Norman parked his gray SUV in front of the rundown storefront and then lifted his sunglasses to get a better look at the surroundings. A feeling of unease rose in his gut. It occurred to him that this whole thing could have been a setup, but it was impossible to tell. The building’s windows were all papered over, and aside from an old camper that looked like it had been abandoned for months, the parking lot was empty. 

“Are you sure this is right, Dave?” he asked, turning to the passenger riding with him. “This place looks deserted. Check the group text again.” 

Stylized image of an abandoned strip mall.

Dave removed the black tactical glove from his right hand and tapped at his phone screen a few times. “Yup,” he said a moment later and then scratched his graying goatee. “This is it. Says right here, ‘Pride parade protest: Arrive at 7:30 a.m. to receive materials and training.’” 

Norman looked at the dashboard clock. They were right on time. “Just seems like there’d be more guys here. Everybody was talking about it.” 

“You know how it is, man,” Dave said. “Everybody talks their faces off in the group chat, but no one has the balls to show up and actually do anything.” 

Norman nodded in agreement. Over the last few years, he’d watched the city’s Pride celebration grow from a disorganized cluster of tables and a few honking cars into a weekend-long, city-wide event. This year, his company even made swag and gave everyone a half-day holiday to participate. The group chat he and Dave recently joined felt like the only place they could speak with like-minded guys who had their heads screwed on straight, and it was there that a guy called Frank had proposed to organize a protest. 

“Maybe everyone else got it out of their system,” Norman said. “Bitching about it in a group chat is one thing, but protesting is another. Let’s just forget about it and go get breakfast or something.” 

Norman reached for the gearshift, but Dave pushed his hand away. 

“No, man, this is exactly what we need to be doing today.” He craned his neck to look at the roof of the building. “Did you check for cameras?” 

“I didn’t see any on street view,” Norman said and pulled his black gaiter up over the lower half of his face. “But we can’t be too careful. Let’s go.” 

Dave pulled his mask on, and the two men walked across the lot. When they reached the store front, they heard the deadbolt turn, and the door creaked open before Norman could raise his hand to knock. A man about Norman and Dave’s age greeted them with a slight smile. 

“Help you gentlemen?” he said. 

Norman’s eyes widened when he saw how thickly built the man was and how casually he behaved, as if he was completely oblivious of his own massive body. Norman felt inadequate standing next to the wall of muscle and masculinity, and he unconsciously corrected his posture and sucked his gut in. 

“We’re here for the, uh, the training,” he said, his mask muffling his voice. 

Their host’s face lit up, and he waved them in. “Welcome, guys! I’m Frank,” he said as he shook their hands. “I didn’t think anybody would show up. You know how it is—most of the guys in that chat are cowards and flakes.” 

“Yeah, exactly,” Dave said, casting a glance at Norman. “I was afraid we were the only two guys in town who’ve had enough of this Pride stuff. Glad to see you feel the same way, brother.” 

Frank made a grunt that sounded vaguely like approval and then led them to a row of folding chairs arranged in front of an old TV. “Have a seat, guys,” he said. “We’ll wait a couple minutes to see if anyone else shows up, and then I’ll get started. I’m going to grab the stuff from my car.” 

Frank disappeared through a doorway at the back of the vacant shop, leaving Norman and Dave alone. After a minute of silence, Norman looked at his friend. “Grab the stuff from his car? There weren’t any other cars in the lot.” 

“Could be parked around back,” Dave said. “Do you hear that buzzing sound?” 

Norman shook his head, and the two men sat in silence again. After a few minutes passed, Norman started looking around the large, empty space. “I wish we could just get started already. I kind of want to get out of here.” 

“I’m glad you said it, man,” Dave said. “I’m starting to have second thoughts about this. Maybe we should just go.” 

They both stood and were heading for the door when Frank returned, carrying a large cardboard box. “Sorry, guys,” he said and then lowered the box to the floor with a grunt. “Damn thing came open and spilled all my stuff out in the alley.” 

Norman turned around at the sound of Frank’s voice. Woof, he thought as his eyes landed on the man’s beefy chest and belly. Wait a minute. What? 

“No worries,” Dave said, sounding equally confused. “But if you don’t mind, I think we might just head home. Somehow, protesting the Pride parade just doesn’t seem as…” 

“Important,” Norman interjected. “Somehow it feels like there are better things we could be doing with our time today.” 

Frank crossed his arms across his chest and smirked, making Norman and Dave feel a rush of emotions they didn’t quite understand. “I get it,” he said. “But can I at least give you the full presentation? I think you’ll enjoy it.” 

Two hours later, Norman and Dave stood side by side, smiling ear-to-ear. Gone were the gaiters and the camouflage jackets, replaced with black leather harnesses and cuffs, Muir caps, and tight white T-shirts that read PROUD TO BE A GAY DAD in block letters. Frank looked at them approvingly and then handed each man a matching sign. 

“You’re going to be Papa Frank’s good bear boys. Isn’t that right?” 

“Yes, Sir, Papa Frank,” the men said in unison and then shivered with pleasure. 

“You’re going to have a good time at the Pride parade, aren’t you, boys?” 

“Yes, Sir, Papa Frank.” 

“And you’re not going to give anybody any trouble.” 

“No, Sir, Papa Frank.” 

Frank clapped each man on the shoulder and pushed them toward the door. “Good boys,” he said. “Now go have fun.” 

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