Fiction: Stepping Stones

Short Fiction by Neil Plakcy

Content Warning: This story addresses sexual abuse and may be difficult for some individuals to read.

It took me a long time to figure out, but I finally understand why my stepfather married my mother.

It was for me.

When Richie came into our lives, I was twelve, and my dad had been long gone. I was skinny and gawky, bad at sports, and kids had started to call me names. My mom thought that having a man around the house would be good for me. So when Richie came courting her, she was receptive, even though she was doing well financially.

One of the first things Richie suggested was that I join the swim team. We were sitting in our living room with my mom, and he said, “You’ve got a swimmer’s build, Tommy. Long arms and legs and no body fat. Makes you perfect for swimming. And being part of a team is a good way to make friends.”

I was embarrassed that he had figured out so quickly that I had no real friends. At school I hung around with a bunch of the other no-hopers, girls with wonky eyes, fat boys, kids of divorce who felt abandoned.

My mom and I lived in a run-down little house on a public lake in a little town west of Fort Lauderdale, and she had made me learn to swim when I was barely out of diapers so that I couldn’t accidentally fall in the lake and drown. My middle school had a swim team, so I joined, and I discovered a hidden talent for the butterfly, the breast stroke, the front crawl and the backstroke.

The coach, an older guy who also taught gym, was surprised at my ability. Usually kids could do well at either the forward strokes or the backward ones, but I could “go both ways,” as he said. 

Richie snickered when I told him that, but he wouldn’t tell me why it was funny. The coach paired us up in twos to practice, and my partner, Ed, was handsome, muscular, and looked like a surfer from a TV show with his shoulder-length blond hair. He’s the one who told me what it meant to go both ways. “It means you like boys and girls,” Ed said. “Like me.”

We were standing at the head of a lane, waiting to jump in, and I almost fell into the pool at that revelation. I wasn’t sure which was more surprising—that Ed liked boys as well as girls, or that Richie had seen something in me I wasn’t ready to acknowledge yet.

 My mom was impressed at how dedicated Richie was to me, and when he asked her to marry him about six months after they met, she agreed, and Richie moved in with us.

During the summer, while school was out, Richie and I went swimming in the lake nearly every day. An old flagstone path led from our house down to the water’s edge, and we could step into the water from the seawall, then walk out a few feet until it was deep enough to swim.

Richie bought me a couple of skimpy bikinis because he said that was what all the competitive swimmers wore. He would sit on the public dock and time me as I practiced different strokes.

Sometimes, when there was no one else at the lake, he’d jump in with me and we’d fool around, trying to dunk each other and play grab ass. One day he said, “You ever skinny dip, Tommy?”

I shook my head.

He went under for a moment, coming back up with his equally skimpy bikini in his hand. He put it on the dock. “Give it a try,” he said.

I had never had anyone pay so much attention to me as Richie, so I went along with whatever he said. I squirmed out of my suit and put it on the dock next to his.

“Race you to the swim platform,” he said, and took off toward the wooden raft at the center of the lake.

I loved the feeling of freedom as my privates bobbed free. Richie was older and stronger than I was, but I had the advantage of all my practice, and I beat him by inches.

He tried to slap my butt, but the water slowed his hand to a near caress. “Good job, kiddo,” he said.

We fooled around in the water for a while longer, and once or twice his hand swiped past my dick, and it stiffened. I was embarrassed to react that way, so I swam back to the dock and struggled to get back into my suit.

In the fall, the swim team started to race other schools, and Richie was very supportive. He came to every meet and cheered me on, and even some of the practices. He was driving for one of the car services, so he had a flexible schedule. At the same time, Ed and I started hanging out outside of the swim team. We talked about a lot of things, but I was still too embarrassed to follow up on what he had told me at the pool.

I was full into puberty then, and hair began sprouting all over my body. After one close race, as we were driving home, Richie said, “Did you notice that kid who beat you had no hair on his body?”

I shrugged. I had noticed everything about him while we waited for our heat, from his close-cropped dark hair to his narrow waist and the way he filled out his bikini. But I didn’t want to say that.

“I’m thinking you should shave,” Richie said. “I’ve been reading up on it, and the drag from body hair can add an extra couple of seconds in a race.”

I hadn’t considered shaving yet. I had only a bit of peach fuzz on my chin. And though I had silky brown hair along my chest, arms, and legs, the thought of shaving it hadn’t crossed my mind.

“I don’t know how to use a razor.”

“I’ll help you out. Get you nice and smooth. When we get home I’ll show you what to do.”

My mom wasn’t due home from work for another hour, so Richie had me put my cold, wet bathing suit back on and stand in the tub. He squirted some shave cream onto a bristly shaving brush and began swabbing me with the cream. It tickled, and I giggled.

“You like that?” he asked, as he brushed the cream around my nipples. “Don’t worry, I’ll be careful. Don’t want to nick this beautiful skin of yours.”

Richie used a safety razor to shave clean straight lines down my arms and my chest, rinsing me off regularly. Then he got to work on my thighs and calves, and I was sure he was going to say something about my obvious arousal, but he didn’t.

It was a really intimate moment. I hadn’t had anyone pay so much attention to my body since my mom bathed me as a baby, and I loved it. When Richie finished, my skin glistened, and I was sure I would move even more quickly through the water.

Richie was right. Over the next few weeks I began notching up ever faster scores, beating nearly every opponent. Richie shaved me once a week, and the fad caught on among the other swimmers, including Ed, even though the coach said it wasn’t necessary.

Kids treated me differently at school. In class I sat with my teammates, ate lunch with them, swam with them after school. Ed and I went to the movies sometimes on the weekend, and whenever our legs happened to touch I felt a shiver of pleasure and anticipation.

I loved having Richie as my step-dad. I hadn’t realized until he came into the picture how hard my mom worked, and how little time we had to spend together. Before Richie, she’d put a casserole in the oven or the slow-cooker before she left for work, and we wouldn’t eat until six-thirty or seven, which left me endless empty hours in the afternoon.

Richie took over the cooking, and after swim team practice I’d sit in the kitchen and help him prepare dinner, and we’d eat as soon as my mom got home. Then he’d spend some time with me going over my homework or discussing my progress while she relaxed, watched TV or read a book.

Living in South Florida means you can swim nearly all year long, at either indoor or outdoor pools, and all through the winter I kept practicing and competing. One evening when I stepped into the tub for my weekly shave with Richie, he reached over and tugged a couple of pubic hairs that had sprouted over the waistband of my bikini.

“Think we ought to shave these down, too, Tommy?” he asked.

My face reddened. “I don’t know,” I said timidly. “I have to shower with the guys after meets and I don’t want to look weird.”

“We won’t shave you all the way down,” he said. “Don’t want you to look like a baby, after all. We’ll just do a little trimming. They call it manscaping.”

I liked the sound of that, that Richie was treating me like a man. So I said sure, and after we did our regular shave, he said, “Drop the shorts, bro. Let’s see what we’ve got to work with.”

I had gotten so accustomed to his touch that it no longer made me immediately hard, and I could drop my swimsuit without embarrassment. But then when he touched me there, I swelled up immediately.

He sensed my embarrassment. “Don’t sweat it if you get hard when someone touches your junk. Happens to the best of us.”

He grabbed a pair of small scissors. “Since we’re not going down to the skin, we’ll skip the razor and just do some trimming.”

He hummed along as he snipped. When he was finished, he turned me to the mirror. “See, doesn’t that look cleaner?”

“It does.”

He smirked. “And it makes the equipment look bigger, too. You’ll be the envy of every boy in the locker room.”

Nobody said anything about my manscaping, not even Ed, but I continued to improve my times, so I thought there was a connection.

Then summer came, and the end of swim competition. I was disappointed that I’d lose my regular shave time with Richie, but he had other ideas. “I want to try something,” Richie said, the week after my last day in middle school. “Do you trust me?”

“Sure, Richie.”

“I want to see if you can swim faster if we shave your pubes down. And then I’ll time you skinny-dipping in the lake.”

“But in real competition I’ll have to wear a suit.”

“I know. But the suit will give you less drag if there’s no hair beneath it.”

My body shivered with sexual stimulation. I knew it was wrong, and I realized that was what I wanted from Ed. He might actually be my boyfriend, and having him touch me down there would be awesome.

Richie shaved me very carefully. Then he rinsed me off.

“Perfection,” he said when he showed me off in the mirror. “Not a hair left on you.”

My mom insisted that I take a couple of summer school courses, as I always had in the past, so that I wasn’t just lying around the house all day. While I was at school, Richie drove, and he was always there to pick me up when I was finished. It was awkward, because I really wanted to spend more time with Ed, but I couldn’t get rid of Richie.

Then we’d go home, put on our suits, and go out to the lake to swim. Very quickly, though, Richie ditched his suit and swam naked.

I didn’t realize that our neighbor Mrs. Hammer had been watching us until one evening when my mother said, “Tommy, go to your room. Richie and I have something to talk about.”

She didn’t know that I could climb out my bedroom window. I snuck around the side of the house to the living room, where I could overhear the argument.

“It’s not right,” my mother was saying, when I got in position. “A grown man swimming naked with a boy.”

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” Richie said. “I used to do it all the time with my father and my uncles and my boy cousins. Never consider doing it with a girl, though.”

“It has to stop,” my mother said. “And no more shaving either. Tommy looks like he hasn’t even gone through puberty yet, and I know he has.”

They argued some more, but I couldn’t keep listening. My stomach hurt and I wanted to cry. I didn’t want Richie to stop paying attention to me, but I had been through health science class by then. I knew what the penis and the vagina were for, and our teacher had warned us about people who might try to touch us inappropriately. Mostly, though, it was about girls getting their boobs touched, or men squeezing up against them. Nobody said anything about boys getting touched, but I could read between the lines.

After that fight, my mom enrolled me in a different summer program that ran all day. One day after class ended, I ran into Ed in the hallway, and we started talking. I had to use the restroom, and he followed me in there. When I was done, we stood around the sink together and then, without warning, he kissed me.

It was like a lightning bolt went off in my head, and I realized this felt so much better than the creepy way Richie had been paying me attention.

Ed and I started hanging out together almost every day after school, and Richie was angry sometimes when he texted me that he wanted to pick me up and I replied that I was busy and would find my own way home.

My classes ended in the middle of August, so I was home all day. For some reason Richie didn’t have to work one day, and he asked if I wanted to go swimming.

I was reluctant. After spending time with Ed and talking to him about Richie, I knew there was something creepy about my step-dad’s obsession with my swimming.

“We can beat the storm if we hurry.” I pulled on a swimsuit and met him at the back door. “I didn’t realize how overgrown these flagstones had gotten,” he said. “You go on. I’m going to clean them up before I come join you.”

I went into the water, and once when I came up for a quick rest I saw him sitting by the stones, weeding around them and spraying them with a squirt bottle.

Then he came down to join me and we swam back and forth to the platform. He wasn’t acting weird, asking me to take off my suit or anything, and I thought maybe he’d gotten over that.

“Thomas!”

My mom never called me by my full name unless she was really mad. I looked up and saw her at the back door to the house. “Get out of the water now!”

I didn’t know why she was so upset. We weren’t even naked.

She began to walk down the flagstones quickly, but she slipped and lost her balance, and she fell backwards, hitting her head on one of the other stones.

“Mom!” I cried, and I rushed out of the water, Richie right behind me. 

Blood poured out of her head where she had hit it. “Mom! Are you all right?”

She didn’t answer, and her eyes had this glazed look. “Call 911 right away,” Richie said, and shooed me toward the house.

By the time the ambulance had arrived, he had picked her up and carried her around to the front of the house. The rain had begun a light patter, and I was shivering, because I was already soaked from swimming.

Richie said he would ride in the ambulance, and sent me inside to put on dry clothes, and then go over to Mrs. Hammer’s to wait. The storm rushed in with a fury, sluicing water down the middle of our street. Mrs. Hammer tried to give me soup, to calm me down, but I was inconsolable.

It was a couple of hours before one of Richie’s fellow drivers brought him back home. I had been watching out Mrs. Hammer’s front window and I rushed up to him. “I’m afraid she didn’t make it, Tommy.” He blew out a deep breath. “It’s just you and me now.”

I cried and cried, and Richie held me close and kissed the top of my head. “Why don’t you sleep with me tonight, Tommy?” he asked, when it got close to bedtime.

I put on my pajamas and went into the bedroom Richie had shared with my mother. He was already under the covers. “I don’t wear anything to sleep,” he said. “I hope that doesn’t bother you.”

I shook my head. I was so numb I wasn’t going to complain about anything. I slid into the bed, and he put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me close. I rested my head on his chest, and listening to the rhythm of his breathing, I finally slept.

The next morning, I woke up early, while Richie was still asleep. I went out the back door in my pajamas. The rain had washed away most of my mother’s blood, but there were still a few spots. I lay down on the ground and tried to breathe in her essence.

What I smelled, though, was motor oil. 

And then I knew what Richie had done. There was still enough oil around the flagstones that I could go over to Mrs. Hammer’s house, call the police, and have them come to see the evidence.

But what would happen to me? If the police arrested Richie, I’d have no one to take care of me. Would I go into foster care? Move to Ohio, where my mother’s sister lived?

I’d lose all the loving attention I had gotten from Richie. No one to cheer at my swim meets, no one to comfort me when things were difficult. Ed was my friend, maybe even m boyfriend, but could I count on him to step up?

I lay there in the dewy grass for a long time, until I knew what I had to do.

NEIL S. PLAKCY is the author of over thirty mystery and romance novels. The highly acclaimed Mahu series stars openly gay Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka. He also writes the Have Body, Will Guard gay adventure romance books about bodyguards Aidan Greene and Liam McCullough, and the golden retriever mysteries, where (mostly) reformed computer hacker Steve Levitan solves crimes with the help of his golden retriever, Rochester.
He has also written numerous stand-alone mystery and romance novels, which can be found at his website, www.mahubooks.com. He also edited the anthology Paws & Reflect:A Special Bond Between Man and Dog, which was excerpted in The New York Times.
He is a professor of English at Broward College in South Florida, where he lives with his husband and their rambunctious golden retrievers.