The late November morning was freezing -- well, "freezing" as defined in Southern California, which counts for anything below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. As Dylan eased the BMW down Mason Avenue, he noted how few joggers circled the park. Way too goddamned cold out here, he mused, then made a mental note to drag Kyle back that afternoon for their daily running routine.
He made the sharp turn down his friend's street, then pulled the car up to the curb and hit the horn. In seconds, the house's front door flew open, and a familiar shape came bounding down the steps and hopped in the car.
"Hey," Dylan said.
After an uncomfortable silence, Dylan gunned the engine and turned back on the main street. He glanced up at his friend, who stared out the window, apparently fascinated with the neighborhood scenery as it blurred by. Dylan was suddenly conscious of a wall between him and his friend -- a wall you couldn't actually see, but one that was nonetheless very real, almost palpable.
I was afraid of this, he thought. Maybe music'll be a way to break the ice with Kyle.
He flicked on the radio, and a loud voice boomed out of the speakers.
"C'mon, Baba-Booey!" yelled the DJ. "Only a fag would say this isn't one of the hottest chicks we've ever had on the show." Other voices chimed in, chanting "what a fag, what a fag!" over and over again.
Howard Stern again, Dylan mused. He instinctively reached to change the station, then remembered it was Kyle's favorite and let it go. Maybe it'll at least make him laugh.
They continued down the street in silence for about a minute, then Dylan pulled the car up at a red light. Kyle was still sullen. Dylan opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it. He glanced to the right, then began to pull the car forward.
"This is weird, isn't it?" Kyle said softly.
"Huh?" Dylan had to almost slam on the brakes to avoid veering into a silver Volvo that carelessly zipped through a red light.
Kyle glanced up at him, then nervously looked away again. "I mean... we've hung out together just about every single day of the week for the past three years. Almost like we were brothers."
"Yeah," Dylan said quietly. "But now things are kinda different."
The BMW continued down the street, deftly changing lanes and just barely making the left-turn light a millisecond before it turned red. Dylan eased back on the clutch and took the next turn that wound through the open metal fence and into the main school parking lot. With some finesse, he maneuvered around a hedge, bounced over a couple of concrete car stops, and screeched to a halt in the last remaining space. He turned off the engine with a click, then withdrew the key. Kyle was already halfway out of the car when Dylan stopped him and pulled him back inside.
"Wait! Listen, Kyle," he began. "I'm really sorry all this happened. I know I shoulda told you from day one, but..." Dylan let the words evaporate in the cold November air.
Kyle gently squeezed his forearm. Dylan looked up and was surprised to see that his friend's eyes were moist with tears.
"No," Kyle whispered hoarsely. "It was my fault. Dude, I thought about this all night. I maybe got five minutes sleep, tops. I almost told you a dozen times before, but..." He made an exasperated gesture, then continued. "I just figured you'd hate me."
Dylan grinned. "Naw," he said. "More like the opposite. We got a lot to make up for -- we missed a lotta opportunities, y'know? Just because things are a little different now, doesn't mean they have to be bad-different."
Kyle choked out a laugh, then cleared his throat and broke out into a wide grin. "Yeah," he said. "Once we get through the semester exams on Wednesday, we got four days off for Thanksgiving... all to ourselves."
Dylan nodded, then suddenly remembered something and smacked his forehead. "Shit," he said. "My folks have got a buncha stupid relatives comin' in for the holiday. They're doin' this big corporate dinner thing over at the Beverly Hills Hilton, and they're gonna insist I go there. No way I can get out of it, short of an earthquake."
Kyle sighed and looked away, but Dylan reached out and quietly squeezed his hand.
"But the moment the dinner's through," he continued, "you're mine all weekend long. And that's a promise."
Kyle laughed. "Too cool. Hey, maybe we can do some Sextasy!"
Dylan raised an eyebrow. "What?"
"It's a little E, plus some Viagra. Man, you can go like ten times in one night with this shit!"
Dylan rolled his eyes, then reached behind the seat for his notebook and books. "No fuckin' way, dude," he chided, as he opened the door and hopped out. "No Ecstasy, no nothin' -- not even beer -- at least not until after the championship game next Friday."
Kyle brooded. Sextasy was all the rage, and the one time he tried it, he'd felt like his entire body was wired to an orgasm amplifier. Doing it with Dylan would probably make me feel like I'd died and gone to heaven, he thought ruefully.
"C'mon, dude," Dylan said, opening up the passenger door. "Besides... you and me definitely don't need any viagra."
"You're tellin' me," lamented his friend, as he struggled to his feet. He pointed to his crotch, which had a prominent bulge that extended half a foot down one pant-leg, then reached inside to adjust himself. "Just sittin' with you in the car is makin' me as horny as hell! It's gonna be impossible just gettin' through class today."
Dylan grinned, then wagged a finger at him. "Just keep it down until later. And don't forget, we still gotta take the HIV test this afternoon. If we're clean, then we'll have the weekend to ourselves. But until then..."
"...looser underwear and jerkin' off solo," muttered Kyle as they walked across the parking lot and over to their lockers. "Safe sex. Yeah, yeah, I know the drill. Now, all I gotta do is just figure out a way to keep it down."
Dylan shrugged as they started down the hallway, which was rapidly filling up with early-morning students. "Cold showers," he advised. "Or just think of the most unattractive thing you can... you know, like having to screw Whoopi Goldberg or something."
Kyle stopped at his locker and fumbled with the combination. "Hey, Whoopi's not that bad," he argued. "I bet those lips could suck the chrome off a trailer hitch."
Dylan thought for a moment. "Okay -- Ms. Raymond, then. Dude, you know she's the skankiest teacher in school."
His friend chuckled. The English Lit teacher had been much-despised by many of the students, not the least of which for her sarcastic pop quizzes.
"You shoulda seen her in class yesterday," Kyle said, laughing as they walked down the hall. "She was wearing those tight Capri pants -- dude, she had major camel toe! Ultra-disgusting!"
Dylan shuddered. Ms. Raymond definitely wouldn't win any beauty contests, and just the thought of the woman's crotch made him wince.
"And her stomach," he continued, as they darted down the hall that led to the library. "It's more like a gunt."
They both laughed, but Dylan put out his hand in confusion. "What?"
"You know -- gunt. As in gut-plus-cunt. Totally hideous."
They stopped in front of the library. Nearby, Sean McIntosh stood in front of a bulletin board, putting up a poster announcing the upcoming Gay-Straight Alliance Dance, which was set for the following Friday night, on December 5th. Sean glanced over to the two athletes, then went back to aligning the multi-colored banner.
Dylan glanced at his watch, then turned to Kyle. "I'm goin' to homeroom, dude. Catch ya later in 4th period before lunch, 'kay?"
"See ya." They nodded at each other, then took off in opposite directions. As Dylan jogged by the poster display, he almost ran right into Sean, who was making a last-minute check of the hand-lettered sign.
"Sorry," mumbled Dylan. "Oh... hi, uh -- Sean."
Sean looked up. "Hi, Dylan. Coming to the dance? It's a big benefit for Project Angel Food -- they provide free food for invalids and PWA's. That's persons-with-AIDS."
Dylan started to make a smart-ass comment, then stopped himself. "Maybe... I dunno," he said finally. "To tell you the truth, I'm not much of a dancer."
The other boy's eyes lit up. "Well, if you're ever looking for some lessons..."
"Maybe another time," Dylan interrupted. "We've got the big regional game that night in Sacto."
"Okay." Sean smacked one last staple in the top of the poster, then pushed his glasses up on his nose and turned back to him. "But let me know if you change your mind."
Dylan nodded. "Sure." He took a step to the right, then stopped. "Uh, Sean..."
He looked around nervously, then lowered his voice. "When's the next meeting of your... organization?"
Sean raised both his eyebrows this time. "You mean the GSA? Ah, every other Monday afternoon at 4:00, in the library." He gave the football star a look. "You know, you don't have to be gay to attend, Dylan," he began, quoting chapter and verse from the GSA handbook. "We're just trying to bridge the gap between..."
"I know," said Dylan quietly. "Mondays at 4, at the library. Lemme... lemme think about it."
An uncomfortable silence passed. After a moment, Sean fumbled in his backpack, then handed Dylan a pink flyer.
"It's for the dance," Sean explained. "You know... just in case you change your mind."
Dylan reluctantly took it, then glanced around to see if anyone else saw him. But the hallway was deserted, with only distant snatches of conversation and a locker slamming in the distance. The homeroom bell rang.
"Lighten up. It won't set your coat on fire," the other boy said with a grin. "'Flaming' is just a figure of speech."
Dylan managed a small smile, then folded the paper in two and slipped it into his notebook. He mumbled his thanks, and began walking down the hall, towards his homeroom.
Sean stared at the athlete until his muscular form disappeared around a corner. Mmmm-mmm-mmm, he thought to himself, his perplexed expression slowly giving way to a small smile. He picked up a pile of posters and put them under his right arm, then grinned ear-to-ear. I have a feeling this is going to be a very interesting week.
§ § §
The rest of the day was uneventful. Much to the class' relief, Ms. Raymond announced that Wednesday's English Lit semester exam would be written, as opposed to the torturous "quiz-style" oral tests the students despised so much. Apparently, some of the other teachers had complained privately about how Ms. Raymond's quizzes forced students to fail publicly, in front of the whole class, and that was enough to put pressure on the new teacher to come up with a more conventional test.
Dylan and Kyle could hardly believe their good fortune. The coach let the team have the rest of the week off from practice, warning them that their final 'away' game coming up less than ten days later in Sacramento would be grueling. Regional championship games were never easy, but the thought of having to ride 400 miles on a bus, in 40-degree weather, made the team nervous. The coach decided that lightening up the pressure at this point might be a good idea -- give the team a chance to relax over the Thanksgiving holidays, then have four hard days of practice in a row to get them primed and ready for the big game, which was to be held at the Howard Hughes Stadium in Sacramento the following Friday.
Late that afternoon, Sean McIntosh was busily cleaning out his locker. The door was festooned with rainbow GSA emblems and pro-gay slogans -- though, he mused to himself, he had to clean off the word 'faggot' and other, even more unsavory graffiti, every couple of weeks. As he finished, he closed the door and locked it, then looked up and saw a familiar figure trudging down the hallway.
"Donny!" he called. "Hey, Donny! That you?"
The small figure stopped. He was stooped, carrying a backpack, along with a notebook in his left hand. The boy slowly turned around, still in shadow.
Sean trotted up to him. "Hey, stranger! Where've you been? We've missed you at the meetings for the last two weeks, and we could really use some help with these announcements." He stopped and took a good look at the boy in front of him.
Donny's face was pale, and his eyes were lidded, as if he hadn't slept much lately. "Sorry," he mumbled. "Been busy lately."
"Yeah." Sean eyed the backpack, a bulging khaki Army-surplus bag. "Looks like you're doing a lotta studying."
The boy nodded. "Yeah. I missed a buncha classes over the last few weeks. I'm gonna make up for it tomorrow, though."
Sean shrugged. "Okay. Listen, Donny... don't forget -- if you ever need to call me, I'm there for you... 'kay?"
"Yeah. Thanks." The smaller boy adjusted his backpack and then continued down the hallway and made the turn to the staircase.
"You need a ride home?" called Sean to the boy, who had disappeared into the shadows.
"I'm okay," he replied, his voice reverberating down the stairwell. "I can take care of myself."
"Okay," called Sean over his shoulder. "See ya! And don't forget the dance next week!"
As he made his way back to the GSA office, his mood brightened. At least Donny is back in school, he thought. Once me and Sandy and Emilio get him to the party, we'll snap him out of this... get his mind off things. By the time he reached his door, there was a spring in his step.
"And maybe even a certain football star will be our guest of honor," he said out loud, then giggled. Man, he thought. Wouldn't that make Principal Meyers sit up and take notice!
§ § §
By 5PM, the sun was already hanging low in the California sky. The clouds were full of amber, and glowed as if the fire of a nuclear furnace burned within. Despite the awesome sunset, the West Valley air was still chilly, in the mid-40s, and most of the runners around Mason Park were bundled up with sweatshirts, jackets, and pullovers. The winds were brisk, creating a chill factor of at least another ten degrees. It wasn't exactly Buffalo weather, but for veteran Los Angelinos, it was practically the equivalent of a meat-locker.
Dylan and Kyle were now up to their third consecutive lap. As they made the final turn, huffing and puffing, Kyle suddenly shot forward with an unexpected burst of energy, leaving his best friend behind in the dust by nearly ten yards.
"And the crowd goes wild!" he cried, crossing the imaginary finish line at the big Dogwood tree-trunk they always used as a starting point. He held his muscular arms up high in a triumphant pose. "McDermott wins by two full seconds, setting a new world record!"
"Just shut the fuck up," groaned Dylan, as he pulled up the rear. They both collapsed on the nearby grass field, gasping for breath.
Dylan let his face fall into the soft green grass, which had a strong, natural aroma, full of rich earth and pungent vegetation. He breathed deeply, ignoring the cold air stabbing into his lungs, and concentrated on how good the ground smelled. Before long, he was conscious of a face rolling over to his, just inches away.
"Hey," whispered Kyle quietly.
"Hey," he replied.
His friend grinned. "Come here often?" he said.
Dylan was suddenly overwhelmed with a warm feeling, and felt his eyes begin to tear up. He reached out and gripped the teen's shoulder. "Yeah," he said quietly. "Anytime my best friend is here, I'll be here." With that, he leaned forward and kissed him softly on the lips.
Kyle pulled back and stumbled to his feet. "Dude!" he hissed, looking around quickly to make sure nobody had seen them. "What the fuck are you doin', man? Don't do that shit in the middle of... everywhere!"
Dylan sat up and grinned. "Why?" he asked. "Who the hell cares what two guys do after a three-mile run? And with their clothes still on?"
"You know what I mean, bro'." Kyle brushed some stray leaves and weeds off his sweatshirt and pants. "Can't be too careful. You never know who might walk in on ya. Happened to me once."
Dylan struggled to his feet, then sat down on the tree trunk, which served as a makeshift bench in this part of the park. "No shit?" he asked, as he scraped off some stray dandelions off his pant-leg. "Like how?"
His friend sighed, then sat next to him on the trunk. "I told ya. Me and Kincaid -- we screwed around at least a dozen times, usually at his place. But there was this one time last May, when I was comin' in for 7th period Phys. Ed. Our old coach, Wilson, had caught me and John laughing during one of his stupid lectures outside, so he made us run like 10 laps. Coach knew it was our last class of the day, so it wasn't a big deal."
"Typical," Dylan said with a grin. "So what happened?"
"We were the last guys to make it back to the locker room, like 20 minutes late. By then, the place was pretty much deserted. The showers were empty. We were really hot and sticky, and... well, we sorta got carried away."
Dylan's eyes widened. "Dude!" he chortled. "Don't stop there! Details!"
Kyle grinned. "Alright, alright. It wasn't really that big a deal. One minute, I was soapin' up my body... the next, Kincaid was behind me, one hand on my pecs, and the other on my... uh..."
"Your dick," Dylan added.
"Yeah," the other teen continued, his face reddening slightly at the memory. "At first, I wasn't into it, because it was... y'know, too dangerous. But we were so totally turned-on, we just had to... y'know, finish."
Dylan tried to imagine the scene: two nude, muscular athletes in the shower, enveloped in a grey cloud of steam, their erections throbbing with desire, water cascading around them... He immediately felt his heart surge, and it wasn't just the typical 'runner's high' from their afternoon jog.
"Like how?" he asked, his voice husky and low.
Kyle shrugged. "I jacked him off, and he blew me. I think he really wanted to... y'know... do me from behind. But I knew I'd make too much noise if we did that. But it was still pretty great."
"But you almost got caught," Dylan reminded.
"Yeah. We finished in like two minutes, and just as we rinsed off and washed the evidence down the drain, Wilson poked his head around the corner. Me and Kincaid just about jumped ten feet!"
"Shit," Dylan said, momentarily taken aback. "You think he heard ya?"
"I dunno for sure," Kyle mused. "All he said was, 'if you boys are finally finished, get outta here. We gotta lock up in five minutes.' And that was it. If Coach heard anything, he didn't let on. Besides, what's he gonna do? His star quarterback's foolin' around with the JV running back... yeah, that'd look good in the papers. Besides, Kincaid got away with murder all season. I think he was foolin' around with at least two or three other guys at school, but he never told me their names."
Hmmmm, mused Dylan. I wonder who they could've been... or even if they're still in any of our classes this year?
Kyle stopped, then wistfully stared off into space. "Man, that was one cool dude... John Kincaid. Totally hot body, great face, and he could do it all night without even tryin'."
Dylan reached down and adjusted his clothing. His pants had a noticeable bulge, which he gently shoved over to one side. "So," he retorted. "You sorta had a thing for King John, huh?"
Kyle smiled, then put his arm across Dylan's shoulders. "Well, yeah... but not like you. With me and Kincaid, it was like we were -- y'know... fuck-buddies. Just a quickie, and that was it. But with you..." He sighed and left the sentence dangling in the air.
A couple of runners, an elderly couple, jogged on by. The two teens got up and ambled over to the awaiting BMW, which was parked by the curb. Dylan reached in and grabbed a small towel and wiped the sweat off his forehead, then tossed another to Kyle. They hopped in the front seats, but just as Dylan started to turn the key, his friend reached over and gently squeezed his upper thigh and laughed.
"Hey!" Dylan yelped. "Watch it! Don't damage the merchandise!"
"Dude! You are like totally horny!" Kyle chided. "Anyway, you know what I'm tryin' to say. You turning out to be into guys... I feel like I'm in an alternate universe or something! It's almost too good to be true."
Dylan nodded, then grinned. "Yeah," he said quietly. "But let's wait for the HIV tests. You heard what the lady said at the clinic -- the initial scan was good, but they won't know for sure until Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. And even then..."
"I know, I know," Kyle replied, waving his hand impatiently. "If we were exposed to HIV, we should still practice safe-sex for two years. I know the drill."
Dylan gunned the engine, then paused to make sure the coast was clear. Just before he took off, his friend gently touched his forearm, then ran a finger all the way up to the athlete's bulging bicep. Dylan sucked in his breath.
Kyle leaned forward and whispered in his ear. "But this weekend, you're all mine. I'm gonna eat you up for lunch, boy."
Dylan roared with laughter. "Dude!" he cried. "No fuckin' way can I drive with a hard-on! Shut up at least until we get to my place, okay?"
They laughed hysterically as the BMW Roadster peeled out in a cloud of blue exhaust, pausing only for a moment to let three straggling joggers cross the street by the park, then vanished into the horizon.
§ § §
Back at home, Dylan poured over the textbook for the umpteenth time.
"The basis for all of Hemingway's key heroes is the concept of death," he read out loud. "The idea of death permeates many of Hemingway's characters. The author's philosophy is simple: when you're dead, you are dead. There is nothing more."
He sighed, then rubbed his eyes. Already eleven o'clock, he thought wearily. I'm as ready as I'll ever be for Ms. Raymond's mid-term tomorrow.
Dylan glanced at the book again. As it turned out, For Whom the Bell Tolls was actually kinda cool, for an ancient novel written more than half a century ago. Maybe they should make it into a new movie, with state-of-the-art special effects... big explosions, battle scenes, the whole deal. Might actually work, he thought. Kinda like Saving Private Ryan -- the futility of war, and all that stuff.
He re-read the passage, then closed the textbook. When you're dead, you are dead. There is nothing more. That's for whom the bell tolls.
He thought of Angel -- dead less than a week. Dylan remembered how he was almost ready to forgive him that last night... forgive him for everything. Angel was the very first person who ever really made him feel loved, made him feel like he was whole. How much of it was real? he wondered. Did Angel really love me at all? After a moment, he nodded. "Yeah," he said to himself. "He was fucking crazy, but I'm sure part of him really did love me. I know he did."
Suddenly, there was a knock at his door. Dylan looked up. "Yeah?"
His father poked his head in. "Your mom and I are going to hit the hay now, kiddo. Everything go okay in school today?"
Dylan nodded. "Yeah. I made it through three exams today, and then I've got four semester exams tomorrow."
His father raised an eyebrow. "What's the prediction?"
The teen shrugged. "I'll ace the calculus, because the teacher likes me and grades on a curve. European history is a snap, because it's open book -- mostly a buncha dates. And we get to use calculators with function keys in Economics."
Callahan eyed the book on his son's desk. "How about English Lit?"
Dylan rolled his eyes. "The teacher's a bitch, but 60% of the grade's gonna be on this book." He held up the novel. "I read the whole thing, plus I got the Cliff Notes. It's an essay test, but I think I can get at least a C."
His father frowned. "Our agreement was you keep the B average, you keep the Beemer."
"I know. I won't let you down, Dad."
The man grinned and ruffled his son's hair. "You never have, kiddo."
"Michael!" called a voice from down the hallway. "Mike, can you please get me some more ice?"
Dylan stared at the doorway. "Mom's drinking again."
The man nodded. "Yeah. We'll have to get her in to detox again after the holiday." He turned to leave, then paused. "It's not your fault, Dylan. She had this problem even before you were born. So did half her relatives -- there's quite a few AA members on her side of the family."
The boy began to tear up slightly. "Listen, Dad," he said. "I'm... I'm really sorry about this gay thing. It's not like it's something I wanted. It's more like bein' born left-handed or right-handed: you just are, y'know?"
His father paused at the doorway, an expression of concern on his face. "Is this something you want to talk over with Dr. Rosenfield?"
"Fuck him," Dylan said angrily. "I can't trust him worth a shit."
Callahan let the profanity pass. "Alright," he said gently. "Then maybe another psychiatrist. You pick one out. I just want to make sure you're happy, and that you can work through this thing. Let us know if you at least want to try."
Dylan stared down at his desk. "Alright," he said finally. "I'll think about it." He stared out the door. "How's mom takin' it?"
As if to answer him, her voice floated down the hallway. "Miiiiichael!" she whined. Her voice sounded thick and unsteady. "You prommmmised!"
"Let me handle her," his father said. "Maybe the three of us can go in for family counseling in another couple of weeks. You up for that?"
"Sure," Dylan replied. "Yeah, if it'll help."
The man smiled. "Thanks, kiddo. Get some sleep. G'night." He closed the door.
Dylan yawned, then closed the book and slid it over to join the rest of the stack for the next morning. He yanked off his shirt, pulled off his pants and drop-kicked them across the room and into the hamper, then slid under his bedcovers and shut off the light.
As he lay in the dark, he thought about Hemingway's hero, Robert Jordan... fighting for a cause that ultimately proved to be completely futile. But he was a cool guy, he mused. Totally brave, real macho. Maybe the real message of the book was that winning the war wasn't so important; saving the individuals in the war was really the most important thing. He reflected on that for a few moments until he drifted off to sleep.
§ § §
Kyle frowned. There seems to be an unwritten rule that all cafeteria food was required by law to thoroughly suck, and Chatsworth High's cuisine was no exception. He took another greasy bite, then shook his head with disgust.
"If this is supposed to be chicken, it must've had some disease," he muttered.
Dylan looked up in surprise. "I thought it was meatloaf," he said, with his mouth half-full, then took a swig of Coke. "Maybe more like chicken-loaf. Or salmonella-on-a-stick."
"Jesus, look at this," Kyle complained. He jammed his fork in the center of the potatoes, where it stood fast, straight up, as if it was impaled in concrete. "I swear ta God, they're makin' these mashed potatoes out of fucking sand."
His friend shrugged, then took another bite. "You could've gotten a sandwich," he offered.
Kyle scowled. "Hey, it was your idea to eat here this afternoon instead of hittin' Pizza Hut," he retorted. "I wanted pizza, but nooooo, you had to stay here to do your last-minute studying for that ice-bitch Ms. Raymond."
Dylan was about to start in with a snappy comeback, when a voice to his right caught his attention.
He turned just in time as Lionel Jackson and his younger brother Lamont came up with their trays. "Hey, save a spot for us, dude!"
Dylan cleared the space to his right off, and the two black teens hopped over the seats and began grabbing the salt and pepper dispensers, then dived into their meals with gusto. Kyle and Dylan eyed the two with wonder.
"Jesus!" Dylan exclaimed. "You two actually like this shit?"
Lionel nodded, then mumbled something completely unintelligible, his mouth half-stuffed with food.
Kyle chuckled. "Yo -- can my man translate that into like English?"
The big linebacker wiped his mouth. "I said, you dudes ready for the playoffs next week?" He cleared his throat, then grabbed a glass of water and took a long drink. "Shit, man, those guys at Sacto are mean motherfuckers. Me and my brother saw 'em play two years ago when we went up there to visit some relatives. They's some real tough-ass homeboys. Coach says we gonna get our asses kicked if we don't hustle."
All four teammates nodded in silent agreement. Coach Highland had repeatedly drilled into their heads the day before: they were really gonna have to give it all they got to win this one.
As if winning the last one was a fluke, Dylan mused. Coach just needs to lighten up.
"Hey, guys!" yelled a voice on the right. Team center Jordy Chandler trotted over, his plate piled high with food. "Scoot over and make way for me."
He slid down his tray, and in almost a single motion, grabbed a mouthful of turkey sandwich and hopped onto the last vacant chair. "The meatloaf looked like total shit, so I went for the deli bar instead." He took a long swig of Coke, then another huge bite. "Hey," he said, his mouth half-full. "I need a ride home from practice Monday night. Can you help a brother out, Lionel?"
The black boy shrugged. "You ain't my brother," he said, adding some liberal swabs of butter to his bread roll, "but as long as you can squeeze your scrawny white ass in the back seat, it's okay by me."
"Practice is gonna be brutal next week," moaned Chandler.
"Yeah, but at least we got the next five days off for Thanksgiving," Kyle pointed out, while spooning the last of his meal off his plate. "But you're right -- Coach is gonna be unmerciful after the weekend. Then we got that long bus-ride up to Sacto on Friday..."
Suddenly, there were several explosions in the outside hallway to the right.
Crack! Crack! Crack!
"What the fuck was THAT?" said Dylan, turning towards the door. At that moment, a half-dozen disheveled students ran in, screaming in panic.
"Shit! I think that sounded like..." began Lionel.
The entire plate-glass window beside them suddenly disintegrated into a thousand glittering fragments.
"GUNFIRE!" he cried. All five team members instinctively threw themselves to the ground under the table. As if in response, there were a dozen more small explosions outside.
"Sounds like an automatic," whispered Lionel. "We heard this shit all the time in the old neighborhood, back in Compton. Probably an M-16."
Getting closer now, thought Dylan, as several more shots fired in the distance.
"Naw, man!" insisted Lamont. "That's an AK-47, and you know it."
"You don't know what you talkin' 'bout, man!" he retorted. "That's booshit! You know that ain't no AK!"
"Shut-up!" hissed Dylan. "Whatever it is, they're coming this way! Quick -- let's turn this table over and get behind it."
They all nodded their heads. Dylan reached up and tipped the table over with a crash, creating a makeshift wooden barrier between themselves and the war that was raging outside in the hallway. As Dylan and the others crouched down low, their hearts racing, he noticed a girl to his left crying quietly.
"Hey!" he whispered. "Don't worry. It'll be OK. Just stay down on the floor, 'kay?"
She sniffled and nodded. Some of the other students and cafeteria workers were still standing, staring open-mouthed at the broken glass.
"GET DOWN!" yelled Dylan. "Hit the fucking floor, now!"
They immediately complied. The cafeteria workers ran back to the kitchen and slammed the metal door shut.
Suddenly, there was a loud scream as the main entrance to the cafeteria slammed open. A balding middle-aged man staggered inside, clutching the wall. Thin blotches of crimson crisscrossed his white shirt like a spider web, and his tie was askew. His eyes were wild, and he shook with effort as he tried to keep his composure.
"Get out," the man croaked. "Hurry! He's going to be here any second! Get out the back door! Now, while you still have a chance!"
Just as Dylan and the others began to scramble up to their feet, another figure darted through the doorway. He was dressed entirely in black, with a black cap, and he clutched some kind of rifle. The figure laughed quietly, then pulled the gun up and took aim. Five seconds later, most of principal John Meyers' brains sprayed all over the wall and ceiling, and his body fell to the floor with a sickening thud. It lay there, unmoving. The crowd of students in the cafeteria screamed, and several began to sob openly.
Dylan felt a curious ice-cold sensation in his stomach, and felt wracked with nausea and panic. Gotta stay focused, he thought. Stay calm in the face of danger. His karate teacher had taught him for years the need to maintain composure in panic situations. "Otherwise," Sensei had said, "you will lose the fight before it even begins."
"We in deep shit now, lil' bro," whispered Lionel. Lamont nodded, then looked over at Dylan, who continued to peer at the intruder from behind their makeshift barrier.
§ § §
Sgt. Bob Simmons stared in disbelief at the display. Shots fired... DeSoto Street at Vintage Avenue. Possible terrorist attack.
"Jesus H. Christ," he whispered. "That's the high school." He hit a button on his intercom console. "Joe! We got a code 7 at Chatsworth High! Radio LAPD and the FBI and get the nearest SWAT team over there, right now!"
He grabbed his cap and was halfway out the door when the watch commander stopped him in the hallway.
"Simmons!" he said quickly. "I just talked to the dispatcher -- there's at least three down, one confirmed dead at the high school."
"I'm on it," he said, breaking into a jog towards the waiting patrol cars. "Call ahead for fire rescue and EMTs -- I think this is gonna be a real bad one."
§ § §
"I said MOVE!" the boy barked. As if to punctuate his remarks, he opened fire on the ceiling, causing a cloud of fiberglass and chunks of plaster to rain down on the students below. "Get in the center of the room, if you want to stay alive a little bit longer!"
One hundred and thirty-six students and several adults stood with their arms raised, and shuffled over to their left. Dylan and his teammates watched from the extreme right corner of the room, not moving an inch. They couldn't quite catch a glimpse of the boy's face, since all they could see from this angle was his back.
One girl was sobbing hysterically, while another tried to reassure her.
"SHUT UP!" screamed the boy with the gun.
"Hey!" yelled one large senior. "Lighten up, willya, dude?"
The boy immediately fired off a single round, and the senior screamed, grabbed his leg and fell to the floor.
"Is that light enough for you, dickless?" the boy said. He ejected the spent magazine and quickly dropped in a replacement.
Shit, Dylan thought, as he stared to the exit door, which was tantalizingly close -- barely 20 feet away. His mind raced, trying desperately to come up with a plan. We could almost make it, maybe if we crawled out, he thought. But there's too much risk that he'd spot us and just shoot us in the back, like dogs. Just like Jordan's men in the book.
His mind wandered back to the exam he was preparing for less than twenty minutes before. Don't ask for whom the bell tolls, he thought giddily. It tolls for thee.
The crowd was wavering now. Their voices were low and muttering; some sobbed, some breathed heavily, and all of them stared wide-eyed at their captor.
"Please stop this!" pleaded a voice from the left.
The boy whirled, pulling the rifle up to his shoulder, his black eyes narrowed to slits.
"Let us go," she insisted. "You have no right to do this," she ordered, in a clipped British accent.
Dylan stared. Fuck, he thought. Mrs. Raymond! That crazy bitch...
She began to walk towards him. "You must stop this immediately," she said evenly. "Mr. Mitchell, this is completely outrageous behavior. Let everyone go, now. We must restore order."
She was less than ten feet away from the boy now. He looked her right in the eye, then, with the M16 at his side, squeezed the trigger and let half-a-dozen shells fire. Her body shook with the impact -- almost as if she was dancing a jig, Donny thought with glee -- and then she crumpled to the floor, bleeding profusely. She moaned softly and then lay still.
"You are the weakest link," the boy said quietly. "Goodbye."
Dylan gulped. I know this kid, he thought, his mind racing.
Donny turned to the rest of the crowd on the far side of the room. "I see you trying to hide back there," he cried. "Get up! Get up now, and get over here with the rest of them! I want all of you in one place, so I can see you! NOW!"
Dylan ducked down behind the overturned table. Donny still hadn't noticed them, but time was running out. "Kyle," he whispered. "Listen -- I've got an idea. We're probably gonna die anyway... it's probably crazy, but I'm counting on Donny remembering me from the time I stopped the guys from beatin' him up in front of the gym."
Kyle stared at him curiously, then slowly nodded. "What the hell," he replied. "You're the QB."
As Dylan began to stand up, Lionel hissed at him. "You crazy!" he said, still flat on the ground. "Get your stupid ass back on the ground!"
Dylan continued standing, raising his arms up as he rose to his full height of 6'-1". "No way, man," he said under his breath. "I'm callin' this play."
Donny bent over to inspect the fallen body of the middle-aged woman. Barely alive, he decided. One more head shot should do it. He hefted the weapon back to his shoulder and took careful aim.
"Donny," called a voice behind him. "Wait! Listen to me."
The boy took his eye off the telescopic sight and turned. It was a football player -- actually two of them -- standing up behind an overturned table. He vaguely remembered the one on the left, the good-looking one with dark brown hair. Both were wearing the familiar school letter on their varsity jackets. More assholes, he thought to himself. Soon to be dead assholes. He raised the gun back to his shoulder.
"Stupid fuckin' jocks!" the boy snarled. "Gay-bashing morons! I hate all of you! And now it's your turn!"
Dylan raised his hands up. "Donny, hold up -- it's me! Dylan Callahan. Remember? I tried to help you -- you and Sean... that time you were gettin' pushed around in the hallway by the gym!"
Donny took his eye off the gunsight and stared. I remember that day, he thought. Me and Jeff and Sean, with the GSA posters. His eyes began to tear up with the memory of his friend, his lover, now dead... dead along with the rest of his tormenters.
Dylan took a step forward, his arms still over his head. "Donny! Don't do this. I swear, I'm not your enemy."
"Me neither," called out Kyle, slowly walking alongside Dylan, his hands held high.
"STOP!" screamed the boy. "Stop or I'll fuckin' kill you right there! I don't want to, but you're gonna make me do it!"
Dylan gritted his teeth. Maybe I can just talk him out of this, he thought. Maybe I can negotiate this, just like Dad. Or at least buy us some time until the cops show up.
"Tell me why, Donny," he said quietly. "Why are you doing this? If we're all gonna die, at least tell us why. You owe us that much."
"I DON'T OWE YOU SHIT!" the boy screamed. "DON'T TAKE ANOTHER STEP OR I'LL FUCKIN' KILL YOU!"
Dylan stared down the barrel of the M16, which was now less than 15 feet away. He thought for a moment how the opening looked almost like an eye, a deadly metallic eye, and imagined what it would feel like when the white puff of smoke came out and he felt that brief white-hot sensation in his body. If he was lucky, the first shot would do the job, and at least it'd be over with fast.
"YOU AND ALL THESE OTHER HOMOPHOBIC BASTARDS!" Donny wailed. "I hate you all! And now you're gonna die!"
Homophobic? Dylan thought. Wait just a minute... "No, no," he insisted, waving his hands. "You got it all wrong. We're not homophobic at all! There's more gay kids here at the school than you know... I swear!"
Donny eyed him warily. "What do you know about gay kids, you goddamned breeder!" he snapped. "You just call us names -- fudge-packer... faggot... cocksucker! Treat us like we're lower than shit... like we don't even matter." He began to sob. "Guys like you live to beat the shit outta kids like me, just because we're different. Me and Jeff... and Matthew Shepherd. But all that's gonna stop now. I'm gonna make it stop."
"Killing us won't do anything, Donny," Dylan said evenly. "All it'll do is make you look more like a nut-case."
The boy scowled and he furrowed his brow.
"X-nay on the ut-nay," whispered Kyle.
"I mean..." Dylan corrected himself, "uh -- shooting more people won't bring anybody back. Will it?" He took another cautious step forward. "And is it gonna make anybody who reads about this in the paper sympathetic to you and other gay kids?"
"What would you know about sympathy?" Donny wailed. "You have no idea how I feel! None of you do. You don't even know what pain is like! You don't! You may think you do, but you don't!"
Dylan looked him right in the eye. "But I do, Donny," he said quietly. "I'm gay, too." He heard several gasps from behind him, but ignored them.
The boy stared at him in disbelief. "Shut up," he said. "You're lying! You're just saying that to confuse me. And it's not gonna work."
Dylan shook his head. "I swear to god, man," he said. "I'm totally gay. Always have been. So is Kyle."
His friend gulped. "Bisexual," he corrected. "Uh -- actually, kinda bi-curious."
"Whatever," Dylan said, rolling his eyes. "But we're both jocks, and we're both gay. And we know exactly how you feel. We're both into guys."
"No," Donny whispered. "You're just trying to fool me. Stop it." His hands were shaking, and he was having trouble keeping it on his shoulder.
Dylan reached out his left arm and gently pulled Kyle towards him. "Look... if I was totally straight, there's no way I could do this." With that, he turned to his best friend in the world, reached out with both hands, and kissed him full on the lips.
"Oooof!" muttered Kyle.
"Shut up and go with it," retorted Dylan through his teeth.
They continued kissing, and within seconds went into a deep soulful kiss. Dylan ran his fingers through Kyle's hair, and felt a stirring in his groin. For a moment, the room evaporated, and all they could feel was each other's warmth, smell their breath, taste their mouths, feel their taught, muscular bodies. Kyle put his arms around him and held him tight. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, they parted and turned back to Donny, who stared at them, jaw agape.
"And if that doesn't convince you," said Dylan quietly, "I'll go down on him. But I'd rather not."
"This... isn't a trick?" asked Donny in a small voice. It didn't seem possible, he thought. It didn't make sense. Football jocks couldn't be gay... could they?
"It's totally for real," Dylan replied, as he took a step closer. "Swear to God. Donny... I'm gay, and I know exactly how you feel. So give me the gun... please."
"We gotta end this thing now, Donny," echoed Kyle. "Otherwise, everybody out there's gonna think every gay kid is crazy. And we're not."
"We gotta stick together," continued Dylan, who was now less than seven feet away from the boy and closing. "Like a family."
"Like a family," whispered Donny, as he let the rifle slide off his shoulder. He nodded slowly, almost as if waking up from a dream. "Yeah." He made a vague motion to hand the weapon over, when suddenly, all hell broke loose.
Crack, crack, crack-crackity-crack!
Kyle felt the sting of an angry bee rip through his right shoulder. The impact spun him around, then he collapsed to his knees, crying out in agony. As if in slow-motion, Dylan turned his head just in time to see two large glass windows on the left splinter and disintegrate. In front of him, Donny tried to raise the rifle back to his shoulder, then staggered back as a hail of bullets slammed through his neck and chest, ricocheting on the cement block wall behind him, chipping the stone and splattering the wall with small red blotches.
Dylan threw himself to the ground, his ears ringing with gunfire, just as Donny's body crumpled and fell back, then slowly slid down to the floor. After the deafening roar ceased, Dylan crawled over to the boy, whose face was creased with pain. He reached out and held the boy's head in his hands.
"You lied to me," Donny croaked. "It was all a trap. I knew it."
"No," Dylan whispered, his eyes filling with tears. "I really am gay -- I swear it. I'm sorry... Jesus, I'm so sorry, man."
There was a flurry of movement behind him. In a matter of seconds, the two boys were surrounded by a dozen men, each wearing black flack jackets and helmets.
"Move it, move it, move it!" barked the first officer. "Get away from the suspect!" He quickly stepped over and yanked the M16 out of Donny's limp hands, then flung it over to the side, where it clattered across the concrete floor, well away from the two boys.
"Shit," moaned Kyle from behind him. "Dude... I'm hit."
Fuck, thought Dylan, his mind racing. Still half-kneeling, he quickly slid over to where his friend lay, less than six feet away. Another SWAT-team member was already checking the boy's shoulder.
"He winged you pretty bad, kid," the woman said. "But at least it came out clean. We've gotta stop that bleeding, though."
Dylan glared. "Donny didn't shoot him. You fucking idiots did, when you overreacted! If you'd just given me five more seconds, I could've gotten him to totally surrender without anybody getting hurt."
The woman shook her head. "Sorry, kid. Since 9/11, every SWAT team in the country pretty much has to shoot first and talk last, the moment we have a clean target. What you did was very brave, but very stupid. You really should've let us handle it."
Kyle moaned again. "That's a buncha crap," he said. "What Dylan said is right. He's a fuckin' hero, and you guys were complete morons."
The woman started to argue, but before she could speak, a stretcher rolled up, and two EMT orderlies pushed past him, then hoisted Kyle up and onto the bed.
"I'm goin' with you to the hospital," Dylan said, walking beside the stretcher.
"Halt right there," barked another officer, who put his hand on Dylan's shoulder. "You're not going anywhere until we get a statement from you."
"Get your hands off me, man," Dylan growled. "My name's Dylan Callahan. My father's Mike Callahan, CEO of DeMille Communications. You want me, I'll be with my friend at the hospital. Send a cop over there, and I'll talk to them there. I promise I won't leave until I make a statement, 'kay?"
The officer began to object, but Dylan impatiently pushed past him and followed the stretcher outside through the doorway and to the sidewalk. An ambulance was rolling up on the grassy area next to the cafeteria, just a few dozen feet away. He was startled to see that there were no less than ten fire-rescue trucks and a dozen other ambulances parked in the street, along with a score of patrol cars and heavy-duty vans. Nearby was a what looked like a futuristic tank, complete with a battering-ram on the front, and three menacing-looking black-and-gray LAPD helicopters hovered overhead.
Just as the stretcher approached the ambulance, Kyle reached out and weakly squeezed Dylan's hand. "Hey," he whispered. "Now I know how that guy in the Spanish Civil War felt when he got blown away at the end of the story."
"Shit, Kyle," Dylan said apologetically. "This wasn't supposed to happen."
The red stains continued to billow out from Kyle's upper arm, trickling down his sleeve. Two orderlies raised the stretcher up to full height, then wheeled it over to the waiting lift-gate and pulled it inside. Dylan scrambled in behind them and perched on a folding cot in the back.
"Sorry," said the EMT inside the van. "We can't let you ride with us. Against the rules."
Dylan firmly shook his head. "He's my brother," he said, thinking quickly. "I'm not gonna leave."
The technician shrugged his shoulders. "Alright. Just sit over there and stay out of the way."
"Hey, kid!" called a voice from outside the ambulance door.
Dylan turned and saw a phalanx of reporters, armed with a barrage of microphones, cameras, and lights. A row of police offers and yellow 'crime scene' tape blocked off the entire south side of the block, and crowds of onlookers stood and gaped at the scene. It looked like complete chaos, almost like a scene from a third-world country caught in the middle of a war.
"Is that one of the victims?" the man called. "Is he alright?"
Dylan turned and looked expectantly at one of the orderlies, who was removing Kyle's shirt.
"Too soon to say," the man said, as he dabbed the wound. "He's bleeding pretty badly."
Dylan glanced back at Kyle's face. He shuddered when he saw his friend's eyes were closed and his face was very pale. The reporter called again, and Dylan leaned out the back. "Yeah," he called. "He's gonna be okay." He's gotta pull through, he thought to himself.
The reporter tried to rush forward, but two police officers held him back. "Can you tell us the name of the killer?" the man yelled. "Why did he do it?"
Before Dylan could answer, a black-vested SWAT member stepped up to the back of the ambulance. "Move it," the man ordered. "Get them to the hospital, quick. We'll take care of things here."
The door slammed shut with a clang, and the ambulance roared to life, tearing down the grassy hill, then bumped onto the street. The siren began a slow, steady wail, and the vehicle began to pick up speed.
Dylan held onto a nylon grip for support as the truck took a sharp turn, then leaned back against the makeshift chair and let out a long sigh. "Donny Mitchell," he said quietly, half to himself. "The killer's name was Donny Mitchell. And he did it because he was tired of people hurting him, just because he was different."
The ambulance continued speeding down the road until it hit the freeway on-ramp, then darted into an ocean of rush-hour traffic, its angry siren pushing through the line of cars like Moses parting the Red Sea.