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Four days of confusion, grief, and tears followed that phone call from Toby's aunt. School was only weeks away, and I dreaded it for the first time in my life. I had previously looked forward to starting a new school year, but what Toby had endured at his school cast a pall over my expectations of my own junior year.
All I was able to think of was Toby's funeral. His family in the little church Toby had described, looking at his coffin up front, listening to one of the preachers talk about someone he didn't know as well as he thought, but who knew him better than me in many ways. It would have been draped in black, and his flower-covered coffin would lay up front. Black-clothed mourners sitting in the pews.
I had not spoken Toby's name since I had learned of his death four days ago. My parents tried numerous times to have a "heart to heart about certain things," and each time the subject came up, my glare and demeanor made it completely obvious that I would have no part in such a thing. The fact that I would silently get up and leave sealed the matter. I left one dinner untouched, as mom had broached the subject as I sat down; I simply stood again and went back to my room.
Since he had returned two days ago, Tom had spent almost every hour with me, trying to keep me occupied, and I was well aware of what he was up to. I silently thanked him for it numerous times. I had tried to be cheerful and hide the sorrow that ruled me when Tom had come back from vacation, but there was no way to do so, not from him. Tom knew within minutes that something was wrong, and the next day, after he had learned of Toby's short visit, his words and manner told me that he knew more about Toby than I wanted him to. He kept me busy with games, Dungeons and Dragons, movies, and going to the arcade.
Unless my parents had told them, none of my friends knew of Toby's death. Word of his visit spread uncontrollably through the Circle, naturally. I answered their questions and told them he had had to go back home. I knew that any attempt to tell them of him would result in my crying in front of them, and therefore exposing the truth of my feelings for him. I hated that I was hiding something so big from them all, and I felt guilty about it. I knew the only way I could ever tell them that Toby was dead - even then not about how he had died - would be offhandedly, once the pain had dulled. I feared that would be never, but I knew it would have to be sooner or later. Putting it off until at least then was my only option.
The fourth day after Toby's suicide and the call from his aunt, after Tom had left for a bit, I moved to carry out the plan that I had been devising over the past several days. I dreaded doing it, but I felt that I owed it to Toby. I thought that maybe the fact that he had been able to tell only me about the coach, meant that I was to be the one to do it. I thought, hoped, it meant that I would be the one who would make sure it got done.
I let myself cry a bit as I sat on my bed next to the phone, staring at it, my stomach seemingly turning over inside of me. Once I had taken a few solid, non-shaking breaths, I dialed the operator and asked for the phone number, wrote it down, then dialed it.
"Georgia State Police, how may I help you?"
"What do I do if I find out a teacher is molesting a student?"
The words had come out, to my surprise, but they sounded as if I was being shaken violently.
I took two, long, steadying breaths.
"I said, I know a teacher is molesting students. I knew a student at Cheley County High. He was being forced to have sex by his gym teacher. He said if he told anyone he would go to jail for possession. The teacher caught him smoking grass and made him do it or else. Who do I talk to?"
"Is this a joke?"
"Is suicide because of it a fucking joke?!"
Her question was expected at some point in the conversation, but I had had no idea that I would react so strongly to it when I heard it. I had thought I would simply say no.
"This student committed suicide?"
"If this is serious, you should talk right t'the Sheriff for that county."
"The sheriff may have known and didn't do anything. He and this teacher are buddies. I need to talk to someone over the county sheriff. That's why I called you guys."
"Was the student a minor?"
"Yes. No! I don't know. He's . . . was seventeen."
"Captain Freeley handles most such cases. You wanna talk to 'im? You should know, a record of this call and your phone and address will be on record. If this is a joke, it'll be a costly one."
"Give me the captain."
I told the captain most of the story that Toby had told me, getting over the hard parts with just a few choking sobs. I gave it clearly, precisely, having honed it during the previous days. The captain sounded sincere, and asked many probing questions. I was careful to avoid exposing just how close Toby and I had been, never mentioning anything more than was needed to relate what had happened to Toby. I told the Captain what Toby had done on the way home, when, and where.
He said that he was taking me at my word, and he would begin an investigation. He was nice, and asked more questions. He said he would be in touch if anything came of it, and thanked me for my courage and citizenship. I mouthed the platitudes that I knew adults loved to hear, and ended the call as soon as I could.
The next week the captain called back. He explained the investigation was, "proving fruitful" and was, "ongoing and intensifying." He said he would be in touch, and that I should tell my parents all that had happened, and give them his number. He also said that I should talk to them as soon as possible, and that they should contact him as soon as possible after that. He asked that this all be done within the next three or four days. I was worried, and frightened, but I was ready to follow through.
That night, almost as soon as they got home, I told my parents that I had called the Georgia State Police, and all that I had told them, and all that they had told me. Nothing else. It was hard, and there were tears, but there was comfort, too.
I was still often taken with bouts of grief and loss, but a month later they were shorter and fewer, down to nearly only one a day. Two factors diminishing those bouts were to put the synthesizer in the back of the closet, covered by the black and white lion blanket. I hoped that by putting those two items away, I might be able to stop thinking about him constantly.
My friends had taken grand steps to keep me out of that sadness. Tom had taken it upon himself to stay at my house nearly every night, keeping me busy and finding things for us to do. I knew what Tom and the others were doing, and mostly was glad of it. There were times, though, that I made it clear that I wanted some space and some time alone, and Tom could read me well enough to anticipate those times on occasion.
On the last Monday afternoon before school started, shortly after expressing such a desire, as I sat alone between playing Atari and thinking, I picked up the ringing phone and said hello.
I heard a voice that stunned me to my center ask, "Hello? Alex?"
"Is this Toby's mom? Is that you?"
"Uh, yeah, hi, uh, how are ya, hun?"
My stomach dropped as the emotions and images came rampaging back to me. I tore the phone base from the table and held it on my lap, wanting it closer for some unknown reason.
"Fine. Guess. How you doin'?"
"Fine, too, I guess. Alex? Barb told you 'bout a letter Toby wrote ya? We still have it. When we got home, there was so many things to do. Toby had set out some things on his bed, and some had your name on 'em."
Her voice broke a bit, nearly sending me into a matching condition. I waited for her to go on, but suddenly, it all came together. The pieces she had just handed me, all unawares, filled in an image that stunned me.
He planned it? He had planned it before he had even left home? Then, then the entire time he was here, it was, "the plan" to keep him from going back there. I was sickened more than upset to put those pieces in place and see that part of the image. For a period of time so small that I barely noticed it, I was angry at him for it. I saw why, though. I understood. It still hurt.
"We're gonna send them up to ya. I, uh, wanted t'call, also, t'thank ya. We know it was you who called the state police, but we don't know why."
How could they know that? The cop said he wouldn't reveal my name or location! Did he lie to me?
"They said it was a outta state call from a minor. And they figured Toby was the only school student who committed suicide like was described, so they began investigatin' by talkin' t'us. We thought we knew it was you right 'way, but they wouldn't tell us so. They say they're investigatin' further, and will let us know if there's anythin' more."
Ever since I had made that call, I knew I was inexorably trapped. From then on, I had to go through with it, and live with the consequences.
"They read the letter. And they know all of it. They ain't mad, I think they are on t'somethin' they way they act. They won't tell us anythin', 'bout what it's 'bout or how Toby fits or what you told 'em, or nothin'." There was a long pause before she finally asked the feared question, "What happened, Alex?"
I can't possibly tell them! There is no way! But they might find out from the police. Or in the papers. Would it be better from me? The sheriff told me not to discuss it with anyone. Toby's parents wasn't mentioned, but he said no one but him, my parents, and other authorities.
"I don't know if Toby wants you to know." I noticed that I had used the present tense "And I don't know if I can say it," I explained, hoping it would be enough.
"Was he hurt? Did he do somethin' illegal? Was it somethin' like that?" She asked, sounding as if she were near tears again.
"NO! Nothing like that. Toby didn't do anything wrong! Don't even think it!" I said, choking on the words, saying them more forcefully than I intended them. They were true enough, I thought. "I can't tell you. Even if you find out from the cops, I can't tell it. But it wasn't Toby's fault, he didn't do anything wrong and he didn't deserve it!"
My voice broke during the last sentence, tears running down both cheeks unchecked.
"Sorry, Alex. Sorry," she said after my emotional outburst had calmed somewhat.
My voice shaky still, or again, I said, "Don't be. If Toby didn't tell you in a letter, I don't know if he wanted you to even know. I shouldn't have called the cops!"
"Yes, I think you should have! Whatever it was, the police seem interested in it! I think you done the right thing," she said, also sounding like she was fighting tears. "Thank you."
"Thank you. You did good."
"Yeah, thanks," I replied, sounding as unconvinced as I felt.
There was a short silence again, broken by sniffles on both ends of the connection.
"I'm sorry I didn't get to the funeral," I said, breaking the silence.
"That's okay. You didn't miss anything but Toby's family standin' 'round cryin' in the rain. You'da had to driven three days to make it, n 'nother three days back home."
"If, when Toby's dad and I come up for a visit 'gain, will you come see us?"
I didn't know that I would react so strongly to that question, either; but it had not been expected. I suddenly realized that I wanted any contact I could have with Toby, and his parents were all I could have. I wanted to talk to them about him, and perhaps, about us.
"Good. We have these things for ya 'a Toby's. If you want 'em. I think he would'a liked ya to have 'em. He put your name on 'em. And we got the other letters and some other things we want ya t'have."
"We, we never knew. About you and Toby. You obviously made him happy. So happy," she said, her voice breaking a great deal. "We kinda knew he was . . . gay. We ain't dumb, but if he didn't want to tell us or was afraid to, it was prob'ly our fault. I, I just wanted to thank you, for making him happy. And to let you know we know."
"He, he, made me happy, too," I said before the grief was too much to speak through. "S-s-so much!"
Heavy sobs took my body over. I nearly dropped the phone. I only wanted to curl into a ball and leave the cold, heartless world outside.
"Alex, it's okay. He wrote ya some letters and never mailed 'em. We want t'give 'em to you. We read some 'fore we realized they was for you alone. It's okay, we know."
I was crying deeply, tears falling faster than I knew they could. I had not been ready to deal with Toby's parents knowing about us. Not yet. Not ever, I had hoped until recently. But then I was so deeply glad that they did. The grief of the loss took hold of me for some time before it weakened, but that realization cheered me some.
I sniffed and asked, my voice breaking several times during the short question, "Would he really have died?"
"Alex, he was far 'long. He had a couple months at most 'fore he would've been bad. We prob'ly didn't have the time t'move anywhere, but we woulda if we coulda."
"It's not fair!" I nearly screamed.
"I know, hun. Life ain't fair. You'll learn that. Just take what you get 'n make the most of it. 'Kay?"
"Yeah. Right," I choked out.
"Alex, if we'd known how much you meant to each other, we'd'a come up sooner, or let him stay as long as, as he . . ."
There was a long pause for more tears and grief for the both of us.
"Barb says ya can have the bike if ya want it. Ya just go get it any time ya want, 'kay?" she said when she gained control.
"Thanks. That'd be nice, but I don't need it."
"Yeah. I know someone who could use it though," I said, thinking of someone who indeed could use a decent bike.
"You give it to whoever ya want. I think Barb might like it if you visit, sometimes, too."
"Yeah. Just t'say hi, ya know?"
"We'll call when we come up with Toby's, your, things, 'kay?"
"Next month, we'll come up then, a day or two. We'll call, 'kay?"
"Can you send the letter now?"
"Sure, if you'd rather? Don't wanna wait for it?"
"No! Please mail it?"
"I'll send it tomorrow. Promise. And I'll bring the rest of the things when we come up, 'kay?"
"Yeah, okay. I'll see ya then."
"Sure thing, hun. Thanks. For everythin'. For makin' Toby happy, not just last visit, but 'fore. And for bein' there for him last time. And for doin' the right thing. He loved you, ya know?"
"I know," I said softly, feeling strange and elated to share that with his mom.
"He did. We know. You'll see. Thank you. Bye hun."
I was wiping tears from my eyes and trying to hold back more as I sat otherwise motionless. I thought I had gone through the deepest of the grief, but it was dredged back up, seemingly even stronger. I decided to let it come as I laid down and curled around the phone.
Three days later, Jeff and I were playing Dig-Dug, and I was losing as usual, when the doorbell rang. I wasn't expecting anyone, and when I looked out the window and saw the white delivery van, I figured mom or dad had ordered something and forgotten to tell me to expect a delivery.
When I opened the door, the delivery guy asked for me by name; not my parents, me. I signed for the package and examined it. It was a normal envelope, addressed to me, sent First Class Delivery with a Georgia post office stamp. I saw the return address and my heart both sank to my toes in dread and flew up to the clouds in elation, almost tearing me in two.
It could only be Toby's letter.
I absently turned and walked up the stairs, opening the envelope. My palms were sweating and my heart thudding. My hands shook crazily as I tried to remove the letter. I finally held it, shakily, seeing the writing on the opposite side, wanting to open it, but afraid to open it.
As I rounded the top of the first flight of steps, I unfolded the paper and glanced over the handwriting. I knew that it was some of the last words my Toby had ever written. It was messy, even for Toby, and I remembered Toby's mom saying he had written it in the back of the car on the way back home. My eyes went back up to the top of the page and began to read as I started up the stairs to the next floor. The blurriness began instantly.
I started reading the letter downstairs, but found myself sitting at my desk, crying. Jeff was laying on the bed, the game long forgotten, watching me with a worried expression, a bottle of Coke in his hands. I told him it was a letter from Toby, that I felt stupid for crying, and to forget it. Jeff clearly didn't believe me, but didn't push the topic. Instead, he told me it was okay and that sometimes feelings were too strong to bottle up. He asked if I wanted to be alone.
"No, I don't," I said, shutting off the emotions as best I could; it was a useless battle.
I lost my fight against the grief once again. Jeff moved the other chair next to me and lay his hand on my back, waiting.
It was a very long time before I was back. Jeff was still with me, his hand on my back. I wondered how much effort it took him. I knew guys our age weren't good with emotions, and I knew he had to be a bit embarrassed, but he was doing it all the same. The brief hope that he could care for me the way I found myself caring for him flared, but I squelched it quickly, not wanting to tease myself with obviously impossible things.
I saw that I still held Toby's letter, and worried that I might crumple or wrinkle the precious thing, I placed it carefully on the desk. I found myself reluctant to let go of it. I finally let it lay, but ended up gently resting my fingertips upon it.
I stared at it. A deep, shuddering sigh coursed through me. I felt sad, and the loss, deeply, but I smiled a tiny smile.
Jeff patiently waited, silently, gently stroking my back. I sighed and shuddered again, then finally looked up from the papers.
He grinned gently.
"Gonna be okay?" he asked softly.
I nodded and gave him a small smile.
He tried to interest me in playing against him in Dig-Dug some more. I knew that was a losing idea, and if I did win, it would just be him letting me win. He offered to play Missile Command, my game, but I was content to lay across the foot of the bed and watch him play.
I felt tired, and was fighting not to think of Toby constantly. I tried to let my mind go blank as I watched him work his way through level after level of the game.
The back of his shirt liked to drift up over his waistband as he leaned and swayed during the game, giving glimpses of his hips and the white waistband of his briefs. I wasn't interested, but I still took notice. It was Jeff, after all, and I had been attracted to him since the first time I had seen him. I was in no mood for that kind of thing, though, not since Toby had left. Even thinking about sex with the other guys felt like cheating. Toby was dead and gone, and his last words to me were now burned into my memory for life.
He had said that he wanted me to find someone else, someone I cared for as much as I did for him. Would I? Could I even? I doubt Jeff would ever be that, no matter how much I want that. What about Tom? Do I really feel love for him? Should I go for Tom since Jeff is so impossible? Even though Tom don't want it? What if it's one of the other guys? Who could be someone I would fall in love with?
Jeff really is something else, but impossible! Maybe Mark May or David Stultz? Both are cute. Probably not gay, but no girlfriends right now, so maybe. Like I'd ever have the guts to ask them. Laughable. I'd never know until it was too late.
I shuddered and sighed, then sat up. I felt like something to drink. I asked Jeff if he wanted anything, to which he said yes. I headed downstairs, stopping at the bathroom by the kitchen first. I looked terrible in the mirror, so I washed my face. I grabbed two bottles of ginger ale, opened them, and headed back upstairs. Jeff was still going along great at Dig-Dug, so I set his bottle by his foot. He nodded thanks as I sat back on the bed. I put my soda on the stand by the bed and lay back down, watching Jeff's Dig-Dug score climb.
I was in that nowhere place again. The bed, walls, the house, even the sky and the ground were gone. I was surrounded only by a pale, white light. I couldn't even feel the surface I stood on. Not even myself.
"Thanks, Lexy," I heard Toby say softly.
His voice was smooth and sweet, his accent as adorable as ever.
"Tobes! What the heck?"
He chuckled softly. The sound made me smile and then chuckle.
"Uh, and thanks for what?"
As if my eyes were growing used to the overly bright illumination, a shadow of a person slowly faded into view, solidifying, taking on the familiar size and shape of Toby. Then colors, hues, shadows, textures.
He was as gorgeous as ever. Perfect. No bleached color to his hair, it was as purely strawberry-blond as the day we met. He was naked, again, and it didn't matter. His shape was healthy, his color was healthy, no bones protruding, no yellow pallor. His emerald green eyes sparkled, his lips glistened.
I lost my breath.
"Fer what ya did. What I couldn't do. Thank you, Lexy."
"You're welcome, Tobes," I finally managed to say, wanting to say far more.
I took a step toward him, but he held up his hand, stopping me in my tracks.
"Stay there, Alex."
"Why? It's my dream."
"Then listen to me. We don't have much time. I need to make sure you remember never t'start the van. Not unless your dad is there. Understand?"
"Sure. The van. No problem."
"I'm serious. You'll end up with me too soon!"
His exasperated sigh told me that he wasn't believing me. I grinned, knowing that he knew me so well. Then I thought that he would have to, he was in my dream, I was making him up. Of course he knew me well.
The wind picked up and I felt as if I could barely stand upright against it.
"Don't let me stand in your way. Find the next one!" he yelled over the growing howl of the wind. "And don't start the van alone without your dad!"
"Okay, I promise.
"I love you Lexy! I always did, I always will!"
I began to reply, but the wind tore my breath from me, then I was swirling away into darkness.
Jeff scoring his a Dig-Dug high score jolted me awake. He had no idea that I had drifted off to sleep, and I hadn't either. I didn't remember being that tired. My mouth was dry and sent me reaching for the bottle by the bed. I expected it to be warm, since I had fallen asleep long enough to dream, but it was still very cold and had very little condensation on it.
I put the soda down and went to my desk where I sat and pulled out the journal. I wrote down all I could remember of the dream of Toby. When I was done, I sighed deeply, reading over the words, feeling as content and happy as I could ever remember feeling. I put the journal away and crawled back onto bed.
"Good job! Todd will never be able to beat that! And you're still going!" I said, patting Jeff on the back.
I returned to thinking about my dream, trying to remember it. It still came clearly, unlike dreams usually do once I wake up. I remembered him and the weird surroundings clearly, and what he had said. All of it. I knew he felt that way for me, and it was nice to hear him say it again, even if it was just a dream. The part about not starting a van was a puzzler, though. What van? Why would I ever be starting a van anyway? Why would having dad there make any difference? And why would it mean I would be with him too soon?
I was hoping to get sleepy, and maybe dream more about Toby. I took another sip of the soda and lay back down, watching Jeff's score continue to climb. I didn't want to, and I felt bad doing so, and I didn't understand why I couldn't, but I watched Jeff more than his game. My eyes were pulled to him, and each time my thoughts immediately followed. One moment I would be thinking of Toby, feeling the incredible loss and pain, and the next I was seeing Jeff, wishing for things with him of a similar nature.
Again and again I caught myself switching thoughts back to Jeff. I blamed it on the fact that I needed a distraction from thinking about Toby, and unfortunately for both of us, he was there at the time. Each time I again realized I was daydreaming of being with Jeff in the same way I had been with Toby, I always came to the same, simple, obvious, inescapable conclusions.
He is not gay. He's proved that he's not even very interested in even touching each other. There will never be anything with Jeff. It will never be. It just can't be.