He knew it was going to hurt, but not like this. Three hours later, sitting on the beach with his bare toes dug into the golden sand, Thomas Bullen reflected on the morning's events. He wasn't sure what he had expected from Becky Kendall's family, but after half a year of traveling up one coast and across the country to the other, at the very least he'd counted on meeting with his son. That had not materialized.
'Fuck,' Bull sighed, feeling the sweat glide down his back and the grainy warmth beneath his feet. The sudden gust of a light southwestern breeze carried the sound of crashing waves, hoots from the nearest trio of surfers riding them, and a dozen other noises, none of which drew his attention away from his memories of the meeting at her door, which would haunt him forever.
Mattie, Becky's cousin..
He barely recalled setting foot on the ground; the distance from the driveway to the front door had felt like an eternity, but seemed to pass in one giant step. The woman who answered his knock, though much older than he remembered her, remained easily recognizable. She'd recognized him, too.
'Bull,' she'd snapped, looking both wounded and stunned.
'Mattie, please, I need to see my son,' he'd begged, his first words to her. Everything he said after that flowed breathlessly like the one giant step from driveway to front door. 'Please, Mattie - I've come all this way. Just tell me where he is and let him make his own decisions about me!'
She'd peered furtively behind herself into the house before easing out onto the top step beside him. Bull got a quick glimpse into the place where Becky had come to live following their forbidden summer together twenty years pat. At first, he'd felt hopeful it was Jason that Mattie wanted to spare. Again his hopes were dashed. 'I don't want my husband hearing this, Bull.'
'I don't care if the whole fuckin' neighborhood hears, Mattie. I want to see my son, now!'
'You can't,' she spat.
'But - '
'He's not here,' she interjected. 'You shouldn't have come. I told you not to.'
By this point, wounded and angry in ways he'd never known, Bull had to pinch back the caustic sting of tears at the corners of his eyes. 'Why are you doing this?' he demanded, his voice lowering to the whisper line.
Mattie shook her head and folded her arms. 'I'm not. He's not here. That's the truth.'
'Then where is he?'
She remained poised for battle a yard away. 'That's not for me to tell you. Jason's an adult now. If he wants to contact you, he will. I'll tell him you were here next time I speak to him. That's the best I can do.'
The sound of the door closing behind her would echo in his head forever.
Bull wasn't sure how long he drove around San Diego after that. Neighborhoods and businesses passed by in a blur. At one point, he found himself on Carmel Valley Road, then onto the Pacific Coast Highway. From there, he emerged at Torry Pines, breathing the salty air of the nearby ocean. The lure of Black's Beach eventually pulled him to the parking lot of a glider port. An arduous hike down to the golden sand at the base of soaring rocky cliffs put him where he now sat.
He'd shucked sneakers and socks, t-shirt and ball cap, and dressed only in shorts and a pair of shades, wallowed in his misery. But at one point some untimed measure of hours later, the sudden explosion of excited voices drew him back to the present. His spell broken, Bull looked up to see the most amazing sight. Far beyond the crashing surf, perched on the horizon, a graceful, massive aircraft carrier passed by on its way out to sea.
A gust of warm air swept across the buzzcut back of Bull's head. He rose to his feet, and like many of the others who'd alerted him to the carrier's presence by their enthusiasm, was drawn down to the water by its powerful image at the limits of the horizon. He reached the water's edge and raised his sunglasses, shielding his eyes from the sun for an unobstructed view of the majestic warship.
'Hola, Connie-!' a deep, manly voice peppered with the barest inflections of a Spanish accent called out closely beside him. Bull turned to his left to see a vision just as impressive standing knee-deep in the water a few yards away. A dark-haired young man - young-twenties, he figured - with the best tan Bull had seen since arriving to California, cradled an expensive-looking surfboard under one arm. 'Kick ass, girl!'
Bull quickly scanned the young man from the top of his jet-black cropped haircut down to his smile and the perfect white teeth he flashed, to the smooth, taught ridge of his abs, board shorts, and muscled, hairy legs. He had to be military - a Marine, Bull guessed, probably stationed at Camp Pendleton. 'What ship is that?' he asked, trying to sound confident despite the sudden dryness that the sight of the young soldier had unleashed in his mouth.
The handsome surfer tipped his gaze in Bull's direction and quickly sized him up, too. 'That's Connie,' he said. 'America's flagship, the U.S.S. Constellation, dude. You not from around here?'
'Naw,' Bull answered. He shuffled closer and extended a big bear paw of a hand. 'From a long way off. Thomas Bullen.'
The young Marine hesitated a moment before accepting, but when he did, his grip was just as impressive. 'You here for the race?'
'Race?' Bull asked.
'Yeah. The Mud Run, over at Lake George. I assumed you was military.'
'You assumed right,' Bull said. 'Army, but on leave.'
The young man's bone-cracking grip on Bull's hand persisted. 'Oscar De La Santos,' the young surf jock replied. Bull had been correct in gleaning something of an accent in the other man's voice. It was sexy and charming, and for a second at least, it removed the specter of that morning's confrontation with Mattie.
They turned back to see the U.S.S. Constellation's charge across the ocean.
'I love that ship,' the young surfer sighed in his cool voice. 'Nothing like seeing it chug past Point Loma on its way to Asia.'
'Yeah, impressive,' Bull sighed. More than the feel of sand or salt water beneath his toes, the wind through his hair or the sun on his back, the sound of the young surfer's voice pulled him away from the abyss he'd fallen into that morning. 'What's this Mud Run all about?'
Oscar flashed his four-alarm grin again. Perfect white teeth glinted in the sun under the surfer's unshaved mouth and dark brown eyes. 'Annual thing Pendleton puts on. Real ugly ten-K race through mud flats, over obstacles. It's messy, but real fun. Great place to pick up bitches - and meet some cool dudes, too.'
Bull sighed a swear under his breath and shook his head. 'Shit, I could use some of that right now. Haven't had a whole hell of a lot of fun since I got to San Diego.'
More enthusiasm climbed into Oscar's voice. 'Dude, then you should sign up! A bunch of the guys from my unit gonna run the race - and no offense, but we plan on winning!'
'Oh yeah?' Bull said, flashing a cocky grin of his own back Oscar's way. 'We'll see.'
'We'll see nothin',' the young Marine proclaimed. Both men puffed out their chests.
A challenge, Bull thought. I like it.
The surf jock passed on some quick info before walking away, board under his right arm. Bull studied Oscar's retreat, his tight, military-toughened square butt in his loose blue board shorts, the dark black fur running the length of his muscled legs beaded with water. He was sexy in ways Bull had never experienced.
'Yeah,' the Sergeant growled beneath his breath. 'I think this challenge is just what I need.. '
It wasn't hard to find the Mud Run, even on Oscar's sparse directions. Flyers covered much of the area around Pendleton, while banners, crowds, and traffic led the way to the starting point on the muddy shores of Lake George. Even more telling were the postings at intervals: Warning! These grounds patrolled by military working teams.
Clad in his camouflage pants, old Army boots, and one of the few tight-fitting black T-shirts he'd brought that bore the name of his unit, Bull approached the sign-in tent. Concession stands selling everything from hot dogs to ice cream and the drumming sound of live music from a band close to the starting line added to his rising excitement. Nothing, however, rivaled the pure raw energy of the hundreds - maybe thousands - of pumped, buff Armed Service types clustered at the starting line. Bull made his way through the tight-packed crowd toward the red banner, hoping to find the dark-haired surf jock to make this bet official.
Most of the mud runners were grouped into teams of military units, but among the sea of bodies, he recognized everything from police and firefighters to every branch of the armed forces represented among them. A trio of Marines had painted their faces a stark white with skull-like black circles around the eyes. Several guys from a local S.W.A.T. team stood dressed in full uniform, sans only their firearms. Representing the zanier side of the event, an Airforce team from Hawaii stood jogging in place clad in grass skirts over their combat greens.
Raw testosterone was clearly in abundance. This was a macho thing, something not lost on the few women dressed in sports bras and fatigues who seemed to soak up as much attention from the men as the race itself.
But as charged and impressed as he was by the undercurrent, he'd come here really just for one reason - to see Oscar De La Santos. Finding him proved impossible in the sea of buzzcuts and ripped bodies, so Bull took his position with the rest of the solitary stragglers who'd come to run the six miles through mud and heat.
Bull readied with the crowd in anticipation.
The starting whistle blew, and in a burst of speed and excitement, he kicked off. A sea of freshly charged military bodies blurred into a frenzy of motion around him.
They hadn't gone far before volunteers camped at the side of the road with fire hoses doused them with a downpour of cold water. The jets soaked Bull completely, but it felt good. He had the suspicion it was going to get far sloppier in the miles ahead, and his instincts, as usual, didn't fail him.
He crossed hills of sedge, working up a nasty sweat along with the others around him who took the initial leg of the run in stride. Up the next rise to a plateau, he caught sight of the first obstacle that had helped earn the race its notoriety - a strip of muddy water that would have to be navigated on all fours, face first.
On hands and knees, Bull crawled through the swampy muck. From there, it was onto an uphill vehicle path, where he felt the sweat and burn ignite. Like many of the Mud Run faithfuls, he stripped off his T-shirt, tied it to his belt, and jogged on to the next obstacle in his path: a series of walls and ropes. He scaled them effortlessly, dropping down to the puddles on the other side.
Fresh perspiration and the swampy stink of the woods surrounding Lake George filled his breaths. But true to his expectations, the messy grind had worked him beyond his thoughts of the events at Mattie's house two days before. With a fit of renewed speed, he charged the next slalom of mud, passing a legion of men half his age on the way through.
Despite the burn, he enjoyed every yard of the course. More walls and mud followed, drenching him to the skin. The third river to be crossed on hands and knees loomed up. Alone and focused, the sudden explosion of a voice to his immediate left snapped Bull's concentration.
He turned quickly to see a mud-soaked vision dressed in olive fatigues matching him step for step. It was Oscar.
Bull's face lit with an unintentional smile on the way down to his hands and knees. 'Dude-!' he exclaimed. Oscar followed him onto all fours and they trudged through the murky mud basin side-by-side. 'Where's the rest of your team?'
'About two clicks back, the pussies,' he chuckled. ''Sides, I needed to find you so I could open up that six pack of Whoop-ass I promised you back at Black's Beach.'
'Fat fuckin' chance,' Bull said through a cocky grin.
They reached the end of the mud flat and both put on a burst of speed to the wall of obstacles that waited. For the last leg of the race, they sprinted up mud-soaked hills, over vehicle trails, under guard wires, and through cement stand pipes to the enormous puddle that passed for the finish line, where cold drinks and the end of the adventure awaited.
Bull and Oscar crossed it together, neck and neck. The challenge climaxed in a draw.
One of the fire teams was kind enough to hose the two mud runners down, clearing most of the grit from their bodies, though Bull could still taste it between his teeth despite four cups of sports drink. For the last hour, they'd sat on a grassy knoll, talking under the blaring sun. His clothes, once heavily caked with mud and sweat, had dried fully save for the nagging moist itch directly between his legs. In that time, Bull had gotten to know the twenty-two-year-old Marine's story: almost three years in the Corp, he rented a small house off base on the beach with his brother, Ramon. The only steady love in his life was surfing.
Bull had also conceded the details of his own situation. Whatever cocky display of machismo they'd earlier pulled on each other was gone. Now they talked as two guys, no horse shit. Bull never wanted it to end. At one point, Oscar stood. 'I gotta take a piss, dude.' After all the water - and mud - he'd downed, Bull felt his guts cramp, too. 'I hear ya.' He glanced over to a stand of trees far removed from view of the last few survivors of Mud Run 2000. A couple of steps toward the trees, he heard Oscar's bootfalls. He hadn't expected the young Marine to join him so closely while they relieved themselves, but he didn't fight it, outwardly at least.
Inside, the knot his guts were being steadily pulled into cinched tighter. He felt his cock unintentionally jump in the wet, unpleasant itch of his still-damp crotch. Willing it to stay soft only made things worse; the idea of seeing Oscar's manhood, streaming beside his own, proved too tempting a thought to ignore. The young surf jock's closeness didn't help, either. Oscar stood one boot's length away. The metallic clink of his belt buckle and zipper being undone thundered in Bull's ears. Closing his eyes, he followed suit and reached into the musky heat of his open fly. His cock had gotten so stiff, it was painful. Bull pulled it out and aimed it into the bushes, trying to focus on the one simple act and not on the other, which was to look down between Oscar's legs for a glance at the other man's equipment. He failed at both tasks.
Bull peered to his left and tipped his gaze in the direction of Oscar's cock. The day, already humid, grew suddenly more sweltering. For in that bottled gaze, Bull realized he was not alone in his excitement. As he'd expected, Oscar's dick was uncut. A dark pink head poked out and up toward him from between thick folds of darker, tan-colored foreskin. Two fat, full nuts covered in moist black hair dangled loosely beneath this prize, a shaft, Bull guessed, that stood about seven inches and was rock hard.
A quick tip of his eyes up confirmed Oscar, too, was staring. Bull gave his cock a firm squeeze for effect and freed his balls to hang openly in the blazing sunlight. He hadn't dared hope it possible that Oscar wold be as interested in him. Now, there was no denying it. Bull felt the last of the moisture in his mouth drain, replaced by hot coals. 'Fuck, Sarge,' the young surf jock sighed under his breath. 'You're huge!' Bull shuffled closer until they were boot-to-boot. 'Kinda hard to piss through a boner, eh?' he said, choking out the words while trying to remain calm. 'Yeah,' Oscar laughed out the lone word. He shuffled his left him just enough to press it into Bull's right. The electricity proved overwhelming. Saying nothing, Bull went back down to his knees. The moist, musty-smelling foreskin of Oscar's uncut cock brushed past his nose. 'Aw, fuck, Sarge-!' the other man grunted through clenched teeth. 'Do it!'
Bull smiled at the prize before him, then sucked Oscar's cock into his mouth. The slightly bitter shock of natural dick and the musk infusing it hit his taste buds, powerful and addictive. Opening wider, he coaxed Oscar's dickhead all the way out. He'd sucked uncut prick before and knew how to tease it with his tongue inside the sock of extra skin, which drove the young surf jock wild. Bull lapped and chewed, all the while fumbling Oscar's fat nuts between his fingers. Before long, the salty tang of precome ignited on his mouth.
'Suck it, dude-!' Oscar begged.
Bull obliged, in and out, harder and faster. With one hand pumping the soldier's shaft and the other ogling his nuts, he pushed Oscar quickly right to the edge.
'Fuck - here it comes!'
Bull opened wide and spit out Oscar's cock until just the head was captured between his lips. A second later, the young surf jock squirted four steady spurts of pure Marine come down his throat. When Oscar was soft enough to piss, Bull got a taste of that, too.
The heaviness of jizz and Marine piss soured in Bull's stomach. He ached all over - not just his body, which had gotten a great workout at the Mud Run, not just his dick, which had been given a supreme blowjob in the bushes surrounding Lake George. This went deeper, the unexpected pain of saying goodbye to Oscar and San Diego, the destination that had consumed so much of his year.
'Later, Sarge,' the young Marine sighed. Bull met Oscar's knuckles with a tap from his own, then reached for his helmet. It hadn't yet sunk fully in, that now, after three days of silence and no contact from his son, the only path left to him led to the long road trip back home, North Carolina. Bull's sadness worsened.
He turned and watched Oscar walk off to the beat-up Jeep that would take him home to his life - the Marine Corps, the beach house he shared with his brother, and surfing, his one true love.
The image seemed to knock time from focus, much the way Bull had seen his arrival to San Diego distort three days earlier. In slow motion, Oscar walked away, on into the long shadows of the July afternoon, on away from him like so many others. The young Marine's taste of maleness grew sour on his lips.
No, Stop-! a voice in Bull's head cried out, but he couldn't put the plea to actual words. Wait a minute longer, please!
Still, no shout emerged. Bull watched Oscar walk on.
A few steps into his retreat, as if hearing Bull's thoughts, Oscar stopped suddenly in his tracks and executed a textbook-perfect about-face. The young Marine's mirrored the silent, unspoken desire written in Bull's eyes. Time came rushing sharply back into clarity.
'You got to leave so fast?' Oscar asked. 'I mean, it would be cool if you could stay, you know, get to see San Diego. I'd really like that, Sarge.'
Bull smiled and nodded, more relieved than even he could admit. 'Maybe, for a while, yeah,' he said. 'I'd like that, too, dude.'
Starting the Harley's engine, he followed Oscar's jeep back to the house by the beach.
TO BE CONTINUED