The massive burger tasted amazing. Mason put it down after one bite. The fries were hot, salty and to die for, but he mostly picked at them between surreptitious glances at Randy no-way-is-he-gay Porterhouse from under his lashes.
Not nearly as pretty as you…
Maybe it had been some kind of insult?
Or one of those back-handed compliments he was so familiar with. A Dickhead zinger.
But damn it! It hadn’t sounded like one. Or felt like one.
Not that he hadn’t been called pretty before. Or capitalized on it. What else was he going to do? Not like he had much else going for him except his brain and he liked to have sex. Sure, he would have preferred to be handsome, or sexy—sexy would have been great, or muscular instead of skinny—anything but pretty. Life had other plans for him though, and he tried to make the best of it.
“Are you going to eat those or play with ‘em?” Randy asked, sounding exasperated.
“What?” He was eating them. Mason looked down at his still-full plate. Oh. He slid the plate in Randy’s direction. “Help yourself.”
Shaking his head, Randy snatched a handful and dropped them on his own plate. “At least eat your burger. You could use some meat.”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” Well, he knew, but Randy didn’t need channel Richard and add another unwanted opinion to what he’d heard often enough before.
“You’ve lost a lot of weight since the last time I saw you. I mean before this week.”
“I have not!” Yeah, that lie was totally believable.
Randy snorted. “Right.”
Mason expected Randy to comment on his baggy clothes but he didn’t. He stuffed a fry in his mouth instead, and scrutinized Mason’s face far more than Mason liked while he chewed and swallowed. Randy cocked his head and tapped the hollow of his own cheek. “It shows right here the most. Not that you look sick or anything, it just ain’t healthy. Your cheekbones really stick out now.”
“You and your stupid opinions can just piss off,” Mason muttered and picked up his cooling hamburger. He raised it to his mouth, shot Randy a nasty look and took a big bite purely out of spite. Or was it hunger? The greasy goodness slid down surprisingly easy and quieted his growling stomach. Still glaring at Randy, he took another bite, and then another, and then it was gone, taking some of his misplaced anger with it.
Randy smiled. “Good huh? That’s why I come here. They make the best food.”
The fries had grown cold. Nothing a little ketchup couldn’t fix. Mason smeared a fry in the salty red blob of heaven and ate it while Randy watched him.
The pretty comment had been an insult. Definitely.
Because no way did Randy Porterhouse bat for his team.
Never mind the girls he’d seen hanging around Randy in high school and the grown up versions he’d spotted him with later, Randy simply didn’t ping his gaydar. At all. Straight as an arrow that one. Mason narrowed his eyes. “You’re not gay,” he said. Well, accused.
“Why?” Randy retaliated just as coldly. “Because I don’t look like it?”
“Because I don’t wear purple, talk about shopping and swish when I walk?”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Mason hated shopping, looked horrid in purple and despite being as gay as he looked, had never swished in his life.
“Or is it because of the tattoos? My boots? The jeans? That I like old cars, fast motorcycles, football and cold beer? Is there a rulebook or something I didn’t get? Can I buy the gay handbook on Amazon?”
Startled by what amounted to an outright admission, Mason shoved his plate away and leaned back in his chair. This wasn’t happening to him. “No way.” He shook his head. “No goddamn way.”
Smirking, Randy leaned forward and gave him that same disconcerting look he levelled at him in the parking lot. “I’d be happy to prove it to you.”
Mason snorted. Loudly. A thousand snappy comebacks popped into his head, ready to leap off his tongue. Then he remembered this was Randy Porterhouse. Who was not above pulling a prank like this. Because that’s what this was—a prank. Probably one he deserved because Mason had been such a shitty friend since he got together with Richard. Or the lout before him. “Better watch what you say, Porterhouse. I might just take you up on it.” Juvenile, but so what. Randy pushed all his hot buttons like no one else he’d ever known.
For fuck’s sake. He’d taken the joke far enough. He was about to say so when the waitress came by with a cheerful smile. “How was everything?” she asked, clearing Randy’s plate.
“As good as ever, Emma. Thanks.”
Christ. Randy even knew her name he’d been here so much. Mason slid his plate in her direction. Yeah, now Emma was more like it. Blonde—dyed, but who cared? It looked good on her. Long legs. Breasts. And a saucy sway to her hips. All woman. “Separate checks?”
“Please.” Randy replied.
Since when did Randy have manners? “Thanks, uh, Emma.” Mason added. She gave him a polite smile, but clearly, Randy was the one who’d captured her interest. And why not? Randy was a fine specimen of a manhood. If you liked them big and hulking and supercharged with testosterone.
Mason stood and took the check she handed him before she sashayed over to her next table. He’d actually had plans for the afternoon—real, honest to god plans and had to get going.
“In a hurry all of a sudden?” Randy asked with a smirk.
Mason was doubly tempted to take him up on his “offer”. Teach him to play with fire, the smug bastard. But he had those plans to take care of first. After that, if Randy persisted… “It’s getting late, and I want to hit our old primary school and see if anyone’s still around now that it’s summer holidays. Maybe they can help me identify the kid in the photo. Or maybe walking the old halls will help me remember his name.”
Not that Mason remembered attending school with him. Blond kid with the big smile had been a year older, he was sure of it. Those front teeth indicated as much.
“That again? You’re like a fucking dog with a bone.” Randy said with a pained sigh. “Want some company? I’d get a kick out of seeing the school again.”
The nerve. But, again, what the hell? Mason would want to escape from Randy’s father’s house too. And if the hulking, annoying bastard persisted with his I-suddenly-like-doing-guys prank, Mason would slip him some tongue and give him a good grope to the balls and put an end to that real fast.
Maybe they could even remain friends after. Randy never used to hang onto his grudges for long.
They paid and Mason drove to their old stomping grounds, a knot of hopeful excitement growing in his belly. There were a few cars in the staff parking indicating the school wasn’t completely closed.
“Christ, it looks exactly the same,” Randy grumbled. “Poor fucking kids.”
“Not exactly. They might have painted,” Mason argued. “Once.”
“Shee-it,” Randy drawled. “They could’ve at least changed the color.”
“But then if they missed a spot, it would show.”
“Fucking cheap bastards.”
“I’m sure they prefer to call it fiscally responsible.”
“Cheap, by any other name still means cheap.”
As they headed towards the entrance, Randy spotted an older, beautifully restored car. It even caught Mason’s attention. “That is such a sweet ride,” Randy said with reverence. “1968 Mercury Cougar. Mint.” Then his phone revved from his back pocket.
Fuck—a muscle car engine ring tone? Who, over age twelve, thought of something like that? Besides him. His own ring tone had once been Darth Vader rasping a breathless, ‘There is a great disturbance in the Force’ until Richard made him change it. Randy plucked it from his pocket. “Shit! Gotta take this, Mase. It’s one of dad’s doctors. The specialist we’ve been waiting to hear from.”
“Meet you inside.” Mason didn’t want to hear anything about rotting body parts. That was one happy bubble of ignorant bliss he wanted to keep un-popped, thank you.
The scent inside the school instantly teleported Mason back in time, back to the days of backpacks, crayons, oranges in his lunch and PE classes he’d hated from day one. He’d liked grade school, though. It had been fun back when the only thing he’d been teased about was being nerdy, unlike high school when he had to constantly worry about getting the shit beat out him and his head shoved in a toilet, or getting stuffed in a locker for being queer. Or pretty. Or winning all those science awards.
It had been weird enough driving in. Nat didn’t believe in ferrying him and Ginny to school. They walked. Uphill. Both ways, and it was always twenty below out. But stepping inside was like getting caught in a time warp. The inside looked exactly the same, at least according to his hazy recollection.
The summer receptionist was all of sixteen, had pink hair, an infected nose piercing and met his request with a blank stare. After a minute of attempting to explain what he wanted, she pointed him in the direction of the vice principal’s office and washed her hands of him. Mason strolled down the hall, checking out the faded construction-paper artwork as he went and marvelling at how small sized everything was.
The vice principal—Mrs. P according to the engraved plate on her desk—turned out to be a frumpy, middle-aged woman wearing an oversized cardigan embroidered with cats batting balls of yarn and cat-eye glasses on a chain around her neck. How stereotypical could you get? Her assessment of Mason however, was anything but kindly old cat lady. “How can I help you?” she asked in a voice as steely as her glare.
Mason slunk over to the chair across from her massive desk like he was arriving for detention. Not that he had any idea what it was like to be on detention. “I’m hoping to find out the name of a student,” he blurted out. Now he felt like he was seven again.
“That’s privileged and confidential information.”
“From thirty years ago.” Twenty-seven or so, but close enough.
She raised her brows at that, then glowered. “Still confidential.”
Well, goddamn it. What now?
“Were you a student here?”
“Yes. More years ago than I’d like to admit.” The gatekeeper wasn’t going to let him pass. Or offer up names. The world had grown cold and suspicious, and he should have known that before he even got in the door. All that ice cream and alcohol had obviously wreaked havoc on his IQ. “I recently came across some old photos and there was this kid in one of them that I used to play with, but I can’t remember his name, and can’t look him up. I want to see if he’s on Facebook, or somewhere else on social media. See if we can reconnect.”
Crazy cat warden didn’t care one bit.
“Sorry, can’t help you.”
Ha—he’d never encountered anyone less sorry.
“But since no students are currently in attendance, you’re welcome to wander around and see if it helps prod along your memory.”
Better than nothing, he supposed. “Thank you.”
“Show me some ID, then sign in at the front desk and make sure you sign back out when you leave.”
As he fished out his wallet, Mason sincerely hoped the warden didn’t have any pet cats. If she did, he pitied them.
She inspected his driver’s licence, scribbled down whatever information she needed, and handed it back with another stony glare. Without another glance, she went back to doing what she’d been doing before he arrived.
Dismissed, Mason slunk back to the pink haired girl’s domain. She was as equally impressed to see him as the first time and wordlessly pointed at an old-fashioned log book, in which Mason dutifully scribbled his name.
Walking the halls and peering into empty classrooms only sharpened the memories he already had; it didn’t bring any new ones to the surface. Randy finally joined him outside what was either his second or third grade class. He wasn’t sure which, with the desks reorganized and technology making its presence known.
“Any luck?” Randy asked.
“No. The warden says everything’s confidential.”
Randy chuckled. “Mrs. P can be a bit of a hard ass.”
“You know her?”
“I know her car.”
Figured. “Crazy cat lady owns that Cougar out in the lot?” Mason simply couldn’t make that mental picture work.
“Sure does. It’s her baby.”
“God,” he muttered. A Cougar for the cat lady. Changing the subject, he asked, “Everything okay with the specialist?”
Randy frowned. “No. Dad’s liver enzymes or some such shit are out of whack and she wants to see him again and run some more tests. Not that he’ll listen to her, because she’s just going to tell him he has to quit drinking. When we get home, he’ll rant and call her a dumb cunt and crack open a beer.”
“Same shit, different pile.” Randy glanced down the hall. “Let’s get looking before we get kicked out.”
“Mrs. P would kick you out?”
Snorting, Randy replied, “She thinks I overcharge her.”
“No. She just hasn’t realized the nineties are over.”
Mason laughed. First laugh he’d had in a long time. “Fair enough.”
They toured the school together, room by room, sharing memories and stories. School photos covered the walls, but any of the ones from the years in question had been replaced with newer classes, or were photos of the entire school population taken outside, and Mason couldn’t even find himself in them, let alone a kid he barely remembered. They did spot Randy though, who’d been a large kid and stood out from the crowd. Mason photographed the photo and they wandered back to where they started.
His one and only idea had been a bust.
“Ooh, the wall of fame,” Randy joked, stepping over to a large, glass display case covering the wall. It was full of awards and banners and plaques. “Who knew such little squirts could win awards for anything? Aside from you.”
It looked like a lot of awards, but actually, as Mason scanned the items inside, it was obvious the collection spanned the entire history of the school. It was kind of sweet, actually.
“Oh, my god!” Randy exclaimed, startling him so badly he almost smacked his head into the glass.
“Did you find him?” Could they have gotten that lucky?
Mason crouched down and peered at the old photo of some ugly kid with a hideous haircut and a big smile holding a certificate and a blue ribbon as big as his head. Son of a bitch. It was him. Now he’d given Randy new ammunition to tease him with for the rest of his live-long days.
Randy smiled over at him and raised his brows. “Can’t believe you turned out to be so good looking.” He chuckled. “Was that your ugly duckling phase?”
“Fuck you, Porterhouse! At least I don’t have ringlets.” Maybe he could bribe Mrs. P with a new car part to see that that photo disappeared from the collection, never to be seen again?
“I do not have fucking ringlets!”
“Yes you do.” And he knew it.
Mason smiled in victory. “Ringlets.”
“Well at least nobody ever cut my hair with a Weed Wacker.”
Mason grinned wider in spite of himself. “Point to Porterhouse.” That’s exactly what it looked like happened. “Ginny probably had something to do with it.” When he was sleeping and defenseless.
Randy eyed him with a wicked gleam in his eye. “Remember the makeover incident?”
Mason groaned. “God, don’t remind me.” When he was fourteen, Mason and a few friends from high school, including Randy, stole a couple bottles of Stephen’s private stash and got wasted in the basement when nobody was home. After passing out, Ginny and her friends had taught him, firstly, that you couldn’t even trust your own goddamn sister, and secondly, eye makeup takes a fuck-ton of scrubbing to get off.
The make-up was nothing compared to waking up in a tight dress. And strappy heels. He’d almost broken his goddamned neck.
Randy waggled his brows, because, of course, he wasn’t going to let it go that easy. “You looked so slutty.”
“You are such an asshole.”
“Why? I wasn’t in on it. I would have defended your honor, except I was too busy puking my guts out in the bathroom.” Chuckling, Randy rose and tried to take a picture of Mason’s shame through the glass.
“Don’t you dare!” Mason snarled.
“Yeah? Whatcha gonna do about it?”
Yeah—what? “I have my ways. Maybe I’ll mix up a batch of rank chemicals—Methyl Mercaptan—and accidently drop a vial of it on your carpet.” Mason grinned evilly. “You’ll never get the stench out.”
Raising a brow, Randy replied, “Yeah? That stinky, is it?”
Mason nodded. “I’ll have to be careful, because it can be toxic in large amounts.”
“Huh.” Randy nodded, feigning deep thought. “But what I really wanna know is, will it cover up the stench of my dad’s decaying foot?”
Mason tried manufacturing a disapproving frown. He failed. “You’re so horrible.” He had to press his lips together to keep from laughing. Apparently, living with Richard hadn’t completely killed his sick sense of humor. Either that, or a mere couple hours in Randy’s company had restored it.
Then, because he was horrible, Randy took the picture anyway. Now his phone needed to have an accident. He’d make it happen. “We need to sign out.”
Rolling his eyes, Randy retorted, “Yeah? Who’s gonna stop me at the door? Candy floss girl?”
“I don’t know,” Mason grinned, “I think Mrs. P could take you.”
Randy laughed. “Possibly.” He tucked a hank of curly hair behind his ear. “Let’s say goodbye to her on the way out.”
Clearly, Randy liked the warden more than he was letting on. Or her car was just that cool. Or hot. Or whatever the latest slang was.
“Hello Randall,” she greeted, upon seeing her favorite mechanic.
Randall? Good god.
“I suppose you’re looking for this long lost school mate as well?”
Lounging like he owned the place, Randy leaned on her desk. He shook his head. “Nah, but when Mason gets an idea, he clings to it like a tick. It’s really annoying.”
What? That was utter bullshit. He did not attach himself to ideas like a disease carrying bug. Maybe he’d clung on to the idea of Richard and him having a long life together when he shouldn’t have, but other than that...
“Don’t suppose you’d help him out? From the goodness of your heart?”
The warden laughed. Truly and heartfelt. “Ah, Randy. I’m a grade school vice principal. I used to teach high school. There is no goodness in my heart.”
Randy’s snort was particularly loud, and in apparent agreement. “I’ll give your baby a free tune-up, once I’m cleared to go back to work, if you help me out.”
Whoa. Did Mason just hear what he thought he heard?”
Mrs. P’s brows went up. “Are you trying to bribe me, Mr. Porterhouse?”
“Hell, yeah,” he agreed. “Will it work?”
She glared. But Mason detected a glimmer of interest there. Which Randy promptly pounced on like the predator he was.
“Come on, Mrs. P. We’re not gonna stalk the guy. Mason just wants to look him up and say hi, whatya been doing the past thirty years. And it’s not like anyone will know. I mean Mason already knows him. Who’s to say he didn’t remember the name all these years? I’m kind of surprised he hasn’t coughed it up. You’d never guess it, but he’s real smart.”
Mrs. P gave Mason the side eye. “I remember when he won that award of excellence in his senior year. Not often a local boy gets recognized at that level. Makes all us educators proud.”
Oh, god. That was a hundred years ago. Mason glanced around. Everything was midget sized, except for Mrs. P’s desk. There was nothing he could crawl under and die quietly of embarrassment.
Mrs. P scraped her chair back and Randy slid off her desk. “This better not come back to me,” she warned Randy.
“Not a chance,” he promised.
Unbelievable. Randy had just successfully bribed the warden. Or Mason had slipped on something and cracked his head open and was just hallucinating.
Apparently, it wasn’t a concussion, only a tune-up that could not be passed up. Or she simply trusted Randy. Which was its own special kind of crazy, even if he was telling the truth. The warden led, Randy followed, looking smug the whole way, and Mason shuffled behind in disbelief. Especially when they ended up in a dimly lit cavern under the school. It smelled musty. And damp. And god, had the school always had such a creepy basement?
Mrs. P paused at a bank of filing cabinets, read a few labels and pulled open a massive metal drawer.
“You don’t have this on computer?” Mason was utterly flabbergasted.
Mrs. P scoffed as such stupidity. “Entirely unnecessary information. No need to waste resources on something no one will ever need to look up.” She turned and raised a lone brow. “Except you.”
Ever the asshole.
“What year are we looking for? Do you have any name at all? First? Last?”
Damn all these questions he’d wracked his brain over day and, unfortunately, night. Mason suggested two possible years, when he was seven and eight, and that he thought mystery kid was a year older than he. “I think his first name starts with either a ‘G’ or a ‘J’.”
“Real helpful there, Mase,” Randy said, voice back to the contemptuous tone that was so familiar.
Since he couldn’t kick Randy, he settled for giving him a dirty look and the finger behind Mrs. P’s back.
Mrs. P shut the drawer and opened another. Each drawer was full of row upon row of yellowing cardstock, worn and frequently stapled to other papers. Just looking at it made Mason want to sneeze. She checked a row and nodded to herself. “Start here,” she said, pointing.
“Yes, you. I don’t see you signing my paychecks. Do it yourself.”
Christ, what a miserable old bat. But it would go much faster if he did it himself.
While Randy and the warden talked old cars with unconcealed glee, Mason dug through row after row of deteriorating paper, repeatedly catching his fingernail cuticles on staples until they bled. He got papercuts. This job was worse than moving. His back ached from standing hunched over. Also, boy names beginning with the letter ‘J’ were apparently in vogue in those days.
But a new niggle was growing in the back of his mind. Blond kid’s name was hovering on the edge of his consciousness. When his dirt smudged and papercut-stinging fingertips landed on the card, it leapt right out at him and he knew, instantly. “Germy,” he said. His heart pounded, and once again, time seemed to stop with a sudden lurch.
“Well, of course it’s germy,” Mrs. P agreed. “This basement hasn’t been cleaned since the seventies.”
“No,” Mason croaked. He could barely speak. “I found him.”
“Someone named their kid germy?” Randy asked. “And you call me an asshole.”
Mason plucked the card, and the envelopes stapled to the back, from the row. It was a lot thicker than most of the others. “His name is Jeremy, but I always mispronounced it and it sounded like I was saying germy.”
“You wouldn’t be the first,” Mrs. P added.
“But you know what the weird thing is? It’s spelled funny. With a G instead of a J. Geremy.”
“That’s dumb.” Ah, Randy. His bluntness was beginning to grow on Mason.
Mrs. P plucked the packet from Mason’s sore fingers, read the card, and flipped through the envelopes. “That’s odd,” she said to herself.
She glanced up. “He never returned to this school, and whatever new school he transferred to, never contacted us for his file.”
“What does that mean?”
“Probably not much. Either it was bad record keeping on our part, which I doubt, or he moved to a different state and the new school didn’t bother requesting a record of his grades.” Mrs. P scowled in disapproval.
Mason was not a fan of shoddy record keeping either. Of course, in his former profession that could result in explosions or death. “Did you—would you normally have contacted his parents?”
“We tried. That’s what all these letters are. Return to sender, address unknown.”
“He probably just moved away,” Mason agreed. Which explained why he never saw him again.
“Or his parents decided to home school him,” Mrs. P said. Her expression indicated she didn’t think much of home schooling. “Or he went into foster care.”
“Or he died,” Randy piped in.
“Randy! Do you always have to be so gruesome?”
“Well, he could have.”
With a sigh, Mrs. P handed Mason the card and tattered envelopes. “Put that back exactly where you found it.”
“Sure.” He’d be more than happy to put it back. That way he could have a peek at that last known address before he stuck it in a drawer never to be seen again. With his back turned to the warden’s keen eyes, Mason committed the address to memory.
Poor Geremy Robert Miller. Not a nice area to grow up in. Low income and high crime. And only a half dozen blocks—long blocks—from Mason’s house, if you knew all the shortcuts and didn’t mind crossing over a creepy forested hydro right of way, which, of course, no boy ever did.
Mason return the envelope to its exact spot and rubbed his dirty hands on his jeans. “Thanks,” he told Mrs. P.
“Don’t mention it,” she replied. “And I mean that.”
“Give me a call in a couple weeks,” Randy said to Mrs. P as they went back up to her office. “I should be back in the shop by then.”
“I thought you said you were going to be off for the rest of the summer!” Because plates and screws holding your arm together needed more than a month to heal.
“From Target. I still have a business to run.”
Mrs. P eyed Randy’s cast. “I’ll bring her by in August. Before school starts. You should let your arm heal completely. Perhaps you should stick to paperwork until then.”
She shook her head. “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
Even after they were back in the truck and buckled up, Mason didn’t start the engine. For someone who had gotten exactly what he wanted, he was feeling oddly angry. At Randy. “You didn’t have to do that.”
Randy snorted, his usual contemptuous snort. “She would’ve caved for you if you’d applied a little pressure. In her eyes, you’re one of the golden boys.”
“Oh, fuck you!”
“It’s true. You were the kid teachers get into teaching for. The one that learns, that likes learning. Don’t harsh on her for having a speck of pride.”
“What?” Goddamned Randy. “Don’t twist things around, asshole, and make me look like that bad guy.”
“Get over it, Mr. Sensitive. You got the name you wanted and she got to help you find an old friend, what’s the big deal? She knows you aren’t a wacko stalker, and believe me, she wouldn’t have let you spend five minutes in that school if she thought you were. And it’s not like you wouldn’t have remembered it eventually anyway.”
If that was true, why did he feel so dirty? Like he’d just convinced someone to do something wrong? He should have just tried harder to figure it out on his own. Now he owed Randy as well, and that was a big, fat no-no. Damn it. “Yeah, but now you have to give her a free tune up. That’s worth a bundle and it’s also time taken away from doing someone else’s car that you’d otherwise get paid for.”
“Do you worry about every goddamn thing?”
Pretty much. “No.”
“That Cougar is in such good condition, the tune-up, which it doesn’t need and won’t need then, will take me half an hour, max. Basically, I’ll pop the hood and stare at the engine for ten minutes, listen to it for another ten and get the kid adjust something that doesn’t need adjusting so he can find it next time, when it really is fucked. Plus, I’ll get to drive it.” Randy waggled his brows. “That’s the real reason she did it you know, so you can quit feeling so goddamn guilty. She did it as a favor to me, not the other way around. She knows I love that car. It’s stock.”
He’d have to be careful around Randy. Man had grown into one grade-A, world class, conniving bastard.