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Stronger Than You

Summary

Generally a good kid, Michael has an easy life; a home, friends, and loving parents who trust him. When Michael breaks that trust, he finds himself in more danger than he ever realized. Taken from the street in the dead of night, he is sold to a man with the devil in his heart and an army at his disposal. Forced to work, driven by whips and chains, Michael must find a way to escape this Hell. Leaving, however, could cost not only his life, but the lives of everyone around him.  The only escape is death, but for Michael, death is not an option.

Respect

                Oh no.

                My arms trembled dangerously.

                No, no, no, no!

                I pushed hard, grunting through my teeth and spraying sticky saliva into the air.

                C’mon!

                My muscles ached and my strength seemed to pour out of my body like water from a broken faucet. The bar sank lower and lower until it thunked painfully on my chest. I kicked my legs wildly and tried to throw the bar off to the side.

                No such luck.

                ”MOOOOOOOM!” That was the only sound I could make before the weight crushed the air out of me. Moments after my distress cry, my mom burst through the door, her hands still wet from doing dishes, my dad right behind her with a  wet towel draped over his arm and a half-dry plate in his hands. Panic vanished from their faces when they realized the situation. My mother dried her hands on her apron and sighed.

                “I told you we should have given him the weights one at a time.” She took the plate from my dad and made a gesture. He laughed and helped me lift the bar back into its resting place. I sat up and gasped as if each new breath would be my last. In fact, it almost was just a moment ago.

                “Thanks.” I coughed dramatically and my mom put her hands on her hips. “Sorry.”

                “Uh huh.” I could tell from the twinkle in her eye that she was amused, but she tried to hide it for the sake of being a mom. “How much is on there?”
                I blushed. They knew my max weight already; I couldn’t keep something like that a secret when I reached 200 lbs. a week ago.

                “Answer your mother,” my dad urged.

                I chewed my lip. “It was just a little bit over, nothing big.”

                “Don’t make me add up the weights, mister.” My mom folded her arms. “How much?”

                I took a deep breath, ready for what would inevitably follow. “Two-fifty.”

                My dad snorted a laugh and my mom just shook her head.

                “Honey, if you’re going to lift more than you know you are able,” she said, “at least have someone in here to spot you.”

                I nodded.

                “Weak,” my dad coughed.

                “Mel.” The warning from mom was clear, but also ignored.

                “Scooch!” My dad waved me off the bench and took my place. He then proceeded to do fifteen reps without breaking a sweat. When he finished, he gave me a playfully competitive sneer. “Whoo! That felt nice.”
                I rolled my eyes.

                “A gym session a day keeps the weaklings away!” Dad ruffled my hair and sauntered back to my mom, who was still standing in the doorway to the garage. She moved to say something, but he silenced her with a sweet and short peck on the lips. Against her will, she smiled at him.

                “You’re only encouraging him to do stuff like this when you make fun of him like that,” she said, although I’m sure she meant it to be less breathy and more commanding.

                “He’ll catch up sooner or later.” My dad shrugged and winked at me. “Don’t kill yourself, buddy. You’re a good strong kid. There’s no need to overwork your body.”

                “Yeah, sure.” I stuffed my hands in my pockets and shuffled my feet.

                “We’ll go finish up the dishes,” my dad said. “Did you finish your homework?”

                “I don’t have to do it yet, it’s not due until Monday.”

                “If you get it done tonight you won’t have to do it tomorrow,” my mom said lightly. “Then you can have all day to do whatever you want after chores.”

                “Joel invited me to his house for a movie night tonight.” I pouted. “It starts at eight. I won’t have time to do homework and make it to his house before the movie starts.”

                My mom raised her eyebrows. “It’s seven-thirty, Michael. When were you planning on asking?”

                I didn’t answer.

                “Go do your homework.” My dad shook his head. “If you really wanted to go, you would have gotten your stuff done. You have to do what you need to do before you can do what you want to do.”

                “My homework isn’t even due until Monday!”

                “Don’t raise your voice, young man!” My mom pointed her finger at me accusingly. “You are sixteen years old and you know better than to raise your voice at us. Upstairs. Now.”

 

                Upstairs in my room, I hunched over my desk and gouged my answers into a chemistry packet. The lead on my pencil snapped the first time I stuck it to the paper. By now, it was rubbed into a round stump, too thick to snap under the crushing weight of my indignation. I glanced at the digital clock on my nightstand periodically, hopeful that I might finish in time to run to Joel’s house, provided mom and dad let me borrow the car. Which was unlikely because of their overreaction in the garage twenty minutes ago. When the glowing green numbers on the clock ticked past eight, I scribbled down a basic sentence for the last question. Right as I set my pencil down my phone went off. A text from Joel.

                Hey man were r u?

                With lightning fast fingers, I typed up my response. Just finished hw. My parents wouldn’t let me go unless I did.

                His response came a second after I hit send. Lame.

                I stuffed my phone away and ripped my jacket off the back of my chair.

                “Hey, I’m done!” I pulled my jacket on as I ran down the stairs. In the kitchen, my parents sat on barstools, talking over two cups of hot chocolate. My mom’s purse sat by the garage door and my hands were in it before either of them could respond. I plucked out the keys.

                “Michael?” My dad furrowed his brow. “What are you doing?”

                “I’m going to Joel’s house.” I gave him a queer look. “You said that if I finished my homework I could go.”

                My mom crossed to me and held her hand out for the keys. Confused, I gave them to her.

                “We didn’t say you could go.” She put them back in her purse. “We said you needed to do your homework, but you never asked and we never said yes.”

                “What?” My voice cracked and anger boiled in my chest. “Yes, you did! You said that I had to get my homework done so that I can do whatever I want. I want to go to Joel’s house!”

                “That applies to tomorrow.” My dad crossed his arms. At least, he tried. With that much muscle, he couldn’t do much; the effect, however, was the same. Disappointed, intimidating, dad status. “You’re home for the night. It’s too late for you to just go running in and out of the house. Your mom and I want to get an early start on tomorrow. We don’t want you running around town all night and coming home at two in the morning.”

                “Dad, it’s just a movie.” I crossed my own arms. “I’m not going to come home at two in the morning. At the latest, I’ll be back at like- eleven. I promise”

                “Too late for impromptu plans.” My mom shook her head and pulled the strap of her purse over her shoulder. With an infuriatingly calm gesture, she led my dad back to the barstools, where they picked up their mugs and resumed their conversation. I gaped at them, furious that they would go back on their word so quickly and without so much as an explanation. I deserved that at least! Did any privileges come with being sixteen years old? Not only that, I was a good kid. I did my homework like they asked me to, I had never done drugs, no sex, no alcohol, I did everything they wanted me to do! And this is how they repay me? No explanation, revoking privileges just because they can, and then starting up another conversation as if I didn’t even exist anymore!

                “I’ll be in my room then,” I spat. Steam practically billowed from my ears as I stormed past them. In my room, I threw my jacket on the floor, punishing it for my parents’ lack of respect.

                Joel texted me again, asking where I was.

                Stuck home. My thumbs hit the screen so hard a part of me feared it would break on the next blow. Joel didn’t answer for a while, which was even worse. I told him I would be there. He was excited about that! He and I hardly had any time to hang out anymore, and my parents knew how much I wanted to see Joel. But did they care? No! They were being selfish! Tomorrow was a Saturday anyway, what would they have to get up early for? They never mentioned any plans to me about tomorrow, and they expected me to just be okay with it. Well, if I had to tell them about all my plans, why didn’t they have to tell me? They demanded so much respect from me and they treated me like dirt in return!

                My phone buzzed.

                Sneak out.

                As if someone hit the pause button on a remote, my anger froze. Now that was an idea. I glanced at my bedroom door, unsure. This was the first time that thought had occurred to me in all seriousness. Of course, my parents’ never treated me like this before. Whenever it came to getting what I wanted, they were usually good about it.

                The consequences were going to be devastating when my parents found out.

                If they found out. My parents were in the kitchen, which meant the front door was out of eyesight. I dug my wallet out of my jacket and checked to see if the house key was still there.

                Bingo.

                With a brief hesitation, I threw on my jacket. I did tell Joel I would be there. I was a man of my word, no matter what my parents tried to make me do. I flicked off the light and shut my door. Silent as a mouse, I tip-toed down the stairs and to the front door.

                While they thought I went to bed early, I would be out with my friends. Of course, I would have to wait until early in the morning to come back, just to ensure they would be asleep, but that only meant more time out with Joel.

                A pang of guilt shot through my chest when I reached the front door. With my hand resting on the handle, I glanced back. Light spilled out of the dining room where, only a few feet away, my parents sat on their bar stools, still chatting. I couldn’t see them, but the light from the kitchen cast their shadows onto the table. My dad was moving excitedly, speaking in hushed tones while my mom listened patiently. Her shadow didn’t move. I turned back to the door and steeled myself. They wouldn’t even know that I was gone. No need to feel guilty over something they would never know about.

                Not even a whisper came from the door when I opened it, but the sudden thought of my parents leaning just far enough to see me made me look back. Nothing. The night was cool, but not cold. I stepped out, shut the door, and raced down the walkway toward the street. Joel’s house was a long ways away, but I knew a shortcut that would get me there in fifteen minutes, even less time if I took it at a run.

                I texted Joel. On my way.

                Oh no.

                My arms trembled dangerously.

                No, no, no, no!

                I pushed hard, grunting through my teeth and spraying sticky saliva into the air.

                C’mon!

                My muscles ached and my strength seemed to pour out of my body like water from a broken faucet. The bar sank lower and lower until it thunked painfully on my chest. I kicked my legs wildly and tried to throw the bar off to the side.

                No such luck.

                ”MOOOOOOOM!” That was the only sound I could make before the weight crushed the air out of me. Moments after my distress cry, my mom burst through the door, her hands still wet from doing dishes, my dad right behind her with a  wet towel draped over his arm and a half-dry plate in his hands. Panic vanished from their faces when they realized the situation. My mother dried her hands on her apron and sighed.

                “I told you we should have given him the weights one at a time.” She took the plate from my dad and made a gesture. He laughed and helped me lift the bar back into its resting place. I sat up and gasped as if each new breath would be my last. In fact, it almost was just a moment ago.

                “Thanks.” I coughed dramatically and my mom put her hands on her hips. “Sorry.”

                “Uh huh.” I could tell from the twinkle in her eye that she was amused, but she tried to hide it for the sake of being a mom. “How much is on there?”
                I blushed. They knew my max weight already; I couldn’t keep something like that a secret when I reached 200 lbs. a week ago.

                “Answer your mother,” my dad urged.

                I chewed my lip. “It was just a little bit over, nothing big.”

                “Don’t make me add up the weights, mister.” My mom folded her arms. “How much?”

                I took a deep breath, ready for what would inevitably follow. “Two-fifty.”

                My dad snorted a laugh and my mom just shook her head.

                “Honey, if you’re going to lift more than you know you are able,” she said, “at least have someone in here to spot you.”

                I nodded.

                “Weak,” my dad coughed.

                “Mel.” The warning from mom was clear, but also ignored.

                “Scooch!” My dad waved me off the bench and took my place. He then proceeded to do fifteen reps without breaking a sweat. When he finished, he gave me a playfully competitive sneer. “Whoo! That felt nice.”
                I rolled my eyes.

                “A gym session a day keeps the weaklings away!” Dad ruffled my hair and sauntered back to my mom, who was still standing in the doorway to the garage. She moved to say something, but he silenced her with a sweet and short peck on the lips. Against her will, she smiled at him.

                “You’re only encouraging him to do stuff like this when you make fun of him like that,” she said, although I’m sure she meant it to be less breathy and more commanding.

                “He’ll catch up sooner or later.” My dad shrugged and winked at me. “Don’t kill yourself, buddy. You’re a good strong kid. There’s no need to overwork your body.”

                “Yeah, sure.” I stuffed my hands in my pockets and shuffled my feet.

                “We’ll go finish up the dishes,” my dad said. “Did you finish your homework?”

                “I don’t have to do it yet, it’s not due until Monday.”

                “If you get it done tonight you won’t have to do it tomorrow,” my mom said lightly. “Then you can have all day to do whatever you want after chores.”

                “Joel invited me to his house for a movie night tonight.” I pouted. “It starts at eight. I won’t have time to do homework and make it to his house before the movie starts.”

                My mom raised her eyebrows. “It’s seven-thirty, Michael. When were you planning on asking?”

                I didn’t answer.

                “Go do your homework.” My dad shook his head. “If you really wanted to go, you would have gotten your stuff done. You have to do what you need to do before you can do what you want to do.”

                “My homework isn’t even due until Monday!”

                “Don’t raise your voice, young man!” My mom pointed her finger at me accusingly. “You are sixteen years old and you know better than to raise your voice at us. Upstairs. Now.”

 

                Upstairs in my room, I hunched over my desk and gouged my answers into a chemistry packet. The lead on my pencil snapped the first time I stuck it to the paper. By now, it was rubbed into a round stump, too thick to snap under the crushing weight of my indignation. I glanced at the digital clock on my nightstand periodically, hopeful that I might finish in time to run to Joel’s house, provided mom and dad let me borrow the car. Which was unlikely because of their overreaction in the garage twenty minutes ago. When the glowing green numbers on the clock ticked past eight, I scribbled down a basic sentence for the last question. Right as I set my pencil down my phone went off. A text from Joel.

                Hey man were r u?

                With lightning fast fingers, I typed up my response. Just finished hw. My parents wouldn’t let me go unless I did.

                His response came a second after I hit send. Lame.

                I stuffed my phone away and ripped my jacket off the back of my chair.

                “Hey, I’m done!” I pulled my jacket on as I ran down the stairs. In the kitchen, my parents sat on barstools, talking over two cups of hot chocolate. My mom’s purse sat by the garage door and my hands were in it before either of them could respond. I plucked out the keys.

                “Michael?” My dad furrowed his brow. “What are you doing?”

                “I’m going to Joel’s house.” I gave him a queer look. “You said that if I finished my homework I could go.”

                My mom crossed to me and held her hand out for the keys. Confused, I gave them to her.

                “We didn’t say you could go.” She put them back in her purse. “We said you needed to do your homework, but you never asked and we never said yes.”

                “What?” My voice cracked and anger boiled in my chest. “Yes, you did! You said that I had to get my homework done so that I can do whatever I want. I want to go to Joel’s house!”

                “That applies to tomorrow.” My dad crossed his arms. At least, he tried. With that much muscle, he couldn’t do much; the effect, however, was the same. Disappointed, intimidating, dad status. “You’re home for the night. It’s too late for you to just go running in and out of the house. Your mom and I want to get an early start on tomorrow. We don’t want you running around town all night and coming home at two in the morning.”

                “Dad, it’s just a movie.” I crossed my own arms. “I’m not going to come home at two in the morning. At the latest, I’ll be back at like- eleven. I promise”

                “Too late for impromptu plans.” My mom shook her head and pulled the strap of her purse over her shoulder. With an infuriatingly calm gesture, she led my dad back to the barstools, where they picked up their mugs and resumed their conversation. I gaped at them, furious that they would go back on their word so quickly and without so much as an explanation. I deserved that at least! Did any privileges come with being sixteen years old? Not only that, I was a good kid. I did my homework like they asked me to, I had never done drugs, no sex, no alcohol, I did everything they wanted me to do! And this is how they repay me? No explanation, revoking privileges just because they can, and then starting up another conversation as if I didn’t even exist anymore!

                “I’ll be in my room then,” I spat. Steam practically billowed from my ears as I stormed past them. In my room, I threw my jacket on the floor, punishing it for my parents’ lack of respect.

                Joel texted me again, asking where I was.

                Stuck home. My thumbs hit the screen so hard a part of me feared it would break on the next blow. Joel didn’t answer for a while, which was even worse. I told him I would be there. He was excited about that! He and I hardly had any time to hang out anymore, and my parents knew how much I wanted to see Joel. But did they care? No! They were being selfish! Tomorrow was a Saturday anyway, what would they have to get up early for? They never mentioned any plans to me about tomorrow, and they expected me to just be okay with it. Well, if I had to tell them about all my plans, why didn’t they have to tell me? They demanded so much respect from me and they treated me like dirt in return!

                My phone buzzed.

                Sneak out.

                As if someone hit the pause button on a remote, my anger froze. Now that was an idea. I glanced at my bedroom door, unsure. This was the first time that thought had occurred to me in all seriousness. Of course, my parents’ never treated me like this before. Whenever it came to getting what I wanted, they were usually good about it.

                The consequences were going to be devastating when my parents found out.

                If they found out. My parents were in the kitchen, which meant the front door was out of eyesight. I dug my wallet out of my jacket and checked to see if the house key was still there.

                Bingo.

                With a brief hesitation, I threw on my jacket. I did tell Joel I would be there. I was a man of my word, no matter what my parents tried to make me do. I flicked off the light and shut my door. Silent as a mouse, I tip-toed down the stairs and to the front door.

                While they thought I went to bed early, I would be out with my friends. Of course, I would have to wait until early in the morning to come back, just to ensure they would be asleep, but that only meant more time out with Joel.

                A pang of guilt shot through my chest when I reached the front door. With my hand resting on the handle, I glanced back. Light spilled out of the dining room where, only a few feet away, my parents sat on their bar stools, still chatting. I couldn’t see them, but the light from the kitchen cast their shadows onto the table. My dad was moving excitedly, speaking in hushed tones while my mom listened patiently. Her shadow didn’t move. I turned back to the door and steeled myself. They wouldn’t even know that I was gone. No need to feel guilty over something they would never know about.

                Not even a whisper came from the door when I opened it, but the sudden thought of my parents leaning just far enough to see me made me look back. Nothing. The night was cool, but not cold. I stepped out, shut the door, and raced down the walkway toward the street. Joel’s house was a long ways away, but I knew a shortcut that would get me there in fifteen minutes, even less time if I took it at a run.

                I texted Joel. On my way.

Late Nights

I jogged half a block before I had to stop and catch my breath. All the extra muscle I packed on since my parents got me the home gym really took a toll on my stamina. A car started. Just down the street, someone pulled away from the curb in an unassuming van. Nothing particularly eye-grabbing caught my attention aside from the classic style of it.

Oh great, a rapist van. I chuckled to myself and continued onward without a worry as the van passed me by. It turned at the next corner and disappeared.

Looks like I'm not on the menu tonight. I flexed my biceps, mostly to show off even though there was no audience. Nobody is gonna mess with this.

At the next street, I turned after the van. This particular road branched off in multiple cul-de-sacs filled with mobile homes. Trailer parks, more or less. It was trashy and full of dirty people, along with those who are just struggling to get by. However, the trailers offered quick access to the streets behind them, and no one in the parks cared if you tracked past their house and into the over-grown and under-developed part of town. Most kids used these wooded areas as shortcuts anyway. The path I travelled was dark and I had to use the flashlight on my phone to even see it. However, it was clear enough and I reached the other side of town in record time. Joel's house was only a few blocks from where I emerged back into civilization and I jogged part of the way. My phone buzzed when I arrived.

You here yet? Were about to start!

I knocked on his door.

"You made it!" Joel high-fived me when he answered the door. Considering his height, or lack thereof, he had to get onto his toes to slap my hand. His smile was yellow, but a little whiter than usual. When I stepped inside, I noticed that his usually curly hair had some product in it, lending his dark unruly curls some assistance in looking slightly better than bed-head.

I ruffled his hair. "What's with all the fluff, dude?"

He swatted my hand away and scowled. "Sh! The girls are in the living room."

"Girls?" I grinned.

"Monica and Ruth are here." Joel's face was taut with panic.

"Both of them?" I raised my eyebrows and lowered my voice. "You know kidnapping people is against the law, right?"

"Shut up!" Joel punched my arm. "I had to promise them that you would be here, otherwise they wouldn't even think about it."
"Me?" I furrowed my brow. "Oh! You mean, me." I flexed my arms and puffed out my chest.

"Yes, you!" Joel rolled his eyes. "Quit showing off. You're the wing-man this time. Dibs on Monica."

"You don't need a wing-man," I said. "Look at you! You're in tip-top shape!"

He held his arm up to mine in response. Compared to my developed bicep, his arm looked like a little girl. Even when I didn't flex, muscles were defined in smooth lines all the way down to my elbow. Joel, however, was cursed with lean muscle, the type of muscle that looks like you don't have any. He wasn't weak by any means, but you wouldn't know it from looking at him.

"Wing-man?" Joel put out his hand.

"Alright, alright," I chuckled, "I'm the wing-man." We shook on it and I followed him from the foyer to the den at the back of the house. Joel didn't have a TV. A projector on the ceiling streamed the movie onto a blank white wall. On the opposite end of the room, a sofa stretched from one corner to an end table full of DVD's and game consoles. The thing was large enough to house three systems and a plethora of movies. On the floor in front of the couch, two large beanbags offered additional seating. Monica was reclined on the sofa, her painted toes peeking just above the armrest. Dressed in tight jeans and a loose fitting top, she looked good enough to make me reconsider my deal with Joel. Her long hair fell across the couch in golden curls, no doubt soft to the touch. She rested her head on her hands and stared at the ceiling, positively bored out of her mind.

Ruth lounged in a beanbag, scrolling through her phone with her head propped up on her elbow. She dressed in much the same way as her friend, but her curvy body filled out her shirt and jeans much better.

"Hey, guys," I said as I entered, "sorry I'm late. My parents didn't let me out."

Both of the girls smiled brightly, blinding me with their perfectly white teeth. Monica sat up and tucked her feet under her.

"You can come sit up by me," she said. "Joel said the movie was going to be scary."

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Joel's jaw clench. The slightest bulge in the side of his face indicated his frustration. I didn't have to say anything past 'hello' and one of his biggest crushes was already after me.

"I hate to decline," I shook my head, "but I'm in a beanbag kind of mood, if you know what I mean. I've been sitting upright all day doing homework and sitting in school. I feel like completely wrecking my posture tonight."

"Fine by me." Ruth smiled at me politely and patted the beanbag next to her. "I'll need someone to hold onto while the movie is playing anyway. I'm not very good with scary movies."
"Sounds like a plan." I flexed my arm for her and watched a hot red blush spread across her cheeks. She laughed it off and called me a show-off. Monica tried and failed to keep the disappointment from her face when Joel took my place on the couch. Before parking it in the beanbag, I caught Monica throwing a nasty look at Ruth. Ruth shrugged subtly and winked back at her.

All eyes turned to the blank wall where the projector was already casting the opening credits to Messengers. The overhead light was still on, so the picture was faint and a little yellow. About half a minute passed before I glanced back at Joel.

"You gonna start this thing or what?"

"Oh, right!" Joel jumped to his feet, casting a nervous glance back at Monica, and hurried to turn off the light. Before he settled back onto the couch, he fumbled in his pocket for a little remote and hit play. He settled back beside Monica and I heard her sigh.

Poor guy. I knew the kid didn't have a chance with her. Monica was ruthless and shallow, which was a reputation she was proud of. The only guys she ever dated had a body type like mine and dirtier personalities. Rumor had it that she enjoyed being slapped around. It freaked her last boyfriend out so much that he broke up with her for it. Her version of the break up follows more along the lines of him cheating on her with this girl online. Both sides of the story seemed whacked once you listened to them, but I didn't care either way. I wasn't interested in Monica or Ruth. However, I wasn't entirely against Ruth leaning in close and holding onto my arm while the movie played. It felt nice to be appreciated, even if it was for something as shallow as my biceps. When I shifted, her grip on my arm squeezed just a little tighter.

As the movie rolled on, Ruth came closer and closer. By the time the climax hit, (zombie people busting out of the basement for revenge), we shared one beanbag. My arm was around her mid-section and she buried her face in my chest when something scary popped up on the screen. Her soft body fit well against mine. The curve of her waist made the perfect spot for me to slip my arm under her without putting it to sleep. When the credits rolled, Ruth snuggled in and set her head on my chest. I didn't mind.

I looked back at Joel to find him on one end of the couch and Monica on the other. She glared at the rolling credits until she noticed me looking. Her scowl dissolved into a fake smile and she raised her eyebrows.

"How'd you like it?" She asked.

"It was good." I shrugged and Monica's eyes cut to Ruth's head.

If looks could kill. I wanted to laugh. It wasn't the first time girls had fought over me like this. Ever since I started working on my body, they all seemed to flock toward me. I enjoyed the attention at first, but it got old really fast. Out of all the hook ups that were offered to me, I accepted none. I realized that wasn't the type of relationship or reputation I wanted. Additionally, I never wanted to look into my parents' eyes knowing that I broke a promise. When I reached the age, my parents had the cringe-worthy sex-talk with me. I promised that I wouldn't get a girl pregnant, so I vowed to myself that I wouldn't sleep with a girl until I graduated. It made things simpler on my end.

"Well," I stretched and Ruth picked up her head, "I think I better head home. It's kinda late now."

"You don't have to go." Ruth puckered her bottom lip and drew her eyebrows together. "We could watch another movie."

A pang of guilt stabbed my heart. Since my phone had been silent through the entirety of the movie, I figured my parents thought I was asleep. They wouldn't know any better if I stuck around for a second movie. However, the lie and betrayal was still there. I tried to shake it off by telling myself that what they didn't know wouldn't hurt them, but what I knew really hurt me. The look on my mother's face would devastate me if she ever found out. I bit my lip indecisively.

"Yeah," Monica chimed in, "this time I could take the beanbag. I'm really starting to get why Michael wanted to sit down there. You wouldn't mind if we traded, would you Ruth?"

"Does it look like I would mind?" Ruth smiled sweetly back at her friend.

"Nope." Monica hopped off the couch and shooed the reluctant Ruth away. Monica didn't even bother with the other beanbag. Full of confidence, she slipped right into Ruth's spot and tucked her head against my chest. I checked back with Joel and he looked utterly defeated. I raised my eyebrows as if to ask 'what do you want me to do?' Joel shrugged, 'I give up, man. She's yours.'

I pursed my lips thoughtfully.

Then snuggled right in with Monica. Right from the start, I realized I liked Ruth much better. Cuddling Ruth felt like hugging a pillow. A wonderfully warm and curvy pillow, but soft and firm in all the right places. Monica had more angles. Once we settled into a position that didn't involve her stabbing me in the ribs with her elbows, things were comfortable if I ignored her jawline, which stabbed my collarbone mercilessly. She wasn't nearly as warm as Ruth either, and I caught myself glancing back at her while Joel shuffled through movies.

"That one was good," Ruth said slyly.

"Yeah," I smiled at her, "it was."

I felt something in my gut stir and immediately knew I was in a world of trouble. Ruth was hot to begin with, but even before the menu screen for the next movie popped up, I already had images of kissing her in my head. With my own fantasies of Ruth running through my head, I couldn't pay attention to the movie in front of me.

Monica shifted a few times, stabbing me with that dagger-sharp jawline, and sighed contently.

At least she's enjoying this. I wanted to roll my eyes and roll her off of me. However, I'd been raised too well to do that to someone, let alone a girl.

When the credits rolled, I didn't wait for Monica to move. I slipped out from under her and stood up to stretch.

"Man, I'm getting tired," I yawned. "I think I better head on out." I locked eyes with Ruth. "Do either of you need me to walk you home?"

"Monica has a car," Ruth volunteered quickly, "but I'm all on my lonesome."

Monica's eyes blazed with quiet fury, but her voice was calm and collected. "You don't have to worry; I'll give Ruth a ride home. I mean, we did show up in the same car."

"No need." Ruth was already by my side, tugging on my arm to go. "I won't have you wasting gas on me. It's nice outside anyway, I wouldn't want to miss it."

I exchanged a hopeful look with Joel.

"See you tomorrow, man." He nodded.

"You two have a good rest of the night." My heart galloped in my chest as Ruth and I left the house.

I wanted to break out in song and dance! I could count on one hand how many times I had been left alone with a cute girl. This, however, was the first time that cute girl was interested in me too. The possibilities were endless, but also frightening. If her parents caught us on her porch, my parents would find me in a body bag in the morning, not my bed. The possibility remained, however, that we weren't going to get caught wandering around town this late. I looked at Ruth furtively and my heart dropped at the apprehension in her face. She was so willing a moment ago, but regret and fear pinched her eyebrows together. We made it halfway down the block before either of us spoke.

"Did you like that second movie?" Ruth asked.

"Yeah," I lied. "Really good- um- action movie."
She gave me a queer look. "It was a romantic comedy."

"That too." I laughed nervously and Ruth smiled at me.

"Did you get a little distracted by Monica while you were down there?" Although she smiled, her tone of voice betrayed her volatile jealousy.

"You could say that," I grimaced, "I mean- I really couldn't focus past trying to keep her elbow out of my ribs. That was a chore."

Ruth visibly relaxed and cast a triumphant glance at Joel's house. We reached the corner at the end of his street and turned, Ruth leading.

"And her jaw." I rubbed my chest. "How can one person have so many sharp edges?"

Ruth giggled. "She has even more once you get to know her."

"I can imagine," I shook my head. "You two are best friends right?"

"Yeah."

"Tell me if I'm wrong, but it really seemed like you two were ready to rip each other apart. Will you guys be cool after this?"

"Pfft!" Ruth rolled her eyes. "We'll be fine. You're not the first guy we've competed over."

The honesty floored me. "So, you were fighting over me?"

"Like it wasn't obvious," Ruth laughed. "We made a pact last year that we wouldn't succumb to the stupid girly emotions that make us want to hide our crushes. What's the point of that? You just get to sit there and stew in your juices until you finally get up the nerve to say 'hi.' Even then, you hardly know that person, but you've already fantasized about marriage, sex, the first big fight, the makeup, and whatever else your pining heart desires. It's devastating after they reject you then. But if you just get it out of the way to begin with, there's no need to put yourself through that torture. So we're open about our crushes. It makes it easier."

"Even if you like the same guy?"
She nodded. "After tonight, Monnie will be salty for a few days, but then she'll be fine. I love that girl, and she loves me. We're the best of friends."

"That is so cool," I said genuinely.

Ruth shrugged. "We got lucky and found each other."

The path we walked took us further away from my house than Joel's, but when Ruth took my hand I didn't mind so much.

Very few cars passed through the residential part of town this late at night. Every one of them was large big enough to be a van, although I never paid any direct attention to them. Even in the moonlight, Ruth's eyes seemed to shine. Although not as carefully curled as Monica's, her hair fell over her shoulders in soft, dark waves. I wanted to touch it, which sounded creepy, even in my head. It wasn't the type of impulse that made me want to sniff her hair, it was more like the impulse to kiss her and run my fingers through it. So much about her was soft, I couldn't imagine her hair being anything less than heavenly.

"This is me," Ruth said. We stopped at small two-story house. Ever light was off with the exception of a lamp in the upper left window.

"Right." My hands started to shake. Goodbyes were always the worst when it came to a cute girl. Did she really want you to kiss her, or would she freak out? And if she did, what type of kiss is she looking for? Why is this pressure always put on the guy?

When she didn't immediately head for the front door, I figured that it was safe to say she wanted something more than a handshake. A hug or a kiss? Or both? She looked up at me expectantly, her eyes big and round, her lips slightly parted. Her beauty was something straight out of a poem, alluring and ethereal. Words couldn't express the way my heart raced as she looked at me. Having only met a few hours ago, I was shocked at how profound an effect she had on me already. From hot to beautiful in a matter of minutes.

"Are you going to kiss me," she said, "or keep staring at me and miss your chance?"

So she did want a kiss!

Perhaps a little too eagerly, I kissed her. As promised by the rest of her body, her lips were soft. When I reached up hold her, my hand found its way into her hair and my prediction proved correct. She stepped into my embrace, pressing the entire front of her body against me. My insides quivered pitifully and I wanted to both drive her against a wall and melt in her arms. However, being the guy, I held fast to my dignity and didn't melt, that was her job, which she dutifully fulfilled. She ran her hands over my shoulders and squeezed my arms, obviously pleased with the muscles I worked so hard to perfect. I gripped her hips and pressed her against me, both scared and excited to feel whatever I could of her body.

"We hate to bother you," someone said, "but we're a little lost."

Ruth and I shot apart like two magnets with the same charge. A furious blush lighted her cheeks and adrenaline shot through me. I stuck my hands in my jacket pockets and covered the front of my jeans to conceal what I hoped wasn't an obvious lump. My head spun dangerously and the drumming of my heart in my pants made it hard to comprehend the woman in the van asking directions.

The woman held a slip of paper out the window toward us. She was Hispanic and her words heavily accented.

"We are trying to find a friend's house," the woman continued, "we won't take long, I promise."

Ruth collected herself much faster than I did and approached. The van was one of those soccer-mom types with sliding back doors and a hatchback. Tinted windows prevented any exploration of her backseat, but judging by the hushed tone she used, I figured children were passed out back there. However, a feeling of uneasiness settled over me. A quick glance at Ruth revealed that she shared my anxiety.

As Ruth came closer, the woman pulled the slip of paper back and pointed at something.

"You're nowhere near there," Ruth said impatiently.

A soft click made my mind come back into focus. I wasn't sure what it was, but my apprehension jumped straight to fear for no seemingly apparent reason. Only when the back door flew open and a large man made a grab for Ruth did I realize what my intuition was getting at.

Ruth shrieked and reached for me. I lunged forward and caught her arm the same moment the man jerked her backward by her hair. She screamed again and the porch light to her home flicked on.

"DAD!" She cried. "DADDY, HELP ME!"

I wrapped my arms around Ruth's waist and tried to tear her away from the bigger man, but he had one large hand in her hair and the other holding fast to her arm. I threw a weak punch, but it hit the man right on the nose. He roared and let go of her hair, but her arm remained trapped in his massive hand. She beat against it with her fist, screaming and crying. Ruth nearly slipped from my grasp when I tried to punch him again, but the game changed when the man gripped my wrist.

"Ruth!" Another man, her dad, yelled from the porch. The moment Ruth's dad descended the steps the large man released her. Ruth fell into me and I lost my balance. She rolled on the sidewalk and a sizable fist connected with the side of my head. Dazed, I didn't put up much of a fight when the man jerked me into the vehicle and the woman sped away while he slammed the door shut.