Excerpt for The Complete Edition of the Rick&Jerry Series by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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The Rick&Jerry Series: Complete Edition

Books One through Seven

By Karl Five

Copyright 2018 Karl Five

Smashwords Edition

License Notes

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Author's note: All characters depicted in sexual acts in this work of fiction are 18 years of age or older.



DATE with a ROCK

DATE with a TOWN


DATE with the PAST ]




It seemed that nothing was going to go right for me that day. I had finally made the decision to end it all and jump off the Neuse River Bridge.

I’m on my way up Route 17, only a couple of miles out of Jacksonville, when my car engine sputters and dies. I coast onto the shoulder, then try several times to get it going again. The starter does its best, but the engine only makes a few feeble attempts before it gives up completely. The gas tank is nearly full, so that isn’t the problem.

Well, it figures, doesn't it? Sometimes you just can't catch a break to save your life.

I get out of the car and open the hood. I'm a man. I should therefore be able to fix cars, right? Wrong. Although I'm familiar with the principle behind internal combustion engines, the real thing is nothing to me but an incomprehensible tangle of grimy wires, greasy metal, and viciously whirling belts and blades. Seems I’ve always been better at the theoretical side of things rather than the practical side.

Nevertheless, I feel that I have to at least make the effort, before I begin hiking back along the highway to J’ville. (And yes, I have a cell phone, but it’s one of those prepaid plans, and I’d used up all my minutes several days ago.)

It takes a bit of fumbling around just to get the hood up on my Scion xB, but when I do, everything looks the way it always has to me. Just the usual collection of wires, belts, and various odd-shaped metal contraptions. Somehow I’ve always felt that there should be a big flashing arrow indicating what’s wrong and where it can be found, but there never is.

Although I stand with one hand on the upraised hood, staring down at my recalcitrant engine, I really am not seeing the motor at all. Instead, I’m stewing over the events that led up to my final decision, piling bitterness on top of despair until my own thoughts threaten to topple over and suffocate me.

I glance back down the road toward J’ville and Camp Lejeune, one of the biggest Marine Corps bases in the country. I’d spent the last couple of years in J’ville. It isn’t the best place in the world for a gay guy, but it isn’t the worst place either, considering the huge number of young, healthy, and mostly good-looking Marines in the area. Of course, most of them are strictly heterosexual, but not all of them, to say the least. There’s only one gay bar in town, but ever since the military finally decided to accept gay, lesbian, and bisexual folks, things have begun to change for the better.

Hard to believe I’m actually leaving, both the town and my life.

Well, if I can’t get my car started again, I’m not going to be leaving anything. I don’t know for sure how far it is to the outskirts of town. Probably just a few miles. But I never was much of a walker.

I sigh. That’s part of the problem, isn't it? If I were still much younger and more handsome, I might not have been making this trip to begin with. Youth and good looks are at a premium in the gay world, and I’m not in my twenties anymore.

Of course, there’s also the fact that I’d been laid off from my job as a CT Tech at Camp Lejeune, and I haven’t been able to find another one. CT technologists are a glut on the market just now, so despite all the resumes I had sent out and the very few resulting interviews, I was still unemployed even after my Unemployment Benefits ran out. After that, all my hopes started running out, along with what little savings I had.

But enough of that. Back to the non-starting car and the side of the road. I stare north up Route 17, glumly reflecting that this puts a definite crimp in my plans. The Neuse River Bridge is at least 40 minutes further on and I had timed my departure in order to arrive right after sunset, since I've always thought that would be a good time of day to die. Very dramatic to leap off a bridge into the flaming colors reflected in the water by the dying light of the western sky, right?

At the rate things are going, I’ll be lucky to get there by midnight. And there won’t even be a full moon tonight. Even the universe seems to be against me.

“Hey, buddy! You got car trouble?”

Although there’s no hint of threat in the voice, I nearly jump out of my shoes at the unexpected words coming from behind me.

"No shit, Sherlock," I reply, covering my startlement with sarcasm as I turn to face the stranger who’s walking up along the side of the road. Highways can be dangerous these days; no telling what sort of weirdoes you might run into.

This one doesn’t appear too scary, although he’s definitely taller than I am and far more imposing, with the hint of a military bearing in the way he walks, despite some rather shabby and worn-looking clothes. He’s probably somewhere around my age, and he’s carrying a good-sized backpack, but this certainly isn’t a hiking trail. Homeless? Or just another wanderer hitchhiking around the country?

He gives me a smile and glances down at my car. "Want me to take a look at it?”

I step out of the way and wave a hand at the engine. Maybe I’ve lucked out and he’s a hotshot auto mechanic. "Sure. Why not?"

He pokes around under the hood while I just stand there and watch. Whatever he may be, he’s certainly not hard on the eyes. If I’d encountered him in a gay bar, I probably would have tried to pick him up. I tend to be attracted to the more macho types, and he definitely fits into that category.

I give a mental shrug. Even if he were gay, he wouldn’t give a wimp like me a second look. A military type with a body like that could have the pick of the crop.

He touches the dangling end of a small rubber hose, then brings his fingers up to his nose, sniffing. "This is your fuel line,” he informs me.

I shift my head, trying to bring the right part of my bifocals to bear so I can focus. I hate the damn bifocals. Wearing glasses is bad enough, but bifocals? Please!

The engine is in shadows, so it takes me a minute to figure out what’s what, but, yes, that hose is obviously not connected to anything and fluid is dripping out of it. Now, why hadn't I noticed that?

He slides the hose over a short metal pipe that’s nearby.

“Should have a clamp to hold it in place,” he adds. “But you can deal with that later.”

Or maybe not, I think, as long as the car gets me as far as the bridge.

“See if it’ll start now.”

Obediently, I get back into the car and turn the key. With only a bit of hesitation, the engine comes to life.

With a satisfied nod, my Good Samaritan closes the hood carefully, turns away, and begins walking along the road.

I lean out the window. "Thanks a lot, pal! Where're you headed?"

He waves one hand vaguely at the highway. "That way."

Nothing like having a definite destination in mind, is there? I think to myself. Oh well, being a drifter is no crime. Or maybe it is, when you consider how vagrants are often treated these days.

What the hell, I figured I could be rid of him before I reached the bridge. Or, on second thought, this stranger would make a fine witness. He could tell everyone what happened. I was sure he wouldn't be able to stop me. When we reached the right place, I'd be out of the car and over the railing before he even knew what was going on.

"Want a ride?" I call out.

He actually takes a moment to consider before replying. "Yes. Thank you."

Taking off his backpack, he stows it behind the seat and gets in.

It’s a good thing my Scion has a fair amount of headroom. If I’d had one of those low-slung little compact cars, his head would have just about hit the roof.

Putting the car in gear, I drive carefully back onto the pavement.

"My name's Jeremy Langsten," I offer. “Jerry, for short.”

“Richard Garner. Rick, for short. Pleased to meet’cha, Jerry.”

Yeah, definitely New York.

“So – uh -- are you really not going anywhere in particular?”

“I’ve been searching," he says, "for something I’m beginnin’ to think I’ll never find."

"Yeah? Welcome to the club. I've been doing that for most of my life."

I hadn't intended my words to sound so bitter. They just came out that way. I see his eyes flicker sideways as he studies me, even though I keep my gaze on the road. I'm used to watching people watch me. You get a lot of practice doing that in the bars.

I wonder what he sees. Can he tell I’m gay? Most people seem to be able to. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a swish or a flaming queen. I'm just one of those guys that can't quite pass for straight, even if I try. I don't know what it is, but people seem to know. Maybe I'm too neat or prissy or something.

As a child, I was the class bookworm and sissy boy, uninterested in sports and all those guy things. Your basic 98-pound-weakling, if you’re old enough to remember those Charles Atlas ads -- until the years accumulated and my pants started getting a bit too tight around the waist. Oh, you still couldn't call me fat. But the slender, willowy, pretty boy I once was is gone for good. The fact that it happens to all of us is no consolation, when the one it's happening to is you.

And especially if you’re a gay guy. You only think women have it tough in this regard. At least a mature woman is accorded some small measure of respect by our society. But an aging fairy? Forget it! I'm not saying this is right. I'm only saying it's reality.

Of course, if you've got lots of money, you can buy respect, and what passes for love, same as you can in the straight world. But I have neither youth nor riches, and it’s going to be all downhill from here on out. Or at least it feels that way just now.

As I’ve already said, that was a big part of the reason I made a date with the bridge. I didn't want to wait until I was a pitiful old geezer out on the streets. Better to end it now, while I still have a few shreds of dignity left.

Okay, so maybe getting old without a decent job, and soon to be out of money, doesn't sound like a very good reason to off yourself. But, tell me, have you ever been there?

No job for almost a year, the only man I ever really cared about long dead, many if not most of my old friends also dead of AIDS.

Do you know just how dark it gets, when nobody seems to want you for anything? Sooner or later, you don't even want yourself. Have you watched your money trickle away, with no prospects for getting more in the future? Have you felt the panic that eats your soul at the thought of being poor in this so-called affluent society?

Perhaps you have, and you've been able to cling to hope and courage just the same. Well, I couldn't. As I’ve already admitted, I'm a sissy and a coward. When the darkness in my soul got just too dark, I chose what I thought would be the easy way out.

Look into your own soul on those awful nights when you lie awake and stare wide-eyed into a dreaded future, your heart pounding in panic and your thoughts unable to turn away from whatever constitutes your own particular nightmare; when the sun doesn't rise no matter how long you wait, and the world around you grows teeth and claws. Then tell me you don't know what I'm talking about.

Even as these thoughts run through my mind, Rick sits silently watching me drive. "Something wrong?" he asks at last.

"You wouldn’t understand."

"You might be surprised.”

He’s making me nervous. "I didn't ask for your understanding, did I now?"

"No. You didn’t. Please excuse me."

Polite bastard, isn't he? I’m rude, and he apologizes. Now I really feel bad.

It gets quiet then.

The silence doesn't seem to bother Rick, but eventually I couldn't stand it any longer.

"So how about you? What are you doing in these parts?" I ask. Easy way to make conversation: ask the other person about himself.

"I’ve been in Jacksonville for about a week. Came down on a sailboat."

"You own a boat?" My estimation of my passenger goes up a couple of notches.

The idea seems to amuse him, since he gives a short laugh. "No, I don’t. The owners needed someone to help bring the boat down from Maine."

"You can sail?"

“Yep. Learned how to do it as a youngster.”

Although I keep on facing the road, my eyes slide sideways, glancing at his profile. He seems to be gazing into the distance, smiling slightly to himself.

"So where do you call home?" I probe.

"Nowhere -- and everywhere."

Cute. But what it meant was that he’s living my own worst nightmare: to be homeless. Guess that's a lot of people's worst nightmare, these days.

Then it occurs to me that he might justifiably decide to play tit for tat and start asking me questions that I didn't want to answer, so I left it at that.

For a long while we drive again in silence. If I’d been alone, I'd probably have turned on the radio, just so I wouldn't have to listen to my own thoughts. But I figure that might annoy my passenger.

We pass through the little town of Maysville, with its 25 mph speed limit along the main street, and then continue up Route 17.

At this rate, it won't be more than half an hour before we'll reach the bridge. I was running out of miles, and out of time. But that was what I wanted, wasn’t it?

We got most of the way to Pollocksville when I passed the sign for the upcoming rest area. I turn off at the exit. Yeah, I still intend to keep that date, but the closer we got, the more nervous I became. And when I get nervous, I have to visit the little boys' room.

This is one of those upscale rest areas, with vending machines and generous bathroom facilities. It covers a lot of ground also, with picnic tables scattered around the well-kept lawns, and cars and trucks parked in separate areas. Even the entrance is unusual, in that you first have to drive a short way down a cross road to get to the combined entrance and exit to the rest area itself.

Once this had been a popular cruising area for gay guys, both military and civilian, since it isn’t all that far from Camp LeJeune and Cherry Point, two of the biggest Marine Corps bases. But that had been a good many years ago, before the AIDS epidemic, when the gay community learned that unprotected, promiscuous sex could equal death. It isn’t nearly as busy these days, but you could still find some action here, now and then.

Even so, I couldn't help smiling at the memories I had of this place.

With all the drugs we have these days, AIDS isn’t the rampant killer that it used to be. But still, does anyone really want to take medication for the rest of his life, especially considering that the price of those pills could bankrupt anyone who isn’t filthy rich? I sure don’t.

As it happens, I was one of the lucky ones. I’m still HIV negative. By all rights, I should have been dead by now, since I hadn’t always practiced safe sex.

The idea that I’m living on borrowed time is kind of funny, considering I’m now on my way to pay off what I've borrowed.

The rest area is virtually deserted, the only other vehicle I can see being an electric-blue pickup endowed with several extra tons of chrome over in the truck lot.

"You gotta go?" I ask Rick, as I cut the engine.

He shakes his head, so I leave him in the car and walk along the path to the bathrooms. Everything looks the same as I remember it, but tonight only ghosts are hanging around the urinals and stalls.

By the time I finish and am walking out the door, my head is down, along with my thoughts.

"Hey, faggot! What's happening?"

That catches my attention. I glance up and find myself confronted by four young men just outside the door. They hadn’t been there when I went in. The one who had spoken to me lounges against the wall, beer can in hand. I ignore them and try to just walk on past.

Needless to say, I don't get too far before someone blocks my way. This one has a pretty face, but the muscles bulging under his faded T-shirt belie any sense of softness.

"Jimmy asked you a question, pal," he says, sneering. "It ain't polite not to answer."

"I'm not a faggot," I lie cautiously. They probably won't believe me, but it’s worth a try.

Pretty Boy laughs and shoves me backwards. I stumble against the third man, who grabs my arm, hard.

"Sure you are," he growls. "We've seen you in the gay bar. You even made a pass at me once."

Had I? I look him over. I can't remember the face, but he’s well-built and pretty good-looking. Just my type. I may well have hit on him. The Top Hat Club attracts straights at times, especially if the drag show is going on. I usually avoid straight men, but anything’s possible, if you're drunk enough. And I've been drunk enough on occasion, especially since I lost my job.

But I could hardly admit to that, under the circumstances. I shake my head, looking Handsome straight in the eye in order to appear as confident as possible. “Nope. Never saw you before in my life.”

“He’s lying. I think he needs a lesson in honesty," the fourth guy says, catching my other arm. He’s younger than his friends. Probably still in his teens and trying to impress the older men.

I don't bother to protest. I know what’s coming. It’s happened to me before. Begging won't help and sweet reason won't impress them. I’m about to get my ass kicked big time.

Of course, if I'd thought fast enough, I might have been able to get hold of the little cylinder of pepper spray I carry on my key chain. But it’s too late now. My keys are in my hip pocket and my hands are already out of action. I never do think of things like that in time to use them.

Jimmy laughs as he tips the rest of the beer in his can onto my head. They all laugh.

Then Pretty Boy takes up a position in front of me. His left arm draws back, fist clenched at his side. As he steps forward into the punch, I manage to pull back and turn as far as I can in order to give with the blow and keep him from connecting directly with my solar plexus, at the same time tightening up my abdominal muscles.

Having the wind knocked out of you is no fun; I'd prefer bruised ribs.

He doesn't seem to notice that his blow hasn't quite connected, so I do my best imitation of being hit in the stomach, doubling over and gasping for breath. The gasp is real enough. Even off center, that hurt.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see his right fist coming at me. Pain explodes through the side of my face, but again, I go with it as well as I can, letting my head turn. I taste blood, and deliberately allow my mouth to go slack so the blood will run down my chin.

That might fool them into thinking I’m hurt worse than I am. If he doesn't hit me in the face again, my glasses might not get broken.

If I had any guts, I would spit in his face, but that would only encourage them. I found that out a long time ago in grade school. Bullies don't change a lot when they grow up; they just become capable of inflicting more serious damage.

The others laugh and cheer Pretty Boy on . I ignore their taunts, watching covertly for the next blow so I can be ready. I wasn't prepared for what happened next. Not by a long shot.

Pretty Boy cocks his arm back for another punch, but before he can deliver it, he stumbles abruptly sideways and lands sprawled out on the grass. I’d been so focused on my attacker that I hadn't even seen Rick kick him, but my brain held an afterimage of my erstwhile passenger pulling his foot back and then planting himself in front of me.

"Let him go," Rick says softly to the two punks who still hold my arms.

They look at each other uncertainly and may have obeyed, if Pretty Boy hadn't been already back on his feet and charging at Rick from the side.

I start to yell a warning, but I could have saved my breath. Rick simply steps backward at the last minute, leaving Pretty Boy to careen past him and run full tilt into the wall of the building.

This is too much for Handsome. Releasing my arm, he steps forward and takes a swing at Rick, who brushes the fist aside as if he were shooing away a fly. When Handsome tries again, Rick grabs his hand, twisting it in and around and bending the wrist into what must have been a painful angle, judging by the expression on Handsome's face.

"I don’t wanna hurt you. Let my friend go and we’ll leave."

"No way, mister," Handsome says through clenched teeth. He jerks his knee up, aiming for Rick's groin.

He has no more success with that maneuver than he'd had with anything else. With a quick twist and a sweep of one leg, Rick knocks the other man to the ground.

He looks at the youngest punk, who still holds one of my arms. Raising one eyebrow questioningly, Rick holds out his hands, palms up, fingers motioning the boy to come on. He smiles in a strange and almost scary way, lips spread back from his teeth and a hard glint in his eyes.

The youngster shakes his head and literally shoves me into the arms of my rescuer. Pretty Boy still sits against the wall. Blood runs from his nose, but he wipes it on his sleeve. He looks about ready to get up and give it another try.

Rick turns me around and starts us back towards the car.

I try to say something clever, but that only makes more blood ooze from my mouth. On some television shows and movies, you can knock someone around and they don't even get bruised, much less bleed. That's not how it works in real life.

Rick half carries and half drags me toward the car.

I never heard anyone coming up behind us, but Rick must have. Whipping his head around, he kicks backwards. I turn just in time to see the youngest of my attackers double over and collapse.

We reach the car without any more trouble.

“Want me to drive?” Rick offers.

“No. I can manage.”

My right side hurts a lot, especially when I take a deep breath, and I know my face looks ghastly. With the tip of my tongue, I can feel the gash inside my cheek, where the skin had been cut against my teeth. But none of that bothers me, not now.

To hell with the pain. It’s only my body that hurts. My mind is somewhere else. I had just seen my would-be attackers laid out like so many rag dolls. For the first time in my life, the bullies had gotten what they so richly deserved.

As I slide in behind the wheel, I wipe my bleeding mouth on my shirtsleeve and turn to Rick.

"That was terrific! Where'd you learn to fight like that?" Oh, duh, Jerry! You already figured him as ex-military. “I mean, were you in the Army or something?”

“Or something,” he says with a smile. “The Marine Corps. Retired not too long ago, after I did my twenty years.” He pulls a bandanna out of one of his pockets. “Here. Use this on your face instead of your shirt.”

Absent-mindedly, I do as he suggests.

He leans toward me, one hand probing along my side. “Take a deep breath. Does this hurt?”

“Ow! Yeah.”

“You may have broken a rib.”

“Nothing that hasn’t happened before,” I reply, trying to sound unconcerned. “So I guess you learned all that karate stuff in the Marines, huh? Sure wish I had your courage.”

"It doesn’t take courage, just training."

I shake my head. "I couldn't learn to do that. Not in a million years."

"In a million years, one may learn many things.” He hesitates, then adds with a sort of a smile in the words, “Not all of them good.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right about that.” Belatedly, I realize we’re still sitting here in the car and time is going by quickly. I turn the key, hoping to hear the engine start. When it does, I shift into gear and pull out of our parking spot.

“You know, I studied karate when I was a kid. I was terrible at it." Funny, I hadn't thought about that for years, but the words just popped out of my mouth.

“Why did you want to learn karate?"

"I didn't. My dad made me take lessons. Thought it would make a man of me.” I smile and shake my head again. "It didn't."

We’re headed to the exit, and would soon be on our way down the highway. But I’m not really thinking about our destination. I’m still focused on what had just happened.

“I sure enjoyed seeing you wipe up the floor with those punks!”

Rick says softly, "There is no grace in victory. The one who glorifies it must revel in bloodshed."

It sounds too pat, as if he were quoting something. "Where'd you get that?"

"It’s from the ‘Tao Te Ching’."

"Oh. I think I read that a long time ago, when I was going to the community college in Boston. Mostly, I guess I agree, at least in my head. I'm not a violent man." Now, there's an understatement! "But when you've seen the bad guys win way too often, like I have –”

He nods. “I understand.”

Then a pair of bright headlights flashes into my rear view mirror, coming up fast from the exit of the truck parking lot.

“What the fuck?” I exclaim.

Rick had already swung around in his seat and was staring out the back window. “Shit!” is all he says.

I step on the gas, but it’s way too late to make any difference. The truck swings around past me and screeches to a stop, ending up sideways on to us, blocking the exit.

I brake and swerve to the right side of the road, hoping not to skid right into the truck.

“Pull over close to the bushes,” Rick says grimly.

I didn’t even think, just did what he said.

The car had barely come to a stop when Rick opens his door and is halfway out. "Come out this side."

I lever myself painfully over the gearshift and stumble to my feet next to him just as the doors to the truck open.

Rick grabs my arm, pulling me rapidly behind the bushes that line the roadway.

"Stay here and keep quiet," he whispers, as he turns back to the parked vehicles.

He means to take them on by himself.

“Rick, no –” I grab his arm, but he literally shrugs me off. Then the space beside me is empty.

Well, why shouldn't I stay put? I’m no fighter. That had already been established. I squat down in the shadows, carefully pushing a few of the branches aside so I can see what’s going on.

Our erstwhile assailants pile out of their truck. Jimmy and the youngster are carrying baseball bats and Handsome has a tire iron in one hand. I see Pretty Boy slide a pistol into his pocket. These folks are looking to do some serious harm this time.

Faced with the real thing, I more or less forget I had been planning to be dead tonight anyway. Perhaps if I duck way down behind this bush, they won't notice me.

I didn't have to worry. Rick deliberately lets them see him, stepping out from the cover of the low shrubs as he runs into the trees behind them, away from where I’m hiding. They fall for it, following him into the woods.

Jerry, are you going to let him save your ass again? I ask myself in disgust. Yes, I answer. Rick has the training to deal with this. I don't. He'll be fine.

This doesn't satisfy the voice in my head. I don't care if he's Bruce Lee. One unarmed man doesn't take on a mob like that. Not and come out of it in one piece. Go help him.

Oh, shit! I tell myself as I concede the point.

Right. I'm going to help him. How? My ribs already hurt just from the exertion of climbing out of the car, and I’m no match for even one of our attackers. Big help I’ll be.

Then I remember the little cylinder on my key chain. I reach into my back pocket, praying I hadn't left the keys in the car in my haste to get out.

When my fingers close on the plastic case that holds my pepper spray, I smile. Pulling it out, I twist the top so that it’s unlocked. If nothing else, I should be able to even the odds a little with this.

As silently as I can, I creep through the undergrowth in the same direction Rick had taken.

Not unsurprisingly, the first thing I find is the kid. He'd apparently gotten snagged in some catbrier, judging by the way he’s cursing and slashing with his bat at the thorny vines that were caught in his shirt and jeans.

I'd probably never get a better chance. Without even allowing myself time to reconsider, I step up next to him and spray him right in the eyes with my secret weapon.

The boy drops like a stone, clutching at his face. I guess he was trying to scream, but it comes out as more of a suffocated gurgle. If I hadn't known pepper spray isn't usually lethal, I'd have been afraid he was in real trouble.

As it is, I grin smugly as I leave my very first victim writhing on the ground behind me.

There’s clearly something going on further into the woods, because I can hear angry voices and people stomping around. The others must have caught up to Rick. I could only hope he was having as much luck against them as he'd had last time. Maybe he won't need any more help from me.

It must have been the adrenaline kicking in, because I’m not afraid as I sneak closer to the melee. I’m also not conscious of any pain, and I know that can't be right. Time seems to stretch out in the odd way it has of doing when you're in a dangerous situation. The world around me takes on a terrible clarity.

Keeping to the cover of the bushes, I arrive just in time to see Pretty Boy charge directly at Rick. Jimmy lies sprawled out on the ground, but he’s already trying to get up. He pulls a hunting knife from his belt. Meanwhile, Handsome is holding the tire iron raised above his head, watching for an opening.

Rick goes down under the weight of Pretty Boy's attack, but I see him put one foot up into the other man's belly as he rolls backwards, so it was with no very great surprise on my part when Pretty Boy flew head over heels -- or should I say heels over head? -- over Rick. He crashes to a landing almost on top of where I’m crouched behind a myrtle bush.

I move hastily aside, keeping one eye on Pretty Boy as I watch the rest of the action.

Rick is on his feet again and ready as the other two men attack, almost simultaneously. He simply steps out of Jimmy's way, grabbing his hand and twisting the knife free as he charges past, now off balance and unable to stop himself from tripping over Rick's outstretched leg. Rick ends up in a half crouch just as Handsome rushes forward, the tire iron already aimed at his head.

Rick ducks in and under the blow, effortlessly levering his opponent up and over. Handsome hits the ground flat on his back, the air knocked out of him.

Damn, but Rick makes it look so easy! It’s almost as if he were dancing instead of fighting. I’m totally caught up in watching him, but as he turns to confront Handsome once again, I realize that Pretty Boy has regained his feet and is standing almost next to me. Not only that, he now holds a pistol pointed at my friend's back. Unless Pretty Boy is an exceptionally lousy shot or Rick can dodge bullets, he won't even see it coming. It would be all over for my knight in shining armor.

There was no time for me to argue with myself. I take a deliberately noisy step out of the shadows and give Pretty Boy the eye, asking in my most provocatively swishy tone, "Hey, good-lookin’, wanna fuck?"

Fury contorts his face as he spins toward me. I sincerely hope there’s more pepper spray left in my little cylinder as I raise my hand to aim it at his eyes.

I’m too slow. Pretty Boy catches my wrist in a grip I know I can't break.

He grins and squeezes my hand hard, certain that he has me at his mercy. I do my best not to scream as pain lances through my captured wrist, determined not to drop my sprayer.

"At least your friend over there can fight like a man, faggot. You're not even worth a bullet," he sneers. Flipping the pistol around so he holds it by the barrel, he swings it up above his head.

As the gun slashes down towards my face, I raise my foot and kick him as hard as I can in the knee. If I'd had time to think about it, I never would have done it. It was pure instinct.

No, not instinct: memory. I’d practiced that particular move many times in my long-ago karate class, never actually believing I'd do it for real.

Much to my surprise, Pretty Boy collapses, screaming and clutching at his knee. His pistol lies forgotten on the ground. Going down on one knee, I give him a shot right in the eyes with my trusty little keychain decoration, then gingerly pick up the gun.

When I regain my feet, I find Rick standing next to me, holding the tire iron and the knife. His attackers both lie on the ground, neither one appearing to be conscious.

He looks from me to the man at my feet. Pretty Boy is simultaneously struggling to breathe and scrubbing at his eyes with his hands, as he thrashes around bellowing curses.

“Let's get gone before we have to fight them off all over again," I suggest.

Rick isn't quite ready to leave it at that. He puts the knife in his pocket, then squats down and quickly checks my gasping victim.

"He’ll be all right, but his knee’s dislocated."

I shrug. "Then let his friends take him to the hospital. It isn't far from here. He was going to shoot you in the back, in case you hadn't noticed."

"I noticed," Rick says shortly, glancing down at the gun in my hand. “Unless you know how to handle firearms, Jerry, I suggest you give that to me.”

"It’s all yours.” I hand it to him and turn away, ready to head for my car.

Rick stops. He nudges Pretty Boy gently with his foot. "Now’s your chance to see what true victory is like."

"What do you mean?"

"He’s helpless. You could kick him again. Or hit him with something’." He offers me the tire iron he still has in one hand.

This is a new thought to me, but not an entirely unpleasant one. "Yeah. I could do that, couldn't I?"

Rick just nods.

I take the tire iron, because that seems to be what he expects me to do. I can't read the expression on his face.

For all I know, he’ll bash Pretty Boy himself if I don't. After all, the man had tried to kill him.

I look down at my prospective victim. He has recovered his senses enough to notice me standing over him, but his eyes are streaming tears and he’s still fighting for breath, not to mention suffering from the damage I had done to his knee. I smile, letting him know the tables had been turned.

For as long as I can remember, Pretty Boy and all the others like him had made my life miserable. Now I had a chance to get a little of that back. All the years and all the bullies. Boys older and bigger than me, men stronger than me. All the gays beaten, and even sometimes killed, because some men like Pretty Boy just couldn't handle the fact that we existed.

Maybe if I hit him hard enough, I can stop him from ever hurting one of us again. Maybe if I hit him hard enough, I can bash some understanding and tolerance into that thick skull. Maybe if I hit him hard enough, I would succeed in getting rid of all the fear and hatred I’ve learned to keep locked inside my heart for all these years.

Maybe if I hit him hard enough, I can fracture his skull and cause sufficient brain damage to turn him into a vegetable. Goodness knows, I’ve seen things like that often enough in my job as a CT tech.

Maybe if I hit him hard enough, I can kill him.

Maybe if I hit him hard enough, I’d succeed in turning myself into the same kind of dishonorable and vicious coward that he is.

Maybe if I hit him hard enough, I can turn myself into something no better than my enemy.

I toss the tire iron aside.

"I think I'll pass on this one," I say, not sure what response to expect from Rick. Had I just proved to him what a wimp I am?

Apparently not, since he smiles and puts his arm around my shoulder as we walk back to my car. I must admit it feels really good to have his arm around me, even if he’s probably just as straight as the men who had attacked us.

The truck is still blocking the exit from the rest area, but I’m able to drive over the 20 or so feet of lawn and go carefully out the entrance.

When we’re once more back on the highway, Rick asks me, "Is victory still so sweet to you, Jerry?"

"No," I say slowly. "No, it's not. Yeah, they deserved what they got. But –”

“There’s always a 'but', isn’t there?"

I nod. "Seems to me a wise man once told me 'There is no grace in victory. The one who glorifies it must revel in bloodshed.' "

Grinning, I add, "Did I get that right?"

I can hear the amusement in his voice when Rick replies, "Yeah."

Then he turns serious. "Why didn’t you stay in the bushes like I told you to?"

"Because, damn it, you got me out of trouble once already. And I didn't want you to get hurt."

He smiles slightly. "I wouldn’t have gotten hurt."

Well, maybe not. But then again, Pretty Boy had been behind him with the gun, and Rick hadn't seemed as if he'd noticed, despite what he’d told me. But maybe he would have nailed Pretty Boy anyway, gun or no gun. Maybe he really is that good.

"It's not only that," I go on, not sure if I can put the rest of what I’m feeling into words. "If you save my ass — and don't get me wrong, I really appreciate it – I’m not really saved at all."

I’m groping for words here. "No, that didn’t come out right. I mean, unless I can do it for myself, even if I got the shit knocked out of me in the process, it really isn't any good. I've got to stand up for myself, not hide behind someone else.”

He looks at me strangely but says nothing, so I blunder on, still searching for the right way to put it. "I'm not saying you shouldn't defend other people, if you’re able to. But sooner or later, they have to defend themselves, don't they? They can’t just give up and quit."

Why not, Jerry, old boy? That’s what you’re planning to do, isn’t it?

Rick doesn’t say anything. We continue on in silence.

By the time we get to Route 70, it’s already getting dark. That wasn't how I'd had it planned. I was supposed to die at sunset. Well, there’s nothing to be done about that now. Nighttime will just have to do, with the lights of the bridge sparkling in the water below. Maybe the moon will be up.

I glance at the pinewoods on either side of the road, the graceful branches spread with gossamer webs of shadow and dusk.

Damn! Seeing it all for the last time seems to have turned me into a poet. The world has no right to be so beautiful. Not now, when all I want is to leave it behind.

It isn’t very long before the exit to the Neuse River Bridge appears in the glare of my headlights. I signal for the right turn.

Almost before I know it, we’re coming up on the spot where I intend to pull over and jump. Not only is this the highest section of the bridge, but it’s just past another entrance, which means there’s an extra right lane to allow time for the cars to merge into the main traffic. I figured I could come to a stop near the end of that lane without causing an accident.

I slow down, checking the rearview mirror. Nothing. Hitting the hazard button, I come to a screeching halt as far off the main road as I can, leap out of the car and head for the low railing.

My hands grasp the metal rail and I have one foot up on the top of the concrete barrier below it. I get one glimpse of the flat black water below before I’m abruptly jerked backwards and held in a tight grasp.

“Let go of me, damnit!!”

“What do you think you’re doing, Jerry?” Rick’s voice is harsh and fierce, one arm locked around my upper arms and chest and the other around my neck, pinning me back against him. Furious, I fight to get free, kicking at his shins and trying to pull his arm away from my neck.

“What does it look like I’m doing? Let me go, you son of a bitch!”

“Don’t be a fool.”

“You can’t stop me!”

“No? Just watch me.”

I feel the hard muscles flex in the arm he has around my neck, but there’s no pressure on my windpipe, just the sides, where the carotid arteries —

When I come to again, I’m sitting in the passenger seat in my car, tied hand and foot with Rick’s and my belts. We’re parked at the dead end where the old Neuse River Bridge used to be, before the new one had been built in 1999.

Rick sits next to me, looking out at the scenery. “Tell me why.”

“Not your business,” I mumble resentfully.

“Tell me anyway.”

So I do. I tell him everything, except, of course, how attractive I think he is and how much I want him in bed with me.

During all that time, he just keeps staring out over the water, as if he were fascinated by watching the darkness fall. Somehow, that makes it easier for me to talk to him.

When I finally run out of words, all he does is nod once and say, “Okay.”

“Okay? That’s it?”

He turns to me at last. “What do you want me to say? ‘Aw, you poor little fairy, what a tough life you’ve had. You’ve got every reason to off yourself.’ How’s that? Better?”

I turn away from the scorn in his voice. “Uh – no. That’s not what I had in mind.”

Grabbing the back of my head, he makes me face him. “Now, listen up, buddy,” he says, his voice intense and full of bitterness. “I’ve known men who had really good reasons to wish for death. Some of them killed themselves. Some of them didn’t. Either way, they had my respect.”

“So is that it? You don’t think my reasons are good enough?”

“Not by a long shot. And the method you chose is almost laughable.”

Did I just see a flicker of amusement in those dark blue eyes? “Why?”

“For one thing, that bridge isn’t nearly high enough to do the job. It’s only about 70 feet above the water, hardly a lethal distance, unless you just hit wrong and break your neck. If you seriously want to die, you’ll have to do better than that.”

I have no answer, so I just sit there frowning. “Untie me,” I finally demand. “And get the fuck out of my car.”

“All right. But only if you’ll answer a couple of questions when I do.”

“What are they?”

“You’ll see.”

Rick gets out. He opens the passenger door and unties the belts around my wrists and ankles, handing one back to me and securing the other around his waist.

“Stand up,” he says, half lifting me out of my seat. “Now come along.”

He leads me across a sandy field, empty except for some patches of grass and straggling bushes.

The only thing that’s left of the old bridge is a concave retaining wall that had been beneath the first span of the bridge. A railing made of rusting pipes still stands some of the way around the structure, but a lot of sections are missing.

Rick leads me to a place where the railing is still reasonably intact, just about in the middle of the curving concrete wall.

From there, we can see the entire length of the new bridge, along with the silhouette of New Bern on the far side of the wide river. The lights start coming on even as we watch. To the right and up the river, the long railroad trestle is still visible in the growing darkness. High above us, stars are making their appearance, and a waning moon looks down from its place in the western sky.

My eyes are drawn to the bridge, with its endless flow of cars and trucks scurrying across like ants. Red lights mark either side of the channel, which runs underneath the highest part. Where I had tried and failed to jump.

Just then, Rick finally speaks up.

“You really want to die?”

I nod resolutely.

“Very well. If you can convince me that death is more beautiful than this,” he says, waving a hand at the view over the water and the starry sky, “I’ll grant your wish myself.”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

“No? There are already too many people who’ve died by my hand. So what if they may have been trying to kill me at the same time? They’re still dead, and all of them wanted to live. Why should one more make any difference? Especially one who claims he doesn’t wanna live?”

I’m in no shape to consider rationally what he said. If I had had time to think, I may have been able to argue with his logic.

But he doesn’t give me time. He takes the pistol out of his belt and looks at it, considering. “No, a gunshot might draw attention.” Replacing the gun, he takes out the knife he had taken from one of the gay-bashers. “A knife would be much quieter.”

Before I knew what was happening, he’s holding me against his chest, one hand clutching my hair and pulling my head back, while the other holds the knife poised to cut my throat.

“Don’t worry, it’ll be over fast. I’ll make sure it doesn’t hurt much,” he reassures me, his voice dead calm and level.

For endless moments, I’m left staring up at the glittering stars and the moon. That would be the last thing I would see. And the last thing I’d feel would be the warmth of his body hard against my back.

And his stiffening cock. Can he really want to screw me? Or is it just something that happens when he kills someone?

Did it matter which it was? After all, one word from me and I’d be dead. I’d never see these stars again, or the wondrous universe in which they exist. I’d never hold a man in my arms and feel the incredible ecstasy of sex. It would all be over. Forever and ever. Amen.

“Quit now, or stand up and fight back. Which shall it be, Jerry?” he asks in a harsh whisper, his mouth next to my ear.

I start to cry. “I can’t do it. I'm a coward, a sissy –”

"You could have remained hidden from the men who attacked us, and yet you didn’t," Rick reminds me gently. “Now tell me, what do you really want?”

Before I can even think about it, I blurt out, “You.”

He nods. “You got it. Come on.”

I’m still totally astonished when he releases me and then takes my arm and leads me back across the field. As we keep going past my car, he says, “There’s a motel right over there, beyond the boatyard. It’s nothing to look at, but they probably don’t charge a fortune.”

As it happens, I’m pretty familiar with the Curtis Motel. It had once been at the foot of the old bridge, along with a couple of other businesses. Now, it’s a rundown, one-story place in a style that had disappeared long ago. The small swimming pool is full of weeds and goldfish, and the whole building badly needs a paint job. I knew the rooms weren’t much better, except that they were clean and well maintained. And definitely inexpensive.

“My car,” I object as we leave it behind at the dead end.

“We’ll move it later. Don’t worry. By the way, I’m sorry I knocked you out like that back on the bridge. If we’d stood there arguing, we could’ve caused an accident.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

When we check in, the lady at the desk looks at me a little longer than is necessary. That’s when I realize I must be a bit of a mess. I probably have a black eye and a nasty bruise beginning to show on the side of my swollen face.

“Uh – I had to stop real short on the bridge, and my head hit the steering wheel,” I lie, as Rick fills out the registration card. “Guess I look kind of gruesome, huh?”

She nods. “Do you need a doctor?”

“Oh, no! I’ll be fine once I get cleaned up. I take blood thinners, so I bruise real easily.”

She still seems a bit concerned, so Rick helps me out. “We were just lucky that the car behind us stopped in time. Could’ve been much worse. Not much leeway on the sides of that bridge, you know.”

“You’re sure right about that, Mister –” she glances down at the card -- “Garner. Been some pretty nasty accidents up there, especially when the weather’s bad.”

She smiles kindly as she hands over the key. “Room’s right around the back, boys. Have a good night.”

“Blood thinners?” Rick asks, as we walk around to our room.

“Hey, it was the only thing I could think of at the moment. After all, I work in a hospital. Well, I mean, I used to work in a hospital.”

“What do you do?”

“CT tech. You know, CAT scans.”

“Yeah. Had a few of them myself, over the years.”

By then we’re at the door to our room.

The first thing Rick does when we get inside is take me in his arms and pull me up against him. When I wince at the pressure on my ribs, he slides his arms down further, his hands now holding only my ass.

I had to ask. “You’re – gay?”

He sounds amused when he answers, “Would I be hugging you like this if I wasn’t?”

He’s still halfway erect, and I’m getting there myself.

“Uh, no, I guess not.”

He kisses me again, but carefully, mindful this time of my swollen face.

“Full disclosure, Jerry. I’ve been with women and men. I prefer men, but in the end, it mostly depends on the person.”

“Well, I’m definitely gay, but I have felt attracted to the occasional woman now and then, even if I haven’t followed through with it so far,” I admit.

Under other circumstances, I’d have already been down on my knees with his cock in my mouth, but that isn’t going to happen, thanks to Pretty Boy’s punch. I won’t be giving any blowjobs anytime real soon.

And as for anything more strenuous, my possibly broken ribs continue to remind me that breathing might be about the only thing I could safely do right about now.

Great. I have a very desirable man here with me in a private room, with his stiff dick pressed against my groin, and I’m not sure what I’ll be able to do for him. Now what?

Rick solves the problem for me. Locking the door behind us and closing the curtains, he starts stripping off his clothes. He steps out of his briefs but leaves his T-shirt on, which struck me as rather odd, since he clearly wasn’t embarrassed at being naked. His cock stands at attention, with the folds of white fabric hanging down at either side.

He looks at me looking at him. I’m sure I’ll start drooling at any moment. I’ve seen bigger dicks in my life, but his is a respectable length and width. I honestly prefer something close to normal, since being fucked by a man who’s hung like a horse, no matter how good it may look in the porn movies, can be mighty uncomfortable. Bigger really isn’t always better. At least, not to me it isn’t.

I lick my lips and swallow. Considering his trim and well-built body, I almost don’t want to get undressed. While I’m only a couple of inches shorter than Rick in height, the best I can say for the rest of me is that I’m rather on the scrawny side, and maybe a little bit too broad around the middle. Even my cock is slender, rather than wide.

Almost reluctantly, I get out of my clothes, very conscious of Rick’s eyes on me, even though the room is fairly dark by now.

The first thing he says is, “You’re one of the lucky ones.”

“Huh?” Now what on earth could he mean by that?

“You weren’t circumcised.”

“Oh, right. My father didn’t think it was necessary. He wasn’t cut himself.”

“Wish my folks had thought the same. Oh well, I guess one works with what he’s got. Not much choice, at this point.”

I’m not too sure why he seems to prefer uncut dicks, but I sure wasn’t going to complain.

He turns on the light next to the bed. “Lie down here and let me see how badly bruised you are. I don’t want to hurt you.”

That sounds awfully – clinical. He’d either worked in the medical field or he’d spent a lot of time in the hospital somewhere along the line.

I feel a little self-conscious flat on my back on the bed with the light on me, but it gets worse when he kneels down and just looks at me. My overwrought penis twitches every time Rick touches my face, feeling along my cheekbone carefully.

“Any loose teeth?” he asks.

I poke my tongue around a bit. “Nope. Just the cut inside my mouth.”

When he probes the darkening bruise on my left side, my penis does more than twitch.

“I guess you’re up for some action, as long as we take it easy, huh?” he concludes.

I’m not sure if that was meant to be a pun or not, so I just nod.

Turning off the light, he lets his hand wander down to my groin. Encircling my half-alert cock and tightening balls in his palm, he squeezes and pulls over and over in a slow rhythm, almost hard enough to hurt, but not quite.

I gasp with the sheer pleasure of being handled by someone other than myself. For too long now, there had been only my own hand.

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