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"Nothing better than classic rock to start your day. Ninety-seven-point-nine, the Loop. Starting your day the right way!" the D.J. said over the the roaring engine and guitar riff opening of Billy Squier's, "Everybody Wants You."
I eventually sat up, the coughing beginning as usual, but lasting a shorter time and producing less.
"Wish," I said as the song wound down, the phrase, "everybody wants you" repeating.
It'd be nice if anyone wanted me, I thought. Even Jeff is changing his mind about me. He'd rather sit on the bench on the baseball team. Well, he might get to play. He can throw like a pro.
"The Breakup Song" began, and the title alone would have been enough to fuel a descent into that familiar funk if I hadn't still been under the influence of the little yellow pills.
"From great rock to bleh," I said, slapping off the clock-radio and swinging my feet out of bed.
I stretched luxuriously, noticing that the burns along my right side and back hardly bothered me. The soft tension on them even felt a little good. My hand popped and still ached, though, and the burns on my shins ached, though I noticed that I easily ignored them now. And only the largest were still scabbed over.
I feel pretty good for a change. Body does, anyway. Little yellow still got me in its grasp. Don't feel happy or sad. Or worried. Or anything. Empty. At least the ol' bod feels better. Maybe waking up to a good song? A good night's sleep, more, I bet. No shakes, no sweat, no soreness. And I almost feel like I had some sleep. No nightmare, obviously. Cool.
Hey, wait a sec.
Fuzzy images of Toby began filling my mind.
Oh, right. I took a couple sleepers and little yellows. I dreamed about- no! I went to be with, Toby.
I walked to my desk and pulled out a new journal. I began writing down everything that I could remember.
Last night I did something
that will change my whole life.
IT WAS NOT A DREAM. TOBY IS REAL.
I closed the journal. I sighed, wondering what emotions I would be feeling if I hadn't taken the yellow pills.
I can think, though. And without emotions mucking up my thoughts. I know Toby is real, now. He was no dream, no hallucination. And now he won't reach out and catch me next time. I won't be able to talk to him ever again. But I learned that he's real. I learned those were no dreams!
So what do I do with that knowledge? I use it. All the things he said are real. I know I have to accept what comes my way, and make the best of it. Even the bad times. Even if I lose Jeff, and I know I will. Something, or someone, will come later. But not if I don't work to make it happen. I have to change things I can, when I can. I have to change myself. Stop whining and pissing and moaning, and do something. Make myself better. At every chance.
But I don't have to hurt. I can take the little yellow pill and not hurt. I won't enjoy things, either, but I don't have to suffer. I can make changes around me, and in myself, and make things, and myself, better.
Enough of the oldest religions all agree on that, and going around over and over. Hopefully growing with each trip. Becoming better, learning more. Spending the time between lives here in another type of existence, one where we can watch over those living on this side at the time.
I became absolutely convinced that several of my current friends were such souls I had come across, on one side or the other, possibly both. The discussion with Thomas Bechtel that early day in our freshman year had begun the consideration, but now I no longer felt that discussion was in the realm of theory. Thomas, Tom, Jeff, all for sure. Toby, beyond any possible doubts.
Everything changed. Once again, every last particle in my vicinity seemed to suddenly be in some other orientation in relation to me. I considered that I had changed, and so things around me had changed only in my perceptions, with that new puzzle-piece of knowledge.
After a shower, which was hard work and left me nearly panting, then dressing, which left me mostly breathless, it was time for breakfast. Distracted by the thoughts of Toby and my new certainty of his reality and of what that certainty conferred on my view of life and death, I had forgotten the fight with Mom last night. Only as I started down the stairs did that memory surface. I stopped, thinking, wondering what her reaction would be when I walked in.
I sighed deeply and continued down the stairs. The normal sound of their voices made it easier to walk those last steps and turn the corner. I stopped at the pictures on the wall, and knew that he was watching over me, was always watching over me. I knew that one day we would be together again, and that was reason enough to go on, through anything, so long as he awaited me. I wanted to feel that wonderful feeling I knew that I could, and should, be feeling as I looked at his picture and thought of him, but the little yellow pills were good at what they did.
Empowered by him and thoughts of him, and what I had learned last night, I was able to enter the kitchen and face my mom.
Her face was strained and worried-looking. I immediately knew that I should feel guilt that I had caused it.
"I'm sorry, Mom. I, just, I guess I just lost it for a second last night."
Her expression softened immediately into her motherly smile, and she opened her arms for a hug. It was one of those fast ones, a, "you're too old to hug too long," kind of hug, though it was a very tight one.
"Was it that Judith mentioned her son said you had friends at school?"
"Not just that. I mean, it's just, everything. It just builds up."
"Good grief. I know. I remember. And I didn't have as much to worry about as you. I can only imagine, hon. I just wish I knew how to help."
I shook my head.
"I wish I knew how you could. I just don't want to lean on my mommy all my life."
"Oh, hon. You don't have to. You won't have to. Someday you'll find the right person and you can rely on them. But until then, you have me, and your dad. And Tom. And Jeff. And the other guys in your Circle. And your friends at school. Okay?"
I nodded again, knowing that she had no idea what her words had just conjured up in my mind's eye. I was excruciatingly glad that the yellow haze was hanging thickly.
"And any time at all that you want to talk about anything, or when something's bothering you, I'm here. So's your dad. And the last thing we want is for you to have to hold onto something painful all alone. Not when you can get it off your chest, and maybe even get helped out from under it."
"I know," I said.
"Now, sit your ass down and tell me what made you so damned mad."
That was the first time I could remember her using two curses in a single sentence. I started in on the waffles, despite having no appetite.
"Just stupid teenage stuff, I guess. Stress. Emotions. They build up, and suddenly they're there and you can't stop 'em."
"I'm familiar with that. I'm just not so sure that's all it was."
I didn't want to tell her that I was just a loose end that Jeff had to tie up so that he could get the baseball team to let him join.
I relented quickly, but not entirely. With a loud sigh, I continued.
"It's mostly the guys moving in gym. I mean, it was bad enough I was gonna have to change and shower and all that with everyone knowing, but now that guys moved, it... seems like it makes it a bigger deal."
She nodded, then said, "That doesn't explain why you reacted the way you suddenly did."
I didn't want to tell her that I saw her gesture as something manipulative. I knew she didn't mean anything sinister in it, but that didn't change the fact that she did intend to calm me by doing it. Then I saw that it was also a caring thing. She wanted to help, to make me feel better.
"I didn't want my mommy patting me on the head like a little kid," I said firmly.
She snickered, but apologized.
"That's all?" she asked incredulously.
"Yeah. I mean, I'm not ten anymore."
"Oh, hon. I do that to your dad sometimes."
I blinked in surprise.
"Oh, don't be shocked. You act like it's something moms only do to little kids. Please. Women have been comforting men like that since the dawn of time. Mothers to children, wives to husbands, girls to boys. Well, probably boys to boys and men to men, too, I guess. It's just comforting, hon. To both."
I saw exactly what she meant, and how my reaction had been out of line, even bizarre.
"It was just, I didn't want it. I, just want, I don't know..."
"To stand on your own two feet and not need anyone. Do it and handle it all yourself. I was a teen once, too. It was the same then, as far as that goes."
"Dad said the same thing once. When... out in the van one night."
"We remember what it was like," Dad said, finally jumping in. "You're looking forward to owning your own life. It's just that you're not that old yet. Not yet. You still have a few years. A couple, at least, where you're dependent on your parents. Our house you're living in. We work to buy your clothes for you, keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Food. Pay for school things. It all comes from us yet. But someday you can provide for yourself. Just not yet, son."
"Someday you can rely on someone else, someone special. But you'll probably always rely on someone. Most of the time, anyway. I hope you'll never be alone when you don't want to be." Mom offered.
"Sometimes I want to be. Then, sometimes, I hope I won't be. And sometimes I'm afraid I will be. It's just so freaking complicated!"
"Oh, honey, you ain't seen nothin' yet!" she said, grinning.
"Oh, thanks! Way to cheer me up!" I said, knowing that would have been impossible right then anyway.
"Don't worry, I think you'll be fine," she added with a firm smile.
"I hope so. Sometimes I think I'll never know what normal is."
"Who does?" Dad offered, rolling his eyes.
We moved into more normal small talk, including reminders of the appointment at the doctor, the cab, morning pills. Then new bandages, and then the folks left for work.
While I was alone for those few minutes before I left to catch the bus with Tom, few things occupied my mind, and one thing reigned supreme among those thoughts; Jeff. I wondered how I could persuade him to choose me over baseball. I wondered what it would take, and if what I was planning would work. I wondered if I really wanted him to. I wondered if I would keep having to. I wondered about those things and more, but mostly about Jeff.
Knowing it was probably going to be another crappy day at school, followed by a boring day at home with nobody coming over, I stashed a little yellow pill in my pocket to take during lunch.
Tom was as normal as ever, and Jeff acted as if nothing were different. I remembered to remind them that I wouldn't be taking the bus home after school, that I would be at a doctor's appointment and taking a taxi home after that.
Jeff reminded us that he wasn't going to make the Circle tonight, and that he wouldn't be taking the bus home all next week as he had something he had to do after school every day. When I asked what it was, he shrugged and said it wasn't important.
I knew what it was, or at least I suspected what it had to do with. Anger would have growled, but the little yellow was hard at work, and my anger was comatose in its cage. I resisted the urge to question him further and make a point out of it. I had heard his conversation with the jocks near the computer labs and the auto shop; I knew what he was going to be doing instead of riding the bus with us. I had no idea how he was going to get home, and I was deeply surprised, even with the yellow haze, to discover that I didn't care.
Tom said that he was going to a wedding on Sunday, and was leaving Saturday night. If I hadn't been on a little yellow pill, I was sure that I would have had to fight off tears at the obvious ending of the Circle, despite Toby's assurance that they went 'round and 'round.
At the breakfast table, I couldn't feel hurt as Jeff took his new usual seat. I blessed the little yellow for preventing that ache. Everyone was in good moods, ready for the last weekend before finals. I cursed the little yellow for not letting me join. None of it mattered. I spent the morning in a hazy, emotionless, zombie state. I could talk fine, I could listen fine, I could move fine, but I didn't give a fuck about anything. The school could have collapsed around me and I would have found it technically and aesthetically interesting, but otherwise not cared.
I did take note of the dynamic between Cooley and Marcus. It continued, but no one seemed to notice. I wondered if I was seeing something I wanted to see, not what was really happening. Tom didn't seem to know what he caught me looking at. I thought of talking to him about it sometime.
I purposely entertained the new thoughts of all of us being souls, sometimes bouncing off each other in our many journeys more than once, and sometimes being very close for a lifetime, or a lifetime on the other side. As Thomas Bechtel sat next to me as usual, I probed for that feeling I had with him three years ago. I found it, and it seemed strong and obvious.
He actually seemed to sense me in that moment, watching him out of the corner of my eye. He looked up from his book and turned to casually glance at me, but we held our eyes on each other's for a moment.
There was something. Thomas and I had history. Before. Much. And maybe frequently. And it was close.
And he was so cute. Such a perennial little bookworm. All shades of sandy blond, pale tans, soft flesh-tones. Gentle, round features. Gentle, quiet soul.
There was something. But it had no place there or then. Sometime alone. And, with... music?
He quirked up the corner of his mouth ever so slightly and went back to his advanced-level, bio-chem textbook.
I was asked several times through the day by different people if I felt okay, or if anything was wrong. I always asked, "Why?" and then explained it away as being tired and worn out. Recuperation can be a bitch, I claimed.
And it was easy to claim fatigue; I felt tired. Physically I had little energy, and emotionally, well, I had no emotions. Mentally, I was burned out anyway, dealing with too many things, and most of it being Jeff moving up a clique or two and leaving me behind.
Kevin continued his glares in geometry, and the comment as we exited. Rick asked if I was going to his party next Friday, and I told him I should know by Monday.
In computer class, I discovered that I had lost my diskette with all of my programs on it. I was in a panic. Or as much of one as I could be with the little yellow pill, even with it wearing thin. I explained to the teacher, asking if I could have some more time to redo all the programs. I was reminded of how many times he had told us to always back up our discs, and that if we didn't, it was our own problem. I wouldn't fail the class if I couldn't turn in the required programs by the end of the semester next week, but my grade would suffer dramatically.
Steve Sabine and Thomas Cassey secretly offered to give me a copy of their programs if I agreed to change as much as I could, especially the comment lines. I thanked them, and told them I would let them know. The rest of the class was a nightmare of wondering what to do to get started, and on which program. I could never do them all again before it was far too late. I wondered how angry I should feel.
I avoided Kevin in lunch by going to the library, where I took the other little yellow pill and checked out three of the books on dreams and lucid dreaming.
Chemistry was normal, and Erich and I spoke in a mix of German and English as we worked on the lab assignment. The preppies across the lab station from us ignored us.
I fell asleep in Lit, the new normal.
In gym, I sat on the bleachers as was the new normal. I watched Erich as he moved to one of the ropes hanging from the steel I-beams high above. It was over thirty feet up, and it had to be climbed at least once during the semester, touching the beam to receive a grade higher than a C for the quarter. It looked like Erich was about to do his turn.
I was surprised to see that the small, mousy Carl Edwards was his spotter. I had been, before the van fire, and would be if I were participating. Carl probably weighed half what Erich did. I wondered whether, if Erich fell, Carl would be able to slow his descent, or if Erich's weight would simply pull Carl upward until Erich slammed into the blue pads, leaving Carl hanging from the ceiling. I wished I could smile and enjoy that comical vision.
Carl was a good guy, and friendly to anyone who spoke to him. He looked very serious as he hurried through the halls to his classes, but a wave and a hello and his face would brighten considerably. He was quiet, and spoke softly, and was very shy. I knew he had music classes and played an instrument. Short, thin, and small-voiced, he was easy to overlook. His head of straight light-brown hair was unremarkable. He had a long, narrow face, sharp cheekbones, small, pert mouth and lips. His brown eyes were framed by heavy, lush lashes, and topped by fine, narrow brows. His jaw was a little weak, but not very noticeably so. Yes, I thought he was cute.
I watched as Erich's thin arms pulled the rest of his smallish body onto the rope. His legs pinched the rope and pushed him upward. His arms worked to pull him further up, then his legs pushed. I was entranced. I admired his form as he neared the top of the rope.
I watched as he stretched his body and his arm upward toward the beam. One of his feet slipped. For a moment he was about to fall before he returned his hand to the rope and held on. His feet returned to the knot and he pushed up with his legs. The coaches below paid no attention, instead talking to the jocks who were gathered around one of the other ropes and racing up and down for show, using only their arms. Erich tried to get a good grip with his legs and feet before he tried again. He wriggled on the rope before reaching up again, his body stretching.
I admired his body again, knowing exactly what his gym clothes hid, having seen it all in the showers. As I envisioned him naked, slyly adjusting my erection, both of his feet slid from the knot. With only one hand to hold himself, he slid down the rope until his hand was forced open when it struck the knot. Carl yelled and laid back on the carabiner, trying to hold on and slow Erich's fall, but he was small and weak. Erich fell, making desperate grabs at the rope, at times actually holding onto it momentarily. The coach yelled at him to hold on, then yelled at Carl to hold the safety rope. Erich again and again got one hand or another on the rope, but couldn't maintain a grip. Carl began yelling as the rough rope continued through his gloved hands even though he sat, putting what little weight he had onto the rope as it slid through the carabiner. Erich made no sounds until he hit the mats with a solid, "whump." Carl stopped yelling now that the rope wasn't running through his hands.
I was surprised, certainly, but I was mostly surprised at how little I was concerned for Erich or Carl. I'd just watched someone I liked, a friend, fall around thirty feet. Not so much fall, as slide down a rope. I knew his hands must be hurt, and he could well be hurt from the fall, too, but I wasn't upset, worried, or scared. Concerned, yes, but again more at my lack of feelings than at what had happened.
I knew that the anxiety pills damped my emotions a great deal, but this was the first time that something major had occurred and I had had no emotional reaction to it. I wondered if taking the second one during lunch in the library had been too soon.
The coaches were there immediately. Erich sat up right away, holding both hands under his arms. I sat up to see better, but the circle of onlookers crowding around the two of them blocked my view completely. After a few moments, one of the coaches broke free of the crowd, along with Erich and Carl.
The coach saw me and asked me to take them to the nurse. We walked rather quickly, both of them moaning and waving their hands softly in the air, blowing on them, as if doing so would keep them cool, remove the heat that remained from that horrible friction.
We nearly ran to the nurse's office, myself intent on thoughts of making the doctor's appointment.
The nurse was sitting at her desk, doing something with papers when we walked in. She tisked when she saw their hands. Carl's were both slightly reddened, but he was able to bend his fingers fine, only wincing a bit. When she looked at Erich's hands, she seemed more worried. There was a fuzzy texture to his palms and fingers, and they were oddly yellow and obviously swelling. Small beads of blood appeared in places.
"Oh dear! You really wore through some skin there!" she said with considerable worry. "I'll take you both to the clinic," she said, gathering her coat.
Erich bent his knees and leaned over to examine the inside of his own thighs. They were both reddened and scratched.
"Rack yourself?" Carl asked, still waving his hands as if to cool them.
"Nah. Too close, though!" Erich said, grinning. "Just burned my legs."
The nurse called to someone in the other room that she was taking two students to the clinic. Her assistant, a student who was probably doing time in the nurses office for discipline, came out holding a broom and asked what she should do if someone else came in. I didn't know her name, even though she was in two of my classes - I didn't seem to get along with any of the Joan Jett wannabes.
"You call the principal and tell him," she said shortly. "Better yet, go ahead and dial nine-nine-nine and say you're working in the nurse's office and need someone to come help until I get back."
She looked at me and said, "You best get back to the gym and let the coaches know I've taken them to the clinic."
I nodded and said, "I hope you guys are okay."
Erich looked at me and said, "Man, guess I won't be wanking it for a while, huh?"
I saw that it was hilarious, but I had no laughter in me. The nurse tisked and Carl looked shocked. The girl, who was already on the phone to the principal's office, looked grossed-out. As they left, she looked at me as if she'd just watched me disembowel a live cat and was now flinging its intestines around my neck like a lei. Even more disgustedly than was usual, before.
Guess she's heard, I thought, surprised at myself for not really giving a damn what she thought.
Back in the gym I was deluged with questions. I said again and again that they both had bad burns on their hands, and Erich had some inside his legs, and that the nurse was taking them to the clinic. The jocks were already climbing the rope with only their hands again, if they'd ever stopped, showing to everyone that they weren't afraid of falling. I grinned and hoped for a repeat performance as I took my place back on the benches. I could already see myself causing a problem while walking a jock to the nurse's office, or while waiting with the Joan Jett-head for the nurse to return and take him away.
Some of the guys that still talked to me came over from time to time during the rest of the period to talk about Erich and Carl. We all agreed that Carl was too small to act as an anchor for the larger Erich. We wondered if the coaches would be open to legal actions for letting someone smaller spot for someone larger.
After they had all showered and changed, we waited to be dismissed. I went to my locker, got my coat, changed books in my bag, then headed out to find the taxi waiting. It was a quick ride to the clinic, and I found myself waiting with the school nurse.
"Funny sort of coincidence, isn't it?" she asked.
I nodded, hoping not to have to talk to her.
Finally I was taken to an exam room and the nurse measured my height, weighed me, took my blood pressure and heart rate, checked my eyes, ears, and throat, and then took three blood samples. She then told me to undress to my underwear and put on the blue paper robe, and that the doctor would be in momentarily.
I waited, bored, until the doctor arrived, hoping that he couldn't tell I was on the anxiety pill.
"Hello, Alex," he said as he closed the door.
"Hiya, doc," I said, wondering how many times a day he heard it.
He asked about my breathing first, and the inhaler. I explained that I hardly used it. He asked other questions, mostly the typical stuff having to do with head injuries and memories and cognition. He asked about missing time, or memories, or confusion. I knew he was going down a list. Once done, he seemed to look at me for the first time since he entered.
I got that feeling I sometimes got from people as if we were really connecting. The doc was good at it, and I had recognized it in him before. He was one of the first people I had noticed that with when I was much younger. He seemed to reach out and synchronize with me as he physically moved closer. When he picked up my hand, I was sure that he was reading more than the condition of the appendage.
He moved my fingers around, asking questions and making the suggestion that I use them about as often as possible. He then shone a light in my eyes and moved it, asking questions. Then he started on my weight. He said that I lost another couple of pounds, and that he had hoped to see me gain a few, instead. I was grilled about diet and exercise, and told to put on some weight. He poked and prodded and inspected the burns on my sides, and agreed to let me change over to a pad that didn't require the mummy wrapping.
"Sexually active?" he asked suddenly.
He'd never asked that one before, but I knew it'd be coming some visit sooner or later.
"Any rashes, itching, sores, painful urination, discharges, pain during erections or orgasm?"
"Uh, no to all."
Only then did I seriously wonder if he knew. I hadn't really thought about it before, but it did occur to me then that my parents might have thought it was something the doctor should know.
"There's something I would like to say to you. You've chosen a very risky lifestyle. I don't have to tell you some of the risks, do I?"
So, Mom and Dad did tell him.
He moved around my body, looking at the burns on my legs, almost literally inspecting each and every one. He checked the temple wound and scar, and poked and prodded, even touching lightly in places and asking if I felt it. As he did, he gave me his speech on my, "choice."
"It isn't considered proper for me to make any suggestions about your sexual lifestyle, but I would like to caution you as strongly as possible against any risky behavior. Anal sex is a rather popular activity in the homosexual community, and it carries a number of high risks with it.
"I don't mean to be a teacher, you thought you got out of school for today, but Alex, you've always been a promising young man. I gave you your preschool vaccinations and physical, and noticed your tendency toward using both of your hands even that young. And you were far ahead in tactile and spatial relationships in kindergarten. I knew you'd be interesting.
"And now, you end up deceased and revived. And with a brain injury you sustained days earlier. Smoke inhalation, first- and second- degree burns, cardiac arrest via suffocation and chemical-induced hypoxia, and then an induced coma directly afterward. And you recover as if you merely bumped your head, demanding to go home, to, as you argued, properly recuperate in peace. And complaining only that your voice wasn't the same.
"On the day you were allowed to wake up, I was considering a date around today for your possible release, and even then with quite possible mental debilitation and loss of functions. And I was sure I was being at least a bit optimistic."
He finished his inspection of my injuries, sat again, then asked with a curious look, "Do you understand the vocabulary so far? Do you understand how close you came to real, long-term, possibly life-altering injury? Are you with me fully?"
I nodded. He was still connected to me, or I felt that he was. It was almost the same kind of sensation I associated with being around Toby.
"I know, I could'a ended up a vegetable. I know you doctors don't like that word, but it says what you mean, right? I could be drooling in a wheelchair for this visit. Or still in a bed at the hospital, not even awake yet. Sure. But, you gotta remember, I think every day how close I was to just staying dead. Okay?"
He nodded and held a wink in thought.
"Interesting choice of word, there, Alex. Staying."
He waited, leaning a little forward in his chair. I understood that I'd screwed up and let on too much. I struggled not to blush or give any other clues. I settled for a shrug and half a grin, hoping he would let it go.
"Do you remember anything? Before waking up in the hospital?"
He held his gaze on me, but my own rested more often on my hands in my lap.
I began to think that someone had told him about what I had experienced while I was dead. I was sure he wouldn't believe anything I told him that had actually happened, but I couldn't think of anything to say otherwise. I shook my head as if I didn't have a clue what he was talking about.
"Well, I want to see you gaining some weight. So eat up. I'd also like to give you an ambidexterity evaluation next visit. Basically a writing and dexterity test for both hands. If your left fingers are up to par. Okay? And please, put on some weight. Otherwise, do you know that most well-adjusted adults would do far less well than you have in dealing with this, both mentally and physically?"
"Most? Some, sure. But, hell, doc, we all gotta die, as they say. I learned that a few months ago. And now again, but I got a closer look, is all."
He nodded, clearly curious.
"A closer look, you say?"
Damn it! Slipped again!
I could feel that connection with him intensifying. Or my imagination let me think I did.
"Are you sure there isn't anything interesting you remember from your time as a corpse?" he asked with a laugh.
Damn. Do I say anything? Would he believe me, or have me checked for mental problems? Fuck. And I promised to never deny Toby to anybody. But I meant what we were, not that I know he still existed, that death wasn't any ending, usually. Hell. I'll just say something generic, I decided.
"When we die, it ain't always the end. At all. It can be the beginning, too."
He looked at me for a long time before he grinned just a bit.
"I can believe you, Alex. I've heard more than one afterlife story, and some were obvious drug-induced hallucinations. Some were harder to explain, or less reliably so. Someday I want to hear yours, okay? But I can see it in you. Something happened, and you're convinced. And you're a bright guy."
"It took some proving to me. Okay? I wasn't all convinced and sure myself for a long time. But if it was dreams and visions and all just me making things up, only other explanation is an almost infinite number of coincidences, all over and over."
Like the day two kids are hurt in my gym class, is the same day I have a doctor's appointment, at the same clinic the school sends kids with injuries. I pondered the odds, knowing several kids a month went off to the nurse's office. Erich and Carl weren't the first to go to the clinic so far that year, and probably wouldn't be the last. But I'd had an appointment only once so far. And it was at the same time. And it was Erich and Carl.
"There are more things in the universe than we can ever imagine, someone once said."
"Shakespeare wrote something the same, I think. And it's true."
He grinned and nodded, holding my gaze for a moment longer, then sat back, seemingly breaking that connection between us.
I felt empty suddenly, almost alone. I missed it instantly, but I wasn't even sure what it was, or even if it was real. He wrote as he spoke.
"One last piece of advice and I'll let you go. Spend some time with your old man. These years go by fast, when you're in school. You spend so little with your folks. They put up with it, all parents do, but don't let too much time go by without doing something together. You'll be glad you did later in life."
He held out his hand. I shook it. He handed me two slips, one releasing me for lightest activity and dressing in gym next week, the other releasing me to fuller activities and showers the following week.
"Gain some weight, think about telling me a little more about your experience, and taking that dexterity test next visit. Work those fingers, but no strain or weight on them. Keep up with the burns. And see you soon. Okay?"
"Sure thing, doc."
He left, and I dressed. I thought about that connection I felt with him, and tried to categorize it. Or at least define it in some way. I wasn't able. I had to put it down to a sense of authority.
After I had dressed, the nurse came in and led me to the front desk, where I signed a slip and they found a pamphlet on hand rehabilitation. I called for a taxi home, and when I went to stand near the front doors to wait for it, I saw Erich sitting in the waiting area. He was still in his gym clothes, and they were very out of place in that setting. I was shocked that my first reaction was to ogle him intensely. Those shorts had big, loose leg openings, and his legs vanished into the darkness. He had black mittens on both hands.
I walked toward him to see how he was doing. He looked like he was daydreaming. I couldn't help but notice that the insides of both his thighs were greased and looked red and puffy. There was even a clear, darker red patch on one of them where the rough rope had been in contact more than elsewhere. My eyes wanted to roam up the legs of his shorts, and I had to force them away before he or someone else noticed where they were looking.
I managed to walk up directly before him before he saw me. He was clearly riding a pain killer or something.
He looked up at me very slowly, broke into a goofy grin, then said, "Hi, man! You followin' me or what?"
He's really cute when he's lit, I thought. His eyes sparkle a bit, he grins all lopsided, and he looks about as calm as I ever seen him. He usually seems almost on edge all the time.
"You're not feeling a thing, are ya?"
"Huh? Nope. Feelin' fine!"
He held up his gloved hands and grinned wider, retainer glinting, looking about as cutely dorky as he ever had. He rivaled Jeff.
"So how's your hands? They okay?"
"Yeah. Just scraped a bunch of skin off, he says. Be fine in a week or two. Gotta wear these gloves for a while so they stay clean and don't get dry or infected and blah, blah, blah. Can't use 'em for a while."
Something about what he said struck some deep chord somewhere, and triggered a feeling that warmed me up.
He looked less happy suddenly, staring at his gloved hands.
"Guess I really won't be wankin' it for a while, huh?"
He laughed again, and I couldn't, but wanted to. An older woman sitting a couple of chairs away looked up with disapproval.
"Hope they heal up soon. You could explode one day."
He laughed loudly, drawing another glowering glance from the elderly woman.
"I wish we got to be better friends. You're such a great guy," he said, still grinning like a goofball, and now holding my eyes with his nice gray ones.
I couldn't help myself; I looked into his eyes and thought about the other side. I was sure we had history, before. Not a lot, but some, and fairly close. It gave me a feeling of fun and games, making the chance to mess with him too good to pass up.
"I'm not really here. You're hallucinating me. Look, school ain't even over yet," I said, pointing at the huge clock over the reception desk.
He looked worried then, but eventually he grinned and pointed at me with his mitten.
"Dude, I know you don't have a last class!" and then he laughed.
"How'd I get here so quick?"
He looked confused again, then finally gave up with a shrugged sigh, and that damned, cute, goofy grin.
It was suddenly intensely embarrassing.
"I was never here," I said, then walked outside.
I needed to get away before the nurse returned. I couldn't shake the seeming knowledge that I'd known Erich for even longer than I had, and that I knew him far better than I did. And it came with a desire to wrap my arms around him and kiss his pain away. And while under the yellow haze, yet.
Boy, did I need out of there.
The taxi arrived quickly and I was home before I wondered where the nurse was.
Tom arrived a little later than our usual time. He was hyped over his brother looking for a new car. His parents agreed he could have the wagon if Jon did get his own car. I rolled a joint and we smoked it as we began the inevitable plotting and planning of all the places we would go and the things we would do in his wagon. It was oddly familiar in that we had done much the same thing that first - and only - weekend after I had been given the van.
"Yeah, and sorry I can't stick around tonight. First time in a long time. Kinda weird, huh?"
I had pushed that fact out of my mind, but I knew it was due back. Even Tom had something to do that kept him away all weekend. Again Toby's words that circles go 'round and 'round rang out and gave no comfort.
"Don't see why I gotta go to a cousin's wedding I ain't seen since I was in diapers or some shit."
"Yeah. And you can't drive it in the morning, so ya can't blame your folks for wanting to drive out tonight."
"Yeah. Davenport, fucking, Iowa. Who lives in fucking Davenport, Iowa?"
"Your cousin, dumb-ass. When you gonna be back?"
"Sunday late sometime. You gonna be okay?"
I bobbed my head backward on my neck in surprise.
"Okay? Being alone tonight? Like, am I gonna freak out just because there ain't nobody here for the Circle, either?"
"Well, yeah," he said simply. "First time in a long time there's no Circle. Just hope you're okay with it is all."
A roll of my eyes as I said, "Dude, gimme a break. The Circle wasn't gonna last forever, anyway."
I stated it simply, and did so without sounding as sad as the idea should have made me feel. I thought about taking a little yellow pill before the current, second one wore off and I did feel, but rejected the idea. I wasn't enjoying the pot high as much as I normally would have, and I wanted to feel again. The emptiness of the little yellow pill was painful in its own way.
"Yeah, still. Next weekend, huh?"
"Yeah, sure. We'll see."
Before what seemed nearly long enough, Mom was calling that dinner was ready. Tom complained about the aroma as we came down the last of the stairs.
"Cripes, that smells good. Fucking fish tonight at home," he said with a grimace.
"Sorry, dude," I said with a grin as we parted at the stairs and the front door.
"Well, see ya Sunday."
"Yeah. Gonna miss ya, ya know."
"Yeah, me too. Be back Sunday. See ya then."
"Later. Don't let Jeff wear ya out. You'll need some energy for school on Monday."
I punched his shoulder and laughed. It was kind of hard to watch him walk to his house, knowing that I wouldn't see him for a couple of days. I figured I might as well get used to him not being around so much. That thought hurt.
"Smells awesome," I said as I entered the dining room. "What is it?"
"Steak, mashed potatoes and stuffing, both covered with heavy gravy, and a salad with that so-called dressing you like with the two-hundred calories a serving. Doctor's office called today," Mom said smoothly.
"Uh-huh. And dessert? Cheesecake between waffles?"
"A la mode if you don't pick up some weight. The doctor's office said you're almost twenty pounds under what you were. And what you were wasn't much. After going through what you did, there's good reason for you to have lost weight. By now you should have gotten some back, but you haven't. The doctor is concerned, so we're concerned. He said there isn't anything to worry about, other than you should gain some weight."
"I'm not that skinny," I protested.
"Yes, you are. I've been changing your bandages nearly every day, and I see how thin you are," Mom argued convincingly. She continued with, "And we were about to have to buy you new clothes. You were growing out of some of your older stuff. And now you're wearing a pair of the very jeans I was about to give away."
"My dark blues?" I asked in horror. "I love these! I'm glad I can wear 'em again."
When I heard myself say it, I caught it.
"Do you see?" Mom asked, obviously seeing my reaction to my own words.
Mom had her own special, "I told you so," expression which varied a little due to the situation. Right then she threw me the, "And you know it's true," expansion pack.
"Okay, I guess I did lose some weight. So now I have to balloon up?"
"No!" she said emphatically. "But you have to stop losing weight, at least. Understand me?"
"You've got too much skinny red-head in you, I'm afraid."
Not enough, really, I lamented, once again wishing that I had real red hair instead of my faintly reddish-auburn mess. Her words also got me thinking of how little I had seen of Eric lately. I was missing his energy, excitement, fun attitude, big mouth, dumb comments, imitations and irritations. And his hot red-headed body and endless sexual appetite.
"Seems, though, you otherwise have done a nearly remarkable job in getting back to normal," Dad said. "A little work on your hand, yet."
"I'll be back to normal before you are," I challenged.
Define normal, I thought again. Then I felt guilty for pointing out the fact that he was bearing a longer burden of visual recovery than I was. At least my hair was spared in the fire, though it was trimmed up a bit.
"So, what's the Circle doing tonight?"
"No Circle tonight," I said, trying to sound normal about it.
"Gonna be kinda quiet then."
"Yeah. Everybody's got somethin' goin' on."
"Well, we could all go somewhere," Mom offered.
"Got an idea?" Dad asked.
"No, not really. Just if you guys wanted to go somewhere."
"What? Me? No. Not really. I'm kinda lookin' forward to a nice quiet weekend. Lay around and rest some. Didn't know laying around a hospital bed made you so unused to doing anything."
"Then maybe you should keep busy, a bit. Keep building up?"
I saw where he was going, and I didn't like it. I just didn't know any of the particulars. Yet.
"I would love to get the snow off the patio. It's bad for the wood. Lets ice form and crack it. And there's a lot of snow against the fence in the back yard. That'll start it leaning soon, so we should shovel some of the worst out of there."
Am I gonna have to play the card myself? Come on Mom.
She saw me.
"Now, the idea is to get him to gain some weight, not work it off."
"If we do small parts at a time, just so he gets back into the habit of moving. He should add more muscle tone, not just fat."
"Very small parts, and that goes for the both of you," she said in her "that's that" voice.
After a few minutes of talk about mostly school, schoolwork, and what the doctor's office had to say, I ended my efforts with, "I confirm that I consumed mass quantities of dead bovine flesh covered with bovine lactal fatty solids, plenty of fresh plants, and baked grains. Was that enough calories, oh dietary slave drivers?"
Mom didn't seem impressed with my vocabulary acrobatics.
"Unless you don't want any cheesecake."
I didn't really have the room, but it was cheesecake. And with strawberry sauce and white chocolate chips. I made room. Once I had helped with getting the dishes ready for the dishwasher, I was given fresh bandages using the wider tape and no mummy wrapping. I excused myself and headed upstairs, feeling as if I were hauling a entire dead cow inside of me.
I rolled a joint, but didn't light it. I found myself starting to think about Jeff, Tom, the Circle, and all the usual things. With the little yellow pill weakening, I was beginning to feel again. Trying not to think, I tried doing homework. That worked for a little while, but when I got to my algebra homework, thoughts of Jeff's mother asking me to help him interrupted, and I ended up thinking about him.
I went over the big plans to please Jeff during the weekend. I wasn't sure that I was going to let him fuck me, but I was sure I had an idea that would let him feel like he was. Or did. He'd asked to come over Saturday and stay the night, so that imminent event kept itself foremost in my worried thoughts.
I needed something to keep me from thinking of him. I needed something to keep my mind busy. I needed something. Anything.
The synthesizer caught my eyes and held them. I knew that playing it would stir some thoughts of Jeff, but would stir up a lot more of Toby. I had my answer on that regard, and I was happier knowing it. I thought of my new knowledge for a few minutes, then no longer felt like contemplating the heavy matter. I realized that I didn't hurt so much at thoughts of him now. I did hurt, remembering him and thinking of him, but the pain was lighter. He wasn't so far gone now that I knew he still existed. Though, in a way, he was even further away now that I knew I wouldn't be able to visit him again.
I found myself sitting at the synthesizer, touching it lightly. Memories of the many hours sitting at it with Toby were fading slightly with the passage of time, and I regretted that. I knew it was inevitable, and that in time, I would hardly remember anything but fuzzy snippets. That hurt more than missing him did now.
But I don't have to forget it all. I can remember him by writing about him, and telling about him, and by playing this thing. I can keep some of those memories fresh.
I turned on the cheap synthesizer, and wondered what to play. I had played, "Tainted Love" the night I had pulled it out, and hadn't touched it since. It was still set up to almost sound right, as close as it could get. I played the song again. The yellow haze was faint, weakening, so I felt that horrible loss, but it was weakened, not only by the yellow pill, but by time, and my new knowledge.
I was smiling slightly as I finished the song. I didn't decide to, but I changed the limited settings and started playing the introduction to, "Rockin' The Paradise," and then changed the settings to play the song itself. I was horribly rusty, but I didn't let that stop me. I sang along, sounding horrible, but I didn't let that stop me, either. I played the next song, then the next, and on, just as Toby and I had done so many times. The cheap synthesizer wasn't up to actually reproducing the beautiful tones and sounds from the album, but I knew I was playing the same notes. My hands were remembering, but hesitant and unsure. The sore fingers were almost no help at all, and were far more a hindrance.
My voice was useless. The songs called for a high, clear style that had been out of my range of ability at my best, before the van fire. Now, I was too low, and rough. And I'd never tried anything but imitating the vocals. Trying out a new voice in a completely different range was frustrating and aggravating in the extreme.
It took an hour, but I got through the entire album. I did horribly. I hadn't forgotten anything, I had heard the songs many times since I had last played any of them, I just wasn't in practice at playing. And my voice was horrible for it. The way I had stumbled through the album in both ways put me into a foul mood.
I almost turned off the keyboard, but hesitated. I wanted to get it right. At least, get it better. I played through the album again. I was rusty, after eight months away, and I was determined to at least play it once through well enough that Toby wouldn't have to plug his ears with his fingers. I could refrain from singing and could hum along instead.
I sighed as I ended the album again, then realized that I was missing one key ingredient. I smoked that joint I had rolled hours before and worked on the most troublesome sections, one after the other. I found myself trying too hard, and forced myself to relax somewhat. I started the album again. I played slower than the tempo of the songs called for, trying more for accuracy than timing. I made far fewer mistakes. I re-lit the joint, hit it several times, and began again. This time I stayed on tempo, sacrificing accuracy.
Still unsatisfied after another round through the album, I smoked most of the rest of the joint, trying to relax my mind and fingers. Those sore ones were complaining, but not overly so. I came to the conclusion that I was struggling too hard. When the joint was a roach, I put it on the side where Toby and I had gotten into the habit of placing them, and started again. I didn't concentrate on the keys; I didn't concentrate at all. I just let myself play, thinking of the song, the notes, the music. And my memories.
It was very late, and playing became painful. I found myself stumbling in areas I had just gotten almost right. I grew frustrated and angry. I shut the power off and threw myself onto my bed. For a few minutes I was thoughtless, just feeling angry, alone, hurt.
I began to let the day play over in my head, thinking of things done, not done, and needing to be done.
What an idiot.
I ran over the things I had planned for Jeff during our Saturday overnight together. I tried not to let his impending move up the social ladder bother me overmuch, but I had little control over it. I'd been years pining over him, and had been overwhelmed with joy when we finally came together. But now it seemed it was to be a very short period together, unless I could convince him that I and the Circle were the better choices against being on the baseball team and moving among the not-so-lessers. I only hoped that there was still a Circle for him to be interested in staying with.
I considered how it seemed that both of my relationships were shaping up to be short-term. Toby had been less than a month the first summer, then only two weeks the second summer. And now, Jeff looked to be somewhere between two weeks and a month, depending on just how I defined being together.
Tired of thinking of Jeff, I tried thinking of other things.
Gotta think of anything but Jeff. I gotta gain weight. And I'm gonna end up with that crappy, old, green four-door Plymouth. Hell. Guys leaving the group at lunch. And in gym. And leaving the locker aisle, too. Kevin Corless is gonna be trouble. Rick asked me to his birthday party. Should I go? I don't know. Gotta answer him soon. Fucking Mr. B. And all the homework and classes to catch up on before finals next week. The Circle! Is it gonna come to an end? What did Toby mean about how circles go 'round and 'round? Something bothering Tom to do with me. Besides blowing him. And he keeps secrets from me now.
And what about keeping Jeff from going to baseball and dropping me? Will those plans work? Should I do it? What if I keep having to do it? Even the faking way, if he even likes it. Plus, I'm not even sure he's the same guy I wanted. He's changed so much. So different. Tries to be someone he ain't. I wanted us to be all or nothing, even fought for that, but had to settle for something in between. And now, it looks like it's gonna be nothing. And I'm thinking of Jeff again! Fuck!
Over and over those thoughts ran circles through my head, wreaking havoc. Yet, somehow, I fell asleep.
Then the gag-inducing aroma of gasoline.
"Yeah. Old Chevy, not started for a few days, in cold weather, used to driving every day. She's gonna be stubborn," Dad was saying again.
Jeff stood near him, wearing a baseball uniform, staring at me coldly.
I knew he'd be cute in it, I thought.
I knew he had always been there. 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, knowing that I would be unable to open it. I unlatched the one on the passenger side easily. The driver side was far more difficult. The van was shaking from my efforts.
"Don't break it off. I tried. It's stuck good. Try to start it one more time then we get that clasp fixed so we can get to the engine decently. Go ahead and 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.
Dad peeked around the hood at me with a grin. Jeff glowered at me from the other side of the hood, tossing the baseball into his glove.
"Please, Jeff. Don't let me do it!"
"If I do, they'll all see! I can't! I got other things to do!"
Naturally. I wasn't surprised at all as he climbed into a dark corner and into the fetal position.
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 over and over, 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. Dad yelling my name. Flames on the dashboard now. I could feel the heat of the fire on my right side. I choked on the odor of burning carpet, oil, rubber, and plastic.
I reached for the key, fumbled with the medallion, and killed the engine. The flames raged, grew larger. Thicker, blacker smoke curled up the windshield and rolled over my head.
I opened the driver's door, but it hit the wall of the garage. My lungs rejected 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.
Dad's voice calling my name. I tried to yell for help, but my lungs refused the smoke and I began a horrible coughing fit. The door and the window were useless.
I felt the heat of the fire singing my skin 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, pushing my face out the opening, wanting air to breathe.
Real panic set in, forcing reason and rational thought to flee. Flames were spreading.
The coughing became constant and painful. Each inhalation burned terribly; each cough hurt even more than the last. The chemicals, burning ashes, and the heated air triggered uncontrollable and gut-wrenching coughs.
I tried to make my lungs work, to draw in and take what oxygen they could from the smoke, 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, and how unfair it was that Jeff was a coward and wanted to play baseball instead of spending time with me.
The heat of the fire, the pain of my skin burning on my right side and back, the pain as drops of flaming carpeted dashboard burned through the legs of my jeans, the pain of my lungs filled with toxins and chemicals and hot ashes, the horrible suffocation.
The light of the fire was dimming, the roar of it fading, the smells and heat seeming more distant.
I struggled painfully for breath, but my lungs no longer worked.
Soon, the only sounds were my thoughts and my stuttering heartbeat.
Soon, even those sounds grew faint, irregular, and indistinct, then stopped.
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