The 14 year- old stopped in his tracks, as he spotted  the two- toned police cruiser through the branches of the blue spruce trees that lined the street in front of the little red house.
      The muffled crackle of a police radio grew louder as the door of the car swung open and a blue- uniformed officer hoisted himself out of the driver’s side. He reached back into the car, almost as an afterthought, grabbed a clipboard and pen, and slammed the large door shut.
       Matty had seen enough. He turned down the sidewalk and headed for the back yard and the obscuring grove of fruit trees that his grandfather had lovingly planted just before he died… He looked back as he left the confines of the yard, but, he was not being followed, so, he increased his pace, till he was jogging and made tracks for the path at the north end of the marsh that led to the East and the secret treehouse…
         He was now more concerned than ever over the whole incident with the fire, and his mind reeled with the possibilities that the arrival of the cop had created. What did he want? Was he closing in on some awful truth? Did he have the lighter?
         The teenaged boy was running now, swatting at overhanging branches that protruded from the edges of the overgrown marsh. As he ran, his heart pounded and the anxiety grew, and the deepening shadows of the swamp beckoned and taunted him in the evil echo that had become their torment for the past 4 years.
         He shivered and ran faster, feeling the familiar fear surface, and the imaginary hands reach out and claw at his lean body… But soon, he was out of danger and had reached the opposite side and the path turned and zig-zagged into the bramble of dead blackberry canes. Beyond that lie the golden, bent over grasses of the lovely meadow that bordered the eastern woods and the giant oak, where his best friend waited.
         The blond boy reached the treehouse out of breath. He stood near the furrowed trunk of the twisted tree, with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. He was disappointed in himself and the almost  overwhelming feelings that plagued him… After all, he had left this in the hands of his Protector with the understanding that he should be alert but not fearful. But, the past month had eroded his faith as the blue car appeared at intervals where he least expected and the talk with his dad had done little but reinforce a feeling of shame…
         He stood up and put his hands on his hips, and filled his lungs with the fresh April air. Slowly, his heartbeat returned to normal, and he shook his head. ‘Come on, Matty!’ he thought. ‘Nothing to worry about… You’re not 10 years old, anymore!’  Then he looked around. He was alone.
         It was getting late and his friend was nowhere in sight. He looked up at the treehouse hatch and yelled for his buddy.

         “Bobby, you there?”
         Silence… Only the haunting ‘coo’  of a roosting mourning dove wafted from the top of a neighboring spruce. He walked towards the path again, nervously pacing back and forth as the sun reached the top of the western horizon, tickling the upper branches of the evergreen forest…
         ‘Doggone it! Where is he?’ he mused. Bobby was usually prompt, so, the boy had expected him to be waiting. He took some more deep breaths and tried to quiet his anxious thoughts. But, just as he pushed the demons away, there came a gentle rustling sound in the direction of the bramble closest to the marsh, and then the distinct ‘snap’ of a stepped upon dried branch. Matty peered into the growing shadows but saw nothing. Nothing but the gentle movement of the dried grasses as a  spring breeze wound it’s way through the golden bulrush. He walked closer to the area that the sound came from, ready to flee if necessary and as he approached a fallen tree that was slowly decaying, another sound, a kind of ‘thud’ resounded through the silent woods, only this time, closer and to his left.
         “Bobby?  Is that you?” the lean boy asked, nervously glancing about… There was no response and now the boy decided on a strategic retreat to the safety of the open meadow, but as he turned a hand and then an arm grabbed at him from behind and his heart leaped as he frantically struggled against the powerful headlock…
          Then, the sound of teenaged- laughter filled his ears and the headlock became a hug and then, a kiss on the neck!!
          “Bubba! It’s me, Bobby!” the miscreant laughed.
           Matty stopped struggling and unclenched his fists. “Shit! You almost gave me a freakin’ heart attack, you maniac! What the heck are you trying to do?”
            Bobby cackled, “Just funnin’ you a little, my darling boy! You should see your face! Priceless! You know, it took me like 10 minutes to get you to check out my diversions…”
            “What are you talking about? Diversions? I’m waiting for you and the whole time you’re hiding there, trying to scare the you- know- what out of me!”
            “You can say it… Go ahead, you already did! And, admit it, Great Trapper, I snuck up on you and scared you shitless! And, the rocks I threw into the bushes worked just like on TV!”
             Matty grimaced and took the boy’s forearm and pulled it to his mouth and bit down on it…
             “OWW!  You freakin’ vampire!! What the hell are you trying to do, give me rabies?” Bobby chuckled and let his best friend loose, smacking him on the butt as he spun away.
             “So now you’re Daniel Boone, huh? Cripes, Bobby! I wouldn’t do that to you!”
             “Yeah, right!!  How about that time in the cornfield last summer? You know, the haunted one, when it was just you and me picking, first thing in the morning?”
             “Yeah, well… That was a cornfield, not a place where…” Matty stopped and turned away.
             “Huh?” Bobby laughed. “What’s the difference? Cornfield, here, there?” He put his hand on Matty’s shoulder and tried to turn him around but the blond boy resisted and twisted away.
             “Hey! What’s the matter, Koles? Are you OK? Geezz! I was just having some fun!” He put his hand tenderly on Matty’s back and felt the boy trembling. “God, you’re really scared, huh. Geezz, I’m sorry, Matty, I was just playing…”
              Matty took a deep breath… “It’s OK, Bobby… It’s not your fault. I’m just a little freaked out, with everything that’s been going on lately..” His voice cracked and he stopped talking.
              Bobby came closer and wrapped his arms around the teenager and hugged him tight… Matty leaned back, and felt the warmth of his lover’s touch and closed his eyes. He felt the tension melt away as the boys embraced and Bobby snuggled close, softly kissing the back of his neck.

              “Talk to me Koles…What’s going on? Why are you so worried?”
               Matty sighed. “I didn’t say anything to you, so, it’s not your fault… It’s just that…well… something’s been happening again… something that I thought was done. Over. Something that makes me remember the things from before.  That guy that hurt me bad… real bad.” He couldn’t continue. The feelings washed over him again, undermining the strength in his legs and he started to shake all over.
              “Bubba… you’re scaring me! What are you talking about? What guy? Some guy hurt you, bad? Tell me who the fucker is! I’ll kill him! Bubba…”  Bobby took the shaking boy and turned him around. He put his hands on Matty’s shoulders and caressed the base of his neck with his thumbs. He looked directly into his lover’s eyes and softly wiped away the tears that were forming in the corners… “Please tell me, Bubba…”

             The two boys sat, front to back, at the base of the father oak and Matty told him about the blue car and the man with the sneering smile. How, after almost two years, he had returned, from the shadows that had somehow disgorged him, and the halting conversation with his dad about being followed that had left the boy feeling ashamed for what he was. How his dad’s advice was not to appear so… well, to be more manly about things- not so ‘friendly’…Bobby didn’t say a word. He just held onto Matty, his strong arms wrapped around him in a bear hug from behind and listened until the slender boy was finished.
             “I thought you said he was gone Matty, that he had moved out of state.”
             “I had heard that he did, and left his family behind. I didn’t think he would ever come back. All those kids and the cops looking for him after he tried to rob that liquor store.”
             “He robbed a liquor store?”
             “He tried. I heard my mom and dad talking about it… He walked in and pretended to have a gun in his pocket, but the guy that owned the place didn’t believe him and pulled out a bat, and he ended up running away. The thing is, the guy knew who he was! He used to buy his booze there!”
              “What a freakin’ idiot! But, Matty… You got to tell the cops if you saw him! They can throw him in the can, and then you won’t have to worry about him!!”
              “Whatta ya mean, No?”
              “Just what I said… No! If I tell the cops I saw him, they’re gonna ask all kinds of questions and if they catch him, then his kids are going to blame me for him getting caught. I just want him to go away… Do you know that my grandpa helped him and his wife when they were first married? I heard my mom tell my dad that. They needed money to eat and pay the bills, so my grandpa gave him some and got him a job at the factory where he was working. The whole family knows him. Bobby, my grandpa wouldn’t have given him money if he was all bad…”
               “Matty! He hurt you… I mean, he did that awful stuff to you and now he’s back! We gotta do something to get rid of him! Maybe I can get my dad’s gun…”
                “No way!! Listen, Bobby, I forgave him, a long time ago. I know that was the right thing to do. He was drunk that day. I can still smell the booze! I don’t know what I can do now, but, I don’t want you getting involved shooting the guy or something! Next thing you know, they’ll have wanted posters on you!”
                “Well, how are you gonna stop him from following you? When do you see him, anyways? After school?  Does he show up after we split up near the waterfall, and I head in the other direction? That means he’s watching us the whole time, Matty, just to find out when you’re alone…”
                “Yeah, I usually see him after that when I’m walking through the field. He has that blue car, and he slows down and watches me, then he leaves and turns around, because he’s back real quick.”
                “I’m walking you home every day, from now on!” Bobby said with a clenched jaw. “Let him try something! I’ll pound him to dirt, just the same as he is… fuckin’ snake!”
                Matty leaned back and kissed the boy on his cheek, and then reached down and lifted Bobby’s hand to his face, turned it palm up and kissed that too.
                Bobby flinched, then laughed… “For a second there, Koles, I thought you were gonna bite me again! Freakin’ vampire…”
                Matty giggled at the suggestion, and studied Bobby’s hand for a little while….That’s when he noticed that the knife cut from earlier had started to bleed again. Only now, there was something different about the cut – It had somehow morphed into the shape of a number 7, just like the one that Bobby had bequeathed upon his palm…
               “Hey, how did that happen?” Matty looked over his shoulder at Bobby, who was grinning sheepishly. “What’s the deal? I didn’t cut you like that when we became blood brothers!”
                “Well, Koles, I decided to make mine like yours…”
                “Huh? What’s the point? We already did the blood thing…”
                “Yeah, I know… only… Well, the reason I made a ‘7’ on your hand was to remind you that I was born on the 7th of March, everytime you look at your hand, and, the reason I put a ‘7’ on my own hand, was so that I would never forget, that we share the same birthday, only yours is in August…”
                 “Oh my God! I knew you did it on purpose! So, you didn’t slip at all! It was part of your plan, the whole time! Why didn’t you tell me?”
                  Bobby giggled. “I was gonna tell you at some point, only, if I had told you at first, you never would have let me do it! But now, look at how cool it’s gonna be, once they heal and the scar comes!”

          That was the thing about Bobby… A sentimental guy wrapped in a thin veneer of toughness…

                 It was almost dark when Matty remembered the original reason for their meeting and asked his friend’s advice. When he told Bobby about the cop at the house, the boy shook his head and offered his opinion.
                  “Man, they must know something! What, is anyone’s guess… Maybe they’re just fishing… You know, trying to come up with something, only… I don’t know, it just seems like a lot of fuss over a little brush fire… I mean, we burn half the swamp down in back of your uncle’s house, every winter so that we can make our hockey rink in the cattails…  They never investigate any of that!”
                   “Well, you know why that is! The Fire Marshall was best friends with my grandpa! And, my uncle talks to him, ahead of time, to set the whole thing up! That’s why the firemen are all laughing about how the lightning seems to come out of nowhere in the middle of winter… They like the practice, putting out a fire that’s not near any house and we get the nice, clear ice after the cattails are burnt down and they topcoat everything with their hoses!”
                    “Yeah… true, but I still say it’s a lot of hooey that they’re wasting all kinds of time on a little brush fire!”
                    “Maybe, but that cop showed up just when I was coming here…” Matty muttered. “And then there’s the missing lighter…”
                    Bobby pondered that for a second. “There’s something weird about that, too. If they found a lighter, wouldn’t we have seen that? I mean, they probably would have been asking questions, right away… You know Koles, I wouldn’t say anything unless they really do come up with the lighter. That whole thing was pretty much an accident, and, your stupid little sister probably didn’t know what she was doing anyways. She’s no firebug! Just a dumb kid, playing around with some embers that turned out to be hot enough to start things burning. What good would it be for her to get caught? What is she? Seven years old? You’re better off giving her one of your famous lectures… You know, the ones you give your brother Gerry, and then he tells you that you should be a priest someday!” Bobby giggled and bit the edge of Matty’s ear.
                      “Hey!! Quit that, you maniac! Geezz!” Matty turned and looked at Bobby and then grinned and slid down Bobby’s chest until his head was resting on the boy’s lap. He rolled onto his side and glanced up at the fair haired teenager. Bobby’s eyes widened and he smiled. He looked around. They were alone.
                       The 14 year old boy leaned back, and closed his eyes as his best friend slowly unzipped the maroon corduroys and reached inside, until he could feel  the soft, white cotton of the  Bvds. He pulled them down in front until he was caressing and kissing the growing boyhood and soon, both lads were breathless and sharing the joys of a private moment in the darkening woods on that April eve…


      The cop could wait… The fire was done burning, at least in the pines, back home… There were more important and intimate things to address in the pursuit of love and lust and tenderness and trust. Things that made the fear go away, until God had his turn, and the devil was at the tip of His sword… As it turned out, it wouldn’t be long…

Continued in part 11….