Bittersweet (Continued)

by Steve Berman

Dault wandered around Philly for hours, trying not worry. Summertime should have been trips to the beach,dripping ice cream cones, exploring underneath the pier and making out in the shade. Not moping. The text message Jerrod sent him hours later didn’t help. Jerrod’s texts were always so perfect.Never an error, never any shorthand. They had once sat through a bad horror movie and texted back and forth and it took Jerrod three times as long to type his messages.

What if the gingerbread boy wasn’t a victim? What if he was a lure? Dropped onto people’s plates. He’d have folks chasing him, boys chasing him, and he’d run to that witch’s house.The one also made of gingerbread. Think I’m wrong?

Dault replied. Relx every1 likes gbread how was the flight? Dont b worried luv ya.

Maybe you should run, run as fast as you can.

Dault groaned. He tried calling but Jerrod wouldn’t pick up.

That night he fell asleep with the open cell phone hot against his pillow.

By the end of the week, his mother hid the cell phone. She dangled the car keys in front of his face and told him to go out, take a long drive, get some sun and not worry why Jerrod had not returned calls, texts or emails in days.She threatened to spend his college savings on liposuction if he didn’t listen.

She only gave him back the phone when he reasoned it wasn’t safe to be out on the road without one. Cars break down. Curfews get broken. People get lost.

Like his boyfriend. He wondered if Jerrod had gone all cowardly and decided to end the relationship with silence. Or maybe he had decided to be a martyr — yes, Dault could imagine him doing that, deciding that Dault would be better off not dating a cripple.That word made him sick and ashamed.

He escaped to New Hope with its tidy streets filled with tourists and motorcycle gangs. The restaurants either charged nearly twenty dollars a dish or served hamburgers on paper plates. Leather shops and Wiccan stores and stained glass art.

He sat on the steps outside a tattoo parlor and watched the people walk past. He considered getting a bitter tattoo, something like Bite me. Or Eat me. He ended up smiling, trying to imagine where would be fun to get inked.

Three boys passed by. Their hair was spiked with product, their tanktops glaring white over tanned skin, shorts drooped below thin waistlines. Golden–brown skin. The last of the three met Dault’s stare and actually turned around down the block to smile at him.

Later, he saw them across the street, entering the ice cream parlor. The third boy dawdled in the doorway a while, offered Dault a slight wave to which he couldn’t help but smile. That same boy came out with two cones and ran across the street. A Volkswagen almost ran him down.

"Hey, you look sad." The boy had ginger–colored hair below the lighter streaks. He held out one of the cones. "Go on, take it."

Dault couldn’t help but have his fingers brush the other boys while gripping the waffle cone.

The boy sat down beside him without asking. "So are you browsing or buying?"

"What?" The ice cream tasted like a cinnamon stick that nipped the tip of his tongue.

"Just browsing the boys or looking to take one home?"

Dault blushed. "You bought me ice cream not a ring."

The boy nodded. He had a chipped front tooth and bit at the scoops of ice cream. "Hang with us. Have some fun."

He felt his cell phone vibrate in the pocket of his cargo shorts. Jerrod’s ring tone, "Average Superstar’s Radiate."

"See, someone wants you to come with us," said the boy who wore sandals and had painted his toe nails jam–red.

He shouldn’t ignore the phone. He never had before. But the hot sun made the smell of cinnamon hang in the air about the boy, who bumped against him, and Dault told himself if he answered and it ended up being that painful conversationwhere Jerrod tells him he won’t be coming back, at least, not to him, then he’d be left broken. Better to pretend the call never happened.

So when the boy offered a hand to help Dault to his feet, he took it and followed him across the street back to the boy’s waiting friends. All their names began with R, but Dault told himselfnot to pay such attention to remember any of them, not the least the ginger–haired boy. That would be something like dating.

By the afternoon, the four of them had walked along to the river. Dault worried about getting lost by the trees. The boy held his hand and guided him around birch and cherry until the path had disappeared. So had the others.

"Chase me," said the ginger–haired boy.

"No, I think I better get back." Dault’s cell phone had chirped a few times. Jerrod had left a message.

The boy slapped him on the chest. "Bet you can’t catch me." Then he started to run through the tree line. Dault watched him strip off his tanktop. His heart raced as if he were the one being chased. I shouldn’t, he thought,but already he had begun to follow.

The way was marked with discarded clothes. A sandal. He saw only one. Shorts. He expected underwear, was curious whether it would be boxers or briefs, when a hand grabbed his arm, pulling him to the ground.

The ginger–haired boy rolled atop him and, without asking, kissed him hard. The tongue that worked its way past Dault’s lips tasted sweet. He discovered the rest of the boy less so.