The Prize Inside
by HYPERFocused

Ryan loved drinking in the Cohen house. Not the sort of drinking his mother and her boyfriends did in his old house, or Marissa did all too often at parties, and on their regrettable trip to Tijuana, but the sheer variety of beverages in the Cohen's refrigerator. He didn't have to choose between fresh squeezed orange juice and icy bottled water; he could have both. He could even have guava juice if he wanted it, or V-8. Sandy never backhanded him for taking a taste, or even finishing the bottle, the way his mother's boyfriends did.

The refrigerator back in Chino rarely held more than the asshole boyfriend's cheap beer, and her crusty Bloody Mary mix. "Hey, it's healthy," she said. "Vitamins, you know." She said the same thing about her Sunday morning screwdrivers.

When she was feeling motherly, or more likely guilty, there would be Ovaltine, or Sunny Delight. The kind of thing "good mothers" on television bought for their happy teenage sons, and served to their friends after soccer practice. Ryan never had those sorts of friends, and if he had, he wouldn't have brought them home to see his mother passed out on the couch. It didn't make him feel sunny, and was never much of a delight.

He always got milk at school, along with the crappy lunch the county provided. Sometimes, it was all he got to eat. Not that his mother couldn't afford to buy food, but Jimmy or Hector or Buck (whoever it was that year) needed the money more, for his Harley upkeep or coke habit, child support, or bail. And of course beer didn't grow on trees.

There was milk of every percentage in the Cohen's fridge. Kirsten's skim, 2% for guests, Sandy's Lact-aid, and whole milk for Seth. He once mentioned -- offhand to Seth -- how his father used to take him to lunch every Saturday, and he'd have a cheeseburger, and chocolate milk. His dad would say "now, don't tell your mother, but every growing boy deserves a little treat." Then he'd hand Ryan a dollar's worth of quarters so he could go play the ancient Frogger and Asteroids games in the corner of the dingy diner, and he could get up to no good with Ted, the diner's owner.

Ryan hadn't had chocolate milk since his father went to prison. The next time they went grocery shopping, Seth managed to slip some into the grocery cart. It had been a staple of their mornings for weeks now. Ryan didn't have the heart to tell him he'd lost the taste for it. He only wanted it because it was something he and his dad shared. He wasn't six years old anymore, and nothing he drank would bring his father home.

It was just so thoughtful of Seth to remember it every week. Typical, really. He was always doing things like that. He would ask Ryan about things Ryan didn't even remember mentioning. An aside during one of Seth's marathon comic book rants -- "Yeah, I used to love that, too" -- and Ryan found a pile of vintage issues sitting on his bed a few weeks later. Seth was the king of Ebay.

Now, it was mostly Seth who drank the chocolate milk, though occasionally Sandy would sneak a bit when he thought no one was watching. It always made Ryan laugh, watching Seth drink. Seth only half paid attention to what he was doing, head in a comic book, or deep in conversation.

He'd end up with a chocolate mustache that Ryan wanted to lick off. He couldn't do that when Sandy and Kirsten were around. Instead, he'd just lick his own lips, and hand Seth a napkin. And if Sandy or Kirsten noticed the startled looks, or surprised grins Seth gave him, they never said, or seemed to mind.

Really, plain old chocolate milk was tame for the sugar soaked Seth. When there were no adults around to look disapproving, his favorite thing to drink was the extra sweetened dregs of his cereal. Ryan had never seen anyone eat cereal quite that way. Half Cap'n Crunch, and half Corn Pops, or two parts cocoa pebble to one part cocoa puffs. "It's the closest thing to Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs," he told Ryan once, when Ryan asked why he liked to mix his cereals that way, and ever since Ryan had wondered if Seth had an old stuffed tiger up in his room somewhere. Seth would taste it like he was Emeril on TV, and then add a few teaspoons of sugar to the mix.

"Isn't that too sweet?" Ryan asked him, one time.

"You'd think so, but no. Try it." Seth lifted the bowl to his lips, then pushed it his way. Ryan expected to taste gritty sugar strong enough to make his teeth ache. Instead, he got sweetness with an unmistakable taste of Seth underneath. Delicious.

Some afternoons Seth scarfed down his Code Red like he had to have caffeine or his batteries would wind down. He held the can in one hand, and his Ipod in the other, and zoomed down the sidewalk like youth advertising personified.

More than once he came down to the pool house in the middle of the night, knowing through some sort of radar that Ryan was lying awake too. He fixed them each a cup of cocoa. The good kind, Dutch process with milk. "Warm milk by itself is kind of gross," he said, that first time, "but it's supposed to help you sleep. If that doesn't work, I think I know something that will."

Seth slipped into the bed beside Ryan and pulled him close. Then he kissed him with chocolate sweet lips, and touched him with mug-warmed hands, slipping them under Ryan's white shirt and shorts, and slowly stroking him everywhere. Ryan felt himself eased and comforted. He returned the favor, enthusiastically kissing Seth; pressing a firm thigh and talented hand between his sinewy legs until Seth was fervently thrusting back up at him.

Still, they stayed awake long after they were sated, talking about everything and nothing, until the sun came up, and coffee percolated -- waking the household, and signified breakfast was not far away.


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