This novella is included in Reaps, available on Kindle.

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                                         The Picture

                                    © 2011 Jess Mowry


       Zach Dreyfus and Eric Malone had been lovers since they were twelve. They had been best friends since kindergarten, which is almost the same as being lovers when you're a little kid.
       Like many gay teens, Zach had read a thousand theories about why some dudes liked other dudes. A hundred years before, many doctors thought that being gay was like some kind of disease and “sick boys” were sent to sanatariums where they were taught to be tough and manly. No one seemed to know if this worked and cured the boys of their disease, or if it had only taught them to live their lives as lies.
       There were religious theories, too, that Satan tempted kids into gayness.
       Zach had also read theories that something might trigger a same-sex preference, usually at an early age. It was mostly about gender-roles, and advised parents to watch their young boys for signs of "too gentle or friendly behavior."
       Another theory proposed that there was a "window of curiosity,” usually in early adolescence. Then, if a kid had a same-sex experience, or was exposed to gayness, they might prefer gay relationships later on in life. This was one reason to hate gay people, because they "recruited" young boys and girls by preying on them through this window -- often a browser window, according to modern experts -- though many kids who were raised by gay parents still turned out to be straight.
       One of the currently popular theories was that some people were simply born gay, and God didn't make mistakes.
       Zach had read volumes on gayness between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, but he still didn’t know why he was. Sometimes he wondered if he and Eric might have become lovers simply because it was easier than playing silly games with girls and trying to be Alpha males. Zach called this his Theory Of Gay Laziness.
       His lover -- and still best friend -- Eric had always been a chubby dude with a soft and rolly body that made him look fatter than he actually was. Zach recalled one day at a beach when they’d been about eight and a woman had told Eric's mom it was time her "daughter" wore a top.
       Zach had always been muscular, though without a lot of mass, and by thirteen his body was well-defined. By seventeen he was still pretty buff, though his chest and belly were getting soft. Except for some casual skating, he wasn't very active and was also the baddest beer-bonger at school.
       Zach was as black as a Halloween cat with bushy hair and large onyx eyes, a pert snub nose and expressive lips. He was the only black person in a nice little otherwise all-white town... except for his parents, of course. A lot of girls thought he looked cool... though their parents usually told them it was only because Zach was “different” and even nice girls went through a phase of thinking “different” was cool.

       Although Zach and Eric had never come out -- Zach wasn't sure how that was done: did you do a "hey, we're gay" blog, or run an ad in the paper? -- there had been rumors since seventh grade that he and Eric were more than friends. But, neither their parents’ disapproval nor the rumors at school kept girls from asking Zach out or dreaming about converting him... in case the rumors were true.
       Gay dudes (there were three in town, not counting Zach and Eric... or at least three that anyone knew of) were also attracted to Zach and may have dreamed of converting him, too... in case the rumors weren’t true.
       This backed up one of the gay theories, though “proof” can usually be found to back up almost anything no matter how illogical.
       By age seventeen, Eric had crossed the chubby line and openly come out as fat... which some people thought was worse than gay. He only weighed about 250, but like Zach was under six feet so it looked like a hundred pounds more. But he'd never been shy about losing his shirt despite all the stupid bra jokes. He was handsome in a fat kind of way, with dark brown hair and bright blue eyes in a chipmunk-cheeked and cheerful face. Some girls thought he was cute despite being taught that fat was ugly, and may have dreamed of converting him -- in case the rumors were true -- but no gay dudes were attracted to Eric.
       Some of the worst fat-haters are gay.
       Zach was thinking about these things while lying naked in bed with Eric. It was a warm spring afternoon, close to five o'clock on a Friday. As usual after school, they had skated to McDonalds then to Zach’s to make sweaty love... though Eric did most of the sweating. Sunlight glowed through half-closed shades, and the room was dim and mellow. The stereo played a Led Zeppelin album, and Zach had his arm around Eric. But today Zach found he wasn't happy, and his arm, like Eric, had gone to sleep.
       Above the old psychedelic music -- buying a stairway to heaven -- came the buzzing of a big black fly bumping against the window screen. Zach noticed that Eric smelled pretty strong. Skating was getting hard for him, and he'd sweated gallons on the way home. It wasn't really a bad smell, but Zach was aware of it today. He supposed he'd gotten used to Eric always in his pillows and sheets ever since they’d slept-over as little kids. He also supposed, to be fair, that he probably smelled, himself.
       Zach frowned at the fly as it bumped the screen. He didn't feel like being fair. There were a lot of things on his mind; and here on this Friday afternoon, with no homework, a weekend ahead, and his friend and lover beside him, Zach discovered he wasn't happy.
       He tried to ignore his gone-to-sleep arm while thinking it was almost June and his seventeenth summer on earth. In three more months he’d be a senior; and even though it seemed far away, he would be graduating next year. College was one of the many things that Zach had been thinking about. He'd always known his parents weren't “rich,” though they lived in a nice little neighborhood in a house only one year older than Zach and had all the things that nice Americans were supposedly entitled to have for their niceness. Zach had always assumed he'd be going to college bankrolled by his parents, but his dad had told him last month that they couldn't afford a really good college so Zach should apply for a scholarship.
       That had been a shock to Zach. Like being told he had a disease that was now manifesting itself. Fortunately, he had a gift... although it wasn't money. He'd been drawing ever since he was five, and all his teachers since kindergarten had been impressed by his work. They said he could be a truly great artist if he kept improving his skill.
       Zach looked around at the pastel pictures that plastered the walls of his room. Eric called Zach's room The Chalk Zone. Not surprisingly, many of the drawings were of Eric. Some were childish things from the past, while the newer were stunningly true to life.
       Taking advice from his school art teacher, Zach had made portfolios and sent them to several colleges. There had been some encouraging replies, but nothing definite so far, and for the first time in seventeen years Zach had become aware of time. It had suddenly occurred to him that he wasn't a little kid anymore and time was not his friend.
       Zach had begun to realize that most of what really mattered in life was going to happen between skateboards and wheelchairs; between beer-bongs and Ben-Gay for arthritis; between rock concerts and hearing-aids, and he had to start thinking about them.
       It had also occurred to him that, except for his parents of course, he had never loved anyone but Eric.
       Adding to Zach's uncertainty about the coming future, his growing unhappiness with the present, and maybe some regrets of his past, was a gay dude named Shawn who'd moved to town and seemed to be on the prowl for Zach. Shawn was ripped, drop-dead handsome, and lately the star in Zach's mental movies.
       The fly bumbled off to bug someone else. Zach was aware of Eric's soft weight putting his arm to sleep. Shawn would be like a tiger in bed, while Eric was only a fat lion cub. Eric was gentle, smart and brave, but... well, not very aggressive.
       It had always seemed to be assumed that Zach and Eric would go to college, be roomies, beer bong, gain the freshman fifteen, just like it seemed to be assumed that he and Eric would always be partners. But now Zach wondered why?
       Was Eric the dude, the friend, the lover, who Zach would be spending his life with? Never knowing if there was anything... well, maybe better. Or maybe just else. If Zach had been religious he might have prayed for guidance, but except for a year of Sunday School -- urged on him by his mother at seven because it was something nice children did -- he'd never thought much about God.
       Despite his lack of religious faith, Zach supposed he was basically “nice.” At least he felt bad when he wasn't. He was still in bed with his arm asleep because he didn't want to wake Eric.
       Then he remembered that tonight at his school was an expo. There would be reps from colleges, and he had to take his portfolios to check out possible art scholarships. It was something he didn't want to do, and yet he had to do it. This was another realization that he wasn't a little kid anymore; that there would be many things in life he would have to do without liking them.
       "Eric?" said Zach.
       "Huh?" murmured Eric, opening his eyes.
       "There's the expo tonight. Remember?”
       "Oh yeah," said Eric, who didn't need a scholarship. He smiled and kissed Zach's cheek.
       Zach automatically kissed Eric back. Then he pulled his dead arm from under Eric and tried to shake it back to life. It occurred to him that Eric's boobs were so much like a girl's that it probably didn't make any difference. It seemed funny that he was supposed to be gay, but his lover was kind of like a girl, soft, gentle, and... well, nice. Zach wondered if maybe he did like girls, subconsciously, anyhow. He got out of bed and added that to his list of things to bug about.


       The expo was in the gym, about twenty booths set up in rows beneath the blazing mercury lights. Zach and Eric had skated to school and stopped for dinner at McDonalds, Eric eating a super-size meal, but Zach hadn't been very hungry. He was nervous about meeting the college reps and having to make his pitch. Both he and Eric wore baggy skate jeans, wallets on chains, and plain white tees, their boards toted under their arms. Eric's jeans kept trying to fall off as he wobbled along beside Zach with his belly bobbing under his shirt.
       Zach was aware of the hater glares that Eric was getting for being fat. It seemed ironic that Eric got hated, while no one dissed Zach for being black... at least not to his face in this nice little town. “Health” was like a religion, too, and there was a new holy war on anyone who wouldn’t worship.
       "Hey, Eric," said Zach, tired of staring down hater fools in defense of his friend. "You don't have to tag along, man. I just have to give out a few more folders. Grab a snack and kick on the bleachers. I'll only be a few more minutes.”
       "Okay," said Eric, always agreeable, and wobbled away to the cooking class snack bar.
       Zach visited three more booths and got positive reactions to the copies of his drawings. Each rep gave him forms to fill out and a promise to get back to him when their art professors had seen his work. He had one portfolio left.
       "Hey, Zach.”
       Zach turned around to see Shawn. Zach was almost enchanted by Shawn, with his long blond hair and indigo eyes. Shawn's muscular body was art itself, and on display in a tight wife-beater. His old skate jeans were sagging so low that a lot of his six-pack belly was showing. Shawn was openly, proudly gay, and didn’t need to blog about it.
       "Um, hey," said Zach, painfully attracted to Shawn, and whether or not he wanted to be. Shawn smelled like Brut and looked like a tiger.
       "...Um..." Zach added, his throat getting tight, his palms turning sweaty: all the usual physical stuff that went along with... well, desire. "You checking out colleges, too?”
       "Mom's idea," said Shawn, sort of making a face. "She's been savin' up since I was born. Still works all night at Dennys to fatten up my college fund, so I guess I gotta go. But, I'm gonna kick back for a year after school, maybe take a long road trip." He laughed. "I don’t wanna be thirty an' thinkin' about what I didn't do when I had the chance.”
       "Yeah," agreed Zach. "That would suck." And he suddenly realized it would.
       Shawn's eyes roamed Zach as if X-raying the oversize shirt and liking what he saw. "Wanna come over tonight, man? I got a case of Rolling Rock.”
       Zach struggled not to melt and say yes. He had to swallow to make his voice work. "Me and Eric are gonna get burgers.”
       Shawn glanced across the crowded gym where Eric was sloppily sprawled on the bleachers and happily eating cupcakes. "No offense, man, but ain't that kinda like bein' with a girl?”
       "I wouldn't know," said Zach truthfully.
       Shawn smiled. "A cute dude like you could do a lot better. It could be wicked for both of us.”
       "Uh..." said Zach, not knowing what to say.
       "I heard you been friends all your lives," added Shawn. "But, you're not a little kid anymore. You should be thinkin' about your future.”
       "I'm doing that a lot," said Zach.
       "Remember, it could be wicked as hell. ...Laters, dude.”
       "Um, yeah," said Zach. "See ya, man." He almost added thanks... for what? He stood there sweating as Shawn paced away like a strong young tiger on the prowl. If Shawn had actually had a tail, it would have been carried high and proud. For the first time in a long time, Zach wanted to run to the nearest bathroom and whack-off like a twelve-year-old who’d seen some wicked porn.
       "Damn you!" he muttered, watching Shawn as he left the gym. Would Zach be the star in Shawn's movies tonight? Probably not. But Shawn might be the star of Zach’s.
       Zach was about to rejoin Eric. They would get more burgers or maybe a pizza, then cruise to Eric's, drink some beer and play games or watch movies. They could also make love again. If Zach wanted to. Eric was never... well, demanding.
       Then, Zach noticed another booth off in the shadows, back in a corner. It was a bad location, and no one else seemed to notice it as they went around gathering applications and handing out portfolios. Maybe it wasn't a very good college? Zach wouldn't have bothered to check it out, except he was still hot as hell over Shawn. He didn't want to go to Eric, didn't want burgers, didn't want games, didn't want... well, the same old shit. Even if it was nice. Besides, he had one portfolio left and should be thinking about his future.
       He went to the booth in the shadows. Not only was it badly placed, but the man there looked a little... well, different. It wasn't just because he was black, as midnight black as Zach himself -- which was different enough in this town -- it was something harder to define. He might have been thirty and wore his hair bushy. Zach wasn't an expert on suits, but this guy's suit was off the hook, like something a gangster would wear. Not one of those dumb-ass short-bus thuggers, but a real gangster with real power. The guy had several diamond rings on his long and well-manicured fingers, and the rings were way too big to be fake. His form-fitting shirt was satin-black on what might have been a muscular body, though maybe grown a little soft. His red silk tie was like a flame. and his old-fashioned cuff links were ruby sparks, which like the diamonds had to be real. There was also a ruby stud in one ear.
       The sign on the booth read DCU in tasteful gothic letters. "C" probably stood for City, thought Zach; and if this was only a city college it probably didn't offer much art.
       He nodded to the man, who smiled, his teeth, like his diamonds, stark against black. Zach saw a display of pamphlets, surprised at how impressive they were. They blew off everything else he'd seen, and featured killer artwork.
       The man remained silent and smiling as Zach leaned his board against the booth and leafed through a beautiful brochure of paintings, drawings and sculpture. The heat that Zach had felt for Shawn was replaced by an awed admiration for what he was looking at now.
       “We are a small university," said the man at last. "But, as you see, we have some great artists.”
       "This stuff is hot!" exclaimed Zach.
       The man chuckled pleasantly. "Like your handsome young friend?”
       A wink would have been... well, crude. Zach couldn't imagine this man being crude. For this first time in his life -- and he seemed to be having a lot of firsts lately -- he felt an attraction to someone older. Someone with much more experience who probably knew a million things that Zach might never know.
       The man said, "Great artists explore all possibilities.”
       "I guess that's true," said Zach. "I'd hate to be thirty and thinking about what I didn't do when I had the chance.”
       The man laughed in a... well, cultured way. "Thirty! How old that seems when one is your age. But, trust me, Zach, thirty is hardly more than thirteen in a long and eventful life.”
       "How do you know my name?" asked Zach.
       "It's on your portfolio.”
       "Oh yeah. ...Um, this is some of my stuff. My work, I mean. I'm looking for a scholarship.”
       The man smiled again, taking Zach's folder as if it was something just as good as the beautiful art he already had. "I'd say you were looking for more than a scholarship.”
       "I do kinda feel like that," agreed Zach. "But, I guess you remember being my age.”
       "All too well," said the man and sighed with maybe a hint of regret. "Believe it or not, I was once young and handsome like you.”
       Zach resisted an urge to suck in his belly and harden his chest. Instead he smiled and spoke the truth. "You're still pretty handsome.”
       "Thank you, Zach.”
       Zach's gaze drifted back to the doorway where Shawn had strode out like a handsome young tiger. Somehow the door looked farther away than it should have been or really was... or maybe it was only Zach's mood because he hadn't left with Shawn. Mood could alter perspective. "You probably looked more like... my friend." He laughed. "Except for being black.”
       The man's eyes seemed to go far away. "I was lazy in my youth. And a bit dissolute, though you may not know that expression.”
       Zach patted his convex tummy. "Like, a lot of beer and parties?”
       "And maybe too full of myself," said the man with maybe another hint of regret. Then he asked, "What about your other friend?" while leafing through Zach's drawings. "The chubby boy you came with.”
       "We've been friends all our lives," said Zach. "Walking the railroad bridge together, climbing the water tower, swimming at the quarry, throwing water-balloons on Halloween. The usual kind of boy-stuff.”
       "Homies," said the man.
       Zach laughed. "I don't use many black expressions.”
       The man glanced around at all the white faces. "Because they expect you to?”
       "Probably," said Zach. "I'm like this town's... well, good little nigger. Like, their exception... they think... to the rule because of TV and movies and all the shit they hear on the news.”
       "I well understand," said the man. “I know what it’s like to be judged by fools based only on what they’ve been taught. Yet you’ve never become an incognegro.”
        Zach shrugged. "I know I'm black and I'm proud of it, so why should I pretend to be white. But sometimes it's hard 'cause... well... I'm not sure who I really am.”
       "Life is for learning, Zach," said the man.
       Zach sighed. "But learning is hard, too. And it seems to get harder as you get older. Or maybe it just gets harder to change, like to accept new things. ...Anyway, that's some of my stuff. If it’s not very good you don't have to bullshit.”
       The man had been scanning a picture of Eric shirtless in jeans on a skateboard. "On the contrary, Zach. You have captured your friend’s very soul.”
       "Um, thanks," said Zach, surprised by the praise. "But, like I said, we've been friends all our lives so I guess I know his soul pretty good. ...Um, I did some of him nude.”
       "I'm sure you did," said the man. "And I'm sure they are some of your best.”
       "Um," said Zach. "I could go home and get them." It was funny that only minutes ago he could have blown off this unknown college, but now it suddenly seemed important to... well, maybe prove himself worthy.
       "That isn’t necessary.” The man regarded Eric’s picture. “As I said, you have a very rare gift of capturing your subjects’ souls.” He smiled again. “If one believed in such things, one might even say a divine gift... and such a gift should be properly used. I would be honored to offer someone with such valuable talent a full scholarship. Not to my humble little school... your talent is far too great... but to any art institute in the world. A full scholarship, plus a generous living allowance.”
       "...Huh?" said Zach, not sure he'd heard right. "Any college? Anywhere? And all expenses paid?”
       "Yes," said the man. "With talent such as you possess, a life of riches and fame could be yours.”
       "You mean here and now?" asked Zach. "No forms to fill out and waiting for an answer?”
       "Here and now," said the man, returning Zach's pictures to the folder as if they were already priceless. "I have a contract with me. There is only one thing I require before accepting you.”

End of excerpt. This novella is included in Reaps, available on Kindle.