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Got your tape and it changed my mind

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The first thing Joe did after slamming into his office was pull out a pad of paper and start making a list: Pat, Mark, Bryan—none of them were likely to have money, but they’d probably lend him some if they did. He’d do it for them, anyway, even though he hadn’t talked to a single one of them in a couple years now. He was pretty sure Bryan had moved to Arizona; he made a note to look it up later. Kate, maybe—she was doing pretty well, which had always been a problem between them, actually, but if he had to tell her whose fault it was that he needed the money—well, he didn’t wanna tell her. There was the Corvette—where was he gonna find a buyer overnight, though? And anyway, if he sold the car, how the hell was he supposed to go visit Lucas in jail, where he’d end up anyway—the car wasn’t worth nine fucking grand. Whatever. He put it on the list.

He didn’t have a house to remortgage, no family to speak of. Parents dead, brother he’d spoken to maybe once in the past five years—no real issues but they’d never been close. And even after he sat there for five minutes staring at the Ramones poster on the far wall, scowling, no one else came to mind so—that was it. Short list. Short list and Jesus Christ, he didn’t wanna ask anybody for anything, anyway. He wouldn’t go begging in a hundred years if it were just for him. Fuck. He sighed and crammed the notepad back into a desk drawer.

Through the half-cracked office door, he could see Lucas sitting on the couch as ordered, leaning forward on his knees watching AJ and Gina haul stuff out to the floor, somehow totally relaxed. Well, why shouldn’t he be? He’d made a huge problem and now Joe had to clean it up. Lucas knew damn well Joe wasn’t gonna turn him in, to Mitch or to the police. If you showed a guy every day of his life that you’d do anything for him—almost anything—then eventually—maybe out of curiosity, maybe spite, maybe both—he was gonna make you prove it.

Nine thousand dollars was a lot of proving it, though. Nine thousand. Joe dropped his head into his hands. He’d asked Lucas to close the store—he’d trusted Lucas to close the store—that’s what he’d been saying. That’s what he thought he’d been saying. Even after everything, you’re the guy I trust. And what had Lucas done? Taken the whole stack of cash, driven his stupid fucking motorcycle to Atlantic fucking city and gambled it all away. Which would have been bad enough if he hadn’t come in to work after like nothing was even wrong; like he couldn’t understand why Joe was losing his mind.

Lucas knew perfectly well why Joe was losing his mind. Lucas wasn’t stupid, he wasn’t a moron, he was smart, too smart to do something this dumb without knowing it was gonna flip Joe’s lid. Without wanting it to. Joe was gonna fucking strangle him. Nine thousand dollars to prove he could jerk Joe’s chain. Joe wouldn’t spend nine thousand dollars to save his own life—

He picked his head up and took the stairs two at a time back into the break room.

“You swear this isn’t a joke?”

“A joke how?” Lucas said. He’d watched Joe’s approach with an expression of mild interest on his face, leaning forward even further over his knees.

“A joke,” Joe said, “like you’re gonna pull a wad of cash out of your pocket any minute now and say gotcha and I can take it to the bank and we can pretend none of this ever happened.”

Lucas frowned. “That wouldn’t be a very funny joke,” he said.

“No shit,” Joe said, and had to shove his hands into his pockets to keep himself from reaching out and strangling Lucas right there on the couch with about five witnesses, give or take, depending on which of his employees were actually doing their goddamn jobs and which were clustered around the floor-front window watching to see if things got thunderdomey. “Okay. So it’s not a joke. So you actually gambled away nine thousand dollars for no reason.”

“I had a reason, Joe,” Lucas said. “I’m not an idiot.”

“Yeah, you are,” Joe said flatly. “What reason?”

Lucas shrugged.

“Do you want me to deck you?” Joe said.

“Do you want to deck me?” Lucas countered. He didn’t have the decency to look scared.

Why had Joe come out here in the first place? What had he thought was gonna happen? He knew Lucas—he’d known Lucas wasn’t fucking around, that if he said he’d done something dumb, he’d done it. “Yes,” he said, breathless with rage, then, “No,” then, “Why are you doing this to me? You think I deserve this? You think I’m an asshole? You’re an asshole.”

Lucas didn’t look sorry or smug or even surprised. He just shrugged again. “I don’t think you’re an asshole,” he said.

“Yeah you do,” Joe said. “You think I’m an asshole and you wanna punish me.”

“I don’t wanna punish you,” Lucas said. “This isn’t about any of that.”

“Do I look stupid?” Joe said. “Is that it? I look stupid to you, I look like the kind of guy you fuck over for fun?”

“I’m not fucking you over,” Lucas said, and finally frowned. “You know what I found. Someone had to do something about it, so I did.”

What he’d found—Jesus Christ. “I was handling it,” Joe said.

“How?” Lucas said. He sounded at best politely interested, which was a fucking affectation—Joe knew it was—but that didn’t stop him from wanting to pop the kid’s head off with both thumbs.

“I was waiting,” he said instead, letting Lucas goad him into it.

“Waiting for what?”

“For—I don’t have to explain myself to you,” Joe snapped. “You have to explain yourself to me and you can’t. This isn’t about the fucking store.”

“Okay,” Lucas said, and shifted forward on the couch, looking suddenly more intent. “What do you think it’s about then?”

Joe opened his mouth, shut it again. Lucas was staring at him, expression perfectly open and interested. Check, it seemed to say. “Lucas,” Joe said warningly.

“Joe,” Lucas said.

“—stay on the couch,” Joe snapped, and stomped back into his office, slamming the door behind him and lunging for the blinds. If he had to look at Lucas’s face anymore, he was gonna do something he’d regret.

 

 

The fact was that Joe had been having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year ever since Lucas tried to kiss him.

It had been a totally normal Monday. Lucas was working the late shift, Joe was slogging through payroll, and Corey had fallen asleep on the couch in the breakroom. She’d been off since 5 but Joe wasn’t gonna make her go home if she didn’t want to, which she never did. She was using her math textbook, about a foot thick, as a pillow; Mark and AJ had moved all the actual pillows into one corner of the breakroom for some art project AJ was working on—the whole pile had been cordoned off with caution tape. So Joe was gonna have to yell at someone about that in the morning.

Joe liked being the last person at the store—he liked it when he was alone and he liked it when Lucas was around, too. Lucas had put on Come on Pilgrim, which wasn’t Joe’s thing in any big way, but it was kinda right—early January and it had been sleeting all day, slow and miserable. When he went to count out, Lucas was standing by a display near the door, leaning on a broom and listening to Black Francis wail. “What, am I paying you to do nothing?” Joe said. Mark had left a bunch of half-crushed M&Ms on the counter. Joe swept them into the trash with a sigh.

“Pretty much,” Lucas said. He was still staring out at the sleet. “And Joe?”

“Yeah?” Joe said, unlocking the cash drawer.

“You pay pretty good,” Lucas said seriously, and finally turned around, grinning. Lucas went back and forth all the time between looking solemn and all-knowing and looking painfully young. When he smiled, it was usually the latter.

“Little shit,” Joe said, and started counting tens. One of the lights over the Alt-Rock aisle was flickering. Probably buzzing, too, the music and the icy rain drowning it out. Joe would have to change the bulb. There was always something going wrong around here, which on a bad day made Joe think, pretty reasonably, that only an idiot would wanna own the place. But it wasn’t a bad day. It was a good day. Lucas was crossing the floor, still visibly pleased with himself, shoulders moving a little along with the music, and it was cold outside but warm in the store. The kind of day when buying the place didn’t seem that stupid, since it felt—well, like home.

So maybe he’d been too happy; too content. Maybe that’s what had made everything go belly-up. He’d been emptying the register, not thinking about anything in particular. Lucas was leaning on the other side of the counter, just watching in that annoying, inscrutable way of his, but Joe didn’t mind too much. “You ride in today?”

“Took the bus,” Lucas said, which was good. Joe wasn’t crazy about the bike even on nice days. “You gonna give me a ride home?”

Joe snorted. “Maybe,” he said.

“Maybe if…”

“If you change the music, for a start,” Joe said.

“This is a good album,” Lucas said, a little reproachfully.

“Uh huh.”

“An important album.”

“Yup.”

The wind whistled thinly.

“I’ll change it,” Lucas said.

“You do that,” Joe said.

Lucas came around the counter to fiddle with the stereo. He was standing back to back with Joe: there wasn’t a ton of space. The music stopped; the sleet got loud again. The broken bulb was buzzing. Joe kept counting ones while Lucas ejected the CD, rattled a couple of cases around, slid a new one in. After he’d finished counting out, he’d have to wake Corey up, probably give her a ride too. Sometimes managing this place felt like running a carpool. Maybe he’d see if Lucas wanted to pick up a pizza after they dropped her off, come over for awhile. Joe only owned about three movies and he and Lucas had both seen them about a million times, but if they stopped at the video store—

“Okay?” Lucas said.

Whatever he’d put on, it wasn’t even playing yet. “Fantastic,” Joe said anyway.

There was a long moment of nothing. Then: “Joe?”

“Mm?” Joe grunted, distracted—which was all he had time to get out before there was a hand on his shoulder, tugging him around, and a mouth on his—a mouth on his mouth—Lucas’s mouth on his. Before Lucas was kissing him.

It barely lasted a second, and only that long because of how unexpected it was. Beyond unexpected: impossible. It was impossible, Joe thought dimly, that Lucas was kissing him; and then the music kicked in—it was “Highway to Hell,” which Joe was never gonna be able to listen to again without thinking about this—and a car revved hard outside, a big roaring sound—and Lucas’s hand was tight on Joe’s arm, his mouth soft and. Careful. And it was Lucas. Lucas was kissing him. Lucas was—

Joe jerked back, then, so hard that he shoved Lucas back too—mostly an accident, just trying to get free. His heart was racing. “What the hell,” he said. His voice was harsh; it seemed to echo in the empty store.

Lucas didn’t say anything. He’d braced himself on the counter as he stumbled back a few steps. His mouth—Joe didn’t want to be looking at his mouth, but he was, accidentally, and as he watched, Lucas licked his bottom lip, a quick, involuntary gesture. His cheeks were bright with color.

“Lucas,” Joe said, lowering his voice on purpose. It came out like a growl.

“Yeah, Joe?”

“What the hell was that?”

“A kiss, Joe,” Lucas said, like Joe was the idiot for asking.

“A kiss.”

“A kiss,” Lucas repeated. “It’s when—”

“Shut the hell up,” Joe snapped, all good intentions going out the window. Lucas closed his mouth obediently. He looked perfectly calm. He wasn’t even smirking. It was the kind of face that had been getting him in trouble his whole life. Joe wanted to get his hands on the guy and—Christ. “I know it was a fucking kiss, Lucas, I mean, why the fuck are you trying to kiss me?”

“Because I like you,” Lucas said.

Joe had been having a perfectly fine day before this shit. A nice day. He’d had that idea about giving Lucas a ride—pizza and movie—Jesus, it sounded messed up now. “Like me,” Joe said.

“Yes, like you,” Lucas said. “It’s when—”

Lucas,” Joe said, and Lucas shut up again.

The song hit its chorus. Lucas was still standing there with his mouth closed, looking patient and a little amused, and Joe still didn’t have a clue what to say. “Don’t do that again,” he managed finally.

“What?”

“You know what,” Joe said.

“Kiss you?” Lucas said.

Joe was gonna blow his own brains out. His temple was throbbing. “Don’t even say it again, Lucas, I swear to God—”

“Why not?”

“Because,” Joe said flatly.

“Because why?”

“I’m sorry,” Joe said, “did someone teach you if you kiss someone and they don’t like it, you get to ask ‘em a billion questions about it? Because you don’t. Jesus fucking—”

“I’m just—”

“Christ—”

“Trying to figure out—”

“Well, don’t,” Joe snapped. “Lay off. Don’t do it again. It ain’t rocket science.”

Lucas opened his mouth then closed it again, eyes narrowing. Joe wanted to squirm out of his skin. He wanted to be anywhere else in the world. He picked up the drawer, pulled out a couple of checks, a little stick figure drawing of someone crying—DEB, someone had written above it—another stick figure of someone on their knees—Jesus. Charming. He shoved the drawer back into place with a clatter.

“Is it because I’m—you know,” Lucas said.

“A kid?” Joe said, glaring down at the cash register.

“I’m twenty,” Lucas said reproachfully.

“Like I said,” Joe said, “you can’t even drink,” which was a mistake because he remembered immediately all the times he’d let Lucas grab a beer from the fridge, just the two of them hanging out at his place, watching TV sometimes, sometimes with an album on that Lucas maybe hadn’t heard yet—Joe liked watching Lucas listen to anything for the first time, which had never seemed weird before. Why shouldn’t he like it, that considering face Lucas made, tilting his head, trying to figure out how he felt about what he was hearing? Well, it felt weird now. Everything felt weird now.

“I’ll be twenty-one this year,” Lucas said, and then, “Is it because I’m a guy?”

“Jesus Christ, Lucas,” Joe said, shoving the last fistful of twenties into the cash bag, and slammed the drawer shut.

“What?”

“Drop it,” Joe said, “that’s what.”

“I don’t wanna drop it,” Lucas said. He was blocking the way out onto the floor, and even though he was about a hundred pounds soaking wet, Joe couldn’t move him—shoving him aside would have meant touching him.

“Lucas, if you don’t get the hell out of my way,” Joe said, something horrifyingly like panic clawing up his throat—but after a long moment, Lucas stepped to one side, just enough to let Joe out—not quite far enough that Joe could avoid brushing against him as he fled.

In the backroom, Joe woke Corey up, shaking her shoulder. “Joe?” she said blearily, blinking up at him.

“Closing,” he said. “Ten minutes. I’ll give you a ride.”

“You don’t have to,” she said, but Joe shrugged and went to lock the cash away. Through the window on the break room door, he could see the lights blinking off in the store. Corey was sitting up and stretching. Her hair was flat on one side. She was wearing the shortest skirt anyone had ever worn in the whole of human history, which made him feel tired, the way most shit his employees did made him feel tired. The way Lucas kissing him oughta have made him feel tired, instead of so wired it was like he’d just done a line—almost shaking with it, that angry, that freaked out.

Corey had her coat on when Joe came back out. They walked out together. Lucas was waiting by the front door; Joe couldn’t look directly at him. “Out,” he said sharply, and fumbled the keys a couple times with both of them standing behind him, shivering, watching. He didn’t have to tell Lucas to get in the car—what was he gonna do? Make the kid take the bus just because he’d done something so stupid Joe couldn’t even—whatever. He trailed behind agreeably, got in the front seat like usual, and only started to look unhappy when Joe turned left instead of right on Paramus. “You can drop me off first, Joe,” Corey said, leaning forward between the front seats. “I’m closer. Lucas, turn the radio on.”

“Got an errand to run by yours,” Joe said grimly, and kept driving until they hit Lucas’s apartment complex. Lucas gave him a look as he clambered out of the car, but he didn’t say anything about it, and while he sprinted up the path to his building, Corey moved up front and tuned the radio to a pop station. Joe gritted his teeth and ignored it. He’d never felt older in his life.

That night, he went out and got pretty buzzed at a bar a couple of blocks from his place, sitting in a dark back corner watching the Eagles game and drinking slow and steady, one beer after another. He was half afraid Lucas might come to his apartment to try and talk about it—he’d always stopped by whenever he wanted, pretty much, which was yet another thing Kate hadn’t liked when they were dating. Another reason he hadn’t dated anyone since. “You deserve some time to yourself,” she’d said, arm across his chest in bed. “A couple boundaries wouldn’t be crazy.”

“Sure, I guess,” Joe had said at the time. It was one of those fights that started about one thing and ended up about everything. Lucas had wandered in unannounced halfway through what Joe guessed you’d probably call date night—he’d cooked, even if it was nothing special, spaghetti and sauce from a jar. And yeah, Lucas had used his key; and yeah, he had a key. But he’d left quick enough when Joe gave him a thunderous look and pointed him towards the door.

And yet: “He doesn’t need a key,” Kate said.

“It’s just a spare,” Joe said.

Kate shifted against him. “But he doesn’t have to use it,” she said, more ticked off, and Joe said, “Sure,” again, so impassive—so clearly not taking a stand—that she levered herself up on one arm and said, “Joe, I’m serious about this.”

I bet you are, Joe had thought tiredly, and knew then—whether he’d been ready to say it or not—that things weren’t gonna work out. Lucas had always had the key. He’d always had permission, unspoken, to come and go as he pleased. So what did Kate think Joe was gonna do now: take it back? Tell him he wasn’t welcome anymore? Pack the kid into his car, drive him out to the woods, shout at him till he turned around and fled—disappeared? Kate had met Lucas plenty of times. She should’ve known perfectly well that Joe could growl and snap and yell at him till the cows came home, he was still gonna do whatever the hell he wanted, and what he wanted was usually to bother Joe. Joe, although he had no plans to tell Lucas as much, liked it that way. Usually liked it that way.

He’d known, logically, that Kate should outweigh that. That if he wanted something real, steady, serious, he might have to say okay sometimes when he didn’t want to. He might have to say, Have it your way. Save up for a down payment the way she wanted him to; move into a house; not give Lucas a key. Live somewhere Lucas couldn’t barge in anytime he wanted.

That was fine in theory, but in practice, he’d blinked up at Kate and thought, Shit. Wondered whether she was gonna throw anything at him when he told her. Wondered when he’d get another chance at something like this.

Sitting in the bar, it occurred to Joe that maybe Kate had seen this thing with Lucas coming. That made him wanna shoot himself in the head. He felt so sick about it that he had to go to the bathroom, splash some water on his face to try and cool off. It was a dim rathole of a room, and someone had sharpied a dick on the mirror, but he could see himself well enough: crow’s feet, ten dollar haircut, heavy lines around his mouth and furrowed into his brow. Yeah, he wasn’t the crypt-keeper or anything, but he was old, almost the wrong side of thirty-five. Old enough and ugly enough that the idea of Lucas wanting—whatever Lucas thought he wanted—it was fucking stupid.

He washed his hands, went outside, bummed a couple of cigarettes off one of the guys hanging around the front door, smoked them all in a row, standing under the awning. The sleet had let up a little but the cold hadn’t. There was gonna be black ice in the morning. Joe thought about Lucas on his stupid fucking motorcycle, then lit another cigarette, mechanically, and tried to make his mind go very smooth and blank; and after that, it was bar close and he couldn’t put it off anymore. But when he went home, Lucas wasn’t there.

 

 

It wasn’t because Lucas was a guy.

There’d been guys before. Not for a long time, yeah, but—there hadn’t been pretty much anybody for a long time, and anyway, the thing about guys was it wasn’t so easy to find them, and Joe liked women just as well. He was thirty-five and mostly straight. He knew a couple places he could pick up men if he wanted to, but he didn’t want to, not anymore than he wanted—whatever. Who did he think he had to explain himself to, anyway? It really wasn’t the guy thing. Back when he’d been young, in the scene, he’d messed around with guys often enough, mostly end of the night, last call, just buddies stuff. A couple times he’d gone all the way—Jesus Christ. Why was he still thinking about it? It wasn’t the fact that Lucas was a guy—it was the fact that he was Lucas. So he didn’t like being called a kid, so what? He was one. Practically was one. A year ago he’d still been in his teens, and a couple years before that he hadn’t been legal to vote, and a couple years before that—well, back then he hadn’t been Joe’s problem yet and if you’d told Joe this was coming? He’d’ve called the cops on himself, probably.

The first time Joe met Lucas, he was sixteen and so scrawny you practically couldn’t see him sideways.

Joe hadn’t been managing the store for too long at that point and he didn’t have a fucking clue what he was doing. He’d spent the better part of his twenties playing drums in a long string of shitty bands, most of which imploded because the singer fucked the guitarist or the guitarist fucked the singer’s girlfriend or the bassist was dating the guitarist but fucked a groupie or ten, or the singer and the guitarist—well, seventieth verse, same as the first. Joe didn’t fuck anyone he worked with and mostly just tried not to get too invested in projects other people were pretty much guaranteed to fuck up.

He’d ended up at Empire kind of by accident. Mitch had been managing the place himself at the time and miserable about it; Joe came in about three times a week without fail to peruse the new releases. He was in so often people started asking him questions like he worked there, and because he could mostly answer them, he mostly did. He didn’t like it, per se—he liked being left alone—but what the hell—people wanted to know where to find the new Sting, that was their problem. He’d point them in the right direction, whatever, just to get them out of his hair.

After a while, Mitch noticed. “Hey,” he said one day, after tapping Joe’s shoulder about seventeen times until Joe took his headphones off with a grunt. “You looking for a job, man?”

“No,” Joe said.

“No? What, you already got one? Whaddya do?” Mitch had asked, unimpressed, so Joe had to explain about the bands—he was between gigs at the time (bassist-guitarist-singer love triangle). Mitch listened, expressionless, and when Joe was finished talking, asked, “You a good drummer?”

“I’m fine,” Joe said.

“Huh.” Even then, Mitch hadn’t looked like the kind of guy who oughta be running a record store. “Tell me something,” he asked Joe after frowning into space for a minute. “Say someone wants to pay one of your bands $1,000 to play a show. Who handles the cash?”

No one had ever once paid any of Joe’s bands even a hundred dollars for a show. Sometimes they got their drinks comped. “Manager,” Joe said flatly.

Mitch narrowed his eyes. “Say the band doesn’t have a manager.”

“...Me,” Joe admitted after a long moment.

“Great,” Mitch said, in that shitty rich kid way of his, like everything was settled. “You can start tomorrow.”

Joe had gone away thinking he’d better find a new record store. Instead, he showed up to work the next day and somehow never left.

It took him about a year to take over as manager. That was mostly because he kept saying no—Mitch tried to foist it on him after about a month. “I swear to God, Mitch, you stick me with that job, I’ll rob you blind and you’ll never see me again,” Joe said, slamming the cash register shut and handing over the take.

“Hm,” Mitch said, and scaled back to asking every month or so instead of every week. After a year, he called Joe into his office and gave him the promotion, along with a raise, over all Joe’s protestations. “Uh huh,” he said when Joe tried the thing about stealing the money again. “Uh huh. Okay, Joe. Don’t forget to do the schedule for next week.” So apparently he’d figured out that Joe wasn’t the kind of guy who could steal from his boss—that he’d do pretty much whatever work you put in front of him just because it was there, and because he hated to see things done badly when he could do them well. It was the least rock n’ roll thing about him, which probably explained why he hadn’t even bothered to look for a new band since starting at Empire.

Well, what the hell. He’d been getting too old for all the sex squabbling anyway.

Anyway, by the time Lucas started hanging around the store, Mitch had handed the whole thing over, which was for the best since Mitch was an asshole. And the fact of Mitch’s supreme assholery was maybe what stopped Joe from poking his nose into Lucas’s business for a couple months at least—because he kept thinking about Mitch doing the same thing to him. Only—well, Mitch hadn’t given a shit about Joe, really. He’d recognized that Joe was competent, and capable, and at loose ends. Basically a sucker, Joe thought sometimes, when the job was really grinding him down. Mitch had seen Joe and thought: I can use that guy.

Joe had seen Lucas and thought: that guy could use some help.

Joe was pretty familiar at that point with all the kinds of kids who liked to hang around the Empire—rich kids with money to burn on garbage Joe hated having to sell; popular kids who only wanted to grope each other in the listening booths; faux punks, real punks, loner freaks, losers; nerds, geeks, jocks, jerks, baby goths in dark eyeliner and platform boots, shoplifters—Joe was real good at clocking shoplifters.

Lucas wasn’t like any of them.

He did always come in alone, but not the way some kids did, skulking around like they hated not having friends. Lucas didn’t look like he had friends, but he didn’t look like he cared much either. He didn’t look cool or weird or lonely or angry. He didn’t look like much of anything. He wore the same outfit every day, t-shirt and jeans, threadbare flannel knotted around his waist, a backpack so worn it looked like it might fall apart at any second. Joe probably should’ve made him check it at the front, but whenever he thought about it, he ended up thinking again—something about the way Lucas clutched the straps. Like he wouldn’t let go for anything. And anyway, he never made any trouble. He sat in the listening booths for hours working through CDs and Joe had never found a single one missing at the end of the night.

It was a mild fall that year—Joe didn’t need a coat until almost November—and then suddenly it was an awful winter: it snowed once and kept snowing off and on for almost a week, the temperature dipping below freezing between storms. Joe was living in a shitty one bedroom where the radiators were too cold half the time and a fire hazard the other half, and he was in such a persistent bad mood that it took him until Wednesday to realize, watching Lucas square his shoulders and shove out the door around closing, that he was still just wearing the flannel and the jeans and a pair of shitty Keds, even though there was a foot of snow on the ground and it was Arctic out. Not my business, he thought, but he kept hearing an echo of the bell on the front door all night long, feeling the gust of cold that had blown in as Lucas went out. No fucking coat. There’d been a couple years when things were pretty bad with Joe’s parents—a lotta fighting, doors slamming, Sam stealing that car, getting caught, dad losing his job—still, he’d always had a coat.

Whatever. It was none of his business.

Didn’t stop him from thinking about it all night while the radiators wailed and clanked and got so hot the whole room felt like hell.

“Hey, kid,” Joe called out from the register as Lucas was leaving the next day. He was about the last person in the store; Joe was pretty sure a couple kids were still making out in one of the listening booths, but he was too tired to deal with that just yet. “It’s thirty degrees out there, you’re gonna freeze to death.”

Lucas, who’d been staring out the window for a long minute already as if steeling himself, turned and blinked. His shoulders were sloped and skinny, head too big for his neck. He shrugged wordlessly.

“Hang on,” Joe said, feeling fucking stupid about it, and went off to his office. When he came back, he bypassed the register and met Lucas by the door, practically shoving a coat into his arms. He’d brought it from home. “Here. From the lost and found.”

Lucas, who’d been fairly unflappable even at that age, held the coat out to get a look at it. “Someone forgot this,” he said. He didn’t even sound skeptical, exactly, except that his voice was so mild. “In the middle of winter.”

“Why not?” Joe snapped. “Looks like you forgot yours.”

Lucas did crack a smile at that: small and private but still. “Touche,” he said, and put it on. The arms were too long, the shoulders were too broad, and it hung halfway to his knees. But it was a good coat, thick and warm—it had seen Joe through half a dozen winters just fine. It didn’t have to fit to work, Joe thought, and waved Lucas off impatiently when he said thanks. Stood there watching through the window until Lucas crossed the street, turned the corner, and disappeared from sight. Good deed done, he figured, and went resignedly to clear out the listening booths.

Only he kept hearing the bell on the door all night again, and the next day too. Fine, the kid had a coat now, but the fucking Keds—so then, whaddya know, a pair of boots in the lost and found, gloves, a hat—“People leave stuff lying around here a lot, huh,” Lucas said, blinking down at a scarf Joe had dropped in his lap. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor near the stairs with a stack of CDs next to him, flipping through an issue of NME.

“Yeah,” Joe said, “fucking morons.” Then, mostly to get him off the subject, jerking his chin at the CDs: “What’s on the docket?”

In on the Kill Taker,” Lucas said, glancing up from the scarf—and Joe must have been making a face, because Lucas laughed, suddenly, a clear, bright sound, and let the magazine page he’d been reading slip from his fingers, the whole thing fluttering closed—like he’d startled even himself. “Not a fan?” he said.

“Hey,” Joe said, shrugging, “change my mind,” and ended up hanging around for another twenty minutes while Lucas tried.

After that he talked to Lucas pretty often—or, actually, Lucas talked to him pretty often—it was like Joe had wrenched the cap off a fire hydrant. Lucas had an opinion on just about everything: new music, old music, the other customers, sometimes books Joe had no idea what to make of—“The Prince,” Joe said, squinting at the beat-up library hardback in Lucas’s lap. “That for school?”

“It’s extracurricular,” Lucas said blandly, sticking a finger in to mark his page.

The guy was funny. It surprised Joe only because it took you a minute to catch on—he said so much stuff in this flat, mild tone that made it hard to tell what was a joke and what wasn’t.

He was helpful, too. Anything he found Joe doing, he’d lend a hand, even when Joe said, “I got it,” frowning.

“I don’t mind,” Lucas said. He’d caught Joe up at the front desk going through a big box of used shit, deciding what to buy. It wasn’t hard work—check for scratches, that was about it—so whatever, Joe let him do it. He didn’t get bored working on his own, usually; in fact, he was more likely to get annoyed about having someone else around. But Lucas had some of the shittiest thoughts on Megadeth that Joe had pretty much ever heard, so what was he gonna do? Not set him straight? It was satisfying explaining any opinion to Lucas because he wasn’t one of those kids who’d dig his heels in just to be asshole—if you talked him around, he’d let you know. And if you couldn’t talk him around—well, he’d changed Joe’s mind plenty of times too. He was smart. He was a smart kid.

That was around the time Joe hired AJ and then Gina in the same month—he’d had two people quit in October and been putting off replacing them ever since. Gina was great—she picked up just about everything in two seconds flat. AJ was an idiot but he was a sweet kid and he liked Lucas right away, so even though Joe finally got to escape into his office now and then, he kept seeing Lucas all the time anyway because AJ let him into the breakroom. “You hang out back here now, huh?” Joe said the first time he left his office to find Lucas with his legs hooked over the arm of the sofa, paging through a copy of Rolling Stone that had been hanging around the backroom since before Joe got hired.

Lucas sat up. He set the magazine down and peered interestedly around Joe through the open door to his office. “You play the drums?” he said, craning forward to try and get a better look.

Joe grunted. “Behave yourself,” he said, and went to make coffee.

It got pretty normal, having Lucas around, so normal that when he disappeared for a week that February, Joe almost called the cops about a hundred times—he kept picking the phone up with one hand, shoving it back into its cradle with the other. The kid wasn’t missing, he had to keep reminding himself. He just wasn’t wasting his time hanging around a record store. You couldn’t report that to the damn police. And anyway, he didn’t even know Lucas’s last name. It kept him up nights, though, and when AJ brought it up one day—all big-eyed earnest worry—Joe nearly bit his fucking head off.

It didn’t help that when Lucas did show up again, he looked like hell: black eye, scraped-up hand, this twitchy look like he hadn’t slept for a couple days. And he was down to just the flannel again, no coat. His fingers were white with cold. “Jesus Christ,” Joe couldn’t stop himself from saying, but Lucas just shrugged, a bare little gesture, and said, “Anything new in today?”

“Go lie down,” Joe said, waving him towards the back. He had three people waiting at the counter and AJ and Gina were nowhere in sight. Typical. “Go,” he snapped again when Lucas didn’t move, jabbing his finger towards the door. “Seriously. You look like crap.”

“Thanks a lot,” Lucas said, hitching his backpack closer. His face was unreadable. The way his hands looked, clenched up on the thin straps—it made Joe want to punch someone.

Later, when he’d cleared out the line and tracked down AJ (brick red and talking to some doe-eyed brunette near the magazines) and Gina (singing into the broom handle instead of sweeping upstairs), Joe went back to the break room and found Lucas asleep on the couch, crammed up real small in one corner, curled in on himself. It made Joe’s chest feel tight. The punching feeling wouldn’t go away. Whatever kinda home life the kid had, it wasn’t good—that was clear, even if Lucas hadn’t said anything about it and Joe hadn’t asked. None of your business, he told himself, but that didn’t cut it when the kid looked roughed up, when Joe was afraid he might freeze to death one of these nights. Fuck. He went into his office, tried to take his mind off it for a while by doing the March ordering. It didn’t work. He was in one of those moods—restless, furious—where the only thing that would work, probably, was hammering on the drums, but there was no way Lucas was dead-out enough for that. He gritted his teeth and kept grinding away at the paperwork.

He was half worried about what would happen when he actually did have to wake Lucas up—he kept thinking about Lucas’s knees clutched up to his chest, the defensive clench of his body. But then AJ banged into the backroom shouting, “Joe, are we holding a special order back here?” so loud even a corpse couldn’t’ve slept through it, and when Joe came out of his office, Lucas was sitting up, blinking and knuckling his eyes.

“Indoor voice,” Joe said, feeling about seventy, and got AJ the order. “And lock the door after, okay?”

Lucas looked very young and bleary, an imprint of the couch cushion on his cheek, red and pebbled. Joe still didn’t have a clue what to do with him. He sat down on the coffee table. “Okay?” he said again.

“I had weird dreams,” Lucas said. “This room has a really interesting energy.”

“...Okay,” Joe said. “I mean, like—”

“Fine,” Lucas said. “I just pissed some guys off, okay? Some people find me annoying.”

“You don’t say,” Joe said. There was no way that was the full story. Whatever. It wasn’t Joe’s….shit. Say the whole thing, Joe—not your—shit. Shit. “I gotta close up. Have you seen Gina?”

“I was asleep,” Lucas said.

“Right.” Joe cleared his throat. “You need a ride somewhere? After?”

“I’m fine,” Lucas said, so, great, Joe had done—he’d done what he could do. He’d done—

“You need a job?” he said abruptly.

Lucas blinked. “Here?” he said.

“You think I got another place on the side?”

“I don’t know what you have on the side,” Lucas said, both eyebrows going up, and Joe said, “Well, nothing. You want the job or not?”

“Sure,” Lucas said after a long moment. He shifted on the couch. Stretched both arms out, flexing his wrists. His elbow joints cracked.

“Great,” Joe said. Then, still apparently possessed: “I’ll give you a ride home, okay? It’s shitty out. I’ll get you a burger or something on the way.”

“Does the job come with dinner?” Lucas said.

“Yeah,” Joe said, levering himself up off the coffee table. “It comes with dinner.”

“Did AJ and Gina get dinner?” Lucas said. “When you hired them?”

Joe frowned. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I give you a job, you bust my ass, is that the deal?”

“Just asking,” Lucas said, blinking up at Joe—so anyway, that was the first time Joe ended up taking a bunch of fucking teenagers out to the diner down the street, where they all ate like pigs and stared at the jukebox so longingly he had to dig through his pockets and give ‘em each a quarter. Afterwards, Lucas disappeared before Joe could offer the ride home again—“Seeya tomorrow,” he said, and slipped out while Joe was still paying the bill. Joe thought about him out there in the cold, no coat, the whole rest of the night, drinking on his sofa, watching Seinfeld reruns.

It hadn’t been anything weird. Joe hadn’t been weird. Lucas had been in a bad situation; Joe had thrown him a rope. Someone had to. Later, they’d become friends, and that wasn’t weird either, because Joe was friends with everybody who worked for him and he’d thrown them all a length of rope once or twice because they were kids, messed up kids, and they needed a lot of help. Joe had never done a single thing to make Lucas think—and anyway, Lucas was kidding himself thinking it in the first place. Thinking he wanted Joe like that.

It was fine. Joe had told him no. What else could he do? And if Lucas wanted to think it was the guy thing, why shouldn’t Joe let him? What did he care? Even though, he kept thinking until he was sick to death of the involuntary refrain, it wasn’t. It was a Lucas thing. It was the fact that he’d never wanted Lucas—never thought about him like that at all—and never would.

 

 

Lucas avoided Joe for almost a whole day after the kiss, which was great because it saved Joe the trouble of avoiding Lucas. If Joe was in the break room, Lucas was on the floor; if Joe was on the floor, Lucas was unloading stock in the back. He was so quiet and well-behaved about it—no hangdog looks, no big production—that Joe was halfway to thinking he’d taken no for an answer after all, first time for everything, so his guard was down when Lucas walked into his office that evening, shut the door behind him, turned around and opened his mouth.

“Stop,” Joe said automatically, slamming a hand on his desk. Lucas closed his mouth again. “Stay over there.”

Lucas smiled—the kind of small, private smile that probably meant he was laughing at Joe on the inside—but he did stop. He held both hands up in surrender. “Okay?” he said, raising an eyebrow. He was about a foot from the door, which meant he was about twelve feet from Joe, which meant he was still way too close for comfort.

“Great,” Joe said. “Now get out of my office.”

“Look, I know I surprised you yesterday—”

“Oh yeah?” Joe said. “You know that? You know you surprised me?”

“Well—”

“It was a fucking ambush, Lucas,” Joe snapped. His temple was throbbing again. It turned out Lucas could turn it on and off like a switch.

Lucas shrugged. He didn’t look sorry. “What was I supposed to do?” he said. “You weren’t gonna notice on your own.”

Which meant—what? That Lucas had been waiting for Joe to notice something? That he’d been—Jesus, it sounded juvenile—flirting? “Jesus Christ, Lucas,” Joe said. His mouth was dry. “How long….” The look Lucas gave him—“Never mind,” Joe said real fast, and grabbed his own thigh under the desk to try and stop his leg jittering. “Look, it’s not gonna happen.”

“You said.” Lucas took a step back and leaned against the door. It should have been reassuring—even a foot more space was something—but it wasn’t, somehow, with Lucas’s arms crossed over his chest, his head tilted back. He looked completely comfortable. It made Joe wanna shake him till he was sick.

“So there’s nothing to talk about,” Joe said instead.

Lucas didn’t say anything for a second. He was frowning, staring at Joe, which Joe wished he wouldn’t—but it would probably only work him up more to say anything about it. “Just tell me why not,” he said finally. “You know I won’t shut up otherwise. You know me.”

“I did tell you,” Joe said flatly.

“Tell me more,” Lucas said, mouth twitching up in an incredibly fucking inappropriate half smile.

Joe sighed. “Lucas,” he said, and abruptly gave up. “I give you a big dumb speech that’ll embarrass us both, you back off? Is that the deal?”

“Sure,” Lucas said, which, Joe noted sourly, wasn’t the same as a promise—but what the hell.

“Fine,” Joe said. His knee kept jittering under the desk. He shoved it down harder. “I know you don’t think you’re a fucking kid but you are, or at least, I’ve known you since you were sixteen, so you always will be to me. You’ll always be sixteen to me. And I don’t wanna fuck a sixteen year old, and I don’t think you wanna fuck a thirty-five year old either, if you think about it, which—you never do, you get these ideas in your head—Jesus Christ. So it ain’t gonna happen. That’s it. Okay?” Joe tried to swallow without looking like that’s what he was doing. The dryness in his mouth had crept down his throat. About halfway through the stupid fucking speech, Lucas had clenched his arms tighter against his chest, blinking hard. His mouth was hanging half open. Catching flies.

“But I do,” Lucas said, voice hoarse. He cleared his throat.

“What?”

“Wanna fuck you,” Lucas said, and Joe said, “You said if I gave you the fucking speech—”

“I have for a long time,” Lucas said instead of shutting the hell up. “I wouldn’t have said anything if it hadn’t been a long time—”

“Yes you would’ve—”

“Yes I would’ve,” Lucas agreed, barreling on, “but I have. Forever. Since—”

“Shut up,” Joe snarled.

“You asked before,” Lucas said, almost reprovingly.

“Because I’m stupid,” Joe said. His mouth tasted sour. He was exhausted. “Lucas, what do you want? What do you want me to say? I said no.”

“I think it’s obvious,” Lucas said. “I want you to say yes.”

“Yeah, well, you can’t always get what you want,” Joe said. “So don’t bring it up again. Okay?”

“Okay,” Lucas said, much too easily.

“You’re gonna, though.”

“Oh, probably,” Lucas said, and pushed off the door. He was still frowning a little, not even at Joe, exactly—like he was lost in thought. Like this whole fucked up situation was just a puzzle for him to solve; like Joe was a puzzle. “You want me to do the trash?”

“Go crazy,” Joe said, and pretended to search for something in his desk drawer to avoid looking at Lucas as he left.

 

 

Joe had thought hiring Lucas would make him feel less responsible for the kid. Well. He’d told himself it would, anyway: that once Lucas had a job, he could take care of himself. He wouldn’t be wandering around, middle of winter, no coat on, getting in fights, sleeping god knows where—Joe still hadn’t heard a word about his parents.

In fact, it didn’t solve shit. So Lucas had a job, a paycheck—so what? He was still sixteen, maybe homeless—at least halfway to homeless—maybe doing well in school, maybe not—Joe tried to ask once and Lucas just laughed at him. “Why, do you wanna come to my parent teacher conferences?” he said. “You wanna sign my report card?”

“Aw, forget it,” Joe said, and didn’t try again. The question of where Lucas was sleeping was more pressing anyway. It was still cold out. Joe wasn’t a bottomless pit of coats; he’d already given Lucas an old leather jacket that hadn’t fit in about ten years and said, “Don’t get in a fight about this one.”

“We weren’t fighting about the coat, Joe,” Lucas said correctively, worrying his thumb against the zipper. Joe rolled his eyes. He knew that. He wasn’t stupid—not stupider than a sixteen year old, anyway.

It took Lucas a couple years to grow into the jacket. In that time, Joe hired Deb and Mark; fired Zach for throwing a party in the store when he was supposed to be closing (“Very bossly, Joe,” Lucas said while Joe was still scrubbing puke off the floor, and scrammed before Joe could shove the rag in his mouth); tried out for two bands, got offered a place in both, turned ‘em down; and Lucas started sleeping on Joe’s couch.

It happened so naturally Joe couldn’t really explain it after the fact. Either he invited Lucas over or Lucas trailed home after him and Joe never said scram, or some combination of the two—the fact was, Joe hated the flat look Lucas got on his face as he was leaving work some days, like he was trying to figure out where to go. Joe had someplace to go. His apartment was shitty but at least there was no one there likely to shove Lucas around or steal his coat or ignore him—it drove Joe crazy, the idea that Lucas’s parents just didn’t give a shit about him. It made him so mad he couldn’t think straight. So that was probably how Lucas ended up at Joe’s place the first time, flipping through channels so fast that Joe scowled and said, “You’re giving me a headache.”

“There’s nothing good on,” Lucas said unrepentantly, but eventually stopped on the Hallmark Channel, which was always playing I Love Lucy or I Dream of Genie, shit like thatLucas weirdly knew most of the episodes. He recited half the lines from memory, made a bunch of jokes about Ethel Merman, and finally fell silent. When Joe glanced over, he was asleep, the same way he passed out sometimes at Empire, crammed up in the corner of the couch. He was clutching the remote under his cheek; Joe had to pry it out of his hand to turn the TV off, and then he was over there anyway, so he threw a blanket over him. He kept thinking Lucas might wake up—he’d never been in Joe’s apartment before. On some level, it couldn’t feel safe. But Lucas didn’t twitch once while Joe turned the lights out, locked the front door, and went to bed.

He was gone in the morning. Joe made coffee and drank it leaning against the kitchen counter, frowning at the couch. Lucas had folded the blanket and left it on the coffee table. Joe didn’t even know where he went to school; he could’ve driven him.

Lucas stayed over a couple more times. He always folded the blanket. Eventually, Joe went down the street to Ace one afternoon, came back and slapped a key down on the table where Lucas was, for once, doing something that must have been homework—Joe fought the urge to inspect his textbook. “If you stay over,” Joe said, refusing to feel awkward about it, “lock up when you leave. Someone could kill me in my sleep.”

Lucas stared at the key the same way he’d stared at the coat—both coats—the boots, the scarf, the gloves, the hat—the same way he’d stared when Joe said, “You need a job?”

“You should get a gun,” he said after a moment.

“What?”

Lucas glanced up. “If you’re that worried about living in a bad neighborhood,” he said, which was when Joe realized Lucas was yanking his chain.

“Take the fucking key,” Joe said, and waited, trying to sneak a look at the kid’s notebook, while Lucas slipped it obediently into his pocket. Math—maybe physics. Joe had failed both.

Joe tried out for another band, got the gig, turned it down. You had to audition a band just as much as they auditioned you and this one had been pretty good. But they were young, barely old enough to drink, and hungry—cross-country tour crammed into one van hungry. And Joe was pretty sure the bassist and the singer were fucking. Joe was thirty. He wasn’t gonna sleep in a van, especially not next to a couple of twentysomethings who couldn’t stop screwing each other. He wasn’t some kind of pervert. And anyway, the idea of it—no money, too much beer, sweating on stage, not showering for weeks on end—it didn’t sound as hot as it once had. It sounded like shit, actually, especially when he had his feet up on the coffee table, drinking a beer and watching Apocalypse Now with Lucas providing a running commentary on the couch next to him. “Might be nice to hear some of the dialogue,” he said, just to be contrary.

“What dialogue?” Lucas said. He didn’t shut up. Joe didn’t really want him to; he was more fun than the movie. What was Joe supposed to do—leave that behind?

And anyway, even if he’d come to Empire by accident, it was home now, and also anyway, if Joe quit, Mitch would fire Mark in ten seconds flat. Mark couldn’t do his job for shit but Joe couldn’t let him get fired. So that settled that, pretty much.

Time went by. Lucas grew another five inches and eventually graduated high school—he showed Joe the diploma and everything. “You should’ve told me,” Joe said, and shocked himself by getting that sharp feeling behind the eyes that meant he might cry. He shook it off. “What, did you think I wouldn’t come? What’re you gonna do now?”

“Work here,” Lucas said, looking like he couldn’t figure out why Joe had asked the question. Joe could feel himself frowning. He had to force himself to stop. It made him angry—that no one had ever told Lucas he was smart, that there were a billion things he could do, places he could go, if he wanted. That he should want to.

So—“You’re a smart kid,” he said. “You could do anything you want. You don’t wanna work at a fucking record store forever.”

“I’m not a kid,” Lucas said. “And you work at a record store.”

“Sure, but I’m. You know.”

“What?” Lucas said.

“Older,” Joe said, mostly because he couldn’t think of anything else. What was he gonna say? An idiot?

Lucas looked skeptical. “Well,” he said, “you get a dream, I get a dream, how about that?”

“Go sweep the stairs,” Joe said, and clapped him a little too hard on the shoulder. Later he took him out to the diner to celebrate, let him have a beer back at his place after.

Joe dated a little. Dating was maybe too strong a word: Joe went out sometimes to one of two bars, met a woman, paid for a couple of drinks, let her take him home if she wanted. Sometimes, he saw her again. Mostly he didn’t. By the time he met Kate, he hadn’t had a girlfriend—it sounded fucking juvenile—in at least five years and he was pretty sure he sucked at it. “Okay?” he said, coming out of his bedroom in yet another shirt—he didn’t know what the hell you were supposed to wear to a nice restaurant. He was grimly certain there was gonna be a wine list. He felt like a moron. Lucas was sprawled across the couch reading Pride and Prejudice. Any way you cut it, the kid was weird. He wasn’t in school anymore; it wasn’t assigned reading.

“Yeah,” Lucas said, resting the book spine-up on his stomach. “I mean. Pretty much the same as the other two.”

“Lucas—”

“You look fine,” Lucas said, and if he didn’t sound that enthusiastic—kinda blank and disinterested—what the hell did Joe care? What did he care what some eighteen-year-old thought about his good shirt anyway?

“Some help you are,” Joe said, and went back to the bedroom to try the second shirt again.

“You really like her, huh,” Lucas said, still from the living room—and then he came through the front hall to stand in the doorway, watching as Joe raked his fingers through his hair, straightening his part. Joe could see him in the mirror. His arms were crossed.

“Yeah, maybe,” Joe said, even though he wasn’t sure how much he liked her and how much she was kinda happening to him—he’d only meant to go home with her once but it had been three weeks and here she still was. She was the kind of person who’d stick around if you let her. Joe seemed to be letting her. She made him laugh. It was hard to find people who did that.

“So it’s serious,” Lucas said.

Joe gave up on his hair and straightened up. “It hasn’t even been a month,” he said, but Lucas must have seen something in his face.

“Hey, good for you,” he said, and went back to his book—and a couple weeks later, Joe wandered out of his office to find AJ thumping Lucas on the arm, beaming.

“One of you win the lottery?” Joe said.

“Lucas and I are gonna move in together,” AJ said. He looked happy in that effortless, unreserved way of his, like he didn’t care who the hell knew it. “So I don’t have to live in my parents’ basement anymore. Or find a roommate in the personals.”

“Don’t answer personals,” Joe snapped. “Either of you.”

“Why not?” Lucas said.

“Perverts,” Joe said, grimly unsurprised when Lucas looked more curious than scared.

Later, Lucas came over and leaned on the counter while Joe was clearing the till. “We’re gonna go look at a place on Grand,” he said, flicking through the little stand of junky keychains next to the register. “One of the bedrooms has a fire escape.” When Joe looked blank, he said, “He needs somewhere to paint. His parents’ basement isn’t ventilated.”

“Of course it isn’t,” Joe said, and added that to his list of things to worry about.

Lucas flicked at the keychains some more. “Hey,” he said after a moment, then fell silent again.

“Yeah?”

“Just. Thanks,” Lucas said. For once in his life, he sounded uncomfortable. He was leaning forward on his elbows, head tilted a little. Not looking at Joe.

Joe finished shoving ones into the cash bag, zipped it, locked it. He joggled the drawer back into place—it needed replaced yesterday—and pushed it shut. Then he came out from behind the counter and slid an arm across Lucas’s shoulders before he could overthink it, tugging him sidelong into a hug. Lucas had filled out some over the past few years but he still felt like nothing, real thin, a little tense under Joe’s arm. “You need someone to cosign?” Joe said.

“I don’t think so,” Lucas said. “I’ll tell you.”

“Okay,” Joe said, squeezing Lucas’s arm. “I promise to come hang out in your little teenage rathole sometimes.”

“We probably can’t afford cable,” Lucas said.

“Never mind then,” Joe said, and tightened his arm for a second before letting Lucas go.

“I’m still gonna come bother you a lot,” Lucas said.

“You’ve been bothering me for three years, kid,” Joe said. “I didn’t think you were gonna stop now.”

“I’m not a kid,” Lucas said. He was wearing one of Joe’s old shirts; the sleeves came down past his wrists. He’d managed to say it without sounding petulant and even though he was young, whether he liked it or not—

“Yeah, okay,” Joe said, and almost meant it.

 

 

Lucas didn’t drop it. Joe hadn’t thought he would. He’d known Lucas for five years and while he wasn’t usually stubborn just to be stubborn, when he got it in his mind that something was right, that was it. He’d bulldog it forever.

In fairness, he didn’t try to kiss Joe again, not that Joe was giving him half a chance—he was doing his level best never to be alone with the kid, locking himself up in his office any time he wasn’t on the floor even though everyone kept giving him weird looks about it. Well, it was weird; he couldn’t pretend it wasn’t. If they knew why—but they didn’t, thank God, so who the hell cared if they wondered whether he was whacking off or cooking the books or sleeping on the job, whatever they thought, as long as it wasn’t the truth.

Lucas said plenty, though. After a week, he sidled up to Joe while he had his hands full figuring out a display—it was smart, Joe had to give him that: he literally couldn’t run—and said, “I could give you the list.”

“What list,” Joe said. Tab A was supposed to go into slot B but there was no slot B, at least none that Joe could find—you’d think these things should have been idiot-proof. He didn’t turn to look at Lucas.

“The list of reasons I think it’d be—”

“Lucas—”

“Good,” Lucas finished doggedly, and reached out to steady the back half of the stand-up, which Joe had fumbled trying to shut him up. “You and me.”

“I don’t want a list,” Joe said. “I don’t want you to bring this up again, ever. I thought I made that pretty clear.”

“You did,” Lucas said. He was standing much too close for comfort now, holding the stupid stand in place. Joe wanted to drop it on him but he kept grimly shoving tabs into slots. “You did make it clear,” Lucas repeated. “I just think—”

“Don’t—”

“If you listened—”

“Are you deaf?” Joe snapped, and finally took a step back from the stand-up.

“We spend most of our time together anyway,” Lucas said, fast, like he knew he was running out of time. “You think I’m funny. You don’t think I’m weird—”

“I do think you’re weird,” Joe said, but Lucas said, “In a good way,” rapidly, rattling on. “You hate going out—”

“You wanna—because I hate going out? That’s not a good enough reason to order delivery,” Joe said, then remembered he wasn’t supposed to be engaging and stopped talking.

“It is,” Lucas said, “because I’m almost always already over, which makes it perfect—”

“You can’t—” Joe said, and paused. He barely knew where to start. “There’s a lot more to relationships than convenience and not wanting to kill each other.”

Joe had honestly thought that was relatively wise, but Lucas just raised both eyebrows in interest and said, “What would you know about it?”

“Excuse me?” Joe said.

“I said—”

“Plenty,” Joe said, “I’ve had plenty of—I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

“It would be good,” Lucas said doggedly.

“Lucas,” Joe said, then gave up. “It’s your turn to clean the bathrooms. You do that yet?”

“No,” Lucas said, “but—”

“So go already,” Joe said.

Lucas didn’t, which wasn’t very surprising. Instead, he tucked his hands into his pockets and said, “Is it a persuasive list or not?”

“You can’t talk someone into liking you with a list,” Joe said bluntly. “You’d know that if you weren’t practically still in high school. And anyway,” he added, “I do wanna kill you,” which was true—he was half-fantasizing about getting his hands around Lucas’s neck.

“Hm,” Lucas said. It was crazy—he just kept looking at Joe, head tilted the barest degree to one side, a considering expression on his face. “Okay,” he said finally. “I’ll clean the bathrooms.” And then: “That back piece is about to collapse.”

Shit,” Joe said, and lunged for it as Lucas wandered off.

Later that week, he was waiting outside Joe’s office when he came out for coffee—Joe was gonna have to move the damn machine. “Can I come over tonight?” he said, following Joe across the breakroom.

“No,” Joe said flatly.

“Why not?’

“I have a date,” Joe said, but Lucas just scoffed and said, “No you don’t.”

It wasn’t worth arguing with him. “I could have a date,” Joe said.

“But you don’t.”

“But I could—”

“Joe,” AJ said, shoving through the door to the breakroom with his shoulder. He was carrying a box so big Joe could barely see the top of his head. “I’ve got some guy out here trying to sell us like—seven boxes of records.”

“Good stuff?” Joe said.

“No,” AJ said.

“Well, tell him we don’t want ‘em,” Joe said.

“I told him!”

“Well, tell him again,” Joe said, but AJ said, “Joe!” and anyway, Joe did want out of this conversation. “I’ll be there in a sec,” he said, rummaging around in a drawer for a spoon.

“But you don’t,” Lucas said the second he left.

Joe rolled his eyes. He poured some sugar into his coffee, too much, stirred it around, spoon rattling against the walls of the cup. “This shit was stupid when the Marx brothers did it,” he said, “and it’s still stupid now,” and when he glanced up, Lucas was looking at him with an expression halfway between amusement and disbelief.

“The Marx brothers were funny,” he said. “Have you ever even seen Duck Soup? We should watch Duck Soup. Tonight—”

“Nope,” Joe said. He took a sip of coffee even though it was scalding and went to rescue AJ.

Lucas asked a couple more times about coming over. Joe kept saying no. After about the seventh time, he figured he’d maybe better get a date for real if he wanted Lucas to pay attention, so he went out (he could leave his house when he wanted to, Lucas—) and bought a couple drinks and asked a nice woman named Lianne to dinner so that the next time Lucas said, “Can I come over tonight?” and Joe said, “I’ve got a date,” Lucas went to argue and then stopped, frowning, and said, “Seriously?” which was great—that he got it—except for it being weird—how easily Lucas could tell, sometimes, whether Joe was lying or telling the truth.

“Seriously,” Joe said.

Lucas frowned some more. “How?” he said.

Joe snorted. “Real nice,” he said, and Lucas said, “I’ve told you like a thousand times I want to fuck you, so—”

“Jesus,” Joe said, “we’re in the fucking store.”

They were up by the register. The place was almost empty, a mid-afternoon lull. Joe had gotten tired of hiding in his office every second of every day. It was dark in there, and it smelled musty; he was pretty sure there was mold in some of the walls, which somewhere down the line would probably cost thousands to deal with, but that was Mitch’s problem—hell, he’d probably just torch the place for insurance any day now. It made Joe mad, but whatever—it wasn’t his store. It wasn’t actually his.

Lucas rapped his knuckles on the counter. He didn’t say anything. His silence was unusual, and so uncomfortable, actually, that after a moment Joe said, “I’m not gonna never date anyone again just because you,” and stopped. “Don’t make it weird,” he added after a moment.

“I’m not,” Lucas said.

“Well—”

“I’m not,” Lucas said again, tetchier. “I was nice about Kate, wasn’t I?”

“What, you want a medal for it?” Joe said—and now his hackles were up too, even though it wasn’t wrong—Lucas had been fine about Kate. He’d moved out, not that he’d ever moved in exactly, and he’d stepped back a little—not that he’d stopped using his key pretty indiscriminately, Joe thought, stomach lurching unexpectedly. Not that Joe had even though he should. All those arguments about Lucas coming over whenever he wanted—

It would have been a good time to go out back and scream for awhile, but Lucas was already saying, “Kind of,” in this tone like he really meant it, so that Joe had to say, “What does that mean?” instead.

Lucas pulled a face like he was deciding whether to answer or not, but after a moment he said, “I could have said something then and I didn’t, because I thought….but you never even seemed happy.”

“I was happy,” Joe said. “I was plenty happy.” And then: “Just because I have one breakup, you think no woman’s ever gonna make me happy?” And then, cold realization creeping in: “That was three years ago, Lucas.”

“I know,” Lucas said. “I can count.”

Three years. Lucas would’ve been seventeen, almost eighteen. Sleeping on Joe’s couch, barely out of high school, refusing to go to college or move to Philadelphia or take a cross-country road trip or anything—because of Joe. Because he thought….because he was under the deluded impression that he wanted….“Do not come over,” Joe said tightly. “Do not make trouble. I’m warning you, Lucas.”

“Well, if you’re warning me,” Lucas said. Then, stubbornly: “I didn’t say anything. I just think I should get points for that.”

“There are no points,” Joe said, but his pulse was rushing in his ears. Three years. He couldn’t think about it anymore.

He went on the date. It was a bust. “Is everything okay?” she asked halfway through dinner when he’d barely said two words other than to order a beer, and he had to say yeah, it’s fine, it’s me, not you—the whole bad-feeling spiel—and then go home alone.

“How was the date?” Lucas asked the next day when he got in.

“It was fine,” Joe said, and kept staring fixedly at his inventory sheet, not looking up.

Eventually Lucas did show up in Joe’s apartment uninvited. Joe had figured he would, no matter how many times he said no—but he’d also thought it would be easy to order him right out again. Instead, when he unlocked the door and found Lucas with his feet up on the coffee table one Wednesday night, TV blaring, there was a second where he thought fine—resigned, maybe relieved—fine if Lucas wanted to come over. Fine if he wanted to sit on Joe’s couch, drink Joe’s beer—he still wasn’t twenty-one. Fine, fine, Joe wouldn’t yell at him, wouldn’t shove him back out the door—he missed having him around that bad.

Then a big wave of anger washed the resignation away and he was only mad again, which was simpler anyway. “What’d I say?” he asked, shoving his boots off in the front hall.

“Don’t come over,” Lucas said. He craned his neck back to meet Joe’s eyes.

“And?”

“I missed you,” Lucas said, almost contritely.

The TV switched over to a yogurt commercial. Lucas blinked back at Joe, his arm hooked over the side of the sofa.

“Okay,” Joe said, very calm, because if he didn’t make himself be calm he was gonna kick a window in. Then he turned around, walked into the bedroom, and slammed the door so hard his alarm clock rattled on the nightstand.

The last time Kate had been in his bedroom, she’d said, “He’s not a kid, Joe. He has his own apartment. Most adults, they have their friends over for poker once a week,” and Joe had said, “He is a kid,” and, “And we don’t play poker,” even though he knew—he knew—it was gonna make her madder, which it did. She’d been standing by the door, right where he was standing now, pulling her left boot on, hair falling in her face, and the second he said it, she stood up and said, “So learn!” and then, “Shit,” and then, “I have to go.” Joe had known it was over, even though neither of them was saying as much. It didn’t feel great but it wasn’t the end of the world. He trailed her to the front door, not quite sure what to do, and was close to just saying something insufficient—seeya, have a great life, whatever—when she turned around, practically hitting him with her purse, and said, “This isn’t about Lucas, okay?”

“Okay,” Joe said, even though it clearly was, but she made a frustrated sound and said, “Not just about Lucas—I don’t care if your kid brother sleeps on your couch—”

“He’s not my brother—”

“Oh, Jesus,” Kate said, “I don’t care. I care that things just happen to you and you act like they have nothing to do with you. Lucas and his key and your job and this shitty apartment—”

“Hey,” Joe said, almost insulted on its behalf, but Kate made a face like he was driving her crazy and said, “I don’t care! If you love it, I don’t care, but you have to say that, Joe. You have to say.”

Say what? What did she expect him to say?

He kept his mouth shut.

After a minute, Kate let out a breath. She touched his arm. “You have no idea what you want,” she said. “Why should I stick around if you’re just killing time until you figure it out?”

“Yeah, you shouldn’t,” he said eventually. It was clear from the way she sighed that she’d thought maybe he had a Hail Mary in him, but that wasn’t Joe. He just let her go.

Joe crossed the room and sat down on the edge of the bed, pulse drumming in his ears. He could hear the TV even with the bedroom door closed. Lucas always turned it up too loud. Sometimes Joe’s neighbors banged on the wall about it, which made Lucas prickly, but Joe didn’t mind—he just banged back and told Lucas to lower the volume. Joe came from a family where “shut the hell up” had basically meant “I love you”. Sometimes that had been rough, but mostly it had been fine, and it had always been better than what Lucas was working with: parents he’d still barely said two words about after all these years. Joe had felt sorry for Lucas right off the bat, the moment he met him, because it was clear that a lot of people had said “shut the hell up” to him and really meant it, treating him badly when it should have been easy to treat him well. It was easy for Joe. He started doing it and never stopped, or even thought about it deeply, what all the kindnesses meant, until Lucas was so much a part of his life, Joe couldn’t have shoved him back out if he tried.

What Kate had said about the job and the apartment—maybe she was right. Yeah, stuff happened to Joe sometimes and he just kept letting it happen, choosing not to push it one way or another, even when it could be better—when he could change it if he tried.

But saying it about Lucas—

Joe was so mad at Lucas he couldn’t think straight and he still had to defend him, which only made him madder. Sure, Lucas came over whenever he wanted and didn’t listen to a word Joe said about it. “Okay,” he said when Joe tried to warn him off, then showed up anyway. But Lucas wasn’t like working for Mitch or living in a drafty apartment—Joe didn’t keep him around because it was easier than buying a store or renting a moving van. Joe didn’t want Lucas gone; Joe wanted Lucas around. Joe liked Lucas. It was as simple as that. Lucas missed him? Fine—he missed Lucas too, and he wanted to wring his neck for taking just about every simple, nice thing in Joe’s life—going out for wings, sometimes a concert, hanging out, drinking a beer, putting an album on and listening to it straight through, shooting the shit about the production choices—and making ‘em worse because he couldn’t do any of them with Lucas anymore. Joe wanted to kill him about it.

The TV was still blaring. Joe hadn’t heard the door. Lucas was probably still out there, sitting on the couch, tapping the remote against his knee in time with the Radio Shack jingle. Joe was gonna have to go back out there and say it again, don’t come over anymore, and have a long argument about it, probably end up yelling. One of his neighbors would bang on the walls and Joe would shout, “Yeah, tell me about it!” and what would even happen in the end? Lucas would leave and Joe would feel worse than ever. He’d have to order a pizza and eat it alone. Joe dropped his head into his hands. Shit. It wasn’t tenable. It wasn’t fucking tenable.

So Lucas was a dumb kid with a dumb idea that he didn’t wanna let go of. So he figured Joe would give in eventually because he always had before—Joe had really never said no to him. Well, fine. Joe wasn’t a kid; Joe was an adult. Joe could figure out how to throw up a boundary or two, make them stick. Just because he’d never managed it before…he could manage it now. He had to. He had to find some way of making things normal again because if he didn’t—if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have Lucas at all, and that wasn’t—

Joe got up and went back out to the living room, opening the door carefully this time. Lucas was still sitting there, and when he looked up, face unreadable, Joe said, “You gotta give me a break, Lucas,” and couldn’t figure out how to say anything else: he was so desperate for Lucas to get it.

Maybe he did. He shifted over on the couch. “No funny business,” he said, and put both hands up when Joe scowled. “I swear.”

“I’m serious,” Joe said.

“I know,” Lucas said. “You have your I’m serious face on and everything. I promise. I’m serious too.”

The living room was mostly dark; Lucas had only turned on one lamp. “Do you want the remote?” he asked after Joe sat down.

“Don’t be weird,” Joe said—Lucas never gave the remote up voluntarily.

“Fine,” Lucas said. “Do you wanna watch Friends or Night Court?”

“Neither,” Joe said disgustedly, but Lucas just shrugged and said, “Well, I offered you the remote,” and changed the channel.

Joe’s couch wasn’t huge but it wasn’t small either, and he hadn’t sat down right next to Lucas anyway—there was half a cushion between them. Still, the whole room felt cramped and hot, and even when the stupid show had come back on and the laugh track was rolling, Joe couldn’t process much of what was happening on screen—he was thinking about the distance between them. Less than a foot. Every time Lucas shifted, Joe tensed up, forcing himself not to move; and every time, Lucas settled back in the exact same place, hands safely in his own lap.

If Lucas did make a move—

Joe would stop him, obviously. It would be a scene, and he was too tired for a scene, but if Lucas reached out and put his hand on Joe’s thigh, turned to look at him—turned towards him—Lucas shifted again, recrossing his legs on the coffee table, and Joe flinched, then got up and went for a beer. Stupid, probably, but he needed it.

“Can I—” Lucas started.

“No,” Joe said, cutting him off, and popped the cap on the side of his counter. He took two long swigs then came back to the couch, ignoring it when Lucas glanced over at the half-empty bottle.

“You always used to let me,” Lucas said.

“Yeah, well, that was before you lost your mind,” Joe said. “And we’re not talking about it right now.”

Joe took another drink. He stared at the TV. If Lucas reached over and touched him, he’d push his hand off. It wasn’t rocket science. If Lucas moved close and tried to kiss him again….he wouldn’t. But if he did—Joe would turn away. It was making his stomach churn a little to imagine Lucas’s hand on his face, his eyes dark and serious.

Joe had made out with plenty of people on this piece of shit couch over the years—he’d had it since he was about twenty. Women who’d straddled him, rocking in his lap, their soft hair falling in waves around his face. Some men, too, after a couple drinks, tentative and joking to start until it became clear what they were both after. He’d seen Lucas fall asleep on this couch plenty of times too. Those had always been such separate things. Now the memories kept overlapping in strange ways. It was making Joe seasick. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Lucas’s face, blue-lit from the TV. His hand was still curled on his thigh. With the other guys—the ones he’d hooked up with on this couch, right where Lucas was sitting—it generally started like this. Not that there’d been so many as all that. Still—a foot or so between them. Then less and less, a hand on someone’s thigh, a little light grappling, the TV blaring. Someone’s mouth on Joe’s dick, wet and hot. Fewer times, Joe’s mouth on someone else’s dick, a hand in his hair. He shook the image away but the next one to bubble up in the center of the eight ball was Lucas, shoved up against the arm of the couch, mouth slack, hand fisted up under his chin. The soft shadow of his eyelashes on his cheek. Shit.

“This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen,” Joe said, clearing his throat.

“You should have chosen Night Court,” Lucas said.

Lucas didn’t make a move in the end, but he did pass out halfway through the second episode of Friends, practically mid-sentence. He’d tipped sideways on the couch; one of his toes was almost touching Joe’s leg. Joe shook a blanket over him like always and turned the light off, glancing back for just a moment as he went to bed. Lucas’s bare feet were sticking out the bottom of the blanket, and his face was so soft in sleep that Joe forgot for a moment how much he’d been wanting to throttle him all month.

He remembered in the morning when they got out the front door and Lucas said, “That was fun,” in an inscrutable tone that wasn’t really inscrutable at all—Joe knew exactly what he meant.

“Lucas,” he started—but that was all he had time to get out before Lucas sighed and said, “Yeah, I know. I get it. Lay off.”

“Or—”

“Or I can’t come over anymore,” Lucas said, leaning on the wall while Joe locked up.

“I’m not kidding,” Joe said. “One foot out of line, I’ll throw you out on your ass so fast—”

“Ouch,” Lucas said mildly.

Joe scowled. “I’m—”

“Serious,” Lucas said, “I know. Relax, Joe. I know you could throw me out if you wanted. You’re really strong.”

It was right on the edge of acceptable, but Joe was too tired to fight about it anymore. “Watch it,” he said, and left Lucas by the curb buckling his helmet on.

So anyway, maybe he’d gotten through to Lucas at least a little—or maybe Lucas had missed him enough to stand down on his own. Joe didn’t really care as long as he backed off, which he mostly did.

After that, Lucas came over sometimes—less than before, and it was weirder, but Joe would take what he could get. There were a lot of things he wanted to say and didn’t, that much was clear; he got this look in his eye when he was biting something back. A lot of things he half-said too, subsiding relatively gracefully when Joe made a warning sound and turned the TV up.

Sometimes he’d go for a couple days straight without stepping a toe out of line, and then Joe would look up from counting cash or sorting mail to find Lucas staring at him from across the room with this look that Joe couldn’t describe for love or money, except that he knew exactly what it meant. It made him want to tell Lucas to knock it off except that Lucas wasn’t doing anything, actually, and when Joe did catch him, he generally had some kind of question ready—were they out of receipt paper or when was AJ’s shift supposed to start—and then they were just having a conversation, normal enough. But Joe knew what the fucking look meant. That whatever Lucas thought he felt, it hadn’t gone away yet. Ignore it, Joe told himself. He did an okay job.

It was a shitty couple of months beyond the Lucas situation, too. Mitch came by in early February, closed Joe’s office door behind him, and threw a bunch of paperwork on Joe’s desk. “No,” Joe said, sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, staring down at the fucking Music Town franchise agreement.

“Yes,” Mitch said, and they got into a long argument about sales, which were down, and taxes, which were up, and what Mitch called their “target market” and Joe just called the freaks who hung around most and spent the most money, none of whom, Mitch, gave half a shit about Rex Manning—Mitch had just broken that cheery little piece of news too, so it was a great meeting all around.

“Mitch,” Joe managed after half an hour of yelling and thumping the desk and a long tangent into the question of digitizing the inventory, which Mitch was for and Joe was against, “just hold off, okay?”

“Why?” Mitch said.

“Because I’m telling you—” Joe started, but he must have looked like he was gonna burst a blood vessel because Mitch said, “Jesus Christ, fine. It’s coming, though, Joe,” so that was just great.

“What was that about?” Lucas said after Mitch had left and Joe came out feeling like he’d gone ten rounds.

“Rex Manning’s gonna do a signing here in April,” Joe said. He didn’t feel like explaining any more.

Lucas made a face. “Why?” he said at the same time Corey, who was sitting on the couch doing her homework, shrieked and leapt up, saying, “Joe, are you serious? Rex Manning?”

“Yeah, real thrilling stuff,” Joe said dryly, and exchanged an eye-roll with Lucas before he remembered himself and went to the backroom to sort stock for awhile.

So the store was probably gonna get sold. Joe had been saving for a couple years, as much as he could, thinking maybe...but of course the second Mitch got a payday offer he was gonna take it. Mitch didn’t give a shit about anything or anyone other than himself, and he didn’t have a single hardworking bone in his body, either. For a couple days after the meeting, Joe toyed around with the idea of calling him up and saying, look, I want to make an offer, just not yet. Saying, Mitch, I love this stupid store you don’t give a crap about, so could you just—

He didn’t have the money. He didn’t have the fucking money.

He didn’t call.

 

 

Lucas turned twenty-one in March. Everyone made a big deal of it: AJ handed out party hats and Gina forced everyone to sing happy birthday and Corey baked a cake. It was beautiful. It looked like it had come from a bakery. Joe leaned against the storage room door, a little ways back from the group, watching as she cut it and handed Lucas the first slice.

Lucas was wearing a special party hat—it looked a little like a jester’s cap—and smiling in that understated way of his. He’d shoved the sleeves of his turtleneck up to his elbows and his forearms were pale against the black knit. When he took a bite of the cake, he ended up with frosting on his face, and there was a long minute where he was laughing and talking and Corey was cutting and everyone else was crowding in for a slice, no one doing anything about it. Lucas was just standing there, dark, sweet smudge at the corner of his mouth, grinning. Then Gina noticed, licked her thumb, and rubbed it off in the showy, half-sexy way she did everything: like she thought she had to make a joke out of loving someone to get away with it.

Joe didn’t want cake anyway. He went back into his office to do payroll.

Things got rowdier in the breakroom. If Joe was hearing things right, someone—it had to be Gina—had brought tequila, and was making Lucas do birthday shots. Joe should’ve ordered them all out, probably, except that the last place he oughta be was anywhere near Lucas while he was drinking. Someone turned on some music. Mark was scream-singing. If Joe was smart, he’d keep earplugs in his office, except that if he couldn’t hear every stupid thing these kids did, they’d probably burn the place down right under his nose.

Eventually someone turned the music off again, and a minute later, AJ stuck his head in and said, “Joe, we’re heading out.”

“Have fun,” Joe said, barely glancing up. “Don’t get arrested.”

“Why not? You’d bail us out.”

“Scram,” Joe growled. Bail them out. He was tired just thinking about it.

He was in the middle of a pretty dismal review of the books and half thinking about actually going home when his office door opened again, yellow light from the break room spilling across the dark floor—he’d only turned his desk lamp on, and it was small. His eyes hurt, he realized, and then he looked up and it was Lucas—of course it was Lucas—holding onto the doorknob and staring at Joe with his head cocked. “Hey,” he said.

“AJ said you left,” Joe said.

Lucas shrugged. “They left,” he said. “I came back.”

“Of course you did,” Joe said. He sighed and set his pen down, leaning back in his chair. Lucas was a dark smudge in the doorframe with the light all around him, but his eyes were bright black. “What do you want?”

“Just saying hi,” Lucas said.

“Uh huh,” Joe said flatly, and tried not to think about how, a few months ago, that would’ve been fine—this would’ve been fine. Lucas wandering in, sprawling out on the shitty couch on the other side of Joe’s office, complaining about the sagging cushions, the squeaky springs. Talking about nothing, Joe with his feet up on his desk listening.

“I thought maybe...does it make a difference?” Lucas said.

Lucas didn’t look that drunk but he didn’t look sober either. “How many shots have you had?” Joe asked.

“Just three,” Lucas said. “I’m fine. Does it?”

Joe knew Lucas. He knew what he meant. Lucas’s stupid party hat was dangling at his side, his fingers curled loosely around the band. “What do you think?” Joe said impassively, and Lucas said, “I’m asking you,” and Joe said, suddenly furious, “Is that the kind of guy you think I am? You think my whole mind’s gonna change because you’re technically—”

“No,” Lucas said, cutting him off. “I don’t know. But come on. I had to ask.”

Joe let out a long breath. He wasn’t. He wasn’t that kind of guy, the kind of fucking asshole who thought if a girl wasn’t eighteen yet, you could get around it by talking all the time about how much you’d wanna fuck her once she was. He was a good guy. If Lucas had thought…..but he only looked mulish, a little unhappy, not surprised. Not like he’d really thought it would work. “Okay,” Joe said.

“So it’s just gonna be the same forever?” Lucas said after a moment. His shoulders were up, like he knew he was starting a fight.

“Yup,” Joe said.

“Even when I’m fifty,” Lucas said. There was an edge to his voice. “You’re still gonna think—”

“If you’re still telling yourself you wanna fuck me when you’re fifty—”

“I’m not telling myself,” Lucas said. He was still leaning on the door handle, probably drunker than he thought. “You’re being an asshole about this.”

“Yeah, well, I’m an asshole about everything,” Joe said.

Lucas tipped his forehead against the door. “I know,” he said. “I usually like it.” He didn’t say anything for a long moment. He was frowning. Then: “You know why I started hanging around here in the first place?”

“The unbeatable prices?” Joe said.

“I thought you were—”

“Lucas—”

“Okay,” Lucas said, “not just because. This place has the most permissive loitering policy of any store in the tristate area. But I did. I thought you were hot. Sorry if it wigs you out.”

“It does,” Joe said.

“I barely knew I could think about a guy like that, you know?” Lucas said, as if the response hadn’t registered. He licked his lips. “I barely knew I could think about anyone like that. I was so fucking mad at everyone all the time. The idea of liking someone at all was—really novel.”

“You never seemed mad,” Joe said. It was true. Aloof, inscrutable, amused: sure. Mad? Lucas was so even-keeled it was almost a problem. Half the time Joe had no idea what the hell was going on in his head.

Lucas shrugged. “Oh yeah,” he said. “I mean, there was a reason no one wanted me around.”

I wanted you, Joe thought. Around, he thought.

“And then—I don’t know,” Lucas said. “I’d come in here and it felt really normal, like—the only place that was always the same. I’d sit around, read a magazine, listen to a couple CDs—”

“I know,” Joe said tightly. “I was there.”

“And sometimes you’d come by the booth,” Lucas continued, undeterred. “You know how you love checking in to see if anybody’s necking? You’d look in and nod at me and I’d think—”

“Lucas—”

“I wanted you to kiss me,” Lucas said. “I used to think about it all the time. Why won’t you let me say it?”

“Because I don’t wanna know that,” Joe said, but Lucas just frowned more deeply and said, “But it’s true. I can’t go back in time and make it not true.”

“That doesn’t mean you’ve gotta tell me about it.”

“But I still think about it all the time,” Lucas said. Then, jerking his chin up defensively: “And you look at me.”

It was like a bucket of cold water over Joe’s head—it made all the soft edges of the half-lit room go knife sharp. “Go home, Lucas,” he said. The words were like sandpaper against his teeth.

Lucas blinked and took a breath like he was gonna fight—then let it out. His shoulders dropped. “Can I stay over tonight?” he said.

Joe got up. “Not a chance in hell,” he said, but he had to make sure Lucas ended up somewhere. He pulled his coat on. “Come on. I’ll drop you off.”

In the car, Lucas rested his forehead against the window, uncharacteristically quiet. He didn’t push it anymore, or say anything about Joe’s hands too tight on the steering wheel, the way he didn’t touch the radio. Joe glanced over a couple times—just to make sure the guy was okay. Tequila. Jesus. Lit-up signs were casting wild colors across his face, so that he looked like David Bowie one minute, like he’d just been in a bar fight the next—and then the light turned and Joe had to force his eyes back to the road.

“You have to stop,” Joe said as he pulled up in front of Lucas’s building and put the car in park. He didn’t cut the engine. He’d been practicing in his head the whole way from the store.

“I don’t want to,” Lucas said promptly, like he’d been practicing too.

“Yeah, I’m pretty clear on how much you don’t want to,” Joe said. “But you have to. It’s not fair, Lucas. You’re not being fair.”

Long pause. Joe kept looking resolutely through the windshield.

“I’ll stop,” Lucas said finally, slowly. “If you tell me you don’t want it—”

“I don’t want it—”

“And mean it,” Lucas said, which made Joe finally swing his head around, except that Lucas was already swaying across the center console to drop a hand on Joe’s thigh. He met Joe’s eyes. His cheeks were red. Oh, so you can get embarrassed, Joe thought dimly as Lucas curled his fingers into the fabric of Joe’s jeans.

“Lucas,” Joe said. He could barely understand himself, he was talking so low. He kept thinking of things to say and not saying them. “That’s fucked up,” he managed finally.

“I know,” Lucas said. “I don’t care.” He tightened his grip just once, then let go and got out of the car. Joe closed his eyes instead of watching him go and grabbed the gearshift for something to do with his hand.

Back at his place, Joe turned the TV on, then the stereo on top of it, even though it was late and someone was gonna start banging on a wall about it before too long. He opened the fridge, looked through it—nothing there. Stared at the stove for a while, then at the microwave above it, then left the kitchen. The TV was playing I Love Lucy; Lucille Ball was stomping grapes. Joe could barely remember how he’d gotten home. He turned the TV off. He turned the stereo off. The apartment was so quiet he could almost hear the buzzing of the pipes.

He was angry. That had to be the name for it: the tightness in his chest, the way his heart was thudding like an industrial hammer. He was angry at Lucas, who wouldn’t stop asking, when Joe had said—who wouldn’t stop. His fists kept curling up involuntarily at his sides. And mean it, Lucas had said—what the fuck did Lucas know? What gave him the right to say what Joe meant and didn’t mean? What gave him the right to keep asking for more when Joe had already given him a job, a jacket, a roof over his head—he wanted to punch a wall. He hadn’t given Lucas any of that because he wanted something. Giving Lucas those things had been simple: he hadn’t thought twice about it. Lucas had had clear, understandable needs; Joe, almost without thinking, had taken care of them. And now—he could still feel the heat of Lucas’s hand on his leg—could see his face, jaw set, cheeks flushed—Joe had been half afraid Lucas was about to kiss him again, but he hadn’t shoved him away because—he was so fucking tired of shoving Lucas away. He kept trying to let him down easy. He didn’t want to hurt him—

Joe’s hand was on his own thigh. Bigger than Lucas’s. Lucas had long, narrow fingers. Narrow hips, too—Joe had stepped out of his office for five seconds earlier to grab a stack of timecards and caught a glimpse of Lucas on the coffee table, holding an empty beer bottle like a microphone, dancing up on his toes. Shirt riding up so Joe could see the barest strip of stomach above his jeans.

Stop, Joe thought, stop it, and pushed the image aside. Tried to find the memory of Lucas at sixteen, silent and scrawny and scared, even if he wouldn’t say it; or the way he’d looked the first time he stayed over, small and vulnerable, how Joe had stared at him, impossibly asleep on the couch, half tempted to wake him up and say, don’t just trust people like this, thinking: if anyone ever hurts him—if anyone

I thought about it all the time, Lucas had said. Joe remembered the way Lucas had looked in the listening booths back then—crammed into the one little plastic chair with his feet braced against the wall, headphones so big they obscured his face. Sometimes Joe had gestured at him to put his feet down, shaking his head, rolling his eyes when Lucas walked his feet down the wall very slow and showy, but mostly he’d just nodded and kept walking, already thinking about something else, even though Lucas had been in there thinking about him, apparently. Wishing he’d stop, open the door. Come in and.

And then it was January again, sleeting rain hitting the windows of the store, the broken bulb flickering overhead, and Lucas was clinging to Joe’s arm, kissing him, careful and reckless at the same time. His mouth had been soft but certain. He’d been shivering—nerves, maybe. Maybe how much he wanted it. Wanted Joe. How much he thought he wanted Joe—and Joe had shoved him away. Joe had shoved him away. Joe had said no. But if he hadn’t—

He was shaking almost too much to unbutton his jeans, and he was hard already, he’d been hard since the car, so it almost hurt to get a hand around himself, thinking no, no, no, thinking stop it but he couldn’t stop it: Lucas’s soft mouth, his ears that stuck out too much, the way Joe could have slid a hand around the back of his neck and sucked on his tongue until he couldn’t breathe, until he was panting for air. How he could have hitched Lucas so close, held him so tight, let him rut against Joe’s hip, right there by the register with Corey asleep in the backroom and the windows like TV screens, that bright and clear. Lucas panting hotly. Pulse going at his throat. Saying, “Please, Joe, come on—”

His brain was chutes and ladders. He was falling again. Lucas in the car—stop it—Lucas clinging to his thigh. Lucas kissing the corner of his mouth, unbuttoning his jeans—unpracticed, a little uncertain. Lucas’s fingers curled around Joe’s hot dick, his thumb rubbing softly against the head, Lucas’s mouth falling open—wet and red—Lucas blinking at Joe, breathing hard, wanting—

Joe practically fell forward trying to brace himself against the wall. He got in about four strokes before he was shooting off, cock jerking in his hand, all the air going out of him. When he could unclench himself enough to glance down, there was come all over his fist, on the hem of his shirt. A little on the high gloss moulding. He rubbed his hand off on his thigh, feeling numb, and went to shower.

The water was so hot it hurt. That was par for the course in his shithole apartment. Joe cracked the window to let some air in, except that it wasn’t enough—he was still boiling, boiling over—so he gave up and turned the tap half a degree to one side and let the water run completely cold instead. His skin was prickling by the time he got out. In bed, he lay very still for a long time staring at a crack in the ceiling, then gave up and got a hand on himself and went again, slower this time, thinking the whole time how wrong it was but what the hell—if he was already going there. And maybe if he let himself think it all once—except that he could feel it like a door swinging open. Staying open. All the things Lucas had been trying to make him imagine, and now he was. No matter how hard he shoved at the door, it wouldn’t close. It wouldn’t budge.

He woke up the next morning with something like a hangover and went into work in just about the blackest mood he’d ever been in. He yelled at AJ and Deb and Berko all before noon and almost shoved Mark over a railing before reining himself in, slamming into his office, and hammering on the drums until his wrists ached, and when he staggered back out, sweating and still furious, Lucas had finally dragged himself into work. He was sorting mail near the coffeemaker, a pair of sunglasses shoved up onto his head, and when he glanced up and saw Joe, his face brightened like someone had flicked a light on behind it: sudden and dazzling.

“Joe,” Lucas said, drawing it out a little. Between the sunglasses and the dark smudges under his eyes, he looked like a grainy pap shot—right outta LA. “How’s it going?”

Joe grunted.

“That good, huh,” Lucas said. His eyes flicked down Joe’s body, then back up to his face. Joe felt numb about it. Whatever. He looked like shit today. Maybe Lucas would finally notice that. But if Lucas was on his way to realizing how crazy it was to act like he was attracted to Joe, he didn’t let on, just said, “I have a hangover,” almost proudly.

“Yeah, tequila’ll do that,” Joe said.

“Jose Cuervo. Not my friend,” Lucas said.

“Yeah,” Joe said again. He wanted coffee but Lucas was blocking the pot. He cleared his throat.

Lucas didn’t seem to notice. Instead of moving, he picked up about half the stack of mail and held it out towards Joe. “Mostly junk,” he said. “I think the RNC wants money.”

“From me?” Joe said, appalled into reaction.

“Hey, they don’t know how hard you rage against the machine,” Lucas said, waggling the mail in Joe’s direction again.

What was Joe supposed to do? Walk away? He took two steps forward to grab the pile out of Lucas’s hand and of course Lucas managed to shift handing it over so that his fingers were touching Joe’s. Just ignore it, Joe told himself, but Lucas was blinking up from under his eyelashes, amused in that light, glancing way of his, like everything in the world was a joke. His sunglasses were making a little tuft of hair stand straight up on his head. He moved his finger once, not letting go of the mail, stroking the side of Joe’s hand, and—that was it, somehow. Joe jerked his hand back. The mail fell to the ground between them. “I told you to cut it out,” he said. The words sounded very distant—like he wasn’t even the one saying them.

“Well—” Lucas started.

“I told you,” Joe said. “You push and push—”

“Because you don’t—”

“Do it again,” Joe said grimly. “Do it again, say it again—I dare you, Lucas. Try me. I swear to God.”

“And what?” Lucas said. “You’re gonna fire me?”

“No,” Joe said. “I’m gonna quit.”

Lucas froze. “You can’t,” he said after a moment.

“I can.”

“You wouldn’t—”

“I would,” Joe snapped. “I will.”

“It’s your store,” Lucas said, and Joe said, “It’s Mitch’s store,” flat and final: just the facts.

“Mitch is a fucking asshole,” Lucas said. He looked more upset than Joe had ever seen him, his face utterly transparent for once. “Mitch’ll fire everybody—”

“He’s not gonna fire everybody,” Joe said, not bothering to tell Lucas they were all gonna quit before long anyway—thinking about the Music Town franchise agreement in the top drawer of his desk. Just a suggestion for now, just a possibility, but how much more money was Joe likely to save before it became a reality? So that was one more thing he’d made a huge fucking mess of. He thought about Lucas, all those years ago, saying: You get a dream, I’ll get a dream. And Joe just hadn’t. Not enough of one. He hadn’t wanted it enough—

“What am I supposed to do if you quit?” Lucas said. For once, he sounded mad—mad and a little lost. Joe wanted to shake him, then thought, oh—if he was shaking him, he’d be touching him, which was what he wanted most of all. He felt like dirt. Worse than dirt.

“Anything you fucking want,” he said, trying to make Lucas see—“do you get that? You could do anything, you could go to college—don’t roll your eyes, if you wanna know why I keep calling you a kid—I don’t fucking know, Lucas, you could go to Antarctica, you could go to the Grand Canyon—why the hell should you stay here? You drive me fucking crazy. Go do something, go find someone your own age—”

“Stop it,” Lucas said, and Joe said, “Oh, like you stop when I say stop? Don’t ask anymore. You think you want me because I was the first person who was ever nice to you—”

“I do want you,” Lucas said.

“No you don’t,” Joe said. “Okay? Just—cut it out. You don’t.”

“Joe—“

“And you should be glad I’m telling you so,” Joe added ruthlessly. “You know how many stupid things I thought I wanted when I was your age?”

“What,” Lucas said, “like to go to Antarctica?”

Joe ignored him. “I am a bad bet,” he said instead. “Do you get that? You think you want me now, but in ten years, you’re gonna thank me for—you’re gonna be something. And I’m gonna—you’re gonna thank me,” Joe said. “Can’t you see that?”

Lucas didn’t say anything. He was wound so tight you could’ve seen it from space. I’m sorry, Joe kept thinking, and wasn’t sure for what—for hurting him, for the night before—he wasn’t sure.

“You love this place,” Lucas said finally. “You’re not gonna leave.”

“Yeah, Lucas, I love it,” Joe said. “But I won’t stay if you don’t stop. So do you want me to be happy or not?”

Afterwards, sitting in his office with the door cracked, he could just see Lucas still standing there, working it through: one hand braced on the counter. The familiar line of his back. For a long minute, he didn’t move, just kept staring into thin air—then, abruptly, he bent to collect the scattered mail, straightened back up, and left. He didn’t look at Joe’s door. He didn’t come up the steps to try and convince Joe again—and thank God, Joe thought, even though he felt so hollow he might as well have gotten tequila wasted and puked his guts out the night before. So Kate had been right after all about driving Lucas into the woods, shouting at him until he scrammed. Hey, what the hell. Maybe Lucas would even quit after all. Maybe he would leave. Go to Antarctica, the Grand Canyon—what the hell had Joe been talking about?—whatever. Go somewhere. Do something. Give this whole thing up.

Of course Lucas didn’t quit.

Instead, for two weeks, he was a model employee. He didn’t step a foot out of line, say one thing out of turn; didn’t use the key to Joe’s apartment, didn’t put a hand on Joe’s thigh, didn’t stick his tongue in Joe’s mouth—nothing. It was unnerving: complete capitulation. Joe kept wanting to ask if he was for real then reminding himself that you couldn’t tell a guy over and over to stop coming onto you and then freak out when he did. Okay, he thought, watching Lucas as he helped some age appropriate girl with red streaks in her hair choose between two Nirvana albums. That’s it. Now you’re getting it. He could picture Lucas dating that girl easy. He wished Lucas would. Now you’re catching a clue, he thought, and made himself stop looking.

And then he came in one morning to find nine thousand missing from the safe, Lucas nowhere to be found, and the other shoe dropped. Complete capitulation his ass. Lucas wasn’t the kinda person who’d end the world in ice; it was fire all the way, one big swing with the flamethrower, and even though Joe was apoplectic—incandescent with anger—

The kid had balls, that was all.

He’s not a kid, Joe thought reflexively—then shoved the thought down deep, one hard, mean push, and took the phone from AJ when the bank called, steeling himself to lie his fucking ass off.

 

 

It was one of the worst mornings of Joe’s life, and it went on forever.

It would have been bad enough if it was just the money: taking the call from the bank, striding to the back room in a fugue, cracking the safe, knowing the whole time what he’d find. Seeing red anyway. Joe felt an ulcer coming on almost the second he realized the cash was really missing, and so was Lucas.

So anyway, bad enough—but on top of the Lucas shit, everyone else came to work crazy too, and they all expected Joe to handle it.

AJ had finally reached the end of his rope on the Corey front. “I’ve been working here off and on for five years, man,” he said, “so—I gotta tell her how I feel, I gotta tell her I—uh—you know, that I—”

“Love her,” Joe said, exhausted even though it was barely nine in the morning. Five years, Jesus Christ, about time, he thought—and then he remembered about Lucas, him and Lucas, and got so lightheaded he had to duck down, poke around under a couch cushion—what was he expecting to find there? Nine thousand dollars?—to stop AJ from getting too good a look at his face, and a little because his legs were unsteady. Five years—it wasn’t five years for Lucas, he told himself desperately, it fucking couldn’t be—but who the hell knew. Jesus. If the cops did show up, Joe was gonna be the first to come forward with his hands up.

“I’m gonna tell her this morning,” AJ said, trailing Joe through the backroom. Joe kept glancing around blankly like the money might jump out at him; like if he turned an inch further he might find Lucas leaning on a wall, sunglasses up on his head, smiling that infuriating half smile of his. Not missing at all. “By noon,” AJ said. “Definitely. By noon or one—by 1:37 exactly, Joe.”

Joe was having an out of body experience. If Lucas didn’t show up soon—five years—“Well, good luck,” he said, as evenly as he could. AJ was big-eyed and glowing with excitement, like I love you would do it for sure; like nothing could possibly go wrong. Easy. Good fucking luck, Joe thought, and then had to sit around waiting and waiting for Lucas to roll in, adding question after question to his mental list of things to ask a lawyer, if he could dig up a lawyer to ask, while Mark warbled off-key outside his door, giving him a headache. And when Lucas finally did stroll through the door with a bucketful of quarters, he looked so—he looked—

Anyway, that was a whole thing—where the hell, what the hell, sit down, shut up—not that it mattered at all what Joe said. Lucas wriggled out of every single question, unrattled, so that eventually Joe had no choice but to shove him on the couch and tell him to stay put, even though his hand burned after. He kept thinking he could feel Lucas’s heart thumping under his palm.

Everything was even worse after that. Lucas on the couch was distracting. He kept wriggling around, craning his neck, sticking his nose into everything, and, worst of all, opening his damn mouth. It was like he’d swallowed a pile of fortune cookies, the stupid shit he was spouting. Joe had to shut himself up in his office and, borderline stroking out about it, call the cops to report the money missing—except they put him on hold for about ten seconds and in less than half that time he realized that he couldn’t—he couldn’t do it—and hung up the fucking phone. When he glanced out through the office window, Lucas was staring at him, head cocked. Joe was still holding the receiver. He only noticed because his hand started to hurt, clenched up tight on the hard plastic.

Deb had shaved her head in the bathroom earlier. Who knew what was happening there. Joe wished he had more than two brain cells spare to think about it but he didn’t—he didn’t. Corey and Gina were bouncing off the fucking walls. Joe was pretty sure he oughta lock ‘em up in the copy room for their own safety, even if he wasn’t sure why, but with Lucas on the couch, he was already understaffed—mostly because his staff hated doing their work, but still. Even Mark was more off the wall than Joe had almost ever seen him, and Mark was always off the wall. He kept stopping in the middle of the aisles, swaying, staring into space with this look on his face like someone had screwed his cap on tight and shaken him until he was about to explode. Well, join the club.

Any other day, Joe probably would’ve left them all to burn the store down, hauled Lucas back to his apartment, shackled him to a radiator, and gone right out to try and raise the money. Only it wasn’t any other day. It was Rex Manning day.

He was still gripping the receiver. After a moment, he let go, flexed his fingers a couple times at his side.

“I have to use the bathroom,” Lucas said the second Joe left his office. He’d shifted all the way to the edge of the couch so he had a clear line of sight out into the store.

“No you don’t,” Joe said, and stepped over Lucas’s legs to drop down on the couch next to him. “Look, what did you think was gonna happen?”

“With the money?” Lucas said. He’d turned his whole body towards Joe. Joe was ignoring it. “Or—”

“Yeah,” Joe said, letting his head drop back. His neck twinged. He’d been sleeping on the same mattress since he was about twenty; it was a piece of shit but it had only started to feel like a piece of shit recently, which maybe meant he really was old. Lucas had spent most of the past five years sleeping on a sofa and he seemed fine, which meant he was young, which Joe had already known. “With the money,” he said.

“Joe,” Lucas said, “everything’s gonna be okay.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah,” Lucas said.

Joe glanced over at him. “That’s not what I asked,” he said, then sighed and looked back up at the ceiling again. “I would’ve given you the money. If you needed it for something.”

“I know,” Lucas said.

“Anything you’ve ever needed—”

“I know,” Lucas said again, and took a quick, audible breath, like he was ready to say something else. Joe didn’t wanna hear it.

“Yeah, okay, I don’t need a whole—it’s not a whole thing,” Joe said. “I’m just saying, if you are in trouble—”

“I told you—”

“I know,” Joe said, “Jesus. If you give me that Karate Kid crap again, I swear. What the hell is with you today?” Then, before Lucas could answer—“You know, I wish you were? I wish you were in trouble. Because if you were in trouble, you might have some reason for doing this other than being—what? Mad? That you didn’t get what you want? You know? If you owed a guy nine thousand dollars for—cocaine or something—then you woulda stolen nine thousand dollars to pay a guy for cocaine, and that would be stupid, Lucas, but it wouldn’t be half as stupid as stealing nine thousand dollars because I don’t—because I won’t let you—just because you’re so fucking desperate to throw it all way,” he managed finally. His throat was tight.

He wasn’t sure Lucas would even understand, but he did. “I don’t want to throw it away,” Lucas said. “I want to keep it.”

“Uh huh,” Joe said.

“I’m not stupid,” Lucas said, “I don’t just wanna fuck you,” and Joe would’ve shut him up there except that he could feel it in his thighs, the heat of it. “I want—”

The break room door swung open. “Lucas,” AJ said, “where did you—oh, hey, Joe.”

Joe was already standing up. “I’ll be in my office,” he told AJ, “if anyone—if you need anything. You guys setting up?”

“Yeah,” AJ said.

“Okay,” Joe said tightly, “in my office,” and almost stumbled stepping over Lucas’s legs again on his way back to the stairs.

He was still head-down half-thinking about what the hell Lucas had been planning to say when Gina started blasting the stupid song half an hour later. Ignore it, he thought, gritting his teeth—he was trying to figure out whether he could sell the Corvette after all, and if so, where—and also if so, whether he could do it today, since the clock was ticking. He loved the stupid car. He did. But if it was between the car and Lucas—and then Gina started talking over the song and that was it, he was just mad again, plain and simple, storming into the backroom and throwing it all at them—the code of conduct and the fluorescent orange aprons that Mitch had sent over, all the stuff he’d been ignoring while he went back and forth over the books, trying to figure out what to say—whether he’d saved enough—”What the hell is this?” Corey said, looking up at him in confusion. Joe didn’t answer. She was smart. If she couldn’t tell right away, it was because she didn’t want to.

They were all just kids, he thought, watching them read the handouts, shake out the aprons. They were kids and they thought Joe could do anything, stop any bad thing from happening, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t stop this.

It was a shitty day to have a shoplifter but Joe had clearly walked under a ladder or cracked a mirror or something because an hour later, Lucas ended up chasing some kid around the building, hauling him back inside like a cat with a dead mouse in his mouth: pretty fucking pleased with himself. Bad things came in threes, Joe was pretty sure, so probably there was a bomb in the basement waiting to go off too—except that he was in the middle of calling the cops and trying to wrangle Lucas into wrangling the kid into posing for a mugshot at the same time when fucking Rex Manning finally showed up and Joe remembered, right, that was the third bad thing, and it sucked even more than the shoplifter, who’d almost been fun. At least, it had been fun—Joe couldn’t help it—to watch Lucas run him down. It had been normal, anyway, which nothing was anymore.

Manning was an asshole. That didn’t come as a surprise—Joe could have told you he would be. He’d been a big star and he wasn’t anymore. It wasn’t rocket science. Joe had to run around for half an hour trying to find a chair he was willing to sit in, which made him feel more like dirt than he ever had back when he was playing drums for nothing, drunk assholes booing his mediocre band, sometimes throwing shit on stage. Every time he stomped through the back room, Lucas tried to catch his eye. Joe was only human: sometimes he let him, making a face like, get a load of this guy. Lucas made a face back. Then Joe had to stomp off to find something else for His Highness and Lucas went back to whatever he was doing—apparently driving Manning’s handler so crazy she eventually walked out mid-signing. It should’ve been illegal, Joe thought, gaping at the door as it slammed in his face, thunking his forehead against the doorframe. If you were a snake wrangler, you couldn’t show up somewhere with a seven foot python and then leave without it. If you were a weapons specialist, you couldn’t abandon a live bomb in someone’s house without giving them defusal instructions.

Fuck it. He threw some AC/DC on the jukebox, closed his blinds, and picked up his sticks.

Usually whaling on the drums turned Joe’s brain right off. He’d almost never had a problem he couldn’t pummel into flat white nothing, so that by the end of a couple songs he didn’t care anymore—he could take it, whatever the bad thing he’d been running from was.

It wasn’t working today, though. He rolled his neck and shook his shoulders out and laid into the set but the cool blank feeling never came. He was hitting so hard his arms ached, sweating hard almost right away, but he still felt like a headache coming on, slow and brutal, and he couldn’t stop thinking about how bad it all was—he couldn’t make it go away. He was gonna lose the store. He was gonna lose the car. He was gonna lose Lucas. He was gonna lose Lucas because Lucas wouldn’t back off. Because Lucas didn’t understand that when you had a good thing going, you shouldn’t push it—

Except—what had he done with the store?, he thought, drumming harder to try and drown the voice out. He hadn’t pushed it and look what had happened: he’d have a choice between running a fucking MusicTown or running nothing, and that was if he figured out how to fix Lucas’s fuck-up.

There was a rapid knock at the door, forceful enough that the blinds rattled against the window, and when Joe finally opened it, sticks in hand, AJ was standing there shifting from foot to foot, nervous. “Mitch is here,” he said. The phone was still dangling off the hook, juddering against the wall.

Shit,” Joe said, and flew out of the office, shoving the sticks at AJ and tucking his shirt in where it had come loose while he was playing.

He didn’t think he was actually gonna lie to Mitch until it was happening.

The whole way back to the safe he kept thinking, Okay, this is fine, like it was manageable. Okay, this is fine, I’ll take Mitch into my office and tell him—. Big blank. Nothing came to mind. Okay, this is fine, I’ll haul Lucas up off the couch and make him tell Mitch—. But it was like trying to imagine shoving Lucas into traffic, standing by and watching as a bus barrelled down on him: he couldn’t do it. He glanced through the door. In the break room, Lucas was talking to Mitch, that almost alien earnest expression on his face. Mitch was tapping his foot. If Joe went out there and said, Mitch, I don’t have the money, and Mitch said why, and Joe said well, long story short, this guy did something so damn dumb—

It would be like shoving Lucas into traffic.

Joe took a breath. His hands weren’t shaking. They pretty much never did; he’d trained himself out of it in high school after he took up the drums. You couldn’t get shaky nervous and still play in the rhythm section, so.

He glanced through the door again. Lucas was still talking. Last chance, he told himself, but he was already reaching for the stack of fliers above the safe, folding them in half, cramming them into the cash bag and zipping it shut. Locking it. Setting the key down on the shelf with the rest of the fliers before taking the bag out to Mitch.

He’d left the key behind in case Mitch got it in his head to check the cash, but he shouldn’t have bothered. Mitch barely looked at the bag, he was so eager to leave. Joe probably should’ve been grateful—he’d kicked the can another few feet down the road—but he was too busy being furious instead: at Mitch for never giving a shit about the store unless he thought it might stop coughing up money. At Lucas for sitting so calmly on the couch, apparently unworried, like he knew for a fact that whatever stupid shit he’d done, Joe would take the hit for him. At himself, most of all, for proving the kid right.

He kept watching Mitch until the door swung shut on him, mostly buying time. When he finally glanced over at Lucas, there was this look on his face like—Jesus. Joe didn’t know. Calm and steady, steady enough that Joe almost felt calm too, like a snake being hypnotized. Watching Lucas, Lucas watching him back. Mitch sucks, Joe could almost hear Lucas thinking. Yeah, he thought back, he fucking does. He could feel his blood pressure coming down even though Mitch was gonna make it to the bank within the hour and find out he was getting screwed. Who cared? For a long, slow moment, Joe didn’t care. I hate Mitch, he thought, and Lucas was looking back at him and thinking I hate Mitch too and he Lucas were on the same team, for five seconds they were on the same team —

And then Lucas started to smile and it all went to shit again.

It wasn’t that Joe didn’t get it, what it meant, the way Lucas’s eyes were crinkling at the corners, the way his face was—just, the way he was looking at Joe. Joe got it. That was the fucking problem. “Who was that guy?” Warren was saying, kicking his feet back up onto the coffee table between them, and Lucas was smiling, brighter and brighter, looking at Joe like. Looking at Joe. Looking like—

“He was a real fucking shithead,” Warren said, glancing sidelong at Joe. “You’re all a buncha shitheads around here.”

The anger was back, so strong Joe couldn’t think. It was coming in waves. He was angry about everything. He was angry that Lucas had thought Joe might rat him out, somehow even angrier that Lucas knew now he never would. That he couldn’t. That for the rest of his life, no matter what trouble Lucas got in—if he robbed a bank or killed a man or became an ecoterrorist, whatever—he could sit pretty in his jail cell knowing that sooner or later, Joe would show up to bail him out, or to say, actually, officer, it was me—I did it—take me instead.

Mitch was gonna go to the bank now. He’d give them the cash bag. Some cashier would open it up, make a face—an I’m-gonna-have-to-call-my-manager face—and say, “Sir,” and pull out the stack of fliers, and Mitch was gonna stare at them, dead silent with surprise, then fly out of there, get in his hot-shit car wearing his hot-shit suit and speed back here and storm in looking for his money and Joe was gonna say: It was me. I did it. Take me.

And that was bad for Joe because he wouldn’t have a job anymore, and because he’d owe Mitch nine thousand dollars.

But it was bad for Lucas too.

Warren was still looking back and forth between them. “I thought Lucas stole all your money,” he said. “So what’d you even give that guy anyway? Hey, if you let the cops in here, I’m gonna tell ‘em—”

“You, shut up,” Joe said flatly. “And you—stop smiling. Stay on the couch. Get up again and I’ll—” What? He’d what? He couldn’t think of a single threat to make that wouldn’t feel flat and fake after everything he’d done so far. It was like trying to play poker with a full-length mirror at his back; Lucas could see his whole hand. “Just don’t get up,” he said finally.

“A smile isn’t something you can control, Joe,” Lucas said. “A smile—”

“What the hell do you mean, not something you can control? It’s your fucking face. Cut it out.”

“Why?” Lucas said.

“Because I’m telling you to,” Joe said shortly, “not that you ever think that’s a good reason to do anything,” and went to try and find somewhere he could sit in peace for five minutes with his head between his knees.

The bathroom was locked—probably someone else shaving their head, why the hell not; if CDs weren’t selling, maybe they could start giving haircuts—and the main store was a hotbed of middle-aged women lined up and panting to get a look at Manning. It made Joe wanna hurl. In the end, he cut out the side door, reaching involuntarily for a pack of cigarettes as it began to scrape slowly shut behind him—muscle memory, still strong even though he’d quit a couple years back. He pulled his hand out of his pocket, empty, and tipped his head back against the wall, wincing as the door kept creaking jerkily closed. He’d told AJ to oil the hinges last week but of course he hadn’t. No one ever did what Joe said. They all wanted his advice but when he gave it—whatever. What did he care if the door wailed like an air raid siren. It wasn’t his store; he was only gonna go to jail for it. What the hell did he care anyway.

The thing about taking the fall for Lucas….

Take a kid like Warren for example. Warren had tried to steal five stupid CDs, maybe forty dollars worth of shit all told. Forty dollars wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things. It wasn’t gonna wreck the store. But Joe still called the cops about forty dollars because someone had to sit down and scare the kid straight, teach him some kinda basic lesson: if it ain’t yours don’t touch it, that kind of thing.

When someone did something wrong, they oughta face the consequences, learn from their mistakes. Joe knew that. Only—when it came to Lucas—

Joe couldn’t think straight about it. If AJ stole nine thousand dollars….it wasn’t that he didn’t let all of them walk all over him. But if it was AJ, or Deb, or Gina—

“Ladies and—ladies,” the megaphone over the door blared abruptly, “please refrain from shoving in line. Rexy’s still gonna be sexy by the time you make it to the front,” so things were clearly going great in there. Joe thunked his head back against the wall a couple times and groaned out loud. It didn’t help. He still felt too big for his skin. Even his necklace, which he’d been wearing every day for ten years, felt too tight, like a chokehold.

Did he indulge Lucas? Sure. Did he treat Lucas different than the others? Sure, yeah—he only had the one couch, so. And anyway, none of the others had ever needed him the way Lucas did.

Except—shit. Joe thunked his head back again. That kind of thinking was the fucking problem. Joe was practically running a halfway home for everyone he’d ever hired. He was lucky he sounded so mean; if people could tell right off what a soft touch he was, he’d be fucked. He’d’ve gotten a sob story from every idiot who’d ever applied to work at Empire and probably given ‘em all a job, too.

What the hell did make Lucas different from the rest of them? Why could he take a step back from Deb’s problems, or Corey’s problems, or AJ’s stupid as hell problems and think about them clearly when the second Lucas was in trouble, he lost his mind?

It was different. It was just different. Joe scrubbed his hands across his face again. It had gotten warm out, almost too warm for his dress slacks and long sleeves. He felt sweaty and unsettled. Different why, he thought, then tried to shove that voice down again, but it didn’t wanna go. Different—shut up—why—

Shut up, Joe thought desperately, and wondered for about the seventeenth time why he’d given up smoking. He would’ve given anything for a cigarette, something to do with his hands.

The reason he’d quit, of course: Lucas had started bugging him about it the year before. “What the hell do you care?” Joe had said, ashing out the window of his car, glancing across the console at Lucas after a couple of pointed comments.

“It’s bad for you,” Lucas had said, and Joe had said, “oh yeah? First I’m hearing about it,” rolling his eyes like he was the kid, which cracked Lucas up.

“I’m just saying,” Lucas managed after a minute, “don’t come complaining to me when you’re fifty-three and you can’t make it up the stairs to your apartment without wheezing.”

“If I’m fifty-three and still living in a building without an elevator, I hope to God I do die of lung cancer,” Joe said.

“I like your building,” Lucas said, and started throwing Joe’s Parliaments out sometimes after that when Joe left them lying around. Joe could’ve been more careful about keeping them in his coat but he wasn’t. After a while he stopped buying them. He’d only ever been a social smoker anyway. It was the kind of thing you had to pick up, pretty much, if you were in a band and you needed an excuse to go outside and be alone now and then during practice, before gigs. Joe could give it up. He’d given it up. If it made Lucas happy….Joe liked making Lucas happy, that was all.

It really was warm out. Joe wrenched his top button open and tipped his head back, squinting up at the sky. It was such a perfect clear blue that for a second he felt dizzy: like he was looking down instead of up. Like he could swim into it. Then he got that tight feeling around his neck again, like a choke collar, and gravity reasserted itself. He touched his necklace like he might rip that off too, and then common sense reasserted itself as well and he forced his hand back to his side.

The necklace wasn’t too tight. The shirt wasn’t too tight.

Joe shoved off the wall and paced a couple times up and down the length of the building. Spring was coming early this year. There were pale yellow flowers shooting up through the cracks of the sidewalk, buttery soft, each smaller than his pinkie. He almost stepped on a couple. Didn’t. Kept watching his feet as he walked.

What made Lucas different?

What made Lucas different than the rest of them?

Nothing, he thought, nothing made him different, and almost couldn’t breathe, it was such—not right—it wasn’t right.

Shit. Fuck. Shit.

Fine.

Think whatever you want, he told himself resignedly, and made his hands go loose at his sides. I’m not fighting, he thought, whatever, and waited for whatever he’d been drowning to swim up to the surface.

A couple years back, AJ had decided to give up on Corey.

Joe only remembered because he’d been a pain in the ass about it. “I don’t wanna be scheduled with her,” he’d said a bunch of times, and Joe had said, “Okay,” and AJ had said, “I’m serious. I gotta get over this. If I see her, man,” shaking his head, and Joe had said, “I said okay the first time,” and glowered at him until he cleared off. It was a couple months after AJ had moved in with Lucas. He’d just discovered coffee. Joe was gonna have to unplug the machine or something; there was rattling out of your skin and then there was whatever was happening to AJ. Joe was worried for him, and also, he was driving Joe fucking crazy.

So whatever—he didn’t schedule AJ and Corey together. That was fine. AJ could do the late shifts and Corey couldn’t which meant it worked okay from Joe’s perspective, except for that fact that AJ was annoying to be around—wired, snappish. Joe was still dating Kate back then. “Bad day?” she’d asked when he came home with a headache.

“Nah,” he said. “Just young love,” and explained the whole thing—Corey, who was still in high school, and whose parents said she couldn’t date, who wasn’t gonna notice AJ liked her unless he swung in on a vine and Tarzan’d her into a tree; AJ, who was a romantic, and wasn’t equipped to do much more than burn, pine and perish from a distance. “Teenagers,” Joe said, “Jesus Christ,” and slung an arm across Kate’s shoulders. It was stupid shit, but what were you gonna do? He’d made it his policy not to get involved.

“I wouldn’t go back to high school for a million dollars,” Kate had said, and later that evening, in bed, watching Cheers—Kate’s taste in TV was almost worse than Lucas’s—she said, “Hey, you ever think of getting a different job?”

“Huh?” Joe said.

“A different job,” she said. “Something with other adults. Still in music,” she added. He must have looked pole-axed. “At the radio station or something. You’re a smart guy. There’s a hundred things you could do.”

“I guess,” said Joe, who didn’t think he was very smart, not that he cared enough to argue about it.

“You know,” she said, “if the teenage drama starts getting you down.”

“It’s mostly funny,” Joe said—he’d only had the headache because AJ kept slamming the backroom door all night. But then Lucas had done this impression of AJ in a snit, and even though Joe kept saying, “Cut it out, the kid’s having a bad time,” he still laughed so hard his stomach hurt. “Maybe, though,” he said, and kissed Kate’s forehead before falling asleep with the laugh track ringing in his ears.

AJ kept sulking. Corey started sulking too. “You never put me on with AJ anymore,” she complained, “I’ve barely seen him in weeks,” so Joe was the bad guy, whatever. He spent some time hiding in his office. It was safe in there; the only person who ever came in without a reason was Lucas, who thought the whole thing was hilarious.

“You think it’s so funny, you make the schedule,” Joe said.

“Sure,” Lucas said easily. “Hand it over.”

“I’m not letting you make the schedule,” Joe said, and went back to trying to figure out whether Corey or AJ was gonna be the bigger asshole if he didn’t do what they said.

Lucas was sitting cross-legged on the couch across from Joe’s desk. He’d grabbed a pair of Joe’s sticks and was practicing rolls on the shitty coffee table Joe had dragged in from the side of the road a few years back, covered in unsorted junkmail. “Loosen your wrists up.” Joe said, glancing over at him. “Pull, don’t hit.”

“I don’t wanna be good,” Lucas said, “I just wanna look cool.”

“You’ll look cool if you loosen your wrists up,” Joe told him. “And stop holding the sticks so far back. Move your hands up. If you loosen up your grip they should kinda....” He seesawed his hand back and forth: balance.

Lucas pulled a face and pretended to hit a cymbal. “You wanna come show me?” he said.

“Nah,” Joe said. “I only take on students who actually give a shit.”

Lucas grinned unrepentantly and went back to hammering arrythmically on the coffee table. Joe went back to glowering at the schedule. It was quiet in his office for a minute. Someone was blasting death metal on the floor; Joe should probably make ‘em turn it off but what the hell. It was a Wednesday night. Who gave a shit.

Then: “AJ and I are going on a date tomorrow,” Lucas said.

Joe’s pencil slipped on the schedule, slashing a dark line diagonally across the next week. He jerked his head up—too quickly, he realized once it was happening. He was acting like Lucas had confessed to killing a guy. But Lucas didn’t look hurt or taken aback. He was staring at Joe, real calm and focused, sticks balanced across his knees. There was something about his face—Joe couldn’t figure out if he was nervous or trying to hide a smirk.

“What,” Joe said flatly.

“What?” Lucas parroted back, big-eyed, like he had no idea what he could have done to startle Joe. It was so completely absurd, Joe figured he pretty much had to be fucking with him.

“You and AJ, huh?” he said, and forced himself to let up on the pencil; he was gripping it so tight it was starting to flex in his hand. “Well, he’s moving on pretty quick, but good for you.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Joe said. “What, you want me to throw you out of my house or something? Really make a scene about it?”

“You kind of already did,” Lucas said, and then, before Joe could even flinch—Lucas had offered—Lucas was the one who’d offered—“It’s a double date. With a couple of girls he met at that Typecast concert last week.”

“You don’t say,” Joe said dryly, and set the pencil down on the desk. His hand was cramping up a little from sitting around scribbling for the better part of an hour. He dropped it into his lap and flexed it a couple times, just looking at Lucas. “You think you’re pretty funny, huh?”

Lucas shrugged. He wasn’t laughing, which made Joe nervous for reasons he couldn’t put a finger on.

“So,” Joe said, after Lucas had declined to speak for an uncomfortably long moment. “Double date.”

“Yeah,” Lucas said.

Joe flexed his hand again under the desk. “Well,” he said, “good.”

“Good?”

“I don’t know, Lucas,” Joe said, “you tell me. Dates are fun. Dating is fun. You tell me. I’m not making you go.”

Lucas shrugged again. “Maybe,” he said. “I don’t know. I haven’t met the girls, so,” and Joe must have pulled a face at that, because Lucas finally laughed, dropping the sticks onto the couch next to him and swinging his feet up onto the coffee table. “He is, though,” he added.

“What?”

“Moving on pretty quick,” Lucas said. “Or trying to. I think he just wants to show Corey, you know. That someone else could like him like that.”

Joe snorted. “Jesus,” he said. “I wouldn’t be nineteen again for a million dollars.”

“You don’t think it’ll work?” Lucas was doing that thing where his eyes got kind of lidded and lazy. It made him look like a malnourished little jungle cat.

“No, Lucas,” Joe said, and finally picked up his pencil again. “I don’t think it’ll work.”

“Why not?”

“No way,” Joe said.

“What?”

“I don’t get involved in the high school stuff.”

Lucas frowned. “I graduated last year.”

“I don’t get involved,” Joe repeated; but instead of shutting up, he found himself setting the pencil right back down and saying, “Corey doesn’t have a fucking clue that he wants her to think of him like that. She’s not gonna have a clue unless he tells her. And if he’s not gonna tell her—well, maybe it’ll be a great date and he’ll fall head over heels for this new chick. Who the hell knows. Maybe that’d be good. The things you want when you’re nineteen aren’t the things you’re gonna want for the rest of your life, kid.”

“I think if she knew,” Lucas said, and stopped. He was tapping his foot in time with the distant sound of death metal. “You think he should tell her?”

Joe sighed and put his hands up: don’t ask me. “I don’t get involved,” he said. “It’s none of my business.” Then, when Lucas opened his mouth: “Yeah, I know, but you caught me on an off day,” he said. “Leave it alone. It’s their shit to work out. And hey,” he added awkwardly, “maybe you’ll have a nice time too.”

“What?” Lucas said.

“On your date,” Joe said. “I hope you have fun.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Lucas said, and left to start closing up a couple minutes later.

AJ ended up dating his girl for a couple months. Joe asked Lucas how things had gone for him—Lucas had brought it up in the first place, so maybe he cared more than he’d been letting on—but Lucas didn’t have much to say. Had she been pretty? Yeah. Had Lucas liked her? He’d liked her fine. As far as Joe could tell, there wasn’t a second date. Joe thought that was fine. Lucas was a weird kid, weird and special. It was gonna take a weird, special girl to get his attention. Or—whatever. A weird, special whatever. Joe wanted it for him—he did—but he wasn’t gonna push. It would happen when it happened. Joe hadn’t thought about it much—

—that choke collar feeling again.

Okay, so he’d thought about it sometimes. Only when he couldn’t help it. After Lucas’s joke about the date with AJ, the strange, intent way he’d assessed Joe’s response—yeah, Joe had wondered. Whether, for Lucas, it was guys and not girls. Or guys and also girls. Or only girls after all.

There wasn’t any reason for him to think about it. It wasn’t his business. He made it his policy not to get involved.

Choke collar.

Okay. He got it already.

With the rest of them, sure: hands off. Make your own mistakes.

With Lucas, he got involved every time. He couldn’t help himself. When it came to Lucas, he couldn’t help it.

Joe caught the tail-end of a memory all of a sudden: sitting at his desk a few months back, hands clenched up in his lap, trying to get it through Lucas’s head that they couldn’t—that he wouldn’t—what had he said? I’ve known you since you were sixteen, so you always will be to me. And I don’t wanna fuck a sixteen year old.

And he hadn’t. He hadn’t looked at Lucas, starved-skinny with no winter coat, that blank expression on his face like anyone might hurt him at any moment and he was determined not to be surprised if they did, and thought anything anyone could object to. Not a single fucking thing. He hadn’t wanted anything like that.

But there were things he had wanted, almost from day one.

He’d wanted Lucas’s feet to stay warm and dry in the cold and snow. He’d wanted to know for certain the kid had somewhere to sleep, somewhere safe, and to make sure that whoever had hurt him before—left him alone, left him to fend for himself—never bothered him again. That Lucas never had to see those people again. He’d wanted to drive that persistent vague, polite expression off Lucas’s face for good, and to see, instead, the way he grinned and joked around when he knew for sure he wasn’t gonna get thrown out on his ass. How pleased he looked when Joe laughed out loud at something he’d said.

Joe had wanted, from the start, to understand Lucas, and for Lucas to understand him; for Lucas to come over, put his feet up on Joe’s coffee table, bogart the remote, drive Joe crazy reciting practically every line in an episode of The Love Boat while Joe complained that he didn’t wanna watch that shit, even though he didn’t mind, if Lucas was there. If it was what Lucas wanted.

And none of that was weird. None of that was bad.

Joe swallowed. His throat was dry.

None of it was bad, but.

The big magnolia tree across the street was on the verge of flowering, pale yellow buds on every branch still furled up tight. Joe stared at it real hard, unblinking, until it was one big impressionistic blur, and he was getting that hazy tunnel vision feeling, like he was hurtling towards something, when the side door slammed open and someone said, “Joe? Do we have any more Rex Manning shit in the back?”

“Shit like—”

“CDs?” AJ said uncertainly.

“Maybe,” Joe said, rolling his eyes. “What, did we sell out up front?”

“Ah, no,” AJ said. “Rex just wants some more stuff on the table. He says if there’s not enough stuff on the table, it makes him look bad.”

“Jagweed,” Joe said under his breath. “Yeah, okay, I’ll deal with it.”

He found some CDs in the back, hauled the box out and dropped it on the floor behind Manning’s chair, taking what pleasure he could in the fact that it startled Manning so much his hair nearly flew off his head. “As requested,” Joe said curtly, and left Gina in charge of unpacking the merch. If he stuck around, he was gonna do something unforgivable, and anyway, the police had finally showed up. He went back to see if they needed a statement but “We already got one from Mr. Lucas,” one of the cops said. Joe shot him a disbelieving glance, but Lucas barely smiled, just kept sitting there like he was taking Joe’s orders real seriously, playing pretend about respecting a single thing Joe said. So the only thing Joe actually had to do was stand by, arms crossed, face blank while Warren tried to throw Lucas under the bus before they could haul him off, not that the police were paying him a jot of attention: they looked like they were thinking about where to stop for lunch.

Joe felt sorry for the kid, actually. He couldn’t have been older than fifteen and yeah, it was bad to steal, but people mostly didn’t do it because they sucked—they did it because someone had screwed them over and they were paying it forward.

Joe crossed his arms tighter and shot a glance over at Lucas, who’d effected a solicitous expression as he watched Warren disappear through the break room doors.

If Joe hadn’t gotten involved with Lucas—gotten involved like helped him out, he corrected himself, and Jesus, he had to stop acting like he was on trial every time he tried to think about this—maybe Lucas would’ve ended up stealing CDs. Lucas was smart. He probably wouldn’t have gotten caught until he’d moved on to bigger shit, cars or something. He might’ve ended up in juvie, and who knew how his zenned out I’m-just-the-passenger routine would’ve gone over there. So maybe Joe had definitively been right to take him in hand back then, not that it should even be in question. Jesus. He hadn’t done anything. He hadn’t done anything wrong. He’d never—

“You’ll be sorry,” AJ repeated after Warren, laughing. Lucas had twisted his head round to look at Joe. Joe tried to slide his eyes away but it wasn’t easy; they got caught on the curve of Lucas’s cheek, his stuck-out ears. He’d given himself that stupid haircut. Joe could picture his own hand on the crown of Lucas’s head, petting him a little. The way Lucas would bend under his touch, turn his face into Joe’s side. Gentle.

“I’m already sorry,” Joe said.

Deb was still doing bad; Joe found her filling out tax shit in one of the listening booths upstairs and fumbled a talk about it, wincing the whole way through. Deb was so smart it made him wanna hang her report card up on the fridge. The idea that Deb’s mom could’ve walked out on her—Joe was running out of space in his head for all the people he wanted to punch.

If Deb needed somewhere to stay, he’d let her stay at his place. He’d let her stay at his place for three years. If AJ needed a place, or Gina did, or Corey did—he’d let any of them stay on his couch for three years. He was a pushover, and he loved them. He’d do any stupid thing to help any of them. But none of them was like Lucas, for him.

Lucas was different.

Joe did some paperwork. Corey came in and lost her mind at him, but Joe was so tired he pretty much took it in stride—she wanted to bring Rex Manning his lunch? Joe had real problems. Fine. He kept tapping his pencil against his notebook, not really writing anything. His head was a long, low buzz, and now that he’d let stuff start drifting up to the surface, it wouldn’t stop. He kept remembering the way Lucas had looked just a few weeks ago, passed out on Joe’s couch, pale and soft with a stripe of streetlight bisecting his legs. At the time, Joe had draped a blanket over him and left. In his mind, now, he imagined brushing a hand against his neck, stroking the underside of his chin with one knuckle. Barely a touch.

The paperwork looked like nothing to him. Inventory—who gave a shit. All the lines kept blurring together. Eventually he gave up and called a couple places about the Corvette, answered their questions: no, it wasn’t in perfect condition. Yes, it needed some work. Yes, though, it was worth nine grand at least. Maybe more, even, but he’d take less; he was open to offers. He got a couple of polite nos, a couple people saying bring it in. When? Next week. Joe pinched the bridge of his nose.

Deb ducked in while he was on one of his calls and dropped one of her buttons on his desk. Joe had offered to sell them up at the register a couple times but she kept saying nah. This one read, “To forgive, divine,” and when he glanced up at her, tucking the phone under his chin, she was looking back too knowingly for comfort. “Deb,” he started, but then the car salesman asked a question and he had to hop back on the phone, staring at the button while she slipped out again.

After a while, the music out on the floor got loud and started to creep in under the door. When Joe checked his watch, it was almost two, and he remembered AJ that morning—“One thirty seven exactly,” he’d said, so maybe they were out there celebrating, and even though Joe would have to be happy for them if things had worked out, it still felt like a hot stone in his chest: the idea of anyone being happy when he was about to lose the store, and when it turned out that all these years, Joe had been some kind of….he didn’t know. The kind of shitty guy he’d deck for looking at Lucas the way Joe had been looking at him all along, not knowing it.

When he left his office to face it, either way, everyone in the whole store was dancing.

It was like a scene out of a fucking movie. Joe looked around a couple times half expecting to find a camera crew, for someone to shout “cut!”, but there wasn’t one and no one did. AJ was shirtless for some reason, grinding up on Deb, and Corey was watching from a distance, face dark, so presumably things hadn’t gone great there. Joe didn’t have the energy to worry about it.

Rex Manning wasn’t at the table signing shit. Joe almost hoped he’d walked out, but he couldn’t worry about that anymore either. Mark was tangoing with a broom again, real involved, dipping it low on every other spin—and a couple of ladies from the line had liberated the Rex Manning standup and were taking turns waltzing with it—and Lucas was dancing, very chivalrously, with a middle-aged woman who looked like she was on the verge of pinching his cheeks and calling him a nice young man. He was still holding his couch cushion.

Joe blinked. The music kept playing; everyone kept dancing. Joe meant to stop looking at Lucas, but then he couldn’t. The stone in his chest was huge and heavy. The store had never seemed brighter, kinder, more cheerful or more chaotic, and he’d never loved it more, and it was gone—it was fucking gone. A week from now, there’d be orange sale signs up everywhere, droned out workers in matching aprons playing pre-approved mixes from corporate, and he’d be out of a job, and all his weird fucking pain-in-the-ass kids would be out of a job, and Lucas—

Lucas raised his arm and spun the woman he was dancing with, laughing and moving his hips a little. He danced like a fucking idiot: no rhythm. It was the same reason he couldn’t play the drums for shit, not even just in a joking-around kind of way. That had always cracked Joe up. Now it made something twist in his gut, and suddenly he was imagining the way Lucas—who wanted to fuck Joe—would act if he actually got a crack at it: the awkward way he’d squirm out of his shirt, his jeans, eager but uncoordinated. The same way he’d kissed Joe, so fucking sweet, desperate, terrifyingly sure of himself. Joe was still thinking about it as he grabbed the railing and shouted, “You having fun?”, watching as Lucas jerked up to look at him, and he was thinking about it the whole way down the stairs, too.

“You havin’ a good time?” Joe said, striding across the landing. He felt relentless. “I hope so. Don’t let me stop you, keep dancing. You better do it now, because next week this is gonna be a Music Town and I don't think they allow dancing in Music Town.”

“What are we supposed to do instead, Joe?” Lucas said. He’d dropped his partner’s hand and taken a few steps toward the stairs, which was just like him—to look curious instead of scared. To run towards something he should’ve been running away from.

Now you ask?” Joe said. “C’mon, Lucas, you got a plan, don’t you? You always have a plan. You don’t take no for an answer. If you want something—you won’t take fucking no for an answer, so you tell me. What’s the plan, Lucas?”

“Joe—”

“No, seriously,” Joe said. The air in the store had gone very still. “What’d you think was gonna happen? I want you to tell me.”

Lucas blinked. “I thought maybe I’d win a lot of money,” he said after a moment.

“And?”

“And you could buy the store.”

“And?” Joe repeated.

“And you’d be happy, Joe,” Lucas said. He’d moved a few steps closer, tucked his hands into his pockets. “I wanted you to be happy,” he said.

“No,” Joe said grimly, “you wanted you to be happy.”

“Well, I think there’s some overlap,” Lucas said.

He sounded so calm and reasonable, Joe couldn’t stand it. “What am I supposed to do with you?” he said, voice dropping. He was vaguely aware that everyone in the store was standing stock still, watching. He oughta shut up, get a hand on Lucas’s neck, drag him to the backroom, somewhere private, somewhere he could—fuck. Somewhere private. He clenched his hands up at his sides instead. “Huh? Have you thought about that? What do I do now? Do I send you to jail? Who’re you gonna ask to bail you out? Me. Who do you ever ask to bail you out? Just me.”

“I wouldn’t ask.”

“You wouldn’t ask,” Joe said flatly.

For the first time, frustration flashed across Lucas’s face. “No,” he said, “if you didn’t want—I don’t know, Joe. What do you want? You said you wanted to quit, so I guess I did you a favor. Go ahead: quit. Turn me in, skip town, have a great life.”

“I never said I wanted to quit,” Joe said.

“You said you were going to.”

“No,” Joe said, “I said I didn’t want to. I said I loved this place and I didn’t want to go, but if you made me—you made me choose, Lucas.”

“You were already choosing,” Lucas said. He was within arms-reach, which was fucking dangerous for both of them, but Lucas didn’t seem to care. “What the hell is Music Town? That’s you choosing to give up. Doing nothing is a choice—”

“Shut up,” Joe said, but Lucas didn’t.

“—just like anything else—”

“Shut up,” Joe shouted. “Jesus Christ, do you even know how to stop pushing it? I get it—you think I’m the screw-up, I think you’re the screw-up, and everyone else is just getting screwed—”

“I don’t think you’re a screw-up,” Lucas said. “I think you’re lying to yourself all the time—”

“You make me fucking crazy—”

“So turn me in,” Lucas snapped.

“I can’t,” Joe roared, and couldn’t rein himself in anymore: he lurched sideways and shoved his foot into the tape stand next to the stairs, watched, breathing hard, as it clattered to the floor, tapes skidding everywhere.

“Joe—”

“I can’t,” he said raggedly, breath harsh in his throat. “Congratulations. No consequences.”

“Joe,” Lucas repeated, more insistent, but before he could say anything else, there was a jolt of static in the sound system and the music came back on—just Semisonic, low and unobjectionable. Behind Lucas, AJ and Deb, who’d been standing and gaping, jerked away from each other.

“AJ,” Joe said, “put a shirt on.”

“Uh,” AJ said, “sure thing. If I can, uh. Find it.”

“Deb—”

“I’ll clean up,” she said.

“You do that,” Joe said flatly. Then, glancing around the store, mostly so he didn’t have to look Lucas in the eyes again: “And where the hell is Manning?”

Manning, it turned out, was in the copy room fucking Gina.

Joe had pretty much thought there was nothing he couldn’t take in stride at this point, but he’d been wrong: this was the thing, Gina sidling through the door with her head down, tugging at her sweater defiantly—like she was trying hard not to seem ashamed—and Manning swaggering out behind her in that that ridiculous fringed purple shirt, shaking his hair back into place as he glanced around the break room, not caring enough what any of them thought even to look defensive. He should have looked defensive. He was twice her age. More than twice. Joe wanted to deck him so bad he could already feel his knuckles aching, so he didn’t mind much when AJ actually did it except that the kid was so crazy, Joe nearly wrenched his arm out of its socket holding him back.

You fucking creep, Joe kept thinking while he shoved AJ at Lucas and threw Manning’s shit at him, ordered him to beat it. After a minute, he figured he was probably thinking it—fucking creep—to avoid thinking anything else, which was fine. It was whatever. You did what you had to do. Lucas, obedient for once, had gotten an arm around AJ and was murmuring something in his ear, holding him back from lunging at Manning again as he left. He glanced up and caught Joe’s eye as the back door slammed; Joe winced and looked away. His knuckles were getting that achy feeling again, but you couldn’t punch yourself. Maybe if he asked real nice, AJ would take a swing at him. He was so full of furious energy, he might not even ask for an explanation.

It was like breakdown dominos: once the fight had gone out of AJ, Gina was losing it, and the second she went limp, Corey subbed in. By the time Deb managed to shove her, shaking and crying, into the bathroom, locking the door behind them, Joe’s temple was throbbing so hard he was practically seeing double: the alien on the bathroom door wiggling sympathetically, AJ trailing himself out onto the floor, two Lucases sitting side by side on the couch, both swinging their legs up onto the coffee table, tipping their heads back with a sigh. Two Lucases was the last thing he needed. Two Advil was what he needed. He squinted his eyes shut, hard, then sighed and went to search his desk.

He was rummaging through his third drawer and just starting to think someone had probably swiped the bottle when someone rapped lightly at the door and then, without waiting for a response, said, “Hey.”

It wasn’t Lucas; it was a woman’s voice so Joe knew right away that it wasn’t Lucas, but he was still a little surprised when he looked up to find Manning’s manager leaning inside the doorframe, arms crossed. “Hi,” he said, “uh—”

“Jane.”

“Jane,” he repeated. “Your guy just left.”

“Not my guy,” she said, rolling her eyes, “and yeah, I saw.”

Shit. “He had it coming,” Joe said. “So. Sue me if you gotta, I guess.”

“I said he’s not my guy. I quit.” Jane pushed off the doorframe and took a step into the office. Joe hadn’t been paying much attention when she introduced herself earlier, but she was cute: a little fashion-forward for Joe’s taste—he wasn’t a hat guy himself—but she had the kind of blunt, brassy look that usually did it for him. She reminded him of Kate, a little bit.

“Yeah, AJ told me,” Joe said, casting around for the vague memory—most of the day felt like it had happened about a month ago. “But you’re back, so.”

Jane held a pair of keys up. “I left the car,” she said. “And then I was like—why the hell should I spend three hours hitchhiking back to Newark while he takes the Turnpike?”

“Well, damn the man,” Joe said, and resisted the urge to immediately pinch the bridge of his nose. “Sorry. Long day. You need something?” Jane raised an eyebrow. “I mean,” he said, “you got the keys, so.” Jane was still just looking at him, half-smirking, waiting to see what dumb thing he’d say next. Joe wasn’t a moron; he recognized the look. “You wanna know if we validate?” he said finally.

Jane laughed, a big, unselfconscious guffaw. “Hey, you’re funny,” she said, and then, while Joe was still shrugging: “You know, you got a nice store.”

For all the good that did him. “Thanks,” he said.

“Rex is a fucking asshole. He thinks anywhere outside LA is the pits. But I like this place.” Joe was on the verge of saying thanks again when she added, “You need a new night manager or anything?”

Joe laughed out loud. He couldn’t help himself. “Tell you what,” he said, banging one drawer closed and opening another, “it’s about a hundred to one odds I’m still in charge by closing, so if I’m gone, I’ll leave your name for an interview, how about that?”

“Gone where?”

“Jail,” Joe said. “Or hell. One or the other.”

Jane didn’t look overly concerned about either. She was smiling like it was funny. Well, it was pretty funny, Joe thought—he’d find it all hilarious if it weren’t happening to him. “Rock and a hard place, huh?” Jane said, and then, abruptly: “Hey, you wanna have dinner later?”

Joe had seen it coming. He’d kind of seen it coming—until Lucas, he’d always known when someone was flirting with him. It should honestly have been an easy answer, but he didn’t give it. “Dinner?” he said instead, like he really was dumber than a pile of bricks, and glanced down into the open middle drawer of the desk to find—finally—the Advil bottle staring back up at him. Thank God.

“Yeah,” Jane said, like there was nothing off-putting about his idiocy. “You’re cute and you threw Rex out on his ass. Those are two qualities I like in a guy.”

“Yeah?” Joe said diffidently. He shook a few pills into his palm, swallowed ‘em dry, mostly playing for time.

“Yeah,” she said again.

It was easy. It was an easy question. There was a right answer: yeah, let’s get dinner. Yeah, you’re cute too. She was cute. She was cute and she liked the store and he was pretty sure she was in the middle of stealing Rex Manning’s rental car, which was the kind of quality he liked in a girl. And dinner wasn’t a promise. It didn’t have to mean anything at all, if they went out and he realized she was boring or a bad kisser or only listened to Aqua. He could say yes now and no later.

Or maybe she’d be great. Maybe he’d take her out and like her so much that three hours would fly by like three minutes; maybe he’d kiss her and see fireworks and drive her home and she’d love the car, which Lucas had never appreciated, so he’d kiss her, in the foyer and then up the stairs, groping each other like crazy as they stumbled into his apartment, into his bedroom, onto the bed where he’d start to screw her, slow and low, pinning her to the mattress, staring into her eyes. Maybe he’d think, fuck, this is it. This is it for me. He could say yes now and yes again later.

Some part of Joe’s little dog mind was sitting up and begging at the idea. There was a lump in his throat like the pills hadn’t gone all the way down. He swallowed uncomfortably; it didn’t help.

If he went out with Jane—if he could like her—

He wouldn’t make the same mistakes he’d made with Kate. He’d move out of the apartment, which he didn’t give a shit about anyway. He’d buy a house if she wanted a house. She’d probably want a house. They could have kids if she wanted kids—slow down, tiger—but he was just being reasonable. Lots of women wanted kids. He could do that. He was probably gonna get fired here, but it was fine. It was okay. He’d get a different job. He’d get a stupid job he didn’t give a shit about and make money—way more money than he’d ever make managing a music store—and pay a mortgage and go out to the movies for date night, and when they got up to the counter to buy popcorn, maybe the moron teen working the register would glance up to take their order, then glance back down mechanically—nothing interesting to see there. That’s how normal it would fucking be. Maybe some scrawny kid who made you think, do we have child labor laws in this country anymore or not? Which was kind of how Lucas had probably looked the first couple times Joe let him work the register. Not that Joe would be thinking about that; not that he’d be thinking about Lucas at all if he had this perfect, normal, no funny business life.

“Like I said,” Joe said, clearing his throat, trying to get a breath. “It’s gonna be crazy all day, probably. So…”

“So not today,” she said.

“No,” he said.

“But maybe sometime?”

“You know, the throwing a guy out on his ass thing—that doesn’t actually happen very often,” Joe said. “Just saying, if that’s what did it for you—”

“A lot of this is doing it for me,” she said ruefully, “I don’t know why,” and finally, apparently taking pity on him, stepped forward and grabbed a pen out of the coffee mug at the corner of the desk, scribbled her number down on an old envelope and handed it over. He took it numbly. “Look,” she said, “call me, don’t call me. It could be good. What the hell do I know. I’m gonna go raise a drink to my unemployment.”

“Congrats,” Joe said. “I mean that.”

“Keep my number,” she said. “I mean that.” But she didn’t look like she was holding out much hope.

Joe watched her leave, half wondering if he should bolt after her. And say what, though? Not what she wanted to hear; not what he wanted to be able to tell her. After a minute, he glanced down and realized he was white-knuckling the edge of his desk, and even after he forced himself to let up, he was feeling so alarmingly unsteady on his feet—the walls closing in on him—that he practically threw himself out of his office, crossing the floor in about three long strides and collapsing onto the break room couch with a grunt, closing his eyes. If he could just. If he could just think for one moment

“Did—”

“Jesus Christ!” Joe barked, eyes flying open again.

“I didn’t sneak up on you,” Lucas said, frowning. “You sat down next to me.”

“Yeah well,” Joe snapped, still breathing hard. “I wasn’t paying attention. Sue me.”

“I noticed,” Lucas said. “When you yelled. What did Manning’s manager want?”

“Nothing,” Joe said tightly, and blinked a couple times, trying to get his heart rate back under control. “Where’s AJ?”

“Cleaning up,” Lucas said.

“Good.”

“I can help,” Lucas offered, but Joe jerked his head once: no.

“Stay on the couch,” he said, and tipped his head back, staring up at the ceiling. There was a water stain over by the bathroom. Joe put it on his worry list, then tried to scribble it off—not his problem—but once something went on the list, it pretty much stayed there.

“I figured you’d say that,” Lucas said.

“Yeah, well, you can be plenty smart when you wanna be,” Joe told him, and felt a little bad right after, but it was true—Lucas turned it on and off. He played dumb when it suited him. He wasn’t dumb. Second verse, same as the first. “Did Gina leave?” he asked, shoving the twinge of guilt aside.

“I don’t know,” Lucas said. “She was pretty upset.”

“Yeah, well,” Joe said. He closed his eyes.

“Joe?” Lucas said.

Joe grunted.

You seem pretty upset,” Lucas said.

Joe grunted again.

“She’s okay,” Lucas said.

Joe cracked an eye open, needled, and said, in spite of himself, “Oh yeah? She’s okay? Oh, well, as long as she’s okay. He’s twice her age and a fucking creep but yeah, as long as she’s okay—”

“He’s a creep because he’s a creep,” Lucas said. “He was a creep twenty years ago, he’s still a creep now. The age thing—”

“Don’t,” Joe said tiredly.

“What? Tell the truth?”

“Talk about the age thing like you don’t have skin in the game.”

“Skin in the game,” Lucas repeated.

“You know what I mean,” Joe said.

Lucas was quiet for a moment. It was such a long moment, and such a deep quiet, that it started to get unsettling, and Joe was on the verge of doing something to disrupt it when Lucas said abruptly, “Are you gonna go out with her?”

Shit. “What did Manning’s manager want, huh?” Joe said, mouth dry. When he glanced over, Lucas didn’t look apologetic. There was a strange, blank expression on his face.

“Nothing, huh?” Lucas countered.

“Nothing that’s any of your business,” Joe said, but he barely got the last word out before Lucas was saying, “It’s not my fault this place isn’t soundproofed,” and then, “and it is my business,” and then: “Are you?”

“Lucas—”

“You said it yourself,” Lucas said. “I have skin in the game.”

“Well apparently you heard the whole thing,” Joe said, “so you tell me.”

“She gave you her number.”

“Yeah,” Joe said. He was still holding it, actually, curled up loosely in one hand.

“Are you gonna call her?”

“If I do,” Joe said, “you can bet I’m gonna close the door first.”

“I said it’s not my fault—”

“I heard what you said,” Joe snapped.

“Are you?” Lucas asked, undeterred. “Gonna—”

“I heard what you asked too,” Joe said, “and I said it’s none of your business.”

“Yes it is,” Lucas said.

Joe registered that the edges of the envelope were scraping at his palm, which meant he was clenching his fists. “Who I do or don’t decide to go on a date with?” he said. “No, it isn’t.”

“But I asked you first,” Lucas burst out. Out of the corner of his eye, Joe could see him sitting up straighter, his whole body tense with indignation. “That’s why it’s my business. If you’re gonna go out with her, you could at least tell me, okay? I know it would be simpler—with her—I know you think it would be simpler,” he said, almost flippantly.

“I think,” Joe said, and then, “Simpler?” and knew he should stop talking: stand up, walk out the back door, get in his car, start driving, maybe never stop driving. Instead, he kept tightening his fist around Jane’s phone number and said, “You know what, Lucas? It would be. You know why? Because she’s been of legal drinking age for at least a decade and even if she hadn’t, I didn’t meet her when she was sixteen—”

“That’s not—”

“So if I call her and tell her I wanna go out sometime, and we get dinner and I bring her home and fuck her—” Lucas looked like he couldn’t decide whether to shout or puke—“no one would look at me like—” Joe couldn’t decide whether to shout or puke—“like I knew,” he said after a too-long pause. “Like when you were sixteen and homeless—”

“I wasn’t—”

“—and had nowhere to go,” Joe said relentlessly, “like I looked at you and thought—”

“But you didn’t,” Lucas said, and Joe had to stop talking so he could get a breath: it felt like there was a brick on his chest. “You said you didn’t,” Lucas repeated.

“It would be simple,” Joe said, ignoring him because he had to—because he didn’t have a choice. “It would be simple because it would be easy. That woman is never gonna try my last nerve like you do. Okay? That woman doesn’t work for me. She’s not gonna steal my money. I’m never gonna have to think whether I wanna let her go to jail or say, fuck it, I’ll go instead—”

“Nobody’s going to jail—”

“Oh, what the hell would you know about it?” Joe said scathingly.

“I just know,” Lucas said. “I just do, okay?”

“Not okay,” Joe said, and scrubbed a hand across his face. Lucas was staring at him; his shoulders were up around his ears. Joe wanted to….slap him, shake him, some part of him kept saying, but softer, slower, some other voice: put a hand on his back. Cuff his neck. Hold him still, cup his head, touch his face—“I want simple. I want easy. I want normal. Okay? I wanna date someone no-one’s gonna think twice about. It doesn’t have to be Jane, Lucas. It just can’t fucking be you.”

Joe was ready for Lucas to argue; he was ready for him to ask a bunch of questions Joe didn’t want to answer, or to say, “That won’t make you happy, though,” which Joe was starting to realize it wouldn’t—that was the worst part. What he wasn’t ready for: the long moment in which Lucas said nothing at all, or the way, when Joe finally turned to look at him, his face was pale and unreadable. “Lucas,” Joe said—but just then, AJ came through from the floor with a broom and a couple of broken CDs in one hand.

“Uh, Joe?”

“Yeah?”

“There’s still a line out there,” AJ said, and when Joe managed to tear his eyes away from Lucas, he was shifting back and forth on his feet like he really did feel bad for having to say it.

“They haven’t gotten their money’s worth yet?” Joe said disbelievingly.

“Uh—”

“Christ,” Joe said. “Well, tell ‘em to leave.”

“Me?” AJ said.

“As long as you can do it without starting another fist fight. Are you gonna start another fist fight?”

“No?”

“Great,” Joe said, “then get out there.”

The bathroom door opened as AJ headed back out to the floor. Deb came out alone; the door clicked shut again behind her. Joe sighed and managed to haul himself off the couch and across the breakroom. “She okay?”

Deb shrugged. “She’ll be fine.”

“Okay,” Joe said. He was pretty sure he oughta ask something else but nothing was coming to mind, and it wasn’t until Deb cleared her throat that he realized he’d been standing there for a long, silent moment, barely seeing her—still thinking about how shaken Lucas had looked, finally. How for once, he’d had nothing to say.

Deb was eyeing him warily. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” he said.

“Uh huh. Because you seem—”

“I don’t need you to hold my hair back while I puke,” Joe said grimly. “So I’m doing better than just about anybody else around here. Can you go help AJ on the floor? I think the kid’s about to get jumped. He’s telling ‘em all the signing’s over,” he added when Deb raised a questioning eyebrow.

“If by help you mean watch and laugh, then sure,” Deb said. “Just—Joe—”

“What,” Joe said, too sharply, but Deb didn’t flinch or anything.

“Manning is an asshole.”

“Yeah, Debra,” Joe said, “I noticed.”

“You’re not an asshole,” she said.

It might’ve spooked him if she’d said it gently, but she didn’t. She sounded matter-of-fact, staring at him with her arms crossed—not like she knew anything, but like she was maybe starting to. He waited for his stomach to drop, or the sky to fall—something—but nothing happened. She just kept frowning at him. One the one hand, he wanted to argue. On the other—

“We’re all a bunch of assholes around here,” he said. “C’mon. You know that. Go—”

“Help AJ,” she said, rolling her eyes, “I got it,” and threw him a salute as she left.

It was quiet in the breakroom after that. Joe half expected Lucas to launch right back into things the second the room was clear, but even after Deb left, he didn’t say anything. Joe refilled the coffeemaker for something to do and let himself glance over at Lucas while the pot was brewing—just once, he bargained with himself, to make sure he wasn’t about to burn the store down.

He wasn’t. He’d crossed his legs and was resting his chin on his hand, frowning deeply, and he didn’t seem to notice that Joe was looking at him. He didn’t say anything, anyway, and he kept not saying anything, or making any more trouble, the whole time the coffee was percolating, or after Joe went into his office to keep waiting for Mitch’s inevitable call.

He’d crumpled Jane’s phone number up into a tight little ball. At his desk, he uncrumpled it, smoothing it flat on top of the MusicTown franchise agreement he’d gotten out of his desk drawer to comb through earlier—the same agreement Lucas had found the night before, the one that had made him take the money in the first place. She’d used one of his bad pens; a splotch of ink had obscured half her area code. Still readable. He rubbed his thumb across the number again then pushed it to one side.

He didn’t want to call her.

Jesus. He was thirty five. It shouldn’t have been a staggering thought. He didn’t want to call Jane so he wouldn’t. How was that for simple? How was that for easy? He didn’t want it; he wouldn’t do it. He didn’t want Jane; he wanted—

Shit. Okay. He could say it. He wanted—shit. He crumpled the number up again and threw it across the room, aiming for the trashcan. Missed. He wanted—he glanced toward the windows but he’d drawn the blinds. The office was dark. It didn’t feel claustrophobic the way it had before, just private. He couldn’t see out; no one else could see in.

He wanted to be happy—actually happy—happy for real. He wanted the Eagles to win the Superbowl next year, so sue him, and he wanted it not to have been a mistake for the Misfits to get back together, and he wanted to never have to sell another Hootie and the Blowfish CD again—hell, while he was imagining wildly, he didn’t wanna have to stock ‘em at all. He wanted to take three weeks off in August and drive down to Virginia, to that little beach where his family had gone on vacation once or twice, when things were okay and money wasn’t so tight. He wanted to take Lucas with him. He wanted to tear down the interstate, drive so recklessly Lucas said, “And you say shit about my motorcycle?” but laughing—he wanted to turn his head on a long, flat stretch of highway and get a good look at him, a big gulp of it: loose in the passenger seat, smiling, wind whipping the hair off his face.

He wanted a different apartment. He wanted an apartment with a shower he didn’t have to hunch up in to get under the spray. He wanted to tell Mitch to go fuck himself six ways from Sunday—about selling the store, about the money Lucas had stolen, about all of it—he wanted to say, none of this has anything to do with you, because it didn’t—fuck Mitch. He wanted Lucas to come over again the way he used to, beer from the fridge and all, and he didn’t wanna think about how many feet there oughta be on the couch between them. He didn’t want there to be many feet between them at all. If Lucas wanted to sit close—

He wanted Lucas to stay. Well. He wanted Lucas to go to college, or join the Peace Corp, or start a band or go on a road trip or try to take over the world, Pinky—whatever—he wanted Lucas to do whatever made him happy and then, whenever he could, come back. Come back to Joe. Whatever that meant. He wanted to not have to think about what that meant. He wanted it to be simple, easy. It wasn’t. But—

He sat there staring at the wall for a long time.

Eventually Corey knocked on the door and said Joe had to come out, they were having a funeral for Deb. “Not a mean funeral,” she said when he grimaced, hauling himself up out of the fantasy of the car again (ninety miles an hour, Lucas’s hand on his own thigh, palm up like he was waiting for Joe to reach over and grab hold). “A nice one. I promise, Joe.”

“Oh, sure, one of those,” Joe said, but it was nice after all: Deb lying there with her arms crossed over her chest, looking resigned at first and then, after a while, increasingly touched. Candles everywhere. Fire hazard, Joe noted, but without real concern. For once, he was finding it difficult to add shit to his worry list and watch Lucas at the same time—he kept forgetting what he’d been thinking about, staring at the slope of Lucas’s shoulders, at his face, pale and serious, willing Lucas to look back at him then remembering he wasn’t supposed to think that kind of thing—but he couldn’t help it, the whole time Lucas was explaining about the first time he met Joe, about the coat and the job and the couch. Not simple, not easy, he thought, glancing around the room. He wondered how any of these people would describe him and Lucas, how they already had. What they thought Lucas was to him, what he was to Lucas. Whether it mattered. If it mattered, how much it mattered. Lucas was gesturing; Joe wanted to reach out and still his hand in the air. He wanted to say, don’t talk about that anymore—about what happened in the past—when something’s happening now

And then there were gunshots from the floor and there wasn’t time to think about any of it anymore.

 

 

By 10, people had started to show up for the party—in droves, even, which Joe found baffling. He’d given Berko the okay to haul his drums and amps up onto the roof even though it was the kind of thing they were gonna get written up for in no time at all, but what the hell. Joe liked live music and he hadn’t been to a concert in awhile. He gave them a hand with the mics and tracked down a couple of empty pretzel barrels for Deb and Corey to collect donations in. “What exactly are people gonna be paying for?” he said. “Out of interest? Since,” as Berko did a mic check that practically made the ground shake under Joe’s feet, “they’re gonna be able to hear this racket for about five miles in any direction.”

“They’re gonna donate because they care about this place,” Corey said. “Like we do.”

An hour ago, that kind of optimism probably would’ve given Joe a tension headache. Now, watching a couple vans roll up the street; people handing equipment up to Berko and his guys on the roof, pawing through big bins of old promotional posters; someone doing backflips in the road while people hooted and cheered—Joe would be okay with being wrong. He wanted to be wrong. “You need anything else?” he asked.

“A working sharpie,” Deb said, holding up a roll of masking tape. “You have to talk to AJ about leaving the caps off all the time.”

“Oh sure, I’ll just talk to him,” said Joe, who’d only tried that already about a billion times. But he kept a couple hidden in the back for the same reason, and went to grab ‘em.

When he got to the break room, Lucas was sitting on the arm of the sofa in the semi-dark.

“Jesus Christ,” Joe said, “you trying to scare me to death?”

“Sorry,” Lucas said.

“It’s fine,” Joe said, and took a second look around the room, like maybe he was missing something—but it was empty, half the lights off, a couple of bins of shit lying out around the door—Joe had given Gina the okay to pull anything she wanted out of the back. There was no one else around. “Seriously, what are you doing in here?”

“Nothing,” Lucas said, and then: “Thinking.”

“You can leave the couch,” Joe said. “They need help out front.”

The corner of Lucas’s mouth moved. It wasn’t quite a smile. “I’m not sitting here because you told me to stay on the couch.”

“Yeah, I thought it seemed out of character,” Joe said, “but what the hell do I know.”

Lucas didn’t say anything, so Joe went to find the sharpies. He’d been keeping an extra pack at the back of the deep bottom junk drawer no one but him ever poked around in. “Sneaky,” Lucas said.

“I’m not the boss for nothing,” Joe said, and winced when his knees cracked as he straightened up again. “You wanna take these up to Deb?” he asked, not really meaning it as a question—but when he held them out, Lucas didn’t move, just shifted on the arm of the couch again, rubbing his hands against his thighs. “Or not,” Joe said.

“What are you gonna do when Mitch shows up?” Lucas asked abruptly.

“...I don’t know,” Joe said. He hadn’t forgotten about Mitch exactly but even now, reminded, he felt like a distant and unimportant threat. What did Mitch have to do with any of this? Mitch hadn’t nearly gotten shot by a 12-year-old or had to watch Deb get the gun off the kid; Mitch was irrelevant. “Maybe we’ll raise the money.”

“You’ll still have to tell him something.”

“You think?” Joe said, glancing around the dark room again. “Look, don’t tell anyone I said so, but it’s a pretty good party. C’mon. Get off the couch. You can help make some signs.”

“Signs for what?”

“I don’t know,” Joe said. “I’m not driving the car anymore, I just do whatever the hell I’m told.”

Lucas wasn’t moving. “So you’re not asking me as a boss,” he said.

Joe had spent the past couple hours feeling pretty calm, all things considered. Sure, Lucas had talked down a scared-stupid teenage gunman, which Joe hadn’t strictly speaking loved—he was gonna have nightmares about it, he was pretty sure—but things had ended okay, and afterwards, he hadn’t given two shits what anyone had to say about his hand on Lucas’s shoulder, gripping him tight, making sure he was still there, real and breathing. And the whole thing had shaken Lucas straight or something too—sitting on the couch saying, okay, yeah, I blew it—I fucked up—I didn’t know what I was doing after all, looking up at Joe like—just looking at Joe. Joe had spent months trying pointedly not to notice when Lucas was staring at him. This time, he’d stared back, and it had felt—he flexed his free hand against his thigh.

Anyway, he’d been doing okay, so it was an ice cube down his back trying to figure out what the hell was going on with Lucas now.

“What the hell does that mean?” he managed after a moment.

Lucas shrugged. “I want to know if I have to do it.”

“Lucas,” Joe said, “I ask you to do stuff all the time that you don’t, and it doesn’t have jack to do with me being your boss, it has to do with you being a contrary little shit.” Joe thought that might make Lucas crack a smile, but it didn’t. He kept frowning down at his hands. “Get off the couch,” Joe said. “I’m not kidding. What, you want me to say I’ll fire you if—”

“I’m sorry,” Lucas said.

Joe, who’d been ready to keep talking until, one way or another, Lucas was out on the floor, snapped his mouth shut. He set the sharpies down by the coffeemaker and leaned back, elbows on the counter.

Lucas was still talking. “I know I fucked up,” he said. It sounded practiced, not in a bad way. Joe thought about Lucas sitting back here alone, thinking about Joe, about how to apologize to him. “With the money….I thought I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t.”

“You already said—”

“I wasn’t lying,” Lucas said, ignoring him. “I thought I could fix things for you. I thought I could show you…..”

“What?”

“That something can seem crazy without being impossible,” Lucas said, and finally looked up. “I think you should tell Mitch.” Then, when Joe just stared at him blankly: “That it was me; that I took the money.”

“I’m not gonna do that,” Joe said. “We went over this already.”

“But if I want you to—”

“I think you got this mixed up somehow,” Joe said flatly. “You’re right: I’m your boss, so I can tell you to do stuff, even if you never fucking listen. But that’s a one way street. You don’t get to tell me shit.”

“Then I’ll tell him,” Lucas said, “I don’t care.”

“No, you won’t,” Joe said.

“Why not?”

“Because I’m telling you not to.”

“As a boss?”

“Sure,” Joe said, “as a boss.”

“Okay,” Lucas said. “Then I quit.”

Joe was having an out of body experience. He felt like he’d been standing with his arms braced inside a door frame for five full minutes. “You quit,” he repeated incredulously.

“I quit,” Lucas said.

“Well,” Joe said, “good for you. You quit, huh? Good for you.”

“Thanks,” Lucas said.

“You quit and you’re gonna tell Mitch.”

“Yeah.”

“You drive me fucking crazy,” Joe said conversationally.

Lucas shrugged. His cheeks were red.

“I mean,” Joe said, “really fucking crazy. What do you want me to do? Lock you in a closet? Handcuff you to a radiator? Because believe me, I’ve considered it. What do I have to do to make you let me handle this, since you don’t seem to give a shit what happens to you?”

“Do you even care?”

“You asking me or the wall?” Joe said—Lucas still wouldn’t look at him—and when Lucas didn’t answer: “Do I care—what? What happens to you? I don’t know, Lucas, what the hell do you think is going on here? You think I’m giving myself a stress ulcer for the fun of it?”

“Do you care that I quit,” Lucas said, still staring over Joe’s shoulder.

“Do I care,” Joe said slowly, “that you quit?”

Lucas didn’t say anything.

“Do I care that you quit,” Joe said again. It sounded even stupider the second time. “Do I—I’m trying to keep you from going to jail, you get that, right?”

“But if I don’t go to jail—”

“If you don’t go to jail,” Joe snapped, “then no, Lucas, I don’t give a shit what you do. If you don’t go to jail, I will bake you a congratulations-on-quitting cake and buy you a congratulations-on-quitting beer and tie a couple cans to the back of your motorcycle and wave you off so cheerfully—”

“What, on my trip to Antarctica?”

“What do you want? What do you want me to say? That I don’t want you to ever go anywhere or do anything or have your own life, that I just want you stay here forever because—”

“Because?”

“Because,” Joe said, and stopped. Lucas, who’d been worrying at the frayed fabric on the arm of the couch, had gone suddenly still. I want, Joe thought, but whatever he wanted—you knowhe couldn’t say it. He couldn’t figure out how to say it. “I do want you to have your own life. That’s all I’m saying.”

“...I unquit,” Lucas said.

“You what?”

“Unquit. I don’t quit,” Lucas said.

“You can’t unquit,” Joe said, and then, “Lucas, I swear to—”

“I give up, okay?”

“—God—what?”

“I unquit and I give up,” Lucas said, and finally met Joe’s eyes. There was more noise filtering in from the floor, people stumbling past the window to the backroom so that the little bit of light filtering in from the store flickered inconsistently. Joe could feel the faint thump of a bass beat under his elbows. There were dark shadows under Lucas’s eyes. It had been a long day.

“Give up like…”

“Like I won’t ask anymore,” Lucas said. “For real this time. I promise. It’ll be like it never happened. You can call Manning’s manager—”

“Oh, I can, huh?”

“I’m not saying you need my permission,” Lucas said, “I’m saying I won’t fuck it up for you, I won’t be a fucking kid about it, I’ll be—if it makes you happy—I’ll be happy for you. I don’t want to go to Antarctica. I don’t even wanna go to college. I know you think I could if I wanted but I don’t want to. So just—let me stay. I won’t be an asshole about the rest of it. I’ll be normal. I’ll be like before. I’ll find someone my own age,” he added after a moment, mouth twisting a little into something that could have been a smile or a grimace—making fun of himself, either way.

There was a muffled screech from the roof, then a wave of indistinct shouting. The band was starting up in earnest. But the backroom still felt quiet, insulated. Joe hated how easy it was for Lucas to read him, but the flipside was that sometimes—once in a blue moon—he could read Lucas too.

He was telling the truth.

He would stop.

As quickly as he’d turned the whole thing on, he’d turn it off again—and whatever he felt or didn’t feel about Joe, whatever he wanted or didn’t want, Joe would never know. It would be locked up tight, just like before. If Lucas said he wouldn’t fuck things up with Jane, he wouldn’t. He wasn’t a liar. He’d leave his spare key on Joe’s desk, stop coming around uninvited. He’d dance at Joe’s wedding. If he said he wouldn’t be an asshole, he wouldn’t be an asshole. If he said he’d find someone his own age….

I’ll be normal.

He’d find someone his own age: simple, easy. Boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever. It wouldn’t be Joe. Joe would date Jane, or he’d hit the bars again, take it seriously—what the hell, maybe he’d find a guy, if he could work up the courage to be the asshole know-nothing loitering awkwardly in a corner of the only gay bar in town. He’d date someone who wasn’t Lucas; Lucas would date someone who wasn’t Joe. Maybe a couple someones—that would be smart. He’d get an idea of what he liked. And then someday, years down the line, Joe would dance at his wedding, which was—”Fucking bullshit,” he said.

“What?”

It wasn’t tenable. It wasn’t fucking tenable. “That’s not what I want,” Joe ground out.

“You’ve been saying for three months that it is.”

“I say all kinds of shit,” Joe said savagely, “and you never listen. You never listen. And now the one thing—the one time—”

Lucas was sitting up straighter, eyes narrowing. “The one time what?”

“Nothing,” Joe said. “No—the one time—Jesus Christ—what would you do, Lucas? If you’d never thought of it? If you’d never once thought of it, and I came to you—which I wouldn’t—”

“Joe—”

Joe’s hands were shaking. His hands never fucking shook. He shoved off the counter for something to do, something that wasn’t watching Lucas watch him so closely it felt like getting x-rayed. “I don’t want you to be normal,” Joe said after a moment. “I want you to be happy.”

“Okay,” Lucas said. His fingers were digging into the arm of the couch; he looked feverishly alert.

“And I want to be happy,” Joe said. It was hard to get the words out.

“No, you want to be normal.” Lucas was holding himself so tense and still that the air around him was practically crackling with it. “You’ve said so about a million times. Did you want me to listen or not? Because I did. I listened this time. You wanna be happy? Well, you should be. You told me to lay off. You told me I wasn’t being fair—”

“You weren’t being fair—”

“You said it was fucked up—”

“It is fucked up,” Joe snapped, “but what the hell am I supposed to do about that?” and took two huge steps across to the couch—grabbed Lucas by the front of his shirt—dragged him up and kissed him.

It was unreal. Joe had been thinking about not doing it, trying so hard not to do it, for long enough that he couldn’t feel anything other than terror at first—and then Lucas jerked in his grip and got a hand on Joe’s arm, tight enough to hurt, and his mouth opened under Joe’s, and oh—it was good—it went through Joe like a jolt, head to toe, like a fucking power chord. It left Joe’s ears ringing; he could half hear “Highway to Hell” playing again. If he’d let Lucas keep kissing him the last time—he couldn’t have. But if he had: it would have felt like this, just like this, the exact same wild thrum of want, if he hadn’t unplugged the amp and shoved his fingers in his ears.

“You’re not going to jail,” Joe said, pulling back. Lucas’s face was flushed, eyes huge. His mouth was so red and wet it made Joe’s dick jerk in his jeans. “I’m not letting you go to jail.”

“Joe,” Lucas said, “if the police want to take someone to jail—”

“Christ—”

“—you don’t get to say no.”

“Yeah, well,” Joe said, “they probably wouldn’t want you anyway, you’re so annoying,” and kissed him again, practically shaking with adrenaline, so desperate and clumsy he half wanted to apologize—I’m good at this, he wanted to say, I promise. If Lucas had been thinking about it since he was sixteen—

“Is it the jail thing?” Lucas said. “Is that doing it for you?”

“What?”

“I mean,” Lucas tried again, “are you still gonna be like this when you’re not thinking about non-extradition countries we could flee to?”

“Be like what,” Joe said. He could feel Lucas’s pulse hammering under his hand.

“Are you still gonna like me?” Lucas said, licking his lower lip, which of course was when AJ came through from the store saying, “Joe, we have a bunch of kegs out there now—oh,” cutting himself off like he’d stumbled onto a crime scene.

“So?” Joe snapped.

“So, uh, should we….I mean, can we charge for beer, or?”

“Do whatever the hell you want,” Joe said, getting it together enough to start dragging Lucas across the room since letting go of him didn’t seem to be working—he couldn’t couldn’t get his fingers to unclench.

“Okay, except we don’t have—uh. A liquor license,” AJ said, and when Joe swung around to stare at him, incredulous, he was giving Lucas this big-eyed look like blink twice if you’re in trouble but Lucas wasn’t blinking. He was flushed all the way down his neck like he had poison ivy, letting himself be hauled unresisting across to the office. Playing possum.

Joe gritted his teeth and pretended AJ was blind. That he couldn’t see any of this. “Do,” he said, “whatever,” shoving Lucas up the steps, “the hell. You want.” And crowded Lucas into the office, spinning to slam him up against the door as it banged shut.

“Very caveman-y, Joe,” Lucas said, a little breathless.

“Shut up,” Joe said, then, “Shit,” then, “Jesus Christ, he probably thinks I’m beating you up in here,” except it came out kind of hopeful—that was pretty much the best case scenario.

“He really doesn’t,” Lucas said crushingly.

“Yeah,” Joe said. “Fuck. Okay. He thinks I’m doing depraved shit to you.“

Depraved,” Lucas repeated, sounding more intrigued than anything.

“You know what the hell I mean.”

“You worry too much about what people think,” Lucas said, which was wrong—Lucas was the one who worried too little—but before Joe could argue: “Anyway, he already kind of knew.”

“Knew what?” Joe said. Lucas just gave him a look. “Jesus Christ.”

“Just kind of.”

“Kind of like—“

“Just kind of,” Lucas repeated. “Everybody knows, kind of.”

Everybody?” Joe said, tightening his grip on Lucas’s shoulder. The movement was involuntary; if anything, he meant for it to be threatening. But Lucas went immediately still, and his eyes darkened—not threatened at all. His face was still flushed. He wasn’t saying anything; he was staring at Joe’s mouth.

“I wasn’t subtle,” Lucas managed finally, eyes flicking up to meet Joe’s for a moment. “They don’t know—I don’t know what they know about you, okay? They know about me. Do we have to talk about it right now?”

“No,” Joe said. Now that the quiet of the office was setting in, he could hear his own pulse in his ears, jackhammering. Lucas was thrumming under his hand. Everyone knew, Joe thought, testing it out. All these years, whatever Joe had been ignoring, other people had seen it. Joe let up his grip on Lucas’s arm a little, swiping his thumb against the rough fabric of Lucas’s sleeve. Lucas shivered, didn’t move. Jesus. What had they seen? How had Lucas looked at him—what had he said, done, that Joe hadn’t noticed? That he’d brushed off? He wanted to go back in time, see it, hear it for himself. Other people shouldn’t have known, noticed. Those looks—they were Joe’s. They belonged to Joe. “You thought about this?” he said, low, abrupt, not quite meaning to.

“About you shoving me up against a door?” Lucas said. “Yeah, lots.”

“Shit,” Joe said. “I mean...”

“Not just the door stuff?”

“Oh, Christ,” Joe said desperately, and gave up, and kissed Lucas again.

Joe had exes who’d probably call him a good kisser—that at least had never been a problem for him—he knew how to go slow, gentle someone into it, let it build. This wasn’t that. He couldn’t think clear enough to go slow. He got his tongue in Lucas’s mouth so quick he almost gave himself whiplash, fisting a hand in Lucas’s shirt and dragging him close. What the hell else was he supposed to do when Lucas was so fucking easy for it—mouth hot and open, making these sounds that went right to Joe’s dick, sharp little wanting groans, low in his throat. Whatever Joe gave him, he took. The whole thing made Joe feel about fifteen: that hungry, that stupid. “Lucas,” he said against his mouth.

Lucas hmmed.

“Nothing,” Joe said. He could faintly hear the sound of music from the roof but the slick sound of his tongue in Lucas’s mouth and the door rattling where Joe kept shoving him up against it were much louder. “Just—”

Lucas hmmed again. He’d pressed himself close; he was hard. Joe tried to delete the thought automatically but if it was actually happening and he actually wasn’t stopping it, then yeah, might as well think it: Lucas was hard, rutting against Joe’s hip, clutching at Joe’s side in this urgent way that made Joe feel like he might be about to get the vapors, that scandalized, that hot for it, and while he was trying to figure out if he had the strength to stop kissing Lucas and say—what—let’s talk about it?—Lucas got a grip on Joe’s shirt and started hauling him away from the door back into the room.

“Fuck,” Joe said, staggering after him, “be careful, I’m gonna bite your fucking tongue out.”

“Please don’t,” Lucas said.

“Then watch where you’re going—Lucas, if you break my fucking drums, I swear to God—“

“Technically,” Lucas said, “I think we’d both be breaking them,” and let Joe manhandle him around the danger zone before taking two huge stumbling steps backwards and collapsing onto the couch, still sucking frantic kisses against the underside of Joe’s jaw so that Joe had no choice but to go down with him—“Fuck!”

“What?” Joe said, jerking back, but Lucas just hitched his hips up and swept some sticks out from under his ass and onto the floor with a clatter, then kept dragging Joe down by the shirt, which he’d managed to pull completely loose. “Just—slow down,” Joe said, “come on,” but of course Lucas didn’t. He kept fumbling with the bottom buttons of Joe’s shirt, sliding a hand up his chest in this artless, unpracticed way that went right to Joe’s dick. Like he’d never done it before. Okay, wake up now, Joe thought—he was thirty-five, and not a gym rat or anything either—but Lucas didn’t seem to notice or care.kept mouthing at Joe’s throat, tugging him close, like his hand on Joe’s pec was that hot. It didn’t make sense. “We can’t—would you stop? We can’t do this here.”

“Do what,” Lucas said, and Joe said, “Whatever the hell you’re trying to do!”

“Get your shirt off?”

“Yeah,” Joe said, “getting my fucking shirt off—“ but it was too late—Lucas had popped the last button and was shoving it so insistently off Joe’s shoulders that he had to cooperate and let him finish the job or he was gonna end up wrenching something out of its socket. “Happy?” he said when the shirt was gone, feeling somewhat hysterical. Lucas’s shirt had ridden up while he was squirming back onto the couch; half his stomach was bare. Joe was trying not to look.

“Ecstatic,” Lucas said.

“Great,” Joe said. “Fantastic. So can we just take a minute and—shit,” and finally fell forward onto one arm, because Lucas had rolled his eyes and unbuttoned Joe’s jeans, shoved his hand right in and wrapped his fist around Joe’s cock. “Shit,” he said again, bracing himself on the back of the couch, Lucas’s hand moving on him, short, jerky strokes, but Joe hadn’t gotten any in long enough that he was half worried he might go off any second, shoot all over Lucas’s chest, his pale belly. It was such a potent idea he had to clench his eyes shut. He couldn’t. He couldn’t. It was the seediest thing he’d ever thought, which was driving his dick crazy, pulsing in Lucas’s hand, wet enough that it sounded slick every time he moved his hand in Joe’s jeans and—“okay, I said can we take a minute,” he said breathlessly, and pinned Lucas’s hands above his head, trying to think about anything to stop himself from coming: that water stain on the break room ceiling. The mold in his office walls. Going to prison for grand theft robbery.

“I was using that,” Lucas said, yanking against Joe’s grip.

“Yeah, sorry, your highness,” Joe said, but even if he was a fucking pervert, he wanted to show Lucas something better than a sticky handjob on a shitty couch with the springs sticking him in the ass. “Seriously, we should leave.”

“Seriously, let me jerk you off some more,” Lucas said stubbornly.

“No,” Joe said.

“Why not?”

“Because,” Joe said, “I want it to be—if we’re doing it—I want it to be good for you,” he said, and made up his mind, let up on Lucas’s wrists and reached down to pop his jeans open; then while Lucas was busy kicking them off, he shoved them both around enough that he could—

“Oh my God,” Lucas said raggedly, cool gone, which was satisfying—

—get a mouth around Lucas’s cock.

Joe hadn’t sucked dick in a long time, but it was about the same as it had always been. Better, actually, because he gave a shit about Lucas, and didn’t mind when Lucas got a hand on his head right away, fingers clenched up this side of too hard against Joe’s skull. Lucas could fuck Joe’s mouth if he wanted to. Joe took him all the way down, sucked at him, slow and steady, then pulled off with a wet sound and licked him just at the head a little. It wasn’t a chore; Lucas had a pretty dick, pretty in Joe’s hand and pretty when he let it slap against Lucas’s stomach. “Okay?” he said. “Or you wanna complain about that too?”

“I’m good,” Lucas said. “Please—”

“Yeah,” Joe said, and took him again, getting used to the weight of his dick, its taste. It was so good he almost forgot about his own aching dick—just background noise—until Lucas grabbed his shoulder and said, “come here,” and it turned out Joe couldn’t not do what Lucas said. It’d been turning out that way for a long time. He rubbed his hand against Lucas’s side and hauled himself up the couch and kissed Lucas, the taste of his cock still in his mouth, and didn’t say anything when Lucas started shoving his jeans down, just went with, kicked ‘em off, got a hand on Lucas’s face and worried his thumb against the corner of his mouth. The couch was too small, leather, old and objectively kinda gross, but it was fine; Joe rolled onto his side and tugged Lucas close, practically on top of him, and kept kissing him, their dicks sliding together. Joe was sweating; they both were; it was too-hot, too-sticky, but whatever. Joe stroked up Lucas’s side until his thumb caught on Lucas’s nipple, and he thumbed at it a little, worrying it hard, until Lucas was panting into his mouth about it, saying, “oh,” and, “yeah, that’s,” and, “fuck me—”

“Jesus Christ,” Joe said, and had to reach down and get a hold of himself, hard, to keep from shooting off at the thought of it: Lucas clenched up under him, begging for it, the way it would feel to press him down, slide into him—“You can’t say that shit to me.”

“But I want it,” Lucas said.

“Well,” Joe said, “tough shit,” squeezing his dick tighter, not that it helped much since Lucas was still rutting against him, somehow pushy and pliant at the same time. Nuzzling his jaw, so fucking sweet.

“Joe,” Lucas said. “Come on.”

“Here?”

“I just said.”

“You want me to fuck you here?”

“Joe—”

“The door isn’t locked,” Joe said, low, and stopped trying to wring his own dick into submission so he could get a hand around Lucas instead, who jerked and went silent. He was dripping wet—when Joe rubbed at his slit, he shuddered and pulsed a little more pre-come out, slick and warm. Fuck. “Mitch is gonna barge back here any second to yell at me about a bunch of money you stole. This place is full of people. You have made my day hell on earth. You want me to fuck you? Here? Right now?”

“Do you just wanna hear me beg?” Lucas said.

“I don’t know,” Joe said, and kept stroking him, hot and tight between them. They were pressed so close together—the couch wasn’t wide enough for this really, and also, Joe wasn’t gonna be able to walk tomorrow—his fucking back was gonna give out from all the bending and jerking and contorting and then they’d see how Lucas felt about the fact that he’d been begging for it from a cryptkeeper. For now, though—Lucas’s face was close. His hair was sticking up in tufts. It would have looked silly if it weren’t so crazy-making, the clear evidence of where Joe’s hands had been. He’d been rocking the same stupid haircut practically since Joe had met him. He did it himself, mostly; Joe was pretty sure Debra helped him with the back. The first time he’d clocked into his shift with his bangs too short, visibly uneven, Joe had said, “What the hell,” and, “Did you do that with a pair of nail clippers?” but Lucas hadn’t seemed to give a shit. He’d just said, “Yeah, I gotta practice some more,” and kept cracking rolls of quarters open against the side of the cash drawer, forehead creased in concentration.

It was objectively an awful haircut. Joe hated it. He hated it so much. He never wanted Lucas to do anything different—to look any different.

“Look,” Lucas said, “it’s more fucked up if you don’t.”

“What?”

“If you don’t fuck me.”

Joe closed his eyes. “It’s more fucked up if I don’t fuck you,” he repeated slowly. “Because….”

“Because,” Lucas said, “Either I am a stupid kid you shouldn’t be doing anything with, or when I say I want something, you can trust that I really want it. But it can’t be both.”

“…aw, Jesus,” Joe said, and reached up abruptly to cup Lucas’s face. He couldn’t go back in time, he thought, and felt it finally slot into place: the clear, uncomplicated truth of it. He couldn’t go back and stop himself from meeting Lucas when he did, and anyway, he wouldn’t even if he could. Lucas had needed someone so badly; Joe had been that someone. It filled him with a fierce, panting happiness. He couldn’t change it. He didn’t want to. “Fuck. Fuck it. I’ve got lotion somewhere—”

Somewhere was over by the drum kit. Lucas wrestled his shirt off while Joe was getting it and stretched all the way out on the couch, so smug Joe could see it in every single one of his fingers and toes, how much he was enjoying getting his way. His cock was hard and red, slapping against his pale stomach; while Joe watched, he got a hand around it and jerked himself a few times, kind of showily, before Joe clambered back on top of him, and said, “This doesn’t mean I don’t think you oughta make a plan for your life.”

“Yeah, I don’t think having sex definitionally procludes that,” Lucas said. “People do it every day and they mostly turn out fine.”

“Smartass,” Joe said, and didn’t bother to warm up the lotion in his hands before he reached down and started rubbing at Lucas’s hole, baring his teeth against Lucas’s neck in satisfaction when he hissed and squirmed at the cold. “First of all, people mostly turn out shitty, and second of all—“

“Do we have to talk about this right now?”

“I still think you oughta go to college,” Joe said. Lucas’s hole was clenched up against his finger. No one had ever touched him there before; maybe he hadn’t even touched himself. Joe kept rubbing at him, slow and purposeful, sucking at his collarbone, so hard and long that there was almost certainly gonna be a mark, until Lucas started to relax, and then Joe was inside him. That easy. Lucas’s breath caught in his throat. “And then,” Joe said, sliding his finger in deeper, Lucas’s ass contracting around him, “you oughta go to law school, asshole, and you oughta become a fucking lawyer and make a million dollars a day arguing, since you like it so much anyway.”

“Why should I?” Lucas said. “I already talked you into sleeping with me.”

“Not everyone’s as easy as I am,” Joe said, a little breathless. Lucas was tight on his finger but he was taking it, hips shifting up, asking for more. Joe’s cock was leaking. The sound of the band had gotten louder, the bassline insistent, thumping under Joe’s knees. “Some guys you might need the big guns for.”

“I don’t want any other guys,” Lucas said. “I only like you.”

Joe didn’t say anything for a while. He gave Lucas another finger, slid down to suck Lucas’s cock a little while he fucked him open. The bassline kept pounding. It kept saying, I only like you. I only like you. Joe had been to a lot of shows that had ripped him the fuck open—he’d even played in a couple—but never any that had made him feel like this. I only like you.

It wasn’t until Lucas had said, “Come on,” and, “Joe, seriously, come on,” and, “Joe!” and Joe had fucked between his legs for awhile, dripping between his thighs, half teasing him on purpose—half just liking it—that he finally managed to say, nudging Lucas’s legs apart to get a look at him, his dripping cock and hole all red where it had bloomed on Joe’s fingers, “Why?”

“Huh?” Lucas said stupidly. His face was slack. He kept blinking.

“Why?” Joe said again. “Why—me? Only me?”

“Why does anyone like anyone?” Lucas said after a long dumb moment, summoning up that stupid faux-enigmatic voice of his, and Joe said, “I swear to God,” and Lucas said, “I don’t know, Joe, I just do, okay? I don’t know.” He licked his lips. For once, he almost looked overwhelmed. “I like it when you play the drums,” he said finally.

“Yeah?”

Lucas nodded. “I think...I could watch you play the drums all day.” Joe kept staring down at him. His cheeks were red. “I think you’re the best drummer in the world.”

“Well, I’m not,” Joe said flatly.

“To me,” Lucas said, and squinted his eyes closed real tight, took a breath. Then, letting out, lighter: “I think you could’ve played drums for Pink Floyd.”

“Shut up,” Joe said.

“I think you could’ve played drums for Guns n’ Roses—”

“I said shut up,” Joe said, trying not to crack a smile.

“I think you’re very talented, Joe,” Lucas said, and Joe said, “Okay, that’s enough out of you,” and pressed the head of his cock up against Lucas’s hole, stretching it out even more than his fingers had, pressed into him so Lucas couldn’t say any more stupid shit that made Joe feel boiling hot all over, too warm, too good.

“Is this what you want?” Joe said. “You want it?”

“Joe,” Lucas said, voice ragged, “there is such a thing as demanding too high a burden of proof when the evidence you’ve already been presented with is comprehensive and conclusive.”

“And you said you don’t wanna go to law school,” Joe said, and shoved up into him.

Lucas was so tight Joe felt a rush of wrong, no, turn back the second he got in—but then Lucas was arching up into it, heaving like a fucking racehorse, and no—it was good—he wanted it, he was dying for it. “Good?”

“Yeah, come on—”

“Yeah,” Joe said stupidly, and kept shoving into him, pinning him in the corner of the couch, blinking down at him: his face screwed up almost in confusion, like he couldn’t believe it was happening, even though his feet were curled up against Joe’s back, driving him in. Joe was trying to go slow. It was hard. “Does it hurt?”

“Yeah,” Lucas said, and grabbed his arm before he could jerk back. “It’s good,” he said. “I just haven’t—”

God,” Joe said, rubbing a hand up Lucas’s pale chest, across his pretty nipples, his pretty collarbones—everything about Lucas was fucking pretty. His pretty cock, slapping against his stomach, getting him wet everywhere. His pretty hole with Joe shoved up inside it, stretching him out, loosening him up. “If it’s too much—”

“It’s not,” Lucas said. His fingers were digging into Joe’s arm.

“Okay,” Joe said. He bent to kiss Lucas on the soft slope of his shoulder. And then he started moving.

It was surreal: the after hours half-dark of the office, Berko’s stupid band screeching on the roof, the old leather squeaking under Joe’s knees and his necklace hanging loose—not a choke collar at all—the couch creaking and knocking against the wall. I’m not someone who does this, Joe kept thinking, but Lucas was right: at a certain point the evidence became incontrovertible, and anyway, he felt better than he’d ever felt in his life. I’m not someone who would ever do this, but he was doing it, shifting Lucas’s hips up to get a better angle, fucking into him over and over again, slow, long thrusts, trying to make it good, trying to find that angle where—“oh,” Lucas groaned, his body jolting, and yeah, that was it—his mouth falling open, astonished.

Joe bent down to cup his face in one hand and kissed him, wet and messy, swallowing the little sounds he made every time Joe pulled out and slid back in. “Okay?”

“Great,” Lucas said, “finally,” and then: “Do you get it now?”

Joe didn’t answer. A bead of sweat had dripped into his eye. He scrubbed it away with his forearm, blinked down at Lucas, then reached for his dick. Surreal: his rings warm against the slick, soft skin of Lucas’s cock. Lucas saying, “Shit,” and fucking up into Joe’s fist. The way his body seemed to want it and not want it at the same time: arching into it, hissing back. The clench of his ass, dragging Joe in, clutching at him.

“Joe,” Lucas said in a voice Joe had never heard before.

“Look at you,” Joe said, and kept stroking his dick, tight, steady. His tongue felt thick and clumsy in his mouth—like there was something else he oughta say. Couldn’t. He wasn’t ever gonna get it, he thought, but whatever: so he wasn’t some paragon of virtue after all. He was as stupid as any other asshole, and he could only keep saying no to something he wanted for so long. “Come on,” he said, and rubbed his thumb against the wet head of Lucas’s cock, still moving inside him. “Are you gonna come?”

“Joe,” Lucas said again, and Joe said, “Are you gonna come for me?” bending over him, boxing him in. Lucas had moved one hand to cover Joe’s on his dick; their fingers were practically interlaced. His eyelashes were dark and damp. Joe kissed the corner of his mouth, rubbing up against him. It had been a long day; he could feel his stubble roughing up the curve of Lucas’s cheek. “Come for me,” he said, feeling it like a rush of heat right down his spine when Lucas groaned and tensed another notch tighter, almost there. “I wanna see,” he said. “I wanna see you come for me, all over yourself—“ and then Lucas was moaning, so loud, louder than the band probably—loud for everyone in the world to hear—and shooting off in Joe’s hand, long, frantic pulses up onto the soft white of his stomach, clutching Joe’s arm while Joe jerked him through it, rocking into him, trying to hold off from the edge himself. He didn’t want it to end. He wanted to stay watching this forever: Lucas’s head tipped back, stripes of come all up his chest, his mouth open, making those noises—

Joe managed to fuck into him one more time and then he was pulling out, heart thudding frantically, and coming like a fucking teenager, pulsing once against the soft clench of Lucas’s hole and then jerking up onto his stomach, gritting his teeth and riding it out. Lucas was slack beneath him. Joe tried to hold himself up for a minute, shaking, Lucas’s hand on his side, petting at him, then couldn’t. He shoved Lucas over and collapsed onto the couch, breathing hard. His knees hurt. He was gonna kill Lucas tomorrow, when he could walk again.

“You could have left it in,” Lucas said.

Joe squinted up at the ceiling. “You’ve gotta go to college,” he said. “They’re gonna teach you about safe sex at college, right?”

“Oh, that was safe sex?” Lucas said.

“Shut up,” Joe said, and closed his eyes. Something was poking him in the side. Probably another drumstick.

“If I don’t go to college…” Lucas said.

Joe grunted.

“If I don’t go anywhere,” Lucas said, “or do anything—are you gonna kick me out?”

“You don’t live with me,” Joe said, but when Lucas didn’t respond for a long moment, he opened his eyes again. Lucas was resting a hand on his stomach, head turned, face unguarded. Just looking at him made Joe feel unguarded too. “Is there a shirt on the floor over there,” he said uncomfortably, nudging Lucas’s arm, but when Lucas just kept resting his hand in jizz, staring at Joe, Joe took a tight breath and said, “I’ve never kicked you out. I never will.”

“Promise?”

“Yeah,” Joe said, “God help me, I promise.” And then: “You gotta give AJ at least a month’s notice, okay?”

“He’s moving to Boston,” Lucas said. “He won’t care.”

“Since when?”

“Trust me,” Lucas said, and then he did reach over to pat Joe’s arm. His hand was wet. Joe sighed and closed his eyes again.

The noise from outside had died down some but there were still people out there. He remembered the unlocked door again; didn’t move to do anything about it. Whatever. Lucas kept shifting closer on the couch—well, the couch was maybe shifting him—it sagged pretty much everywhere. Joe didn’t mind.

“Hey, Joe?”

“What,” Joe said.

“You know what I think?”

“What.”

“I think everything’s gonna be okay,” Lucas said.

“Oh, you do? That’s what you think?”

“That’s what I think,” Lucas agreed.

“You know what I think?”

“What?” Lucas asked complacently.

“That you’re a fucking asshole,” Joe said.

“Maybe,” Lucas said. He wriggled a little closer and grunted discontentedly, squirming, until Joe gave in, shifted up, and hauled him under one arm. Tucked against Joe’s side, with all his gangly limbs gathered in, he felt shockingly small and manageable. “You like me though,” Lucas said, and tugged Joe’s hand onto his stomach.

Joe sighed again and started accidentally to smile. He tucked his face into the curve of Lucas’s neck to hide it. “Give the kid a gold star,” he said roughly, and tried not to get his hopes up, and waited to find out if Lucas was right.