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Over the next days, after the revelation of the glasses, I watched Tom and Jeff closely. I turned all the things that Tim, Tom, and others had taught me upon them. I felt guilty about doing so, almost as if I were raping their emotions and thoughts from them. They became open books to me at most times. No inflection was executed by them that I didn't seemingly notice and interpret. Casual conversations revealed multitudes of interesting information about them. As the others visited, I saw things about them that I was startled that I hadn't noticed, noted, and put down in a journal long before. Their individual puzzles all grew much more completed in the following days.
The most embarrassing event of the entire hospital stay occurred, and it did not involve any of my friends or my family. It was just me and the nurse. And the catheter.
The guys, all of them, had chipped in and gotten me a Sony Walkman radio and cassette player. It was incredible! I had seen the ads and heard the news, and even seen them in the mall, but I ignored them, knowing they cost more than I wanted to pay. The twins each had one, of course, and Tom had managed to talk his parents into getting him one. I was already intending my money go for the new Dungeons And Dragons books anyway. The thing was no bigger than an eight-track tape. The sound the little headphones gave wasn't bad. They also brought an abundance of tapes. Jon made all of his tape collection available, as he proudly announced that he had bought a compact disc player and was going digital. His tastes were pretty good, covering a wide selection of current rock. They had gotten several new tapes, too; Kenny Rogers' newest, Foreigner's newest, Pink Floyd's latest, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and of course, every Queen and Styx album that I didn't already have on cassette.
Figuring that I might want a break from music, Tom brought in the books that he knew I was reading, and my schoolbooks. He and the guys had gotten my complete homework list from each and every class, and it was organized and ready for me to begin catching up. I detected Jeff's hand in that, as Tom was a poor organizer, yet all the assignments and handouts were where they belonged, in order and ready to go. Some of the underlining had already been done for the missed lessons in my books, in Jeff's broad, dark yellow highlighter. He carried all of the books in a new backpack, very much like the solid black one that had dumped on me the day of the fights, but a Craigor. When I gave him a suspicious look, he shrugged and read the tag tied to it.
"For Alex. We heard your bookbag crapped out on you. Sucks. We got you this one to replace it. Hope you get well soon. Just some guys from school. They didn't put any names or nothin'. Just put the strap through the lock on my locker today after third period."
When he handed it to me he gave me a wink, and his eyes told me to be careful what I pulled out of it by flicking to the pack briefly then returning to mine with a slight tilt of his head. I nodded. Inside, later, in the separate zippered compartment, I found seven doobies, a lighter, two pens, a roach clip, and my latest journal.
Mom arrived each day after work. during the news when I talked to the nice lady doctor who just liked to talk. Tom came with his brother every evening after dinner for an hour or two. Shortly after, Jeff, Todd, and their mother would visit for an hour or so. When others came by, it was usually earlier, before dinner. Jon never left the room when he and Tom visited, not even offering to. I knew that was no accident. The same thing would occur when Jeff and his family visited. They were never left alone with me. The only question was if they, or the others, had devised or enforced it.
As I watched and talked to them when they visited, and mulled the thoughts over and again, I became more and more certain that I was right about Tom, and Jeff, and the whole situation. I began to wonder how I could not have seen the same signs, not have heard the same things that I was then. The pieces of their puzzles being put into place began to fill in the overall image that each of them were. I saw more than ever before, and I saw what I thought the earlier views of their puzzles would show. Some small surprises popped up now and again, but they didn't change the actual image formed by all the other pieces of them previously.
In order to insure that I was released Friday, I played the nurses, winking and teasing them about sponge baths. It was clear that more than one had heard enough to know that I was gay, as two of them in particular were very vocal that I should make googly eyes at the respiratory technician who gave me the breathing treatments. He was cute, for sure, and he had great taste in clothes, but I wasn't interested. I was watching my two best friends for signs of what I was certain would unite all of us; and I was seeing it. Many examples popped up, glaringly bright to my new eyes.
By Thursday I had the doctor considering releasing me the next morning. I did everything I could to convince him to agree to release so that I could be home for the Circle meeting; and before Toby's parents arrived Saturday night. I was eager to meet with them, and to get the things that Toby had wanted me to read and to have, and I didn't want that to happen in the hospital.
I spent the nights after dad was released listening to music and reading "Magician: Apprentice" by Raymond E. Feist, lost in a rich, detailed, wonderful fantasy world. I felt caught up with the schoolwork the first night alone. I would take breaks to think of Jeff, Tom, and it all. I would run over what I had seen that day, noting it in my journal. I found myself nodding, seeing what I expected to see, knowing I had been blind before.
By noon on Friday the doc gave me the all clear, and in a few hours we were headed home. I had pills for the pain, pills for any dizziness I might experience, pills for fighting infections, pills for fighting anxiety, pills for sleeping, pills for encouraging skin growth, and ointments, bandages, and creams. I also had the Walkman, the tapes, and the books. Thankfully it all fit into the Craigor pack.
The weather was far too warm warm for February, and the last of the snow was melting away. The sidewalks and streets were wet with the runoff, and the sky was misting as well. Everything was darkened and wet, even my mood, despite heading home.
When the car pulled up in front of the garage, I sighed deeply, gathered my pack, and climbed out of the car. I felt a bit dizzy as I first stood, knowing that I would for a couple of more days at least. The doctor had made it clear it was a common side-effect of the medication I was to take for almost another week, and he had written an exclusion from physical activity at school until March. I handled the note, folded in my pocket, and wondered if I could use it to get out of housework, too; and if so, for how long.
Mom held her hand on the door into the kitchen, smiling at me as I slowly walked around the car. My back was still sensitive to movement, and I was gingerly making my way to her and the house. Anything brushing against the uncovered burned areas, my shoulders, and upper back, felt like hot sandpaper. The covered burns, mostly just above my hip where the protection of my jeans had ended, as well as my shins, screamed at any twisting, stretching, or wrinkling there.
"Hun, uh, don't ruin the surprise, but there's some folks here to say hi, okay?"
I didn't really feel like company, and would have preferred to go upstairs and lay down on my own bed at last. As I met mom's eyes, and saw the smile there, and the other emotions, I returned the expression in kind, forcing it, for her and the others, whomever they may be.
I inhaled deeply and held it momentarily, then whooshed it out. I nodded and increased the size of the smile as she opened the door. She took my bag after closing the door behind us and placed it on the kitchen table. She helped me off with my coat as she explained.
"You know how your friends are. They insisted on welcoming you home. So they talked us into this. Your dad and I weren't certain about it, at all, but, well, they can be so insistent!"
She laughed a bit as she finished the explanation. She led me across the front entryway and toward the rarely used front living room with a ginger touch on my neck where there weren't any burns.
"Let me guess, Tom," I said without a questioning tone.
"Well, for one," she said.
"And just who else?" I asked, curious, knowing Jeff was about to be named.
"Hun, what does it matter?"
The large French doors swung open, and the first thing that caught my eye was a large welcome home banner strung across the far wall. Nearly everyone that I knew was there, smiling at me as we entered, many standing, many others sitting on the couches.
"Welcome home Alex!"
Grandma and grandpa were back, smiling and waving little paper get well flags. My aunt and uncle - dad's brother from Aurora - were there, and so were several cousins and their families, and dad. I was shocked. Around the room stood the entire Circle gang, from Jon on down to Todd, all in as good a semi-circle as they could manage in the large, crowded room. Even Jon and Tom's little brother, Todd, and their parents were there. Some of the guys from the lunch room, a couple of guys who had helped with Charlie Derek, and to my utter astonishment, Charlie himself was there. Looking uncomfortable, but smiling a bit, he nodded and raised a bottle of Coke at me when I saw him. I was probably staring open-mouthed, but I did smile and nod back at him. Jeff, Todd, and their mom were there, Jeff looking like he was near tears and smiling widely. Marie stepped forward from her parents, and, shocking me and probably most everyone there, gently kissed me on my lips and welcomed me back home.
"Everybody wanted to make sure you got home safe. And they wanted you to know they're glad you're okay," mom said, apparently trying to explain something I already knew as she gently pushed me forward. "And, we got an early surprise for you, hun," she finished, turning me to my right to face the doors to the den.
The double French doors there were rarely closed before, yet then they were not only shut, but the curtains were drawn closed as well. Tom and Jeff had rushed to the doors, and as mom finished speaking, both of them beaming like lighthouses, they each swung one open.
"Surprise!" the two of them said in unison, grinning, though there were three of them. "Welcome home!"
I had felt great seeing my friends and my family welcoming me home. Especially seeing Charlie Derek actually in my home, standing around with some of the very guys who had put him down, apparently willing to put any feud behind us all. The kiss from Marie was an embarrassing moment, but I instantly knew there was more than one reason she had done so, looking to my relatives who didn't know that I was gay, unless mom and dad had had a 'little talk' with them. But the shock of seeing Toby's family there was so heartwarming that I broke into tears.
"Holy shit," was all I could mumble around a smile so wide it was nearly painful as they hugged me and welcomed me home; and introduced us.
"Alex, this is Toby's little brother. We knew I was pregnant when," she sighed and coughed before continuing. "Before Toby died. But we hadn't told him. We were gonna, but... " she was unable to finish.
Toby's dad picked up the conversation with, "But we waited too long. He's Jeremy Tobias. We were gonna name a boy Jeremy William, but, after Toby... "
"That's great," I said with a cracking voice, meaning it, smiling and crying.
That they named the child after Toby was touching, even though I knew it wasn't to appease or please me. I knew it would Toby, but I doubted that was why they did so either. I instantly felt close to little Jeremy Tobias, and not just because I had loved his older brother. It was more the fact that I knew we both shared the same guardian angel.
"He's beautiful! Are his eyes turning green?" I asked, seeing they weren't baby blue, but darkening, and already blue-green.
"Ayup. I'll be damned if not. Just like Toby's. And we don't know where they got 'em. Nobody's got green eyes in the whole family."
"Or strawberry hair," I said, knowing the fact without ever learning it, seeing the faintest hints of pinkish-red highlights in the light blond hairs and the invisible eyebrows.
For the slightest moment I was concerned about my school friends and Charlie Derek seeing me cry over a baby, and the paranoid worries that they would think I was a wussy faggot tried getting into the mix, but I was able to squash those thoughts easily by that point.
I don't really care. The only ones who don't know I'm gay are the family, and they're gonna find out sooner or later. And this is Toby's little brother, and looks to be destined to be a handsome one as well. I wonder if he'll be cursed with being gay? No, I know, I don't know how, but I know, you're destined for an entirely different road. One just as important and just as interesting as your brother's. Your Guardian Angel. Ours! Your road is gonna wind for a long while, won't it Jeremy Tobias? Jay-tee? Yes. You got a great chance with your older brother watching out for ya!
"Now, now, everyone back up, and let's let him get comfortable on the couch. We can all ask questions and chatter then," mom said, taking charge of the chaos.
I was placed in the corner of the conversation pit near the doors to the den. Nearly everyone took seats or started milling around us on the large couches. Some resorted to sitting on the far couches or the floor near us. Mom conscripted several for kitchen for duty, Jeff and Tom among them; I suspected for a few private words as well.
That 'what-are-my-folks-up-to-now' feeling came and went as I realized that it was probably for the best; whatever they were up to. I grinned at more than the party as I began greeting everyone. It was a while, and eventually everyone saw my burns, and the scar at my temple. I told them how I would blank out for periods, sometimes dreaming of weird things I hardly remembered, other times seemingly experiencing nothing.
Jeremy was handed to me. Their mom didn't ask, she simply placed Jeremy in my arms. I held him almost entirely until they left, with the exception of dinner and his being changed.
"We had to come when we heard. And since Toby's birthday is Sunday, it was, too tempting to pass up."
"Like it was a sign," I said firmly as I felt Jeremy's weight and warmth in my arms.
"Yes. Oh my yes," she said, hinting at further depths, something which I fully understood.
Their mom and I shared a moment, our eyes locked, knowing. We both smiled warmly.
It's not just me, is it, Toby? I thought, holding his little brother and seeing the potential of a new life for the first real time in the face of an infant.
"We can go into that tomorrow, okay? Tonight let's keep things light. And about you being back home!"
We did. General chatter and occasional laughter kept going through the dinner of lasagna and garlic bread, and white cake for desert. The guests seemed to take turns talking and sitting on the couch with me before and after eating. Before long everyone had come and gone, talking of this or that. Most of the family and a few of the school friends had left by nine. My grands planned to stay the weekend to help out if they could. The Circle members were all staying for the meeting later in the night. Toby's family eventually left after saying how much they looked forward to Sunday. There would be a special early dinner, they announced.
The entire event Charlie Derek had seemed hesitant to get near me, and several times he looked away as I saw him hovering around the food and the den. He was mostly alone, occasionally one of the guys chatting with him. I wondered how uncomfortable he felt, as he didn't look comfortable at all, straying around and sticking mostly to himself. It was when only Tom and Jeff were sitting with me, after many of the others had left, that he came over and sat down near me.
"Dude, I just wanna say I'm glad you're okay. When I heard I thought it was a joke. But, I, uh, really thought that was cool. Giving me a hand up and calling everything off? I mean, I didn't think how everybody's got friends, and, like, we all need some, ya know? So... "
"It's cool. I think I know where ya was comin' from, ya know? You just needed somebody to be in control of."
"More like I just needed somebody to show me I was bein' an asshole!"
We laughed together, and he offered his hand. I took it with a smile and asked him if he liked Pink Floyd.
"Hell yeah! Best band in existence!"
"Ever get high?"
He looked stunned, then after looking around at us and noting we were being left to ourselves to talk privately, just the four of us, he grinned and nodded.
"Yup," I said, popping my cheeks and bouncing my eyebrows.
Tom and Jeff looked a bit puzzled, then nodded.
"After the main party, the rest of the guys'll stick around for a while. Why don't ya? We'll get stoned and sit around in my room and bullshit for an hour or so. Stick around, okay?"
"Sure. I don't believe you get high!"
"You're not the only one. Ever heard of Alan Parsons?"
"Yeah. They're cool. Games People Play. Eye In The Sky is okay but kinda mellow, but okay. Time is cool, too. They got a new album coming out this summer, right?"
"Ever heard Tales of Mystery and Imagination?"
"Nope. Good song?"
"Nineteen-seventy-six, an album. If you like Floyd, you're gonna love this. If you like Time from Parsons, just think that, but all pissed and freaky. And I got some good weed, merta, ever heard of it?
"You got some merta?"
The friendship was on. I wondered how long it would be before he was a member of the Circle. Before long, all of my friends were sitting around us, talking about this and that.
We talked a bit about music and movies for a while before I knew, or sensed, that something was brewing. It was in the way they said things, in the way they acted. Jeff, Tom, Eric, mostly. The others a bit. The whole thing reminded me of a time not so long ago when I had been staying over at Jeff and Todd's one Saturday night after a Circle meeting at Eric's. Their mom was at a church function, and Jeff and I were watching "Monty Python's Flying Circus" in the living room when Todd came into the apartment looking terribly guilty. Grinning mysteriously, he collected clean clothes then left without a word. He returned later, without the extra clothing he had left with, and wearing the same ones as before. He was still grinning ear to ear and looking guilty at the same time. Jeff finally asked Todd what had happened to the other clothes. Todd claimed he had given them to a bum on the street, and that there wasn't anything at all going on. Jeff turned to me, and with a curiously conspiratorial squint to his eyes, said, "Something smells like Spam."
That night at the party, as it wound down and the adults began excusing themselves and suggesting that the party move upstairs to my pig sty so that they could commence cleaning up the civilized portion of the house, something smelled like Spam.
"Guys, informal session, we have a guest," I said, as the entire Circle plus Charlie Derek and I entered my room. I saw that it had been cleaned, and I worried about things not being where I had hid them. Knowing that my parents knew about the pot, I was only worried that they might have found the biggest secret of my room, and the secrets I hid there. I saw it looked normal there, no sign of anything being moved, so I was able to push that worry aside. Looking to the footlocker, I saw it was closed and locked. I felt safe then, so I continued talking. "This, as you all know, is Charlie Derek. He's gonna stick around a while, smoke a doobie and shit. Charlie, you probably don't know names, all of 'em, so... "
I pointed to each in turn as I named them, and thankfully, they all returned a wave at least. Most smiled decently, and no one was outwardly hostile. They were all a bit on edge, with a stranger they were so recently at odds with, even fighting against, but they seemed okay with it.
It changed when Eric opened his mouth, as usual.
"So... you gonna sit around and smoke a doobie with the fag and his friends, huh?"
He said it snotty, mean, and sarcastically. I went on red alert. Jon bounded across the floor, leaping at Eric for his usual body slam and pin. Eric moved fast though, and was across the room and on Derek in a flash. I was too stunned to move until the guys all followed the struggling Derek and Eric out the door toward the stairs. All the guys got in my way as I tried to get forward to stop it before one or both got hurt, especially on the stairs! I was blocked in the rush, and I was getting pissed off. It was my house, my welcome back party, and my room, my friends even, but I was being pushed back and away from any attempt to stop it. I knew that simply yelling at them was going to do no good, and I didn't want to add to the already too-loud racket the guys were making.
There were a few shouts of look out or watch it about the stairs, then the noises of them heading down them the hard way. I didn't want out there any more.
I stepped back, but suddenly the guys were all pushing me forward, saying that I had to see it. They were saying that I had to do something, and now. "Hurry!" they were yelling at me. They were frantic. I was near panic. I knew that if I still had those damaged blood vessels in my temple, that I would be well on my way to seeing Toby. I was in socks, so pushing back with my legs was nearly useless. Tom and Jeff pushed me forward, carefully and without touching any of the burns, and I had to see it, I couldn't look away.
Eric and Charlie were on the first landing, where the stairs switched back halfway down. They were both grinning, pointing at me. They said something to each other then, and I couldn't hear it, but I knew what it was.
"You... fucking... assholes!" I stated in awe.
"Son, language, please," I heard my dad's laughing voice say from downstairs.
"You guys in on it, too?" I asked in further awe.
"Welcome home, Alex," the adults all said in unison from somewhere at the bottom of the stairs.
My first night home and they fuck with me? What the hell? But it was a good one! I'd never thought of Charlie being in on a prank! No way! Fucking brilliant! I don't even want to know who thought of it. But they could'a waited! What kind of welcome home is that?
Oh, that kind. Got it.
"And don't let him stay up too late, boys," mom's voice warned as Eric and Charlie came back up the stairs, still beaming.
"I need a nice, quiet Amish family and friends to live with!"
"You'd just have 'em pullin' pranks, smokin' grass and singing to Joan Jett in a month anyway," Jeff said with his small, crooked, adorable grin. Then, with a nearly-sincere face and bouncing eyebrows, "I know."
"Or they'd have him tied to a bundle of sticks and carrying out the first heretic burning in generations," Tom added with a smirk.
Their words not only made me laugh, and feel pretty good, but reminded me of the pot. I had milked the joints that Tom had secreted in the pack while in the hospital. There hadn't been many chances to sneak into the bathroom to smoke one, even after my dad had gone home and that bed stayed empty the last few days. On pain killers and antibiotics, I expected I was about to be as high as I had ever been in my life. I opened the stash box on the desk and saw that my supplies were seemingly diminished; I didn't mind, as there was more hidden all over my room, and I was anxious about them.
The smallest baggie of pot that Tim had given me was less than an ounce, but far more than most there had ever seen. I let Eric clean a huge amount as I carefully cleaned the merta, adding it to the pile. Once it was rolled, it was lit and smoked completely in honor of the van. Hitting the joint at first, I was worried about having a coughing fit, but being careful proved that I had actually gotten a bit more resistant to coughing from the pot smoke.
"Tim's gonna freak about it," Jon said, knowing Tim the longest of us all.
"Yeah. And I promised him the day before he left that I'd take care of it," I said a bit sadly, despite the fun we were having talking about the now-never-to-be exploits I could have had in it.
We speculated on if I could replace it, and if I shouldn't go for a car instead as we smoked the second merta-laced joint. I was resistant in the extreme to not replacing the van with as much of an identical one as possible. By the end of that second laced joint we had decided that I needed to buy a van like it, then just do the inside myself. We were sure that we all could do the intricate and detailed upholstery work. And we all knew that we were all full of shit.
I played "The Raven" and "The Tell-Tale Heart" from Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Charlie was impressed, and I ended up letting him borrow the album to listen to at home. I gave him a bit of the merta, too, to smoke with the pot he said he had at home, while he listened to the entire album on his headphones.
Charlie had a good time, and we had a good time with him. The merta had helped, possibly, but I doubted it was ever needed, especially after the prank. It turned out that Eric had thought of it, talked it over with Charlie, and then Tom and Jeff. The entire Circle knew what was going to happen when it did, including my parents and my grands.
Eventually Charlie said that he had to go, as there was some things he wanted to do yet, and he had blown off some chores to be at the party that he needed to get done before hell broke loose at his house. I walked him down. They waved and told us to watch out for those tricky stairs. I could tell by the way he went down them that he was in a very good mood, and my mood was lifted even higher knowing that, and knowing his smile was genuine.
"Thanks, Alex. Uh, for, well, for not being, or, not letting things just be more fighting, ya know? I mean, this was fun, sitting around with your friends and getting high, and the music, and, it's better than looking for somebody to fuck with, ya know? And it was fun. Thanks."
"Well, strictly speaking, I didn't invite you, ya know, but I might've, if I got asked. But I'm glad ya came."
I was indeed glad that he had come, and I was a bit sad he was leaving. I sensed a connection with him that the fight didn't seem to have much to do with. I wondered if he was gay, and laughed at myself for the thought.
"Yeah, me too. Can, can I ask you something?"
I knew what he was going to ask, or at least what it had to do with. I felt a bit nervous, and wondered how many times I would have to answer the same old questions now that people knew. I watched his face as I nodded. He looked uncertain, a bit scared or worried, and certainly uncomfortable. But there was something he definitely wanted to ask, or say. It was obvious he was fighting for the right words.
"It's not I care, not really, it's just, I kinda wonder. So, ya know, I just wanted to ask, when did ya know?"
Hmmm, really vague there, Charlie. But I know what ya mean.
"That I liked guys?"
He nodded at his shoes.
"Remember when you chased me and a blond guy up the alley from the park to the bookstore? Two summers ago? And we lost you there?"
"Yeah. Shit. Sorry about that. I really was a jerk-wad, I know."
"Yeah. Uh, that was my first boyfriend, Toby. You know, that was his parents and little brother here earlier. I kinda knew before I met him. But, that summer, I knew when I met him."
"Hey! Don't feel bad about it! When we lost you we, well, umm, we were real glad and shit, ya know? It was a, kinda exciting and all."
When he looked up and into my face, I knew he knew what I was hinting at. He was blushing and obviously embarrassed, and I could tell he felt bad about having chased us.
"So, it was a, fun, afterward, when we laughed and talked about it, and, uh, so yeah. I should actually say thanks, for that."
I felt silly, and exposed, and embarrassed. That had been the thing that had welded Toby and I together the day we had met. We had already talked of going to my house to get a cold pop and cool off and mess around with my models or something. When Charlie had chased us, it had added a charge to our sudden, budding friendship, and it was talking and laughing about getting away from Charlie later when we had moved so close together, had sensed it simultaneously, had leaned closer.
I grinned involuntarily at him, and he returned a similar one. We laughed a bit and then we both sighed to release the tension.
"So! Uh, see ya at school tomorrow. And, uh, you better ask about Jeff's, uh, thing that happened at school, if you don't know already."
My curious expression told him that I didn't know what he was talking about.
"Thanks. Any big deal?"
He nodded vigorously and said, "If you don't know what I mean, you ain't heard. Ask."
"Okay, I will," I said as he opened the front door.
"How long until you come back to school?"
"After next week. Still get a week off."
When I returned to my room, they were all in the circle with one space open. I walked over, sharing their grins, sat down gingerly, and called the Circle to order.
As the Circle convened, I felt as good as I had in months, inside. My body ached from my head to my feet, but that hardly mattered; I was with the guys again. And soon I would have the last big problems sorted.
I had been watching Tom and Jeff particularly closely the last few days, and I was certain that I was one-hundred percent correct in what I had already concluded. There were only a few loose ends, a very few uncertain answers, and only a couple of questions left on the matter. Their images were complete enough that I could see what and who they were and how they fit into my own puzzle; the problems were that one of them didn't, and the other couldn't.
I might never have all the pieces, I thought, but I've got more than enough to know what's what. I just gotta show 'em to them, so they can see 'em. They seem to have almost all the ones on me! But not quite.
After calling things to order, I had the right as founder and oldest member to bring up anything first. I considered the mystery of what had happened with Jeff at school, but I wanted to wait and see when and how it came up since no one had mentioned it yet. So I opted for the obvious. I showed off the new scars. My right shoulder looked sunburned, and was peeling a bit. My left side along the ribs looked red, and down to my hip was burned and puffy. Just above my hip were patches of dying skin, still peeling, over puffy, raw burns. The wide bandages there were difficult to work with myself, so Tom helped me out. Nothing grossed Tom out. I took off my jeans, no big deal in the Circle, and showed off the connect-a-dots on my shins; forty-two small, irregular burns altogether. It felt good to get those bandages off, and the jeans away from my legs, and I left them off. I put on the hardly used bathrobe and sat down. Last was the temple. Tom was a bit squeamish seeming, obviously from the fact that he felt responsible for it. A crescent-shaped scar with ten little stitches hid the fact that there was at one time a small hole through my skull.
The first topic done, after commenting about my lungs, I turned the floor over to member number two, Tom.
"You need to check your closet," he said at me simply.
I crinkled my brow and waited, but when Tom only shrugged, I drug my butt over on my extended arms, then leaned up and opened the door to peer inside.
"Explain how, now," I demanded, using my injury card with, "My back hurts and I wanna hear it before I lug this out and blow their minds. How did you even know about it?"
I had completely forgotten about it. My guardian angel had struck again.
"Tim's mom called yours when she heard about you, and they asked me if I knew anything about Tim and the van parts, and I said sure, and Jon took me over and we put it all in the wagon and brought it over to toss into the van before they, wow, really gone, before they towed it. But, well, that was kind of a red flag when we saw it and had to hide it from your dad real fast! So I hid it there this morning before they came and got ya and we was getting ready for the party."
Every face in the Circle was strained with curiosity. Everyone was obviously dying to ask, and enjoying the tease. Except Tom, who was enjoying the tease with me from the same side.
"It's a present from Tim to the Circle," I said as I pulled it the rest of the way out and shoved it across the floor in front of me into the circle of my friends. "Guys," I said, pulling the bong out of the box, "remember His Purple Majesty?"
Gasps and one-word statements of surprise.
"When he gets back, he might want it back for while he's here, but," I teased, "there's more."
I removed the other items slowly, everyone astounded that Tim had given the wondrous objects away.
"And last, and best, because we get to keep this, Tim don't get it back, is this."
When I removed the one-pound bundle of weed, I was sure that my parents and grands heard the shouts of awe. Tom ordered Eric to get a glass of water from the bathroom, then he ordered Brent to bring some weed from the desk, and we welcomed His Purple Majesty to the Circle.
"Long may he reign!"
Jon held third place in the Circle and decided we needed to hear about the van fire. I was required to relate my experience in the most complete and total detail that I could. I attempted to skip certain aspects of having eventually 'blacked out', I had thought I had covered well, but I was stopped and told to tell it all. I told them that I thought I had seen Toby in the afterlife, and that he had told me to watch out for my glasses, and to think about how they got to me. I said we talked about normal stuff for a while, and then there wasn't anything until a nightmare about being tortured before I woke up in the hospital.
It was clear by the end of my story that Tom having anything to do with helping me during the van was first revealed to the Circle. Not even Jeff knew that Tom had been there during the van fire, or that he had gotten a fire extinguisher and put out the worst of the fire, or that he had helped pull me from the van, or that he had then performed mouth-to-mouth on me until the paramedics arrived.
I told them that mom had told me in the hospital that I wasn't breathing when they got me out of the van, and that if Tom hadn't been there that I would have certainly died before the paramedics arrived. I also made it clear that dad had pointed out that he couldn't have even tried mouth-to-mouth until after going inside to call for help first, and that it would have been more than a little too late by then.
Tom had kept his face in his hands the entire time. At first he was merely resting there during the van story, knowing it all already, or so I had thought. But as the questions came and the facts were revealed, it was obvious that he had wished it hadn't come to light.
"Oh my God! Tom saved your life!" Jon whispered.
"You even didn't know?" I asked, stunned.
"Fuck no!" he said, looking angrily at his brother.
"Wow," Todd said with awe. "I told ya, Al."
"Shut up, midget."
We grinned at each other.
"So, Tom, what? You thought it'd be a secret?" I asked him.
"Well, I hoped it wouldn't be a big deal," he said, still hiding in his hands.
I understood him and asked for the next topic.
Eric's turn brought up the fight with Charlie Derek on last Monday. I learned how word had spread that I was gay, and not to be messed with, that I had many friends, all of whom had already shown they would back me up if anyone caused any trouble. Also, Charlie Derek had changed. He still ran around with Kyle and Brian, but they didn't bother anyone, in any way, and the three of them had stopped Bruce Plumber from being beaten to a pulp by Will Conner.
Brent used his turn to request his brother tell us what he told him.
We turned to Ryan.
Ryan turned deeply red and squirmed.
"Oooh, this should be good," Tom said with relish, making most of us snicker.
Ryan gave his brother and Tom looks of near anger before he exhaled energetically and took on a resigned air.
He picked at he carpet, watching his fingers for a moment before he started.
"I said, at the party, how I don't see why you gotta choose guys or girls. Okay. So, I just wanted to say that I think it's great Alex and Jeff are together and stuff. I hope you guys the best of luck."
He looked up, still red, but smiling a little.
"Thanks," I managed, blushing.
I had been waiting for the story of Jeff at school, of whatever had happened, but it wasn't mentioned along with the rest of the news to open the meeting, let alone as one of the very first, most important things as the way Charlie had spoken of it caused me to expect it would be.
Now that it was Jeff's turn, I expected it for certain.
"For my turn, I have an information request. I want Tom to tell us what happened at the van. What really happened."
Tom had two options, and he knew it. He had helped shape the rule. The first point of order speeches and requests could not be denied unless you left the Circle for the rest of the night. No exceptions. He picked at the carpet as he thought. It was obvious that he was actually considering leaving the Circle for the night. It had been done by others, and it wasn't always comfortable for anyone, but sometimes it had been done. The host could actually disband the meeting, if he happened to be requested and refused, but that had yet to occur.
"I will, but only to Alex."
It took deliberations and a rare amendment to the constitution, but he got away with it. From then on, a request could be deferred if there was a member who was the subject of the request. In this case, since I was obviously the subject of the topic that Jeff had requested Tom come clean on, I could allow the deferment. Other problems were foreseen and taken into account with the new rule, but Tom was released from having to tell the van tale. At least publicly. And I understood. And I intended to hold him to it.
I saw that Todd was quite fidgety as his turn came up.
"I'm going to say what I know my bro ain't got the balls to say and should have just said, so I'm gonna."
"Todd, don't you even!" Jeff warned him.
Todd rolled his eyes and smirked, saying "Oh, whatever," without his voice.
"Then fine. I'll just use my open to say it's really cool to have you back and I hope you feel back to normal real soon. And thanks, Tom."
Tom smiled and laughed once, looking away from Todd, inadvertently toward me. We met eyes, looked away from each other.
We moved on to open discussions, and after even the most minor and trifling things had been discussed, I still expected the story of what had happened at school - with or to - Jeff to come up as a, 'oh, by the way' kind of thing. But still, nothing. I began to believe it was something Jeff was going to mention alone. I also began to worry it was bad news, and that they didn't want to ruin my first Circle meeting back from the hospital, or that it was so bad that they didn't want to tell me of it at all.
I kept my mind off it by watching Tom and Jeff closely, making sure that things were as I thought they were. I saw nothing that contradicted my theory, and some more things that indeed backed it up. I wasn't far from trying to begin what I wanted to say, when I noticed Ryan and Eric. Ryan was sitting next to Eric, his brother to his other side, Jon next to Eric. Everyone ignored it, or didn't notice it, but I did. I wondered how long it had been going on, if since the party, or if it was more recent. I didn't mention it, letting them have their private game, grinning in memory of my own with Toby so long ago, right there, with those guys.
I felt home. Not at home, as home. I was back. I glanced around my room, wondering how long it had taken mom to clean it so well. I looked at my friends, and warmed. I realized how close I came to moving on from there. Not just once, not just twice, but more. At least once, I could have decided the matter with a single step. I knew I would have missed the guys, and the times we had, my parents, all of them, far too much to have been glad that I had.
I managed to nonchalantly check the hiding spots and see what I expected to find; the other large bags of pot were seemingly undiscovered. Next to my desk, on the shelves holding all one-hundred and twenty-seven paperback books, was a one-hundred and twenty-eighth. I cocked my head to the side, not to read the title on the spine, but for whatever reason all humans, even animals, did the same when puzzled. I pulled "Magician: Master" by Raymond E. Feist off the shelf and examined the brand new book. I had no memories of it, other than knowing I wanted the sequel to the book Tom had bought for me to read in the hospital.
I turned, the question on my open lips, to see everyone pointing at him as he sat with crossed arms, eyes rolled to the ceiling, smirking a half-grin, shaking his head.
"It's just a couple books. You're gonna hafta take it easy a lot, so I got him something to read is all."
That wasn't all, and I knew it, and I knew what it was, and what it wasn't.
Who gives someone they romantically love a book? Or even two books? That's something for friends, or relatives. Right? But it's thoughtful, and considerate, and meaningful all the same. And it points the right way, too.
His Purple Majesty made it around the Circle, and I kept it filled and going around as this and that got talked about between video games or other distractions. I decided to clean the screen, as hitting the bong required a lot of suction, enough that the bubbling got your thumb wet on the carb. I pulled the box out of the desk drawer and saw something new in there. Six of them, each a different colored dragon using an appropriate breath weapon. I remembered the off-hand remark I had made at a Circle meeting weeks ago about needing more bookmarks while reaching for another paper clip.
I squinted at Tom, who when he eventually noticed, and I wiggled the bookmarks at him, came to examine them.
"Cool," he said, handing them back. "Where'd ya get 'em?"
He wasn't faking. I looked at the rest of the guys, but no one gave any clues. Jeff and Eric were playing Atari, and I didn't feel like waiting there like that until they finished. I shrugged at Tom.
"Don't know. Who you think? And why put them in the drawer?"
Jeff finished his tunnel first, and with a few seconds to spare, he rested his fingers and glanced around. His smile wavered and he glanced away again quickly when he saw what I held.
Tom and I squinted at each other, and I finished changing the screen in silence. Once back in the group, Ryan and Eric continued doing things I recognized for what they were while the others never seemed to notice them. I remembered those times over six months ago, and nearly two years ago, when Toby and I thought we were being sly.
I looked at my friends, and only one of them made me want to do those things, and only one looked at me in a way I knew meant he wished he could, too. I grinned and blushed. I felt so warm, comfortable, safe and sound. And I'd seen enough.
I was ready, and it was time. I knew that if I didn't do it, I might not ever see the last few pieces of the puzzle I needed to finish it. Not only finish the puzzle, if it had an end, but to finish what I felt needed closed. Or opened. I had thought many times about if it was best to wait until we had time alone in the morning, or if I should at least wait until the Circle meeting wound down and quietly sneak the two away. I always felt it was just best that I get it over with early in the night, so that we could get down to being the us we were going to be after the talk; whichever 'us' the three of us were going to become. I knew the best way to do that, for us to get right to normal, was to have the Circle to return to after the discussion. I worried that one or both would leave, or want to, but I was ready to convince either or both of them that it would be a mistake, that it would be best to adjust now and move on. I was ready to be the friend they each really needed; I just had to show at least one of them what he needed, and in front of the other so that he could not deny it.
I cleared my throat and readied to get it over and done. When Brent was obviously about to lose his last city, I said, "Guys, I wanna, there's something I wanna do. I got something I wanna say to Tom and Jeff, so if you all could excuse us? There's movies in the den, naturally. Or you can take the Atari down there."
The vote was the Atari. I watched their faces as they readied and headed down. I gave them a very large joint and said to smoke it in the garage and to be quiet. I trusted they would. I saw their varying expressions, and I never felt uncomfortable. They each seemed to take it all in stride, even though they surely knew what was going to be discussed. I saw Todd whispering to Jeff briefly, as well as Tom being told something quietly by his older brother.
Todd asked if we were coming down when we were done, or if they should send up an envoy from time to time. I told him we'd come down, and I asked Jon to make sure that Todd didn't secretly elect himself envoy and secretly sneak up to secretly listen at the door.
"Yeah, way ahead of ya," he reassured me.
"I am not that big a sneak!" he insisted too clearly, and without any innocence at all, as well as to laughter from everyone.
I was left alone with a worried looking Tom and Jeff. It was time to set them straight. I sat on the bed to face them as they still sat on the floor, a gap between them where I had just been sitting. I sighed deeply as I looked at the two of them.
How could I miss it? Yes, they both love me, and yes, they both want me, but in different ways; I had been right from the beginning, even though I didn't have all the pieces. Once I saw that Toby was Toby, and not my memories of him in those visions, the pieces of the puzzle sorted themselves. Once I knew what I was looking for, the other pieces were easy to find and place. The puzzles filled in fast from there on.
I have enough pieces of Tom's puzzle to see him, and I knew he isn't gay even though he loves me. Tom loves me, but he isn't gay. He's open to more, is all. His best friend ever is gay, so he's open to it. He's not afraid of sex with guys. I made him bi, maybe, but not gay. No, not even bi, just open. Gay sex don't have any unknowns, any taboos, any secret things to him. He enjoys it, but it isn't really satisfying for him. Tom and I are friends first, then the attraction began. To Tom, I'm the closest he ever felt to anyone, and it was with his best friend, and it was enjoyable, but there's no romantic love between us. He don't act anything like I did with Jeff, or Jeff did with me. Or anything like I and Toby had been. Only the once, that last time. When he did it 'my way'. For my birthday. That was the only real reason, other than to see what it was like. Another experiment, wasn't it Tom? Tom, with me, is my best friend. The sex is... just sex. Just having a good time with each other.
Jeff, Jeff loves me, and he's gay. And he loves me in that way. He's not only open to more, he wants more. And we're best friends and more since we met. Jeff used to consider gay sex taboo, until he felt love for me. Then, while it still scared him, he experimented and explored it. He came to see he wanted it, and it completes him. Jeff and I met and fell for each other at first sight. I always felt the love and attraction for him, and him for me. He looks in my eyes the same way when I do his. We got all giggly and stupid with each other. He wants the affection with a guy during sex, and he likes and wants me. With Jeff, the sex was kissing, and hugging, and cuddling, and, real sex. He lets his emotions in on it, and wants to that way. At least he's let his emotions in so far, and there's so far more to go. I wonder if he knows that? I didn't until I was taken there. We haven't gone that far yet, but I can tell he wants to go that far.
So different, so alike. And both such awesome friends.
They had waited as I gathered the puzzle pieces - the facts - silently thinking their own thoughts. Both looked concerned, curious, and impatient.
"Just be quiet and listen first, okay?" I waited for their agreement before continuing. "Okay. You guys know I love you both. Tom, you've been my best friend since we moved here. And no way I could ask for a better one. No fucking way. And you saved my life. Not like everyone can say that. And you made Jeff come over that day on the bus. And you knew. And that was something I don't want you to regret, ever. Thank you!
"The thing is, I knew it when I got the glasses. Well, I knew it when I put 'em on. I know they're cloudy and shit, but, it was like I could see clear, but not everything was there. I needed time to put all the pieces together and see what it meant.
"The last few days, they all clicked where they belonged. I watched you guys, and thought about you guys, and just laid back on those pain killers and rode along, ya know? The grass tonight really helped! Okay, but my point is, I think Toby helped me. Okay, I'm really sure Toby helped me. When I was in the van, and burning? Or, out from the smoke, I, uh, kinda like dreamed, or saw, or got visited by Toby. Okay?"
I waited for them to nod, which they did, and both very solemnly.
I felt a mix of embarrassed stupidity and joy as I described the visits. I told them of the things I saw, and what Toby and I had talked about. Their expressions changed through curiosity, to concern, to smiles as I wound up.
"So, he said he was sorry about the glasses. And I asked what he meant, and he said to ask about them when I got back. Back meaning, alive, or here, or whatever, ya know? So, then out of nowhere, Jeff hands them over, and says how you told him to give them to me. That was, a big piece. Once that got in place, others came. And then the glasses! It was like the dreams! So much like! And my folks were the wall of safety that let me exist, like the tall trees at Toby's glen. Jeff and his family were the rock that anything can be built on. Sorta like the rock foundation ahead of me. Sorta. And Tom, you were all like a guardian angel, the sun behind you in the windows, ya know? Your shadow over me in a protecting kind of way.
"I knew, and decided to watch and see. And I seen it now. Tom, you really are like my guardian angel down here. You do shit all the fucking time! The parties are just the big ones lately! Shit, what've you done I don't even know about?"
He looked like a frightened dog that was cornered after being caught peeing on the floor.
"Don't answer! I don't wanna know, huh?"
He coughed and looked a bit more comfortable, then finally decided that he was going to say something.
"I, ah, for the fight with Derek, right? I spread a rumor that there was gonna be a big fight on the patio outside the shop wing. Made sure some teachers heard. That way they wasn't around to mess with the plan."
He looked a bit more uncomfortable when he knew that I was waiting for another.
"Uh, Jeff said how Todd knew you was coming over there that Monday after the fight, if he ain't said so to you yet. But Jeff asked me if I called, because Todd wouldn't say anything. But, yeah, I called when, after you left to go there after school and the fight. I didn't say anything, only that you were on the way there."
He grunted in protest, but rolled his eyes in acquiescence.
"Fine. Fine then!" he said, starting up his evil payback grin, giving me second thoughts. "Okay, yeah. Then your birthday party, on Friday, the van one? When Jeff got coated with soda and had to change? I asked Eric to do that, so he'd have to change before we left for the private party. So he'd have to change in your room and wear your clothes. And we planned the ice chest fight to get you soaked, too. So you'd have to go change, too. How's that?"
He grinned fully then, smirking more like, even gloating. He knew he'd hit a bull's-eye with that one; he got two for one, as both Jeff and I tisked together in horror. Neither of us bothered to perdiddle.
I laughed. I laughed so hard that it hurt to breathe and I started coughing. Jeff joined in, and eventually Tom gave up his hurt airs and laughed with us. It wasn't a bad coughing fit, and it did make a nasty gob of that psychedelic slime exit, finally. My breathing was clearer after that, so I was thankful for the laugh even more.
"Man, save it. I bet you got tons of stuff to fill me in on. And I do want filled in. We can spend a lot of time together just talking that, ya know? But, I see how you think you love me. I know you do, but, just hang on, okay? Right now, back to how I saw and thought before that Jeff was the rock. I always thought of Jeff as the rock, like rock solid, like granite. Big, strong, tough, rugged. Hard."
I knew that would cause a round of giggles, but I had really wanted to add it, and I knew that a little more mood lightening wouldn't hurt.
"So, then I see Tom as guardian angel, like. The one who watches over me and even helps when I don't know it. But not the one in front of me. Not the rock, and his family, and right where, where who I think of when I think of love is supposed to be. I know it sounds stupid, but then I think how Tom handed me my glasses through Jeff. Why? Tom?"
"I don't know, not really," he said, looking confused. "I just found the glasses, but the paramedics threw your jeans to the side, after, they, they cut 'em off, and, and I thought about your wallet. And then forgot about 'em. I just had 'em in my hand all night, and when Jeff showed up at the hospital, I just handed 'em to him and said to make sure you got 'em. That's all. Honest," he ended with a hearty shrug.
"Yeah, he just, like, went, here's Al's stuff, make sure he gets 'em. I was like, okay. Didn't think shit about it. At all."
"Gotcha. So Tom hands me what I need, through you, Jeff. See?"
They looked to each other with raised eyebrows and shrugged at each other.
"I know, but trust me, there's so much more! I'm just giving you the idea here. I seen it again and again now, lately. Tom, you're my guardian angel, here, my best friend, and a soul mate if there are such things. Right? Am I wrong?"
"No way. I mean, shit. I... Yeah. I agree with that."
He looked so embarrassed and so happy. He kept his head down, like I would have, and like Jeff was, though I saw that he did peek to his left at Tom.
"And Jeff, you're part of what's ahead of me. You're the one in my path. What'll form my solid rock foundation."
I took a break, readying the words to try shoving it down their throats.
All or nothing, baby.
"I can only think of one way of making this point, without you guys arguing it. So here goes.
"Yeah, bud, what?"
"Would you be willing to tell your mom that you loved me? Loved me more than as a friend? Or at least talk about telling her that?"
I had obviously stunned him. His mother was well aware that I was gay, and was certainly aware that her son had been very close with me. There was no doubt that both of his parents were still wondering which way Tom's sexuality would go. I wondered then what kind of tensions that had caused in the atmosphere of his home.
Jeff, too, was visibly stunned, probably thinking that I was seriously asking Tom the question as well. I knew it was bothering him, possibly hurting him, but I wanted him distanced from me right then; clearer headed, not infatuated or feeling close to me. I wanted both of their more objective decisions and thoughts.
"Uh, wuh, uh, why?"
"She knows about me, and probably a lot about, well, what everyone thought. It should be easy. Jeff did, but it was, I forced him to."
"No, I finally did is all," Jeff said, trying to defend me from my own words, and truth.
"No, I forced you. I put you in a bad place, and it wasn't your decision. So, Tom? Would you?"
I had replied to Jeff, but had kept my eyes on Tom as his frightened and worried face gave me his answer. Only then did I look to Jeff. His face was so attractive; it was as if there were a real and physical attraction to him, akin to magnetism or gravity. The dark pupils in the centers of his bright blue eyes acted like black holes, pulling inexorably down into them. I didn't resist. For the first time in days, I didn't resist.
"Jeff, would you let your mom know we were dating, if, if we did?"
Surprised, he thought for a second, no more, before he answered.
"Yeah. I don't care. If, we were."
"What? Date? Uh... "
His discomfort was easy to read.
"Would you hold my hand in front of your mom?"
"Huh? Why? Why would we?"
"If we were dating, say we were. Or we just wanted to prank her. Would you?"
"Uh, nnno. Not about that."
He seemed to be looking at something that didn't exist. I knew he was looking inward, seeing something of himself that he hadn't before.
"Jeff agreed to. Then he did, even before we told her, when it meant a lot of yelling and shit. Would you kiss me, Tom? Right now?"
I had only asked him that once before, on my birthday, just before the party, in the den. And he had. And then we did again. When I had asked that time, I had badly wanted him to. As I asked him the second time, I feared he might.
He returned from inside himself, looked at me momentarily without meeting my eyes, blushed, looked at Jeff, and then finally at the floor.
"Why? We did, I mean, even if... " He sighed deeply and suddenly looked wounded. "Why you even asking me?"
"We have before. Would you now? It's just Jeff," I pressed, seeing him seeing it.
He turned deep red and looked very uncomfortable. Again I got my answer from his silence.
"Jeff, would you?"
He blushed, met my eyes, grinned, blushed deeper, looked at Tom, then the floor, then he had his lips on mine.
I was able to see Australia from where that placed me high in the stratosphere. I swooned. I never understood the word, not really, not until Jeff's lips were suddenly on mine then. I felt lightheaded, weak, dizzy, wonderful.
"I been wanting to since, like, even the times I visited in the hospital," he explained, taking his seat on the floor again with an enormous, slightly shy, and completely adorable smile.
He knew the question. He looked lost, almost scared, but far more confused.
"No. I wanted to hug you so much when I saw you! So long as I didn't hurt your burns! But, yeah, I wanted to hug you, a lot. I didn't even think about... kissing, you."
He looked wounded again, but kept his face rigidly forward, no longer staring at the floor. I knew the things he had just seen about himself were painful, and I hoped he saw what I knew. I also hoped that I felt as least as bad as he did.
"Do you still want a hug?"
He nodded, suddenly seeming near tears. I knelt on the floor and put my arms around him. Bending so much was excruciating because of the burns, but I bore it, for Tom. His body shook in my arms.
"I know, Tom. I understand. It's okay. You love me, you're just not gay. I love you, too, but I don't feel the same way as I do about Jeff. Or did about Toby."
I held him for the few brief minutes he would allow himself to cry on a friend's shoulder, even his very best friend's shoulder; the guy he loved more than anyone before.
"I'm so sorry. I, if, I know I love you! But, I can't, I, I don't want no, no boyfriend. I love you, man, but I, and I can't, no way I want to say I'm gay. I'm, just not. But, I love you!"
"I know. I get it."
"What the hell-e-o?" Jeff asked, causing me to snicker once despite the tears.
"Tom isn't gay, just loves his friend. He's never had so close a friend before me, or much friends at all, and, he was confused. He thought if he loved a guy, then, well, he was in love with a guy. He needs to see he can love a guy friend, but not be gay. He loves me, he's just not in love with me. Like I kept saying! He's so not gay!"
We all giggled a bit.
"Oh, shit! Don't tell the guys!" he begged, wiping at his eyes.
We all laughed, feeling the air clearing.
"Jeff. Jeff, you so rock," I said, looking at his adorable grin, his blushing cheeks, his crooked smile; it all made me feel joyous. "You, I love you, like I said, and I love you as much as Tom. And in another way, too. I love you,!"
I gave Tom a fake angry glare and said, "Don't ever think somebody's gonna take your place. Ever! I don't know how much time we'll spend together if Jeff is willing to, uh, you know, but that won't mean I think or feel any different about you at all. Okay? We might not spend so much time with each other, but it's just another change. Ya know?"
"I gotcha," he said, grinning and nodding, looking so relieved.
"And, you," I said to Jeff, "If you're still willing to, uh, well, I won't feel different about you either w-"
His lips pressing against mine was answer enough.
Jeff and I walked hand in hand behind Tom down to the den, all of us grinning like idiots. I knew Tom was more than satisfied with things, once he understood that he wasn't gay, but that he loved a guy as much as he had ever loved anyone but his own family. I knew Jeff was happier, too, knowing he had no rival, and that I was all his, and that he was finally able to be all mine.
The Circle understood immediately, and they erupted into a volcanic round of questions as we entered the den. I ducked and patted the air, trying to quiet them down; it was after midnight and we were in the den.
My guardian angel offered to go apologize, and to tell anyone that woke up that it was just such a good movie that we had forgotten for a moment, and we'd close the doors and try to be quieter. That way they wouldn't come down, he suggested. I nodded, and knew I was in good hands as I sat with Jeff on the couch where the guys made room for us.
They asked the obvious and embarrassing questions which Jeff and I took turns answering, or making clear was none of their business. When Tom returned, I knew from his face and subtly cocky body language that he had done far more than apologize and promise to keep quieter during the rest of the non-existent movie. He saw me narrow my eyes slightly at him, and he knew I knew. He brushed it off and joined the round of twenty-million questions. I made sure to ask a few of my own of him.
I insisted we move things back upstairs and get back to normal. I was elated, overjoyed, and exhausted. As the guys finally began returning to the game back to my room, I began to realize that I had planned well, but forgotten the drugs. I had taken the usual night pills at eight, not concerned that one would be a sleeping pill. I had known that I would fall asleep by midnight, I simply hadn't considered it. I was very glad that I had decided on the early approach. I could not remember ever feeling so uncontrollably tired before. I fought for just a few more minutes of sitting with Jeff and the guys, but I drifted off repeatedly even though I kept thinking of staying awake. After the buzz, the merta, the even greater rush of the talk and its results, the pills had an easy time of pushing me toward unconsciousness.
I was forced to go to bed by the entire group. They wanted to take the Atari back downstairs so that I could go to bed, but I told them to say there and that I would sleep in the other room. I stood and wobbled on my feet. Jeff stood up to help me. I put some weight on his shoulder and took a couple of steps before I surprised Jeff. He had expected me to head to the other bedroom where the two single beds had always been set up for the guys to crash on. I instead turned toward the bathroom. I walked walked woozily that way a few steps, Jeff at my side, then surprised him again as I headed toward the huge American flag that hung from nearly the ceiling to just brushing the rug next to the bathroom door.
He laughed and said, "Wrong way, Phelps!"
I smiled and shook my head. I pushed the low bookcase across the carpet with a foot, then I grinned at his surprised expression, and at the expressions of the rest of them, as I pushed the big flag to the side and opened the door behind it.
"No way!" Todd and Ryan exclaimed together as the rest remained utterly shocked into silence.
Tom finally spoke first as I flipped on the light switch in the secret room.
"How the fuck did you keep that secret for three years? From me?"
"Not secret anymore. I don't think I have any secrets from you guys anymore. I hope not."
They all came and checked out the little room. It had a single window, a small closet, and a small bed. There was enough room to get in, turn around, open the closet, and get out again, but that was about it.
"So now I know where you disappeared to sometimes," Tom said with considerable awe.
"Sometimes you just want to be alone. But I hope I don't anymore. So I hope I don't need it. And it's about the last secret, and it's not secret anymore. Not to us. And I want it that way. And with the door shut, I can only hear you if you yell or something. So you can talk and stuff all normal, okay?"
They all nodded and returned to the big bedroom, except Jeff, who seemed determined to see me asleep before he would leave me alone. I didn't mind. He sat on the edge of the bed as I gingerly laid out, groaning from the stretching and wrinkling of the burns from shoulders to hips.
"They really sore, huh?"
"Yeah. But not as bad. And not so bad so long as I don't move fast," I said as I found a comfortable position facing him on my left side.
"You wanna just pass out, or can we talk a bit?"
"We can talk all night," I offered, touching his wonderfully smooth, soft cheek with my fingers.
"Hmmm, I think I changed my mind," he said, looking at me sideways. "Ain't nothing that can't wait, anyway. And you're so tired anyway, and need to sleep as much as you can. I just, do want to say... "
I knew what he was going to say, and I thought how it would be the first time he had ever said such things to someone, alone, together, especially on the starting edge of something so scary, so huge, so wanted, so needed. I thought of how hard it was when I had first told Toby those things, and how awkward and ridiculous, stupid and embarrassed, and wonderful I had felt.
The leaf turns, I thought. Toby had done it his first time, and he knew it was my first time when we were together, and now I know it's Jeff's. I'm Jeff's first time. I'm his first, boyfriend. His first... lover. His first teacher.
I put my hand on his as it rested on his thigh.
"I love you, too, Jeff."
He laughed a short, cute, little laugh, then bent down and kissed me. I held him for a longer one than he intended. When I let go he was grinning from ear to ear, his braces glinting.
"So, how long until, uh... "
"Any time," I said, tracing my finger up his wrist and onto his forearm. "I ain't broke, just a bit sore some places is all."
He snickered again, his braces still glinting.
"Oh, yes! Oh, Jeff! Oh yes!" I said very loudly at the partially open door.
The laughter from the other room only got louder when Jeff rushed out to prove there wasn't anything going on.
"Keep him out there so I can get some sleep!" I demanded, sounding as serious as I could manage to.
A chorus of goodnights as the door was closed... but, as they say about doors...