. As he pulled into the parking space for his cabin, he put his head on the steering wheel. If John had said ‘what would you answer if I asked that question today’, it could have been a very different story.
Seven A.M. found Officer Faber in his mother’s coffee shop on his day off. He always came for a Latte and a muffin or two, as well as a chat and a chance to finish the crossword in the paper before she could get to it. “What’s a seven letter word for greed?” he asked, “starts with an ‘A’.”
“Avarice,” said his mother, “I heard about you last night…”
“I swear,” he complained, “I didn’t have time to think, I just didn’t want to have to tell his mom he was dead.”
“What are you talking about? Cheryl said she saw you on the street drinking a beer,” said his mother, giving him a look.
“Oh that. I was with Jared. Do you remember him?” he asked her, “He’s in town, and we ate at Dos Geckos.”
“Jared?” she turned to him. “Jared Strickland?”
“Yeah. We went for a little walk. I admit we took our beers with us. I don’t think we violated too many laws, and anyway, the cops around here give me professional quid pro quo.”
“How is he?” said his mother, “I was devastated when I heard. How did he look?”
John looked at his mother as if she’d lost her mind. “What are you talking about, he was fine.”
“Really?” said his mother. “Well, he always was a tough little monkey, wasn’t he? But when his mom wrote that he lost his leg in Iraq, I thought…”
John spit his coffee all over the paper. “What?” he demanded.
“Didn’t he tell you?” she asked.
“Hell no, he didn’t tell me,” said John “What the hell was he thinking?” He gathered up his keys and headed for the door.
“Don’t you want your…” the door slammed behind him, “coffee?” she said, to no one in particular.
John hardly knew what he was doing when he jumped into his truck. He was reeling with shock. How could Jared have failed to mention losing a freaking leg. He fired up the engine and headed for the KOA, wondering how he could have missed something like that. Some cop. In his defense, he’d avoided looking at Jared too closely, knowing he could want but never touch.
John found Jared’s truck outside one of the tiny cabins with the swings in front. He parked his own pickup behind it. Now that he was here, he couldn’t think what to say. The door to the small cabin was closed so he knocked. Hearing no sound within, he knocked louder. John looked around the campground. If Jared wasn’t in his cabin, he could be in a number of places here or he might have gone for breakfast. John knew one thing, wherever Jared was, he was going to track him down.
No one was behind the counter in the little campground market, so John went into the poolroom, to look around. A slightly built man with a KOA nametag that read Steve came out from resetting one of the video games. “Can I help you?” he asked cheerfully.
“Yeah,” said John, unintentionally checking him out. He was blonde, but it was processed, and he wore two large hoop earrings in his ears. He had a large scar on his lower lip that made him look as though he’d hit the windshield in a traffic accident at one time. John’s scrutiny was not lost on him. “I’m looking for my friend, Jared. He’s in one of the cabins. His truck’s here but he doesn’t seem to be…”
“Oh, the marine?” said Steve. “I saw the sticker, Semper Fi, right? I think I saw him walking toward the bathrooms a little while ago.”
“Thanks,” said John turning around and rushing right back out. John’s heart was still pounding as it had since his mother had said the words, “lost his leg in Iraq”. John didn’t have a plan, and rushing a man in the bathroom could be considered imprudent, but it was Jared. Damn it.
It was Jared, who was the focus of every adolescent fantasy of John’s life. Jared, who came home and in the space of thirty seconds became John’s hero all over again. Jared, who was here at last and sat across the table from him and lied by freaking omission.
When John entered the bathrooms, he heard the shower running in the handicapped stall. The outer door was closed and locked, so John entered the stall next door and looked shamelessly over the wall. He lightly vaulted from the bench he found there into the dressing area of the stall where, he knew from the lofstrand crutch, he would find Jared. When Jared opened the shower curtain, he saw John, sitting, one long leg elegantly crossed over the other waiting for him
“Jeez,” said Jared, who jumped when he saw a man sitting there. He almost lost his balance but caught it at the last second. John never moved, except to swing a foot clad in Vans with no socks. “You scared the crap out of me. How’d you get in here, I could swear I locked the door.” He eyed the lock, which sure enough, was locked tight.
“Never mind. You probably don’t want to know how or why I acquired my shower vaulting skills.” He eyed the other man’s leg, singular, sticking out from under the towel wrapped around Jared’s waist. “Anything you want to share with the group, Strickland?”
Jared sighed, and putting the other crutch on his right forearm, he sat beside John on the changing room bench. He leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. “It’s a relief, I guess, I felt bad about not telling you last night. How’d you know?”
“Your mom wrote my mom. She mentioned it over coffee and crosswords this morning. What’s a seven letter word for Jared Strickland?” he asked.
“Schmuck?” Jared offered.
“That’s seven letters, but I was thinking amputee. Why didn’t you tell me? I could tell you limped. I even asked you about it. Stiff my ass.”
“I don’t know, okay?” snapped Jared, “I wasn’t thinking. You went on and on about how I ran in high school. You remembered how fast I was; you said I was ‘a beautiful sight’. I thought… maybe it’d be better if you remembered me that way.”
“Oh Jared,” sighed John. “You never really did get it, did you?” He stood up. “Come on, I’ll carry your stuff back to the cabin.”
“I carried it here, didn’t I?” said Jared, but John had already left the shower room. Jared put on shorts and a shirt and wondered if John left to give him privacy. He found John sitting on the porch of his cabin on the swing.
“I’ve never stayed in one of these places. I have to admit to a certain distaste for camping,” said John.
“It seems to lack privacy,” said Jared pointedly, opening the door.
“Sorry about that. I wasn’t thinking,” said John. “Well, yes I was. I was thinking about killing you for not telling me what you’d been through.” He entered the cabin behind Jared, and closing the door, took the other man by the arm and spun him around.
“Shit!” said Jared, losing his balance. John deftly caught him and held him up. “Would you let go of me already? I’ll put my leg on. Wait a minute.” He looked around him, biting his lip. “I’ve never done this in front of anyone who wasn’t a medical professional.”
John sighed. “I’ll wait on the swing,” he said, leaving quietly. He listened to the sounds of birds while he waited for Jared, who came out wearing jeans and a long sleeved tee shirt under a shirt that read, ‘U.S.M.C.’ on it. He sat down next to John on the swing.
“Ask away,” he said, resigned.
“How?” said John simply.
“Car bomb,” said Jared. “A hell of a fire fight ensued. My boys got me out, although one got it in the head and died on the spot.” It was as though he were reciting the ABC’s.
John swallowed hard. “You complete shit. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Why does that make me a shit?” Jared asked, incredulous. “I haven’t talked to you since high school. I sent a Christmas card to your family, what, eight years ago? You weren’t on the need to know list.”
John looked at him. “Look at me closely, Jared,” he said. “Last night when you took a beer from my hand, before I said anything, did you know how I felt about you?”
Jared’s face colored. He said nothing.
“Enough said. I am your need to know list, from now on,” said John, disagreeably.
“Look,” said Jared, getting up from the swing and returning to the cabin. “I’m sorry, I should have told you. It’s not as easy as you think. It’s not like the glass eye joke, it doesn’t just come out in a conversation, you know? Can we talk about this some other time? I didn’t get much sleep last night…” Jared opened the cabin door, intending to enter it alone. John got up awkwardly from the swing. Jared tried to shut the door in John’s face, but John put out a hand, stopping him
“I guess I’m not done talking,” he said, following him into the tiny cabin. “When did you start smoking?” John asked when Jared lit up.
“I don’t remember,” said Jared. He felt tired and crowded.
“I want to see, Jared,” John said so quietly it was barely a whispered breath. “If you’ve never let anyone see, let me see.”
“No,” said Jared, “That’s crazy, you don’t need to see. Nobody needs to see.” He looked away, feeling more heat creep to his face.
“Oh, yes. I do need to see,” said John. “If no one else has seen does that mean you haven’t… since it happened? Not once?”
Jared shifted uncomfortably. Did John seriously expect an answer? “A.Z., quit it,” he said. “It’s not a joke, a game, or a challenge.”
“Jared,” said John, coming closer to him, “You might as well tell me, I’ll know by touching you,” he said. “I’m a queer fu black belt.”
“Geez, you get right to the point, don’t you?” said Jared, shocked.
“I guess I do,” said John, “The point is, are you going to show me, or am I going to look.”
“A.Z., you’re talking crazy!” said Jared.
“Look it is…” said John. He pushed Jared onto the small bunk, not giving him a chance to react. Even though Jared began to push his hands away, John evaded him easily and kept Jared’s hands out of the way as he shoved John’s tee shirt up.
“Oh, button front, it’s just like cracking a safe,” he sighed happily, “It’s been a while since I did this, it seems like everyone wears zippers these days…” John deftly unbuttoned Jared’s jeans.
“Would you shut the hell up?” said Jared, now mortified but unresisting.
“Okay, let’s just…” John placed his hands on Jared’s hips inside his jeans, and slipped them down, along with his boxers, “get these out of the way so I can see.”
“Hey, those too?” said Jared, making a new protest. “You don’t need to take those off too…”
“In the interest of science,” said John, “I do. I really do.”
‘Science my ass,” said Jared, “You freaking fairy bastard. Go ahead and look your fill.”
“Hey,” said John, stopping his hands. He hadn’t uncovered anything important yet. “If you say no right now, it’s no. Do I go? I want you to show me.”
Jared closed his eyes, “I can’t say yes,” he said miserably.
“Then just don’t say no.” Jared instructed him, daring to kiss the wetness from Jared’s closed eyelids. He swept the jeans down the rest of the way, removing them completely. He saw Jared’s prosthetic leg. Touching it, feeling it with his hands, finding out where and how it was attached to Jared’s leg, he satisfied his curiosity. “Take it off,” he told Jared, who numbly did as he was asked. John examined the stump of Jared’s leg visually, taking in the puckered scars and the places where the skin had been badly burned. “May I touch you?” he asked. Jared said nothing; neither yes nor no. John reached out and boldly touched the scars, running his hands up and down Jared’s left thigh. He ran his hands over the different surfaces, rippled, shiny and flat, hairy, and smoothly hairless.
“Are you done?” asked Jared, tonelessly.
“No, I don’t think so,” said John, who put a hand on the other thigh, “I feel like I have to make a comparison, here.”
“You bastard,” Jared choked out, “now you’re making fun of me.”
John shook his head slowly, meeting Jared’s eyes. He took one of Jared’s hands and held it to his heart. “No. I’m not,” he said simply, letting his exploding heart do his talking for him. Jared reacted instantly to that, in a way neither expected. John looked down. “Looks like we have lift-off.”
“Oh would you shut UP already,” said Jared, hissing
John smiled a radiant smile, pushing Jared over onto his back. “Sure thing,” he said. He took a shocked Jared into his mouth and began to lick and suck at him until Jared moaned and gasped for breath. Jared made an audible protest that never quite reached a ‘no’. Just as he had in high school, John accepted the spirit of what he heard, making love to Jared with his mouth until he came shuddering to a powerful climax.
“Holy crap,” whispered Jared staring stupidly at the top bunk, as John moved up his body kissing his way to Jared’s mouth. “Oh, you taste–” mumbled Jared.
“Like you,” John finished his sentence. Jared put his hands over his face with shock and shame. “Oh no you don’t.” John pulled them away, continuing to kiss him deeply. “We’re not done yet. Give yourself to me, Jared”
“How can you ask that?” asked Jared, against John’s mouth.
He interlocked Jared’s hand in his. “I have loved you all my life. I have searched for you in the eyes of a thousand men. I have tried to find you in the arms of at least a hundred. Let me make you mine.”
For an answer, Jared put his forehead against John’s, placing his free hand behind John’s shoulder.
“Yes Jared?” John asked.
“Not no…” said Jared tentatively.
“Be sure,” said John, “no do-overs.”
“Even if I like it?” asked Jared, a slightly teasing note the only sign that John needed.
John held his hand to Jared’s lips, pressing his two middle fingers against them until Jared opened his mouth to take them in. Jared licked his fingers slowly, in an achingly sweet way that made John writhe and grind against him. Jared moaned out loud, ready again, his own erection pressed against John’s.
“It has been a while, hasn’t it?” John asked.
Jared, still licking John’s fingers, could only nod in answer. John removed his fingers from Jared’s mouth only to use them in quite a different way, pressing into Jared, massaging and manipulating him, until he was lifting himself to meet John’s probing touch. John squeezed the hand he still held in his, Jared’s beloved fingers laced with his own.
“Here I go, Jared,” said John, stretching Jared and filling him until he bit his lip and his eyes watered. Jared closed them against the pain. “Oh no you don’t, Jared,” commanded John. “Look at me. I caught you. I own you. Don’t take your eyes off mine.” Jared opened his eyes.
“Breathe,” John added into Jared’s mouth as he kissed him deeply again.
The sweetness in his tone both soothed and grated. Jared bit him on the lip, which had the effect of causing John to move deeply within him. The sensation made Jared’s head drop back as a low sound escaped his lips. Both men panted and gasped as they found a rhythm together, not a sweet or gentle rocking, but a fierce and desperate pounding that ended in a hoarse and feral sound escaping from John as he Jared came only seconds apart.
“You mother f-ing son of a bitch, you beat me again!” said John, with a laugh. “I win.”
After a time, John rolled off and pulled Jared’s exhausted body carefully on top of his own in the small bed, cradling Jared’s head on his chest and stroking his hair. “Like this, you feel smaller than me,” he said quietly.
Jared buried his embarrassment in the light dusting of hair on John’s chest. “A.Z. you are one sick armadillo,” he said.
“I love you, Jared,” John said. He wanted to say it so Jared would understand. “I never, ever loved anyone like I love you. You’re my hero. You know that don’t you?”
John didn’t think Jared heard him until he felt the wetness on his chest. Jared held him as though he would disappear, finally allowing himself to let out some of the terrible sorrow he felt, for himself, for his friends. John stroked his back and held him, kissing Jared when he allowed him to, giving him selfless pleasure when he seemed to ask for it. All day long and into the night they drank beer and ate snacks from the camp market, leaving the bed only when necessary, and tumbling back into it together as soon as they could. In the morning, they awoke in a tangle of sticky arms and legs and love.
“Jared,” said John quietly, brushing red hair back off of the face he’d loved almost the whole of his life. “Jared, I’ve got to go to work.”
Jared made a noise that made John laugh, like a purring noise, only cranky, like a scorched cat, that he hoped to hear every morning forever. “Go to my mom’s place and get some coffee. She’ll probably want to feed you, you look a little thin.”
“I’ll bet you said that to the other hundred guys too. It’s a wonder she didn’t have to expand,” growled Jared.
“I’m sorry, that probably wasn’t my finest make out line,” admitted John. “But you’re home now, and I’ll work on others.”
“I’m home,” echoed Jared. “Shit.”
“What?” asked John.
“I’m HOME,” said Jared laughing and crying at the same time, something he’d done quite a bit of lately, that shamed him. “All this time I thought home was a place.” He caught John to him and kissed him again, with a serious promise of more to come.
“Like I always said,” whispered John, pulling Jared into to his heart with a finality that shut the door and locked it forever, “what a tool.”