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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Romance  ➡  Gay & Lesbian

Midnight in the Maze

j. leigh bailey / Midnight in the Maze 46

Midnight in the Maze

j. leigh bailey

Copyright © 2017 j. leigh bailey

All rights reserved.

I. THE FIRST KISS

I gasped and jerked back as a man in a white mask jumped out of a dark corner wielding a hunting knife the length of my forearm. Blood dripped from the silvery blade and stained the man’s denim overalls. He stopped short at the thin-linked chain that separated his room of the haunted house from the path we took.

Laughing like a hyena, my best friend Carter poked my back. “Pussy.”

It’s not that I was afraid some mass-murdering psycho would hack me into little pieces. The old farmhouse someone had converted into a haunted house for the Halloween season echoed with shrieks and shouts of attendees, the hiss of fog machines, and the creepy wails and muttering of the cheesy soundtrack piped throughout. Not like I could forget where I was. But when someone jumped at you with a bloody knife, you reacted. It was instinct. Standing at the front of the line, I got hit up first. Luckily, it was the last “scare” of the house, and we could escape.

Carter’s girlfriend Megan giggled and looped her arm through his. They’d been a couple for all of three weeks and were completely inseparable. It was sickening. When they were together, which was always, they were locked at the lips. Apparently marathon tonsil hockey was a new Olympic sport, and they intended to win the gold.

“Isn’t this a great way to celebrate your birthday, Joey?” Megan gushed. “It must be awesome to have your birthday so close to Halloween. So many fun things to do.”

I checked my phone. I had exactly one hour and forty-eight minutes until I turned sixteen. Yeah, a November 1 birthday meant I had my pick of “spooktacular” events leading up to it. Most of the time that was cool, but tonight, playing third wheel to my best friend and his girl while they made eyes at each was more trick than treat.

“We’re doing the corn maze, right?” Carter looked across the packed parking area around the farmhouse and eyed the entrance to the eight-foot stalks.

“Of course.” I slipped my phone back into my pocket. The haunted house might have been a bit cheesy, but this place did a hell of a corn maze. The field of corn stretched a full four acres, and the designers made sure the walls between the various aisles were thick enough a person couldn’t cheat and force his way through. They also went all out in decorations. Freaky-looking scarecrows lurked in corners and small lights made it appear animals watched from the stalks. The map at the entrance didn’t help much, especially for the late-night excursions. Remembering that the correct path created an outline of a lumbering zombie didn’t mean anything after the first time someone met a dead end and had to backtrack.

Scary as it could be to wander the corn in the middle of the night, emergency lights were scattered throughout to flood the maze and made sure everyone who came in went out at the end of the night. Also, there were bells set up here and there so that if someone got lost or scared, a staff person would go in and rescue them. I knew this because Mom tended to forget I was almost sixteen, and she made me find out these kinds of details before agreeing to let me go to the corn maze with Carter. Ever since I’d told her I was gay, she’d become superprotective. As if being attracted to other boys would somehow hinder my sense of direction.

Carter nudged me as we approached the maze’s entrance. “Look who’s on duty.”

Blake Richards. Even his name was enough to make me sigh like a thirteen-year-old girl. Tall, gorgeous, talented. I’d practically stalked him through freshman biology last year. He sat behind me, and I’d obsessed over his shaggy blond hair and changeable light eyes. I swore his eyes changed color depending on what he wore. In true scientific form, I conducted a study. Every day I would log the color of his shirt and the color of his eyes to find out the correlation. Less scientifically, I tried to determine which hue I liked better. After months of careful documentation, I discovered that there was no correlation between the color of his shirt and the color of his eyes. It was all about his mood. When he seemed happy, his eyes were a pretty shade of blue that reminded me of summer skies. When he was upset, they turned a stormy gray. Sometimes, when I couldn’t identify his emotional state, his eyes shone green. I barely learned enough about biology to pass the class, but I knew every facet of his eyes.

I doubt he knew who I was, though. I mean, sure, he knew my name and that we’d had a couple of classes together over the years, but he probably didn’t think about me in any real way. For sure he didn’t think about me the same way I thought about him. Compared to him, I was decidedly uninteresting. I had a few friends, but I wasn’t popular. I got decent grades, but I wasn’t one of the smart kids. I had no talent for sports, though I could at least run a mile in gym class without passing out. No big highs, no big lows, just solidly in the middle. And Blake? Blake was the apex, the ultimate. The golden king of the school to my commoner.

I knew everything about him, down to the brand of deodorant he preferred. Everything, that was, except the one detail that would make or break my future happiness. I had no idea if Blake was gay. The evidence was inconclusive. He seemed equally flirty with boys and girls. As far as I knew, he never dated anyone. He chided his buddies for using words like faggot or fag, but he wasn’t a member of the school’s Gay/Straight Alliance. None of which confirmed his sexual orientation one way or another, much to my frustration.

“You’re drooling.” Carter nudged me.

My hand touched my chin before I could stop it. Carter laughed.

“Hey, look, it’s Jared and Margo!” Megan gripped Carter’s arm, using it to brace herself as she waved like a maniac at someone across the parking lot. Her dark curls bobbed with the motion. Carter grinned at her like a lovesick moose, his braces glinting in the moonlight.

If Blake was the golden king of the school, Jared was the dark rebel, battling his claim. Jared was tall and sleek with a sarcastic wit and an artistic flair. His black bangs usually covered at least one of his eyes, and he’d recently dyed a strip of his hair a bold red. Now Jared, I knew, was gay. That was all he and I had in common, though. He was the president of the GSA and was always ready to take action—whether it was a fund-raiser benefiting homeless LGBT youth or pushing for an education and acceptance campaign for the school.

Jared and Blake in the same room was like Loki and Thor in a battle of wills. Sexy, dangerous, and completely combustible.

Margo returned Megan’s wave, and she and Jared walked toward us. “I’m so excited,” Margo said when they’d reached us. “I’ve been waiting to do this for the last two years. Dad finally agreed to let me do the midnight maze run. I don’t think he would have if Jared hadn’t already gone through it a couple of times.” Margo’s dad had married Jared’s mom a couple of years ago.

“He should have talked to my mom. She made me verify all the safety precautions before she agreed to let me go.” I don’t know why I told them that. Did I want to come off as pathetic? No one laughed, though.

“I know, right?” Margo shook her head in obvious exasperation. “I had to do the same thing. It’s not like we’re kids anymore. Speaking of which,” she said, changing gears at the speed of thought, “it’s your birthday tomorrow, right, Joey? Sixteen?”

“Sweet sixteen and never been kissed!” Carter crowed and punched my arm. My cheeks burned as I tried to glare lasers into Carter’s oblivious face. I glanced around, hoping nobody overheard. My eyes caught Blake’s, and I wanted die. He was going to think I was such a loser!

When did sixteen become about kissing? Wasn’t it supposed be about cars and driving? He would totally deserve it if I pointed out that, until Megan, Carter had never been kissed either, and he’d turned sixteen three days before he and she had started going out. But I was too nice for that. Or, at least, too nice to say it in front of others.

“Happy birthday,” Jared said, ignoring Carter’s comment.

“Thanks,” I muttered. There was no reason for the warm and fuzzy feelings his words caused. So what if he was a junior and at the top of the social ladder at school and I was a middle-of-the-pack sophomore?

“You guys want to go through with us?” Megan asked.

“Totally!” Margo bounced in excitement.

“Whatever.” Jared shrugged.

Margo and Megan immediately started talking, and the two other guys and I shrugged and followed behind them. We got in line at the entrance. My arm shook and my face burned as I stood next to Blake and exchanged cash for a glow-in-the-dark orange wristband.

The maze was pretty cool. The dark, the shadows, and the creepy light effects all kept things at the edge, just this side of scary. Voices could be heard from somewhere out of sight. Once we ran into another group at one of the intersections. They went right, we went left. It was no fun if we all made a giant train. Carter disappeared at one point, only to jump out minutes later and drag a squealing Megan into a dark corner to kiss some more. I rolled my eyes. Seriously.

This time I followed the group rather than leading the way. If something was going to jump out, Carter could be the one to deal with the knee-jerk reaction.

Jared played it cool, not getting involved in the debates about which way to go whenever we came to an intersection. He claimed it wouldn’t be fair since he’d been through it enough to know the best way. “Besides,” he added, “it’s more fun to watch you guys stumble around.” In his dark wool coat and scarf, he reminded me of Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock. Sexy and mysterious. His knowing smirk whenever we hit a dead end only added to the resemblance.

It was edging onto midnight—closing time for the maze—when I stepped on my own loose shoelace, nearly tripping into a wall of corn stalks.

In the time it took to tie my shoe, I’d lost the others. I didn’t hear any of Megan’s or Margo’s piercing giggles or any of their footsteps on the dried and crunchy leaves. At the closest intersection, I looked both directions and saw nothing but dark night and pale stalks. Christ, that’s just what I needed. My heart boom-boomed a bit in my chest, but not like I was scared. Not scared of something happening to me in the maze, at any rate. More the thought of having to be “rescued” from the maze while Blake was around… I wouldn’t survive the humiliation.

I examined my two choices. There was nothing to distinguish one route from another. I pulled out my phone and enabled the flashlight feature. Cheating, maybe, but it might save me from going in the complete opposite direction of Carter, Jared, and the girls. The light didn’t help much, though. A crunch of dried corn husks sounded from the right.

“Carter? Is that you?”

No one answered. I hoped it wasn’t Carter playing a trick. Actually, I changed my mind. Carter playing a trick would be a better option than a wild deer passing through for a midnight snack. Deer might be placid creatures, but the hooves can be blade sharp, and they know how to use their antlers (the bucks at least) in a confrontation. I rolled my eyes. For crying out loud. Did I just admit I was afraid of a deer? How about wolves? Wolves weren’t out of the norm in this part of Wisconsin. Did I think of wolves? No, I had to worry about Bambi.

“You are a pussy,” I muttered and turned right. More likely than wolves or deer, Carter or some other kid was lurking in the maze. I followed the sound I thought I had heard. Safety in numbers, right?

Another noise—the creak and rustle of cornstalks—told me I picked the right direction.

“Carter?” I didn’t yell. I said his name softly, hoping he’d acknowledge if he heard it while at the same time hoping no one else did.

No answer. I followed the curve of the path until I reached a dead end marked by a large wooden barrel. A giant jack-o’-lantern leered at me from the top. Maybe the others hadn’t gone that way after all.

A high-pitched squeal pierced the quiet of the night. A girl—I’m pretty sure I recognized Megan’s ear-splitting tone—burst into gales of laughter. Probably Carter dragging her aside for more kissing.

I knew I should have gone left. I turned and backtracked a ways toward the intersection where I’d lost them, but my foot caught on a bent stalk, and I flew forward, hands sinking into the cool earth and decomposing leaves. My phone flew a few feet, the light going out. “Damn it!” I stood up and tried to decide what to do with my grimy hands. I didn’t want to wipe them on my jeans or my coat, but I’ll admit the sticky mud and whatever else on my hands felt nasty.

Looking down, I searched for my phone, cursing myself for the matte black casing I’d chosen. In the night, with darker shadows hiding huge chunks of the maze’s path, it might as well have been camouflaged. I don’t know how long I knelt on the ground, searching in vain for my phone. Mom was going to kill me. I’d only had the phone for a few months, and there was no way she would spring for a new one. It would take me months bagging groceries at Stan’s, my part-time job, to save up enough to replace it.

Mud and God only knew what else soaked through the knees of my jeans a few minutes later. I gave up. There was no way I would find it tonight. I’d have to call the haunted farm people tomorrow and hope someone turned it in. If they found it before the phone got plowed into the ground next spring at planting time, I might only have to get it repaired rather than replaced.

I tried to find the barrel again as a point of reference, but in the short time since I’d seen it last, I’d gotten totally turned around. The moon chose that moment to hide behind some thick clouds, and the already dark corn maze became almost completely black. I couldn’t even tell where the next intersection was.

I read somewhere once a person could find their way out of maze if they kept one hand on the wall at all times. Eventually it would lead the person out. A daunting task, but what were my other options? Wait for help? Did I have enough time for that? What if it took me back through every single alley and turn? I could still be working my way out by this time tomorrow. Maybe I’d find one of the rescue-me-I’m-a-loser bells. Again, the alternatives sucked.

I stuck out my hand and started to walk. I wasn’t completely blind in the dark, but it was close. I’d only made it a couple of yards when I reached my first big gap in the corn stalks, a gap so big it could only mean I’d found my first turn. I followed the edge of the corn until I faced ninety degrees left of where I had been and took a small step that crashed into a body. Not one of the cheesy scarecrows. A real, living, breathing, body.

“Whoops! Sorry!” Instinctively I grabbed on to the person’s coat in an effort to keep my balance.

“No problem.” The voice was soft and husky and vaguely familiar. I couldn’t quite place it, though, since another burst of laughter, male this time, erupted from a couple of rows away. Great, people. At least I wasn’t too far away from the others.

The only warning I had was the slight shifting of shadows, and then, wham, his mouth covered mine.

I should have been outraged. Or, at least, a little freaked out that some stranger, possibly a serial killer in disguise, kissed me in the middle of a dark corn maze.

I should have pushed him away, telling him to leave me the hell alone.

I should have done a lot of things.

But doing something would have required more working brain cells than I had at that moment.

Whoever he was, when he kissed me, my brains started to leak out through my ears. Well, not really. Gross. But every thought, every molecule, every brain cell whirling around in my head were suddenly and completely useless. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t talk. I could only feel.

And I felt fantastic.

It took me a solid minute before I could do anything more than stand there and revel in the moment. Then, remembering kissing was a two-person activity, I started to participate. The press and caress of lips against mine, the moist puffs of breath when we broke for some much needed air, all of it overwhelmed my senses. When I pressed back, changing the angle of our mouths, my kissing partner groaned and deepened the kiss, adding the smallest glide of tongue. Oh wow. I leaned closer, needing more contact.

Who knew all the stupid kissing clichés were true? It was like dancing or flying. Like floating. Stars fell, flowers bloomed. My eyes closed, and I’m not entirely sure one of my legs didn’t kick out like some kind of old-fashioned romance heroine. I had been ensnared in a spine-tingling, toe-curling kiss to end all first kisses.

Eventually my brain started working, though sluggishly, and I started cataloging details. His lips were cool. Not surprising given the temperatures outside. And it was a he, thank God. I don’t know how I would have handled my toes curling from a girl’s kiss. Well, maybe if it had been a girl, I could have found a way to push her aside without losing my sanity in a cloud of hormones. He was taller than me by a couple of inches, and what I could feel of his body under his bulky coat was thin. He smelled awesome. When he broke away to catch his breath, I did the same, inhaling the heady combination of fruity-scented hair products and fabric softener.

I should have opened my eyes to actually see him, but I was so afraid it would ruin the moment or find out it was some cruel joke or even a wicked dream. A warm hand grazed my cheek. “Happy birthday,” he whispered, then stepped back, and he was gone.

It took forever before I could finally open my eyes. Not in time to catch a look—even if I could have in the darkness—to identify my kisser, though.

The flood lights surrounding the maze ignited with a clunk and a hiss, and the brightness nearly blinded me as effectively as the darkness had. But lights on meant it was time to go. And I still didn’t know where I was. I saw the top of one of the light poles and figured heading “toward the light” was as good a plan as any.

A few minutes later, I heard a crowd chattering just out of sight.

“This way!” someone called.

I turned toward the voice and had to put my hand on my chest to physically keep my heart from beating through my ribcage. Blake. He was only a few yards ahead of me, probably herding lost idiots out of the maze. I didn’t know whether to melt into a puddle and slink away in shame or to dance in glee because he was so close. And, oh my goodness, he even smiled at me. Tongue-tied, I could only nod as I walked past him. Getting close to him always jangled my nerves, but this time I made it a point to make eye contact. He was a couple of inches taller than me. Could he have been the one who…? No. Absolutely not. No matter how much that would make my day—hell, my century—birthday wishes don’t come true that easily. No, it must have been someone else.

But who?

“Joey!” Carter waved at me from a short stack of hay bales he and the others sat on. “Where have you been?” he asked me when I arrived. “I can’t believe you got lost in there!”

“I didn’t get lost,” I protested. “You guys ran off when I had to stop and tie my shoe.” There wasn’t much venom in my voice. I was too distracted by what happened in the maze to worry about Carter being a jerk. “I can’t believe I lost my phone,” I added as an afterthought.

My eyes fell on Blake again, but I made myself look away. Bret Thomas, who stood by his old pickup, was too tall; his buddy Tim Hayes, too short. Phil and Jason were permanently connected at the lips to their girlfriends, so it seemed unlikely they would kiss me. A couple of the other guys I recalled from school had the reputation of being asshole bigots, so they were out. I didn’t recognize the handful of college boys, and they wouldn’t have known it was my birthday or even care that it was. Could I have gotten the height wrong? Maybe Carter… I chuckled at the ridiculous thought. Carter took his role as best friend seriously, but even he wouldn’t kiss me just so I could avoid the pressure of being a never-been-kissed sixteen-year-old. And I’d have noticed the braces.

Jared walked over from wherever he’d been. His red-streaked dark hair hid most of his face from view. “We’ve got to get going,” he told Margo. “If you miss curfew, your dad’ll freak.”

Margo nodded in agreement and made sure her purse hung secure on her shoulder.

Jared acknowledged the rest of us with a wave. “Later,” he called out over his shoulder. When he brushed past me I realized he was a couple of inches taller than me too. It couldn’t have been him, could it? That would be as absurd as thinking it was Blake. Wishful thinking, much? Which was ridiculous. Jared wouldn’t think of me that way, and I certainly didn’t think about him that way. Sure, at least I knew he was gay and I found him undeniably hot, but we lived in completely different worlds. And, well, he wasn’t Blake.

“Come on, we’d better get going too.”

I followed Carter and Megan to Carter’s car.

II. THE CLUES

“So, we’re still looking for volunteers to man the info booth at the Community Service Fair on Friday.” Jared looked up from the meeting’s agenda in front of him.

It was Monday afternoon, and we were halfway through our biweekly GSA meeting, and club members weren’t exactly jumping up and down to volunteer. Most of the members, like me, doodled on our copies of the agenda. When we were talking about issues or planning a fund-raising event, we were a pretty lively crowd. When it came to the Community Service Fair, well, let’s just say no one wanted to be stuck on that duty. Pretty much only the suck-ups and the do-gooders worked the Community Service Fair.

Jared leaned forward, staring at each of us in turn as though trying to make us volunteer through will power alone. “It’s good for the GSA, both in terms of networking and in outreach.”

His being right didn’t make anyone more interested in volunteering.

His dark eyes met mine, and the intensity of the stare was almost enough to make me raise my hand. “How about you, Joey?”

Ah crap. “Sure, I can do that.”

“Great.” Jared beamed and tucked the red strand of hair behind an ear.

Eye contact and a smile.

I pulled out the little notebook from the front pocket of my backpack. Ever since Friday night, I’d been tracking details—clues—as to who my secret kisser was. I made a list of every boy I’d seen at the maze that night, only eliminating ones I could be absolutely sure about. Like Pat Brand, who had a full goatee and mustache, and the kisser didn’t have that much facial hair. I flipped to the page with Jared’s info and made a note about the unusually friendly manner.

The rest of the meeting went by in a blur. Not out of boredom or excitement but out of distraction. I wished my little notebook held more clues. I looked at each entry. Carter thought the whole thing—some guy finding and kissing me in the corn maze—was creepy and stalkerish. I probably should have agreed with him, but instead I was intrigued and energized. Carter decided to help me figure out who the mysterious boy was so he could prove that only a weirdo freak would accost random boys in a corn maze.

I didn’t tell him I was hoping for something a little more. After all, any guy who would go to that much effort just to kiss me couldn’t be all bad, could he?

It took me a minute to realize the meeting was over. Most of the other members had cleared out by the time I shoved my agenda into my GSA folder and stashed the folder into my backpack. I had to hurry if I wanted to catch the bus. Yes, finally sixteen and still riding the bus. Pitiful.

“Hey, Joey, wait up.” Jared slung his messenger bag over one shoulder and swept red and black bangs from his eyes. “Thanks for stepping up. I know I kind of put you on the spot. The Community Service Fair is a bore, but we’ve got to do it.”

“No problem.” I shrugged. “And it gets me out of civics early, so that’s a bonus.”

“After school tomorrow I’m going to make a poster, a collage, to have at our table for the Community Service Fair. Pictures from our different events, articles, statistics, you know, stuff like that. Do you want to give me a hand?”

I grimaced. “That’d be cool, but I can’t tomorrow. I have to catch the bus right away. Mom’s got a meeting out of town tomorrow, so she can’t pick me up if I stayed after. Just about any other day, though.” I clamped my mouth shut. It was bad enough I had to take the bus, but to babble about it like a kid?

“I can give you a ride.”

I broke free of the string of mental reprimands and stared at Jared. “What?”

“I can give you a ride when we’re done. You live out by the mall, right? I’m not too far from there. It wouldn’t be a problem.”

“If you’re sure.”

“Yeah, it’s cool. I could really use some help picking the pictures and designing the layout. It’ll be fun! I’ll meet you in the art room after last bell.” Jared clapped me on the back and turned down the math corridor before I could answer him.

Mr. Plesiotis split us into six volleyball teams in gym class on Tuesday. I anticipated gym as much as I dreaded it. Gym meant Blake. Blake sweaty. Blake in shorts. Blake with a competitive gleam in those changeable eyes. But a ridiculous crush and mediocre athletic skills equaled a less than stellar performance in gym class. To top it all off, today Mr. Plesiotis put me on a team with Blake.

I was so busy focusing on Blake’s excellent ass (in front of me, displayed perfectly by Blake’s ready stance… sigh) that the other team’s first serve smacked straight into my face. Luckily, the person serving didn’t have much power. By the time the ball arched over the net and Blake’s head, it had almost zero velocity. I wished it had given me a bloody nose, at least. That way I could hide my embarrassment in the nurse’s office instead facing five incredulous stares.

“Get your head in the game, Jackson!” A stocky junior named Alex-something-or-other glared at me from our server’s spot.

“Joey,” I corrected automatically.

“You okay?” Concerned green eyes met mine. Yep, Blake’s eyes were green today. That was so freaking unfair. I didn’t know what green meant!

“I’m good.” I faced the other team and waited for the next serve. This time, when the ball headed straight for my face, I stumbled back and bumped it closer to the net, where Blake spiked it over.

“Nice!” Blake slapped me on the back when we rotated position for our serve. Was it my imagination or did his hand linger a little longer than it should have?

Thirty minutes later I shoved my dirty clothes into my gym bag, then bent to tie my shoes. I had managed to make it through the rest of the class period without getting smacked in the face with a volleyball. I’d even managed to score a few points. All in all, I called it a decent showing.

“Johnny? Hey, Johnny?”

I turned at Blake’s voice, then looked around. Who was Johnny? I had my little alcove of lockers to myself. My heart sank. Stupid, girly phrase, but I swore I felt every thump and thud in my intestines instead of my chest.

“Joey,” I corrected.

“Huh?” Blake ran his hand through hair still damp from his shower. Jesus, he was hot.

“My name. It’s Joey.”

“Oh yeah, Joey.” He nodded at someone who walked past him. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

My calf muscle started to twinge, reminding me that I still bent over my foot to tie my shoe laces. I finished the last loop and stood straighter.

Blake’s now blue eyes returned to me. “So, anyway, I just wanted to say good job in there.”

“Oh, ah, thanks.” My mind was screaming like a tween girl at a One Direction concert. Blake Richards talked to me!

He leaned against the bay of lockers and crossed one foot over the opposite ankle. “I saw you at the corn maze on Friday.”

My breathing picked up speed. This was it. He was going to tell me it was him in the maze. I wiped sweaty palms on my jeans. “Yeah. I was there.” Oh my God, kill me now. I was there? Had I completely forgotten how to have a conversation?

“Right. So I was going to ask you—” He cut off midsentence when one of his buddies yelled at him to hurry up. “Just a minute!” His fascinating eyes met mine. Evil bastard. So not fair. “Can I get your number? I have something to ask you about, and I don’t have time now. Can I call you later?”

My voice didn’t work—sudden evaporation of all mouth moisture made talking tough—so I simply nodded. He handed over his phone, and I quickly added my contact information. He dipped his head at me and jogged to catch up with his buddy when I finished.

“You can’t really think that Blake Richards is the one who kissed you in the corn maze. Do you?”

I glared at Carter. “You don’t have to make it sound like it’s completely outside the realm of possibilities.”

“You don’t even know if he’s gay. There aren’t even any rumors suggesting it.”

“He’s never dated a girl that we know of.”

“He hasn’t dated a boy, either.”

“He asked for my phone number! That has to mean something.”

“Has he called you?”

“I don’t know.” My shoulders hunched, and I slunk back into the chair opposite Carter. We sat at a small study table in the back corner of the library during study hall. “I lost my phone, remember? I called the maze people on Sunday, but no one turned it in. They said they’d keep an eye out for it, but I think I’m probably screwed. My mom is not a happy woman right now.”

“I don’t want to piss in your corn flakes or anything, but he probably needs help with his homework or wants you to sign a petition or something.”

Just because Carter was probably right didn’t mean I had to like it. I chewed on the cap of my pen and stared unseeing at my physics text.

“Who else is on your list?” Carter asked.

I didn’t have to ask what list he referred to. I pulled the little notebook out of my backpack and tossed it at him. He flipped to the right page. “So these are all the guys who were at the maze that fit what you noticed at the time?”

It wasn’t a long list. Only four people left on it. A few others had been considered but crossed off. Carter recalled that Jimmy Weber hadn’t worn a coat that night, just a flannel shirt, and I distinctly recalled gripping a coat for dear life during the kiss. Adam March, upon closer inspection, towered over me by six inches at least, so he was too tall to be my mystery man. Which left four names. Blake, Jared, Max Newton, and Jesse Stewart.

“What about Jared?” Carter asked.

“What about him?”

“Maybe he’s the one who kissed you. We lost him for a while at the end of the maze, so it totally could have been him.”

“I don’t know.” Jared was nice enough. A little intense sometimes. A little focused. Hot. I just couldn’t picture him going out of his way to give me a fantastic birthday kiss.

“And let’s not forget we know he’s gay, so, unlike Max Newton, who’s so narrow-minded he’d piss in public before even thinking about a boy that way, Jared actually likes kissing guys.”

“Jared wouldn’t have to sneak around kissing people in corn mazes. I’m pretty sure any gay guy—and even many straight girls—would jump at the chance to make out with him. And he’s out, so he’d have nothing to hide.”

“Maybe he was afraid you wouldn’t be interested in him. He’s probably seen the way you moon over Blake.”

“I do not—” Okay, maybe I did moon over Blake, but nobody except Carter would notice. Right? “That’s not the point. I need to figure out who kissed me in the maze.” And if it was Blake, all the better.

“You could just ask each of them.”

“Yeah, that’d be a great conversation. Did you kiss me on Friday? Who says stuff like that? Maybe, just for kicks, I could add Do you want to?

Carter rolled his eyes. “I’m just saying if you really want to know, you should ask.”

I banged my head on the thick physics book. “Ugh! You are so not helping.”

Since Carter was useless, I decided to focus on my physics homework instead. Study hall was my last period for the day, and I was meeting Jared after class to make some kind of collage. When the bell rang, I tossed my stuff into my bag and jogged to my locker. Posters or collages or whatever in the art room might not be my thing, but I’d been looking forward to it. I’d been thinking about Jared a lot the last couple of days. Not the way I thought about Blake, though. Not obsessively. I wasn’t going to start logging Jared’s shirt colors or memorizing his class schedule. And, oh my God, could I be any more of a stalker?

At least I was able to talk around Jared. Blake made me all tongue-tied.

I spun the combination on my locker and opened it, ready to grab my coat so I could get moving, but a padded manila envelope sat on the top shelf. An envelope, moreover, I had not put there. I lifted the parcel, testing the weight. Pretty sure no one would put anything dangerous in my locker, I tore open the package. The last thing I expected to find was my phone.

I pulled the smart phone out of the envelope and looked it over. It was clean; no dirt or leaf gunk marred the matte surface. I pushed the power button and grinned when my background image and icons loaded. “Nice.”

Someone must have found it since Friday night. But how would they know it was mine and take the time to return it? And why sneak it into my locker? They could have dropped it off with the maze people. I’d left them my mom’s phone number to contact if anyone turned it in. The little icon in the corner indicated that the phone was fully charged too. So not only had someone rescued it, they’d taken the time to clean it up and plug it in.

I sent a quick text to Carter. I found my phone in my locker!!!

Carter’s reply came almost instantly. ?!?!?!

I took a picture of the padded envelope and sent it to him.

Was there a note?

Note? I checked the envelope and dug through the random bits of stuff filling the top shelf. No. :( , I typed.

I didn’t wait for a reply. I tucked my phone into my pocket, grabbed my coat, and crossed the school to the arts wing. Jared had already set up the supplies we’d need. There was a large trifold display board, a stack of magazines, a box of photos, scissors, colored papers of different thicknesses and patterns, a bundle of GSA pamphlets, stencils, and a few other things I didn’t recognize.

“Hey, you’re here.” Jared looked up from the sketch pad in front of him. He grinned in welcome even as he tucked a pencil behind his ear and closed the sketch pad. “Here’s what I’m thinking.”

I set my coat and backpack down and planted myself on the stool next to him as he outlined his vision. I’d only ever seen him in the halls or in GSA meetings. Never in his artistic element. Here, his hands danced expressively as he talked, drawing shapes and ideas in the air, and words and images tumbled from his mouth. He demonstrated something with tissue paper and newsprint—something to do with adding texture and depth to the poster—and I realized I hadn’t been paying attention to his words. I’d been too caught up in how he said what he said, not in what he said.

“What do you think?” Jared stopped talking and watched me with raised brows.

“It sounds great. But, I’m not very artistic. I can follow directions, though. Just tell me what to do.”

We soon learned that I couldn’t cut a straight line to save myself, so Jared did all the cutting and designing. Mostly I did the gluing and watched as Jared turned random bits of paper and images into a masterpiece. “You really didn’t need any help with this, did you?” I asked as I stuck a square of construction paper with a helpline phone number on top of a yellow starburst. The result was somehow more than it should have been—the bright edging appeared like a halo of hope around the number.

The whole collage was a message of hope and acceptance. To come up with something like that, to envision it and create it out of scraps, was an amazing thing. It made me feel boring with my affinity for lists and logs.

“Everything’s better with company.” He bowed his head, focusing on the design in front of him, something with chalk and a brick-patterned rectangle of cardstock. Was that a hint of pink on his cheeks? It couldn’t be. Jared wasn’t the kind of guy to blush.

It turned out Jared and I had more in common than the GSA. Both our fathers had disappeared from our lives when we were little. Both were raised by practical, straightforward moms. From the sound of it, his mom didn’t quite understand his creative side and was often confused by his artistic expression, but she made the effort. I, on the other hand, was a mini-me of my mother. Practical, straightforward. Just look at my dealings with Blake. Granted, obsessing about a boy wasn’t very practical, but I tracked and analyzed data (eye color could be considered data, right?). I had no doubt I’d end up following Mom into a job in accounting.

It surprised me how easy Jared was to talk to. I’d always viewed him as something other. Impressive but way out of my league. Too cool for a kid like me. But he wasn’t, or, more accurately, he didn’t act like he thought himself above anyone. He could talk geek with the best of them—he certainly knew more than I did about Doctor Who—and he even played some of the MMORPG games Carter and I devoted hours to every weekend.

“So,” Jared said as we cleaned up after finishing the collage, “did you do anything special for your birthday last weekend.”

Wham! I’d managed to forget all about the kiss and the mystery and Blake’s possible involvement. The minute Jared asked, though, my face burned, and I relived every second of that moment in the maze.

A smile as broad as the moon crossed his face. “Oh-ho! What’s that all about?”

I sputtered. “It’s nothing.”

“Nothing doesn’t bring that kind of color to your face. You’re totally blushing.”

Maybe this was my chance. I could tell Jared about the encounter in the corn maze and see how he reacted. More than ever I was sure it hadn’t been him, but maybe I could get proof. “Okay,” I said, “but you have to promise not to tell anyone.”

He nodded. “Promise.”

We settled back onto the stools. “On Friday, in the maze, after you guys deserted me—”

“We didn’t desert you. We just didn’t notice that you’d fallen back.”

I waved that aside. “Same thing. Anyway, I got completely lost in the dark, and then I lost my phone, so I was just wandering around, blind. Then, out of nowhere, I run into some guy who kisses me. Me! And I didn’t even see who it was.”

Eyes crinkling and dimples dimpling (who knew that was such a hot combination?), Jared tilted his head. “You don’t know who it was?”

“No! And it’s driving me crazy. Who does that? Who kisses random dudes in a corn maze at midnight? Was it a prank? Some kind of stupid Halloween trick? Did he even know it was me he kissed? Maybe it was some freak who… who….” I ran out of breath.

“Some freak who, what, loiters in cornfields to kiss unsuspecting gay guys who take a wrong turn?” Jared finished for me.

“I don’t know, maybe!” I sighed. “Okay, no, but why? Why kiss me but not let me know who he was? If he wanted to kiss me, couldn’t he have, I don’t know, asked me out or something? It was probably a prank.” I’d been so caught up in the mystery of who, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about the why. Now that I did, it seemed more like some kind of elaborate practical joke.

“Was it a good kiss?”

My bones seemed to melt and I slumped on the stool. “Dude, it was amazing.” Even now, the memory of that moment warmed my blood.

“Then it probably wasn’t a prank.” At my questioning—and please, not desperately pleading—look, Jared continued, “If it was some kind of truth-or-dare thing, he probably would have pecked your lips or shoved his tongue down your throat as quickly as possible to get it over with.”

“You think? Then why would he…?”

Dry washing his hands, Jared leaned forward. “Maybe he likes you.”

“Then why not say something?”

“Maybe he was nervous.”

“Not likely. First, I’m not the kind of person who makes other guys nervous. Second, I’m pretty sure I know who it was, and he has no reason to be nervous.”

Jared shifted on his seat so he faced me more fully. “You think you know? How did you figure it out?”

“Process of elimination. I made a list of everyone I saw at the corn maze on Friday and whittled it down. I have a couple of names left, actually, but I’m pretty sure.”

“And if he asked you out, you’d say yes?” Jared picked up a scrap of red construction paper and fiddled with it, folding and unfolding it, rolling it. He looked up, and I realized that while his eyes didn’t fluctuate the way Blake’s did, they were just as compelling. A dark brown, almost black, his eyes met mine with staggering intensity.

I blinked and looked away. “Sure. I mean, I’ve had a thing for him forever.”

“Really?” It was a question, but something in Jared’s voice made my stomach tremble. “Would you—”

“I just wish I knew for sure he was gay,” I blurted out.

Jared’s body jerked back, his hands falling to his sides. “How can you not know?”

I swallowed. I had no idea why the conversation suddenly made me so nervous, but my brain and body were definitely freaking out. “Clues.”

“Clues? What kind of clues?”

Crap. “I mean, there are no clues. He doesn’t date. I mean, anyone. Not boys, not girls. No one.”

“What about GSA? I know it’s a gay and straight organization, but, really, the members are pretty much queer across the board.”

“He’s not a member.”

Just like that, Jared closed up. I didn’t know how or why, but he just shut down. “I see,” he said. Grabbing his backpack, he stood. “We’d better get going. I’m sure you need to get home.”

III. THE SECOND KISS

Blake didn’t call me, which was probably a good thing. My mind was such a jumble of thoughts and emotions that my mom commented on my distraction. My homework was a lost cause. I stared at the second scene from Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, trying to figure out what was going on—something I was a horrible failure at during the best of times—for over an hour before I noticed I hadn’t gotten past the first two lines. Ugh!

Buckling down, I finally worked my way through it. As far as Shakespeare goes, it actually wasn’t completely incomprehensible. Julia and Lucetta debated the merits of Julia’s suitors and who the best choice to fall in love with was. As soon as I understood that, I pushed the book away. Did I really need that? Talk about life imitating art.

I realized something during my time with Jared. I liked him. Jared. I liked him a lot. Not that he’d think of me that way, but still.

But I’d been obsessed with Blake for so long. Also, I was convinced he was the one who kissed me. It made sense that he’d find my phone—he worked there, after all—and he knew his way through the maze so he could find me and disappear easily enough. And if he wasn’t out, it might explain why he’d approach me in the dark with no one around. On the other hand, he seemed to have trouble remembering my name.

I glanced down at my English text. They do not love that do not show their love. That was one bit of Shakespeare I didn’t need help translating. Actions speak louder than words. And mysterious, mind-melting kiss or not, Jared’s actions spoke a lot louder than Blake’s. At least Jared didn’t hide who he was and bury his actions in anonymity. And Jared consistently remembered my name, which was a bonus. But that kiss was tantamount to a yell from the mountaintop. If only I could convince myself that Jared was the mysterious kisser, then everything would be about perfect.

Tomorrow I would approach Blake and make it clear I wasn’t interested in him in that way. I’d also track down Jared and… what? Ask him out? Man, this romance shit was complicated.

“He’s coming over!” Carter nudged me and nodded toward the entrance of the cafeteria. I looked up from the Salisbury steak on my tray and saw Blake heading my way. For once I didn’t want to sigh at his perfect appearance. Instead, I had to battle back nerves-induced nausea. This morning when I told Carter my plan, it had seemed like a good one. Now with Blake striding across the room, it seemed… less good.

“Hey, Johnny.” Blake straddled the bench next to me.

“Joey,” I corrected automatically.

“Crap, I don’t know why I keep forgetting that.” He shook his shaggy head. “Sorry ’bout that.”

I shrugged. Now that I had put aside my ridiculous obsession, some of the shine and sparkle I’d always seen on Blake dulled.

“Anyway, I was going to call you.”

“Oh yeah.” I cleared my throat. “There’s something I wanted to—” My voice cut off. The back of my neck prickled, and I knew—I knew—someone was watching me. As casually as I could, I peeked over my shoulder, pretending to stretch, and saw Jared at a table with some of the other arty kids. He turned away when he noticed me looking and struck up a conversation with the girl next to him.

“So I saw you at the corn maze the other night—”

I stopped him, determined to say what needed to be said. “Yeah, about that. I… I wanted to thank you. First, thanks for returning my phone.”

His golden brows lowered in confusion. “Huh?”

“My phone? I assumed someone found it in the maze and turned it in.”

He shook his head.

“You didn’t bring my phone to me on Tuesday?”

“I don’t know anything about that.”

If he hadn’t done it, who had? My eyes traveled back to Jared. Jesus, Joey, get a grip.

“Oh.” It took me a minute to regain my train of thought.

Carter mumbled something into his mashed potatoes, but I thought it best not to try too hard to figure out what he said. Sometimes Carter’s mouth worked before his brain kicked in. Like the night at the maze, announcing to Margo and Jared that I was turning sixteen but had never been….

No way. No freakin’ way. It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder how Blake, or whoever the mysterious kisser was, would have known it was my birthday. But Carter had blurted it out. And, since it was beyond unlikely that Megan or Margo would have done anything about it, and I knew Carter hadn’t, that left Jared. He was the only other person there who knew. My heart thumped wildly in my chest, drowning out the sound of the hundreds of kids in the cafeteria, drowning out my own thoughts. Could it have been Jared? I glanced over my shoulder again, but he was gone, his seat empty.

I forced my attention back to Blake. “So, you said you had something to ask me?”

“Yeah, the basketball team is looking for a new manager, someone good at keeping track of stats and stuff. I noticed in class that you were always tracking data of some kind. I thought maybe you’d be interested.”

“Uh… yeah, I could maybe….” From the corner of my eye, I saw Jared dump his tray and then head for the exit. I jumped up. “I’ll get back to you!”

I had to catch Jared. I raced out of the room, ignoring the stares from students and teachers.

My shoes squeaked as I rounded the corner just in time to see the bottom edge of Jared’s wool coat swinging into the boys’ restroom. I skidded to a halt at the door. Was I really going to follow him into the john? That was a little creepy, even for me and my stalkerish tendencies. Instead I paced outside the restroom, going through all the things I was going to say. All of which sounded stupid, even in my head.

My back-and-forth path led me past the swinging door with each pass. So busy planning out my speech, I was unprepared for Jared to open the door and run into me.

“Sorry!” I burst out, my hands gripping his coat. His arm wrapped around my waist to keep me from falling over. Tingling jolts of electricity coursed through me at the familiar position. Very familiar. It was one thing to suspect it, but now I knew. When I lifted my hand, I revealed a matching, muddy handprint where I’d gripped his coat on Friday night.

“It was you!”

He jerked his hands up. “Look, I can—”

I grabbed the lapels of his coat. “Thank goodness!”

“—explain. Wait. What?”

“Why? I’m glad, you have no idea how glad, that it was you. But why? Was it like you said yesterday? I mean, why the secrecy? Or was it sympathy? Pity?” I released my hold on his coat. If it was pity, I’d melt into a puddle of shame and slink away, that’s all there was to it.

“No, it wasn’t pity.” Jared grabbed my arm and pulled me to an empty classroom. He ushered me to one of the desks and pushed another desk around so he could sit and face me. “I didn’t set out to kiss you like that.”

All the breath left my body, leaving me deflated and weak. “Oh.” Of all the things he could have said, that hadn’t occurred to me. I really was an idiot. “Well. No big deal.” I started to stand up, but he caught my hand.

“I didn’t set out to kiss you like that,” he repeated. “But when the opportunity showed itself, I couldn’t resist.”

I held my breath, afraid to hope. Hoping despite my fear.

“When you got lost—”

“I didn’t get lost, you guys left me behind.”

“—I went back to find you. When you ran into me, well, I couldn’t pass up the chance. Then, of course, I freaked. I mean, what kind of creep randomly kisses some guy out of the blue like that?”

I laughed to myself. Carter would appreciate the thought.

“So I ran.”

“Are you the one who brought me back my phone?”

He shrugged and nodded.

“How did you find it?”

“You mentioned that you’d lost it, so I went back on Saturday when they first opened. I figured there was a chance that it would be okay, as long as it didn’t get snowed on.”

“But why didn’t you say something?”

“It’s not easy to put yourself out there, you know.”

“But… but… you’re you. Guys would stand in line to kiss you.”

He snorted. “I haven’t seen a line.”

“Then you need to look closer. Jesus, Jared, I’m pretty sure every gay or bi guy in school has wanted to, and I’d bet there are several girls who would like the chance to find out just how gay you really are.”

He blushed. This intense artist, the dark rebel of the school, actually blushed.

“And you kissed me.” Confidence welled up inside of me. He’d kissed me and there were probably dozens of guys he could have chosen to kiss instead. Oh. My. God. “Yesterday you said the person who kissed me probably liked me but was too nervous to ask me out. Is that true?”

He bit his lip, and I focused on his mouth. He nodded.

“So, if I were to ask you out, do you think you’d say yes?”

He nodded again. “But what about Bla—I mean, what about the guy you thought it was, the one you’ve had a thing for forever?”

I winced. Crap. Carter was right. My obsession with Blake had been obvious. “Silly infatuation with a pair of cool eyes. Once I got to know him better, well, let’s say he couldn’t compete with this artistic guy I know.”

“Is that right?” His voice was low, rumbly. He leaned forward and stretched his arms across to my desk.

“Yeah. And when he kissed me, my brain melted and exploded and leaked out my ears.”

“Gross,” he murmured.

“That’s what I thought.” I leaned forward, ignoring the way the edge of the desk cut into my abdomen. “It was pretty amazing, though. A twelve on a scale of ten for first kisses.”

“Yeah? So, you think you’d want to go out with this artistic guy sometime?”

I licked my lips. “It depends.”

“On?”

“How high he can rate on a scale of one to ten for second kisses.”

He grinned. Our mouths met. And held. And moved together, eradicating every brain cell once again.

“So?” Jared asked a few minutes later.

“Yeah, totally destroyed that scale. No scale.”

“Does that mean you’ll go out with me sometime?”

“Oh yeah. Definitely.”

“Good.” Jared smiled and leaned forward for kiss number three. I suddenly understood Carter and Megan. I predicted Jared and I were going to be top contenders for the gold medal in marathon tonsil hockey. Definitely.

Continue for a sneak peek at GUYLINER

by j. leigh bailey

Seventeen-year-old Connor works his butt off to maintain the golden-boy persona he’s created. He has the grades, the extracurriculars, the athletics, and a part-time job at his dad’s shop… every detail specifically chosen to ensure the college scholarships he needs to get the hell out of the Podunk town where he lives. The last thing he needs is an unexpected attraction to Graham, an eyeliner-wearing soccer phenom from St. Louis, who makes him question his goals and his sexuality. Sure, he’s noticed good-looking boys before—that doesn’t have to mean anything, right?—but he’s got a girlfriend. There’s no room on the agenda for hooking up with Graham, but the heart doesn’t always follow the rules.

As he and Graham grow close, other aspects of Connor’s life fall apart. Family pressure, bad luck, and rumors threaten to derail his carefully laid plans. Suddenly the future he’s fighting for doesn’t seem quite as alluring, especially if he has to deny who he really is to achieve it.

GUYLINER

Was that guy really wearing eyeliner?

As Connor counted out the reps at the lat pull-down machine, he stared at the boy across the weight room. The muscles in Connor’s shoulders burned, his triceps quivered. The boy doing arm curls paused to wipe sweat from his forehead with the long sleeve of his T-shirt. He was definitely a stranger. Connor would have noticed those bright blue eyes heavily outlined in black gunk before if the guy had been a regular.

The guy’s dark hair was cut kind of short along the sides but shaggy in the front, nearly hiding his amazing eyes. Shit, not amazing eyes. Just eyes. Besides, what kind of dude wore eyeliner? The contrast between the darkly lined eyelids and the pale irises caused something to tighten in his gut. They were part of a narrow face that was just saved from being pretty by sharp cheekbones and wickedly slanted eyebrows.

Wow. Connor pulled the bar to his chest for the last time. Eyeliner Boy is hot.

Connor’s hands suddenly lost their grip on the bar, and the handle swung up and clipped his chin as the weights crashed down.

“Shit!” He jumped to his feet, tasting blood.

All around him, athletes stared. The small noises of weights clanking into position and athletes’ grunts and pants as they strained at the equipment disappeared. Embarrassment burned up his torso and over his neck. Each of the thirty or so sets of eyes trained on him left a prickling sensation in their wake.

“Fitzpatrick!” Coach Petrewski stormed over from the bench press, where he’d been helping a freshman outfielder with his form. “What the hell was that?”

Connor eyed the tips of his cross-trainers. He wasn’t about to tell Coach what had really happened. Yeah, there was a conversation to avoid. Well, Coach, I was startled by how hot the new guy is. Oh, and by the way, I’m picking up your daughter, my girlfriend, for a date tomorrow night…. So, yeah, not happening.

“Sorry, Coach. My grip slipped.”

“Be careful. Do you know how much it costs to replace those weights? And we can’t afford any injuries to our star catcher, can we?”

“Yes, sir.” Connor shook out his shoulders and arms and moved to the next station in the weight room. He settled into the leg extension machine and adjusted the weights. A quick glance around showed him that most of the team had returned to their exercises. Only a couple of guys, including his best friend Marc, still watched him.

Marc grinned at him from his spot at the bench press. “Spaz,” he mouthed. Connor flipped him off before starting the first set of leg extensions.

At first he applied himself to the exercise, but the familiar rhythm and measured breathing didn’t keep his mind from wandering back to the stranger. As much as he tried to keep his eyes on the rise and fall of his feet under the ankle pads, his gaze darted back to the new kid, cataloguing details.

He hadn’t heard that anyone new had enrolled, but this guy had to be a transfer student. Green Valley posted a population just this side of Podunk, and the school enrollment was similarly small. He recognized everyone who attended, at least by sight. Since Connor knew for a fact that Eyeliner Boy wasn’t on the baseball team, he had to be a soccer player. A storm thundering outside made it too wet and muddy to practice on the field, so the baseball and soccer teams were stuck in the gym, getting in some weight training and lap running.

The new kid finished his curls with the twenty-pound dumbbells and set them on the rack. Unlike the other athletes who wore sleeveless shirts or T-shirts, this guy wore a long-sleeved shirt. It had to be ninety degrees in the weight room, and the guy wore full sleeves? Was he hiding crazy tattoos or something? He had on the thin shorts that soccer players seemed to prefer and which showed off lean, toned legs.

Lightning cracked, shaking him out of his thoughts. Connor tried to concentrate on his workout again but was distracted when the soccer player moved to the hyperextension station. He shimmied onto the bench, hooked his ankles under the restraining bar, and settled his hips across the padded seat, leaving the rest of his body in midair. Connor’s breath caught as the soccer player began the inverted sit-ups that would work the lower back and glutes. He made the movement—drawing his body up, fighting gravity the whole way—look easy. That’s why he stared, Connor told himself. It had nothing to do with the way the other guy’s muscles tightened and shifted below the silky soccer shorts. Really. Nothing at all.

“Fitzpatrick! Do you think this is a vacation?”

Connor jerked. He hadn’t even realized he’d stopped moving.

He sighed in relief ten minutes later when Coach Petrewski called a halt to the practice. The baseball players all headed out, leaving the room to the soccer team. Before he reached the door to the locker room, Coach pulled him aside.

“What’s going on with you today, Connor? This isn’t like you.”

“Sorry, Coach.” What else could he say? Just enjoying the scenery? Probably not.

“Well, I expect you to be on your A game Monday, okay? Whatever you’ve got on your mind, leave it off the field.”

“Yes, sir.” He watched as Coach Petrewski turned into his office.

When he reached his locker, Connor pulled off his shirt and wiped his sweaty face with it before tossing it onto the bench. His chin throbbed and his lip was swollen, just another reminder of his strange behavior. He prodded the lip with his tongue, feeling where the sharp edges of his teeth had cut into flesh.

“Dude!” With his usual abrupt style, Marc charged over to where Connor stood. “What’s the deal? You’re totally off your game today.” Turning to his locker, Marc whipped off his sleeveless T-shirt. “Did you get a load of the new kid? Man, what a freak. Who wears makeup to the weight room?”

Connor sat on the bench and untied his shoes. “Where’s he from?”

“I’m not sure, but he just started on Monday.” As he talked, Marc finished pulling off the rest of his workout clothes.

Connor found himself a little freaked out by his best friend’s bare chest. They’d been friends for years, and it certainly wasn’t the first time he’d seen Marc’s naked skin, but now he wanted to look away, like Marc might get suspicious if Connor happened to look too closely or too long at him while he undressed. Connor tried to find a neutral area to rest his eyes, but everywhere he turned there was another ballplayer half-naked. He’d been in and out of locker rooms for years without thinking anything of it, then he catches sight of some hot new kid, and he suddenly loses his mind and his focus? He’d always been able to avoid looking too deeply—or ignoring entirely—feelings and thoughts that were best left alone. Now was not the time for that to change. “Hey, Connor, aren’t you going to shower?”

He glanced up, then jerked his head higher. Marc was looking down at him, completely naked, with his towel slung over his shoulder.

Connor made himself look only at Marc’s dark eyes and curly dark hair. Not that he was tempted to check out Marc’s body—Marc was Marc, and they’d been friends forever—but it seemed like a good idea to focus on less dangerous territory. And now he was acting like a moron. It wasn’t like he was going to suddenly develop the overwhelming urge to hit on his best friend. He cleared his throat. “Uh, yeah. I’m coming.”

Marc propped his shoulder against the lockers next to Connor and eyed him with concern. “Dude, you all right? You and Allyson have a fight or something?”

“No.” Connor quickly pushed down his own shorts and briefs and wrapped his towel around his waist. “Just out of it, I guess. Worried about the physics test on Tuesday.”

His friend snorted. “Like you need to worry about a test, Mr. I’ve-got-a-four-point-oh. You’ll ace it, like you do everything else.”

“I don’t know.” He was glad for a chance to concentrate on the everyday. “Now that baseball season is starting up again, I don’t have as much time to study, and rotational dynamics is crazy-hard.”

“That reminds me, do you think you can help me with the kinematics stuff? Mr. Larson is letting me retake that quiz, and I still don’t get what that’s all about.”

“How about on Saturday? I’m working at the shop until about three. We can meet up after.”

They made plans while they showered. They had finished dressing and shoving their workout gear into their bags when the soccer team streamed in. Connor nodded to a couple of friends as they went to their own lockers and tried to convince himself that he wasn’t looking for one soccer player in particular. His heart did a funny little leap in his chest when he watched the new kid walk past, though.

He and Marc slung their sports bags over their shoulders and headed out to the parking lot. They dashed through the deluge of rain, making their way to Connor’s ancient Dodge Neon. By the time they stowed their bags into the backseat and buckled themselves into the front, they were soaked.

Marc shook his head like a dog, scattering drops of water around him. He laughed when Connor rolled his eyes and slicked his own hair back.

“Hey, look.” Marc pointed at the school building. “I guess makeup boy decided not to shower. I wonder if he thinks the rain is enough to wash away the weight room stench.”

Sure enough, the new kid leaned against the wall beneath an overhang, still in his practice clothes. He kept glancing at his cell phone and scanning the parking lot. Connor put the Neon in gear and drove to the entrance.

“What are you doing?” Marc asked.

He didn’t answer. Using the automatic controls in his armrest, he rolled the passenger side window down and shouted through the storm, “Hey, you need a ride somewhere?” He ignored Marc’s exasperated stare.

The boy peered into the window. Their eyes met and held. Connor caught his breath, desperately wanting him to say yes, but equally terrified that he would.

After a brief pause, the kid shook his head. “Nah, I’m good. I’ve got a car, but I’m meeting someone. Thanks, though.”

Connor nodded and rolled the window up.

“Do you always have to do the right thing?” Marc asked as they drove away. “You put a lot of pressure on us lesser mortals.”

“Whatever.” Connor brushed this aside. “It’s probably good that he didn’t need a ride, though. I’ve got to pick up Becca.”

“See what I mean? Always doing the right thing. Even playing taxi to your little sister. Seriously, man, it’s annoying.” Marc cranked up the radio and spent the rest of the trip dancing in his seat and playing dashboard-drummer.

After dropping Marc off at his house, Connor picked up his sister at the community center where she volunteered with their after school program.

“Cute.” She nodded to his fat lip. “Someone finally knock the Golden Boy off his pedestal?”

“Ha-ha.”

Despite the nearly two-year gap between their ages, they usually got along. The family resemblance between them was strong. Both had thick blond hair, though Connor kept his short to avoid the unruly curls his sister had to deal with. Both had the same wide hazel eyes and golden-tinted skin. The only real difference was their build. Connor took after their father, broad and muscular. Becca was more like their mother, thinner, with a dancer’s body.

They only made it a couple of blocks before he gave in and fished for info. Though she was only a freshman, she definitely had her finger on the social pulse of the school.

“So,” he said, trying to sound casual. “What do you know about the new guy?”

Her eyes brightened. “Oh, you mean Graham? Did you meet him?”

“Not really. I noticed a new face in the gym at practice.”

“Practice? Rumor has it he’s a soccer guy.”

“We were stuck in the weight room with the soccer team because of the rain.”

“Right. For a second I thought my sources got it wrong.” Becca nodded. “Well let’s see. His name is Graham Parker. He transferred here from somewhere around St. Louis. Coach Mullin was pumped when he moved here. I guess he’s some kind of soccer stud. Margo overheard him in the office—she works there during her free period—going on about how the state championship is in the bag this year ’cause the new guy’s a spectacular goalie with magic hands.”

Images of those hands gripping the dumbbells caused the temperature in the car to shoot up about thirty degrees.

Becca, oblivious to the sudden heat wave, continued. “Jamie said she saw him in the arts wing and that he’s totally hot. What do you think?”

Connor choked. “What do you mean, what do I think? Do I think he’s hot?”

“That’s not what I meant. I haven’t seen him yet. What does he look like? You have eyes, right?”

“I don’t know. Dark hair. Kind of tall, I guess.” Amazing ice-blue eyes. “The dude wears makeup, though. That’s weird.”

Becca’s eyes grew round. “Really? What kind?”

“You know—” he gestured to her face. “—that black stuff you put on your eyes.”

“Ooh, guyliner.” She sighed and fanned her face.

“What? There’s actually a word for it?”

“Sure. Lots of guys, at least famous guys, do it. You know, musicians, actors. It’s kind of hot on the right guy.”

Intrigued, Connor asked, “Girls actually like boys who wear makeup?”

“On the right guy, absolutely.” She looked sideways at him and grinned. “Am I going to have to lock up my cosmetic bag?”

“Brat.”

“I don’t know. I’ve got this great metallic purple liner that’s really supposed to bring out the oomph in hazel eyes.”

He grinned at her as he pulled the Neon in behind his mom’s Explorer, killing the engine. “Shut up and get out.”

He waited for his sister to get out. The rain blurred his view of the Explorer while he sat there. He had to get over this. He’d seen the guy for a few minutes. This sudden attraction was ridiculous. Sure, he’d thought other guys were attractive before, but he’d been able to brush aside the thoughts, or block them. Deny them. For the first time, Connor was afraid brushing those awkward thoughts aside wasn’t going to be easy. All because he found an eyeliner-wearing soccer player too fascinating, too hot to ignore.

It didn’t matter anyway. He had a plan, and nothing was going to get in the way of it. He would escape this piece of crap small town and make a future for himself. Somewhere bigger, better. Nothing could distract him from his goals. So this weird fascination with some guy—based on no more than a quick glance—needed to end. There. He pounded his fist on the steering wheel. It’s over. It’s done. Back to reality.

Want more Guyliner? Find it at Dreamspinner Press (dreamspinnerpress.com) or your favorite on-line retailer.

Continue for a sneak peek at

DO-GOODER

by j. leigh bailey

Can Isaiah and Henry work together and learn to trust each other until they’re rescued from enemy soldiers in Cameroon?

No good deed goes unpunished, and for seventeen-year-old Isaiah Martin, that’s certainly the case. The gun he was caught with wasn’t even his, for God’s sake. He only had it to keep a friend from doing something stupid. No one wants to hear it though, and Isaiah is banished—or so it seems to him—to live with his missionary father in politically conflicted Cameroon, Africa.

However, when he arrives, his father is so busy doing his good deeds that he sends Henry, the young, surprisingly hot do-gooder with a mysterious past, to pick up Isaiah and keep him out of trouble. Even while Isaiah is counting down the days until he can go home, he and Henry get caught in the political unrest of the region. Kidnapped by militant forces, the two have to work together to survive until they are rescued—unless they manage to find a way to save each other first.

DO-GOODER

Africa. Mom sent me to fricking Africa. I figured she’d be mad, but damn.

Okay, maybe she didn’t send me to Africa because she was pissed. Due to my “momentary lapse in judgment,” she’d had to pull strings that I couldn’t even imagine to keep me from ending up expelled, or worse, locked up. I only wished one of those strings didn’t include a plane ticket to Yaoundé, Cameroon. Or my father.

I had lived in Africa with my missionary parents in a refugee camp in the Central African Republic until I was seven. Believe me, I haven’t missed it over the last ten years. I may have been the first and only red-headed, blue-eyed baby born in a clinic near Obo (barely a dot on a map in the Central African Republic), but any nostalgic feelings for the place disappeared when Chuck—I refused to call him Dad, and Dr. Charles Martin is a mouthful—chose to stay and save the world rather than come back to the States with Mom and me. Eventually Chuck moved from the Central African Republic to Cameroon, but I didn’t know when or why it happened. I didn’t really care either.

I shifted my backpack to a more comfortable position and looked for the signs pointing to baggage claim. I felt like I’d been traveling for weeks. A two-hour drive to Chicago. Nine hours from Chicago to Brussels. A four-hour layover, then another eight hours from Brussels to Douala, Cameroon. The last leg, from Douala to Yaoundé, wasn’t even an hour, but in total I’d spent… man, I didn’t have any idea. My brain hurt too much to try and add that high. And Yaoundé wasn’t the last stop either. Chuck’s camp sat near the Lobéké National Park, all the way in the south-east corner of the country. The names of the foreign cities and images from the long trip cycled through my head.

“Attendez!”

I hadn’t realized I’d come to a stop until someone knocked into me. “Je suis désolé,” I muttered automatically. Yeah, I apologized in French. A little remnant of a childhood spent in international refugee camps.

Building pressure in my bladder had me turning into the first restroom I found. I took care of business and, after I washed my hands, I pulled out my insulin pump from where it was attached to the waistband of my jeans. Traveling with the pump and monitor was a pain in the ass. I could wear it through the security check—the device wouldn’t set off the metal detectors or body scans—but I still had to explain the apparatus and the vials to the TSA folks. I checked the monitor and blew out a relieved breath. My blood glucose registered a little high, but still within my healthy range. I adjusted the dose on the monitor and pushed the button, sending a jolt of fast-acting insulin into my veins.

My heartbeat picked up a bit as I neared the luggage return area. Part of me—a part I really wished I could quash—was anxious to see Chuck. It had been ten years. Did I even remember what he looked like? I wasn’t excited to see him. I couldn’t be. I refused.

Over the last ten years, Mom tried to placate me with explanations about all the good deeds he performed and how I should be proud of the work he did. Whatever. Pride hadn’t helped me when puberty scrambled my brains. Mom was great, but some things are better handled by a father. Like the time Mom and I had the talk about wet dreams. Yeah, that would have been so much less mortifying with a father figure. Maybe.

I tried to push down the bitterness. I had to think positive, right? This gave me a great opportunity to get to know him again, maybe build some kind of father-son relationship.

And maybe Dr. Phil would host some kind of heartwarming family reunion for us.

There weren’t many people around the luggage claim. I could hear the squeak and rumble of rollers on the carousel over the quiet murmur of voices. I looked at each face carefully, trying to find Chuck. He had the same reddish-brown hair as me, so he should stand out among the Cameroonians. Unless he wore a hat like one of those Outback-style ones the group of college kids by the big windows had. My gaze made another pass. I had no idea what I would do if Chuck wasn’t here. My fancy phone might still play music and take pictures (assuming the battery wasn’t already dead), but the likelihood of getting service out here… yeah, not likely.

A splash of neon green on black nylon caught my attention. My big duffel bag had dropped from the chute and started making its way around the carousel. I squeezed past a lady in a boldly patterned skirt and reached in front of a businessman to grab my bag. I hefted it out of the way and moved back until I had a good view of the whole area. Still no one who looked like my father. At least no one who looked like I remembered.

A massive African man wearing denim cutoff shorts and a Bob Marley T-shirt stepped to the side, revealing a younger guy who didn’t quite fit in among tourists and adventurers who came to see gorillas or rhinos or whatever in the parks. He wore khaki shorts with several pockets and a blue polo shirt. Sturdy hiking books covered his feet. The sign he held really set him apart, though—ISAIAH MARTIN.

I clutched my bag and walked over to him. I nodded at the sign. “I take it my dad couldn’t be bothered to come himself. What did he do, send one of his do-gooder minions to pick me up?”

The dude narrowed his eyes, clearly not happy with my tone, or maybe he didn’t like being described as a minion. Either way, I didn’t care. I should have known Chuck would send someone. He had important responsibilities, after all. I wanted to spit. Pressure built behind my eyes, but I refused to acknowledge the disappointment. Easier to focus on the resentment.

“He’d have come, but there was an emergency. I’m Henry.”

“Right.” I shrugged.

He glared at me. I didn’t know why, but something about that severe look amused me. Maybe because it didn’t seem to fit comfortably on such a pretty face. He really was pretty too. Gorgeous, in fact. His face was smooth and tan from time spent in the sun, with light brown eyes, almost golden in the streaming light from the windows. He’d pulled his shoulder-length brown hair back into a ponytail at the nape of his neck. His features weren’t feminine, not really, but the word pretty suited him more than handsome.

“Your father has—”

“Don’t bother,” I said, cutting off his explanation. “I really don’t need to hear it. He hasn’t seen fit to talk to me in the last ten years; another day isn’t going to break my heart. What’s the plan from here?”

Henry folded the sign in half and tossed it into a trash bin. “We’ll head to Doumé tonight. We should get there before dark. We’ll crash at a boarding house, and tomorrow we’ll have six or seven hours until we reach the camp.”

A couple of questions floated into my head—mostly about the travel arrangements. I had a vague recollection of traveling from village to village crammed into a rusty van like circus clowns in a tiny car. Before I could ask about it, chaos erupted from the other side of the baggage claim.

Men in official-looking uniforms tried to haul a struggling and shouting man deeper into the airport. The captive man twisted and jerked in their grasp, all the while screaming curses at the security crew. I may not have known the language, but there was no mistaking the cursing. The captive—a skinny, sweaty man who looked like he was made up of sinew and joints rather than muscle and bones—twisted and bit at an arm that came close to his face. One of the guards yipped and pulled his injured arm back. The captive took advantage of the loosened grip and jerked free, sprinting forward with the speed of an Olympian.

A hush fell over the baggage claim area.

My eyes widened. Henry and I stood between the charging man and the exit.

Before I could make my feet move, Henry looped an arm around my waist and pulled me out of the way. The man darted around someone’s abandoned suitcase, hurdled a taped-up box only to trip over a green-and-black duffel bag. He flew a few feet before skidding along the polished floor, stopping steps away from Henry and me. Guards rushed over, tackling the stunned man before he could get up again.

It probably lasted only a couple of seconds, but my body shook as though I’d been involved in a drawn-out accident. Noise resumed, a little quieter than it had been before the distraction, but it soon grew to normal levels.

“What the hell was that?” I reached for my duffel bag, only then realizing the bag the man tripped over was mine. Whoa.

“Smuggler, probably,” Henry said.

“Smuggler? As in drugs?”

“Yeah, drugs, weapons, diamonds. People try to smuggle all sorts of crazy things through here. Even animals.”

“How do you smuggle an animal? Pack it in your suitcase?”

Henry shrugged. “If someone wants an endangered bird or something for a pet badly enough and they have the money, there’s always someone who’ll find a way.” He shook his head, disgust clear in his pursed lips and serious expression.

We stood there a minute in awkward silence. Henry lost in thought and me unsure what to do or say.

“So,” Henry finally said, “ready to go?”

I grabbed my bag and hooked the strap over my shoulder. “You have a vehicle?”

“I’ve got one of the camp’s Range Rovers,” he said. “We have to make a quick stop in the city proper to pick up some supplies, so if you’re hungry we can grab something there. We’ll be in the university district, so there will be a lot of options for food.”

Look at him, being the good host. “That works.”

“Let me help with your bag.” Henry reached for my duffel.

I jerked it away. “I’ve got it.”

He shrugged and headed toward an exit. When we stepped through the glass doors, I stopped, cringing against the blinding afternoon sunlight. I dropped my duffel, shrugged out of my backpack, and started digging through it. I grabbed my sunglasses, blinking in relief when the glare no longer seared my eyeballs. I’d left Wisconsin in late spring and somehow, through the magic of modern transportation, had ended up in late summer. Or at least what felt like late summer. If I remembered correctly, it was actually fall in Cameroon.

I followed Henry to a parking lot on the east side of the building, where dozens of red-dust-covered vehicles sat in rows. Henry stopped at a four-wheel-drive Range Rover and opened the back door. “Toss your stuff in here. We’ll need the cargo space in the back for the supplies we’re picking up.”

“What are we bringing back?”

“Medical supplies. Mostly bandages, gauze. You know, peroxide, disinfectants, and the like. Usually we make the trip every few months, but since you’re here, we’re picking up our order a couple weeks earlier than normal.”

“Handy,” I muttered. “A twofer.” God forbid anyone should have to go out of their way to pick me up.

I could do this. I only had to make it through three months, two weeks, and five days, and then I could go back home.

Want more Do-Gooder? Find it at Harmony Ink Press (harmonyinkpress.com) or your favorite on-line retailer.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

j. leigh bailey is an office drone by day and the author of Young Adult and New Adult LGBT Romance by night. She can usually be found with her nose in a book or pressed up against her computer monitor. A book-a-day reading habit sometimes gets in the way of… well, everything…but some habits aren’t worth breaking. She’s been reading romance novels since she was ten years old. The last twenty years or so have not changed her voracious appetite for stories of romance, relationships and achieving that vitally important Happy Ever After. She’s a firm believer that everyone, no matter their gender, age, sexual orientation or paranormal affiliation deserves a happy ending.

She wrote her first story at seven, which was, unbeknownst to her at the time, a charming piece of fan-fiction in which Superman battled (and defeated, of course) the nefarious X Luther. She was quite put out to be told, years later, that the character’s name was actually Lex. Her second masterpiece should have been a best-seller, but the action-packed tale of rescuing her little brother from an alligator attack in the marshes of Florida collected dust for years under the bed instead of gaining critical acclaim.

Now she writes Young Adult LGBT Romance novels about boys traversing the crazy world of love, relationships and acceptance.

OTHER BOOKS BY THE AUTHOR

Please visit your favorite ebook retailer to discover other books by j. leigh bailey:

Shifter U Series (Paranormal, Dreamspinner Press)

Stalking Buffalo Bill

Chasing Thunderbird (Coming Soon)

The Night Owl and the Insomniac (Coming Soon)

Young Adult Titles

Do-Gooder

Guyliner

The Letting Go Series (New Adult, Carina Press)

Nobody’s Hero

Reckless Hope

Fight to Forgive

Horror/Paranormal Short Stories

Wendigo Dreams

The Twelfth Monster of Chaos

Under the Hunter’s Moon

Runaway

CONNECT WITH J. LEIGH BAILEY

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Midnight in the Maze

Joey misses the dreaded “Sweet Sixteen And Never Been Kissed” stigma by minutes. The night before his birthday, a mysterious boy kisses him in the Halloween corn maze. Thanks to the darkness and shadows, he has no idea who the anonymous kisser is. He whittles the list down to two possibilities. Is it Blake, the maze attendant Joey’s had a crush on for absolutely forever? Or is it Jared, the hot artist who leads the school’s GSA chapter?

  • Author: J. Leigh Bailey
  • Published: 2017-09-22 22:35:15
  • Words: 14863
Midnight in the Maze Midnight in the Maze