Grounded in Air
Copyright © 2009 by the author under the pseudonym Gee Whillickers. All rights reserved.
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This story is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any actual place, event, or person, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This story is intended for adults and contains subject matter not suitable for children. Parental Advisory in effect.
** 3 **
Not much changed for the next few weeks, except that Donny turned eleven years old. It should have been an exciting occasion. Should have been. On Tuesday evening Donny's mom told him to invite a couple of friends from school or from racing over on Friday and they would all go to Games'n'Pizza for the evening. Donny didn't have the heart to tell his mom that he didn't have any friends to invite, so he managed to convince his mom that he would prefer that just the two of them go out dinner.
Friday evening they sat in the restaurant, having just finished their meal. Not the same one his mom had suggested -- all those games weren't much fun by yourself -- but a different one with a pirate motif. The walls had pictures of sixteenth century sailing ships on them, and fake anchors and sextants and ship's wheels littered the room. The Jolly Roger could be seen everywhere. The waiters and waitresses were dressed up as pirates and every second word was "Arrrr" or "Aye aye, matey" or "Shiver me Timbers." Donny thought it was incredibly stupid. He was just finishing his ice cream and could see his mom watching him with a pensive look. Maybe he hadn't convinced her he didn't want to go out with friends after all.
"Donny, you can have friends you know," she said.
Donny didn't even look up from his bowl of ice cream. He kept shoveling mint chocolate chip into his mouth, just a bit faster as he ignored his mom.
"Donny...." She stopped and started again. "What's happening with you sweetie? We never talk anymore, though I know that's partly my fault since I'm never home. But I don't understand. You seem so lost..."
Donny had finished his ice cream and after wiping his mouth and hands with his paper napkin began taking a great deal of time attempting to fold it into interesting shapes, as if this were the most fascinating task on earth. He still didn't look up.
Laura gazed steadily at him. "I'm not sure what to do here Donny. You just seem so sad all the time. You have to tell me...let me help you...tell me what to do."
Donny dropped his mangled napkin on the table. "I'm fine mom, but thanks for asking. I gotta go to the bathroom." With that he stood up, banging the table sharply with his legs, and strode off towards the restrooms. He could see his mom sitting at the table, looking like she was about to cry. Donny felt horrible. That's ok, he thought to himself, she'd feel worse if she knew about him. It just had to be this way. Donny went into one of the stalls so that nobody else coming into the bathroom would see how close he was to tears.
He'd had better birthdays.
* * *
School was strange the next week. On Monday Donny arrived as usual and began his routine of avoiding people's eyes and walking away from conversations. For some reason it was more difficult than usual. Everyone was talking about a kid who was back in school after a long absence, the one who was supposed to die a while back. Donny just shrugged and walked away when kids approached him to ask if he had heard the news. He had perfected the art of uncaring dismissal. By Wednesday he was feeling even more uncomfortable. Several times, he could see the boy talking with other kids animatedly. Twice now, he spied Rick from his class talking with the boy. Both times, Rick spotted him from some distance away and seemed to be pointing at him while talking with the boy. Donny didn't know why he would possibly come up in anyone's conversation but he knew that this was not what he wanted. He worked even harder than usual to fade away before he could be drawn into whatever they were going on about.
On Friday Donny was half listening to his teacher as she droned on about some book they were supposed to start reading next week. Donny was already thinking about the weekend and his race. He was looking forward to getting to the track but he was a bit nervous too. Ryan had obviously been talking to some of the other kids and now he could feel several pairs of eyes on him each weekend before the race. Even from some of the adults. There were the comments too, hateful snide remarks carefully delivered so no nearby adults would hear them. Worse, he knew there were times an adult did hear, and for some reason the hurtful comments were ignored completely. Fortunately, these were only coming from a few kids. Most of the other racers either didn't seem aware of Ryan's attempts or else they didn't care. Still, some of the joy Donny felt when he was racing was no longer there. Donny was incredibly resentful about this. His life sucked bad enough already, and for Ryan to steal some of the fun away from the only place where he really felt he could have any these days, well, he was more than anxious and depressed now. He was angry.
The angry look on his face these days at school did serve to help keep people even further away from him. But, he noticed more looks in his direction, more whispered conversations. Great. His attempts to hide at school were being jeopardized because of what was happening at the track.
Lunchtime finally. Donny grabbed his brown bagged lunch as threaded his way through the busy hallways until he was outside in the school's courtyard. Most of the kids ate inside, in the lunchroom. But, as long as the weather cooperated, Donny preferred it out here. It was quieter, more peaceful. The courtyard was made up of several tables and attached chairs sitting on a concrete pad and surrounded on two sides by the inside of the "L" shape of the school building. The other two sides opened up onto the school's property and Donny could look around and see the multitude of shades of green and brown of the grass, bushes, and trees. There were usually some kids playing soccer or football on the field at lunchtime and he could easily watch their activity from his vantage point. The sounds of birds, insects, squirrels in the trees, and even the distant traffic was far more pleasant to Donny's ears than the cacophony of noise in the school's lunchroom.
Donny looked around and found a table as far as possible away from the few other kids who had also chosen to eat outside. He sat with his back to them to ensure he didn't look approachable and began reaching into his lunchbag to pull out its contents.
Donny turned his head. It was Rick. He didn't know Ricky particularly well -- actually he didn't know anyone at school particularly well -- but Donny had been finding him harder and harder to ignore these days. He knew Rick was trying to get to know him, maybe open the door for a friendship. What Rick didn't know was that Donny couldn't afford to do that. He would just be moving again in no time and they would both be miserable. It was far easier this way. Still, Donny couldn't ignore him completely and it didn't seem right to be outright rude. So, he answered as neutrally and non-committally as possible.
"Oh. Hi Ricky." Donny turned his head back to his lunch in dismissal. He saw Rick's expression when he did that but Donny ignored it.
Rick shuffled slowly from one foot to the other. "Um, I thought maybe you'd wanna meet someone." Rick said.
Donny turned again. Standing behind and to the side of Rick stood the boy everyone had been talking about lately. The boy who had just returned from school after being sick, and, if the rumors were to be believed, almost dying. His name, Donny knew, was Ray. The boy was looking at Donny with a friendly smile. Donny tried to think of something to say. He didn't want to be rude, but he wasn't sure how to get out of this without saying something mean.
"Oh," was the only answer he could think of.
Rick's voice sounded awkward. "Anyway, he's kinda cool. I thought maybe you'd wanna meet him, and talk or something. I dunno."
Donny stared at Rick. "Why?" he said.
"Um, I dunno. You just look all sad all the time...I mean, maybe not sad, sorry, but, I dunno..." Ricky stopped, his face red. He looked to Ray for help.
Ray spoke up. "Thanks Rick, you're right, it's nicer out here than in the lunchroom." He turned towards Donny. "You mind if I sit down?"
Ray didn't wait for an answer. He sat down across from Ray and began to unpack his own lunch.
"Thanks Rick. I'll catch you later, ok?" Ray said.
Rick, seeming to understand he was being dismissed, nodded to both of them and walked off.
Donny had stopped unpacking his own lunch. He just sat there and looked at Ray. He knew he had been trapped. But that didn't mean he had to say anything.
Ray spoke up. "Rick's trying to be your friend you know."
Donny continued to stare at Ray with no answer. His hands were in his lap now, under the table. He was fidgeting nervously, wringing his fingers together.
"He says you're not letting him," Ray continued. "He says you look sad all the time. And that you never talk to anyone. Don't you want friends?"
It was all too much. Who the hell was this kid and what business was it of his? His anger, bubbling under the surface for the last few days, came to the forefront. He responded in a way he didn't think he had in him. It just came out, before he could stop it.
"Fuck you, asshole!!" Donny spat. His lower lip was trembling slightly and his face was clouded in anger. His eyes were becoming moist. Where that had come from he didn't know. He braced himself for the likely response, an insult, or more likely a fight.
Instead, Ray looked apologetic. "Uh, sorry Donny. I'm being nosy and rude. I'm kinda getting used to being around people again. The only people I've talked to for the last few weeks were my friends and family, and a bunch of doctors and stuff."
Despite himself Donny found, like many of the kids at school, that he was curious. He was still angry, but he couldn't help but wonder about this kid. He spoke, his eyes still on the table instead of Ray, "It's true what everyone says? You were in the hospital for ages? You almost, uh..."
"Died? Yeah, it's true." Ray stopped.
Donny looked up at the sudden silence. He could see emotions play across Ray's face before he seemed to become calm again, and he smiled.
"My friends and my family saved me. Um, I'm not trying to sound corny here. But it's true. Some friends more than others." Ray's smile widened, if possible.
"What do you mean? Didn't the doctors do that? Save you I mean?" asked Donny. His lunch, like his anger, had been forgotten. It was way easier talking about Ray than it was to talk about himself.
"Well, yeah, of course. But I'd probably be in a mental hospital if it weren't for the people I love. Especially Patrick."
"Who's Patrick?" asked Donny. "Does he go to school here?"
For the first time, Donny saw Ray look slightly less than confident.
Ray answered, "Well, no. He's an adult. It's kinda hard to explain. I mean, I don't know you very well yet."
"So this man, Patrick, he's not related? Like your dad or your grandpa or something? And you said you love him. And he saved you somehow?"
"Uh, well, ya. I know it sounds weird and everything, but it's really true and..."
Donny wished he would learn to control his emotions better. Tears started falling down his cheeks. Lots of tears. He tried to stop them, but they weren't having it.
Ray seemed to completely misinterpret Donny's reaction. "No! No, it's not like that. He's cool! He's the best guy ever and he treats me perfect and I love him and he loves me too and we even..."
Donny just cried harder. Ray looked flummoxed.
Donny tried to think of a way to end this conversation, to get out of here. This just hurt too much. It wasn't fair. He was so alone. Sure, partly by choice. But it didn't hurt less for that. He didn't understand why everyone else seemed to so easily find what he couldn't even get a sniff of. He could just get up and walk away, but for some reason he didn't. He just sat there, tears falling down his face.
Ray's expression changed. Confusion was slowly replaced by understanding.
"You're like me!" Ray said, his eyes wide.
"Whaddya mean?" muttered Donny, through his tears, finally subsiding now. He used his palms to rub away the tears from his cheeks.
"You like men."
Donny froze. His tears stopped. His breathing stopped. He was pretty sure his heart completely stopped too. Oh my god. He was dead. His secret was out here too, at school now as well as the track. His life was over.
Ray seemed excited. He didn't seem to notice Donny's deer in the headlights look. Ray gestured wildly as he spoke. "Awesome! That's so cool! We gotta talk man..." Ray suddenly appeared to notice Donny's transfixed stare. "Shit. Sorry, I get kinda excited sometimes. I'm right though, aren't I? I mean, if I'm not I'm sorry, but I'm right. Right?"
Donny's thoughts tumbled. Do I admit it? Is this a set up? This kid seems so sincere, and friendly, and so...happy. Donny was, he knew, more than anything else, jealous. It just wasn't fair.
"I'm not saying," he said. His arms now crossed across his chest.
Ray smiled wider, but then looked more serious. "I think you just did. Look, really, it's ok. I'm not trying to get you in trouble or make you feel weird, honest. It's just, even Dennis doesn't really truly understand and it would be so cool to have someone to talk to about this, other than Patrick I mean."
"Who the heck's Dennis?"
Once again, Ray's confidence seemed to wane somewhat. Color rose on his cheeks. "Oh god. Well. He's, like, my friend. My best friend." Then the confidence was back, with some determination too Donny could see. "More than friend. He means as much to me as Patrick."
Ok, Donny thought, this was kinda interesting. "Is he an adult too?"
"No, he's about the same age as me."
"So you got, like, a friend your age, and a grown-up friend. And they're, um, way more than friends. And you love both of them. And they love you?"
"Well. Yeah," was Ray's response.
"Well, yeah. I know. But I don't care."
For the first time since this odd conversation started, Donny said something completely honest, completely from his heart. Like his tears earlier, and his swearing, it just happened. It slipped out without any conscious thought.
"I'm jealous." Donny said. For some reason, after saying it, even though it surprised him, he didn't wish he could take it back.
Ray looked at Donny. After a few seconds he began smiling slightly. This time with a hint of mischief in it. "Meet me here. Right after school. Promise me."
"Um, ok," answered Donny just as the bell rang, signaling the end of the lunch period.
* * *
After school, Donny couldn't help but wonder what he was getting himself into. He'd been successful for weeks now at keeping below the radar at this school and avoiding making connections that he knew would turn out to be painful later. Now, here he was, meeting a kid he'd had the strangest conversation with just a few hours ago, and there was another kid who he knew was trying to be his friend, and now this. Whatever "this" was. He was apprehensive, but curious. What did Ray want to meet him for? All of these thoughts were running through his head as he turned the corner of the school and entered the courtyard. He could see Ray sitting at one of the tables waiting.
"Hi Ray. Ok, I'm here. What did you want me for?"
Ray looked at Donny. "Relax Donny. Honest, I'm not trying to get you in trouble or anything. I just figured you might want to meet someone."
Oh god. More introductions. More meeting people. "Uh, Ray. I'm not sure I really want..."
"Come on, it's not good to be by yourself all the time. You need people. Believe me, I know. Come on."
Donny was frustrated with Ray. He hadn't had time to explain, wasn't sure he wanted to explain, why he couldn't have friends right now. But, he had to admit to himself, he was curious. More than that, he was tired of being alone all of the time. He knew it would hurt terribly when he had to leave next time. For the first time in a long time though, he was thinking maybe, just maybe, it was worth the risk. He got up with a shrug at Ray to show his reluctant agreement, and followed Ray back into the school.
They walked up to a classroom and Ray stuck his head around the corner. "Mr. Dorian, can I talk to you for a minute?" he asked to the person in the room.
Donny was confused. Ray was introducing him to a teacher? He heard the reply from inside the room.
"Ray! Of course you can, come on in," replied the teacher.
Ray walked into the classroom. Donny, feeling more than a bit unsure about all of this, followed. Donny looked at the teacher. Mr. Dorian, Ray had said when entering the room. He was standing at the blackboard with an eraser in his hand. Mr. Dorian was a pleasant looking man, mid thirties maybe thought Donny, quite fit looking. He had wavy blonde hair and a very nice smile. Donny liked how he looked, but he didn't like feeling trapped into this introduction.
Ray was grinning widely for some reason. "Fred, this is Donny. Donny, this is Fred."
Ray then turned and, still grinning, walked out of the classroom, leaving Donny standing there completely nonplussed.