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Men At Work blared out of the clock radio. I loved the song, but that didn't matter; nothing was going to make me feel better. It wasn't that I didn't want to, it was that the little yellow pill wasn't going to allow anything to do so.
I sat up on the edge of the bed, slapped off the radio, then stumbled like a zombie to the dresser for clean clothes. I didn't let myself think as I showered and dressed and gathered books into my backpack. I was nearly too tired to think anyway.
The shower and dressing was a blur. I could have gone to school naked, except it was February in Chicago. The very last day of February. And it looked to be going out like a lion. The sound of the wind against the window was familiar and chilling.
I stopped at the top of the stairs to gather the will to pretend through breakfast, and to resist thinking of Jeff. I decided on feigning no sleep. I mumbled much the same as I sat down. I acted as if nothing had changed in my life. I whined about taking the pills and having mom put on fresh bandages. I answered questions and ate as if I were hungry. I rinsed the dishes and put them in the washer. Mom knew that I was due to return to gym class next week, so she had washed my gym clothes and laid them out for me. I packed them into my pack as well, wondering if and when I would slip them into my locker. My guts churned at the thought of showing up in the locker aisle, and of seeing just how empty it was. I said bye to each of them as they left. When it was time, I left through the front door and met Tom as he walked toward my house.
I knew Tom knew that something was up, simply from my request last night. I doubted I could hide it from him completely, but I wasn't ready to tell him. Jeff and I hadn't discussed what to say or how to act with Tom during the bus ride. I had no idea why we had overlooked this morning in our planning.
"Just don't feel all that good. Think I got some bug or something. Feel tired."
And I was tired, but I was more emotionally hollow from the little yellow pill.
"Probably just drained," he said with a snicker.
I grinned, because I was expected to.
"I'll need all week to regenerate," I replied, because I was expected to.
"You know what today is, right?" he asked.
I thought about it, but could think of nothing special about it. Other than several things I really didn't want to mention or talk about.
"Monday?" I asked.
"Kilroy?" he asked.
"Oh, shit!" I said suddenly.
I had completely forgotten that the new Styx album was out today.
"Got a way to go get it?"
I shook my head.
"Guess I will when I can. No biggie."
I knew that I should make a big deal of it, and that I should be talking incessantly about it, but I didn't have the drive or energy to do so. And the little yellow pill made sure that I just didn't give a damn. And even without the pill, there was too much else happening to be concerned with something as trivial as music, even Styx's new album.
We made small talk until the bus stopped in front of us. We walked on, sat behind Jeff, and made more random small talk. Jeff smiled at the expected times, and seemed fine. More than once, though, I caught signs that he was working on being normal.
Jeff left us as soon as we got into the building. At my locker, when I opened it, an envelope fell out. I stood there, looking at it, wondering what kind of threat or vulgarity it contained. I thought briefly of the envelope that had fallen out of my locker on my first day back. I wondered what the chances were it was another Valentine's card.
"It ain't a bomb," Tom said flatly, picking it up and handing it to me. "Another love note?"
I rolled my eyes and took it from him.
It had no name on it. It wasn't sealed. A plain, ordinary, white envelope. It felt like it contained a computer diskette. Inside was my lost floppy disc.
"Got your name on it," Tom said.
"Yeah, it's mine. Lost it."
"Someone found it."
"Well, duh," I said flatly. "Just glad to have it back. Now I won't fail computer class."
"Wonder who returned it."
"Guess I'll never know," I said with a shrug.
I looked on the top shelf and found the forgotten Valentine.
"Figure out who, yet?" Tom asked.
"No. But if you start with Puppy Dog again, I'm gonna start yelling that you suck dick like a porn star," I said with a smirk.
He looked doubtful, then grinned, then rolled his eyes.
I wondered if the programs on the disc were safe, unchanged, or even deleted. I had no way to know until class, it would just have to wait until then. I thought of how bothered I would be about not knowing until then without the yellow. And I thought how glad I should feel that it even showed up. It could save me from failing a class. If they weren't deleted or corrupted. Or replaced with a readme that just said, "Fuck you, faggot."
At the breakfast table, Jeff was noticeably absent. If it weren't for the little yellow pill, I would have felt abandoned, and I knew it. The only change was that Erich's hands were covered by odd gloves, and when he sat, the questions began.
"Shit, man, how bad are they?"
They. Something about that word and hands triggered something in my mind. It came in a sudden rush.
Their hands! Toby! He said not to let myself feel responsible for their hands! Wow. I would, too. If I wasn't on the little yellow pill. He knows me so well. Later, when it wears off, I probably will. If I hadn't been on the bleachers, I would have been Erich's anchor. I have enough weight to stop his fall. And Carl wouldn't have had his hands hurt, either. I am gonna feel guilty about that later. And why didn't I even think of that all weekend? Because I was busy with other things, duh. Big things.
Like Jeff, I thought again, looking briefly at his newly usual, empty seat.
"Burned off a layer of skin. They're okay except if I try to open or close 'em, then they hurt like hell!"
The gloves were heavy enough that his fingers were barely visible, were slightly bent, and held together side by side.
"Shit. How'd you get dressed?"
"Don't ask!" he said with a blush. "Gotta wear plastic bags over 'em when I shower, too. Ever try to shampoo your hair with plastic bags on top of gloves on your hands?"
They all laughed.
I was thinking it, but I wasn't going to ask it. Cooley did.
"How you gonna wipe your ass?"
They all laughed.
"Plastic bags," he said again.
I was thinking it, too, and I wasn't going to ask it, either. Tom did.
"How the hell you gonna jack off?"
They all laughed again.
"Don't know. Guess I'll have to learn to suck it myself," he said with a red-faced grin.
They all laughed. I wondered if I was the only one trying to picture it.
"So what do you do when you have to piss?" Wes asked.
"Man, it ain't easy," he said with another laugh.
I saw those wonderful expressions on his face, and I felt nearly nothing. I knew what really looking at him caused in me, but not through the yellow haze. I wondered if that was what it was like to be straight when talking to guys.
"You can work the zipper?"
"Sort of. Takes a fuck of a long time, though. But yeah, I can get it. I just have to take forever."
"Must suck," Wes said, laughing.
"What really sucks is taking off the plastic bags after I shit!"
They all laughed. I grinned.
My guts fell. I realized that I should have brought another little yellow pill, or taken another one before breakfast. I suddenly quailed at the thought of facing the day at school knowing that Jeff and I weren't working out. And I realized that the yellow haze was beginning to lift.
Otherwise, things were normal. Including a dirty look from Kevin Corless as he passed nearby. And the Cooley and Marcus dynamic continued.
Class after class, things were pretty much normal. Some chat with those few who chose to continue talking to me, avoiding those who didn't. In German, some of the pronunciations were difficult and problematic. Frustration at that welled up and mixed with the general sadness over things with Jeff being over. I knew the little yellow pill had completely worn off.
Erich again offered to help with the new words while I carried his books for him to his next class. I knew I needed the help, but it never seemed a good idea to me. I didn't want to take up his time, and I was always aware of just how much time I would spend thinking about his body instead of what I should be.
A fact occurred to me, one that I should have seen before. I was attracted to Erich, nothing new there, but I saw now how worried I had been before that I might be tempted. How worried I had been that I might reveal that I was gay to Erich. But now Erich knew. And he still talked to me. He still seemed as good a friend as before. Even more since everyone found out.
I decided that since I was going to change myself, this was a good thing to change. I told Erich I would appreciate his help. He offered to come over any day after school, and we agreed on tomorrow.
"Ride my bus? Maybe I can get my folks to let me use the car to take you home. Or maybe one of them will."
"Sokay, I'll drive. I kinda know where ya live, just don't know which one."
"You can drive with those gloves?" I asked, stunned.
"Yeah. Not real well, but better than riding the bus."
"What kinda car ya got?"
"Not much o' one, but it gets me around okay."
I could tell there was something there.
"Never seen ya in one, just guessed ya rode the bus. What ya got?" I repeated.
A Mustang? Don't tell me he's one of the rich ones!
"No shit? What year?"
"Uh, seventy-four," he said with a lopsided grin.
I matched his grin.
"If it don't rain," he said, his embarrassed grin widening.
Then after a moment, "Seriously, if it don't rain."
We laughed again.
"Or it's not too cold out."
We laughed harder.
I remembered his missing the breakfast table my first day back at school, and how I had thought he was avoiding me. Until chemistry class, when he had explained that his car hadn't started. Now I knew why.
I deposited him and his books at his desk, said I'd see him in lunch, then jogged to Geometry class. I wasn't looking forward to the class, as I knew Rick would ask me if I could make his birthday party again, and Kevin Corless would give me evil eyes all class. I was breathless when I arrived. Indeed, Rick asked, and I told him I still didn't know if I could get out of what I had to do yet. And Kevin hated me from across the room.
I lost most of my good mood shared with Erich and began sliding downward again. I refused to think of Jeff, but even the thought of not thinking of him was enough to lower my mood each time.
In computers, I slid my mysteriously returned diskette into the drive and opened the list of contents. The programs were all still there, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I had worried that they might have been deleted and the empty disc returned as a mean prank. Now I had to find out if they had been corrupted, partially changed, or just ruined. I ran the ones that I knew worked. They ran fine. I ran the first one due today, knowing it still locked up instead of displaying the information it should at the end. It ran fine. I blinked. I ran it again, using different input data. It calculated and ran fine, displaying the right information in the right columns. I shrugged, guessing it had only glitched when I had tried it before. I opened and ran the other program, knowing it would only display the menu and input fields, as I hadn't finished the rest of it. It looked fine. But, the cursor was blinking in the first input field. It should have been at the bottom of the screen next to a prompt caret, waiting for a BASIC command. I entered data and the program worked fine. I entered letters instead of numbers and it refused them, waiting for numbers. I ended it then prompted for the program list. It ran down my screen until I held down the PAUSE key. There was the rest of the programming, but I knew I hadn't typed it in. Someone had, then returned the disc to my locker.
I looked at Steve Sabine and Thomas Cassey, figuring it had to be one of them. They didn't act suspiciously, hardly noticed my glances. I inspected the programming again, and it looked like my work. The lines were numbered in the same way I used, the REM lines had titles and comments in the same method I preferred.
Someone had taken a good look at all of my programs, then finished the program due today using my techniques. The teacher was walking the aisles, checking programs and doing the grades, so all I could do was run the program and make sure there wasn't any bomb or Easter egg. I ran it over and over, and as the teacher walked up and asked me if I was done, I almost told him that I had gotten the wrong disc, or that someone had finished it for me. I nodded.
He told me what data to enter, and looked at the output. He wrote down a grade in his book, and showed it to me. B. He moved on.
I nearly collapsed. I copied the disc twice and then pulled it from the drive, storing it and the copies deeply in my pack.
Great. I get a B. And I didn't even do half of the work. I should tell him. What! Why? I should take it and run.
I knew I would feel guilty, but I also knew I would have gotten the work done just fine, and earned the B on my own if I had the time, if I hadn't missed so much school, if I hadn't hurt my fingers and typed so slowly.
So, somebody gave me some help. I knew what to do, I just couldn't type it fast enough. So what. Just shut up and take it.
I checked the other undone programs that were already past due, finding they were still in the same state that I had left them. I had until the final exams to hand them in, and I could quite possibly finish them in time if I spent a lot of time in the little lab during my last period.
When Steve and Thomas were both done and graded, we chatted quietly. I asked them if they knew anything about my diskette, and they seemed to honestly not know. I told them what had happened, and they agreed that I should keep my mouth shut and take the gift, and that I would have gotten the same result if I had the time to.
I was glad I had kept quiet, and was glad I had gotten a B. Still, I felt guilty.
In lunch, things went south.
While I was in line getting food, I was accidentally bumped into by Kevin Corless. He also said, very loudly, "Oh, excuse me, Gaymond!"
The little yellow had worn off, so I was back in a fairly foul mood over the change between Jeff and me as well as everything else. More problems were most especially not welcome. I must have scowled at him, because he laughed at me and asked, "What? Having a bad day? No cock up the ass last night? Haw-haw-haw!"
I flashed back to Charlie Derek. I felt myself flush, then my skin prickled all over. I noticed that I was breathing deeply, muscles tense.
I've never been so ready to fight so suddenly, I thought, as Kevin walked away. At least that's a good change, I think.
Once at the table, I was seething, and not just inside. There was no way I was going to be able to do anything about it. I was no fighter. I had hoped that facing down Charlie Derek had ended that kind of thing, but I was learning that it wasn't stopping that easily.
I was tense and jumpy all through lunch. I watched Thomas take notes from a textbook, his hand filling the college-ruled notebook paper with his smooth, neat writing. I envied him. He had no painful troubles, no worries about hiding who he liked, no lost loves to mourn over, no one making his day hell. I tried to enjoy the usual talk and chatter, but had to fake any interest. I could only think of how I wanted to dictate my future, not have to ride along and just see where it went. I was tired of just taking things, and I was tired of Jeff being so much trouble.
Never having someone for very long, I bemoaned. Losing the first to death. Getting him back, but again only for a very short time. The van only for long enough to nearly burn to death in it. No, actually suffocating to death! Having someone I really loved being incompatible and breaking up after such a short time.
And now Kevin.
It only hurt that much more because of what I had previously thought of Kevin. He was a musician type, good looking for the most part. We had gotten along, but were never good friends. We had spoken in the halls a few times, another few times out by the buses, or in the lunchroom, or quad. It had usually been brief, and about Styx or similar music.
He was in the best band in school, and mega-popular, and pretty good looking, and nice to me. So it really hurt when he turned on me.
That hurt only worsened further when lunch was nearly over. Suddenly, someone was looming over and behind me. I saw Erich's eyes widen when he noticed. His lips formed an "O" as I felt something cold and wet go down my back.
"Here ya go, Gaymond! Just to cool ya off after looking at all the geeky faggots 'round ya!"
I turned slightly, boiling inside as my back and shoulders were chilled by the ice cold soda running down my back. I could see his crotch and hips just to my right.
I would have cringed and bore it, but he called everyone else in on it. The people around me accepted me, liked me, and showed it. They were getting crap for it, and they didn't deserve it. They deserved better. It had to stop. It had to change.
Words from Toby and others compelled me onward.
With the little yellow pill now completely worn off, my emotions had already been boiling up to the surface. I welcomed them, let them grow, even poked and prodded them. Anger leaped free from the rest of the pack and I whipped it cruelly.
I formed a fist with my right hand and moved my left palm out in front of it.
Erich said, "No, Alex, don't," rather softly.
"What's the matter, Mays? Or is it Gays? Ha-ha-ha-ha!"
I felt anger seething. I continued to poke at it, feeding it. I thought of all the things that angered me recently, pushing my usual cowardly self further into the darkest recesses of myself.
"What? You think Gaymond here's gonna do something? He ain't got his bunch of karate buddies here to do anything, now. It's just you bunch of wussies. What'ch think he's gonna do Gays? Huh? What? You his bitch?"
My new flinch caused my right eye to wink and my left hand to twitch. The anger was strong enough now that the pressure was back behind my temple, aching painfully.
Now he'd singled out Erich. That was enough to push my emotions over my rationality. I knew what I was about to do, and I regretted it already. I refused to let images of myself laying bloody on a gurney scare me. I recalled the lessons from Todd. He'd taught me many blocks by being his sandbag over the past years. I had done them enough to do them. I hoped.
The bell rang.
"Fuck it" rang through my head. I'm not gonna sit here and be the reason this asshole makes fun of these guys and Erich. I got the right to be who I am. Ain't that what we're supposed to be figuring out as teenagers, anyway? Well, I got that part figured, damn it.
The rest of the room began standing and leaving.
"This," I said just loud enough for Kevin and those around to hear as I slapped my open palm into my right fist and threw my arm and shoulder behind me, driving my elbow into his groin with all the strength I had in me.
"Wha-" he started to ask, then it became, "hooooo!"
The sore fingers on my left hand complained, but I grimaced and put that pain into standing up as quickly as I could, so that I could turn around and defend myself - if I could.
On his way doubling over his painful groin, his face connected soundly with my forearm as I stood up and turned around. Now one hand was cupping his groin, the other holding his face.
The table exploded. Nearly everyone either stood up to get a better view or moved away from us. I didn't want to be trapped between the bench seat and the table, so I hopped over it, my right foot coming down on top of Kevin's foot. I felt something pop, like when you stretch, but it didn't come from my foot. I hopped off his foot and hopped back, both feet slipping on the soda-slick floor, and I ended up falling onto my butt on the bench seat, legs almost straight out in mid-air. Kevin was favoring his sore foot, nearly hopping on the other, as my right foot struck his shin, knocking his last leg out from under him. He went over backwards and slightly sideways. His hands left his groin and face, but didn't have enough time to stop his fall. He landed ass first, then his head hit the bench seat of the lunch table behind ours. His head bounced off it loudly.
By the time I was back on my feet, I was standing over Kevin Corless's feet. I clenched both fists, and the sore tendons in the left-hand middle fingers screamed in protest.
"Holy shit, Alex!" by at least three different people.
Okay, pretend you meant all that to happen. Don't let it look like the fucking string of freak accidents it was. You meant to do all that. Sure. It was all planned.
Kevin's friend, Terry Cooper, was standing less than a foot away from me. He was looking from Kevin to me, mouth agape and eyes wide.
It was intentional. All on purpose. Keep standing here like you're gonna do the same thing to him.
I raised my clenched fists slightly in a defensive way, staring at him, daring him to think it was all accidental.
He looked down at Kevin, then at me, then back down at Kevin.
"Just because I don't use it all the time don't mean I don't know how," I tried.
With that one word, he threw away any chance he had at scaring me. I was in control, and I knew it, and I felt it.
And I liked it.
Kevin made odd mewling sounds from the floor and was trying to sit up without much success.
"Better get him outta here before a monitor sees," I said as calmly as I could.
Terry reached down and grabbed Kevin's arm and pulled him to his feet. Kevin held the back of his head with one hand and his nose with the other. There was blood running down his chin. He never looked at me as he and Terry walked through the bodies standing around us.
I sat back down, shaking.
"Fucking-a, Alex! How'd you know how to do that?" Erich asked.
Others asked similar questions.
"Jeff's brother's been teaching me Karate for a couple of years," I said.
There were a few pats on my back by people I didn't see. I heard a few words along the lines of, "Good job," and, "Way to go."
I didn't feel like it was. I felt like I had stomped on a puppy, and I didn't understand why. I had been triumphant and felt powerful and wonderful for a few seconds, but that had fled, leaving me with a sense of having done something terrible.
I walked out of the lunchroom with Erich, Wes, and Thomas. As usual. They went on and on about how I had kicked Kevin's ass, and how he wasn't going to be bothering me for a long time. Even Thomas was excited and grinning. Erich asked if I had a clean shirt. I said no, but then remembered the gym clothes in my pack. I almost grinned at the coincidence, and if they weren't such a part of my life recently, I might well have done so. I nodded, then turned toward the nearest bathroom, where I changed while they continued to talk animatedly and reenact segments of the lunch-capade, as they began to call it. At times I wanted to join them in the celebration, but the nagging feeling of having just beaten a puppy to death kept me quiet. Back in the hall, Thomas made his usual turn, after saying, "That was cool," once again.
Chemistry class went by uneventfully. Erich and I spoke in German as much as we could. The two preppies across the lab table from us ignored us as usual.
I walked him to his next class and then jogged to Lit class, still feeling as if I was about to be arrested for cruelty to an animal. Four jocks and their girlfriends were talking and all but pointed at me when I walked in. They kept looking at me and talking together. The class was nearly over when a teacher I didn't know came into the classroom and got our teacher's attention. They spoke for a moment, then both glanced at me, at which time my guts chilled and shrunk within me before our teacher called my name.
I was told to gather my books and to go with Mr. Castley. There were the usual catcalls of, "Ooohh!" and such as I walked to the front of the class. I heard, "He kicked Corless' ass in lunch," as I walked to my doom.
Hearing that said, and in the way it was said, gave me a momentary rush, until I squashed it. For a brief moment, I relived that sense of victory and power as I stood over Kevin as he lay nearly spread-eagle on the lunchroom floor below me. It was easy to crush that guilty pleasure with the sense of dread and doom that being led to the Dean's office created.
Mr. Castley was quiet, not saying anything as we walked the eerily quiet halls. The clicking of the heels of his dress shoes and the squeaks of my tennis shoes added to the ominous air. I was directed to a chair and told to wait until my name was called. I sat there, unsure of what was about to happen. My guts churned and I started sweating profusely.
When my name was finally called, I followed the secretary to the Dean's office. Again.
I was directed to a chair. Mr. Green was on the phone.
"I understand that much. I have the student in my office now... Yes... I'll let you know... Can you get that information to me as soon as you can, please... Thank you very much, officer."
"Officer" rang through my head, echoing.
He hung up the phone. He looked at me solidly for what seemed several minutes.
"Well, Mr. Raymond. We have a problem here."
He seemed to be waiting for me to say something. I had no idea what I should say, so I remained silent, trying not to look away from his face, and keep down the lunch I hadn't ate.
"What do you have to say for yourself? Mr. Corless will probably have a concussion, you know. Perhaps a broken nose and foot. And you're facing a suspension at the least."
What did I do? Fuck!
Suddenly I was angry. The feeling of having beaten a helpless puppy was replaced by anger at likely being suspended and ending up further behind in classes. I threw out a torrent of words.
"He deserved it! He's been elbowing me and calling me names since I got back. Every time he saw me. Then he dumps a soda down my back, makes fun of my friends at my lunch table, and stands behind me threatening me. What else am I gonna do? Sit there and take it like a wimp?"
Mr. Green raised an eyebrow.
"I'm aware of your... unusual situation, Mr. Raymond, but-"
I interrupted him with, "And that's another thing. He's been calling me Gaymond in front of everyone, too. Then he says I'm not gonna do anything, that I'm a wussy and all my friends are wussies. Right before I..." and here I suddenly changed to, "slipped," from almost saying, "kicked his ass."
"Slipped? You slipped and gave Mr. Corless a probable concussion and a broken nose and foot?"
"Concussion? That was from his slipping on the soda he dumped on my back!"
His other eyebrow raised to join its fellow.
"And you did nothing to attack him?"
"Attack him? You mean defend myself from him and his buddy?"
"Terry Cooper. He was right next to him, behind me."
"They were probably gonna try and kick my... butt."
He leaned back in his chair, making it squeak in that way that only a Dean's chair could do. Placing both hands on the arms of the chair, he chewed his lip for a few seconds.
"Are you telling me that you were defending yourself?"
"You can ask everyone at my table and the tables next to us. He was standing behind me at my lunch table. I wasn't standing at his."
He nodded, saying, "You have a good point there."
"And whose back is soaked with soda?" I asked, pulling my shirt from my pack to show him the wet back of it. "And I still have sore fingers from almost tearing the tendons in the van. I can't even make a fist with this one," I said, holding up my left hand, which by that time was so sore it was shaking - though not only from the pain.
"Well, after the events of last month, between you and Mr. Derek, the both of you have quite the reputation."
"Charlie Derek? Why don't you ask him what happened that day?"
"And why would I do that?"
"Because you'll hear how I tried to not have a fight. How when he made me have to, how I offered him a hand up. And you'll hear how I invited him to my birthday party next week and he came. And how we're friends now. Sorta."
Mr. Green seemed to soak that information in, turning it over in his head.
"I'll check with Mr. Derek later. Right now, I have a situation on my hands. I have an injured student in the hospital talking to police officers, saying he was assaulted."
I laughed. I didn't mean to, I had no idea that I was going to, but I did.
"Come on! You got a lunch room full of guys who'll tell you what happened was what I just said."
"Then tell me exactly what happened. Second by second."
I did. I left nothing out. I started with Kevin standing behind me, what he said, and how I had reacted. I didn't try to pretend that I intended anything that happened. I explained how it was one slip after another.
"I just got tired of putting up with his crap. I mean, I die in a freaking fire, finally get back to school, and here comes Kevin giving me grief!"
He nodded some more, said, "Your record so far is very good. No trouble before, and decent grades, good attendance, even Honor Rolls."
He flipped shut the folder.
"Mr. Raymond, I'm willing to extend reasonable doubt to your corner here. But Mr. Corless is making a legal complaint. I have no control over that process. Do you understand?"
Legal complaint? He fucking bullies me, then gets the cops involved when I push back? What a fucking idiot! Fucking shit. If he presses charges, my parents are gonna freak! And what if it goes to court? Legal fees, lawyers, court dates, suspension from school! Fuck! All because Kevin Corless is a total asshole!
He's nice to me until he finds out I'm gay, then he hates my guts. I didn't change, his opinion of me did. I'm not going to be scared by him. That changes right now!
"Let him," I said firmly.
"I said, let him. Let him press charges. I got a lunch room full of witnesses and a long clean record. Let's see what comes out in the end."
Mr. Green grunted a laugh.
"I like that attitude, Mr. Raymond. Very well. I'll pass on your suggestion to him and his parents when I see them this afternoon. I'll certainly have to go to the hospital and talk to the officers as well, along with them. I'll let you know what happens in the morning."
In the morning?
"You mean here at school? Or you gonna call me at home?"
"Oh, I'm not suspending you. I very much doubted you were the aggressor from the start. You've become a bit of a celebrity, you know. Since your first conflict with, then friendly activities with Mr. Derek, then your, quite worrisome accident and recovery, your name is well known among the school staff. Including your problems with a certain civics teacher."
"That's taken care of. I'm attending the class and passing."
"Still on track for an A, I hear, too."
"Working on it."
"I'm wondering if I can get you to work on a little something else?"
He had my curiosity immediately.
"That certain civics teacher has expressed the desire that a certain student would find time to stay after class for a quick talk sometime."
I was surprised into speechlessness.
"Can you work on that for me? Maybe not today, or this week, but at some point in the near future?"
Feeling combative, I asked, "Why doesn't he just ask me to?"
"Let's say he has fears that he would draw attention to that student at a time that student seems to desire not draw any attention to himself. Even though he still has a way of doing so, even if involuntarily."
I wanted, for a moment, to ask what he meant by, "still has."
"Do you understand? He thinks it best not to, at least until you seem less, self isolated."
I understood. I hadn't looked at him all week. Not since I had tried to get out of his class.
"I'll stay after one day. Don't know when, though. Yet."
"That's fair enough. I'll hold you to it. For now, I think you'd best head to your next class. And do try to keep a low profile?"
Low profile? I thought on the way out of his office, wiping my forehead. That's about all I really want. A low profile. Not to be noticed. Just roll along. But no. Everyone else has to single me out. I'd love to freaking keep a fucking low profile!
It was almost the end of gym class. I had my gym shorts in my pack. I dreaded being seen in the locker room, and it was about time for the coaches to send them in to shower and change. I was ready to use wearing the shirt as an excuse to wait until tomorrow to enter the locker room.
Fuck it. I gotta go back sooner or later. They gotta know I am. I gotta quit being a fucking pussy. If I should change anything about myself at all, it should probably be that.
I jogged as much as I could to get there as soon as possible, and hopefully out before anyone came out of the showers. I couldn't run long enough, though. In the locker room, the guys were just being released from the showers and heading to their lockers. I thought how it would have been good timing before, but now I wondered if any of them would think I timed it this way. I kept my head down until I was at my locker, where I opened the little square personal locker and put my shorts into it. I locked it and walked away without saying a word. I never talked to any of them anyway, except Greg Hallman, and when we did talk to each other, it was out in class.
Surprisingly, he said, "Hey," as I walked past. I looked up and threw a quick nod at him. "You back in gym tomorrow?"
"No. Got bandages yet."
"Not really. Just won't change until next week."
"Okay. Glad you're gettin' better."
"Thanks," I said, still surprised.
As I walked away, I tried not to look back and see who and how many were still in the aisle. I managed not to.
Out in the gym, I waited along with Erich and Carl, who were both excused due to their hands. I fought the guilt again, hanging on to Toby's words that it was not my fault. But no matter how hard I tried, I could only feel guilty that I hadn't been Erich's anchor and prevented his fall.
Erich didn't seem to remember that I was at the clinic, and I hadn't seen Carl there at all. I dropped a couple of reminders for Erich, but he was oblivious, as if the memory had been removed. Slowly the same regulars joined us as we waited to be dismissed. The coaches pushed open the double set of double doors and waved us out just as the bell rang.
Once there was some space between us and everyone else, Erich asked, "Did you notice anyone missing in your aisle?"
"Well, like, didn't you notice?"
"I hardly did a head count, ya know."
"You'd a got twice as many as guys in your aisle if you did a head count."
I rolled my eyes, trying not to laugh. It was a little funny, but I didn't feel comfortable about laughing over such an obviously gay joke in the halls at school. Especially just after my first foray back into the locker room.
"I just meant, so you know. Ya know? So you're not real surprised."
I appreciated that. The problem was that he was doing me a favor. It was bad enough to feel like I was responsible for his hands, but having him helping me out only added to what I felt I owed him.
"Thanks. Guess it won't be such a big shock. Ya told me, already, anyway."
"So, ya think Kevin's gonna blame you?" Carl asked.
Glad for the change in topic, I said, "Probably not. I mean pretty much the whole cafeteria saw what happened. Plus I got a better record than him. He'd have like an uphill fight, ya know?"
"He'd have like a straight up a cliff climb!" Erich said with his cute laugh.
That laugh, and while walking with him and Carl, reminded me of the joke yesterday.
"Ya know, I never asked if you guys were able to figure out a way to jerk it."
They both exploded into laughter. Carl blushed a bit behind his laughter, and I wondered.
"Probably got blue balls like a Smurf?" Erich asked. "Actually, I found out I could put it in my mouth and now I don't miss my hands."
We all burst out laughing. I wondered.
I even let myself imagine him doing it again as I pretended to examine my feet as we walked.
Naturally, they insisted on talking about the lunch-capade. Both of them asked questions, even though Erich saw the entire thing from his ring-side seat. Carl had lunch in a different period, but had heard the already distorted rumors that I had to correct.
"So you didn't go all Bruce Lee on him?" he asked.
"No. It was more like the Three Stooges," I assured him.
"Shit. Mike Chalmers said you were dropping kicks and doing roundhouse punches and shit."
"He can be an idiot," I offered.
"He is an idiot," Carl said firmly.
"I told you what really happened. Erich here saw it."
"Sure did. And it did look like you knew what you were doing, man. It really looked like you was whipping his ass!"
I laughed again.
"Looks can be deceiving."
"Hey, Raymond! Way to kick ass!" Berry Williams said, offering a high-five as he passed.
I didn't return his gesture, but said, "It wasn't cool."
He dropped his hand and looked confused.
"Dude, it was not cool. He was pushing the wrong buttons is all. And I got fed up is all."
"Well, whatever it was, way to go, man. Don't take no shit from nobody."
"Bet you hear a lot of that the rest of the day," Carl offered.
I rolled my eyes.
Once I was in English class, things went more or less back to normal. Trying to understand the complexities of the English language kept my mind off the events of the day. Then it was time to head to Civics.
The last thing I wanted to do was think of why I was in that classroom. Or why I wanted to leave it. The topic was nothing new, or interesting now that it came from this man. I didn't look at him, and he never called my name.
Instead of thinking of him or his class, I tried to predict what Kevin Corless and his family would decide. I wondered what, if anything, I should tell my parents. Yet. And what would happen if he insisted that I had attacked him without provocation and demanded I be suspended. Or worse. Or pressed charges and had me arrested.
What would the folks say if cops showed up to take me off and I didn't tell them about today first? Or at all? Or what if they were called? Why didn't I ask if they got called? Does the school call if you get in a fight but you're not suspended? They have to, right? Why the fuck didn't I fucking think to ask?
Such thoughts kept my mind occupied for the rest of the period. I considered staying after and making good my promise of the effort, but I was in no mood to, wasn't prepared, had no idea what to say.
I was riding the bus, so I would have to wait for the last period. I started heading for the library, but I was still being bothered by the program in computer class, and the B that I didn't feel I had actually earned. I sighed, then turned toward the computer classrooms. Once there, I knocked.
He looked up and nodded, came to the door, stepped out, and closed it behind him, joining me in the empty hallway.
"Yes, Mister Raymond?"
He was looking at me in an odd way. I wasn't sure what he was thinking, or what I should be thinking. I only knew what was bothering me, and how to fix it.
"Uh, I need to tell you something."
"Okay, go ahead."
"Well." I sighed deeply, then rushed the confession out. "I didn't do the program. I left my disc in the computer in the one of the labs and somebody returned it to my locker and the program was done and I didn't do it."
"Was the program done as you would have done it, if you had the time?"
"And would you have gotten it right? Do you understand the commands and how to use them?"
"That's why I finished it for you. And to see what you'd do."
"And then you go and surprise me. I thought you would admit to it right there in class, if you didn't take the grade and run."
"Uh... I almost did."
"I noticed. You hesitated a bit when I asked if you were ready."
"I heard about the lunchroom, today."
"From what I hear, he had it coming."
I nodded. I shrugged. I swallowed. I blinked.
"Look, Mister Raymond, you did right coming to tell me. I'm sure you would have gotten caught up in time, but you really didn't need another program late, adding to your workload. You just didn't have that time. You've done well in class all year. I want you to know you did the right thing. Okay?"
"How did you get my disc?"
"I check the computers at the end of the day. You'd be surprised the number of discs that get left behind. And, I believe I saw you making backup copies of your disc today, did I not?"
"One lesson learned. Two, I'd say. Yes?"
"Is there anything else?"
I shook my head.
"One other thing. I expect you are fairly good at keeping secrets?"
I nodded. He glanced around at the empty hallway before meeting my eyes again.
"I've never been married. Nor do I think I ever will be. You understand?"
My mind stopped working. Completely. It had been having a hard time during our entire conversation, but now, it just shut down.
"I hope you can keep that strictly between us? And nothing else should ever be said between us on the topic. Understand?"
I nodded, eventually.
"But if you ever need an adult to talk to about, certain aspects of, being, different, I can put you in touch with someone who can speak to you about those, difficulties. Privately. Just let me know."
I nodded, swallowed, blinked.
"I'm glad you're recovering well. See you in class tomorrow. Have a good night."
"Thanks. Um, you too. Have a good night! Not, recovering..."
He laughed, which made me feel better about the stupid wording.
I shuffled toward the library where I sat in stunned silence, not doing anything but thinking. I didn't have time to think of Kevin or Jeff, I was too stunned that there was a gay teacher at school.
I had always suspected the wrestling coach at the other campus. He'd often talked to me about joining the team after I had done well wresting in gym class that semester. He had never done any of the creepy things the creepy teachers did on those After School Specials. No one had claimed he had, only rumors that others had said it. He had sure seemed gay. And creepy.
But my computer teacher seemed like just another teacher. Perfectly normal. He didn't seem to watch me a lot, the way the wrestling coach had. He didn't seem to want to talk to me a lot, the way the wrestling coach had. He didn't put his hand on my shoulder a lot when he talked to me, like the wrestling coach had. He hadn't asked me to see him after school to talk in his office often, the way the wrestling coach had. I didn't always go to the coach's office after school, but if the computer teacher asked me to do so, I knew that I probably would have, and wouldn't have worried about it. Not even now that I knew that he was gay. He wasn't creepy, like the wrestling coach had been. I wondered again if the wrestling coach really was gay, as it was rumored, or not, as I began to suspect.
When the bell rang, I headed to my locker. I knew I was going to have to explain what had happened in lunch to Tom and Jeff before the bus arrived. I wasn't looking forward to it, knowing they had probably heard I had gone ape-shit on Kevin.
As I rounded the last corner before my locker, I stopped dead in my tracks. There were at least a dozen guys standing around, talking. As I got closer, I saw that Jeff was in the center, and as he was the tallest person there, he saw me coming and pointed my way. Every head in the group turned toward me. Jeff waved me toward him - them.
When I reached the group, they parted to allow me to get to my locker. Jeff and Tom were flanking it. On it was a piece of notepaper. Written on it with a magic marker were three words.
Way to go.
Jeff and Tom both shrugged at my unspoken question.
"Was there when we got here," one said with a grin.
I snatched it off my locker and crumpled it up into a tight ball.
"It was a fucking stupid fight. Now I gotta deal with it forever."
I spun my combination and opened my locker as the guys surrounding me tried to convince me that I had changed the entire world.
"Don't you guys get it?" I yelled. "He's probably gonna press charges. Probably got a concussion and a broken nose and foot! I'm gonna have to talk to the cops. I might end up suspended! I already barely got caught up in most of my classes, and now I'm probably gonna miss more!"
That didn't seem to change anyone's minds. They still seemed to think it was something to congratulate me over.
Frustrated, I gave up and stuffed what books I wanted into my pack and slammed my locker. After locking it, I turned and pushed my way through the small crowd.
Jeff and Tom walked with me to the windows, not saying a word. I felt as if I stood between two strangers. Especially Jeff. I wanted things to go back to normal between us, but yet again, there was a new normal and an old, and I didn't know which was actually the better. We waited in silence for our bus. The only words spoken were when I replied, "Thanks," to the few who stopped to say something I found stupid about the fight.
They tried to tell me how great what I had done was, but their attempts only made me angrier.
"Fuck. Jeff, why are you even here? I thought you had something you'd rather do after school all week. Something more fun than hanging around with me and be seen riding the bus with me."
He blanched, and without a word, walked away. I felt badly for what I had said, but I was too mad to care. Tom seemed shocked, and asked why I was mad at Jeff. I shrugged off his question and ignored him, even on the ride home. As we walked toward our houses, Tom reached out and pulled on my shoulder hard enough to cause me to almost fall over.
"What the fuck is wrong with you?" he asked angrily.
Shocked, I didn't know how to answer.
"You fucking teach Corless a lesson and you act like you did something wrong. And then you bitch at Jeff."
"Who says I didn't do something wrong? Huh? I'm lookin' at a possible suspension and maybe even legal charges. Fuck, man. What's so great to celebrate? Huh?"
You have no idea what's going on, I wanted to scream at him. I wanted to yell it. I was growing angry. I could feel it testing the bars of its cage. It had found the way out previously, and was finding it easier this time.
"Man, he ain't gonna press no charges. Hell, man, every guy who saw is gonna back you up and say that you was in the right."
I rolled my eyes again.
"I wish I was so sure," I said, turning away from him. "And that's not even the real... I guess, problem."
"So what is?"
I couldn't shake the memory of how it had felt to see Kevin laying out on the lunchroom floor, bloody and bruised and in pain... because of me. As I had stood there, I felt a sense of power that I'd tasted before during the confrontation with Charlie Derek. Only this second time, I'd found that I liked it even more.
And that's why I felt so bad right after. I enjoyed kicking Kevin's ass. Even if it was all luck and accident, I did it. And it felt good. He had it coming for acting like an ass to me. He did, I reassured myself.
"So what is, then?" Tom asked again.
"I enjoyed it," I admitted.
"So what? I would've!"
I didn't feel like a deep philosophical discussion of the topic, so I remained silent.
We were at the point where I would turn to my house and Tom would keep walking to his if he wasn't going to come over. I was about to tell him I didn't want him to come over, that I wanted to be alone, when he said, "And I ain't' leaving you alone, either, so don't ask. I'm coming over and we're gettin' lit."
I shrugged under the heavy scarf and coat and walked up my sidewalk. Once we were in my room, Tom opened the box while I changed out of my gym shirt and shoved it into my pack.
"I gotta change your bandages before your mom sees they're brown."
"Oh, shit. They really?"
"Sure enough," he said, his voice sounding like he was near laughter.
"So what's so funny?" I asked with as much anger as I could muster, which at that moment was considerable.
"You probably got to change your shorts, too. They probably turned brown."
I couldn't help myself. I grinned.
Tom lit the joint. My back was starting to itch. I squirmed in the chair.
"Man, hang on," Tom said, getting up.
He went to the bathroom where I heard running water. He came back out with a wet washrag, removed the bandages, then washed my back gently and carefully as we passed the joint between us. It felt awesome. I had never had anyone do that for me before, and I found that it was very comforting.
"There. Now go get some clean underwear on and I'll put on new burn cream and bandages."
"Hey, no problemo. Just fucking cheer up. Corless won't do shit. And ya know it."
"Yeah, maybe you're right."
"I mean, what? He gonna say some gay dude just suddenly picked on him and kicked his fucking ass? With one hand?"
We both laughed. I was feeling infinitely better. Yet again Tom had been able to turn my mood from dark to cheerful.
I got new shorts from my dresser, dropped my jeans, briefs, and changed. It felt a bit odd again, to change with Tom in the room. I didn't care if he was watching or not, and I didn't try to see which. I put on sweats and sat at the desk where Tom applied fresh burn cream and then bandages with a gentle touch that rivaled even Mom's. When he was done, he did something that was a new high in surprising actions, even and especially for Tom; he reached around from behind me and gave me a huge hug.
I was so shocked that I sat upright.
"Alex, you gotta just relax some. You're too fucking wound up too tight. Man, you stood up for yourself today, that's all. And high time, too. And he ain't gonna press no charges. He's probably right now trying to figure out how to make the whole thing go away. Okay?"
I was thrown off balance. His advice was so much like my mom's last week that I had to admit that perhaps I was the type to get too wound up. I decided that I really did need to learn to take things more in stride and less intensely, and that doing so would be part of my retinue of changes.
He continued holding me from behind while he talked. I didn't know what to say, or what to do, or how to react.
But it felt nice.
I put my hands on his arms.
A new horror started bugging me, and since Tom had been there when I had created it, I hoped he would be there when I ended it. And I hoped he could help with it right then.
"Do you think Jeff's still mad at me for yelling at him today?"
"He's already forgot. Or will soon. He knows you didn't mean it."
"You so sure?"
"Sure. He knows you gotta lot a shit right now. You didn't like that crowd, either. He'll be cool about it. You'll see."
With him hugging me from behind like that, I felt calm and safe, and just good.
"Thanks, dude. Ya know, you always bring me back from being down. I really appreciate it. Honest."
"What's a friend for?" he asked, slipping his arms apart and releasing me. "And besides, if I didn't, you'd burn yourself to a cinder in no time. Then who would I get my buzz from?"
We shared a small laugh. I was very glad that I hadn't taken one of the anxiety pills and that I had emotions to feel at that moment.
We smoked the rest of the joint in silence before Mom called up that dinner was ready. Tom said that he had something to do at home, that he would try to get back over later, but he might not make it.
I ate dinner with my parents, waiting for them to casually mention that the school had called. The conversation seemed normal. The entire time I fought with myself over whether or not to mention the fight with Kevin. I was talked into dessert, though I would have rather stopped halfway through the meal. Once dinner was over and the dishes in the washer, I went back upstairs and waited for Tom to come back.
I did homework and watched television. Occasionally I would catch sight of the synthesizer and would throw it a deep frown. I waited for Tom to come back over to secretly make sure I had done my homework and studying, and that I was doing okay. Tom stayed home for a change. He'd done so before, it wasn't rare, but it was unusual.
I attacked my homework, forgetting other things for a while.
When the phone rang at nine-thirty, I thought that I knew who it would be and picked it up immediately.
"Heya. How's stuff?"
Jeff. One of his usual greetings. This time given very flat.
"Heya. Okay, I guess. Sorry I blew up today at the bus."
"Yeah. Forget it. Besides, we kinda got a lot else to talk about, huh?"
So we began. I felt my stomach fall in dread.
We agreed that we cared a great deal for each other, and that we'd had a wondrous time together. We agreed that we were still the closest of friends, and that we never wanted that to change. We agreed that it wasn't the fault of either of us. We agreed that we both wanted the same thing, but that neither of us wanted to be that other. We agreed that we both wanted very different relationships, even though we wanted the same thing. I agreed that he shouldn't be pressured by my being known to be gay, and he agreed that I shouldn't be held back by having to hide what I felt was worth sharing with everyone I cared about. I told him that I had fallen for this cute guy who was smaller than I, adorably shy, and kind of geeky, but found myself involved with this cute guy who was taller and stronger than I, who looked like a sports stud, and had a desire for control. He told me how he had fallen for this cute, taller, quiet, nerdy, bookworm, but found himself with this guy who was smaller than him, talked to everyone, smoked pot, and was popular - or at least, everyone knew him, and about him. I told him that I didn't know who he was going with now, but he sounded like a guy I'd like to go out with. He laughed, and I wished that I could. We agreed that we both had changed. We agreed that life could suck and be very cruel.
I heard his voice waver from time to time, a sniffle now and again, and I knew he was struggling not to cry too. I kept waiting for him to mention baseball. I knew that it wasn't the only reason we weren't going to be boyfriends, but it felt like it. I had even mentioned his turning into a sports jock intentionally hoping to jog him into mentioning the team. I didn't know exactly why I wanted him to tell me that he was going to join the team, but I did want him to. I didn't think that he would tell me that he had to distance himself from me in order to be accepted on the team, but I hoped that he would at least mention that baseball was what was going to be keeping him away.
Eventually, being good members of the Circle for so long, we agreed that we had to prank Tom about our breaking up. I asked him to pull it tomorrow after classes, to see if he would, or if he would say he had something to do. He agreed, which only made me wonder what he was going to tell his new jock friends.
The next half hour was taken up by planning our public breakup. Public for Tom, anyway. We were putting final touches to the plan when his mom ended our call by opening her bedroom door.
"Mom's movin', gotta go!" he whispered, then hung up.
We had spent just over two hours on the phone. I hoped that he hadn't gotten caught.
I sat holding the phone for a time, wondering if things could really go back to normal between him and me. Then I wondered what the new, new normal would be, as the old, new normal could no longer apply. I needed a little yellow pill, badly. I went downstairs and took one, and a sleeping pill as well. I hoped to avoid the nightmare.
As I sat and thought, I realized why I had wanted him to mention joining the baseball team; I wanted him to make it less a factor, less a secret, than it was now. I saw that to me it was a huge factor in our breakup, but that he had no idea that I knew about his talking to them about joining. He didn't know that I had overheard him and the jocks, that I knew what they had told him he had to do in order to join them. From his point of view, the baseball team and what they expected of him was unknown to me. He had no reason to mention it.
I curled up on my unburned side and fought the thoughts of all the horrors of my life. They clamored for attention, and got it in turns: Jeff, Tom, Kevin, cops, jail, falling further behind in school, guys leaving my aisle in the locker room, finals next week, the Plymouth, the weirdly cute, rich guy who kept talking to me in the hallway, and yet others. Until finally they grew quieter and fewer, and then further apart... and finally trailed off...
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