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The Circle

Chapter 22

Friday Night: The Circle Convenes

I'm such an incredible fuck-up! I'm so stupid! Jeff hates me now!

"No, I don't," Jeff said softly.

"How can't you? After . . . what!?"

I opened my eyes, feeling sick, weak, and... lost. I was lying on a cold, hard floor. Jeff was holding my right hand, and nearly everyone I called a friend was standing over me, all of them looking worried. After I had looked around, I saw that Tom held my other hand.

"I don't hate you. I, I don't !"

Jeff and Tom were both kneeling, Todd and the twins were standing with hands on knees at my feet, Jon, Tim, and Eric were around my head, seemingly upside down over me.

"What are you talking about?" Jeff asked as I tried to sit up.

Jeff and Tom held me down by my arms and shoulders until I nodded, giving up, and babbling, "Okay, so, uh, like, er . . . whoooof."

The last was my reply to the sight before me of Jeff squatting in his toga. Their laughter rang back from the walls, filling the silence that had surrounded my confused babbling. I had tried to think, but until after their laughter I had only random, unconnected streams of words and ideas that made no sense. There was only a faint impression of the events of two weeks ago after the twins' house; the morning I had molested Jeff.

"Blood's left his brain," Eric said mockingly, snickering.

More snickering joined Eric's, including my more nervous variety.

"Don't sit up yet. Stay laying down a little longer," Ton said firmly.

"Why am I down here?" was all I could think of to say in hopes of diverting attention from where my blood had obviously gone other than my brain.

I feel like a fool, laying on the floor like this. I can't remember any reason why I should be here, either. Except... somebody fuzzy had... had...

"I think you fainted," Tom said, one hand still holding mine, the other on my pulse at my neck.

"Don't you remember?" Jeff asked.

There was someone hanging onto me, like him and Tom are now... keeping me from... falling?

"You started sliding off the couch," Jeff finished.

"I... you... we were talking on the couch, and you said, uh... "

It came back then, what Jeff had said he had done, what he had read.

"And you like, blacked out," Jeff said, sparing me from saying anything about the journal and the words Jeff had seen in it.

"Why you say that you didn't I don't?"

Several chuckles echoed in the basement.

"I mean-"

"That I don't hate you?" Jeff asked.

"Yeah," I answered after a deep breath, trying not to be seen staring at parts of Jeff like I so badly wanted to. I tried to look away, but it was as if my muscles had gone on strike. I blinked and looked elsewhere; to his face.

Jeff's left hand was holding his long bangs over his forehead, pressing them to his head. The elbow of that arm rested on his upraised knee. His other hand still held mine. I had never seen Jeff wear the expression he did. All the same, it wasn't hard to see the worry there. Then the embarrassment. He dropped the other knee, hiding the view of a lifetime.

"Because I don't hate you, I... I don't. I told you to forget it. I meant it. For-get-it! Fucking for-get-it. Okay?" he demanded, staring into my eyes through his weaving hair.

His braces showed when he overemphasized words in such a way, and I realized just how much I liked them to do so. They showed when he smiled widely, when he laughed hard, when he smirked that one way in mock surprise when the occasion called for it, and a hundred other times. And like then, when they peeked through between his lips with nearly every overly-stressed syllable.

And he opens his eyes the widest then too, just so cutely! Why do I feel like this for Jeff? Of all people? If I have to be gay, why Jeff? He's straight, he's Catholic, he's moving! What is this feeling anyway? What is this attraction? Why does Jeff do almost the same thing Toby did to me? What causes this chemical reaction? How does it make me feel like this? Why always someone I can't have? There is no god. And if there is, he's a mean son-of-a-bitch.

I realized I had drifted into la-la land and was just seen by everybody staring googley-eyed at Jeff. I put on a serious face and said, "Help me sit up. Lemme get back on the couch, it's fucking cold down here."

I more pulled myself up and climbed my way there than anything else, but I did gain safe seating on my own, though many ready hands were behind me, unseen but sensed.

With a sigh, I sat forward a bit as Tom and Jeff sat down next to me. I felt better the moment they were there, as if I used them for power, for energy, for the very calories my body burned to pump blood and move muscle, to think.

I must have drawn on them considerably as I forced myself to order my thoughts and sublimate my emotions. There were important things that I had to straighten out if I was to keep Jeff's friendship. The glimpse up his toga had relit those burning desires, and I had to quench them with extreme prejudice to douse further such thoughts. As I ordered my mind, the guys put the coffee table back into position. No one said anything, and there was no music playing. The basement seemed too quiet, too dampened, too oppressive.

"You okay, Alex?" Tom asked once things were back in order.

"Yeah, I'm okay. Just. I guess Jeff gets another point."

They all laughed a bit, and I joined them for a bit.

"So, first, like, Jeff. Forget what you... that, okay? Deal?"

I looked directly at my friend, saw concern still there, and surprise.

"Uh, umm, no deal. We gonna yak about that, understand?" he said, nodding in emphasis.

"Fucker," I smiled at him. "Fine, then let me feel bad about... what I did. Two weeks ago."

I stared into those intense blue eyes, fighting not to fall yet again, this time into those blue, soul-stealing depths.

"No deal." he said, then looked to the floor.

"Fucking fine, then," I said as I slapped both my thighs, finding a hand on each.

"Uh, you guys can stop feeling me up now," I said flatly.

Both hands retreated rapidly among the laughter.

"I should get points for embarrassing myself."

More laughter and agreement came at me from all sides.

"What was it like?" from Eric started the questions.

"What happened?"

"Was it like sleep?"

"Yeah, did you dream anything?"

"Was there anything going on?"

"Shut up!" I said, putting both hands up. "And get me a beer."

Tim had tossed the marker to Jeff, who had marked himself once, then leaned in and marked my point shield with a grin. Ryan returned with a fresh beer, and I was asked many of the same questions again as I worked on filling the bong. I stopped them with another order to shut up.

"Lemme talk and I'll tell you. I just got dizzy when I turned my head to look at Jeff. Things started spinning, then getting dark is all."

I paused, still just getting started on the bowl, unsure about how much to tell them. Mentioning that I saw Toby there instead of Jeff, even mentioning Toby, seemed too private. And thinking of it caused tears to threaten.

"I thought I saw Jeff, but it got dark and cold and it was like a dream. I can't explain it better than that. How long was it?"

"Just a minute," Tom answered while exhaling his hit.

"We were gonna call an ambulance in another minute!" Todd said, his young face showing some of the fear he must have felt at the time.

I nodded, saying, "Glad it wasn't any longer, then! I feel fine. Buzzed. Not sick, anymore. Just when I shake my head or stand up or something."

"If you can't get to the bathroom on your own next, you shouldn't be drinking any more at all anyway," Jon said.

"I'm drinking until I pass out!" I replied.

"We can roll you over the drain in the floor here and let you pass out," Brent offered jokingly.

Laughter rang out and I nodded.

"Actually not a bad idea," I said.

"Actually, he wouldn't be the first," Tim said as he handed me a glass and two pills. "Take this now. You can have the beer after. Just aspirin and water so you don't feel too bad tomorrow."

Laughter and requests for verification from Tim followed.

"Got a mop and bucket in the can." He pointed with his thumb over his shoulder as he sat down. "I can think of four guys who've passed out over the drain before."

"Might make it five," I said after taking the aspirins and drinking a surprising amount of water. "But I doubt it. I feel fine, guys, really. Just back on with the party!"

Tim put a new tape in the player and "Searchin'" by The Coasters started mid-song.

The conversations started again, a few of the guys wanting to know more about what it had been like to lose consciousness. I told them that it was like getting very sleepy and falling asleep. Tim's slight disbelieving grin let me know that he knew I wasn't being totally honest, but everyone else seemed to take the explanation well.

There was a knock on the door and Tim sauntered over to answer it. He unlocked and opened the door before I could hide everything on the table, petrifying me. It could be anyone, even the cops, I worried. The pizza guy stepped in with an armload of pizzas. He gingerly put them on the small table by the door. Tim grabbed a paper bag from the cooler near the door, talked to him for several seconds, then handed him the bag. The pizza guy smiled, said several things, then shook his hand and left. Most of the guys were already falling onto the pizzas.

"Cool. Who ordered?" I asked Jeff.

He shrugged and said, "The twins were gonna pay for 'em last I heard."

"Why so many, though?" Jon asked.

"Wanted more for later," Ryan said casually.

"Yeah, but that's like twice what we'd eat!"

"That much more for later!" Tim replied loudly. "Bunch a drunk stoners gettin' munchies up all night? Come on! What else we gonna have for breakfast at six in the morning?"

Who was going to argue with that?

Jeff and I were served by Todd, grinning his 'I am Todd!' grin. He placed an entire pizza before Jeff and I, half obviously with double green olives and pepperoni. Biting into it proved the extra sauce was there too. The other half just happened to have Jeff's favorite toppings; every meat available. I let it go without a word, but I was sure Jeff noticed, and that it was a surprise to him as well.

It was fun, I realized, having my friends all together in a new friend's house. Jon knew Tim, of course, but none of the other guys did. So far Tim had fit in well with my friends. I had expected as much, as they all knew he was my pot guy. Tom and Jeff stayed next to me, the twins and Todd were back at the Atari, and Tim, Jon, and Eric were back to comparing lies in a circle themselves, or doing some other straight guy things. I was glad they were all there, and that Tim was nearly as good as one of us.

"I just realized, Tim hasn't been asked to join the Circle. I'd like to nominate him," I said loudly.

"He's already in the Circle, I mean, he had sex with you, what more does he-" Eric began.

Eric tried to finish, I assume, but it was too muffled coming from under Jon like that, until Jon allowed him to speak, and of course then he had only one word.


"Biggest mouth I ever knew!" I said again, not meanly or with anger, making it clear that I wasn't mad, but that I wanted the floor. "Look. I'm going to clear up Tuesday. Before the party, my parents had that little talk with me and Tom. Okay? The truth is, they told us they thought me and Tom were boyfriends and we were gay."

Laughter erupted shortly, but I stalled it quickly with a slashing gesture.

"They said they knew it for a while, since Toby I guess."

I paused as the bong arrived and I'd started filling it again. It was a convenient and curious coincidence, I knew, and I went with it.

"Toby was my first boyfriend. I knew I was gay two years ago when I fell in love with him during summer break. He was here for a month and some of ya met him. Some of you figured us out, I guess," I said, glancing at Tom. "When he came back this summer, you all were away, mostly, and you didn't even know he was here for a week."

Another convenient pause as I lit the bong and held my hit, passing it to Jeff. I readied myself for the horrible truth, and finally sharing what I had so far was the only way I could ever share the rest.

"He committed suicide on the way back home. He was sick and going to die from it. Just a month or two they said. But I didn't know until after he left. He didn't want me to know when he was here, he just wanted to have a good time, before... "

It was becoming very hard to talk. No longer so difficult because it was secret, but suddenly so difficult only because of the words themselves.

"He knew he was dying in a few months. So, he picked when. And he died fast, instead of getting sick and having to be taken care of in a bed. But it so sucked!"

I had to fight tears for a few moments, everyone remaining silent. I felt Tom and Jeff's hands on my shoulders, and I felt stronger for that. Even then I knew that I had a friendship with them that many people would probably never know. Shortly, sooner than I feared, I continued.

"Toby was a lot to me. And he liked you guys. He even said so. And I'm glad you guys got to meet him. And I want you guys to know what was real about us. Us being... boyfriends. And all. And... I loved him. A lot."

I could easily have cried, heavy tears running, shakes and all. It wasn't easy not doing so, but I didn't allow it. Not only did I not want to cry in front of my friends, I had more to say to them, and I wanted to be as finished as I could with it all just as soon as possible. I wanted it over now.

"Tom and I mess around. That's all. Shit, man. You guys think he's my boyfriend, and it took the longest to get him to ever do anything the first time! All you guys was easy compared to him!" I laughed once, knowing that I was revealing a lot with that statement, but ready to expose myself to those friends.

There was nervous and cooperative laughter in response.

"But shit. Tom is just nearby. If I lived next door to any of you guys you would as often, I bet! Just, just that Tom, he's my best friend, too. But he ain't gay, okay?"

The urge to say that I was gay was there again, hovering like a cloud of gnats. I brushed them away and pushed ahead with what else I had in mind. I'd said it once, I didn't want to have to say it again.

"I, like did something with all of you, but that don't mean you're all gay! You guys are my friends, all of you. That's the Circle. Not sex. I mean, he and I started it. Then Jon. Then you, Eric. Then Jeff and his little bro. Then you brought in the twins, Eric. Well, really, Todd wasn't even a member until after the twins."

"That pissed me off!" he squeaked from his chair.

"Yeah, I wondered that sometimes," I said. "We didn't mean nothing, you were a kid, ya know?"

"Yeah. I know. Now. But it was fucked up when they was swore in and I wasn't even there!"

"Sorry," was thrown at him from everyone.

He shrugged it off and smiled, apparently happy that the error had finally been recognized.

"Now, I nominate Tim for membership!" I said firmly.

"Second," Tom said.

"Third," Jon offered in turn.

"We have a third, is there anyone who wants to dissent?" I asked, knowing there would be no objections.

"I do."

I looked to the speaker, surprised.

"I won't be around after Monday. So what's the point?"

"You'll still be part of it. There are other members absent," I argued.

"There's three guys who are members who ain't around and don't even live in the state," Eric supported me.

"Even one who died," Brent said, glancing at me once he had said it, his embarrassment apparent.

I glanced to the floor momentarily before nodding and saying, "True. You don't have to be here to be a member. And frankly, just the pot you sold me makes you an honorary member alone. Without it, the Circle wouldn't of gotten high!"

Tim and I understood the depth of that statement, and we shared a look with each other.

"He's in," Tom said. "Good point. You're a member if you wanna or not, Tim!"

"I don't mind, as long as there isn't an initiation!" Tim laughed.

All of us snickering and smiling at him gave it away.

"There, isn't, is there?" Tim asked hesitantly, looking from face to face. He was met with unchanging smiles. "Ummm, what?"

I motioned everyone to circle around me closely. We grouped in a tight circle, some taking glances at Tim as he sat nervously in his chair. We had to come up with a fitting initiation for him, something that fit who he was, and wasn't so bad he wouldn't want to or couldn't do it. It didn't take long, since the bong was right there among us, being passed along.

I said, "Agreed," loud enough for Tim to hear clearly, then we broke the circle and took seats. "We're agreed. Each new member's initiation is different, depending on the person. For you, there can be only one thing."

Tim squirmed in his chair, obviously uncomfortable after I had made that statement. He cleared his throat before saying, "Um, I don't know... "

I sat in my spot in the center of the couch and handed Brent the bong. He took it to the bathroom where the sound of it being emptied into the toilet was heard. I nodded at Ryan who went to the refrigerator and brought several new beers back.

Once I had poured enough beer into the bong to work properly, I filled the bowl with a mixture of all the three varieties of weed on the table. I held the bong out to Tim.

"Ashes. No stopping."

We watched and talked, mostly admiring his smoking ability, as Tim did as instructed. As he cleared the chamber on the last hit, he smiled and set the bong on the table. All conversation stopped. He exhaled the smoke through the corners of his mouth, looking very much like dragon's breath. We were impressed. I picked the bong up and held it out to Tim with a smirk.

"What?" he asked, more thick blue smoke curling out with his words.

"You're not done," I informed him, still grinning. "Down the hatch."

Tim rolled his eyes and took the bong. He slowly upended it into his mouth, swallowing without stopping, and put the bong down with a loud, wet belch.

"Not as bad as old bong-water!" he said, belching again with a grin that said he would know.

"Then your initiation is complete! I declare Tim a member of the Circle!" I said loudly, raising my beer in a toast.

"The Circle!" was chanted in unison and we all drank deeply.

"Happy birthday!" was then chorused.

I looked around at them all, but as they finished I was looking at Jeff, and I wanted to say more.

I turned to face Tom, and said, "You I love as my best friend." I turned to Jeff. "You, you I love." I said it with total conviction and meaning. "I don't care how you have to deal with it, but I love you. I feel something about you. I don't care if these guys know it." Nods returned to me from the others as I continued, "I saw you on the bus the first time, and it was like, like I just liked you. Liked you a lot! And Tom had you come over and I freaked. You were so cute!"

Jeff stared open-mouthed, braces glinting, without looking horrified, but completely stunned.

"And when you go tisk, when you're shocked or surprised, that makes me smile. And when your braces show up, and . . " I had to trail off, laughing as Jeff tisked seemingly involuntarily. "Yeah, like that! And when you make that face!"

"Stop it! Dude!" Jeff demanded, focusing on the floor and blushing brighter than I had ever seen before.

I soaked in the sight. His profile was perfect, with its strong nose, chin, and cheek bones. His full lips were drawn a bit wide in a shocked gasp that he was trying furiously to hide. I felt a strong desire to hold him, place my lips over those, and never stop. Jeff glanced toward me briefly, looking quickly away again when he saw me still looking at him.

"Okay," I relented, returning my attention to refilling the bong in front of me. "I don't care if these guys know how I feel, but I won't talk to them about it unless you're there, ever, okay? And we can talk about this some other time.

"The rest of you, you're my friends, and I love you guys too, and I can't ask for better ones. I don't care what we do Friday nights, just so long as we get together. And if none of you ever want to do any, any of that stuff again, that's fine. Just as long we have the Circle and we're friends, I don't care.

"And honest, about Tom, leave it. Okay? He's not like that. You guys should know that. I might be, but Tom ain't. And it bugs him you guys might think he is, sorta."

Tom suddenly looked embarrassed and seemed to sink deeper into the couch.

"Nah, man, we know you guys ain't like, boyfriends. We might a joked, but we know. Ya know?" Jon said slowly.

Nods and words of agreement were the only sounds in the basement. The tape had ended and no one had moved, or did yet, to do anything about it.

Jeff cleared his throat and looked up. He concentrated on his beer as he said, "And I was going to say we wanted you to know, we know you're gay, and we don't care, and if anybody starts any trouble with you about it, every one of us will kick his ass, and we know you will do as much damage as any of us. You're no sissy or anything, so we ain't worried about you being picked on a lot, but we wanna know what you wanna do about it. You wanna tell people you're gay, or you wanna it should stay in the Circle, for now at least, or forever?"

Jeff had finished as the bong arrived at him, and after speaking he hit it, showing his increasing skill at doing so. All the guys waited quietly, giving me all the time I wanted.

"No, I don't want anyone knowing. Just us and no one else. And if anyone asks, tell them about the girl at the lake, and how I like Marie. She knows it, and I know she won't be surprised if anyone tells her I like her."

"Good enough for me," Tom said. "You guys?"

Nods and affirmative answers from everyone in turn.

"Al, we all think you're a great guy and you know none of us care if you like guys. Not even a little bit," he shrugged. "And you know we all like you as our friend, right?"

I nodded, grinning helplessly, feeling so embarrassed and more.

"None of us ever said it, so you don't know, but," Tom looked around at everyone in turn, taking so long to continue that I was near to prodding him on. He cleared his throat and sat up before he finally did. "We all knew about Toby. A lot more than you think. Or more than I think you think. Ya know?"

I blinked several times, not to clear my eyes, but clear my thoughts and try to hold onto that sentence. I swayed a bit again, and then worried I might have another blackout.

Tom went on with, "So, we kind of wanted to say we knew, and we're really sorry about it. About what happened with Toby. Ya know? When, right after you found out, we all knew something bad happened. Fuck man, we all thought you was gonna just dry up or something. Honest."

I remembered the days six months ago, when nearly all of them were around more than usual, and Tom literally spent every waking hour, and many sleeping ones, in my room with me. I wondered back then if I would ever be able to think of Toby without crying, or ever be able to share his memory with my friends.

"We, your folks, they kinda told us. Me. And I knew Jeff knew more than he was saying, so I got him to spill. So, don't be mad at them, okay? I mean, I sorta tripped 'em up and tricked 'em into telling me. We, I, all of us, we wanted to say we knew, so you know. And we all wanted to say we think it sucks what happened. Why, too. You deserved him and he did you. You guys were, well shit, you guys was fun together."

He grinned. I saw many of the others were nodding and smiling. I was speechless.

"You guys remember when Toby told us about the fireworks party at his uncles?" Jon asked, grinning widely. "That was the best story I ever heard anybody tell. Close to two years but I remember it."

"And his story about fishing when the storm came in behind them on that creek... " Jeff said, clearly trying to remember the name.

"Peyton," I prompted.

"Yeah! Peyton Point! That creek that went into that lake that friend of his tried to water ski on two-by-fours!" Tom laughed.

"But the boat only had a four horsepower motor and all he got was sand up his trunks and a rash he couldn't tell anyone how he got or where it was!" Jon said around his laughter.

"Or when... "

The stories went on for a while. Toby had told plenty, when my friends had gotten to meet him, and they were all memorable. I had forgotten about them knowing so many of his stories. I realized that those stories were the largest part of what they knew of him,

They have no experience with the Toby that hugged and kissed so well, or cuddled so nice, I realized. They didn't know the Toby who's eyes sucked my soul from my body with their green gaze. They never met the Toby that made love with patience. They never knew the Toby that suffered at the hands of his coach. They never held him while he cried. They never were woke up by his nightmares. They never loved him. Or lost him like I did. But they knew him some, and they sorta lost something too, didn't they?

I said I'd never deny him again, and now I know I won't. And now I can share him with everybody, like it should be.

Their sharing those stories warmed me so much I was sweating. While they shared and reminded each other, I saw the times they spoke of in my mind, recalling Toby's face, his gestures, his smile, his laugh. I had that feeling you get when you cry; that tightening in your guts, neck, and face, but there wasn't any sadness or loss. Hearing the laughter and fun that Toby had spread made me feel overjoyed. I was able to laugh with tears running down my face. I couldn't talk often, or add things, or correct things even when I wanted to, but it didn't matter. Toby was giving us all a good time again.

"I really did love him," I said when their stories of Toby's stories dwindled down, when I knew that I could speak without my voice breaking or be wiping at tears. I was smiling widely and sniffling often.

"We know," was echoed by most.

"So! How long did it take to come up with this party?" I asked, changing the topic.

"Months! We kept adding ideas and twists and stuff 'till yesterday!" Eric said, smiling and shaking his head.

"Jeff came up with togas a long time ago," Brent began. "Then Jon says we should change here or wear them over our clothes. We didn't want to wear them until we surprised you with them so we said we could take them to Tim's with us and you'd think they was presents, right? So then Ryan's like let's just change at Tim's in front of everybody else, no big deal. Then Tom says that would... "

He paused, looking to me as if for a clue. I was suddenly suspicious.

"I said that would turn you on like crazy," Tom shrugged, then added with a smirk, "We all know anyway, right?"

"Yeah, so then Tom says it'll make Alex all hot. So later Jon comes up with the names, and Tom put our names on them to draw for who goes first and in order."

"Yeah, he wrote our names on 'em at home and I packed them in the wagon this morning," Jon explained.

"No, I didn't put the names on," Tom said. "I thought Tim or you did. Didn't Tim tell you to do it?" he asked Jon.

"No?" Jon asked of the air.

They both looked at Tim. Tim shrugged, wearing his poker face.

"So how did the names . . ." Eric was asking, looking at his own toga's tag. "Wait," he said, turning it over several times. "Mine ain't got no name on it!"

We all began looking at our own, wondering at the lack of names on each one.

Tim blushed and squirmed.

"Then how did he know who was first and next?" Todd asked innocently.

Tim coughed around a laugh at the question and then took a drink of his beer.

"Holy shit ! Tim already pranked us!" I knew.

"Oh, so a real member!" Tom said with awe.

"No shit !" everyone agreed.

"Tim!" echoed back from the walls, followed shortly by the sound of several cans being crushed.

"We should have asked Tim into the Circle earlier," Jon said, shaking his head.

We all agreed.

"I know it sounds stupid, but I must have like the best bunch of friends in the world. Really," I said, feeling it. "This was a great party, thanks guys!"

"Was? It's not over yet!" Tom said, smiling his evil smile.

I lifted one eyebrow, which Tom mirrored exaggeratedly, making me laugh.

"It's not. Think it's gifts time, guys?" he asked, still looking into my face.

Shouts of, "Hell ya!" and, "Absolutely" sent Tim into the storage closet. He brought out another garbage bag. Corners of box-shaped objects poked at the sides of the thin, black plastic as he carried it to the table.

Jeff, Tom, and Jon cleared the coffee table of everything but the bong, the grass, and our current beers.

Tom took the lead and began with, "So, like, Alex, we all brought some gifts on Tuesday, and some jokes ones earlier, right?. We agreed not to bring the embarrassing stuff to those parties so your parents wouldn't see, right?"

"Yeah, and thanks. But you and Jeff got me with the tissues and lotion earlier."

"Yeah, we did! But that was just joking around. We all talked about what to really get you."

I was excited at more gifts, but I was in dread from what horribly embarrassing things they would be. I knew they were all sitting there, waiting to watch me squirm. Each of them looked to be on the very verge of cackling with evil glee. Damned Circle sometimes, I thought.

"You already got me presents! That was enough! We don't buy each other stuff for birthdays that much!"

"Yeah. True. But we all agreed. You got us together, made us the Circle. When you had Eric come over that first Friday and I met him, it all started. Then Jeff came along-"

"You brought him over to meet me! I didn't bring him into the Circle. If anyone did, you did!" I insisted firmly.

"Let me finish," Tom said, holding up a hand. "Then Jeff came along and joined us. His mom even let Todd come along because of you. You worked his mom over good, made her let him come over. If you hadn't done that, he'd still be an outsider. And then the twins. Who do you think got their parents to allow them to hang out with the 'poor kids'?"

"I just called them out on being too strict!"

"You sure did! Mom said you sounded like an adult! She said she felt like a snob after talking to you!" Brent said explosively.

"She even said we should hang out with you more and be more like you guys instead of Kasey next door!"

Kasey was infamous for his snobbery, and had few friends for it. The thought that the twins' parents considered me more than trash was a shock.

"What about the way they treat us? Making us leave first thing everyday?" I countered.

"Don't ask, just be glad you guys get in!"

"No shit! Not even anybody's ever been to our house before!"

"What?" most of us asked.

"Serious! Besides family, I don't think anybody's ever been over," Ryan said, looking to his nodding brother.

"Eric! You knew them before me, you never was at their house?"

He shook his head and smirked.

"Wow," was all I could muster to say.

"And you arranged the Friday stuff," Tom said solemnly. "And came up with the Circle. And the handshake. And the rules. And always kept on top of new stuff so it was like a real club, not just us, but a real group with rules and meetings and decisions and votes and all that. All that was funner before, but now the Circle is still fun and changes and stays fun. And without you, I know I wouldn't know Eric, or Jeff, or Todd, and no way the twins. Or Tim. I'd still be alone at home like before I moved here."

"He was pathetic, Alex. Didn't know anybody and didn't do anything," Jon said, nodding.

"We all feel like that. You are the Circle. Without you, we all'd be having other friends, or not, but it wouldn't be like this. And this is cool," Eric said, red and acting shy.

I was near tears again, but thankfully a much better kind than so often recently.

"If you don't stop, I'm gonna cry," I said as jokingly as I could, but meaning it.

Tom sat up and tore open the garbage bag, seemingly pulling a box at random from the opening.

"From Jon," he said, handing a wide, flat box to me.

It was wrapped simply, with ordinary brown paper. I turned it over, feeling the weight inside shift solidly.

"I, uh, woof. I have no idea!" I said about it.

"You mean you're stumped?" Jon asked, surprised. When I nodded, he said, "So open it already!"

I tore open the wrapping to find a copy of the new Montrous Manual inside a shirt box among crumpled newspapers.

"You got to be kidding!" I said, surprised and joyous, not wanting to ruin the gift by revealing that I could soon earn it anyway.

"Don't worry you can work for it, 'cause now you can work for something else," Jon said.

"True! Thanks! And we can use it sooner!"

Only Tom could have already told him of the deal, so I knew they all knew.

"Probably along with this," Tom said, handing me another, similar sized item.

"No way! I can earn these, guys!"

"Now you can earn other stuff, dumbass!"

"And we can use it sooner!" several of them echoed back at me.

Shrugging and agreeing, I opened the next one.

"From me!" Eric said as one of the original Dieties and Demi-Gods was revealed.

"Where did you find this!" I said, ecstatic.

"Ask Tom. He said he could get one so I got him the money."

Tom smiled and said, "Later, dude," with a grin.

Squinting my eyes at him, he laughed and handed me another package. In minutes all the new books, and the two books I had wanted for a while, were spread around the guys for inspection.

"Wow! I thought you were supposed to embarrass me!" I said, still looking through one of the wondrous books.

"Yeah, we wanted to make you think so!" Tom said, grinning.

"Torturers!" I proclaimed. Damned Circle!

"Well, don't worry about it, cause we got another game. And it looks like Jeff leads and unless he don't even try anymore, he might win."

"Ohhhhh, please just tell me there aren't any more games to embarrass me!" I pleaded.

"Oh yes! One more round, two points instead of one, it's so good!" Eric promised.

"And we might as well get into it. I can't believe it's two already!" Jon announced.

Everyone was surprised that it was so late, and they all agreed it was time to start the last round, double points and one chance each.

"What are you guys gonna do now? There's no way you could get me more embarrassed than you have!"

"Oh, we got a plan," Tom said, bouncing his eyebrows.

"You guys and your plans! So, what? Gonna hold me down and tattoo fag on my forehead?"

Tim snapped his fingers and grinned.

"The fuck you will! Or would! I know better than that!" I said smiling, though worried it looked a bit forced.

"Not even good enough for this game!" Eric teased.

"Oh shit," I said softly.

"Got a clue?" Jon asked, also sharing his brother's evil grin.

"No. But I don't like the sound of this. At, all. Or the way you guys look!"

Every one of them wore an expression of complete, total, unmitigated glee, frightening me considerably. I took a long drink, finishing the can, and after I put it down, I rubbed my hands on my thighs and said, "Fuck. Okay. Hit me."

"We was only going to do this if you said you're gay or something, and stuff was talked about, and we was sure it was cool to do," Tom warned.

 Oh Shit!

"Wait!" I demanded. "In case I die of embarrassment, tell me who to haunt in the afterlife. Who's twenty watt idea was this?"

Tom gently cleared his throat.

"Figures," I said softly. "Go ahead, kill me," I groaned quietly as I prepared as best I could.

Tim cleared his throat and sat upright, saying, "I'm first, as oldest, and we go down by age. So... "

I tucked my head under my hands, arms in front of me and curled forward a bit, as if fending of mortal blows.

 "... here goes. The first time Alex and I did something was way back when-"

"OH FUCK NO !" I screamed. "NO fucking way! You guys wouldn't !"

"-he came to buy some pot," Tim continued, laughing. "He didn't have the twenty bucks though, and I'd heard about him, you know. Heard he, uh, okay, Jon let it slip one day, about how he gave great head... "

I groaned loudly and held the marker up for someone to take.

"Just check everyone's buttons and let me die in peace."

It took what seemed an hour for all of them to tell of his first time with me. None of them revealed much, other than when, how, and vaguely what was done. Each relished his share of torturing me immensely. It was also apparent that that each story was told for the first time, as evidenced by the questions and reactions of the others. The details were wrong or exaggerated, or just plain changed, but they revealed enough of the real facts.

I shook my head often and never looked up except to take a drink or hit the bong I kept filled and going around. I hoped I might get the guys so stoned they would get off track, but it didn't work that way. By the time Ryan had finished his tale, I realized that I had only fueled the fire, so to speak.

Todd, the youngest and therefore last, could only tell of the time we had talked about using bananas to jack off with. He'd seen the joke in a movie, and had asked me if it was real, and if I'd ever done it. He had gone to the kitchen, brought one back, and made me show him how to do it. He had actually pulled his dick out of the fly of his jeans and tried it for fit and feel before saying he was going to use it later and thanking me for the idea. He wound up his story with details I didn't remember, and the others scoffed at openly.

In the silence after his exaggerated tale, and he did wind out a whopping Todd Tale, I looked up. Everyone saw the tears, and that my cheeks were red. Their smiles and grins were wiped away in an instant. I shook my head and glared as strongly as I could at each one of them in turn, displaying what was probably the most intensely angry expression any of them had ever seen on my face. The fact that there were open tears and shaking shoulders pounded in the impact of what they had done.

Cleary they had expected me to be embarrassed, it had been the point, but I had become upset; more so than anyone had expected. My reaction simply left them paralyzed and shocked.

"Thank you for the party. But fuck you all," I said as I angrily strode toward the door in only my toga and socks. Sniffling loudly, I unlocked and opened it, stepped out, then slammed it behind me.

Friday Night: Understandings