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Part 1

Okay, I wanna get in and tell this quick before I have to go to the gym, but I think the story’s important enough that it should be told—and who knows if I’ll tell it later. I should give you the exposition quick, then. My name is Sam Bennett and I’m embarrassed to say that I make my living writing juvenile-fiction—those chapter-books for kids ten-to-thirteen—mine happen to be of the crime-solving variety, and maybe that makes me feel like a real detective. I don’t know. I feel like I’ve uncovered some kind of weird plot, though.

I live near a small city, close enough to keep social contacts, and far enough away to forget that I leave near a small city. I’m able to work at home, and I have plenty of free time. Someday, I hope to write something of substance—for adults!—but I doubt that’s going to happen anytime soon—especially if things go as I fear.

I got into the gym, and subsequently, into bodybuilding, about fifteen years ago. I’m five-ten, one ninety-five, excellent shape for someone in his late-thirties, but not one of those spandex boys who flaunt it for the world to see. I’m sorry to say I’ve always been a little more of a prude than that. At the gym, I rarely talk—friendly when I have to be, but I’m there to work out—though I do take the opportunity to observe. That’s actually what’s motivating me to write this down now. Someone should—and I doubt anyone else will. Ah, the curse of the writer. Driven observers.

Purposefully, I sought out a gym that wasn’t a chain, or a franchise, or affiliated with anybody else. I wanted the independent gym, the small gym, the “mom&pop” gym, as it were. I didn’t want the gym-bunnies and the pretty-boys and the gossips and the soccer-moms—I wanted a small, competitive gym on the outskirts of social-posturing, where they respected the weights and the workouts.

Took me a while, but I finally found it at this place named the “Iron Dream,” run by this former college-football strength-trainer. A barrel-chested and thickly-legged man, who answers exclusively to “Coach.” He’s a concerned, supportive guy, who wants the best of his “boys”—as he calls us—but knows enough to mind privacy. An older man who never found time for a wife—as they politely said in the old days—he lives at the gym. Actually lives there, in a room above the free-weight area. The joke at the gym is to call the free-weight area “Coach’s basement,” and you have to be careful. If you drop a weight, you might “wake Coach.” There’s even a staircase leading up to his room on the wall next to the dumbells.

There are probably fifty members of the Iron Dream, ranging in age from the teenagers who are training off-season for high-school ball, to the several old-men—mostly friends of Coach’s—who haunt the locker room in the morning. Various sundry types: the three cops, the day-shift from the firehouse across the street, the tough-guys, the mall-walkers, and me, the writer of adolescent-fiction. Most of the guys know each other and are friendly, though there are several clicks—as much as guys have clicks—the sports click, the car click, that kind. I belong nowhere, always on the edge of social acceptance.

I don’t lift at a regular time. On one day, I have the morning free—my preferred workout time, because there’s rarely anybody there—but another day, I’m evening, etc. It’s a real pain in the ass, frankly, and it’s probably why I don’t have a regular partner.

On this particular morning—less than two weeks ago—I was signing-in just as Coach was coming off the floor, sweaty with exertion in his baggy sweatpants and t-shirt. “Morning, Coach,” I said with a nod.

Coach radiated energy, smiling broadly. “Good morning, Sammy,” he said, transferring the bottle he was holding from one hand to the other so we could shake. “How are you feeling today?”

Taken back by his enthusiasm, and his grip, I said, “Not as good as you, apparently.”

He nodded. “I’m feelin’ great today, Sammy, my man! Haven’t had a workout like this in some time.” He mock-posed in front of me, hitting a most-muscular and front double-bis. His body spoke of a day, thirty years in the past, when he was in better shape, not saggy man-tits and loose triceps.

I laughed slightly. “Well, good for you,” I said. “I haven’t had a workout to make me brag like that in quite a while.”

“Here,” he said, reaching under the desk, “I’m blaming it on this.” He handed me a gray, plastic sports-drink bottle with a logo that read “Cycle One” in red and gold letters. Ingredients, indications, etc.

“What’s this?” I asked, hefting the bottle in my hand.

Coach shrugged slightly, pursing his lips. “Sales Rep dropped me off a dozen or so this morning. Energy drink. Miracle properties. The usual. But you can’t beat free samples, eh? So I tried one with my workout. Must have a ton of MaHuang in it, cause I’m flying.”

I laughed, politely—I wanted to get to my workout, after all—while I watched him try to drain extra drops from his empty bottle. “And the verdict?” I prompted.

“Big thumbs up,” he said, tossing the bottle into the trashcan, then silently cheering his two points. “I feel friggin’ great! Try it yourself.”

“Will do, Coach,” I said and headed into the locker room.

Part 2

As I changed, two of the firemen from across the street came in from their workout. I could hear their conversation before I saw them—actually, I could hear just one of them in conversation, babbling. When they passed me, they nodded—I still didn’t know their names—but the guy who was talking didn’t break a beat in his monologue.

“I’m tellin’ ya, man. I feel fuckin’ awesome! It’s not like caffeine, not edgy and shit. It’s focused energy, man. I’m tellin’ ya.”

The other guy said, “Get your pants.”

Although they’d lifted in gym shorts, they still wore their dark blue station shirts on top, filling them out nicely. I confess a certain amount of attraction to firemen—even before the Tragedy—for their bulky muscle, and their strong forearms. I guess hero-types attract us all—pity them for having to live up to that. These were two of the younger firemen, late-twenties, probably. The Babbler was clean-cut, #1 fade, naturally smooth, not skinny, but not much bigger than a runner, while the other guy, though still sporting short hair, at least had a mustache, and a strong five o’clock shadow. Neither were in as good shape as me, but you could tell they worked out. Quiet Guy had a battle with his stomach.

They put on their blue workpants—neither changed his underwear—Quiet Guy in boxers—Babbler in tightie-whities—and were lacing their boots when Babbler picked up the bottle that Coach had given me, that I’d put down while I was changing. “This stuff,” Babbler said to me, “is the best fuckin’ shit you’ll ever try.” Babbler turned to Quiet Guy, who was almost finished with his boots. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t try it.”

Quiet Guy shrugged, standing. “I told ya, bud. I told ya and I told ya. I don’t like those juices and shit. I like water.” He leaned in, trying to make a joke of it. Babbler was obviously unhappy with that answer. “C’mon. I’m a fireman.”

“Tell you the truth,” I said, interrupting and taking the bottle back, “I’m a water-drinker, too.”

Babbler lifted his arms in a gesture of surrender. “Whatever,” he said. “You guys are crazy. I just had the best workout of my life. Look,” he said, indicating his shirt, “I actually sweat.”

Quiet Guy grabbed the gym bags and nodded for them to leave. Babbler stood, looking at me. “You’re crazy,” he said, conspiratorially. “See ya later.”

“See ya. Take it easy.”

When he caught up to Quiet Guy, and started in again—“You guys are crazy…”—Quiet Guy interrupted him, putting an arm around his shoulder. “Okay,” he said. “Listen, if you can make it all the way across the street to the firehouse without once mentioning this juice stuff, I’ll try it tomorrow. Okay? Think you can do that?”

As they left the locker room, I heard Babbler say, “Of course I can! Awesome, man! That’s fuckin’ awesome!” and they were gone.

Needless to say, with all that to recommend it, I dropped the bottle in my gym bag, grabbed my water, and headed out onto the floor. The cardio area was almost empty—ten-thirty in the morning—but for three people, one of them a withered, painfully skinny mustachioed-senior on the treadmill—sporting a familiar bottle. Man, Coach didn’t miss a beat. The old man wiped his cue-ball head with a towel and took a quick swig of juice, loose skin hanging off his tricep.

I passed into the free-weight area where I became one of a few guys. The two teenage boys—damn it, I keep saying that. In truth, they’re both nineteen. I just think of them as boys because I’m thirty-eight. But I remember being nineteen, and if someone had called me a boy when I was nineteen, I would’ve been pissed off. Anyway, the two young men were making noise over on the flat bench. The cry of “C’mon, pussy!” was common from them.

Both were long and lean, although Jonathan, the blonde, had a better build. Neither had legs to speak of—always working out in pants to hide their shame—because each workout always seemed to involve arms. “T-shirt muscles” I think was the joke. They both wore loose sleeveless tees now, heavy with necklaces, and baggy jeans hanging way too low on their hips.

There were two squat racks on the opposite wall of the boys, where I headed. The one on the left was already in use by this guy Lou, the big, dangerous guy who rarely spoke. He owned every piece of clothing that had the Baltimore Ravens logo on it, forever in his Super Bowl Championship shirt—will those damn Ravens’ fans ever let that go? Season tickets, the works. He was the guy who always knew every stat on every player on every game ever played. Pity his wife.

We didn’t speak to each other at the beginning at all. One day, I happened to wear my NY Jets sweatshirt to a workout—Jets and Baltimore happened to be playing that week—and Lou and I struck up a conversation. Pure football—which was all I ever got out of him. We’ve talked since then, both of us brought together by the fact that we never talked to anybody else. And through observation, I’ve discovered that I’m the only person Lou had ever talked to. I found a strange pride in that. He must’ve intimidated everybody else.

He’s six-five, probably two-forty, two-fifty. He was a year older than me, and in fairly good shape—probably one of the few people in the gym who could give me some competition—but his look was fierce, something mine had never been. He played college ball—that I knew—and I think there may have been something happening with the pros, but his knee blew out—though he NEVER talked about that. Flat-top, painstakingly-trimmed mustache, intense glare, square jaw, I would always want him on my side in a fight. Football player. Strong build, but not a great body. He covered it almost constantly with baggy sweats, rarely taking his sweat top off to expose his well-sized, loose pecs.

I started stretching while he finished his set—he was squatting three-fifteen, deep squats, too—and slammed the weight back into the rack. He nodded to me. “How ’bout those Jets?” he asked, adding a plate onto either side of the bar. His wedding ring caught the light.

“It’s a big week for us,” I said, stretching my hamstrings. “If we beat New England this weekend, we clinch the division.”

His response was interrupted by a scream from one of the teenage boys—the dark-haired one—as he dropped his dumbbells on the floor. “Shit! Shit! Shit!” he yelled, while his buddy laughed.

“What the fuck’s up with those two?” Lou mumbled.

I shrugged, and glanced over at the boys just in time to see Jonathan, the blonde one, take a swig from his gray “Cycle One” bottle and sit down on the bench. “Oh,” I said to Lou, “I see.”

“What?” he asked, leaning against the rack.

I reached into my gym bag and pulled out the bottle Coach had given me. “This,” I said, tossing the bottle to Lou, who caught it with athletic ease. “Coach is giving them out up front. I’m surprised he didn’t put one in your hand.”

“I didn’t see Coach on the way in,” he said, reading the bottle. “He was on the floor, I think, working out. This shit’s got some MaHuang in it,” he read, “some guarana seed. About six cups of coffee in this little bottle.”

He offered it back, but I waved him off. “You wanna go flying, you keep it,” I said, showing him my water bottle. “I got my own.”

“You don’t mind?”

“You don’t mind drinking that shit?” I asked, setting the bar on the rack I was going to use.

“Buddy, I’m squatting. I can use all the help I can get.” He popped the lid and took a swig. “Not bad,” he said, smacking his tongue. “At least they used honey instead of sugar.” He chugged the rest of the bottle down quickly—I bet he was a killer at the old college frat parties—and burped when he tossed it away. “Okay, magic potion,” he said, dryly, “do your worst.”

We laughed.

Part 3

I need to skip ahead a little bit here—I mean, I don’t wanna be all night doing this. And I wanna get the whole thing told before I have to go to the gym. So, I have to break one of the primary rules of writing—“Show, don’t tell.”—and get you caught up to where I need the story to be given the time I have left to tell it.

There’s only one more significant moment from that first day. About an hour later, after laughing with Scary Lou about magic potions, I was doing leg extensions in the machine area and giving thought to blowing-off calves when I heard noise from the free-weight pit. I looked over to see Lou—still squatting!—with six-hundred pounds on the bar, screaming out the reps! The two teens were cheering him on as he did it.

Three reps completed, red with exertion, he racked the weight. To the chorus of the boy’s “Yeah, man! Excellent, dude!” Lou smacked the bar with his open palms and barked, “Yeah!” He turned around, and he and the boys were high-fiving, smiling broadly—the boys jumped around him like puppies. Lou shouted, “I feel fuckin’ awesome!”

Unlike Lou, and the boys, and the firemen, and the old guy on the treadmill, and Coach himself, I would sleep well that night, not crashing from caffeine withdrawal. That’s what they got, I thought, for ducking the FDA.

The next week, I was out of town. This is the difficulty of being a writer—signings. On the one hand, it’s a great way to make some bank, meet your fans and all that, on the other, it means terrible cramps in my forearm from writing. I’m a typer, not a long-hander, so the day-long sessions are grueling. And there’s another trade-off—having the physique I have makes people less-than sympathetic about my arm being tired, especially kids. To thirteen year-old boys, I’m Superman.

However, I always get a chance to try out different gyms when I’m out of town, and that’s sometimes worth it, seeing how the other half lives. However good they can be though, I mostly end up appreciating the Iron Dream.

This particular trip especially. Southern west coast, where bodies like mine are a dime a dozen. Enough evidence of plastic-surgery, waxing, bleaching, plucking, preening to sicken me. The circumstances that would make me shave my chest would probably never arise. Who’s vain enough for that?

Lines at the benches, crowds on the cardio, all too much for me. More spandex and skin than I care to see in public. In private too, for that matter. So, a week later, even though I’d moved lot of product, I was happy to get home and get back to my own familiar gym.

I went in the mid-afternoon, around four o’clock—usually an hour or so before the big wave, the post-work wave—and the place was hopping, even finding a parking spot proved a challenge. Where did people come from during the holiday season that they’re everywhere, and then disappear so completely in January? It mystified me.

The big windows in the front of the gym were frosted-over from the cold outside, and the heat of the gym inside, but I could hear the music from out here, the bass thumping through the sidewalk. Coach must be deafer than I thought.

The desk was empty as I signed in, but Coach appeared as I dropped the pen. Whoa! Look at Coach—what he was wearing! The smallest of spandex hot-shorts, exposing his thickly-muscled legs, and displaying his basket without shame. It didn’t look like he was wearing underwear, his big dick hanging freely, but I didn’t stay focused there for long, looking away in mild disgust. He wore a baggy, long-sleeve t-shirt, and had sweat enough to show the outline of the muscle-shirt beneath it.

He looked different, somehow—other than his unusual choice of shorts. He actually looked good, ruddy with health and youthful energy. There was a twinkle in his eye. “Sammy!” he shouted. “Where the hell have you been?”

I shrugged. “Ah, I had a signing. Out in California. Listen to this place—it’s hopping tonight.”

The Coach was right up close, confidential—he was in terrific shape, even for a man half his age—and said, raising his eyebrows, “Lots of great bodies in California, eh? Lots of big muscle.” He flexed his arms before himself in a mock crab-shot, making his chest bounce, then smiled, like a predator. “Bet that was hot.” He unconsciously touched his balls, adjusting himself.

I backed away from him, toward the locker room, suddenly uncomfortable. “Well, yeah, I suppose. But, it’s always good to be home. Listen, Coach,” I stammered. “I’ll catch up with you on the floor.” What the hell had just happened? Had Coach just make a pass at me?

Just as my back was to him, he called out, “Hey, Sam.” And when I turned to face him, “Did you get a bottle of juice today?”

“Juice? You’ve still got that stuff?”

Coach laughed. “Are you kidding? I had to hire a rep to come in to handle the demand. Fortunately, the ’Cycle One’ folks had someone in the area.” He started to look around. “You wanna meet him? He should be out here. Oh, there he is.”

The guy came toward us from the locker room, and I’ll tell you what, he was one built mother-fucker, and remember, I had just been in California. Not huge—not like the competition bodybuilders, not like that—but big. Six-feet, two-thirty-five, two-forty, hard to tell in clothes. He wore charcoal gray nylon workout pants that snapped down the side, barely holding his bulky thighs, and his generous dick. What was he wearing to make it stand out like that?

He wore a square-cut muscle shirt on top, matching the gray of the sports bottle, with the “Cycle One” logo on the front, warped a little from the expanse of his chest, exposing his impossibly-defined arms, and his coconut delts. A handsome man, a handsome tan, and straight, white teeth in his smile. Sandy brown hair, thinning on top, cut short, and a scruffy goatee on his square chin. He must have had a competition within the last couple of days to be in the kind of shape he was in. A step above me, for sure. A big step. I would’ve envied him, but for the strange vibe I got off him. Something suspicious. Maybe just that he was a salesman.

“Who’s this, Coach?” he asked, approaching me, hand extended. I shook it while Coach told him my name. “Nice to meet you, Sam,” he said, warmly. “I’m Johnny J, and I rep the Cycle One line. You tried us, yet?”

“I admit I’m mostly a water-drinker.”

“A lot of guys say that,” he said, putting his hand around my left triceps and leading me back to the desk, smiling all the while. “But you know, water doesn’t replace electrolytes, so energy and nutrition are actually TAKEN from the muscle during the workout for the body to feed itself. You drink water, my friend, and you are robbing yourself of your true potential.”

“Look, buddy, I appreciate the sales jargon, but…”

“But you wanna work out,” he finished for me. “I get it. That’s cool. That’s why you come to the gym, right? I respect that. Listen man, I won’t give you the routine anymore, but look, just try the product. If you like it, I’ll give you the speech. If you don’t, I won’t bother you again.”

I surrendered. “All right, all right,” I said. “Everybody raves about this stuff, anyway. I’ll try it.”

Johnny J smiled. Victory. Coach chimed in. “Good boy, Sammy,” he said. “That’s the smart decision!”

Johnny J turned to Coach, still smiling. “Go back to your workout, Coach,” Johnny J said. “I’ll take care of Sam.”

Coach turned immediately toward the gym area. “Okay, okay,” he said, pulling his sweatshirt over his head as he went. He wore a shoe-string muscle shirt beneath it, and his shoulders and traps were pumped beyond belief, his rear-delts swollen, his traps rising high. And that was when I really noticed the biggest change. Coach had always been barrel-chested, thick like a fire-hydrant. But now, he had a definite “V” that spread his lats from his tight waist. He actually looked thin-hipped, and his ass stood out in his hot shorts, the curved bottom of his muscular glutes showing while the bottom of the shorts rose.

“Here you go,” Johnny J said, handing me a bottle from the large refrigerator behind the desk, distracting me from Coach. The bottle was cool and dripping with condensation. Tempting like a flower. “Enjoy your workout. Let me know what you think of the juice.”

“Thanks,” I said, nodding, and accepting the bottle. “I will.” With that, I darted into the locker room.

A rep? I thought, finding a locker. Coach had to hire a rep because the demand for this stuff was so great? How nuts was that?

The locker room distracted me, active and vocal. Talking and laughter echoed about, especially from the showers. Men paraded in towels and shaved at the sink. I’d never seen a lot of these guys shirtless—much less using the gym’s facilities—most just scooted out the door after their workouts were over—but I confess, they displayed better bodies than I thought they would have for all the effort I’d ever seen. Yet here they were, hardly a gut among them. Some in quite good shape, indeed. Some could give me competition.

I changed as quickly as I could—into my baggy shorts and sleeveless tee—and as I was tying my shoes, the two firemen from across the street came in. The Quiet Guy still wore his firehouse t-shirt—Babbler was carrying his—but beneath they both wore identical navy blue singlets, cut to expose every bit of their muscular legs as possible, bare but for their workboots. They were buddy/ buddy, punching each other and mock-wrestling, laughing.

Quiet Guy pulled his t-shirt off and the two of them flexed in the mirrors across from the lockers. Had they been in that good-of shape when I left last week? Was Babbler packing that much muscle? Had he always looked like one of those fitness models? One of those underwear boys? Had Quiet Guy always been that vascular? Did he used to have abs like that? Had those guys always been so well-hung?

Quiet Guy spotted me first, pointing and saying, “Hey, guy!” as we shook hands. “Long time no see.”

“Just a week,” I said, smiling back at him, politely. “Work.”

“Glad to have you back, buddy,” said Babbler, patting me on the back and going to his locker, pulling the straps of his singlet down. He noticed the bottle of “Cycle One” on the bench. “You tried that stuff, yet?”

“Um, today,” I said, trying to seem casual as I finished my shoes. I shrugged, as if in excuse. “I would’ve last week, but I wouldn’t have been able to be consistent. I’m home now, so I can be regular.”

Babbler nodded, accepting. Quiet Guy piped up. “You’ll love that shit, man,” he said, all energy. “It’s fuckin’ awesome! I used to be a water-drinker, man, like you. But then I tried it, and look at me now.” He pulled down the straps of his singlet, exposing his upper-body completely, lightly haired and heavily muscled. His abs were incredible, with a trail of hair leading down into his shorts. He flexed for me.

Raising his eyebrows and turning away, they casually slipped off their singlets, revealing the identical thongs they wore beneath, their packages barely held by the scant, silky pink material. Again, they briefly flexed in the mirror, exposed muscular asses to me, then dressed, pulling their dark-blue workpants up over their thongs, tucking their firehouse t-shirts—still sweaty from their workout—into their pants, buckling their belts. Both now tucked their pants into their boots, which helped show the true size of their legs.

“Take it easy, man,” Quiet Guy said to me as they left. “Drink your juice and enjoy your workout.”

“No doubt,” I said.

“That reminds me,” said Babbler, “Johnny J has that case of it for me to take to the firehouse.”

Quiet Guy smiled. “Awesome.”

More to me, Babbler said, “Imagine drinking a bottle of that stuff and then goin’ out on a call. Fuck man,” he said, throwing his head back. He and Quiet Guy shouted together, “HERO TIME!”

They high-fived with both hands and punched each other, laughing, energetic in their exit. I watched them go, and contemplated the bottle in my hand.

Part 4

I would’ve dumped it down the sink, but everybody could see me. Instead, I ended up pouring it down the toilet, watching it drain—a thick, golden yellow—out of the bottle. I flushed as I poured, to disguise the sound. Finally, I rinsed the empty bottle in the sink, filling it with water and emptying it until all trace of color was gone, attracting little attention. The guys were far more interested in preening and posing to pay attention to me. I filled my Cycle One bottle with water and headed out to the floor.

As I passed the desk, I made eye contact with Johnny J, raising my eyebrows and the water-filled “Cycle One” bottle at the same time. Johnny J smiled back, winking, and adjusted himself beneath his gym pants.

I wasn’t kidding when I said the place was hopping. Truth was, it was packed. Like the entire clientele of the gym was here all at once. I saw guys I hadn’t seen in months—years in a couple cases—everybody working out, not really chatting, and drinking that damn juice.

I shook more hands, got more pats on the back, more comments about the bottle. “You just starting the juice? You’ll love it!”—“That’s some great shit, man! Got me back into the gym.”—“Look at these fuckin’ abs! Wouldn’t have got them without the juice!”

Where were the guts and the weak arms and the droopy asses? Truth was, all around me, guys were working hard. Everybody. Intense workouts everywhere, driving. Seemed they saved the socializing for the locker room. Out here, they worked hard. And they looked great. All of these guys—even the guys I hadn’t seen in years—they were all in excellent shape—top of their form, pushing their limits. It didn’t seem like they were just drinking some potion or something, then magically changing. These guys were primed and charged and heavy into their regime. Could this “Cycle One” really have that effect? Could it really help the lifting process that much? Could these guys have transformed so radically in the week that I was gone? Was that possible?

“You drinking that?” said Johnny J, appearing among the crowd next to the bench I was on, indicating the bottle nestled on my gym bag.

I decided to play along. “Yeah,” I said, picking it up and taking a swig—sweet, sweet water. “It’s awesome!”

“Told you you’d like it,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder and disappearing back into the crowd. “Don’t forget to talk to me later.”

I started to notice the way the guys were dressed as the gym got warmer. Lots of spandex, lots of skin. Lots of touching and punching and wrestling—adolescent sexual energy re-found by these middle-aged men. A hard-core weight-room populated by sexual predators, but for the noticeable lack of women.

Before I could continue the thought, someone in the pit dropped a plate—the iron clang! echoing through the free-weight area. Then the wave of laughter. “Gonna wake up Coach,” someone shouted, and the laughter again. “Don’t think Coach is having trouble staying awake right now,” shouted someone else. More laughter. “Coach just might have trouble staying UP!” came the last shout, and the place erupted.

“All right, all right, you guys! Back to work, everyone!” called Johnny J with a sweeping arm movement, smiling broadly. “And be more careful with those weights, moron! Grow, but don’t grow crazy! Keep within your abilities. Let your eyes match your size!” The guys, still with an undercurrent of laughter, went back to their sets.

A couple of minutes later, Coach appeared at the top of the stairs that led to his apartment above the gym, disheveled but grinning broadly. He wore only the spandex hot-shorts he’d had on when I came in, and his body looked spectacular, pumped and sculpted.

Behind him trotted another older man, himself in unbelievable shape, wearing white lace-front football shorts, which displayed his big basket, and his heavy cock. I recognized him as the man I’d seen on the treadmill last week, his mustache still a snowy-white, his head still a cue-ball, but his body? His body was now masculine-fantasy made flesh, heavy with the muscle of maturity, covered by the skin of youth.

When they came in view of the whole pit, the guys started cat-calling and laughing. Coach waved them away with a dramatic sigh, but the guy behind him stood with his legs spread and gave the room the finger. Laughter. Coach turned around and grabbed the guy’s balls. A meeting of their eyes, smiles, and then they slapped hands, finally descending the rest of the stairs, the guy draped on Coach’s shoulder.

“Was he good, Coach?” someone called.

Coach smiled, looking at his mustachioed buddy. “The best!” he said.

And then they got back to work.

Part 5

So, it was getting everybody into fantastic shape, but it was doing something else to them, too. It was changing them. It had to be. None of those guys used to act that way. Not before the juice. Before the juice, there was inhibition. I was sure of it. But the thing of it was, I didn’t really know any of those guys well enough to confirm it—this was the payout of never talking to anybody. I guess I knew that Coach was gay—at least, I suspected it—life-long bachelor and all that—but what was the deal with those two firemen? Had they ever given a hint of behavior like that, worn stuff like those pink silk thongs? I don’t know. Hell, I didn’t even know their names for sure.

And what was my problem, anyway? What if Coach was giving out some magic formula, some magic muscle potion? Why didn’t I want to drink it? I bet there were guys who knew what it would do to them—how it would change them—what it would turn them into—but they drank it anyway. Anything to get the bodies they so badly wanted. And why did anyone want a better body in the first place? Simple answer—Vanity and sex, and that seems to be what Cycle One gave them. Was I so different? Did the gay thing really matter that much? Should it? I admit, I’ve thought about what it would be like to be with guys. Doesn’t everybody? Who cares about that?

But there was just something insidious, something not-quite right about the whole thing, about Johnny J, about his motive. Nobody offered the perfect body as a gift without some kind of catch. And simply turning guys gay wouldn’t benefit Johnny J at all. What was he all about? Maybe I’d been writing detective stories for too long, but I knew enough to search for a motive. There was definitely more going on here than I knew. And until I did know, I would never touch the juice.

That night when I’d been at the gym, I worked out hard to look like I was on the stuff, to sweat enough, and get pumped enough. I didn’t want them to think I was onto them—even if I wasn’t completely, even if I just had a hunch. I left that night without speaking to Johnny J—he happened to be on the phone when I finished my workout—and I felt like I’d gotten away with something.

I thought about it—magic potions and the like—I confess I did. I spent a lot of that night thinking about it. Who wouldn’t want some magic muscle-potion? I mean, even in the shape I was in, I wouldn’t mind being a little bigger, a little better. I was against steroids, which was why I held my ground under two-hundred pounds, but was this stuff a steroid? The LISTED ingredients didn’t mention anything but roots and herbs.

What I needed to do was lift a bottle, and get it chemically-analyzed. Let’s face it, that shouldn’t be too hard to do. At the Iron Dream, the stuff flowed like water. I could fool them tomorrow the same way I had tonight, and sneak out a sample. Perfect—a plan. Done and done.

In bed, I masturbated with a fantasy centering around magic muscle-potions. I felt like a silly, idealistic teenager.

Part 6

My normal workout time the next day was late-afternoon—I usually wrote in the morning, and during that block of writing time, I never answered the phone or communicated with anyone. It was sacred to me. And I wanted to make sure to stick to my normal schedule. No one could suspect me.

This day, I didn’t write a word. I swear to God, I paced around my flat all morning, waiting for the time to put my plan into action. How did spies handle all this tension? What was I doing thinking I had the stones to enter a real mystery—adult-themed or not? What hope did I have of exposing Johnny J’s plan, whatever it was?

Finally, painfully, three o’clock arrived and I could go to the gym, trying to breathe slowly at red lights along the way. I knew how I had to act to convince Johnny J that I was on the stuff, but I had an extra cup of coffee and a Xenodrene tablet about a half-hour ago to help, anyway.

I wasn’t surprised to find the parking lot of the gym just as full as yesterday—did these guys even go home? As I walked in, there was Johnny J himself at the desk, as if waiting for me, ripped and ready, huge in his tight gray workout pants and muscle shirt. Coach was nowhere to be seen. I smiled broadly and brainlessly, assuming my character.

“Well, well,” said Johnny J, “look who’s here.”

“Hey, Johnny J,” I said, shaking his hand. “I had an awesome workout yesterday, man! Thanks to you!”

He smiled, but looked at me suspiciously. “I thought I asked you to come speak to me before you left last night,” he said, leading me to the desk. “Remember, to let me know how well you liked my product? I’m not really used to being blown-off like that. Guys don’t usually disobey me.”

I bet they didn’t, looking the way he did, so I babbled, like I’d seen so many of the other guys do, enthusiastic but rapid, quickly but vapid. “I wanted to thank you last night, man,” I said. “I did. I had an awesome workout! I loved it!—but you were on the phone when I got done, so I just figured I’d talk to you today.”

He took a second with that, weighing it, then he finally smiled and reached below the desk. “Okay,” he said. “That’s cool. We’ll definitely talk today.” He pulled up a chilled bottle of Cycle One, dripping with condensation. “You want a bottle of this?” he asked, waving it in front of me.

I followed the trail with my eyes, like an obedient dog waiting for a biscuit. I tried to drool. “Yeah,” I said, eager to sound eager. “I’d love another bottle! I loved the way it made me feel!”

“You’re on the team, then?” he asked. “You’re on board?”

I smiled, looking him deeply in the eye as I lied. “Absolutely,” I said. “I’m with you all the way.”

Finally, the tension broke, and he handed the bottle to me. His smile was back. “Have a good workout,” he said, patting me on the shoulder.

Secretly victorious, I went to the locker room.

Part 7

Just like yesterday, but risen a notch. Buff, naked men paraded around the locker room, towels mostly abandoned, or used for their purpose and then quickly discarded. Lots of leaning and talking, playful flirting, punching and grabbing. Two huge, hairy musclemen were locked in embrace in the shower, kissing deeply as the water streamed over them. No one seemed to mind.

The spandex, the thongs, the gear—a fashion show of catalogue-wear—clinging to the bodies it had been designed for. Some hairy, some smooth, some old, some young, some big, some huge, there was no standard but exceptionalism—all of these guys were in phenomenal shape. The conversations among them, however, were nothing short of painful. Nothing more in content than workouts, and bodies, and sex. Excuses to flirt. It was a single’s bar with Cycle One as the only thing to drink. One cheesy muscleguy on the make after another. I became a little more confident with my decision not to become like them, no matter how well-built they were becoming.

I slipped into the toilet stall with the Cycle One bottle and the little Tupperware container I’d brought with me—the one I used to carry salad-dressing to work. After I’d filled the little Tupperware thing and sealed it, I began to pour the rest down the toilet, flushing as I did it, like yesterday.

That was when the door was kicked in, slamming open with a metallic wham. Surprised, I turned around quickly, almost dropping the bottle. There was Johnny J. “I thought so,” he said, his arms crossed before him, the veins standing out in them like cable runs.

Behind him stood Scary Lou, massive, thickly-muscled Lou, with his sculpted mustache and severe high-and-tight. Lou was dressed in white body armor, the heavy-weave lycra undergarments worn by football-players under their uniforms. A sleeveless t-shirt that seemed stretched to within an inch of its life, his thick, hairy arms and coconut shoulders bursting from the holes, the bottom riding up to show his sculpted abs and heavy happy trail. Leggings that ended right above his knee, showing the sweep of his quad, the depth of his hamstrings, and exposing the rounded base of his teardrop. Stretched as the leggings were over his gigantic muscle, they were almost see-through, the white thong he wore beneath glaringly obvious. It, too, barely able to do the job it was designed for. His big cock lay pronounced in front. fighting its confines.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” asked Johnny J, crossly. “You told me you were on board.” He shook his head. “That’s real stupid, Sam. Real stupid, wasting my shit.” He motioned behind him. “Take him, Lou.”

Lou did, obeying instantly, a scowl on his face. He invaded the small cubicle and grabbed me, pulling me out into the washroom. Strong as I was, struggle as I might, Lou contained me almost too easily, keeping me helpless before Johnny J. “Lou,” I gasped. “What the fuck? What are you doing, man?”

“You gave me yours, buddy,” Lou growled, pressing his flexed, lycra-covered muscle against me. “You could’a drank it yourself, but you gave it to me. You did me a favor—the greatest favor anyone’s ever done for me. And now I’m doin’ a favor for you.”

“No,” I said, struggling. “I don’t want your favor. I don’t want to be like you guys.”

Johnny J held up the Tupperware container, full of the golden liquid. “I don’t believe that,” he said to me, shaking it. “Looks to me like you were trying to sneak some out of here, maybe trying to figure out what it was. Yeah?”

I shook my head. “Whatever.”

“Well, maybe you DO want to be like us,” he said, dropping the Tupperware in the trashcan. “Maybe you were stealing that so you could figure out how to get the benefits of it without paying the price.”

“And just what is the price?” I asked, trying anything to escape Lou’s grip. “I turn into some brainless, muscle-bound fuck-machine? No thanks.”

Johnny J was so close to me, I could smell his faint cologne. He hoarsely whispered, “Isn’t that what you want? Isn’t that what everybody really wants? Most guys do. Most guys would settle for being brainless, muscle-bound fuck-machines, believe me.” He shrugged, his big traps flexing. “But yeah, if you have to know, there is a greater purpose in mind for you. There’s an amazing plan.”

I returned his gaze. “Tell me,” I said, forcefully.

He smirked, containing a chuckle. “Ordering me? That’s funny. Actually, I think the first thing you need to do is finally sample a bottle of Cycle One. Let’s get that out of the way.”

“No,” I said. “No.” I fought a losing battle against Lou, shifting and thrashing. No use. He held me fast. I could feel his cock growing hard against my ass. Oh my God! This was turning him on! “Lou, please.”

“I’m just returnin’ a favor, man.”

Johnny J cracked the seal on a new bottle of juice. “I’m telling you, Sam,” he said, “you will be so grateful for this.”

As he reached for me, I flipped my head from side to side. “No,” I said. “Please.”

Lou reached up and grabbed my jaw, easily keeping my torso held with one arm, and pulled my mouth open. I could feel his heavy breath on my neck, his cock on my ass. Johnny J held my nose closed, forcing me to breathe through my mouth. “Every drop,” he said, and poured the Cycle One down my throat.

Honey-flavored, but without the thickness. I could feel it filling my mouth—It almost overflowed—but I couldn’t spit any of it out, even with my tongue. Ultimately, I had to drink, if I wanted to breathe. I had to swallow every swallow. Drink every drop.

When the bottle was empty and I’d drunk it all, Lou released me, and I staggered away, trying desperately to gag it back up. My mouth tingled with the light, pleasant aftertaste. Except I didn’t want to enjoy it, so I spit, trying to put the taste out of my mind.

Johnny J approached me, smiling. He tossed the empty bottle away and wiped his hands. I wanted to punch him—to smack him—to kill him. But I couldn’t. I didn’t stand a chance against him physically, and I knew it—and he knew I knew it—especially with Lou there to help him. Worse, I still wanted to know his plan, his motive. It was the writer in me, driving me. Why was he doing this? What had he done to me?

“Why don’t you and Lou go work out?” he said, that simply, as if he expected to be obeyed. “I want you to get the full effect. So you can see what you’ve been missing.”

“You mother-fucker,” I said. “I’ll find a way to beat this.”

Johnny J patronized and smiled—he must’ve heard that line before. “Lou,” he said, looking directly at me as he spoke to the big behemoth, “why don’t you and Sam here do legs? That should give him quite a nice taste. And Lou?” he asked, finally looking away to the big man, himself. “Push him hard.” Johnny J smiled and slipped back through the locker room, leaving me alone with Scary Lou and the blatant erection beneath his lycra pants.

Lou grabbed my arm, pulling me after him. “C’mon,” he said. “Let’s get started.”

Part 8

So, I’ve been awake most of the night typing this. I could’ve slept, I suppose, but with the energy I’ve got now, I feel like I could go on forever without rest. It’s not like caffeine, not jittery and unfocused like that. It’s sort-of like cocaine without the crash, that feeling of power and invincibility, a wave that never crests. That’s the only way I can describe it, focused energy and unbeatable desire. That lust for domination. That need to beat the weight. If you’re a man, you know what I mean. Also, as I got home and discovered later, there’s a rush after orgasm that’s almost indescribable. Trust me, I’ve beat-off three times so far, and each time was just as good as the last. Better, actually.

It’s not easy to admit this next part, but I’m man enough. I’m strong enough now. Simply put, honest and upfront, it WAS the best workout of my life. There, I’ve said it. I didn’t want it to be, and I resisted it for a long time, because, you know, having been forced into it and all. But I’ll tell ya, when you’re squatting great and your body feels great and you’re throwing up some big weights and shit, well, if you’ve ever lifted before, you know what I’m talking about. There’s nothing like it. There’s no fighting the rush of a great day at the gym. Why do workouts like that have to be so rare?

And when Johnny J and those two hot teenage boys came over and joined us, those two now severely-ripped boys—dressed only in posing trunks and matching tight, cotton/ spandex t-shirts—one in purple and one in pink—exposing their smooth abs—showing off their lean muscle, their teenage good looks, their heavy genitals, out of proportion on guys so young—they totally hung on Scary Lou, and he caressed their asses and whispered to them and made them giggle while Johnny J spoke to me.

“How you feeling?” Johnny J asked me as I stretched on the rack. “Forgiven me yet?”

I flexed my quads for him, to show him my incredible pump, to show him what he’d done. “I don’t think I’ve forgiven you,” I said, “but I’m havin’ a fuckin’ excellent workout!”

“That’s all I can ask for right now,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder. “You know, after you’ve been with us for a little while, when you go out on the road for your signings and whatnot, maybe you’ll take a case of Cycle One with you, drop it off at the local gyms. I’d look at it as a great favor.”

“I don’t know, Johnny,” I said, anxious to get on with my set. Where was Lou? Oh, there. The boys were kneeling by either of his legs and licking his pumped quads. He seemed to be enjoying himself—his cock obvious in his lycra leggings. Whatever. Maybe I should just lap him a set.

Johnny J was cool with my response. “Okay, man,” he said. “As I say, maybe when you’re further along with us.” He winked. “I’m sure you won’t want to deny anyone the feelings you’re having now.”

I gave him a quick thumbs-up—whatever—and went back to my set.

Home now, typing this, I think about Johnny J’s idea, about me being a supplier of that stuff. I don’t think I could ever do it. I couldn’t bring this fate to another gym. On the other hand, it would be a good way to get a sample away from them. Get it analyzed once and for all. Okay, for that I can play along.

I tell you what, I could’ve stayed at the gym all night, the way I was feeling. They threw a lot of us out at midnight—all of the single guys, someone joked—when the Coach finally locked the doors, leaving himself, Johnny J, and Coach’s mustachioed partner—the thickly-muscled older man from the treadmill, wearing only a white thong, the sculpted perfection of his body relaxed and ready, dusted lightly in white hair—the only three inside.

The gym will open again at eight. And, like these other guys, I’m gonna be here.

And the bike shorts I’m now wearing? Honestly? Well, truthfully, it’s the only spandex I have. Listen, I worked legs hard last night and I STILL haven’t lost the pump. It’s fuckin’ incredible! I mean, why the fuck shouldn’t I want to show myself off? How am I ever gonna stop being such a prude if I don’t take that step? My legs are just as good as any of those guys at the gym. Look at ’em!

And you know what, my dick looks pretty good sitting there in front, too. Wouldn’t hurt me to show that off, as well. Not that I’ll go over the top—I’m not ready for that yet. In the interest of humility, I’ll wear a baggy t-shirt, too. Well, maybe a muscle-shirt beneath it. After all, I’m doing chest, and I’ll wanna see the pump. Right? I mean, who wouldn’t?

Okay, look, here’s the plan: I’ll drink the bottle of shit they offer me today voluntarily, so they won’t think I’m on to them. Don’t worry, I’m in control of my own mind. Another bottle isn’t gonna hurt me—I’ll be fine. Besides, I’m benching. I want that fuckin’ pump for my chest, you know? Can you blame me?

They won’t suspect a thing from me, I’ll tell you that. I’ll play right along until I can expose them. And until that day, I’ll have the benefit of some kick-ass workouts.

Okay, it’s seven-thirty in the morning now and I wanna post this before I leave, in case something should go wrong with my plan—not that I think it will. I’m fairly confident that you’ll hear from me again. Drop me an email at AbsMan420@aol.com if you don’t—or if maybe you want me to snag you a bottle of Cycle One.

I’m tellin’ ya friends, it feels fuckin’ awesome!

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