Christian Winters stared at the erupting scene before him and grimaced. He'd covered dozens of wars and acts of terrorism before, and was even nominated for a Pulitzer for a series of human-interest stories he'd done on the 'forgotten victims of Hurricane Andrew' back in 1992. He didn't win the prize, but it was enough to change his life -- snatching him from the relative-obscurity of a small West Palm Beach newspaper and rewarding him with the plumb job of the new Eastern European correspondent for Time magazine.
But even a decade of overseas reporting hadn't prepared him for the chaos that greeted him that afternoon in Chatsworth. He stubbed out his second cigarette of the day and re-checked his notes. As of 12:40 that afternoon, the high school assassin had managed to kill seven people, including the school principal, and wounded nine others. Some were already calling it "the worst school shooting incident since Columbine," referring to the 1999 tragedy in Colorado.
Winters sighed. The sad reality of journalism in the last decade was that local government and police departments were making it almost impossible for American reporters to do their job -- to tell the public the unvarnished, objective truth, as opposed to the heavily-filtered, biased propaganda certain politicians wanted the public to hear. And it was even worse overseas, when the U.S. government put a virtual stranglehold on reporters in combat situations. We're edging closer and closer to 1938 Nazi Germany, he thought ruefully.
Just then he felt an electronic vibration in his hip pocket. He reached in and grabbed the cellphone and snapped it open. "Winters," he said curtly.
"Chris!" cried a familiar voice. "The LA bureau just told me you were already at the scene, and I couldn't believe it! I thought you were supposed to be on vacation!"
He smiled. Sometimes the news finds the reporter, he thought. Not always the other 'way around.
"Sorry, Stan," he said. "I know Chatsworth is kinda off my beat, but I figured you guys could use the help. I caught the first bulletin on CNN, and since the school was less than six blocks away from where I was staying with my sister's family..."
The managing editor laughed. "Winters," he said. "I don't know how the hell you do it, but you always seem to wind up right in the middle of the action. Get that story, whatever it takes. We're already revamping the cover, and we'll need final copy by Friday afternoon -- earlier if you can swing it."
At that moment, a man wearing a black FBI jacket jogged by the news crews and hopped over the police tape.
"Hey!" Winters shouted over the din of the crowd. "Can we get an official statement?"
The FBI man stopped and turned his head. "The mayor and the police commissioner will have a press conference over at Holy Cross Hospital at 3:00PM," he said. "You and the other reporters would be much better off going over there. This entire area is gonna be sealed-off as tight as a drum for the next 48 hours." He turned and continued jogging.
"Chris!" shouted the voice in his ear. "You got that? Friday night!"
"I got it, Stan," he said. "I'll touch base at 6 Pacific time." With that, he snapped the phone shut.
About a hundred yards away, he heard some students talking. One of them cried out something unintelligible, and the other one shrieked in response. He pushed through the throng of photographers and reporters, and made his way over to the teenagers.
"Hello," he said, as he jogged up, flashing them his press badge. "I'm Christian Winters, with Time magazine. Were any of you eyewitnesses to what happened here this afternoon?"
The four kids shrugged. "No," said one, a pretty brunette to his right. "But my girlfriend Darlene was."
"And where is she now?"
The girl pointed off to the right, where a police van holding a dozen students was beginning to roll away.
"The cops are taking them over to the station -- said they wanted to get statements from all of them. They were all in the cafeteria when Donny was shot."
Winters raised an eyebrow. "'Donny?'"
"He's the kid who killed those people today. Donny Mitchell."
The reporter scribbled furiously in his notebook. "You're sure that's his name?"
She nodded. "Donald... whatever. He's a real flamer -- uh... queer, that is."
Winters' eyes narrowed. "I see. What did that have to do with it?"
"I think he -- Donny, that is -- I think he was out to get the straight kids who were beatin' him up and stuff. Mostly the jocks."
That's a little tidbit CNN left out, the reporter mused, continuing to scribble in his notebook.
"Was your friend there when this Mitchell boy was shot by the police?"
She nodded. "Yeah. The real drag was, he was about to give himself up to Dylan."
"Dylan Callahan, of course," she replied, exasperated, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world.
"Did Dylan know the Mitchell boy?"
The girl shrugged. "I dunno. But the other kids are saying Dylan convinced him he was gay, too. Jesus," she said, shaking her head in disbelief. "Why do the hottest guys in school turn out to be fags?"
He looked her right in the eye. "Just lucky I guess," he retorted, then glanced at his watch. "You've been very helpful, miss -- ah...
"Sandy," she said. "Sandy Nelson."
The reporter jotted down her name and number, promised to call her that evening with some follow-up questions, then quickly made his way back to his car.
I believe this story has just taken on a completely new angle, he thought, as he slammed the door of his rented Ford Taurus, fired up the engine, and took off down the street at top speed towards the hospital.
§ § §
Dylan sat nervously in the waiting room, glancing over every so often at the color set mounted in the wall. CNN had been carrying non-stop reports of the shooting, and already had a live reporter standing in front of the school. Several hospital workers stopped and stared in shock at the monitor.
Shit, he thought to himself, not believing the images on the screen. You know you're having a bad day when your neighborhood is the lead story on every channel.
He checked his watch. Twenty long minutes had passed since they'd wheeled Kyle into ICU. Most of the dozen wounded students had been brought here to Holy Cross, since it was less than five miles from the school. The room had been a flurry of activity, with more than a half-dozen doctors and nurses bustling in and out of the room. The overhead PA system blared incessantly, summoning doctors to various stations around the building.
What are the odds I'd be spending another day with Kyle in the hospital, he thought, shaking his head at the incongruity of the situation. It seemed almost a lifetime ago that he sat in this same row of chairs, waiting for the word on Kyle's friend Hank. Hank's dead... Angel's dead... those kids at school... and now Kyle...
"Watch it! Move him this way."
Dylan looked up just in time to see two green-clad orderlies and a nurse wheeling Kyle's hospital bed through the door and down the crowded hallway.
"Hey!" he cried. Dylan jumped out of his seat and pushed his way through the onlookers, then walked quickly alongside the nurse.
"How's he doing?" he asked. He looked down and saw that Kyle's eyes were closed, and his lower face was covered with a clear breathing mask.
"Your brother's stable, but he's lost a great deal of blood," she said, as they turned down the corridor and stopped at the elevator. "I suggest you go back to the waiting room. I'm sure your parents will want to be with you now."
The electric doors whooshed open, and they rolled the cart in. Dylan looked down at the figure in the bed -- almost unrecognizable, due to the oxygen mask and tubes coiled around Kyle's face and chest.
"And you might want to say a prayer," the nurse said. "Your brother's not out of the woods yet. But he's getting the very best of care."
Dylan nodded, and the doors slid shut. He trudged back to his seat and sat down. One of the other waiting-room spectators nearby was crying softly.
"Oh, my god," the woman said, dabbing her eyes. "I just can't believe all this is happening."
He sighed. Neither can I.
§ § §
"I still don't give a shit," snapped Mike Callahan. "You tell them from me that if AOL-Time-Warner drops another two percent, we're going to consider them out of the bidding. I expect that the rest of you are in agreement?"
The members of the board murmured and nodded.
Just as he was about to continue, the conference room door opened, and a smartly-dressed blond woman stepped in. "Mr. Callahan?"
"Yes?" he said impatiently.
"I'm so sorry to interrupt. There's been... an incident at your son's school. It's on every station." She walked briskly over to the large TV screen on one wall and hit a button. Instantly, an aerial view of a school came up on the screen, with the headline, 'Death in Chatsworth: A Special Report.' A scrolling tickertape at the bottom listed the body count of dead and wounded.
"Oh, my god..." Callahan said, putting his hand over his mouth and leaning back in the chair. "Is Dylan alright?"
The secretary shook her head. "He's not answering his cell. The vice-principal just called and left a message that Dylan's gone to the hospital."
Suddenly, the man felt numb. "Is he... was he hurt?"
"I have a call into the hospital, but they haven't gotten back to me."
"Get him on the line right now, Shelly," he barked. "If we don't have an answer in five minutes, I'm going to drive over there myself." He stood and looked over at the other board members. "Gentlemen, we're done for today. I vote we adjourn for the holiday weekend right now."
The men shuffled their papers and got up to leave. The woman walked over to her boss, pad and pen in hand. "Michael, don't worry," she said quietly. "I'm sure if anything happened, we would've known..."
"But that's just it," he interrupted. "We don't know." He reached over and picked up the telephone and angrily punched in some buttons. "But we're gonna find out.
§ § §
The waiting room had practically become a make-shift wake. Several teenagers were sobbing openly, and half a dozen parents clung to each other, ashen with grief. It was as if a dark cloud of death and fear had seeped into the building, making everything seem dull and numb.
After almost an hour, Dylan had grown irritated with the news channel's endless repeating of the same few facts, over and over again. They'd only just gotten Donny's name a few minutes ago, but insisted that 'details were still sketchy.' Already, reporters were pointing out the similarity to other school shootings around the country over the last decade, and two 'experts' got into a spirited debate on whether the escalating violence was due to the impact of television or the Internet on society. Dylan quietly slid his chair around the corner and ducked into a little maintenance closet normally used by the staff, then closed his eyes, grateful for the relative peace and quiet.
"Attention, please!" barked an overhead voice. "Will Mister Dylan Callahan please come to the main ICU nurse's station? Dylan Callahan, to the main ICU nurse's station, please?"
So much for a nap, he thought. Dylan yawned and checked his watch, and was shocked to see that 15 minutes had gone by. He cleared his head, then got up and jogged back down the corridor and walked up the desk.
"Somebody just paged me," he said to the woman on duty. "Dylan Callahan."
She looked up and nodded. "There's an emergency call for you. You can take it on that courtesy phone over there," she said, indicating a white phone on the far left wall.
He picked up the phone. "This is Dylan Callahan," he said.
"Son!" cried his father. "My god... we heard about the shooting, and we..."
"I'm okay, Dad," he said. "But Kyle got shot. He's in surgery now. I... we... I sorta got involved with trying to stop the kid with the gun." And a lotta good that was, he thought.
"Just as long as you're okay," the man replied, with obvious relief. "Listen, Dylan... stay where you're at. I'm on my way over from downtown. And don't worry."
"Right. You talk to Mom?"
"Not yet. She's... she's a little under the weather."
Dylan understood. That was the usual family code for Mom being under one of her drinking binges. He sighed. "OK. I'll be in the waiting area, or in Kyle's room when they bring him out of surgery."
"Give me about forty minutes."
"Thanks, Dad." He clicked the phone off, then looked up to see a middle-aged man, eying him curiously. The man had on a casual shirt and a wrinkled sport coat, as if he'd gotten dressed in a hurry.
"Yeah?" Dylan said, as the man took a step closer.
"You're... Dylan Callahan?" the man asked.
He eyed the man cautiously. "I might be. Who are you?"
The man flipped open his wallet and handed him a card. "I'm Chris Winters, senior editor for Time magazine."
Dylan glanced at the business card. "This says you're the editor for the Berlin Bureau. Aren't you a long way from home?"
Winters smiled. "Yeah. I'm actually here on vacation, just visiting my sister's family for the Thanksgiving holidays. I was only six blocks from the school when I heard the sirens and helicopters. Just dumb luck."
The boy nodded. "Yeah. What do you want?"
The reporter glanced around. "Maybe there's someplace we can talk... privately?"
"I've kinda got to hang around here," he said. "My friend's in surgery, and my Dad's on his way in to see me."
"Yeah. Listen, Dylan..." he paused, then checked his notes. "One witness said you were there when the gunman was shot."
Dylan didn't like where this was headed. "Yeah," he said slowly. "I was there. So?"
"And the gunman's name was Donald Mitchell. Is that right?"
The boy nodded.
Winters glanced at several news reporters talking on cell phones nearby, then put his hand on Dylan's shoulder and gently led him down the hall and into an unoccupied office.
"I don't really want to talk about it..." Dylan began.
"Listen," the reporter said. "Nobody else knows the whole story yet. You tried to stop the shooter, didn't you?"
Dylan nodded. "Lotta good it did," he said ruefully. "The cops still blew him away, when he was trying to surrender."
"Not yet," the man continued. "Donny Mitchell is still alive, just barely clinging to life. He's a tough little guy, that's for sure."
Dylan stared at him, open-mouthed. The kid took at least five or six direct hits in the chest and neck, he thought, his mind reeling. He must be Superman!
"You saved his life, as well as the lives of over a hundred people in that lunchroom," Winters continued. "At least, that's the way it looks to me." He stared directly into Dylan's face. "Why did you do it?"
"I... I don't wanna talk about it," Dylan said, backing up, making his way out to the hallway. "Leave me alone."
"Was it because the shooter was gay?" the man called from behind him.
Dylan stopped, dead in his tracks, and slowly turned around.
"I only want to tell the whole story, Dylan," Winters said quietly. "Just the truth."
No, Dylan said. I can't deal with this now.
"Hey kid!" cried another voice from down the hall. "We've been lookin' all over for you!"
Dylan looked up. It was the SWAT team sergeant he'd talked to an hour before.
"You're comin' with me," the man said briskly, taking him by the shoulders and practically pushing him through the front doors, which snapped open. "We need to get a statement from you down at the station, right now."
Dylan looked back helplessly at the reporter in the hallway.
"Call me!" the man mouthed.
As he was led away, Dylan glanced down at the business card in his hand, which had a local cellphone number written on it in blue ink, and let the policeman lead him over to a van outside.
The reporter watched until the boy vanished in the distance. He fought the urge for another cigarette, hoped that his nicotine patch hadn't slipped off again, then walked briskly back down the corridor and began working out his lead for the story
§ § §
As it turned out, the police were almost conciliatory. It took Dylan nearly half an hour to answer all their questions, and the policewoman dutifully recorded his statement while another officer made notes.
"Anything else you need to add?" she asked.
Yeah, he thought. Why the hell did you shoot when you could see Donny was surrendering? But Dylan shook his head. He was exhausted, and his stomach growled from not being allowed to finish his lunch from three hours earlier.
"Can I go now?" he asked wearily.
The woman nodded, and an officer led him back outside. Once they got to the parking lot, the man clapped him on the back.
"You did real good back there at the high school," the policeman said opening a door for him in the squad car. "Without you there to stop him, that nut-case would've gunned down at least another dozen or two more victims."
Dylan sighed. He wasn't a nutcase at all, he thought, but kept his mouth shut.
He felt nothing but pity for Donny.
"Thanks," he said. Suddenly, his cellphone chirped, and he clicked the button. "Hello?"
"Dylan!" said his father. "I'm at the hospital. Where are you?"
"I'm at the Northridge police station, Dad," he said, closing the car door. "They made me give them a statement. I'll meet you back at the ICU in five minutes."
"Kyle just got out of surgery," his father continued. "I'm with him and his parents right now in the waiting room near recovery. He'll be unconscious for at least another hour, then he'll go to the ICU. Tell the guard in the lobby to let you go to recovery room 107A, over in the South wing."
"I will. Thanks, Dad."
How am I going to explain all this to Kyle's parents, he ruminated, as the police car quickly made the turn and sped down Devonshire Street.
§ § §
Kyle struggled to open his eyes. "Whoa..." he moaned. "I'm gonna hurl."
"Don't try to sit up, son," said a distant voice. "It'll take a few hours for the effects of the anesthetic to wear off."
The intensive-care room was dark, but the wall to his right was dotted with dozens of red and yellow lights. "Jesus," he gurgled. "I swear -- as God is my witness, I am never gonna chug a six-pack of Heineken again."
The doctor laughed. "We've got you on something a little stronger than that, Kyle. I'm Doctor Logan. That bullet did quite a bit of damage to your shoulder, along with two major arteries. But we set the bone and were able to stop the bleeding. If you start feeling some more pain, just push the button on this unit here." He pointed towards a blue box the size of a toaster on his left, which fed a clear tube that went to the back of Kyle's hand. "And if it gets worse, call the nurse using the button over here. At least you're out of the woods now." He put his clipboard back on the front of the bed and left the room.
"Christ," Kyle muttered, as the room slowly came into focus. "That means I'm gonna miss the regionals next week."
"Mellow out, dude," said a familiar voice. "None of that matters. At least you're gonna be OK."
Kyle turned and saw a slightly-blurry Dylan leaning over, smiling from ear to ear.
"No thanks to you, asshole," Kyle said woozily. "When these drugs wear off, I'm gonna kick your ass for draggin' me into this thing."
Dylan's smile faded. "But..."
"You stupid ASSHOLE!" Kyle cried. "Who the hell are you to fuckin' out me in school? You had no right to do that!"
Dylan took a step back. "I said I was sorry," he protested.
"Sorry ain't good enough, dickless," snarled the injured teen, as he struggled to sit up, then thought better of it and fell back down with a grunt.
"I was just trying..." Dylan began.
"You were just bein' what you always are," Kyle interrupted. "The guy who always gets what he wants, who gets away with everything, just because of your fuckin' money and your family! And I'm sick and tired of that shit!"
Mrs. McDermott stood up from her chair. "Kyle, please! The doctor said you should relax." She turned to the other boy. "I'm sorry, Dylan. Maybe you should go home... both of you need a break for awhile."
Dylan stared at Kyle's parents. They'd always gotten along with him before, but now they seemed to eye him with suspicion. They know about the gay thing, he thought.
"Get the fuck away from me, Dylan!" Kyle cried. "Just get outta here. I feel like shit, and you're not makin' it any better."
There was an uncomfortable silence in the room.
"Alright," Dylan said finally. "If that's what you want."
"Then I'm goin'!" yelled Dylan over his shoulder, as he left the room and went down the hall. His father excused himself and ran after the boy.
"Sorry you had to hear that," muttered Dylan, as they weaved their way through the mass of anguished parents and relatives in the corridor. He wiped a stray tear from his eyes, and ground his teeth in anger.
"Kyle's just saying things," reassured his father. "Give him a couple of days to cool off, and he'll be alright."
Dylan stopped at the nurse's station, and turned to a middle-aged woman sitting by a computer monitor. "Miss? Can you tell me the status of Donny Mitchell?"
She scowled. "The police are handling all that. We've been instructed not to say anything at this time." The woman cocked her head. "You're the boy that tried to stop him at the school? Dylan Callahan?"
"Hmmmph," she sniffed, then clicked a few keys and checked her monitor. "Well, I can tell you he's still alive -- in critical condition. He's scheduled for another operation..." she glanced up at the clock, then continued. "Right about now." She glanced over at the tear-stained faces of the small crowd to their left. "The doctors upstairs are doing their best to keep him alive. But I bet a lot of these parents would like to see that boy in a coffin, right about now."
Dylan nodded and thanked the nurse, then the two Callahans weaved their way through the crowd and went through the automatic doors that led out to the parking lot.
"Don't be so hard on yourself, son," said his father. "Kyle's been shook-up pretty badly."
Dylan stopped by a palm tree and turned to the man. "No, Dad," he said quietly. "Kyle's right. I just wasn't thinking straight." Poor choice of words, he immediately thought. "I mean... I recognized Donny, and knew I was the only one who had a chance of stopping him."
His father sighed. "So I heard. You can tell me the rest of the story on the way home."
As they walked down the parking lot to Callahan's white Mercedes S600, a man with a notebook watched from a distance, smoking a cigarette. He flipped open a cellphone and made a call.
"Stan? Chris. There's a new wrinkle on the LA shooting: the hero is the son of Mike Callahan. Yes -- that Mike Callahan."
§ § §
"Alright," Yolanda said wearily. "I have your name and number, and I'll pass that along. Goodbye."
Dylan sat by himself in the kitchen, nursing a Pepsi. The TV channel had momentarily gone to commercial -- the first one he'd noticed in the past eight hours.
Jesus, he thought. It's like the whole fucking world changed in less than half a day.
He looked up just as the maid walked into the room. "Ernelle had to go home," she said, as she checked the oven. "But I'll stay here tonight, and try to keep dodging the phone calls."
"Thanks, Yo. Was that another one?"
She nodded. "The Weekly World News, that time."
"I'll cut my arm off before I talk to those sleazoids," Dylan said, then took another sip of soda. His hand idly rested in his pocket, and his fingers felt a sharp paper edge. He took it out and stared at the business card.
"The press are total vultures," said his father, who entered from the side-door and sat down next to him. "They're more interested in selling beer ads than telling the truth." He shook his head and sighed.
Telling the truth, the boy thought, running his fingers over the raised lettering on the card's Time magazine logo.
Just then, he glanced over to the TV, which had an old home video of Donny Mitchell, who appeared to be about 12 years old on the tape. Dylan grabbed the remote and turned up the sound.
"...clearly an example of early psychosis in young adults," said a distinguished-looking man on a couch. "Undoubtedly, this twisted young killer wanted to make some kind of name for himself, following in the footsteps of Lee Harvey Oswald, Charles Manson, and so many other lunatic killers in history."
Dylan's mouth fell open in surprise. Whaa?
"I disagree, Jim," said another expert. "I believe young Mitchell was more in keeping with the type of murderer exemplified by the Columbine case -- two deranged teenagers completely out of touch with reality, convinced they were empowered to subject others to their whims... almost a kind of 'god' complex, if you will."
"Assholes," Dylan spat. "That's not why he did it at all."
His father was taken aback. "You can't possibly defend what Donny did!"
Dylan shook his head. "No, Dad. Shooting up the school wouldn't solve anything -- any idiot knows that. Donny was just tired of people hassling him and beating him up, just because he was gay." He looked up at his father. "He knew what happened to guys like Matthew Shepherd. I think Donny just decided he was going to stop being a victim for a change, and make the first move instead."
He handed his father the card. "This guy tried to talk to me at the hospital," Dylan continued. "I know you told me not to talk to any of the press. But maybe I can do just one."
The man glanced at the card and frowned. "This could be a very bad idea, son."
"But I've gotta do something!" Dylan insisted. "Somebody's gotta stop these morons with their theories and their bullshit. And I'm the best guy who can do it."
Callahan looked at his son with a steely-eyed stare, then his expression softened. "Well, he conceded, "I guess at least this is a lot better than the tabloids. You want me there for the interview?"
"Only if you want to."
Callahan raised his hands in mock surrender. "It's your show, son. Your mother and I will just stay in the background, alright? And before you talk to the guy, let me at least make a call to the company's media consultant. She can give you a few pointers on what not to say."
"Alright." The boy reached for the phone and dialed the number, then cleared his throat.
"Mr. Winters?" he said. "This is Dylan Callahan. I wanted to... I wanted to talk to you about what happened this afternoon at school, and tell you about Donny Mitchell."
§ § §
The interview went as expected. Amazingly, his mother presented herself like the idealized upscale wife and mother. You'd never know she was drunk and practically unconscious ninety minutes ago, thought her husband.
"I think we pretty much have everything we need," Winters said, slipping his recorder and notepad back in his coat pocket. "The digital shots we have of you and your family look fine. I'm going to recommend to the editor that we use Dylan's close-up on the cover."
Dylan was taken aback. The cover?
"Not a big picture," the photographer said, as he moved his floodlight over to the right. "You're not 'man of the year' yet. Just a small inset on the upper right. Donny Mitchell and a shot of the school will be the main cover."
Winters nodded. "I can't guarantee it," he cautioned, "but this has been a slow news week, partly because tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and the Chatsworth shooting is the biggest story we've had in awhile. I'd say you've got better than a 50-50 chance."
"The cover of Time magazine," enthused his mother. "I can't believe it!"
"I certainly appreciate you letting us come by at this late hour, Dylan," Winters said, shaking the boy's hand. "You and your parents."
Dylan walked with the reporter down the entrance way and outside to the man's rental car, which was parked at the curb.
Winters turned back and watched through the window as the photographer took one more shot of Dylan's mother and father inside the house, with the dog by their side. The perfect American family, he thought wryly, shaking his head.
"Listen, Dylan," he said, as he opened his car door. "I just want you to know... you did the right thing. People are going to know how brave you were to do what you did."
"I'm not a hero," Dylan muttered. "Half a dozen people are still dead. Everybody's freaked-out and they're calling Donny Mitchell a psycho."
Winters leaned out the side window. "Well, they'll know Donny's side of it when the new issue comes out. You planning to talk to any other reporters?"
Dylan shook his head. "I agreed with Dad -- you've got the exclusive."
"I appreciate that, Dylan."
"Mom wants me to do 60 Minutes," he replied, "but I think the show totally sucks."
"Just stay away from Mike Wallace if you do," he chuckled. "That guy even makes Saddam nervous." The reporter checked his watch. Almost midnight, he thought. If I work all night, I can have the first draft finished by dawn. He turned back to Dylan. "Listen -- you've been through a lot," he said reassuringly. "Take it easy. You're gonna be OK."
The boy sighed. "My best friend won't even speak to me."
"Make it up to him," Winters advised, as he revved the engine. "Surprise him. Flowers might work."
The boy rolled his eyes. "Too corny."
"You never know," the man said with a shrug. "It always worked when Michael and I had our skirmishes."
Dylan stopped and stared. "Your..."
"Boyfriend," the man said with a laugh. "I didn't want to tip my hand before the interview. But I would've reported the story the same way regardless. Hang in there, kid."
Dylan nodded and watched the car fade into the distance.
§ § §
Three hours later, Dylan still couldn't get to sleep, still adrenalized from the traumatic events of the day. He stared up into the darkness, watching the reflections from the outdoor swimming pool send little glimmers of blue light dancing across the ceiling and down the wall.
Fuck, he thought. If Kyle totally hates me, and won't even speak to me, I've got nobody. Everybody at school's gonna hate me. And the moment the magazine story comes out, everybody in the country's gonna know I'm gay.
He smiled wanly when he remembered the reporter's comment: "You'll be the most famous gay teenager in America, Dylan," the man had said. "But more important than that, you're a hero." Despite Dylan's protests, Winters pointed out that the boy had been willing to sacrifice everything -- his reputation, his popularity, even his life -- to try to stop a killer. Dylan wasn't even sure why. I just knew I had to do the right thing, he'd explained. I didn't even have time to think about it.
The reporter revealed that an FBI insider had given him a photocopy of a list of more than 50 victims on Donny Mitchell's 'hit list,' many of whom were in the cafeteria that afternoon. "My guess is that Donny would've killed them all, and then probably killed himself," Winters had said. "I'd say you saved at least 40 lives that day. Maybe more. And if Donny lives, at least he'll get a fair trial." Winters went on to say that no other U.S. school shooting incident had ever been stopped so effectively. His FBI insider had even admitted that the local SWAT team-member had overreacted, and never should've shot the suspect in the first place. They thought Dylan was a hero, too.
Dylan sighed. He knew the man was right. So what if my life is ruined, he thought. If I saved some of the other kids and teachers at school, maybe it was worth it.
Near his right side, a furry figure stirred, then burrowed its head closer into his arm. He reached out and petted the dog, who let out a contented sigh.
"At least you still love me -- don'tcha, Lady?" he whispered.
Dylan stared back at the ceiling. I'm gonna have to find a way to make it up to Kyle, he thought. But he was still troubled by one of the last questions the reporter had asked him: "Do you think of yourself as a football player who happens to be gay, or a gay teenager who happens to play football?"
Dylan still hadn't made up his mind on that. But he did know he was going to do whatever it took to get Kyle back in his life again. I think this is gonna take more than just a little negotiating this time, he thought.
§ § §
Thanksgiving morning at 7:30AM, Dylan walked into the hospital's South wing, carrying a vase of roses. He poked his head cautiously around the corner and glanced inside room 107A. Despite the darkness, he could barely discern a figure lying still on the bed to the left. The only illumination was from a row of LED readouts to the left of his bed, showing various vital signs. The bed on the right was still vacant.
He tip-toed in, and got close enough to the bed to see that Kyle was snoring quietly, his head turned away to the wall. Good, he thought. It'll be better this way. At least I'll know for sure he got the note. He set the vase down on the breakfast tray, careful to avoid making a sound, then turned to leave.
"You came back."
Dylan winced, then slowly turned. "Yeah. Look -- I'm going. I didn't want to bother you. If you wanna call me later or something, that's cool." Just don't hate me, he thought, bracing himself for the inevitable.
The injured boy grinned. "C'm'ere and kiss me."
Dylan rolled his eyes. "What're you on now?" he asked.
Kyle had a dreamy, far-away look on his face. "Morphine on tap, right in the machine over there," he said, nodding his head to the left. "They call it a PCU. God, it's fuckin' great. I'm gonna ask if I can take the thing home with me."
Dylan walked over to the steel railing at the edge of the bed and looked at his friend, who sat up slightly. He felt his heart flutter slightly when he saw Kyle was shirtless, and the boy's powerful muscles rippled slightly as he leaned forward. A large white bandage was taped around his right shoulder, partially covering his bulging chest. Even like this, he mused, Kyle's body is incredible. Probably better than mine.
Kyle reached up and touched Dylan's shirt. "Dude... I'm really sorry about what I said. I was totally outta line."
Dylan smiled wanly. "No. You were right. I was an asshole to drag you into this. I know you didn't exactly want to be the 'gay poster child' of Chatsworth High."
"My parents said you were right," Kyle said, his voice slightly slurred. "The cops told 'em the kid was gonna blow away pretty much everybody in the cafeteria. We woulda died for sure if you hadn't have done something." Kyle's eyes seemed to be shining -- whether from gratitude or the pain-killers, Dylan was wasn't sure.
Probably the pain-killers, he decided.
"Look, dude," Dylan began. "Lemme at least make it up to you..."
"Kiss me," the boy interrupted.
He shook his head. "C'mon, Kyle. That's just the drugs talkin'."
The injured teen reached out and squeezed Dylan's hand. "Listen, Dyl. I swear, I'd say that even if I wasn't bombed out of my mind on morphine. I love ya, dude. We'll deal with what happened, somehow."
Dylan grinned, then turned to the tray lying on a cart next to the hospital bed. "Hey," he said. "You left a couple of pieces of bacon."
"Be my guest," Kyle replied. "I ate most of it twenty minutes ago."
Dylan reached over and idly chewed half a piece.
"But that's not the kind o' meat I'm interested in right now."
Dylan blanched. "You can't be horny now!"
The boy pulled the covers down and opened up his thin green hospital gown, proudly displaying his engorged manhood, which throbbed and pointed towards the ceiling.
Dylan's eyes widened. "Jesus, dude!" he snapped, then glanced over to the door and quickly closed it. "Some orderly or somethin' could walk right in and..."
"...and see little Kyle, ready for action!" said the boy, who wiggled his erection and cackled.
Dylan felt his heart race. This is so wrong, he thought, then grabbed a chair and lodged it against the doorknob. But it's only wrong for five minutes. He quickly returned to the bed.
"I'm soooo fuckin' horny, man," Kyle moaned. "I haven't gotten off in like two days, and my right arm is totally useless for jackin' off. And besides, you owe me one!"
"Alright," Dylan said, reluctantly surrendering. "But we've gotta make this quick."
Dylan reached out and caressed his friend, who immediately groaned and moved closer to the side of the bed. After a moment's hesitation, he leaned forward and used his tongue as expertly as possible. He varied his technique -- squeezing with one hand, massaging the non-bandaged parts of Kyle's chest with the other -- and finally completely engulfed the hot, rock-hard flesh deep in his mouth.
The boy was delirious with pleasure. "Jesus!" he cried. "Oh, god... I can hardly stand this!"
"Shaddup, dude!" Dylan hissed, momentarily disengaging. "We can't let the nurses walk in on us."
"One more minute and I'm done, I swear," the boy moaned, laying his uninjured left arm behind his back.
Dylan resumed his manipulation. He forced his throat to relax, and felt the dull pressure thud against his tonsils, then stepped up the pace to a fever pitch. Kyle began to moan more loudly now, and Dylan felt the boy's scrotum tighten up, a sure sign that his impending climax was mere seconds away. Kyle began involuntarily thrust his hips upwards, clutched the back of Dylan's head with his one good hand, his heaving chest damp with sweat.
Back at the recovery station office down the hall, a small warning buzzer went off. The nurse glanced at the readout for the patient in room 107A.
Hmmmm, she thought, leaning closer to the display. Respiration irregular... pulse 120... BP 150 over 92... She shook her head with concern. He may be having a reaction to the medication. I better check this out myself.
She stepped briskly down the hall and walked up to the door, which appeared to be closed and -- locked? That was impossible! "Mr. McDermott?" she called, pushing again on the door, then knocking loudly. "Is there a problem? This door seems to be stuck."
Back inside the room, Kyle immediately pulled his hospital gown back down, then yanked the bedspread back up to his chin. Dylan quickly wiped off his mouth, then ran over and slid the chair to the side, and the door abruptly burst open. An angry-looking nurse stood in the hallway, eying him with suspicion.
"This patient had a respiratory problem indicated on the emergency monitor," she said as she entered, as she turned on the light and glanced around the room. "Along with a momentary arrhythmia." She walked over to Kyle's bedside, then checked the meters on the wall and the wires connected to his chest and arms and shook her head. "These all seem to be in order, except for a slightly elevated pulse, but that still doesn't explain the alarm at the nurse's station. Do you feel alright, Kyle?"
He smiled from ear to ear and leaned back with a contented sigh, putting his left arm behind his head. "Never better. I think I might've... sneezed a coupla times. Maybe that's what zapped the equipment."
Dylan tried to look as innocent as possible, but avoided looking at the nurse directly.
"A sneeze," she repeated, shifting her eyes from a nervous-looking Dylan to a sublimely-relaxed Kyle. "Well, you might want to put off any more 'sneezing' until you get home -- which looks like will be tomorrow morning, once we get you off the IV's today." She raised an eyebrow and looked reproachfully at both boys. "Of course, if you're coming down with a cold, you might have to stay here a little longer."
"No, no," Kyle said, shaking his head rapidly. "I'm already feeling much better. Definitely no sniffles."
The nurse smiled. "I would hope so. Someone will be in a moment to take away the tray." The woman turned to walk away, then stopped and glanced suspiciously at Dylan, whose face momentarily reddened. She shook her head, then continued out to the hall. "And leave this door wide open," she called over her shoulder. "Especially when you have visitors."
Dylan winced as he watched the woman exit. "Jesus," he said. "That was too fuckin' close."
"Yeah," nodded Kyle, who grabbed the last piece of bacon and took a bite.
"Hey," said Dylan, leaning back over the bed. "You could at least give me a kiss for that."
Kyle recoiled in mock horror. "Are you kiddin? After where that mouth's been?"
Dylan leaned over a little further, then Kyle craned his head up and gave him a long smack. "Mmmm," he said. "Better cut that out, or else I'm gonna need to go again."
"Like I don't," Dylan retorted, pointing down to his pants, which had a slight but noticeable bulge.
Kyle reached over to the remote and clicked on the TV, and Dylan pulled over a nearby chair and sat back. The Today Show immediately popped up, with special network coverage of the Thanksgiving Day parade, and both boys noticed that an aerial view of their high school was superimposed behind the news anchor's shoulder.
"Hey! How's he feeling?" chirped a loud voice.
The two turned just in time to see Sean McIntire trot in, his left arm in a sling. He practically skipped up to the bed, then skidded to a stop.
"Just wanted to drop by to see how you two heroes were doing," he said breathlessly.
"Hey, Sean," said Dylan, slightly embarrassed.
"Hi." The boy reached out and squeezed Dylan's shoulder affectionately. "That was... that was fabulous, what you guys did yesterday."
Dylan shrugged. "Is Donny still in a coma?" he asked.
Sean sighed and nodded, as he pulled over a nearby chair and sat down. "Yeah. The cops won't let me see him -- they've got his room totally locked up with guards and stuff. But I talked to his mom, and she says he's gonna live."
"Yeah," mused Kyle. "Live long enough to get a lethal injection."
The three boys sat in silence.
After an uncomfortable pause, Kyle reached over to take a last sip of orange juice. "So what happened to you, Sean?" he asked, nodding towards the boy's sling. "Don't tell me you got plugged by Donny. I figure he knew you were... y'know, already on the team."
Sean shrugged and pushed his glasses up on his nose. "After the first shots rang out in the B Building, I got knocked down the stairs by a big crowd trying to stampede out the emergency exit. It's just a sprain."
The boys glanced over to the TV set. Katie Couric was interviewing a bald, beady-eyed man, and the image momentarily cut to a slightly out-of-focus shot of Donny Mitchell, probably his yearbook photo.
"Turn it up," said Sean.
Kyle hit a button on his hospital bed.
"...so you don't feel this could lead to other similar tragedies at other U.S. schools in the near future? Is that accurate, doctor?"
"Yes," said the TV psychiatrist, who seemed slightly bored with the whole thing. "One isolated neurotic teenager is no more an indictment of our existing educational system than, say, a drive-by shooting necessarily relates to the safety of a specific neighborhood. This Donald Clark Mitchell undoubtedly had a deep-seated psychosis, more than likely the result of his broken home..."
"Oh, shut the fuck up," snapped Kyle.
"Yeah," Sean agreed. "Please turn that shit off."
Kyle hit another button, and the screen changed to MTV, showing a hot-looking woman with a bare midriff, accompanied by a different picture of Donny to her left.
"Jesus," moaned Dylan. "You just can't get away from this thing."
Sean grabbed the remote and shut the sound off. "Fucking jerks," he spat. "The whole press is totally controlled by straights! Nobody wants to understand gays like us, especially the fucking press."
"Bisexual," corrected Kyle.
"They're not all assholes," Dylan said. "I gave an interview last night to a guy from Time magazine. I explained what I think pushed Donny over the edge, so that at least people will understand now, and not think he's just some psycho. The reporter promised me he'd present all the facts in their new issue -- it's coming out on Sunday night, the cover story. He's gonna keep it real."
"Keep it real dumb, you mean," snapped Sean.
Kyle glanced over curiously at Dylan, but Sean continued to vent, waving his hands angrily.
"The media's always been hetero-centric!" he blustered. "These fucking breeders think they own the world! They're always trying to find somebody to blame for this crap," he argued. "You should've talked to The Advocate or somebody like that. At least they're sympathetic to the cause, even if they're like the gay version of People."
Dylan saw the concern on Kyle's face and reached out and put his hand on his friend's left arm. "Chill out, dude," he said. "I didn't say word one about you. The reporter already knew I kissed somebody right after I talked to Donny, but I didn't go into any details. I only talked about me, and explained why gay kids are getting scared and angry enough to do shit like this."
"Thanks," Kyle said, visibly relieved. "My parents are already freaked-out as it is. You can have that spotlight all to yourself."
Dylan sighed. "I guess maybe the worst is over. Now, all I gotta do is get enough courage to go back to school next week."
They stood in silence and watched a grainy close-up of Donny Mitchell's face on the TV. After a moment, the camera slowly zoomed into the boy's eyes, which seemed to look far more melancholy and forlorn than any of them remembered.