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Track 7

"Double Life"

Part One


"Oh, fuck," I said, rolling over to shut off another song by Michael Jackson that was climbing the charts. "Fucking bull-shit song," I mumbled.

I sat up, tired, sweaty, sore, the fear and horror slowly fading. The usual. All normal. I stumbled to the shower with clean clothes, worked hard at taking the shower, and then drying off. I completed the rest of the morning rituals, worried the most about Jeff, then losing so much time spent with Tom, followed by changing in gym, then finals, then the rest.

Without bandages, the burns on my side were complaining about how the jeans sat on my hips. I still had a small, square bandage on my temple, though no ointment on the healing scar where all but a couple of the sutures had fallen away. It seemed so unfair that I had to face changing in gym class for the first time on the very same day that finals began.

How much can I take? How long until I can't take any more? How will I melt down? Without my knight to help, how can I handle it?

I was missing him. Even though we rode to school together, I missed him. We didn't talk much during the ride. I knew that he wasn't working at Burger King. Which meant he was lying to me. That was a strange idea. He had lied before, but not over something like that, only to hide some Circle prank or other secret from me until he revealed it. This was different. And it hurt.

The ride to school was almost our only time together anymore, other than the few minutes with all the others at the breakfast table. I wanted it to be fun, but things were ensuring that it couldn't be. I hated that. He had always said that we would end up with less and less time together, but he had always said many things I doubted. He had been proven right in a distressingly consistent fashion.

Lights flashed across the front window, signaling his arrival, and ending my private cerebrations.

It was early March, and this morning, sub-zero temperatures and savage winds reminded me that winter was far from over. As I ran out to the wagon, I was extremely thankful that I didn't have to wait out in the weather for the bus. I said as much as I closed the massively heavy door and put my hands on the vents.

"No shit. If you rode your bike today, you'd be fucking alone, dude," Tom said with a tone and a half-grin that meant he was more than a little serious.

I wondered how true that was, and was glad I didn't have to find out. With things the way they were between Jeff and me, I knew that riding the bus would be as uncomfortable as possible, and that I might possibly have ridden my bike to school, no matter the low probability of surviving. And with things the way they were between Tom and me, I strongly suspected that I would be riding my bike to school without Tom's company this time. Even if the weather weren't so bad.

"Don't forget your seat belt. I don't want a ticket."

I'd have to be insane to ride the bike in this weather, I thought as I strapped myself in. But, I had, in almost as bad cold. What a fuck-nut.

"Thanks for the rides, by the way," I said.

The snow crunched loudly under the wheels as he backed out, sending chills through me.

"No problem. Beats waiting in the fucking cold. Bet those bus seats'll freeze Jeff's cheeks solid this morning."

We laughed, but not as we would have once. It was awkward now. He yawned.

"You talk to him?" he asked.

I shook my head.

"You?" I asked.

"Not much. And no, I don't. You made me promise not to talk to him about you guys, so I won't."

He knew what I was going to ask, what I was thinking.

I nodded. He yawned again and they spread to me.

"Workin' today?"

He nodded.

We were quiet for the rest of the ride. When we split to go to our lockers, Tom said that he had something to do this morning he had just remembered. He would try to catch up with me at the table. It felt all wrong. I changed books and such at my locker, then tromped slowly toward the cafeteria. I arrived at the breakfast table with only twenty minutes to the bell. The empty seat where Jeff had moved to, before he had stopped showing up at the table at all, still mocked me. As did his old, still empty one. And now Tom's empty one next to it mocked me, too.

As I sat down, there was only one topic; Rick's party. And of course, that included his car, and the fact that I had played synthesizer in the band at his party. Those who missed the party were surprised to hear that I played synthesizer, and that I was in a band, but made the connection with my talking to Kevin.

I felt abandoned, despite the usual school friends sitting there. Tom's empty seat seemed to loom nearly as large as both of Jeff's. I waited for him, foot tapping.

Why is Tom not being here such a big deal? They're all friends, too, I thought. But they ain't my good friends. I don't even think I have any good friends left. Not Jeff. Not Tom as much, either.

I felt myself sliding downward with no way to stop.

Any questions asked of me were greeted with, "I'm tired." When Rick let it slip that we had smoked pot after the party, most of the rest of the guys took it as a joke, at first. It was only after several of them admitted that they had, "borrowed a sample to experiment with at home," that it was taken seriously.

"I'm smoking mine after school on Thursday," Scott Swenson said, blushing. "Once all the exams are over."

"You are not!" Ed Scallis exclaimed, looking stunned.

Scott nodded, smiling, still blushing.

Ed turned red, then asked Scott, "Can I come over?"

I wished I could be there for that. I very much liked and wanted little Scott. But then I was reminded that Tom was missing when I glanced at where he should have been, and the brief light of that thought was snuffed.

The laughter seemed bitter, and I couldn't join in. I threw on the best grin I could fix in place and pretended to study.

I was forced to imagine what the reaction was going to be when the fag walked in to change clothes in gym. I knew that I was going to have to keep my eyes in my locker the entire time and hope no one started anything. I knew the aisle was probably abandoned - like me.

My mood continued to sink.

In the last of those twenty minutes, with everyone concentrating on last-minute cramming, Jeff's empty seats had even more power to mock me now that both of them were joined by Tom's empty seat. I never knew how much Tom being there meant. Not until that moment.

I wanted to find a dark corner to curl up into and die. I felt like crying. I swallowed with difficulty and my breath wanted to catch. I narrowed my eyes in anger, mostly at myself, but some at Tom. I stoked the anger to fight off the tears. The last thing I wanted to do was cry at school, and certainly not in front of what few friends I had left. I wanted to put my head down on my forearms and disappear.

I might have, too, if the bell hadn't sent us scurrying to classes.

Physics II was open-book, and wasn't too bad. It was only the first day, though. It got tougher later, we were warned.

German II was review, no test. I got the words I was asked to speak and define correct. Erich threw me a grin, openly. I almost grinned back.

Geometry was a bitch. The teacher wrote problems on the board and we had to solve them, then hand the papers in at the end of the class. Rick, Kevin, and I threw puzzled looks at each other more than once.

Computers was easy, no test, and we had all period to work on the program that would be due Thursday. It wasn't hard, just complicated and would need lots of subroutines and input calls. I needed the time. I looked at the teacher, amazed that he was gay. He hadn't said so, but he had said so, and I was still amazed. He was probably near thirty, slim, with dark blond hair, nice features, and dark-brown eyes. He wasn't bad looking, and I wondered how he was built down there. How much hair he had, how big it was, how low it and they hung, how much he produced when he... I shook myself out of those thoughts and put my mind back to work on the program. We had to leave our disc with our work behind, so that we couldn't do any of it on our own time. He took our discs, making sure our names were on them. We had to hand in our programs that were due, too, storing them on our discs with our unfinished final program. I hadn't finished any of the other ones that were late, so they remained on my other disc.

It seemed a full day had passed before it was finally time for lunch, where something bizarre occurred as I sat down.

"Hey, check it," Ed said, nodding toward the lunch line.

I turned around, along with the others, and saw Thomas talking to Patricia Reynolds. He was standing with her at the corner at the end of the lunch line, both of them holding their trays and grinning awkwardly. It was impossible to tell what they were talking about, but Thomas' blush and body language told at least me what was being discussed. Or, at least, the general topic. Thomas saw us, turned redder, talked to her briefly, then nodded at her and they broke apart. I turned away, but saw that several of the guys watched him as he approached, and I saw their gears turning.

"Oh, come on guys. Don't be assholes. Ya jealous?" I said, hoping to stem what was coming.

Several changed expressions, nodded in agreement.

He sat down to silence, for a moment, anyway.

"Gonna ask her out?" Ed asked casually.

Thomas shrugged.

"She asked me," he said softly.

"Cool. What'd'ya say?" Scott asked quickly.

"I told her I would find out if I could, and get back to her. Okay?"

His voice was sharp-edged, and I could tell that he would rather not talk about it.

Bill, though, pressed.

"Oh, man, don't turn her down. You could get laid!"

Some nervous laughter. Thomas glared at him; it was the first time I had ever seen him wear such an expression - almost the first time I had seen him wear any expression. Thomas was the quietest guy I knew, and hardly ever displayed any emotions. Everyone reacted much the same way I did, with stunned quiet.

Rick's party was the talk of the lunch table, too, when we could be bothered to remove our faces from textbooks and notebooks. Again, surprise at my playing an instrument and being in a band, even those who knew about my talk with Kevin in the cafeteria. And when someone else mentioned the after-party and the party-favor I supplied, there was more surprise. The stoners on the end of the table found it hard to believe that I was in a band, or that the other guys had gotten high, even once, let alone that I seemed to be a stoner.

I denied the epitaph, claiming that I only smoked on rare occasions. I thought Rick's sixteenth a good reason, and had come prepared. It was believed, though more than one at the table threw me a doubtful expression.

Cooley continued hanging onto every one of Marcus' words and gestures. I wondered.

The chat was short-lived, though, as everyone became engrossed in books and study, or lunch. I couldn't eat. I was too worried about the next class. Chemistry was going to be difficult, and Erich and I knew it. We talked about the exam and wondered how we would do. We walked to the class together with Wes, me carrying Erich's books, as was the new usual. Thomas joined us until his turn toward the west hall, as seemed to be the new normal. He was as silent as normal.

The chemistry exam was as hard as we feared. Every team was given three beakers with a different colored liquid in each. We were told to use the five salts and bases in powder form to add to each liquid, then using the reaction, temperature, final pH, and salinity, name the liquids. We were warned not to add Base Number One to Liquid Number One. He demonstrated, overflowing the test tube in which he had conducted the demonstration, then told us the temperature of the reaction, the pH, and salinity.

The answer was obvious, though not to everyone.

Erich and I were confident of our conclusions and finished with five minutes to spare. We continued our new normal of using German, and now Latin, to talk privately. We were looking forward to our time together after school. I had been doubting that he was Puppy Dog, with recently revealed information and his own words throwing doubt into the equation, but his eagerness for our after school activity seemed to refute those doubts.

On top of his possibly being Puppy Dog, I wondered if he was the mystery keyboardist in Kevin's band. I considered plainly asking him, but it was fun wondering, and I was sure to find out in a week or two. I did ask when he was getting his gloves off.

"Got an appointment with the doc on Saturday. Hope then," he said with a big smile.

His retainer glinted, reminding me of Jeff's braces. I bit that thought down, harshly. I walked him to his next class, carrying his books.

The tests in the next class covered literary meanings in modern literature. It was boring and difficult, and I knew I was blowing my grade average all to hell. Even if I'd understood it, I was distracted by the intense concerns over the next class.

I was the last out of the class, and I walked as slowly as I dared to. It was time. My guts churned and felt as if lead were being refined within them. The sounds from the locker room echoed out into the hallway as over one hundred guys worked off steam built up by the days exams. I paused before I entered, nearly shaking.

God, Alex, just walk in. You get spotted standing out here it's gonna look bad. Just walk in. Make the change. Be brave. Bold. Daring. At least, at least not a fucking wimp.

I took a deep breath for courage as I walked through the eternally-open double doors and into the boisterous maelstrom, my mind filled with images of the horrors to be done to me as I changed. I refused to look sideways, fearing that it would look as if I were scoping the other guys as they changed. I kept my head down, my eyes on my shoes. My breath was rapid and shaky, my legs wobbly, I was sweating.

Erich and Carl had warned me that guys had been leaving the aisle. I hadn't noticed when I put my gym clothes into my locker. Today, though, I would find out just how many were left.

As I walked down the side aisle, I heard laughter and abrupt changes in speech that precluded comments directed at me. Each one hurt, but I did my best to ignore them. I refused to give them any kind of victory so long as I could deny them it.

As I turned into my aisle, holding my breath in dread, I saw that there was no one in it. Not even Greg, who had talked to me when I had put my gym clothes in my locker. My stomach fell into my shoes, causing my feet to miss a step. I felt like a complete loser, completely alone. It was hard to breathe, but not from the familiar suffocation. My chest was simply too tight to allow my lungs to function properly. I felt dizzy and queasy. I opened the tall, shared locker, pulled my gym shirt from my pack, then threw my pack into the locker. I was dialing my combination on the lock on my small, private locker when Greg walked to his locker, nearly half way down the row.

"Hey, Raymond. Ya back to changing?"

I looked over at him, surprised. I nodded, went back to my combination, having to restart.

"Cool," was all he said, putting his books into the tall locker he used.

I kept my eyes forward, looking into my locker as if it were fascinating. I kicked off my shoes and put them on the bottom of the locker. I took off my shirt and laid it on the top shelf. I took off my jeans and hung them from the little hook.

"Those burns look like they hurt for a while," he said.

I nodded.


"No. Feels pretty normal, now," I answered, pulling up the yellow gym shorts.

"Guess we get a private row," he said, obviously trying to sound happy about it.

"It'd be cool if it was for another reason," I said, pulling my gym shirt on over my head.

We didn't talk any more as I was tying my shoes, still staring into my locker. I made sure I had both notes from the doctor, locked my locker, double-checked it, then walked toward the doors to the gym. I heard the words but ignored them. They weren't yelled, only spoken loud enough that I would have to hear them, and their friends nearby could hear them as well. The words didn't come from every row, but enough.

Every one of the stale, old, overused words hurt. Each one was another knife blade, severing another link to ever having any kind of normal life. I never looked to see who said any of them, but some of the voices were familiar enough that I didn't have to.

I also heard my name, called in a more friendly way, but I ignored that, too. Not only did I not feel like talking to anyone, I didn't want to paint a target on the back of anyone who had the guts to be friendly to the fag.

Once out in the gym, I presented my doctor's note for light activity this week, and the one putting me back into normal activity and showers for next week, then accepted the role of anchor for those going up one of the ropes. The very place, where if I had been that day, I would have been able to prevent Erich from being injured. I tried not to think of that, but failed.

Everyone had to climb the rope today, at least once, as part of the finals. I had to watch the person climbing above me, of course, in case they slipped or had some problem that required that I stop the rope from sliding through my carabiner. I noticed that there were very few waiting for the rope I was anchoring, and that those who were in my line were mostly all friends or near-friends.

I did get quite a few nice views as they climbed upward, almost directly above me. I pretended boredom and tedium, hiding the fact that I wanted to simply stare. I talked with the guys around me, looking at them as often as I could while still keeping an eye on how the current climber was doing. Wearing the gym shorts, I didn't want to allow myself a full-blown erection, so I kept my thoughts away from what I wanted to think, and considered what I would do or say if someone had some smart-ass remark for me.

I did allow myself to wonder, again, if anyone else in the class was gay. I knew there pretty much had to be. If the ten percent theory was anywhere near close, there would be at least ten other gay guys in my gym class alone. I wondered just how wrong that theory was. I had been known as gay for over a month, yet no one had come to talk to me, or so much as hinted that they were. I'd looked around a few times, wanting to see someone wink at me, or nod in some way, or smile knowingly. Nothing.

I knew it was me. I knew that I was nothing to be attracted to. I knew there were other gay guys in that very class, changing, showering, climbing the ropes in there, or playing floor hockey in one of the smaller gyms, or outside cross-country skiing, or playing volleyball in the other large gym. I knew they had to be there, they just weren't interested in me.

Eventually, and as I had worried, feared, and predicted, somebody had to say, "Hey, Raymond, bet you're in heaven with all those asses to watch climbing above you and coming down with hard-ons! Bet you got one!"

I looked to the two coaches standing nearby for support, but got nothing. They seemed more interested in what I would say or do than putting a stop to it. They even grinned slightly, as if they approved of his actions. I half-expected them to join in. I was infuriated.

I'd prepared, and I'd managed to moderate my sexual thoughts rather well, not to mention keep my mind off of the bodies around me with thoughts of being too unattractive to attract anyone. Plus this was Rich Brand, who'd never fought anyone and wasn't much to be scared of anyway.

"Funny you noticed they had hard-ons. I didn't. And I don't."

I jerked my shorts up high and tight. He flipped me off with a smirk and turned away. I adjusted the shorts and their contents back to normal under the rope harness.

I was feeling almost good suddenly, enjoying the fact that I wasn't as powerless as I always feared. That same feeling I'd had when I stood over Kevin was back. And since it had been Rich Brand who piped up, I had ammunition to fire back. So I did.

"And don't worry about me checking out your ass when you're climbing. You ain't got enough ass to be interested in. What's your girlfriend hold on to when you're fucking her? Oh, wait, you ain't got enough dick for her to have to hold on to anything."

There were several laughs.

He turned back and looked as if he might have something else to say. Instead, he hit a palm with a fist. It was almost funny the way he did it. There was no intimidation factor at all. He wasn't threatening in any way. I didn't know if it was him or me, but I wasn't scared of him in the least.

"Oh, please. You know what I did to Corless. I didn't learn to play-fight. I learned how to hurt. How to break stuff. And I learned a lot more than I needed for Corless."

I gave him my best, calm, half-smile. The one I used to bluff Tom or Jeff, or any of the Circle guys. He actually looked a bit scared of me. I felt that rush again. He walked away.

I glanced at the coaches. They were grinning even wider, seemingly trying not to laugh. Coach Coverly almost seemed to approve, meeting my eyes, and perhaps giving me the tiniest of nods.

"Dude, shit," Scott Fischer said just louder than a whisper. Then, "You can really do that stuff?"

I didn't want to lie to somebody I liked, especially not to somebody who was treating me like a normal person.

"Nah. Did learn some stuff from a guy who's gonna have a black belt before he graduates, though."

"What can ya do?"

"Mostly just block," I said with a grin.

They laughed, so I did.

At long last the class ended, and it was time for showers. I was excused from showers, and I hadn't so much as started to sweat, not due to any physical exertion, anyway, so I changed back into street clothes as Greg got naked and headed the other way. I waited with Erich and Carl at the doors. We talked about their hands, my burns, and the similarities and odd synchronicity. It was nothing new to me, but they found it fascinating. I didn't miss the fact that they had no idea how far it all went. I fought the guilt, but fought poorly.

Gym over, and survived, though I was almost completely alone in my locker aisle, I now faced the almost as highly dreaded English exams. I was relieved when our teacher simply handed out a single page of questions and told us we would have one such page each day this week. The questions were often statements, and we had to correct them. There were fifty on this first day's exam, and they were almost easy. So I thought. For today we were not allowed to move words, only punctuation. I wondered what I was missing. I had always been bad with written English, not able to memorize the multitude of rules and exemptions, but as I read the sentences I saw what I thought were obvious mistakes. I was done quickly, again wondering what I had missed, and how badly I had done. I would have to wait until next week to know, and that was possibly the worst part.

Civics. The class I had come to hate. I had always appreciated, even liked, the topic. I knew that our form of government was rare and valuable, and I wanted to understand it. I liked reading about the Founding Fathers and had even spent quite a lot of time reading the Federalist Papers. I knew and understood what the class was teaching, and had taken it thinking that it would contain more than my eighth-grade class had, but it hadn't. I had still liked the class, and had been hoping for an easy A, until the teacher had changed. I hadn't, only what he knew of me had.

The test was handed out and I ticked off the answers. All multiple choice, and all obvious. Near the end of the period he announced that tomorrow the exam would be ten short essay questions, Wednesday would be a mix, and Thursday would be one essay question. Heavy sighs were breathed in dread.

The class ended, I passed my test paper forward, and started to leave with the rest.

"Mister Raymond, a word, please," he said as I passed his desk, waving my paper. He waited until most had left, before asking, "Would it be possible for you to remain after a class this week? You still have an open period next?"

He looked me in the eyes, and I had a hard time looking back. That angered me, as I felt he should be the one having trouble meeting my eyes.

I nodded.

"I would appreciate that very much."

Students were already filing in, so I nodded again and left quickly. I knew what he wanted to talk about. I had promised the Dean that I would talk to him and try to smooth things out. I had been too busy and preoccupied lately to even think of it. I wasn't looking forward to any talk with him, but I knew it was the adult and right thing to do. It would just be very difficult, and I felt that I had enough to deal with right now.

I walked toward the computer labs, wanting to get more of the programs done. I hated going there, being watched and glared at. It was almost as if I were going into a bad neighborhood. I kept my head and eyes down until I got near the little lab, where the usual guy was leaning against the usual wall near the doors. He seemed especially on guard today, shuffling nervously, hanging very close to the large double doors to the auto shop. He looked as if he were about to dash through those doors on the slightest whim or fancy, as if all I had to do was say, "Boo!" and he would vanish through them with a scream.

I tried to ignore him. I entered the little lab and sat down. The ghost of what I had heard Jeff say to those jocks weighed heavily as I got started on the late programs. I got very little done, often finding myself staring blankly at the screen.

When the bell rang, I looked to the shop doors as I left the little lab, finding no sign of the watcher, but another was standing there, pretending not to notice me. I pretended not to notice the usual looks from the others in the hall, as if I were somewhere I didn't belong.

I swapped books at my locker and then walked toward the doors to the student parking lot. I was looking forward to the other half of my double life, when I could stop thinking about Jeff having left the breakfast table, and now my life; of Tom now doing so, too; of being alone, even though the entire school knew I was gay, not a single other gay student coming to talk to me; the end of the Circle; and all the others.

As I neared the doors where I would wait for Erich, I could see buses unloading students. They were obviously ninth and tenth graders from the other campus, and I stopped to wonder why they were being shuttled to the north campus after last period. I guessed it had something to do with finals. They entered through the doors, then spread out, gawking at the much larger, older building. I walked through them, taller than almost all of them, taking covert glances and wondering if I should accidentally bump into a particularly cute one or two.

What a fucking fag, I scolded myself. What if they heard about the fag at north campus? What if they figured out the guy bumping into them was the fag? What if they yelled and pointed at me?

My thoughts were cut short when I saw Eric. He was walking in alone. He hadn't seen me yet, and I thought it would be a good chance to at least say hi, if not to find out what he had done to be grounded this time. I hadn't seen or heard from him in weeks, not since the Circle meeting right after I had gotten out of the hospital. I very much wanted to say hi. I missed him. I missed his blocky, red-headed good looks, his goofy humor, his stupid comments.

I called his name.

He looked up and saw me quickly. He was close enough that I could see his expression, which went from a blank expression to a look of surprise. There was something else, too. Maybe fear, or shock, or worry. Whatever it was, it was painful to see. Almost as painful as watching him turn away from me and run through the crowd the way I had just come.

I had taken several steps toward him in anticipation of talking to him, but I stopped dead in my tracks when he ran away. I was so shocked that I stood there motionless for long moments, watching him disappear into the crowd.

Why? I asked. Why Eric? He's known before. He knows the school knows. Oh! He knows the school knows! He don't want the school to know that he knows me, now.

It hurt. A lot. Then, in the space of a single breath, I went numb. I no longer felt like crying like a little boy. I wasn't even mad. There was nothing, no emotional reaction after the initial disappointment and pain. I wondered if some of the little yellow pills had hung around in my system, waiting until I needed it. I dismissed that thought as impossible. Yet I couldn't explain why watching Eric run from me had hurt only for a moment. It was almost as if I had expected it of him, but I hadn't. I only felt tired, worn out, exhausted. Even more so than usual.

Fuck. I must be so close. Just one more thing, and I lose it. I go over the edge. Will I freak out and do something stupid at school? Or just curl into a ball and never talk again? Maybe just turn inside and become a vegetable. Like I should have ended up from the van fire. Maybe I'm destined to end up that way, and since it didn't work out that way from the fire, this is how it will. How can I not feel anything? Tom is doing everything he can to be as far away from me as possible, Jeff already abandoned me, Eric just ran away from me at school. I was about to fucking lose it and cry like a baby, then scream in anger; and then all the emotions were gone. Just like that. Gone. Nothing left. Empty. Like I took a little yellow pill. Is this the start of going crazy?

Nothing I can do about it. Just wait and see. But why, Eric? Do I have that big a rep? Fuck me. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Bye, Eric.

I stumbled onward, thinking that all of the underclassmen in the hall now knew who the famous faggot was, and were laughing into their hands.

I walked to the windows by the doors and waited there for Erich, noticing again that Tom's car was parked where we had left it that morning. I kept looking out at Tom's wagon. It sat there as Erich arrived, and was still there as we pulled out of the lot.

Off to live my double life, I thought. Wonder what Tom's is? And if it will take him away from me entirely.

I felt certain of it.

"You seem a million miles off," Erich said.

"Huh? Oh. Guess I am."

"You sound funny, too. What's up?"

He looked worried. I didn't care.

"Fucking finals," I lied partially, flatly.

"Not doing so hot?"

I shook my head. Even if I wanted to tell him the truth, I didn't know how to, or even where to start.

"Man, I think I'm in a shit-load of trouble."

"German should be okay. Chem went good. I think we nailed one and two, maybe not three, though."

I felt the same about the three liquids, but it wasn't just those two classes, and it wasn't just the finals that had me feeling like hell. I couldn't tell him any part of it without having to explain some other part, so I didn't even try.

"You wanna just study today?" he asked.

I knew he wanted more than to study, but I was in no mood to blow him. I was in no mood to be blown, either, even if he would have. I didn't even care if he was Puppy Dog or not. Or the mystery keyboardist. I just didn't care. I had just watched Eric run away from me at school, Tom was lying his ass off to me and had started leaving the breakfast table, and Jeff had left me for baseball. I wondered how much longer it would be until Tom came up with a good reason to not pick me up in the morning any more - his desire to arrive at school earlier than I wanted to seemed a good one. The Circle was certainly over. For the first time, I realized that Jeff being gone, and the Circle being gone, I would probably not see Todd, either. At all.

I just wanted to forget. Pretend none of it had happened. But I can't. Why can't I?

"I'm cool with just getting some book time in," Erich said softly.

"Dude, I think I just need to fucking get stoked. Baked. Seriously, totally, shit-faced."

He laughed.

"Ya know, I can help with that."

His grin was almost infectious. It would have been at almost any other time, but the emotional numbness was still quite strong. I did wonder what he was thinking, though. I asked, but only got a cute grin back.

We drove to his house, where he asked me to wait in the car. He wasn't gone long, and returned with a grin that I thought was very much like one worn by a Circle member while a Circle prank was in mid-hose.

I asked, "What are you up to?" heavy with suspicion.

"Helping you out," he said, bouncing his brows. "No questions."

He drove to my house, where we removed the heavy winter clothes and he produced a bong and a bottle of Coors. I understood. I grinned. It might just be what I need, I thought.

He turned on the hard rock station and we banged heads, poured some of the beer into the bong and smoked. It had a bitter, chemical aftertaste that left my tongue and lips numb, but it was working, and quickly. It didn't take long before I had forgotten Eric, Jeff, even Tom - for the most part. We talked and laughed, spoke in English, German, and Latin. Then he talked me into drinking the bong-beer. It took some working up to, but I did it. We split the rest of the beer, and then he left just before my parents were due home.

I was trashed. I was dizzy and my body felt fuzzy, I was so high. And giggly. I was tired, too, and weak. I needed energy, so I did a pair of lines and took a speeder from the dragon statue before they got home.

Mom was hard to convince, but Dad seemed to believe that I was giddy from events at school. I told them it had been a banner day, and I was glad that some of the exams were over. I had no appetite, and told them I had eaten after classes as I had skipped lunch, being too nervous then. I picked at the meal, managing a little. Mom warned me to gain weight, or she would send me back to the doctor to find out why I wasn't.

Dad offered to let me drive to the twins' to study for the rest of the week. I was bothered by the fact that they still thought I was studying at the twins'.

After dinner, Kevin arrived, and I told him I had a ride for the rest of the week. He thought it was pretty cool that my dad would let me drive. He noticed that I was acting differently.

I couldn't help it. I felt light. Giddy. Dizzy. Fuzzy. Stupid. I wondered if there had been something else in the bong. It had tasted more of chemicals than I remembered beer had in any other bong that I had smoked with beer in it. And I didn't remember the numbing sensations, either. I spent several seconds considering that possibility.

"Um, well, I think I got roofied, sorta."

"What?" he asked, grinning.

"Well, I was really kinda bummed after finals today, right? And the guy I ride home with, like noticed. And he said he could help me out. So he gets his bong and a beer and we smoke a couple bowls through it. And, like, it had a chemical taste, too. Not the beer, but, I don't know. So, I think he slipped a little something in it, 'cause I feel, like, light. Fuzzy. Kinda, like, a Kleenex on the breeze."

Kevin snickered.


"He high-balled ya."

"Nuh-uh. He never touched 'em."

Kevin cracked up, badly.

"I didn't touch his, either," I said, managing not to put, "Not today, anyway" at the end.

He finally got his laughter under control and explained.

"Man, Erich don't do no coke. He couldn't of sprinkled any on the grass, I put it in myself," I argued.

"Did'ya clean the bowl?"

I hadn't. I'd had no reason to.

"Oh, man," I intoned.

"Well, you're feelin' better, right?"

I grinned.

We arrived just as the others did. I helped haul gear, thinking again how much work a band was. We practiced the usual songs, David, Adam, Riley, and I having little to do. The twins swapped out with Bill, sometimes playing in tandem with him. As we swapped around on the couches, we smoked grass, drank soda, and made small talk about music and things unimportant. At one point, David was playing, while Terry, Riley, and I had nothing to do. I joined them in the bathroom for lines. I left quickly, and returned before David noticed I had been missing.

I sat there, stoned, wired, and wondering what excuse I could use to keep driving to the twins' place for practice after final exams were over and I didn't need to study there anymore. I couldn't come up with one, so I put that on a back burner to work on later. I started thinking of all the things I had on those back burners, and wondered what kind of acreage I would need for a stove large enough to have enough burners.

I found the thought amusing and giggled to myself. It was unusual enough for me to do that it caught my attention.

At least I'm not in a funk over Jeff. Or Tom. Or finals. Or Eric. Or, oh fuck, stop it!

I needed a distraction. I went to the entertainment room and turned on the projection television. I changed channels until I found MTV. Ryan walked in and sat next to me without a word, just his smile. Bow Wow Wow did, "I Want Candy."

"Dang, he's so hot!"

I immediately turned to look around the room to make sure that no one else had come in and heard me.

What the hell's wrong with me? I thought, wondering why my thoughts were swirling so quickly and being expressed before I could ponder them.

Ryan grinned a little wider and said, "I know! Bow, wow-wow!" which sent us both into laughter. "Ya know, he looks a lot like Jeff," he said then, seemingly as surprised as I was.

And he did. A lot. But cuter. And thinking that someone looked like Jeff, but cuter, surprised me.

Soon David joined us. Then Adam and Riley, who passed a blunt around. I tasted a familiar chemical aftertaste on the huge doobie, and my lips started going numb.

"What's the deal?" Brent asked, holding the blunt and looking at it.

I giggled.

"Put some coke in it," Riley explained.

David huffed out of the room.

"What's his deal?" Riley asked.

"He's got something against coke," Adam said. "Dunno what."

We continued smoking the blunt.

Kevin walked in and sniffed the air.

"So, burnin' the sick spleef without me, huh?"

I was dizzy again, almost totally fried. I didn't want to mess up playing. I wondered if David was angry with me. I didn't like that idea at all. I went to find him. He was sitting on the couch in the music room, watching the remaining guys mess with difficult sections of songs.

"Heya," I said, sitting next to him.

"Hey," he said softly, not looking at me.

"Kevin joined the guys for a coke-laced blunt, guys," I said loudly at the others.

They literally ran to the other room.

I tapped David on the side and motioned him to follow me. I led him to the exercise room where we sat on a weight bench.

"Wanna decent joint?" I asked.

He shrugged.

I pulled out my baggie, rolled a joint, handed it to him. He asked for a lighter. I handed it to him, thinking how I had never seen him with his own lighter. We smoked the joint in mostly silence. I wanted to talk, to get to know him better, to at least hear his smooth, wonderful speech, but I couldn't think of anything to say.

Until one thing came to mind.

"So, will ya tell me what you got so against coke?"

He looked angry for a second, then calmed. He shrugged, then shook his head. He looked sad. I wanted to cheer him up.

I tried to think of anything happy to talk about. Jokes, riddles, puns, anything. I was blanked, most likely by the blunt, which still had me somewhere in the ozone. The joint we were smoking was doing nothing to increase my buzz, unable to compete with the coke-laced blunt.

We heard the twins start hammering. I grinned when we met eyes after glancing toward the music room. He returned the grin. We finished the joint and saw the guys walking back toward the music room. We joined them. They had stopped outside the doors, listening.

The twins were pounding the hell out of the drums. It was a warm-up routine they had used since I knew them, a mix of drum solos from classic rock songs that even I knew were nearly impossible.

We all stood outside the doors, listening. Most of their mouths were hanging open.

"Frankenstein," Wil whispered with awe, inaudible under the drumming.

A few moments later, Kevin said, "Trick, Ain't That A Shame," also in awe.

"Moby, fucking, Dick," Terry said emphatically once the twins had switched to it.

"Why didn't they say they could play them?" Kevin asked in my ear, almost shouting so that I could hear him. "How long do they go for? How many songs?"

I shrugged.

"It depends, they don't do it all set up, just kinda play random," I nearly had to shout back.

After their rendition of "Moby Dick" it was quiet for long enough that we all decided to go on in. Ryan and Brent were both chugging sodas.

"Damn, you guys can really play those things!" Adam said.

They said thanks, and Kevin asked what song they thought was the hardest to play.

They did that twin thing, looking at each other for a moment, before answering together, "Wipeout."

Everyone was astonished, and asked how such an old song could be so hard, when they had just played what was considered some of the hardest solos ever. Only Brian nodded, I noticed.

"Wipeout can't be done together," Brent offered. "Beat's too fast at times. Sounds like mush."

"One of us can take the cymbals and tins and let the other play, or we can switch off, but otherwise, only together for some of it."

"We can cover each other and swap, but dropping in and out during so fast a tempo is a fucking bitch."

"Can you both do Moby Dick alone?"

They both gave a non-committal shrug.

"On a good day."

"A real good day," Ryan added.

"So what's so hard about Wipeout?" David asked. "Isn't that an oldie?"

The twins both blinked violently at him, then looked at each other, then they started playing.

David's mouth opened, his eyes grew wide. In moments, they were showing David what a classic, and difficult, rock and roll oldie it was.

The twins swapped during what would be each guitar stab, if anyone had dared to try. When they took off for the heavy solo section, David gasped. Kevin shook his head and grinned like a banshee. I wondered if Bill was going to cry, he was so enraptured.

There was silence after that last, resounding, physically shocking beat. No one had struck a chord, touched a string. They had been dumbstruck from almost the first. They still stood there, dumbfounded, many mouths agape.

The twins were sweaty, grinning, and panting.

"That... was the most incredible thing I ever fucking heard," Terry said in absolute awe.

Bill dropped to his knees, arms outstretched and overhead, and bowed to the floor three times, saying, "My masters," each time.

The twins laughed and blushed, visible even behind the redness of their exertion.

"We were the best band in school. Now, fuck, I think we might make the best band in the district!" Wil said, grinning ear to ear.

"The district? Think state, dude!" Kevin said, giving him a high-five. "Drum gods!"

"Thunder Cats, thank you," Brent said, insisting on the name he and his brother had taken on so long ago.

"You guys are incredible," David offered, still looking stunned.

"Bad to the bone!" Ryan said, bragging, rolling on a drum softly.

"Fuck! That's it! George fucking Thorogood !" Kevin said excitedly, looking directly at me.

"What?" I asked, completely lost.

"I bet you can do Bad To The Bone!"

"Oh, shit. No shit!" Terry said, grinning.

"Man, we all sound like shit trying. I bet you can do it naturally!" Kevin said, picking up his guitar.

"Me?" I asked, completely surprised.

He began strumming the opening.

"Hell yeah! You guys know it?" Kevin asked the twins.

They replied by scoffing at the thought that they couldn't.

"We've been playing it a while but we can't sing it. None of us," Kevin explained.

"Uh, no way," I said firmly.

"Dude! You got the perfect pipes for it! Come on!"

"Hey, come on," I whined. "I ain't no singer. I might be willing to play the keys on Paradise Theater and some other stuff, but I ain't gonna be singing. Besides, I'm goin' back to my normal life in a week or so."

Normal, hah! But, at least as normal as I can have, anyway. Whatever's left of it. No Tom, no Jeff, no Eric, no Todd, no Circle. Gawd. No, stop it. Gotta deal with these idiots thinking I'm gonna sing. Ha!

"At least see if you can? Huh?"

"Yeah. No real pressure. Just see what you can do with it. Huh?"

"Yeah. If you don't wanna, no biggie. But don't pass on tryin' it with just us."

"Besides, man, you got the voice for it."

It was David that gave the most persuasive argument.

"You sound like you could. I know you'll sound excellent on it. Besides, if you try and it matters, it matters, but if you try and it don't matter, at least you tried."

I nodded, and they played it. David nudged me from time to time, urging me to put more energy into it. I was reluctant to, though I didn't know why. I just didn't want to. But each time David elbowed me, and I got a glimpse of his eyes and grin, his long, wonderfully red hair, I found myself complying. By the end, I was giving it some effort instead of sandbagging.

They wanted another go. I was talked into it.

"Give it some go," David said just as Kevin counted down. "Let your singing voice drop and push your voice out. I think you could sound good doing it."

He grinned nicely. Between his grin and the coke in the blunt, my resistance melted. I found myself wanting to please him. It felt odd wanting to do so, and it felt almost right as well. He was so cute, and his accent was so sexy, and as he sat next to me, I felt myself wanting him even more, despite the other guys being right there.

They all offered advice on how to sing low and strong. They played, and I threw myself into the words. I let myself connect to them. I wanted them to pertain to me, mostly so that David would be happy. His happy grin made me feel happier, and I had more to throw into the song.

By the ending, I was growling out the words, having fun with it. I didn't know if it sounded good, bad, or awful, but I enjoyed it. Especially with David grinning at me like that. By the end of the song, I had actually enjoyed myself, even with all those others there.

"Oh, my God. How Ironic," Wil said, shaking his head.


"You sound just like George."

"Why is that ironic?" I asked, doubting his statement and dreading his answer.

"Because you got a voice that could make girls' panties wet, but you're gay."

It wasn't what he had said, it was more the way he had said it; flatly and honestly, totally deadpan. He hadn't meant it in any way other than how ironic it indeed was, and even funny. Everyone laughed, but Ryan ended up laughing out loud, leaning sideways, and eventually losing his breath.

I hid my own laugh by throwing an evil half-smirk at him.

"Dudes, you got anything ta munch? Skipped dinner," Terry asked.

"Sure. Come on down and we'll see what we got," Brent said.

Everyone followed the twins out of the room, prompted on by the pot munchies. Ryan was still snickering and red-faced. I wasn't hungry, as was the new normal. I had some thoughts occurring to me, and I wanted to explore them alone, and this was a perfect opportunity. I could use the professional synthesizer now, while at home I only had the cheap, J. C. Penny model. I couldn't sing at home, not like what I suddenly considered doing. I wanted to do it alone.

"You comin'?" David asked from the doors.

"Nah, not hungry. Go ahead."

He nodded and left with the others. I knew the twins wouldn't bring any food upstairs. That would give me the time I needed. I adjusted the synthesizer, checked it, and sighed.

What am I doing to myself? I wondered. This is probably gonna put me in a downer, but damn, wanna on this keyboard. Gotta.

I started playing, "Tainted Love." I adjusted the settings some more, played the opening again, adjusted the upper keys once again, and found it perfect. Or good enough.

Thoughts of Toby and Jeff stirred. I liked how it sounded on a real keyboard again. I started singing to it. At first I was trying to sound like before, but found that I cracked and broke up. I dropped my voice, doing what I had done for, "Bad To The Bone." That worked.

More thoughts of Toby and Jeff. Loss, for both. And Tom. Then Eric. Especially Jeff. Subconsciously, I poured more into the song. I caught that fact once I had done so. I liked it. I went with it. I sang louder, knowing they could not possibly hear me even at the stairs, let alone clear down in the kitchen.

Once through, and I felt the hurt and loss. I was torturing myself, and I knew it. But it felt good, too, somehow.

I played it again. I let out more through my voice. I sang it louder and rougher, lower, stronger. I liked it more. It felt better, even though it caused so much emotional hurt.

I changed settings, and did, "Jeopardy." It was torture, too. Thoughts of Jeff roared through my head. I used those emotions, pushing them out through my voice. I let my new voice grumble the lyrics, angrily throwing them. I played it three times, liking it more each time, and feeling better about the loss of the two of them. The three of them. Four.

I let the song end, wishing I had the time to play it again. I adjusted the settings to piano and sighed. I played what I could of, "Bad To The Bone," hearing the guitar and drums in my head. I let my voice drop low, let it grumble, threw the words out.

I liked it. I didn't think I sounded like George, but I did think I sounded interesting. I needed to practice it, but I wondered if I could sing it. I played it some more, singing it. I kept remembering it more and more, getting it smoother and quicker. The sore left fingers were complaining, but I made them move.

By the time they came back, I had started messing with the melody, adding those little bits where I had thought the song needed them. They stopped talking and listened as they sat, David holding two sodas and taking the seat next to me at the other keyboard.

I was surprised at myself, playing and singing in front of them, but it felt okay. Almost, normal.

"Good changes," Kevin said when I stopped. "You got the knack, man."

He saluted me with his bottle of Coke.

I had to do it. I pegged out the standard choral melody of "My Sharona."

It got the expected laughter.

"You can play something to it?" he asked.

I nodded, adjusted the settings, then started playing it. I had long ago worked out a way I could enjoy the song. I played the bass line with my left hand, the rhythm with my right. Brent started drumming along when he saw where I was.

"That's fucking amazing," Wil said, shaking his head.

"How do you fucking do that?" Terry asked.

"What? Turn a song into synth?"

"Yeah. There's no synth in it, but you're playin' both guitars."

I got to the rambling rhythm section, and had a hard time keeping up with it.

"That part is hard on guitar, must be on that, too," Brian said, standing over my shoulder. "You got fucking fast hands!"

"They ain't fast enough," I said, taking a break until Brent played past that point. I rejoined it.

"Still, amazing," Kevin said firmly.

We played, "Bad To The Bone" again, and I was asked - no, forced - to sing. They repeated their assurances that I had a good voice for the song, and tried their best to get me to sing it at the student union next week.

"Look, guys, stop it. I really don't mind playing for you guys, I don't. I might even like it. As long as I get to sit in back and shit. But you keep trying to get me to sing, I'm gonna quit. Keyboard player or not, you can go play without me. So shut up about making me sing, already, and I'll play with ya until yours comes back. Okay?"

That put an end to the topic. We went back to practicing Styx, mostly Paradise Theater. We were getting good at almost all of Styx's most popular songs, and I absolutely loved that fact. Again and again I caught myself feeling comfortable and having a good time playing music with real musicians, and playing Styx at that, surprising myself. I was also a little proud that I was going to play a tribute to Styx on Styx Day. It was literally a dream come true.

Since we had another day of finals tomorrow, we broke up at nine. I called for my ride, and Dad let me drive home. I had smoked a lot of grass, but the huge high from the laced blunt had long ago worn off. I was paranoid and worried the whole drive home. As we headed into the house, Dad said that he thought I had done pretty well.

Mom inspected the burns, said they looked very much better, and insisted that she rub in the last of the ointment after my shower. I took the last of the night pills, and was left with only one more antibiotic for tomorrow. I was exhausted, again, but once alone in my room, I tried to study. I found myself blanking out time and again. Or my mind wandering down the same familiar paths.

I would wonder how much longer Tom and I would be friends, what secrets he was hiding from me, how much longer he would give me rides to school now that he wasn't sitting at the breakfast table. I wondered how much longer Jeff and I had as friends, or if we were already done. I wondered why he wasn't going to come over during the weekend. I hated that we weren't compatible as boyfriends, and I detested that we had grown so far apart so quickly. I was furious at the baseball team. And I was still so very angry with him for leaving the breakfast table. I felt bad that I couldn't find some way for us to remain closer. It hurt that I wouldn't see Todd again for a long time. I was touched that Greg had remained in the row in gym class, and wondered how long he would stay with the fag before he moved out. I knew it would be a massive load on him, changing with the gay guy, and I wouldn't hold it against him for moving. I decided to suggest it to him the next day. I didn't want him bothered by the others for staying, even if it meant I would be all alone. I dreaded showering. I felt awful about Eric turning away and running away from me in the hall at school. That fact hurt the most, even more than the loss of Tom and Jeff, due to its sudden freshness. The hurt was enough to bring a few tears. Not many, but any were enough.

There were other worries, too, older ones, less vivid and powerful, but the main ones ran rampant as I tried to study. Over and over, the worries and concerns pushed the school materials out of my head.

I gave up and opened the box. I wanted a powerful escape, but the merta was gone. Not wanting to go downstairs for more, I picked through the roaches and assembled a sizable joint from what I was sure were mostly merta bugs. I rolled them together and lit it. The immediate coughing fit was almost sure proof of the merta roach content.

I picked through the dream books, making notes as I smoked the joint. But even the books on dreams couldn't keep away the same old thoughts.

I'm losing Tom. I lost Jeff. And Todd. Now Eric, too. Only the twins are left in the Circle, I thought sadly. And when I leave the band when the real keyboardist comes back, they won't have time on weekends for the Circle. It'll just be me. Alone.

I wondered for a while just who the keyboardist was, thinking of the few hints I had picked up, and I could come up with only one suspect: Erich. I knew nothing of his life outside of school, so it seemed possible. I remembered seeing a piano in one room at his house, and that went a long way toward nailing him. He hadn't mentioned the piano once, and I hadn't seen any sheet music in his room or ever in his possession. The fact that Kevin had said their regular guy was out due to hand injuries only knocked the nail in further on Erich. I wondered if he was Puppy Dog or not.

Just the kinda coincidence that fits my life, I realized.

My mood sunk lower as the joint burned shorter. I worried deeply that I couldn't take much more. I worried that I couldn't even take what I had for much longer. I wondered what was going to happen when it all became too much to bear any longer. I wondered if the sudden loss of emotions when Eric had walked away in school had been the last straw or not, and waited to go insane. I only hoped that I didn't hurt my parents, or any friends.

Eventually, the joint and my heart were only ashes, and I crawled into bed. I tossed and turned. I tried to turn my brain off, but that was futile. I refused to take a sleeping pill. There were only two left, and I didn't want to take one so late. I needed a clear head for the tests tomorrow, and taking one that late would certainly mean drowsiness for the first classes at least.

As it grew even later, I reconsidered. I sneaked downstairs and took the next-to-last one, chewing it, washing it down with water. Back in bed, I tried not to think, but it was still futile. I would gain a few moments of quiet, but soon enough, chaos would creep back in.

Jeff. Tom. Eric. Erich. David. Todd. Finals. Grades. Gym. Band. Music. Gay. Alone.

Eventually, though, darkness came...

... and then the smell of gasoline.

"Sure," I said, leaning forward, moving the medallion aside, grabbing the ignition key, and pumping the pedal once.

Oh, God, no.

The engine turned for several seconds, almost catching, but not quite.

"Yeah. Old Chevy... " Dad began.

Jeff and Eric grinned in anticipation, together, as they always had that day in the garage. Jeff looked so sexy in his baseball uniform, and Eric looked so sexy in only a white sheet, though he frowned at me.

God! No! Why?

"See if you can pop that hatch cover, will ya, son?"

I watched from inside myself as I unlatched the one on the passenger side easily. I pulled and yanked on the driver's side, shaking the van.

Dad asked me to try starting it again.

I joked about having not started it before. Dad grinned playfully. Jeff said, "Too bad." Eric nodded.

I moved the medallion, turned the key. Dad called for another pump of the accelerator. The engine caught with a pop.

Please, no. Please.

Another, louder pop, then a loud, whooshing boom, an orange light. I was knocked against the van door, the side of my head hitting the pillar.

Everything went fuzzy, wobbly, blurred. Dad yelled my name in horror. Jeff and Eric called my name mockingly, laughing together.

Flames on the dashboard. Heat. Smoke. Fear.

Jeff and Eric grinned.

I opened the driver's door, but Jeff was there, holding it closed.

"You let Tom fuck you! You let Eric fuck you, even Ryan, but you won't let me! Who do you love?" he screamed.

I coughed uncontrollably, painfully. My eyes stung, watered, refused to open - but I saw everything. I couldn't breathe.

Dad's voice calling my name again. Jeff calling my name mockingly. Eric laughing.

The smoke increased. The heat increased. My fear increased.

I shoved my face out the partially open window, Jeff pushed me back in, laughing insanely.

"This is what you get for letting Tom, and Eric, and Ryan fuck you, but never me!"

I saw my body being pulled from the van, my wailing parents held back by police, Jeff smiling, laughing, high-fiving Eric, who then ran away.

Panic. Flames. Heat. Smoke. Fear. Their laughter.

Agonizing coughing. Struggling for air, just one breath of clean air. My heart pounded against my ribs. I pushed against Jeff, but he kept pushing me back inside the window, laughing at me in a frenzy of psychopathic laughter.

The pain in my temple flared with each cough. The familiar dizziness came.

I blamed God. I worried about not being with Toby in the afterlife. I was grief-stricken over Jeff wanting me to burn, enjoying the spectacle, and Eric running away.

The heat, the pain, the horrible suffocation, the laughter, the feeling of abandonment.

All of it fading, but clearly Jeff saying, "Now I can play ball!"

Then only my thoughts, my fears, my stuttering heartbeat.

They grew dim, irregular, hazy, then ceased.

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