By Julien Gregg
Huge wet snowflakes swirled around us as the
football team advanced, chanting, "Preaching at school ain't cool!" A surge of
warm hope flowed through me. Steve's hand found mine and he squeezed. That's
when I turned back to look at the Reverend and his flock. They were also
advancing from the other side of us, and they were chanting as well. The news
cameras were having a hard time covering both groups. Reporters shouted
questions at us, the team and the flock. It was a mess.
The security guards from inside the school came rushing out to hold the football team back. I could hear sirens over the shouting, and that told me the police had arrived. That's when I saw Mitch fighting his way through the crowd of students who'd abandoned their walks to the buses to watch the scene unfold around them. The flock tried to prevent him from reaching us, but he shoved his way through them, reminding them that they were on school grounds.
Police officers made their way through the crowds and reached us at the same time that Mitch finally got close enough to us to speak. The shouting of the flock got louder as Mitch tried to tell us to follow him and the officers back into the school. Several members of the flock tried to stop us from going back into the school, but we shoved our way through them and to the main entrance. I noticed other police officers trying to talk to the gathered religious protesters as we made our way to the entrance of the school.
"This is unacceptable," spat Mitch as soon as the doors were closed behind us.
Steve and I stood there saying nothing. My heart was still pounding, and I didn't even notice that Rick and Mark were standing right beside us. I couldn't believe this was happening. So much for security at school. If we couldn't come and go from the school without having our cars vandalized and had to face a flock of screaming religious fanatics, what was the point? I decided then that I wasn't going to return to the school. This day proved to me that staying to graduate wasn't worth it at all.
"Mr. Benson, we're trying to calm the crowd down," said one of the officers. I was too busy thinking to even look at him. "It isn't helping that your own students are out there screaming back at them."
"The football team has more right to assemble on school grounds than any religious group," fired Mitch. "They're students, and if I'm not mistaken, the church has no business in the school at all."
"Of course we're reminding Reverend Hartman of that fact, Mr. Benson," said the officer. "If you could just help us with the other students . . ."
"I want to go home," I said, cutting into the conversation. "I can't drive, but I can call for a ride. I don't want to stay here anymore. I'm sorry, Mitch, but school isn't worth all of this." I pointed at the window where the crowds were still visible. "If this is what I have to look forward to I won't come back to school anymore. I'm seventeen, and I can make this decision on my own. I want to take my right to graduate right now. If that's not going to happen just let me know and I'll quit school right now."
"Tommy . . ."
"No," I said, cutting Mitch off while Steve stared at me open-mouthed. "I'm serious. My locker has been defaced, flyers have been posted calling for my public stoning. For God's sake, my locker was bombed. Mitch, I can't speak for my friends, but I can for me. I don't feel safe here at all anymore. I refuse to go to school where I have to look over my shoulder and be afraid to approach my locker."
"Tommy, don't do this," said Steve, looking at me with pleading eyes.
"Steve, I don't want you to be here anymore, either," I told him without softening my voice. I was well aware that I was practically yelling, but I didn't care. "I can't make that decision for you, though. Understand me, though, I'm finished with high school."
"That goes for me, too," said Rick, shocking me. "I agree with everything that Tommy said. I don't want to go to a school where I can't be sure that I'm safe. I don't have enough credits to graduate, but I don't want to attend this school anymore. If I can't go to a different school, then I guess I quit."
"Then I guess that means I'm out of here, too," said Mark.
"Boys," said Mitch with a sigh. "I know how you feel, believe me . . ."
"You don't know how we feel, Mitch," said Steve, cutting him off again and shocking the Hell out of me. "You don't have to walk through the parking lot wondering when you're going to get knifed or worse. You don't have to approach your locker fearing that it will explode as soon as you touch it. You don't know how we feel at all. I'm sorry, Mitch. I know I'm being rude here, but I can't help it. I don't want to leave school, but I guess I have to. There's no way you can guarantee our safety anymore. I'm out, too."
"I think we need to call a ride," I said, turning and walking away from them all. I headed straight for the payphone in front of the main office. Mitch called to me, but I didn't stop, and I didn't answer.
Andy answered the telephone when I called home. He already knew about the protests, because he was watching the news. He was angry when I told him about my car. When I asked him to come and get us he said he'd call his parents and let them know that we were stuck. All that was left to do was wait.
"Tommy," said Mitch as I walked back over to stand beside Steve. "I can't let you quit school."
"You can't stop me, Mitch," I said. "If I have to, I'll take this to court. I don't want to do that, but if you and my guardians won't let me do this, I will."
"There's another answer to this, Tommy," he said. "There has to be."
"Is there another answer that will make me feel safe here?" I countered. "There isn't as far as I can see. Nothing short of a miracle could make me feel safe here now. I'm sorry, Mitch, but if I can't get out of this the right way, then I'll do it any way I can."
"Are you threatening to . . ."
"This isn't necessary, Officers," said Mitch. "Tommy is still my student, and what I think needs to be done is to get those people away from this school. I'll talk to the boys myself. This is, after all, a school matter."
He took us into his office where he tried to talk us all out of our decision. We held firm, though, and we continued to remind him that the school was no longer safe for any of us. I hated to argue with him. He had gone out of his way to help us, but there just wasn't anything left to do. Storyville High School wasn't a safe place for gay students. There was no other way to look at it.
Tom and Shirley came together to get us, and then Mitch told them what we had decided. I was expecting my guardians to side with Mitch, but I was shocked when Shirley told him that she completely agreed with us. She said that she couldn't speak for Steve, Mark or Rick, but as far as she was concerned, I had just graduated from High School.
"Tommy, do you understand that by doing this you're letting them win?" Mitch asked.
"Mitch, I don't intend to let this be the end of it," I replied. "I don't know what I can do about what's happening, but I will do something to let them know that they haven't pushed me aside the way they intended."
"There's always the legal side of this," said Tom, and I smiled. "I assume the police are getting as many names as he can from the mob out there. I'll get a copy of those names, and we'll discuss what can be done to make them leave you alone."
"Is there some sort of paperwork that we need to sign to let Tommy graduate now?" Shirley asked. "I'm sorry, but there's no reason for us to be here longer than necessary. Tommy isn't a student here, after all."
"I'll get the paperwork," replied Mitch with a resigned sigh as he got up and left the office.
We were all pretty quiet after he left the office, but he returned pretty quickly with forms for Tom and Shirley to sign that would release me from school. He explained that I wouldn't receive my diploma until May along with the other students and that I was welcome to attend and participate in the graduation ceremony. I thanked him and told him that I really was sorry before all of us filed out to Tom's van. Police officers walked with us, keeping the flock away from us.
They screamed at us as we drove out of the parking lot, but the further away we got the safer I felt. I hated that it had come to this, but there really wasn't another option for me. I just hoped that Vince wouldn't give Steve a bunch of static about his decision. Mark and Rick were basically on their own as far as school went. I knew that both of their fathers would support whatever decision they made. This was really the end of our high school career.
* * *
"You can't just quit school, Steve," said Vince when we talked to him about what had happened. "I understand that you don't want to go back to Storyville High, but you have to go to school."
"I'm not going, Vince," replied Steve firmly. "Tom told me about a way that I can still get my diploma and not attend school on the way home from dropping of Mark and Rick. I'm going to do it that way. Just please don't try to make it hard for me, Vince."
"If you can get your diploma, then I'm not going to stand in your way," he replied. "I don't think you're safe at school, either. I just wish it didn't have to be this way."
"We all do," said Steve. "But it is this way."
We tried to sit down and have supper after that, but the phone started in. After the first few calls, we knew that our new number was now public knowledge. Members of the church had gotten it somehow, so Andy took the phone off the hook and called his parents on his cell phone to tell them about it. We thought that would solve our problem, yet as he sat back down a the table we started to hear the singing. We each looked at each other before getting up and walking into the living room. Once there we saw them.
Reverend Hartman was leading his flock down the street. They were singing a hymn that was familiar to all of us. Every person who's ever watched television, listened to the radio or attended church knows the hymn. The Battle Hymn Of The Republic was getting louder and louder the closer they came to the house. Stupidly I hoped that they would continue down the street, but they didn't. They stopped right in front of the house and advanced onto the lawn.
"Call the police," said Vince with a tone that I'd never heard him use before in all the time I'd known him. A glance at his face showed the look that mirrored the tone in his voice, and I winced when I saw it. Radiating from his eyes was hatred.
"Don't go out there, Tommy," said Andy as I pushed myself back from the couch and headed toward the door.
"This is my house," I replied. "I don't want them here, and if they don't leave I'll hose them."
That's exactly what I was planning to do. The garden hose was coiled on the side of the front porch. I thought that I could get to it and just turn the handle and spray them down. After all it was my property, and they were trespassing. However, as soon as I opened the front door I got splashed with something wet and sickeningly sticky. As I looked down at myself I started to hear someone scream. It wasn't until Steve got to me that I realized it was me screaming.
I looked up from the bloody mess that I was covered in to see Reverend Hartman himself smiling back at me. He held the dripping bucket from which the vile blood had been throw at me. His smile turned to a sneer as he heard the sirens. His flock continued to sing, and I glared back at him as Steve tried to pull me inside.
"Let that be a lesson to you!" cried the reverend. "Fornicator! Burn in Hell!"
That's when I noticed the rocks in the hands of the flock. Steve gasped and pulled me back as each one of the so called Christians threw their rocks at me. I remembered the flyer calling for our public stoning, and then a rock hit me in the head and everything went dark.
* * *
When I tried to open my eyes my head throbbed. I tried to speak, but nothing seemed to come out. Pushing my eyes open in spite of the pain in my head, I was confronted by the harsh glare of bright lights. The last thing I could remember was being on my front porch, watching as the flock prepared to launch rocks at us. Where were these bright lights? Our porch light wasn't that bright, and there was only one of them not a series.
"You're awake," a female voice said, and the sound of it was like nails being driven into my temples. My head hurt from the light, from the sound, breathing made it feel like a hammer was inside my skull, going to town and blinking was like cleaning an open wound with salt. "I'll get Dr. Rizetti."
Recognition dawned on me immediately. Dr. Rizetti had been the doctor that treated me after my mother died. Just hearing his name brought back so many painful memories. Then I remembered that Steve had camped out in a recliner beside me bed the whole time I'd been in the hospital that time. I looked, but there was only a chair next to my bed. Steve was nowhere to be found. That got me worrying about him. Why wasn't he there?
"Tommy," said Shirley's voice as she came into the room and saw me awake. "You had us worried, Sweetie. How are you feeling?"
"My head hurts," I replied lamely. "Shirley, where's Steve?"
Her eyes closed for a second, and then she had tears in them when she opened them again. My stomach lurched as my mind came up with only one reason why she would react that way to me asking where Steve was. I started to cry, and she came straight to the bed and took my hand. Her silence was terrifying me.
"Shh," she said, bending down to kiss my forehead. "Steve hasn't regained consciousness yet, but the doctor says he will, Tommy. This was such a horrible thing. I just can't believe it."
"Shirley, who else is hurt?" I asked, looking at her hard.
"You were hit so hard in the head," she said with tears running down her face. "Its probably good that you fell, Tommy. Poor Steve was hit over and over again. Vince was hit four times. He has a broken nose, but otherwise he's fine. He was here in your room about an hour ago. He's been going back and forth from Steve's room to yours all night."
"What about Andy?" I asked.
"Andy's fine," she replied with a sigh. "He didn't get hit by any of the rocks they threw. Those hateful . . ."
"Why isn't Steve awake?" I asked, getting more and more scared as I thought about the possibilities as to why he would still be unconscious.
"They don't know, Tommy," she said. "They keep telling us that his vital signs are stable, and he should wake up at any time, though."
"Then why isn't he?" I asked as Dr. Rizetti came into the room, carrying my chart with him.
"You're awake," he said, smiling. "I was worried for a bit. You've been asleep for two days, not counting the evening you were brought in. How are you feeling?"
"I want to know what's wrong with Steve," I said forcefully, trying to sit up and ignore the pain that rocketed through my skull with the effort.
"Lay back," he said, putting his hand on my chest and gently pushing me back against the mattress. "Steve woke up about ten minutes ago. Calm down, he's fine."
"Thank God," I sighed, relaxing against the mattress again. "I was scared to death."
"Well, he suffered a concussion," he said. "But other than that there are not problems. As for you, your injury was a bit worse. You were hit very hard, Tommy. Now I've told the police that they can't question you, yet. Its kind of hard to keep them at bay with the entire football team prowling the floor again. Didn't we have a discussion about those guys once?" He was chuckling as he said it, and that finally made me smile.
"I can't help it, Doc," I replied. "I'll try to tell them to go home."
"Oh, its no use," chuckled Rizetti. "We've all told them to go home, but they said they aren't going anywhere until they see both you and Steve awake and talking. So with that in mind I'm going to let them come in by twos after I examine you. You were always my most popular patient, Mr. Porter."
He unwound the bandage from my head, and it was then that I found out that I had fifteen stitches in my forehead just above the hairline. He then told me that I'd been given powerful antibiotics to counteract any infections that might have come from cross contamination. I'd been covered in cow's blood when the rocks hit me, and they were taking precautions in case any of the cow's blood made it into the wounds I'd suffered. By the time he left I was fairly comfortable in believing that I was all right. I was still worried about Steve, though. He said I couldn't get out of bed, but he'd send Vince to talk to me as soon as he finished his rounds.
Two by two the football players all came in for no more than a few minutes each. Through them I learned that each of the people that had been at my house had been arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon. Reverend Hartman was being charged with more, and I was told that Leo and Noah were now in a foster home. I hadn't thought about the possibility that their own parents had been among those at the house with rocks. I didn't even know what to think about that.
Peter, Nick and Jeremy came after all of the football team had been in and out of my room. I was happy to see them, and they filled me in on everything happening at school. It seemed the school was now divided as well. Students that were also members of Reverend Harman's congregation were now making themselves heard at school. Peter told me that there had been a few taunting matches, but no fights had broken out.
I finally had to talk to a detective after a bland dinner. His name was Orsini, and he was tall with broad shoulders and square features. His dark grey eyes seemed to look through me as he talked to me, and I tried not to look into them. Instead I kept my gaze somewhere between them and his receding dark hairline. He told me that I could press charges against all of the people who had been at my house with rocks. Reverend Hartman was already being charged with a hate crime and attempted murder. Orsini said that his use of the words "burn in Hell" had sealed his fate with the District Attorney. I didn't care about that, actually. I wanted to press charges, and Shirley urged me to do so. I gave Detective Orsini my official statement, and then he walked down the hall to Steve's room to take his as well.
Vince came into my room just before I was given more pain medicine to stop the throbbing in my head. He told me that Steve was pressing charges against the flock as well. He also informed me that windows in the front of the house had been replaced (they'd been broken by the rocks), and our phone number had been changed again. This time it wasn't even in either his or Andy's name. Now it was listed as a private business number that wasn't connected to us at all. I wondered about that.
The last thing I heard him say before I drifted off to sleep was that Steve was complaining because he couldn't get up and come to my room. I smiled at that and drifted off to sleep.
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Now, now, don't get mad at me. I know that it isn't every day that a minister takes it upon himself to charge up his congregation to go after a homosexual teen. However, it isn't completely unrealistic. Look at Reverend Phelps. He's as vile as anyone I've ever even read about, and everything he's done was done in reality.