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I woke up on top of my covers, fully dressed. In no mood to listen to music, in fact, in no mood at all, I slapped off the radio. Once the usual coughing fit ended, my breathing seemed a bit easier. I was still shaky and weak, though, when I finally stood up out of bed.
The only thing I could think about was the dream of, or visit with, Toby. All through the job of taking a shower, toweling off and dressing. I did so dispassionately as the little yellow pill was obviously still working. The burns were doing better, but the stitches in my temple were itching incessantly. The shower was still a major chore, but I wasn't panting until after toweling off.
How the hell could I dream up Toby while all smashed out emotionally and zonked on sleepers? Was the pill why I didn't have the nightmare about the van fire? If it stopped that nightmare, why didn't it stop the Toby dream? And how'd I feel any emotions when I was with him? Those things kill any emotion. I don't feel any right now and it's been hours since I took the fucking thing. Did I really feel emotions? Or do I just think I did?
If I really did, is that proof it wasn't all in my head? I wondered. If those things kill emotions, then I couldn't of had any in any dreams. Hell, I don't dream at all when I'm on 'em. No dreams at all, not even the van one. So what the fuck?
There it is, near perfect proof Toby ain't no dream. So... why don't I just accept it?
As I finished the morning duties and gathered things to take downstairs, I started thinking of all the horrors in my life.
Jeff changing so much that I was no longer sure that I was as attracted to him as I thought I was, or had been. Changing his seat at the breakfast table, and worrying about where he was going to sit at the table this morning.
Giving Tom that blow-job, and how guilty I felt that I had even done that, even if the dream had been right and Tom had told Jeff all about it.
Kevin Corless, and just how long it would be before it became physical.
The guys walking away in gym, and who else and how many more were going to.
Civics class and Mr. B.. If I would be able to stand staying in the class for the rest of the year. And if doing so would even have any point other than not losing the credit and the probable A.
Trying to catch up in all the classes before the upcoming finals.
The possible end of the Circle, since nearly everyone was more often missing than showing up.
Whatever was bothering Tom so much that I noticed it, and that it probably had something to do with me. The simple fact that he kept it secret from me.
The fact that I was seemingly going to have the nightmare every night for the rest of my life, unless I turned myself into an emotionless zombie with mood-altering pills.
All I need is about one or two more things and I can just go loopy, I thought with a humorless smile as I headed downstairs. Just crack up, get institutionalized, spend the rest of my days drugged out of my skull on the good stuff, and never have another coherent thought or that nightmare ever again. It might just be fucking worth it.
I obviously seemed distracted, as my parents soon asked what was bothering me.
"Just usual stuff is all," I replied flatly.
"School?" Mom asked once again.
"No," I answered truthfully.
"Jeff?" she asked, anxiety almost obvious in her question.
I rolled my eyes and threw her a half grin, both forced from my emotionless mind.
"No. I took a little yellow pill last night is all. Still kinda washed out."
She nodded, seemingly satisfied. Breakfast passed, new bandages, they left.
I sat in the kitchen, thinking about the dream or visit with Toby, thinking how I had taken a little yellow pill and shouldn't have felt anything at all. Or so I thought for a while. On my way out to meet Tom, an idea occurred to me.
I know I took the pill, so I shouldn't have felt any emotions. I still don't. Right now I don't feel anything. It's like nothing is real. Or nothing counts. I'm not happy or sad. Or anything. So how come I felt so much in the dream? Or the visit? How can the drug not have affected me?
As I reached the sidewalk, it hit me.
Drugs! Of course! I wasn't in my body! The drugs work on my brain, not my spirit. Or soul. Or whatever. The drugs are biological. If Toby is part of me, and I was dreaming him, I wouldn't of felt a thing! So, that means...
"Morning, sunshine," Tom said as he strolled up next to me.
"Morning," I replied absently.
That'd mean, he has to be real! Right? I mean, if I was dreaming it, no emotions. Right? Hell, no dream, period on those pills.
"Uh-oh. What's toolin' around up there already this morning?" he asked, the corner of his mouth up.
I had told him about the visits or dreams of Toby, and had managed to convince him they were real. I scoffed, wondering when I was going to be able to convince myself. I didn't care to relate the events of last night to him, so I shrugged it off.
"Get a good night's sleep last night?" he asked with a snicker, then slipped his ski mask down.
I silently flipped him off and shrunk further into my clothing. Talking meant a wet, frosty face and probably numb lips. It was a very cold Chicago morning, the snow crunching loudly underfoot, our breath steaming into clouds blown hither and yon by the buffeting, changing winds that found even the microscopic pathways through layers of clothing. Even my ears, beneath the multiple layers of the ridiculously long Doctor Who scarf wrapped around my head and face, felt the bitter chill.
We stomped and bobbed silently until the bus arrived to saved us. I used the time to roll the dream or visit, and the things Toby had said, over and over in my mind.
Took the pill, and don't feel any emotions even right now. Felt a lot then! Have to be right about the drugs not being able to affect anything but my brain and body, so I was there, just my spirit. Soul. Whatever. Couldn't been a dream, then. Right?
I remember emotions. Am I putting emotions onto images from a dream when there weren't any emotions during the dream? Oh, gawd. No, I'm sure I felt the emotions in the dream. Not dream. I felt stuff. I'm sure. So it wasn't a dream. Right?
I keep coming back to it not possibly being a dream.
So if it was real, what he said isn't just something I made up. Makes it all the more important, then, right? Let's see...
Should stay in civics. Mr. B. will just have to deal. I'll show him he's being stupid. So I'm gay. What, someone he has me tutor gonna be turned gay?
No. Don't let him make me think like that.
Hmmm, wonder if the guys said anything? Maybe it was them said they didn't want a fag helping them? But then, so what? Mr. B. could have said anything else and not mentioned how he didn't approve of my choice.
What an idiot. If I could choose, I'd probably choose straight and not have all the problems, and just be normal and happy. But nobody asked me. Idiot.
Okay, so what else? I asked about civics. Why should I stress Jeff? I should let the stress be where it belongs, on Mr. B., and I should make sure I freaking ace every test he gives. Asshole.
Let's see. Something about the Circle. About going 'round and 'round, so not to worry about it. Okay. What? It gonna break up? That would suck! But he said they go 'round and 'round. Maybe he meant changes to it? Why didn't I ask?
Because he wouldn't of said anything more, that's why. He loves the mysterious shit.
Let's see. Synthesizer. He wants me to play again. I can do that, I guess. I kinda miss it. Liked doing it.
I began to think of all the time Toby and I had spent at my keyboard, him with his guitar, us singing and laughing. Hours a day, between other, more intimate pursuits.
Thinking of Toby and music, I should be feeling sad, I thought. I should be feeling something. But, no. Just empty. Fucking hate those pills. Gotta deal. Also gotta deal with Jeff not acting different despite throwing him out and all that. Why can't I just pretend it didn't happen, like him?
Those words rang in my head, making me think that I should grin.
Why can't I? Just pretend that I had never thrown Jeff out of my room. He had never curled up on himself and acted like a shamed leper.
Just forget it.
I sighed resignedly, knowing it would be invisible beneath beneath the heavy coat and scarf.
Suddenly the bus came screeching to a stop in front of us.
"Heya," Jeff said smoothly, his beautiful blue eyes shining as Tom and I took our usual seats.
"Heya," I said as I pulled some of the scarf out of the way.
"Heya," Tom said as he sat next to me.
The bus seats felt stiff, and chilled my ass instantly through my jeans.
"Fuck!" Tom hissed after he sat. "This is fucking sick," he complained again. "People shouldn't live where it gets this fucking cold."
"At least you morons aren't on bikes," Jeff snorted.
We both flipped him off without turning around.
"Ster-e-o," he said slow and low, making me think that I should grin behind my scarf.
I guess I can try this whole don't-have-to-talk-about-it-to-make-it-better thing. I don't see how it helps, though. Or puts it behind us. Well, shit. We put it behind us by not talking about it. Letting it go. Geeze, Raymond. You're so fucking dumb sometimes. You can't see something right in front of your face, sometimes.
We didn't talk until we got into the warmth of the massive, old, brick building. It looked so familiar, but it didn't feel familiar.
"I gotta go duke. Prob'ly drop ice cubes thanks to the bus seat," Tom said, veering off toward the bathroom.
"Before Tom gets back, wanted to say I'd probably be over Saturday night. If it's still alright?"
It was easy to see his discomfort in asking. His brows were furrowed and he looked around, anywhere but directly at me. I wondered what emotions I would be feeling if I hadn't taken that pill.
But then I wouldn't have the almost perfect proof that it wasn't all in my head. I felt stuff during that dream - visit! I felt! And right now, I still don't. But, I do feel a little starting up. I feel a little bit happy because of that proof. And I feel a little happy that Jeff and I ain't being stupid like before. And I feel a little sad for how he must feel asking that. Best, though, I can think of something funny to say as an answer instead of just saying yes.
"Sure. And when we get tired of talking, I know somethin' else we can use our lips for... "
He tisked wonderfully, even adding the outward gasp of startled breath. I paid particular attention to his smile. He noticed and closed his lips, but couldn't stop his grin completely.
"Stop it," he said, moving his lips as little as possible, still trying to crush his grin.
I felt a bit of joy at his expression, and a bit of lust at knowing he could - and should - be mine, but it was still muted; nothing that it once had been, or could be. Still, I was enjoying his discomfort at my attention, and didn't want to push it too far. I looked around and above, at the mostly empty hallway. I thought about asking him where he was going to sit at the table.
"Kinda got somethin' important to talk to ya about, too," Jeff said uncomfortably. To my expression, he replied, "Sherlock, dude," effectively halting any questioning on the topic.
I waited silently until Tom rejoined us, wondering what Jeff had to talk about privately that had him looking so uncomfortable just mentioning it. Too many things presented themselves. I tried not to think on it anymore. Or where he was going to sit.
So many things ran through my head as we began the usual morning locker tour. We chatted a little about stupid things, but I worried again and again about where Jeff was going to sit when we got to the table. We continued through the mostly empty, echoing halls, so empty and silent, and smelling of chemicals. It seemed unreal, almost chilling. Ours was one of the first buses of the morning, and after dropping us off, it went out and brought back another load of kids, one of the last to arrive before classes started.
Once we were done with the locker tour and heading toward the cafeteria, Jeff said, "Hey, by the way, won't make the Circle this Friday. Got a lot to do. And gotta do the shopping thing with Mom and Todd Saturday, so I gotta go early and shit, anyway."
The Circle! What did Toby say about not to worry about the Circle? How they go 'round and 'round?
"Damn. Oh well. Not like it's the last Circle meeting ever," I said, hoping that it wouldn't be, fearing that it was.
"Not hardly," Tom offered with an elbow to my side and big grin.
Maybe today won't be such a shitty day, I thought. After yesterday, anyway. Kevin Corless turning into an asshole, my civics teacher turning into an asshole, people leaving the lunch table, leaving the breakfast table, leaving the group in gym... fuck. How can today be any worse?
The three of us walking the halls in the morning was the most natural thing in the world, yet it felt so odd now. I was the fag in the middle; the pale, four-eyed, freckly, lanky, near red-head nerd, flanked by a tall, broad, blond, jock on one side, and a short, pale, dark-haired, dark-eyed, thin academic on the other.
It was the same old building, and we were the same people; it was only that now something new was known about me. That's all. But that one little thing made everything else change.
I was about to find out where Jeff was going to sit at the table, walking in with Tom and me. I was glad I couldn't experience that stress and worry in full flow. Or the strangeness of being at school again, but with me being known about. And all the other worries, too. It was a good thing that I had taken that little yellow pill and that it was still working.
I needed to take care of things so that I didn't get transferred to Jeff's class. I had planned on doing it after being in the cafeteria for a while, but as we walked past the hallway to the offices, I decided to get it over with. With no emotions to horrify the decision, it was simple and obvious. I could find out where Jeff sat at the breakfast table once I had made sure that I wouldn't show up in his class later.
I casually mentioned that I had something that I needed to do, and that maybe I'd see them before first period.
"Taking care of that class?" Jeff asked.
I nodded, then said, "I guess it's best if I stick it out where I am."
He nodded, looking slightly relieved.
After a wave to each, I turned away toward the admin offices. Soon I was sitting in the S.A. Office, waiting for Mr. Green to call me into his office.
I knew Toby was right. Or I was. It was Mr. B. who had the problem, not Jeff. At least not this particular problem.
It should be Mr. B. who has to deal with it, I told myself. Not Jeff. Or me, for that matter. Whether it's me or Toby who said it, it's right either way. And shit, my problem with my civics teach ain't nothin' like Toby had with his coach. Fucker! I'm so glad he got what he got in prison. Hope it took hours!
I began to imagine the horrible ways that convicts might kill a molester in prison when Mr. Green came to get me, shutting down the dark thoughts just in time.
"Mister Raymond, I'm hoping we can resolve this issue. I can't accept that you're willing to throw away a class credit and probably an A over a difference that you both shouldn't have."
Oh thank God! I screamed inside. Thank you! If I'm reading that right, that is.
"I, could I go back? I mean, I'll just sit there and finish the year. You know? I won't say anything or bother anyone."
He smiled and leaned forward in his chair, placing both crossed arms on his desk. The noise of his chair was bothersome.
"We can arrange that, Mister Raymond."
Though I couldn't call what I felt relief, I did feel something almost pleasant at closing that mistake. I was ready to leave, but he felt he needed to talk to me about my 'choice'. I sighed inwardly. I sat uncomfortably through his version of the, "If you need support for being gay," talk. I nodded a lot and offered the words I was sure he was expecting. By the time he felt he was done, I was sweating and shaking. His talk did nothing that I could detect, other than to make me feel more self-conscious and awkward about myself.
It was too late to bother going to the breakfast table, so I headed to my physics class. I thought about going to the cafeteria, even if I arrived just before the bell rang, just to see where Jeff was sitting. I didn't: I kept heading toward class. I didn't realize that I was almost running, until my breath became so short that I was panting. I arrived before the bell rang and passed the last minutes before the bell regaining my breath.
It was a horrible time, sitting there in what felt like deserted, familiar territory, alone, different, even through the haze of the little yellow helper.
I kept my eyes down as others began filtering in and our teacher arrived. I had a hard time keeping up with the new material, as I hadn't fully caught up with what I had missed.
German class was a disaster. The second half of the class was reading from our textbooks in turns. When it was my turn I asked to be skipped. The teacher refused, saying I had to get back into the swing of things. I tried. When one of the new words came out disastrously wrong, the entire class burst out laughing.
Everyone was laughing at me. Even the teacher was laughing, though trying not to. I had basically turned the German phrase into the mixed English phrase, "It is my turn to get fuckin' with you, Hans."
I spent the remaining period in a fuming silence as the little yellow pill barely muted my emotions. I hated the teacher, wishing all nature of horrible afflictions on her. I thanked God that I didn't have to read aloud again before the bell rang. I heard Erich say something to me as we left, but I didn't respond. I only wanted to get as far away from the class and the kids in it as I could, as quickly as I could.
Geometry was easier. Rick Banden sat behind me, and when the teacher was facing the blackboard he tapped my shoulder.
"Hey, forgot to ask yesterday. My birthday's the first. Got a party that Friday after. Can you come?"
For a moment I almost smiled and simply said yes. Then I wondered why he would ask the school fag to his party, even if we were sort of friends, until I realized it was just to return the favor of me asking him to my party. He hadn't known I was gay when he had accepted my invitation, nor even during my party. For a moment I had felt really good.
I shrugged and said, "I'll have to find out."
He looked a bit surprised.
Probably afraid I'll come, I thought. He probably thought I'd say no.
I said, "Don't know what I have to do already," as I turned back around.
On my way back to facing the front of the classroom, I caught Kevin Corliss glaring at me again. And on the way out of class, I again heard his almost whispered, "Faggot."
It would have bothered me if he had just been indifferent and not returned nods or a "Hi" in the hall, but for him to be so overtly hateful hurt deeply. I tried not to show it, or give him any satisfaction in seeing it bother me in any way. I ignored him, and this time avoided his elbow, the door frame, and anyone else. It also bothered me that I had never seen him bully or bother anyone before.
After changing books at my locker, it was off to computer class. I was looking forward to it, even though I was not doing well. It was full of mostly geeks and nerds, and none of them had so far been anything but helpful and friendly, even today. I got one of my programs to work, and the others ran longer before crashing. I found an error I should have been able to see first-time through, fixed it, and got a second program to run fully.
Steve Sabine also sat next to me, opposite Thomas Cassey. He was a complete geek, and he was priceless in helping me out. And I thought he was kind of cute. I never saw him with someone I thought was a friend of his. He seemed friendless, though he would talk to anyone who talked to him. With his help I got another program to run fully.
The walk to my locker before lunch was one of the longest of my day. I had to walk almost the entire length of the massive old building, and every step seemed longer than normal. My legs were tired, still unused to being used so much after so long in the hospital and at home. I was also a bit out of breath again.
What made the already long walk seem even longer was that I occasionally looked up and around. I saw others looking at me. Some nodded, some smiled, a few said hi or hello, and some glared and threw me ugly looks, but what bothered me the most were the ones who laughed, covered their laughs, or just snickered.
Lunch was the new normal: Kevin Corless made his now-normal remark, and tried to make me spill or drop my tray. I saw him coming and had expected something along the same lines, so I was prepared and held only an unopened soda and no tray. It was impossible to avoid the bump as I was in line and standing along the counter.
The guy in line behind me said, "What an asshole."
I ignored him, too.
At the table the guys made normal small talk. I never looked around, not wanting to see the faces laughing or pointing at me and at the guys stupid enough to keep sitting with the fag.
I managed to covertly ask Thomas if he had seen Jeff at the breakfast table. He nodded and looked a little puzzled, then asked where I had been. I told him I had to take care of something in the office, but would be at the table tomorrow. I asked as casually as I could if he had noticed where Jeff had sat that morning. When he confirmed his new position, I managed not to disclose any reaction.
Erich, Wesley Howard, and I walked to Chemistry - silently joined by Thomas until his usual turn - where Erich and I mixed German in as often as possible during class. We got plenty worked in, irritating Mike Walters and his girlfriend.
Literature went predictably, and boringly, and I fell asleep almost immediately. I woke with a start when the bell rang. Either the teacher didn't notice or didn't care.
In gym, it was another day on the bleachers. Erich and the guys came out of the locker room and sat around talking with me before class was called to order. I enjoyed the normalcy, and wondered if any of these guys had to work on seeming so normal around me.
As we sat talking, I couldn't help noticing that I could see fairly far up the leg of Erich's shorts. Our gym shorts were already fairly short, and if you sat wrong you could end up with parts of your package hanging out in view. Or, someone could have a view up the legs if you wore large enough a size to allow that to happen, as Erich was doing.
I was intensely interested in seeing more, and had in the showers, but that teasing view was somehow far more tantalizing and enjoyable than was easily explained or understood. At least to me. I enjoyed taking those looks when possible on anyone, and especially on someone as cute as Erich.
My mind kept seeing him naked in the showers. His body was thin, making the fullness and roundness of his butt seem even more perfect. I thought how it would be easy to have his smooth, slim, pointed mass entering me.
Then, of course, there were the two Scotts and the others, sitting or standing around in their gym clothes, showing off their legs, butts and packages. Both Scotts, while almost exact opposite body types, drew my eyes almost as much as Erich. Little Scott Swanson especially. He was several inches shorter than I, shy and quiet, and terribly cute. And growing lately. His gym shorts were now rather tight, and revealed separate shapes within the bulge in the front. I'd noticed him in the showers before, and very much liked what I'd seen. He would always be short, that was obvious; it was his body type. All his parts were in scale to his smaller frame, nicely and neatly formed, smooth and circumcised.
I tried to imagine him erect and ready. How long it would become, what color, how long he would last.
I let ideas and thoughts like that bounce around inside my head as we all talked. It was easy to conceal an erection in jeans when you were sitting on bleachers with your arms crossed over your books lying on your thighs.
I watched as the guys climbed the ropes, rappelled between closed bleachers, and traversed the rope between the open sets. Best of all were the guys coming back down after climbing the bleachers: Most came down in a seated position; some went for the extra point by going down in a standing horizontal position; a very few went for the standing horizontal facing downward - fewer yet actually did it after getting into position.
I sat next to the exit to the main hallway as everyone showered. Again I wondered how it would be when I returned to dressing. I wondered who in my row of lockers would cause trouble. I dreaded that deeply, even more than the showers. My stomach curled into a tight ball. Soon they began heading out, and the new normal group formed as we waited for the bell.
I learned then that several guys in the aisle where my locker was had moved to other aisles today. Erich broke the news gently. I thought that I should have expected that. I wished that I had, anyway, so that it would have been expected and not bothered me as much as it did. A little more of the little yellow haze would have been nice.
English was as hard as usual, so it wasn't far from normal. I wasn't much good at dealing with the technical side of communicating, and found all the confusing and seemingly endless rules incomprehensible. I was again glad that this year would fulfill all my required courses for graduation, except another year of physical education - no more English classes. Six years of "Language Studies" were required, but Literature counted in that category, as did German. I'd also knocked six sciences units out by taking Chemistry I and II, Physics I and II, and Electronics I and II.
So I allowed myself to revel in no English or Literature or German next year. I would have the legal minimum of four hours of school as a Senior as long as I passed everything this year.
Fail a class? I laughed. Only gym, or maybe English, but no way.
That was my first and last laugh of the school day.
Next, I sat in Civics and wondered if I would ever bother to smile in that class again. The only times I had ever smiled during class had been when I was thinking of things unrelated to the class. But now, just being in the class meant I was consigned to feeling worthless and angry for my last hour each day.
My last hour of classes anyway. My last actual hour of school each day was open, and I spent it in the library doing homework so I wouldn't have as much to take home. I didn't finish the geometry, so I left it in my bag along with other things I hadn't gotten to. I left the library a few minutes early to put my books in my locker and wait for Tom and Jeff to show up.
I kept my eyes locked on the view out of the tall windows across from my locker. I didn't pay any attention to the other kids as they moved through my field of vision, not even when I thought one might have said hi or welcome back. The ones that glared at me or seemed to be laughing at me as they walked by seemed to matter far more, and weighed far more, and kept my mood down.
"Heya, Raymond. Here's that album," Charlie Derek said.
I turned and accepted the record from him.
"Glad ya liked it," I said, putting on a fake smile, not wanting to pass my mood onto anyone else.
"It was fucking freaky, man. I might even read some Poe," he said with a laugh. "Is his stuff really like that?"
"What they sang, that was his stuff was word for word, man. He was a dark mother-fucker," I said with a grin.
"Cool!" he said, nodding. "How'd you come across it?"
"My cousin in Indiana turned me onto it."
The memories of that vacation near Carmel, Indiana ran through my head. I wondered what he would think of the other things my cousin's friends had turned me onto during that week.
"The guys getting together this weekend?"
I shook my head and said, "Maybe next weekend?"
"Okay. Lemme know?"
He walked away, and I watched him for a moment before I put the album into my pack. I threw my eyes back out the window. I didn't want to be seen apparently ogling him after he had treated me nicely, especially now that he was a member of our Circle.
He sure don't need everyone thinking he's fucking the faggot, I thought, just as Tom and Jeff approached.
Soon, we were talking about things that mattered nothing to most anyone else. From time to time I would look at Jeff while we talked, and I would be taken over by that feeling of joy and completeness. He would see me, and it was obvious he knew what I was thinking, or feeling. That obviously put him somewhat on guard, a bit defensive. Uncomfortable at the least. And that bothered me.
Then I thought how easy it was for him to pretend I hadn't kicked him out of my room and paid for him to take a taxi home, and how hard it was for me not to. And that bothered me. Then I would think of his sitting further away at the breakfast table again this morning, as verified by Thomas. And that would bother me.
As for Tom, there was no way to hide that kind of thing from him. He'd taught me about really seeing what people were thinking or feeling from how they moved or looked. I knew what clues he was seeing.
Then came Jeff's announcement that he was going to miss the bus home next week. He said he had some things to do after school, and he wouldn't give a hint as to what.
And that bothered me a hell of a lot.
The bus ride was fairly normal, for the new normal, meaning it was nearly silent, and ended with "See yas." Tom and I then spent a little time working on our homework, and then working on a buzz, followed by the Atari until he left for dinner. It was fairly normal, and relaxing.
My mood stayed fairly mediocre through dinner. The folks didn't pry - too much - but rather just wanted to talk about normal things, though I was of course reminded of the doctor appointment on Friday, the cab, given money for said cab ride and the one home, and told not to spend it somewhere else. All the usual behavior, except for an abundance of heavy calorie foods, and one question.
"You haven't been sick today, have you?" from Mom.
"Nope," I answered, far too much like Jeff.
I felt guilty for some reason for saying his word his way. Then she said my name in that way moms all have, warning you not to lie or avoid her previous question.
"What? I ain't. I was just... nervous about first day back." It was easy to see there was something more on her mind, so I pried with, "What?"
"I'm just worried about your weight. You lost some laying around in the hospital, and you don't seem to be getting any of it back. If you've been throwing up all the time-"
"Mom, yesterday was the first time since I coughed so bad I puked in the hospital. Honest. It was just going back to school with every... "
I wasn't able to finish the sentence, but I was pretty sure they both knew what I was going to say.
"You promise? That was the only time?"
"Honest, Mom. Promise. If I ain't gaining weight it's not because I'm going all anorexic or whatever."
I wasn't concerned about my weight. I could still wear my favorite clothes, so what did it matter exactly what I weighed?
"Ana-what?" Dad asked, looking confused.
"Something they teach us in health class. Mostly girls do it. Kind of can't stop losing weight. Sometimes can't help it. They think they're fat and they ain't. Keep throwing up right after they eat. That's called something else, I think."
"Didn't know you had a health class this year," he said.
"Don't. Was last year."
"Ah. So you actually remember some things they teach you, huh?"
"Yeah, yeah, just selectively, ha-ha," I said, stemming his oncoming joke.
"Seems he remembered that lesson, too," Mom said with a grin.
After dinner it was more Atari and television with Tom, another doobie or two, and a fairly good time. I was able to forget the facts that he and I weren't going to be messing around, that I was getting ugly looks at school, and that Jeff was still very uncomfortable with me around other people. And nothing seemed to be bothering Tom, either.
I began to feel and even believe that it could be possible to have a normal life again. Or, at least a fairly normal one - normal for me, anyway. I hoped.
As the news came on, and with a vicious breaking of wind, Tom announced, "Well, think that's my cue."
"Oh, you bastard! You're gonna drop that and vacate?"
"Oh, hell yeah. I'm not waitin' 'round for that one," he said, sliding into his coat.
"If I come back up here and the paint's peelin', you're paintin' this weekend," I said, following him quickly down the stairs.
After letting him out the front door, and promising him there would be vengeance, I took the supplies from the kitchen to my parents' room where Mom was happy to play nurse.
She asked specifically about my day at school. I told her it had been fine. She asked if whatever had been bothering me so much yesterday was any better today as she handed me the now-usual night pills.
I nodded and said it was.
"Good. And remember what I said about being able to talk to me or your dad. Going out there and not being around old Mom and Dad is a good thing. Just don't expect us to let you become a stranger. You can do whatever you want to go and do. We trust your judgment, but we know how hard it is to know what to do sometimes."
"Uh, thanks. I think. But I'm not exactly off to college tomorrow."
"Not tomorrow," she said, and I heard her voice catch. "This time next year you'll be figuring out where. If you even are. We're not pressuring you, or anything, but a good college education will give you lots more than just smarts. It's meeting people, and like high school, but farther from home. More on your own before you have to start taking care of yourself."
"But that education is important," Dad said firmly. "And I've been meaning to ask for a while if you've thought about what you'd like to do. College? Job? Going to be a lazy layabout for a year? We might let you get away with that."
"Or not," Mom said quickly.
"Still love electronics. And computers. I'm good at them, doing the programs, and I like it. And knowing how to fix 'em, too, that'd be a good combo I'd think."
"Sounds like it."
"Maybe some science. Astronomy or chemistry. Just hate doin' the math."
"Won't computers be doing all that anyway?"
"Sure, most, I guess. The computations for sure. But, studying new worlds? That'd take a lot of chemistry and math. And computers. Be good for controlling telescopes and a space station if the shuttle ever gets 'round to building it."
"That shuttle is a wonder," Dad said again.
"Yeah. Computers on it. Plus lots of electronics. I could see working at Houston or somewhere on the shuttle."
"Hmm. I could see you doing that, too," Dad said.
"Yeah, we'll see. That kind of education is expensive," I said a bit sadly.
"Your mom and I put money away to get you started. If Reagan can keep this crazy economy from imploding, we can keep our decent credit. One way or another."
"Your grandmother is adamant that she help with your college," Mom said, reminding me again.
"Yeah, I know. In her day college was a distant place that her generation only drempted of."
"You kids take so much for granted these days," Mom said. Then, "There ya go, all done."
"Anytime, Son," she said, then tousled the top of my head.
"Night," I said, leaving. "Night, Dad."
"Sweet dreams, Alex."
Yeah, I doubt it, I thought, beginning to lose my good mood at the reminder of what I faced in the night. I considered a sleeping pill, but they were on the tray in my parents' room and I didn't want to go back and have to explain myself. Not to mention that the sleeping pills weren't working alone anymore. They seemed to need one of the little yellow pills now, too, to keep the dream at bay.
As I slowly and almost painfully plodded up the stairs, I tried to make a mental note to look for more information on dream research in the school library. I was looking forward to researching the topic and destroying the hold the nightmare had on my nights.
Upstairs, I sat at my desk, trying not to dwell on the first two days back at school. It hadn't been as bad as I had feared it could have been, but it hadn't been as good as I had let myself hope it could have.
I found myself drumming my fingers on the desk. Not to any melody or song, just tapping them. The middle two on my left hand were sore and stiff, reminding me of the van and the fire. I fought the sudden fear and dread that welled up until they were stuffed away with so many other things.
How can I deal with all this shit? I wondered.
I was suddenly staring at the American flag that hung over the door to the little room next to the bathroom that I used mostly as a storage closet, though it was also my secret space that almost no one knew about. I began thinking of what Toby had said. Or what I had made Toby say.
I made no conscious decision, but I found myself moving the flag aside and opening the door.
The black-and-gray tiger blanket covering the item I sought brought back the image of Toby as he sat revealing the horrors he endured at the hands of his gym coach to me. Those emotions from that moment seemed seeped into the blanket itself. I cuddled that blanket, wishing that I could smell Toby on it. It only smelled stale and dusty. I folded it carefully and laid it gently on that little bed.
I pulled the synthesizer out of the room and put it back next to the wall where it had sat for so long. I sat staring at it for a long time before I plugged it in. As I pulled the chair from my desk over to it, I could almost hear Toby and his guitar as he sat there, waiting for me to sit down and for us to get started.
I grinned as I powered it up. The J. C. Penny synthesizer with ten preset instruments and sixteen drum tempos silently came to life.
Pressing several keys reminded me that it was set for "Tainted Love." I grinned and softly fondled the endboards nervously. I touched the burned area on one end where we would lay a joint or roach and forget it. I could clearly remember the last time Toby and I had sat there and sung. We loved so many songs, but "Tainted Love" had been the last song we had sung together.
I closed my bedroom door, lit a joint, and played the song off a tape several times. I toyed with the keys from time to time, not really playing the song. I sang along each time, changing my voice, trying to find where it wouldn't sound wrong. Each time through hurt a little less. The song was still played on the radio quite often, but it had not bothered me as much for a while. But listening to it now, sitting again at the cheap synthesizer, singing along with it in a voice nearly identical to what Toby's had sounded like, was nearly torture. I wanted to cry again. I was also very happy.
I mock-played through the song several times until I felt comfortable. I knew the left hand wasn't up to par, but I could get along with it. The tape had the short radio version of the song, making my attempt to play it much easier.
I played through the song three times. Eventually my hands and fingers seemed to remember what to do for the most part. I missed notes, hit wrong ones, got timing and sustains wrong, but I was playing. The singing never sounded right, and was both painful and joyous.
In the end, having only my voice singing made it sound empty and hollow, even if I did almost sound like Toby. Maybe that only made it worse.
I flipped the power switch off with a feeling of emptiness and loss, but still a small smile. I put the tiger blanket into the old, blue footlocker. While it was open, I handled his letters, and looked long at his photographs. I cried, and I never stopped smiling.
Eventually I closed the footlocker, got undressed, put on sweatpants, and started writing in the journal. It was nearly full; I would have to start one of the new ones soon.
I sat upright suddenly. An idea had come, fully formed and magnificent, striking like a bolt of lightning.
Too simple, too easy, I thought. Can't work.
What if I did
feel emotions even when I was on the pills. If the pills worked on my
brain and body, they didn't work on my spirit or soul. I figured that
out this morning. I never thought about testing the hypothesis. Why not?
I grinned and put away the almost-full journal. I crawled into bed and tried to fall asleep with good thoughts in my head. I had a hard time coming up with any good thoughts, though, as the bad ones showed up in a party mood and took over.
The fact that the entire school knew that I was gay now, kicked open the front door and yelled for all the others to come join the party.
Losing the van, and now apparently being given that crappy green Plymouth instead, strolled in and promptly vomited on the carpet.
Rick asking me to his birthday party kept trying to set off the smoke detector, or at least ring some kind of alarm bell. He'd never asked me to one before, and I'd never asked him to one of mine before the last one. He'd come, and he'd had a good time, so why should I be paranoid about his invite to his party, I wondered. I had no answer, and I felt a bit guilty about being so suspicious.
Returning to civics class popped in and pissed in the corner. I'd liked that teacher, and despite the boring nature of the material, liked the class somewhat. I appreciated that he had immigrated to the United States as a small boy, and by the time he was out of high school knew that he wanted to teach Civics. He wanted to make sure American students knew what a great governing system they had, and how it worked. It wasn't particularly interesting, but it wasn't as dry and boring as history could be, especially not the way he taught it. But now, being considered less of a person because I was gay, and by a formerly respected teacher, made the class a black spot in my day.
That something was bothering Tom in such a way that it seemed to have something to do directly with me also dropped in to join the fracas, kicking over and uprooting all the plants. We had earlier ignored whatever it was, while we played games, watched television, and sat around. I hoped that it was behind us, but I feared it had yet to rear its head in full fury.
Tom seeming to keep secrets from me dropped trou and shat on the recliner.
That some people I considered school friends had left the breakfast table or our group in gym class also stormed through my head, gleefully overturning tables and sending things flying. I'd expected it to some degree, but hadn't guessed one-hundred percent correctly just who would and who wouldn't. I'd gotten several surprises so far, and it was only the second day back.
Then there was Kevin Corless. Thoughts of him were spray painting awful words on all the walls. We had never been real friends, but we had been friendly over the years. We had talked a bit about music, Styx mostly, or classwork he had questions about. He obviously saw me as a somewhat cool nerd, as I liked to see myself. But not any more.
Then there was the seeming dissolution of the Circle. That thought arrived and started breaking glasses, windows, and other objects throughout the entire house. Jon had pretty much stopped attending. My birthday party had been his first in weeks. Eric was missing many of them lately, and again this upcoming one. Those words from Toby seemed even more ominous, now that Jeff was missing his first for as long as I could remember that wasn't caused by something I had done.
Then of course, Jeff. Those thoughts were numerous and particularly rowdy. There would have to be much repairing done after their cavorting about the place, punching holes in the walls and kicking down doors. At one point, I caught one of them loosening the gas line to the stove. That particular thought, his continued, even increased, uneasiness around other people when I was near, seemed to be an insurmountable problem. Our incompatibility concerning anything anal was yet another obstacle. His obvious inability to come to grips with his sexuality to anyone outside the Circle was still another bump in the road; if you could call an overturned, burning tractor-trailer blocking all the lanes in both directions a 'bump in the road'.
And to top it all off, Jeff had decided that he needed to sit further from me at the breakfast table. The first day back, he had moved, knowing I was due back that day. And today. And where will he sit tomorrow when we all walk in there together? Will he take the same seat on the end, and abandon his usual seat across from me?
That thought was the most disturbing, and was sitting quietly in a dark corner, fondling a shotgun and wearing a lopsided grin.
Over and over I chased those thoughts through my head. Most would vanish for a while, only to reemerge with a gleeful smirk and return to mischief nearly the moment I turned to chase another.
It was a losing battle. I gave up. I lay in my crumbling house, hands and arms over my head, simply waiting for the damage to reach the point of collapse. Somehow, in giving up, I fell asleep.
Then the smell of gasoline came to assail me.
"Yeah. Old Chevy," Dad began saying again.
I knew there was nothing I could do. I was fated to live it again, over and over.
"See if you can pop that hatch cover, will ya, son?"
I leaned across the sizable hump between the front seats and unlatched the the passenger side clamp easily. Knowing that I would be unable to open the other, still, I tried. I pulled and yanked, afraid I might tear it off. The van was shaking from my efforts.
Dad told me not to break the latch, but instead to try starting it again.
"At least you know I ain't even started it," I answered with a sly grin.
I didn't feel like grinning. I wanted to scream at both of them to run as I bailed from the van, never to touch it again.
He peeked around the hood at me with a grin. I saw Jeff, hiding in the back of the garage, just like he had that day, just like he always had, just like every time since.
"I can't! Someone'll see me. They'll know!"
Despite my best efforts to prevent myself from doing so, I moved the Styx medallion out of the way and turned the key. The engine turned, barely beginning to catch. Dad called for another pump of the accelerator. Knowing what was to come, I pushed and released the pedal. The engine turned faster, then caught with a pop.
Another, louder pop, then a loud, whooshing boom as there was a bright, orange light, and I was knocked against the van door, the side of my head hitting the pillar.
Things went fuzzy, and wobbly, and blurred, all at the same time. I heard my dad yelling my name. The flames rose toward the dashboard. My eyes closed instinctively against the heat and smoke. I could feel the heat of the fire on my right side. I smelled the odor of burning carpet, oil, rubber, and plastic.
I reached for the key, fumbled with the Styx medallion, and killed the engine. The flames were burning the dashboard less than a foot from me and reached to the height of my face. Thick, black smoke curled up the windshield and rolled over my head.
I opened the driver's door until it hit the wall of the garage. My lungs began rejecting the air they drew in, making me cough uncontrollably. I couldn't keep my eyes open against the smoke and heat, let alone breathe it.
I heard my dad calling my name, and I tried to call back, but I began a horrible coughing fit. I tried to roll the window down, but the crank came off in my hand. I slid as far from the blazing engine and dash as I could, pressing myself against the partially open door, shoving my face out the partially open window.
I felt the heat of the fire through my clothing. Images of my charred and smoking body being pulled from the van by firemen, my grieving parents held back by police, ran in my head. I clawed at the window, knowing it was no use.
With the van parked so close to the wall there was no exit to the left, and with the fire above the engine growing hotter and closer, no way out to the right. Flames were spreading along the dashboard in front of me, and multiple, flaming drops of it were falling onto my jeans, melting through them, and then into my legs. The pain was excruciating, but I couldn't get my legs away from the falling drops of fire without putting them into the raging fire on the engine.
Real panic began to set in, forcing reason and rational thought to flee. The air was full of burning particles and ashes, hot, and toxic with fumes and chemicals. The coughing became constant, painful, uncontrollable, gut-wrenching.
I tried to make my lungs work, but they refused. My heart's efforts doubled. I pushed my face into the window, no longer caring if the glass broke and I was horribly cut; I only wanted the air. I clawed feebly at the stub where the crank had broken off, knowing that I could never turn the spindle, but trying anyway.
The pain in my temple flared with each cough. I felt the familiar dizziness come, and knew I was about to lose consciousness.
And somehow, my own thoughts were to blame it on God, worry about not being with Toby in the afterlife, how unfair it was that now Jeff and I were going to be a couple, I was going to die instead, because he was too chicken to be seen helping me.
The heat of the fire, the pain of my skin burning on my right side and back, the pain as flaming drops of carpeted dashboard burned through my jeans and into my legs, the pain of my lungs filled with toxins and chemicals and hot ashes, the horrible suffocation.
The pains, the smells, and even my vision all began to fade, and I knew that I was dying. Again.
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