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Track 8

"Haven't We Been Here Before?"

Part One

The Show

Erich's final, agonizing, wet gurgles.

My final, agonizing, painful breaths.

"Now I can play ball!" Jeff said with joy.

No, why?


Ryan's concerned voice didn't belong in the nightmare. Not unless he was going to start paying in pain and death for his friendship with me, too.

Why? Why?

"Hey, Alex, dude. Wake up."


"It's morning, duh. Come on, wake up."

The pain and fear subsided, ever so slightly. My breaths were easier, there were no choking fumes or acrid smoke. No heat.

I coughed, but normally, sort of.

"Wake up, man. You okay?"

I opened my eyes, still not sure if the dream was taking another one of those odd side trips it occasionally took. I saw Ryan in front of me, but upside down. Brent was seemingly on the couch, on hands and knees, over me as well. They looked worried. I realized that I was on the floor. Images from the toga party, when I had blacked out and slid off the couch in Tim's basement, played out in my mind's eyes for a moment.

Oooooo, day-ja-voooo I thought with an internal snicker.

It was a thought, and an emotion, and a start.

I blinked and sat up. I was on the floor, alright. I leaned onto the couch cushion. I coughed a little. It helped clear my head somewhat.

"Ugh. What time is it?" I mumbled through a dry mouth, squinting against the bright, yellow sunlight coming in through the large windows.

"Almost eleven," Brent said solemnly.

"You okay? Looks like you fell off the couch and slept on the floor," Ryan said, his voice hinting at more than just that concern.

I knew that they had seen me having the nightmare. It was on their faces, it was in their voices. It was drying on my face and arms, though my hair would take longer. And my shirt.

"Yeah, I'm okay. Too much partying last night, is all," I said, then groaned as I pulled myself up onto the couch.

I sat heavily, sighed deeply, removed my glasses, and then rubbed my hands over my face.

Ryan looked skeptical, to say the least. I looked to Brent for support, but got none, not against his brother, anyway. No surprise there.

I shrugged.

"Just a nightmare. No biggie. Shouldn't of slept on the couch and slid onto the floor."

I shrugged again. They seemed to relent.

"Well, let's go get breakfast," Brent said, standing.

Ryan stood, too. I remained seated.

"Not hungry," I said, honestly.

How could I ever be hungry after the horror? Fear and dread still remained, stirring within. Weakened, yes, but still there.

They shrugged together and walked away. I sighed and tried to relax. I rolled a joint and had a hero's breakfast, trying not to think of the nightmare, or Tom, or Jeff, or Eric, or the end of the Circle, or Erich, or Trey, or my likely very poor finals grades, or lying to my parents, or losing the van, or expecting that crappy Plymouth, or being alone.

I saw the book, still open, and the notes. The idea of taking something into sleep with you to focus on inside the dream was interesting, but I had no idea what I could lock onto in hopes of taking it in with me. I needed something simple, but something powerful, too. Something I could easily remember. In no mood to think, I put the books and notes away.

That left me with the band and music.

I went to the music room and played. Smoking a joint, I practiced the opening and ending of Paradise Theater, and "State Street Sadie," knowing that I would be doing those alone, and any mistakes would be obvious. I was content with my ability to play them after a single go-through. They were short, simple, long-practiced, long-cherished, well-known, and had come back easily enough. Even my fingers were beginning to respond more normally, though they ached.

Knowing that I didn't have a lot of time before the twins returned, I played "Tainted Love" and then "Jeopardy." I howled the lyrics, releasing the tension and heavy emotions still left over from the dream and my thoughts.

Some of the tension and emotions, anyway. That left me feeling blurry and weak. I wondered if I had gotten as much as eight full hours of sleep all week. I doubted it. I wanted to lie down and pass out, but I knew I would only suffer in the flames if I did, and that Erich would join me. That Jeff and Trey would laugh at me, and that Eric would walk away. And that Brent and Ryan would see me writhing in horror and agony again.

I felt dirty, the sweat was gritty on me. I stunk. I picked up my pack and headed to Ryan's room where I used his shower and took another of Erich's speeders. I smiled at memories of the location. Once done, I felt marginally better. I returned to the music room, hearing the twins warming up.

I peeked around the corner of the doors, watching them. They were drumming away, seemingly happy and energized. I envied them. I wasn't in the mood for the loud, raucous sounds, so I went to the bathroom in the hall. As I sat there, I saw a faint haze on the corner of the shiny sink. I tried to ignore it, but I found myself wiping at the area with a finger, tasting the bitter, chemical flavor, and wiping at it more. The drumming stopped and I heard voices; Kevin, David, Brian, the twins. I finished, washed my hands and the sink top, then joined them.

"Hey, Alex," Kevin said happily.

I grinned, forcing it, replied to him and the others. I felt like hell: I wanted to be alone: I wanted quiet.

Before long, the others arrived, and I took the first chance I got for lines in the bathroom with them. I didn't care if it angered David, I wanted that high, the energy. I asked Kevin if he could get me some, how much it would cost, when he could get it.

Yes. Thirty bucks for a quarter of a gram. Before we got to the show tonight.

I handed him the thirty bucks, thought about it, then handed him another thirty. I was left with less than ten dollars. He handed my money back.

"I still owe ya for the birthday party. Here."

He handed me ten dollars.

"Seventy bucks?" I asked.

"Yeah, including the bonus. We all got seventy. I'll get ya that half tonight before we hit the student union."

"The brain's becoming a coke-head," Wil teased.

"Just don't say anything in front of, anyone," I said, managing not to name David specifically.

With the cocaine burning my nose and through my muscles, we joined the others and started practice. David took a few minutes to cool off and speak with me, but it was the price I had to pay to feel alive again.

Kevin started with the worst: Paradise Theater. It was almost a shock to my system. I had to deal with it. And Toby. And all of it. I shrank into myself and the keyboard, and played the songs again.

In the break, David shook his head at me as I returned to the couch after the bathroom trip with Kevin and some others.

After playing Paradise Theater, the worst was over, and I began relaxing into the new normal. We practiced "Cold As Ice" several times, then more Foreigner. "Waiting For A Girl Like You," was asked for by Wil, and I told him again that I would need weeks to practice it, and when I had time. They were pushing the very few Foreigner songs I could do again so soon as it was, and I had to dedicate my time to Paradise Theater. The song was anything but simple as far as my part was concerned. Though it was a love song, it had little to do with Toby, as we had never played it together. I tried the echoing notes in, "Jukebox Hero" again, but I could not reproduce them in any way with the Oberheim. The rest of the song was simple, though.

I was feeling tired and worn out, but good. The new situation was becoming the new normal, and it was fairly comfortable though still strange.

Kevin, Wil, and Brian had developed a method of playing the hardest guitar parts together, often all at the same time, switching rapidly at other times. It was entertaining to watch. Terry and Riley often did the same thing on songs with difficult bass lines. It was interesting that Brent and Ryan had always done the same thing. Bill and the twins swapped on the drums, Bill proving that he could adjust to the twins' setup.

David knew his parts and played them well. We had worked out our own style to play Paradise Theater and "Cold As Ice," so we, too, had become a team inside the group, like the others.

I loved that they - we - had a sax player, and that the player was so attractive. I knew he was only average looking to the girls, and was probably considered a band geek, but I found him very nice looking. Almost as cute as Riley, who was second only to David, and a distant second, at that. Adam and his saxophone would often absorb my attention in long spells. He was nice to look at, and great to listen to. He wasn't a great player, but he was good enough, and was very good at the parts he practiced for the songs we played. And he was a whiz on the mixer. I knew that how good a band sounded relied heavily on how well each instrument was balanced, and that the delicate balance often varied from song to song. I'd seen the bigger bands, college guys mostly, and even Survivor play at the student union, and they all had someone working some kind of sound board or another of their own. Adam knew how to do that, and he even brought several pieces of equipment to the band just for mixing.

We had pizza delivered at four, smoked dessert, snorted lines in the bathroom, and then practiced the songs for tonight again. Kevin was insistent that we do some George Thorogood.

"We've been playing his songs together for weeks. We got three of 'em down good, but we just can't sing to 'em."

I resisted.

"Just for practice?" Kevin begged. "It'd be cool to hear a voice singing 'em that didn't cough or choke trying to do the lyrics right."

How ironic, I thought. I refused to do them at the show, but agreed to help them practice them.

"Move It On Over," "Bad To The Bone," "Who Do You Love."

Over and over. Five times each. Adam played great. Not always just like in the songs, as some parts were probably very difficult. I eventually started playing extra little parts on the Oberheim, for something to do with my hands and as backup brass for Adam. Kevin nodded, liking what I did. Between songs, he encouraged me to play what I felt comfortable with. They coached me, offering advice on how to sing without losing my breath so often by having the microphone turned up and closer to my mouth, and otherwise encouraging me onward. Singing low and directly into the very close microphone made my voice sound very different, and they all seemed to like how it sounded.

They said that I played the piano in "Bad To The Bone" well enough to do at the student union. I agreed. I had it down pat. It was simple and repetitive. As long as I was in the back while on stage, I felt sure I could do it. It was when they said that I had sung the three songs well enough to do at the student union that I scoffed. I wasn't about to do any such thing.

It wasn't that I thought I was so terrible at singing, I was growing almost comfortable with my new voice, and found it pleasing to use and to use to release through. Besides, I had heard some awful playing and singing done at the student union. Almost all of the bands were made up of students at school, only rarely did a semi-professional group play there. It wasn't for any of those reasons that I didn't want to sing in public, it was that I didn't want the attention, nor did I have the desire to sing in public. I had played the synthesizer and sung with Toby, some with Jeff, a very little in front of or with Tom, and even less with the guys during Circle meetings. That was private. I was willing to play in public now, as long as I stayed out of view, but I was not willing to sing in front of anyone.

After Thorogood, and more denied attempts to get me to agree to play "Bad To The Bone" tonight, as well as sing it and the other two songs they knew, we tore down and packed up.

Once David and I were in Kevin's car, he announced a stop on the way to the student union. I was glad that he hadn't said anything in front of David, but still, I grew nervous. What if it turned out his cocaine dealer got busted just as he was inside? It would be a massive coincidence, I knew. I also knew that I was coincidence prone.

On the way, we drove past where that old Plymouth had sat. I was fascinated to note that it was indeed gone. I suspected I knew exactly where it would show up next. I only wondered exactly when, and under what circumstances.

I was nervous and worried until Kevin returned and we were blocks from the trailer court. I was also nervous and worried until Kevin returned because that left David and me alone in his car. I couldn't think of anything to talk about, and David didn't seem to want to talk anyway. I wondered if he knew why we had stopped there, but he didn't seem angry at all, only silent and thoughtful.

As we unpacked and carried things into the student union, while Kevin and I were walking in alone, he handed me a small packet as he winked.

"I expect a finder's fee, later."

I nodded, grinned, and pocketed the little packet.

The guys' girlfriends arrived, giggling and hanging onto them like lampreys. I rolled my eyes at David. He snickered. I wondered how long it would be before he had his own. I knew the new guy at a school needed a little time to fit in and find his group, and find a girl. David had the kind of looks that I found adorable, which meant the girls probably found him geeky, but he was in the best band in school, so I was sure he would be holding his own girl on his lap sooner or later.

We set everything up, David and I making sure that our keyboards were impossible to see from the dance floor or the tables. We were partially hidden by the drums on one side, the speaker stack on the other. We saw that none of the lights were pointed to that back corner. We were satisfied.

I helped set up things on the stage while the student union staff set up the floor and the canteen. The same dichotomy I had felt yesterday was overwhelming.

So familiar, but so damned strange. I wondered which shift in my self-consciousness had brought me to this music-filled alternate path.

Everything set up and ready, we all retreated to the backstage room. Again, so familiar, yet so different.

The girls maintained their stations on the guys' laps, David, the twins, and I taking one of the shorter couches. Trips were made to the staff bathroom, in small groups, girls tagging along. When everyone had taken a turn, I nodded at Kevin, and asked him if I could talk to him about an idea I had.

He followed me to the bathroom. I removed the little packet and opened it. Several small lumps of yellowish-white rolled about together.

"I don't have a razor," I said.

Kevin produced one from his wallet and held it out to me.

"Uh, it'd be faster if you did," I said, handing him the packet.

As he chopped two of the smallest lumps into fine powder, I pulled a joint from my supply and lit it, and we talked.

"Nothing to it. Just make sure you get it nice and fine. Will work better and last longer."

I grunted an affirmative, holding a hit, and watched. I paid attention to what his hands were doing, but I found my eyes wandering over him, too. The jeans he was wearing were tight, showing off his package. I leaned forward, glancing from his hands to his crotch, just inches from the edge of the sink. I could almost make out what was what. I wished I had the guts to reach out and take it into my hand, wished he would only smile and turn toward me, pushing my head down to put my face in front of his groin, wished he would let me open his pants, take them down, admire his form, and take it into my hands, my mouth.

I was getting hard, fast.

Stop it! Jeeze! There you go again! Turning a friend who treats you decent into a sex object! Be normal!

I had packed the loose, gray jeans yesterday, not thinking about how they allowed any erection to be obvious. I had also packed a Pink Floyd concert tee, and it was too short to hide anything. I ended up bending forward as if I were more closely watching what he was doing.

I watched as the little rocks became smaller grains, then tiny specks, then fine powder. He arranged them into four lines. He pulled the short pen from his pocket and removed the inkhead and tube, leaving a hollow shaft. He passed it to me. I snorted one line through each nostril, feeling the immediate rush, the tickle, the burn.

As he performed the same ritual on his two lines, I sniffed, feeling the sensation move into the back of my nose, down the back of my throat. I began to feel really aware, potent, alive.

Kevin handed me the little packet, assembled his little pen, and we returned to the others, talking about tonight's show.

David wasn't fooled. He was silent and moody. I cared, but I cared more to feel cognizant, powerful, vital.

Joints were passed, jokes were made. As was seemingly becoming normal, I sat on the small couch with David on one side, Ryan on the other, Brent on the other side of his brother. Kevin, Wil, and Terry were on one of the long couches, their girls now on their laps or beside them, Brian, Adam, Riley and their two girls on the other. I tried not to feel conspicuous. I belonged there, but not in the room with the band. I belonged out there behind the counter in the canteen.

No, I'm with the band now. Do I belong with the band? Am I sure? Will anyone recognize me? Is there anyone still here who would remember me? Or what happened?

The twins were all energy and smiles. They were comparing ideas for swaps during "Wipeout," trying to make sure they could work it out so that they could play it live, as Kevin wanted to do someday, on one set of drums, as getting two sets on the stage would be nearly impossible.

I hoped they would stay in the band. I knew the band could never find a better drummer, or likely any two other drummers nearly as good. I hoped David would stay, too. He could play many of the songs the band liked to play, or those commonly requested, and he could probably learn all the others.

I wondered how long I would have to stay.

Not like I got a whole hell of a lot to do otherwise, not with my whole life falling apart. But I don't think this band stuff is for me. I love playing music, sure, but just not in front of people. What if I make a mistake? What if they don't like how I play? How can I study? I'd be failing classes if I kept going like this.

I wonder how David's grades are?

I looked at him as he stared at the ceiling. His long, red hair cascaded behind him over the back of the couch like a falling flow of lava. I wanted to run my hand over and through it. His lips were pursed, and I wanted to kiss them. The smooth, soft, exposed skin of his neck seemed warm and inviting, and I wanted to stroke and nuzzle it. I looked down quickly, not wanting to be seen looking at him like that. I looked to my hands in my lap, wriggling the sore fingers, glad that they were more useable before they became tired and achy. I saw my own lap, how the gray jeans highlighted my own groin, making me look endowed and packing. I snickered. I swept my gaze over to David's lap, seeing how his jeans hugged his groin, highlighting exactly where his cock lay, pointed almost directly at me. I saw his balls protruding slightly on the other side of the seam, wrapped tightly by the black material of his jeans.

Realizing what I was suddenly thinking about, and exactly where I was thinking it, seemed like a slap in the face. I welcomed that slap, though.

Fucking watch your thoughts, man. Don't fucking let on what you're thinking about. Not even if everybody in here knows I'm gay.

Oh, fuck!

My guts suddenly shivered and dropped at that thought. I started sweating and shaking. My mouth went dry. I felt my heart beginning to pound and my breath coming faster. Without thinking it first, I immediately took a deep, steadying breath and sat up straight, shoving my chest out and shaking out my hands at my side as they dangled at the ends of my limp arms.

"Getting stage fright?" David asked.

"Hey," I snapped quickly in return, nodding. "I can't believe I'm gonna play in front of people again," I said once again.

"It's a bastard the first times," he said with his wide smile, but still getting the frustration across.

"How long's it last?"

"All year, first year, for me."

"Damn it. Ya could'a lied. Ya know, made feel better if you'd said once or twice."

He laughed and replied, "Then you'd be tossed at me later for lettin' on it was so fast when it wasn't for you."

I was glad that he was talking to me again. I felt a little better.

Kevin announced, "Ten minutes guys," and started out to the stage.

My stomach dropped again. I rubbed my hands together.

"Ah, it'll go fine," David said reassuringly from next to me.

It didn't help. I felt myself going rigid and tense, unable to move. I squeezed my own hands so tightly they both ached, and I couldn't stop it. And I couldn't stop watching them.

The guys started walked past us and out the door to the stage, girls in tow, leaving David, the twins, and me on the couch.

Ryan elbowed me gently and said, "You did good before, you'll do great this time."

He got me to look up, briefly. He grinned all innocently and happily, and so cutely. It reminded me of what he had said last weekend as we sat in the very same place and I felt the very same way, and he grinned almost the very same grin at me, but after making an unforgettable proposition. My eyes locked back onto my hands almost instantly.

Gawd, a gorgeous redhead on one side of me, the adorable Ryan on the other side. Yet I'm all alone. How fucking pathetic. What? Be with one of them? How awkward would that be?

"Geeze," Brent mumbled, then stood up and said, "Come on, I think bro needs to beat some sense into Alex."

"What'ya mean by that?" David asked, standing hesitantly.

"Don't worry. Bro knows how to calm his ass down. They're like twins, that way."

I was flabbergasted and humiliated. And paralyzed. I knew what was going on around me, and I could even react a little, but I couldn't move. I couldn't even stop wringing my own hands. Or stop watching myself do it. I was sure David would deduce the real reason Brent had left me alone with Ryan, and it was bad enough that Brent was so sure. I knew Brent well enough that I was sure he would explain it without hinting at anything other than Ryan being able to talk me down. I felt better with that knowledge. Then I thought it would be nice to know I could look forward to sex with Ryan again after it was all over.

"Listen, Alex. Man. You did fine last week, right? So just do the same this week. Toby might'a done something different to get you to wake the fuck up, but what I said last week isn't possible anymore. So, get over it, stand up, walk out there, and play and sing your ass off."

I looked up then. He put his arm over my shoulder and stared at me, now smiling a crooked half smile. I tried to look away, but now I was stuck staring at him, still unable to move, and barely able to think. Almost panting.

"Alex, if you don't, if you puss out, me, Brent, David, and the rest of the guys, will kick, your, ass."

He nodded with each of the last three words and grinned. He changed to a frustrated grin, and went on.

"I won't do it with you again. I won't say I will, either. So, get up and play, or curl up like a little pussy and hide. Make up your mind."

Something worked, finally, and I knew I could talk.

"Last week I didn't solo Paradise Theater in front of a couple hundred people."

"That's tomorrow. And you got that no problem. And you know it."

"What about the songs tonight? More for me to do."

"Yeah, so? Nothing ya can't do. Nothing ya ain't done already in practice a dozen times. Man, you blew the guys away, remember?"

His grin was wide and infectious. They had been impressed, I remembered. I was even happy with how I had been playing lately.

He elbowed me gently again.

"Come on, Alex," he said pleadingly.

I couldn't disappoint him. Not only was he such a good and close friend, he was simply adorable. Gray eyes shining behind his glasses, his sandy blond hair, his almost elfin features, slightly generous, red lips curved upward in one of his smiles. He was even dressed attractively.

"Come on! We dreamed about this! We hoped and prayed for this! Don't blow it! You can! You rock! Come play. Let them hear you!"

Shine, I thought. That's the only word he hasn't used yet. All the others. Just like Toby did.

I smelled cinnamon.

So why not? Give Ryan what he wants. He deserves it. Help him do this. Make him and his brother happy. And Kevin. And the other guys. They don't care you're gay. They only care you can play. Don't let them down.

I sighed, then nodded, then followed him out to the stage. Kevin was doing his crowd thing as I sat down and turned on the keyboard, then set it for the first song I would be playing some effects for. I glanced at David, he was grinning at me, then looked quickly away.

As Bill was starting drummer, the twins hung around in the shadows near me, where I could glance up and see them. They mostly watched the crowd and the back of the rest of the guys, but we shared glances and grins. They kept me up.

Then I noticed the lights, and the crowd. And the sound and the smell of the student union. And where I was. Where I didn't belong.

Now I'm up here. Geeze. Okay, relax. Enjoy it. It's the student union. Nobody is gonna mess with you here. Even if you fuck up. I've heard some awful music played on this stage, and nobody ever charged the stage and dismembered the band. Though that one band deserved it. What was their name? Savage something. Some animal. God, they sucked. But they weren't savaged by the crowd. Booed, yeah, but not torn limb from limb. We're good, way good. It's cool.

We went through the first set. David and I were far in back, nearly hidden, and weren't directly lit, so even if we messed up no one could tell who to blame - even if they noticed us and guessed what we were doing back there. I had little to do, but something for a few songs. David was far busier. It went by quickly, and before I knew it we were taking that first break. I was beginning to relax. It wasn't so bad.

As we walked off the back of the stage, I could see the people in the first rows of tables, and some of those in the second, but beyond that there was nothing but shadows against the few lights on the far walls. The canteen windows were hidden behind the blaze of light.

It was the opposite view of the one I had gotten so accustomed to. A sense of nostalgia gripped me. I had enjoyed working in the canteen for two years. Tom had hung around with me most of those Friday and Saturday nights. I had often wondered what it would be like to be on the stage, backstage, in the band. I'd taken pizzas and sodas back there during shows, so it wasn't a total mystery, but I had never been part of it.

Now, instead, I wondered what it would feel like to roam around among the crowd. I knew no one would know I was there with the band. Instead of going into the backstage room, I turned and walked along the narrow hallway, and toward the main floor. The guy who should be sitting there wasn't, but it was a school band and not as if groupies or fans wanted to get to the band. I opened the door and walked out into the throng. The place was busy. I saw mostly jocks and their girlfriends. I went to the canteen and bought a root beer.

I sipped the drink as I walked around. I saw some familiar faces, but by staying along the wall, I wasn't noticed. I got a shock when I saw Thomas. He was sitting with Patricia near the arcade area. They looked uncomfortable and awkward. They smiled when they looked at each other, but even I could tell that they weren't having a very good time. I felt bad for him, and wished I knew of something I could do to improve their time together. I gave up after a minute or two, and continued my way around the entire building.

I saw a group of jocks walking along the side of the dance area, heading away. I recognized two of them as having been with Jeff in the hallway after I had heard his conversation about leaving me. Then, I saw Jeff. He was walking from the canteen with two more jocks. They were grinning and having a great time. I caught myself holding my breath. I forced air into my lungs and turned away. I felt my heart racing. I didn't know if I was angry or just upset, or what exactly I was feeling, but I wasn't happy.

I hurried back to the bathroom behind the stage. It was empty, so I leaned against the door, panting.

Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Stop it! He don't know you're here. He can't see you where you sit. Even if he saw you, big deal. So what. Who cares? He sure won't. Fuck it.

Someone tried to push open the door, then knocked.

"Just a sec," I cried.

"Come on, don't foul up the john. We wanna get some lines and hits in."

I steadied my breath, used my best meditation techniques to steady my nerves. I jerked a joint out of my little baggie, fiddled with the lock on the door noisily, then swung it inward and held the joint up near my lips.

"Sounds like a plan," I said with a grin.

As my joint joined one of theirs going around us, I removed my own little packet and asked for a razor. I chopped, the shaking of my hands likely hidden by the action. They talked about the show, and some girls they saw dancing, and said I had done great so far. I nodded and thanked them and tried to seem as happy and thrilled as they were. They had their supply already prepared, so I accepted lines from their supply, then returned to working on my own. They left when the joints were gone, and I continued working, chopping, sorting.

Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.

Stop it! Why does it matter? Who cares? Fucking get real!

I had a pile of grains now, very few chunks present.

Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.

How can I go back out there? Not now! He could see me!

The grains were tiny now, no little rocks remained.

Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.

Why is he here? Why now? Why tonight! Because the jocks always come here! Idiot!

The grains were mostly powder. I rolled up a dollar bill and snorted a line in each nostril.

The coke sped me up, energized me, burned through me, but I needed the old, familiar buzz, too. Badly. I smoked another joint before I rejoined them.

Ryan looked worried, and asked, "Okay, give. What's up?"

I shook my head, my foot bouncing wildly.

When I didn't answer, only shook my head, he narrowed his eyes at me. I snickered.

Damn, he's hot, I thought. Yeah, concentrate on that. And David. They're fucking hot. Jeff's not here. Who? David's got the nice, tight black jeans on tonight. Look at that unit. Man, I can see one of his balls. And the head of his dick. And Ryan's got his goods all on display, too. Wish I was gonna get some Ryan lovin' tonight. That was fuckin' fantastic! Wish it was David. Yeah, hot, sweet, sexy David.

My mind raced, the coke putting it in high gear. I let those thoughts of David and Ryan run rampant, eyes on the floor. They were far better than the ones that were being trampled by them. I even thought of Brent, and remembered the times with him and his brother. I imagined Kevin naked, and Wil, and then Terry. I suddenly remembered Terry from gym class last year.

That's where he's familiar from. Gym. Yeah. He's got a nice one. Nice, big, hanging balls, too. Kinda pointy dick head, pink. A little hair on his chest, some on his legs. Kinda flat butt, but nice. Yeah, bet he's nice and long when he's hard.

I looked at him while his girl sat on his leg with her arm around his shoulders. I saw his package, and I remembered how it had looked in the showers. I knew what she got to play with, I just had never seen it hard. I wondered if she gave him head as well as I thought I could. I wondered, if he had the choice, after letting me blow him, which of us he would rather have sucking him again.

I let myself imagine all of them naked. I imagined getting them all so stoned on blunts laced with my coke later at the twins', that they would all end up tearing their clothes off and jumping into a writhing pile of sex and sweat. Me, David, Ryan, Brent, Kevin, Terry, Wil, Adam, even Bill. Sucking, fucking, licking, sweating, cumming. All night. Taking turns with each other, all together, pairs, trios, foursomes.

"Mate, you look like you're on acid," David said into my ear.

"Huh? Acid? No fucking way."

"You're all spacy."

"I know. Tryin' not to think about... "

I nodded toward the stage.


"... out there."

They all talked each other up and relaxed. I grew wired and paranoid.

We took the stage again, and began the dancing portion for the couples. It was mostly slower tempo songs, and David again had far more piano parts to do on his Sony than I did synthesizer parts on the Oberheim.

I stayed as low as I could. I couldn't see anyone from back there, not with the lights shining on the stage and into my eyes. David and I were in the back, in the dark, hard to see, I was certain. Still, I hunched low, kept my face down. I sneaked off the stage more than once to smoke a doobie in the bathroom alone or with whomever was back there.

With only one set of drums, Bill and the twins would be switching turns all night, so two of them were almost always in the backstage room, along with one or two others, and Riley, who often had little to do. And the girls from time to time. We often went to the bathroom together to smoke. I went to the bathroom during the last song of the set, doing two lines and smoking a joint alone. My supply was getting dangerously low, perhaps three or four joints left. I put most of it back into the baggie, the rest into a folded piece of paper and tucked them into my pocket.

When everyone arrived for the break, and I joined some of them in the bathroom, I made a show of running out of pot when I rolled a joint, using the last of the smaller share I had portioned apart. Kevin assured me that he and Adam had plenty for the rest of the night. I smoked like crazy, and then did another line of coke alone. They ate more pizza and then we took turns smoking dessert in the bathroom.

One more set, then the final set, then the night would be over, and I could run from the student union, and Jeff. It was sheer torture, trying to hide on a stage. I kept my head down and never looked up. I was thankful that there were no lights on me and David, that we were way in back. I played my small parts.

During the final break, I did lines in the bathroom and smoked as much of the joints going around as I could. I wished that it was all over and I was safely away from the student union - and Jeff. They were all smiling and wired from performing. The twins were ecstatic, again. I couldn't blame them, and wished I could feel the same, or at least, enjoy being out there.

But not with him out there.

More joints, more lines in the bathroom.

I had always known there would be a chance of him being there. I knew the jocks went to the student union on weekends. The coaches preferred they go there than run around town from party to party. They got brownie points for being at the student union. When a good band was playing, or a good movie, most of them would be there at some point. I should have expected Jeff to show up sooner or later, now that he was going to become one. Last week, Ryan had even mentioned seeing him there, but I had pushed it out of my mind.

As they smoked and talked, I walked out of the little backstage room, down the narrow hall, and peeked around the corner of the door at the crowd.

And there he was, sitting with a bunch of jocks, some that I'd seen him hanging around with before, and several girls. Smiling. Laughing. Having a great time.

Fuck them, I thought. Hell, I hope he notices me. I hope it fucks with him. I hope it ruins his night somehow. How the hell can they not know he's gay? I mean, what? Does he make comments about pretty girls? Does he talk about eating pussy? Does he brag about some made-up slut he fucked over the summer? Is one of those girls supposed to be his date? Is he dating a girl? How is he getting away with it?

I grew angry and disgusted. A hand suddenly fell on my shoulder. I spun.

"What's up?" Ryan asked, looking as surprised at my reaction as I felt.

I sighed in relief.

"Man, you fuckin' gave me a heart-attack! Don't sneak up on people like that."

"What's the hot sight?" he asked, starting to lean around the corner to see what I had been so intently looking at.

I panicked.

"You," I said, slapping his ass.

He spun around, turning bright red. He looked around, so did I. There was no one in the little alley behind the stage to have noticed. He grinned in embarrassment.

"Dude!" he said warningly.

"I can't help it. That cute little ass is just begging for a slap or two."

Oh my gawd. Did I just say that? What the fuck?

His jaw dropped, though he didn't lose his grin. His gray eyes sparkled even more behind his glasses. He turned beet red.

"Fag," he said softly, no threat or accusation present, his mouth returning to its wide-open state.

"Look who's talkin'," I said with a grin.

He snapped his mouth shut, crammed his hands into his pockets, hiked his shoulders up around his ears, then walked off, trying not to grin. He briefly looked back over his shoulder, still trying to hide his grin. He was adorable.

I sighed in relief and fell against the cinder-block wall. I wiped my brow with the tail of my shirt, made sure I was in control of myself. I peeked around the corner again, seeing Jeff and his new friends still enjoying themselves. I let the anger growl and prowl inside its cage. I even picked up the pointed stick.

I heard Kevin on the stage, so I put down the pointed stick and didn't prod the caged anger with it. Instead, I walked to the backstage room. David and the twins visibly relaxed when I walked in. The three of us joined the rest on stage. I slunk to my seat. I knew I was in the dark, only a shadow, but still.

Kevin spoke for a minute or two, asking the couples to take to the floor. They played slow dancing songs again, ones for which I had little, if anything, to do. For several of them, David was the lead instrumentalist. He played sweetly. It was hard to see him in the dark, even sitting where I was, so I knew I was invisible to Jeff and his friends, and the rest of the crowd, but I never relaxed for a second. I felt like for some reason, the lights would all dim, except one, and it would shine on me. I was certain of it. Any second. I was on edge and ready to drop and turn and dash off the back of the stage at any second.

What parts I did have to do were little bits that were rarely if ever missed in live music. I was nearly late several times, wrapped up in hiding, hunching low, and dark thoughts of the usual horrors. Mostly Jeff and all the related little horrors.

The seething anger, though, refused to lie down. It prowled from side to side in its cage, testing the bars, anxious to escape. It was hard to sit still, and I pounded my feet on the floor and my thighs with my fists to the beat of every song.

We took the last break, running late. Kevin promised some rocking tunes to finish the night. I rushed into the bathroom with them, sharing my little packet of coke. Wil dropped a little chunk into my packet from his own.

"For helping out so much," he explained.


Kevin held up a much larger one.

"Dude. If you'll sing the three Thorogood songs, I'll give ya this rock. Please?"

My eyes widened. I wanted the sizable rock, but sing for it?

"Please? You'll be in back. We won't use your name. You can be anonymous. No lights. Hell, David can move his keyboard in front of you so he's the only silhouette can be seen."

"We got time to. Come on," Terry begged.

There wasn't time. We were running late. Kevin put the rock back into his packet.

"You can have the whole thing," Kevin said, holding it out to me.

There was easily more there than the half-gram he had gotten for me earlier.

"And you can use our stuff tonight and tomorrow. Keep it for yourself," Wil offered.

I was tempted. Sorely.

It showed.

My mind was running thoughts through it faster than I was used to, fueled by the coke. It seemed as if a thousand thoughts and possibilities crossed through it concurrently. I had no hope of holding onto or processing any one of them, though, so I was effectively thoughtless.

Kevin turned around, put his back to me, then whispered something with the two of them. Kevin pulled his wallet from his hip pocket. My eyes were caught by the curve of his buttocks. Kevin turned and I found myself looking at his crotch. I flung my eyes upward, still unable to hold onto a single thought long enough to comprehend it, let alone decide anything about it.

He held out a stack of bills.

"Fifty bucks, and the coke."

"For three songs," Wil said.

"What? Why?" I asked, completely stunned.

"Dude, Alex, if you have to ask, you can't understand. We wanna do the songs. Not just in practice. Live. We want to."

I thought that maybe I did understand, but he was out there. But I wanted the coke. The money would be great, too, but I wanted - needed - the coke.

"You really want me to ruin it by singing?"

"Ruin it?"

They all looked confused.

"You got the voice, man. You ain't perfect, maybe you won't ever be, but you sound good doing his kind of vocals. Whatever happened to your voice, it's a gift from God, man."

Let them hear you, I heard Toby say. Shine.

They were the first coherent thoughts since snorting the previous lines.

I took the money, I took the little white package.

We rejoined the others, and Kevin told them that I was going to do the three Thorogood songs with them in the last set. They were all happy, giving me thumbs-up and smiles. Joints were lit and passed around in celebration. Far too soon, Kevin led them out to the stage. I put my head in my hands, wishing I had been able to refuse the coke and the money.

Ryan elbowed me and asked, "Dude, you freakin' again?"

"Why'd I agree to do them?" I asked, mortified.

"Oh, come on, you'll do great! You got them down in practice," he said.

"Alex, you'll do well. You play wonderfully, and you sing nicely. The crowd will love it," David said firmly, almost formally.

"Yeah, come on, Alex, don't puss out," Brent said, the dare obvious. "Come on, David, let's let Ry talk some sense into him again."

I saw their feet walk past and toward the stage door.


"What?" without looking out from behind my hands.

"Are you okay?"

I shook my head in my hands.

"Look, it's nothing you haven't already done. You sounded better than good in practice. They wouldn't ask you to sing if you didn't. Don't worry about what people think. Besides, they're gonna love it. You'll see."

"Ry, I... I just don't think I can do it. I can't sing in front of a bunch of people! Play, sure, as long as I'm in back in the dark, but sing?"

Oh, hell no!

"Not even if you... even for what we did last week. Why the fuck did I agree to do it? I'm a fuck-nut!"

"You got stage fright is all. Calm down. Just cool off. Okay?"

He patted my back and left me alone with my craven fear and horror.

They told me I'm good. They said I have a good voice. They want me to do it. So, I must not sound bad. Not really bad, anyway. Why can't I do it? Am I that much of a wuss?

I tried to work up the courage, but it wasn't there to be worked up.

How could I possibly have agreed to sing? Playing is one thing, but sing? What was I fucking thinking? Idiot! And there is just no way with him out there! Oh, God! No fucking way!

I held my head in my hands. I heard a guitar strum. My guts shriveled. I felt Ryan sit down next to me again.

"Ry, I can't do it. Not even for what we did last week again. I'm sorry. I can't!"

His arm went over my shoulder again.

"Yes, you can, Alex," David said softly.

My head popped up out of my hands.

"Sorry, thought you was Ryan," I said quickly, horrified.

"No kiddin'," he said with a laugh. "He said you were in here having stage fright."

"Stage fright? More like stage horrors!"

I didn't mean for it to be funny, so I didn't smile back when he grinned.

"You don't know... "

... who's out there!

"What it's like?" he assumed. "Sure I do. I remember the first time on stage. Was feckin' horrible. But I did it. And I was doing a song I wasn't as good at as you are the ones tonight."

I sighed in exasperation and disbelief.

"Alex, just come do it. I promise you'll do fine. If you don't, you can take it out on me, okay?"

Take it out on you? No. I'd like to take something out on you, but not my failure.

"Please, come play. Sing."

Go ahead, say shine. I dare you.

"Show these jocks what you've got!"

Jocks! Yeah, the jocks. And, him. Why am I so fucked up because of him? Why am I letting him mess with me? I should have enjoyed tonight. I got to play on stage with a band. I've wanted to for so long, and now I got to, and it's all messed up because of him. And he don't even know he's doing it. If I sing out there, he's gonna know I'm here. Maybe he won't recognize my voice? Maybe. He sure can't be expecting to see me here singing.

"Please, Alex?"

I looked up. He was adorable. His cute face was made even more loveable by his pleading eyes. I couldn't resist him anymore than I could have kicked a hurt puppy. I wanted to make him happy. I had to. I swallowed. I nodded. I followed him out onto the stage, not looking at the crowd. I tried not to stare at David after I sat down. He grinned at me. I blushed, wondering if I looked like a glowing red light on the stage to the crowd.

Kevin spoke.

"Tonight we have a special guest-singer with us. He's a bit shy, and would rather stay unnamed. Yeah, I know, odd, but you gotta give divas their way, or they don't perform." He let a few laughs happen before he continued. "So, without further ado, and without an introduction..."

He tapped time with his good foot, and said, "Move It On Over."

They played the long intro we had practiced. The guitars dueled out over the steady drumming of Ryan, who had only to repeat the same beat. Kevin and Wil worked the guitars back and forth. David played well, probably much better than I could have while trying to sing, too.

It was almost time for me to sing. I nearly panicked. I took several deep breaths. I shook all over. My teeth actually clashed together. I was sweating an unbelievable amount.

It was time. I opened my mouth and nothing came out. My throat clenched tight. I coughed to loosen it, to force air through. I panted, then forced myself to calm down.

I can do this. Even if I suck. They're making me. Their fault if I do fuck up. Just do it.

I grew angry, and I let the anger fuel me.

If I suck, I suck. But damn it, might as well try not to!

I joined on the second line. I sounded rough. I adjusted. I was sounding better by the end of the third line.

During the first long drum- and guitar-only section, I cleared my throat properly, hemmed and hawed, tuned up. When I rejoined, I sounded far better. I let my voice go rough and loud. I pushed it forward, using my diaphragm and shoulders as the guys had taught me, singing directly into the microphone.

When they went into the second drum and guitar section, I relaxed a bit. I wasn't doing really badly.

If I suck, I suck, but I am not going to let Jeff make me suck. Or do anything. He can tell it's me, no doubt, so why let him win? Why not make him sorry he can't be with me?

I had more fun with the next lines, letting my voice move up and down, drawling the words, putting some laughter in my voice.

The last quarter of the song, and the crowd was loud and singing along. I could hear them almost as loudly as my own voice came over the speakers. I told them that the hot dog was movin' in with a near laugh in my voice. I pushed air through my throat, out my mouth, shaping them into the lyrics. I rumbled them through my throat, literally shutting off my nose and face.

It seemed to take forever, but I finished. The song ended. The crowd applauded loudly. Kevin grinned at me, nodding. Wil threw me a thumbs up. Ryan made room for Bill on drums, and threw me a wide grin and a thumbs-up on his way off the stage.

Damn it. I like being ignored. I like not being noticed. Why do they keep pointing me out?

Kevin introduced, "Who Do You Love."

God. Even harder. And it's about love. And Jeff's here. Jeff. Fuck it. Fuck Jeff, too. Fuck everybody. I can do this. I can! And a perfect song, too, for Jeff.

I grew angry again.

Suddenly, I wanted to sing it. Right at Jeff. I grinned. I knew it didn't mean anything between us, but it was a good question, one he had been pestering me with in the nightmare. I could ask him this way. Right now. In front of everyone.

I knew he would be uncomfortable. I grinned wider. It wasn't a humorous grin, it was the one that usually gave my friends the desire to run screaming, hands over their heads.

I knew that I was no longer invisible. I didn't care. I knew that everyone in the place could see me now, if they noticed where the guys were throwing looks and gestures. I wondered briefly if Jeff was even still there. I didn't care. I hoped so.

Terry and Kevin were sharing the guitar work and sounding very good. Will dropped in his own bass line, sounding very good. Bill was thumping the drums, carrying the tune on his back, sounding very good.

David played awesomely, smoothly, as if he had been playing the song for years.

Damn it! They're good! They say I'm good enough to sing it. They wouldn't if I would ruin it for them. I must sound okay. And fuck Jeff. And the jocks. I can do this. I'm on the stage at the student union!

Who do you love, Jeff? The baseball jocks? Not me.

Anger growled. I grinned. I picked up the pointy stick.

I started telling them about myself in a slight southern accent. There was some more applause. I asked, who do you love? There was more applause.

So, how about it, Jeff?

I asked very loudly, coarsely, "Who do ya love?"

I told them more about myself.

Who do ya love, Jeff? Me? Or the team?

I asked them, I asked Jeff, "Who do ya love?"

I told them a bit more about myself.

Why can't you just love me, and let everyone know it? Don't you really love me? Huh?

"Who do ya love?"

With nearly each repeat of that line, I put more into my gut, my chest, producing more with my voice.

They played the guitar section flawlessly, trading off, each of them doing the parts they were best at.

I returned, telling them more about myself in that southern drawl as David played.

Why are you such a pussy? You want to be so tough, so in control, but you can't even be in charge of yourself.

I asked him again, "Who do ya love?"

I adjusted the Oberheim and played an accompanying stab.

I told them even more about myself.

Come on, Jeff. What's your problem? How many are there? Can't you deal with it? With them? With me?

I asked him again, "Who do ya lo-o-o-ve?"

I grew animated, and instead of dropping quieter, like George had done, I screamed the question. I demanded an answer. I was furious at him. I played the short stabs. I asked again, louder. The crowd responded. They asked the question back at me. I asked it again, louder. They yelled it back. I asked again, screaming it. They screamed the question back. They were animated. They loved it.

Finally, I asked the one, last time, with a drawl, lilt, and a break in my voice - and only to Jeff...

"Who do ya love?"

The drums stopped cold, the guitars danced out. The crowd applauded loudly, cheering.

I was sweating, shaking, furious.

"Whoo!" Kevin yelled over the microphone, punching the air with his fist.

I glanced around, noticing David's grin.

I panted for breath. Ryan ran up with a cold root beer.

"Thanks, you're a life saver!"

"If you ever slap my ass in public again, I'll yell rape," he whispered in my ear.

I choked on the soda, spitting some onto the floor through my nose. He laughed and ran off the stage.

Bill left the drums, Brent taking over. Kevin was done telling the crowd that we would be back tomorrow with a special show, that they shouldn't miss it. He thanked them for being such a great crowd to play for. I cleared out my throat and nose and managed to drink some as Wil stroked his strings, producing the famous chords of "Bad To The Bone." The crowd clapped loudly. Brent beat the skins. David crossed his arms and leaned back, away from his keyboard, grinning at me. I shrank in my seat.

How can I? I just burned it all up. I ain't got any left.

The energy level in the student union was soaring. There was enough energy building in the place that even I noticed it despite my exhaustion. It was affecting me, and I was noticing it. My body was ready for more.

Come on, Alex. For the money. For the coke. For the guys.

I looked at them, one at a time. Kevin, grinning as hugely as I'd ever seen him. Terry, looking as if he'd just lost his virginity to a cheerleader. Wil, so enraptured in the music he was playing that he probably didn't even know what day it was right then. Brent, grinning like a lunatic, looking like he belonged behind those drums. Adam, smiling too, tapping his foot, watching me, nodding at me. David, smiling at me as if I were a saint come down from the heavens to save his soul.

They like me, even if I am gay. They started joking around about it in great ways, accepting it, and me. They like my playing, think I'm good. They even proved they think I can sing. Do I owe them? Does it matter if I do or don't?


And at least this one don't have a big deal to do with Jeff. If he's even still here. So what the hell?

I took another sip of the cold soda, held it for a moment before swallowing it, then did a quick version of the breathing exercise. I cleared my throat away from the microphone, adjusted the settings on the Oberheim, and joined. I began telling everyone about the day I was born, bad to the bone. I sang low and rough, I growled it. I had the stutter down pat. I knew how ironic that was, and I grinned at it. And at how I sounded. The speakers were at my side, and I heard myself through them. I heard how good Wil was on the guitar, making it wail properly. My piano came over clear and strong. Adam's sax filled the air. I got chills. He was good.

Yeah, she could tell right away, that I was bad to the bone. I'd break a thousand hearts, before I was through.

I told them that I was "B-b-b-b-b-bad to the bone."

It was great.

I returned, bragging about how I could make a rich woman beg, and a good woman steal, an old woman blush, and a young girl squeal.

The irony made me grin.

Because I was "B-b-b-b-b-bad, bad to the bone."

Adam raised his sax on the board, filling the open space with wonderful sounds. Then Wil took over, making his guitar growl and wail. My keyboard ranged wide, loud, and clear. I couldn't stop myself from bobbing in my seat to the beat, if I even noticed.

I came back and told everyone that when I walked the streets, kings and queens stepped aside, how every woman I meet - I laughed at the irony - they all stay satisfied.

Yeah, I told them, "That I'm here to tell ya honey, that I'm bad to the bone! Bad to the bone! B-b-b-b-b-b-baad to the bone! B-b-b-b-b-bad, b-b-b-b-b-bad, b-b-b-b-b-bad, woo! Bad to the bone!"

I was quiet again, enjoying them all playing. It sounded nearly as good as the real thing. I shivered in joy. I really did understand why they gave me their money and their coke to sing it so that they could play it. I pounded the keys.

We rolled down and out. Applause. Cheering. Whistles.

The applause was as good as any time through the night. I grinned widely, trying not to. I shook my head, but couldn't stop grinning.

"Thanks! Thank you," Kevin was saying. "We've wanted to play that one the right way for a long time!"

More applause.

"But we never had the pipes for the lyrics. I wanna thank our guest singer tonight. Give him a real round of applause. Without him, we wouldn't of been able to play the last three songs for you tonight."

Oh, you ass, I thought as the crowd applauded as loudly as they had all night.

"He was also responsible for the synthesizer all night."

More applause.

"And if you join us tomorrow night, you'll hear some of the best synthesizer playing you're likely ever to hear. You'll be sorry you missed it on Monday!"

He waited for the applause to die down a bit.

"Thanks! We're glad you liked it! We liked playing for ya. Thanks for a great night everyone! It was a blast to play for you, as always!"

The crowd applauded even louder.

"Thank you! But we've got to go. Everyone be safe going home, and hope to see you tomorrow!"

The crowd wouldn't stop cheering.

David and I were the first into the backstage room.

"Wow! That kicked ass!" he proclaimed, excited and grinning widely.

"I don't think they heard me. They were singing along to it themselves," I said, grinning widely myself.

"Oh, they heard you!" he said. "You were really busting the decibels on Who Do You Love!"

"That was awesome," Wil said at me. "I knew you could do it!"

"That fucking rocked!" Terry said, grinning from ear to ear. "I fucking loved it! Been waiting to do those songs for months!"

Their girls filed in through the door to the hallway behind the stage. Even they told me that I sounded good.

Kathy said, "Too bad you don't like girls. I could set you up with someone, easy."

I blushed.

"Someone easily? Or someone easy?" Kevin laughed.

"No shit!" Bill said from the stage door. "There's some girls here wanna meet the guest singer!"

"See?" Kathy said with a leer.

Everyone looked at me, probably for my reaction. I saw the humor on their faces, waiting to be released. I felt too good to deny that to them, and I did see the humor myself.

"Tell them he already snuck out the back," I said to Bill.

He nodded and turned back to the door, closing it behind him.

Everyone burst into laughter.

"I told ya you was gonna dampen some panties with that voice!" Wil said around his laughs.

"I can't believe I let you guys make me do that," I said, collapsing onto the usual couch.

"I can't believe you sounded like that," Brent said. "Man, your voice is so different now."

"What was it like before?" Kevin asked.

"He could sing Styx good. All high and shit."

"I call bullshit. I sucked," I said flatly.

"You wasn't steady, but you could do it. Not like now. Now you sound like you could make a living singing," Brent said.

I laughed even harder than at the girls wanting to meet me. No one else laughed, though I didn't notice.

"No more smoke for Brent, he's gettin' brain damage," I said.

"Speaking of," Terry said, pulling his pot from his pocket.

We took turns smoking in the bathroom in groups. They wouldn't stop talking about me singing those songs. When David and some others left Kevin and I alone in the bathroom, I did some lines with him.

"You really were good," Kevin said. "Guess we better leave you alone about it, some, huh?"

I nodded, surprised he understood.

"Not that we're gonna let ya get away with not doing it," he said with a smirk, opening another little packet.

I thought for a moment he meant the coke, but I knew better. I didn't know which was worse. The coke or singing in front of people.

"I won't bug ya much on it. Much. But you're gonna end up singing more. And playing more. And not behind the lights, either.

I exhaled in dread.

"But I won't bug ya much on it for now. Much. Okay?"

I watched his hands as he spoke, and then I looked up at his face. He was smiling, but there was something else too, something I couldn't read on him. Not yet, anyway. But it didn't seem bad at all. And he wasn't hard to look at, at all. He had started getting around inside and on stage without his crutch. I felt better about that. And I was glad he was there, then. And I felt lighter knowing that he knew I wasn't real comfortable with singing, and was giving me a break.

After the lines, we returned to the group and broke down the gear. The odd, echoing sounds were the same as they had been when I had worked there the previous years, but now they had a sad, lonely feeling to them. Before, when they had occurred as I cleaned up the canteen, they meant that soon I would head home and get high, watch horror movies on late-night television, and maybe mess around with Tom, so they were happy sounds. That change was striking again.

I helped carry out most of the equipment. I was mentally exhausted. Even more than was normal for me since leaving the hospital. Though my body was willing, my mind wasn't. As I passed through the open back door, heading back inside, hoping that there wasn't anything left to carry out, I saw David on the phone, looking angry. He slammed down the receiver and cursed.

"Hey, anything wrong?" I asked when I stopped next to him.

He turned, surprised.

"My ride backed out on me," he said, his anger obvious. "Now I have to spend my money on a cab."

I asked where he lived. An idea occurred to me; it was out of the way, but the twins might get their driver to take him home. Another idea occurred to me. I asked him to wait there and then jogged back outside. The twins were still next to the limo, both of them talking to several girls who had probably been drawn by the limo. I asked them if I could talk to them in the car for a second. Once inside, I asked them for a favor and got two mischievous grins and nods.

"Thing is, can ya keep your hands off him?" Brent asked jokingly.

I narrowed my eyes at him.

"Of course, bro here might beat ya to it. Or just beat ya both off!"

"Why don't you go sit on a cymbal stand?" Ryan shot.

"Thanks, guys," I said. "Why don't you take your pick of the chicks, and I'll go let David know he don't have to take a cab home."

Back inside, I asked David, "Hey, you want a ride home from the twins? Or you can stay the night. I'm gonna stay. Seems like the regular thing, now."

He looked uncomfortable. He grinned though.

"I guess I could stay there. No reason to go home, or make them go that far to take me home."

I asked if he should call his folks to let them know he wasn't coming home.

He frowned a little, then said, "No need."

I shrugged, figuring he knew his parents better than I did. We made sure that the guys were done with the equipment, then headed out to the twins' limo. David and I were soon trapped with two excited, coked-up, stoned, and adrenaline-charged fourteen-year-olds, almost fifteen, who had just played on a stage before a live audience. It was like being inside a rock tumbler.

Eventually we were discharged at the front doors of their mansion. We raided the kitchen, then headed upstairs.

"I hardly got to play, tonight," Ryan complained. "I need to bang the skins."

"Geeze. Gonna jack off already?" Brent asked.

"Ha-ha. Like you don't want to play?" his brother asked.

Brent agreed.

I pulled the weed from my pocket and started rolling. I rolled it all, coming up with three joints. I hoped it was enough. After we smoked the first one, the twins were on the drums constantly, leaving David and me alone enough to talk together. We moved to the entertainment room after a while, where it was quieter.

We smoked a joint alone, watching the Friday Night Fright Fest on channel thirty-two. The old black-and-white werewolf movie wasn't very good, which meant little, as we both watched it anyway. We talked about it and anything else to do with old horror and science-fiction movies. I loved hearing him talk, and getting the chance to do so alone was alluring and exciting. I had to forcibly keep my eyes off of him, looking only at his face, and only when we talked. Not that I didn't find his face very nice to look at, too. His long, red hair was parted down the center and hung over his ears and shoulders, framing his pale, clear complexion. His eyebrows were almost invisible. His gray-blue eyes shone and sparkled. His cheekbones were slightly prominent and high, sharply edged. When he laughed hard, they dimpled. His wide, luscious lips were deeply red, the lower slightly thicker than the upper. His teeth were white and almost perfect, with a sole chipped corner on his left front tooth. His long hair kept slipping over his ears and he would brush it back absently with a hand. When it hung over the front of his shoulder, he would flip it back with a flick of his head and a brushing motion with a hand.

He was slim, skinny. His hands were longish, his fingers slender but not long, and I wondered if his dick was, too. I noticed how his nails were oval, and I wondered if they matched the shape of his glans. I thought of his short earlobes, and wondered if his balls also hung high. I wondered if his nipples were that wonderful pink, like Eric's. And if he was just as pink elsewhere.

Stop it! Damn. I know he's hot, but I don't have to ogle everyone that talks to me like I'm normal. Just because he treats me normal, doesn't give me any right to sit here and think about his privates!

That same thought returned each time I found myself thinking about him like that. It returned a lot.

The old movie ended and another horror flick began. One of my favorites, "The Thing From Another World." We spoke less, as David had never seen it. I marveled at that, calling him a very poor aficionado of science-fiction movies. He laughed. I lit the last joint, hoping that the twins wouldn't come in and want to smoke one. I only then noticed that there were no drums playing. I assumed they were on a break, and if they walked in I would say that I had heard them stop playing and lit the joint, thinking they were on their way.

The joint was finished between just the two of us. Without a roach clip, there was a sizable roach left. I mentioned that I had no place to put it, and that I didn't want to have it found by the cleaning staff. David pulled his keys from his pocket and showed me how to use two keys as a clip. We smoked it to a stub of ash, inhaling the last weaving smoke trails through our noses.

After the joint, we got comfortable on opposite ends of the couch. He was sitting sideways, one arm on the back of it, his head resting on that hand. His hair draped over that arm and across his chest. He was wearing his usual mix of grays and blacks, and was looking stunning. The thin silver chain around his neck glinted as he absently ran it between his fingers. He pulled his legs up under him. I found that adorable, almost feline.

I wanted him to lay his head on my lap while I played with his long hair and stroked his side.

I want to let my hand draw longer and longer strokes down him, until I was running over his hip, then his butt, then his thigh, then around to the front, and...

Stop it! Damn! Why am I such a fag! Stop it! Think about something else!

Jeff and me really-


Tom is-




It's awful quiet. Where are the twins at?

Ryan. He freaking kissed me at the student union last week! And then he wanted to have sex! Not just mess around with handies or bee-jays, but actually have sex. And, man, did we ever! He cares about me, a lot, but he can't be in love with me. He said he isn't. I care about him, too. A lot. But I don't love the little bastard. Well, I do, but not, love him. I'd do anything to help him out, anything to keep him safe, make him happy, but I'd do that for his bro, too. And... Jeff? I don't know now. He's been trying to avoid me so much, not even trying to come over on the weekends. I don't know where we stand anymore. I don't know if I'd help him out if I could or not. Tom? He's been avoiding me, too. They both disappeared in the mornings, now. And Tom's so quiet on the ride to school we might as well not talk at all. Eric? He ran away from me. He didn't want to be seen with the fag at school. I don't hate him, almost can't blame him, but it hurt. A lot. Would I do anything for him? Only if he explained himself. A lot.

What a pile of steaming crap!

We changed. A lot. All of us. Even how we feel about each other.

So much for the Circle. Sorry, you was wrong this time, Tobes. They don't always go 'round and 'round.

I sighed.

If only he had moved here and got better. He could've gone to school with us. We could've had a lot of time together. I would've shouted how much I loved him from the school roof. If he would've been okay with it. He probably would've. Probably would've stood up there and yelled how much he loved me, holding hands. He had the guts to.

God! I miss him. All I can do is try to be as much like him as I can. Brave. Honest. Sincere. Caring. Loving. Fun. Happy.

Fun and happy I really gotta work on, a lot. Especially right now. How can I be fun and happy when my two best friends changed so much? When they aren't even friends anymore? Three.

It wasn't long before David was dropping off, his head jerking back up from time to time. He stretched out, his legs out in front of him, his arms crossed, his head resting on the back of the couch. I tried not to look at his package out of the corner of my eye, but caught myself doing it again and again. His eyes blinked more and more often, then failed to reopen. By the time the scientists were safe and the alien threat eliminated, he was breathing regularly, softly, and hadn't moved in half an hour.

The station signed off the air, and I daydreamed of David as I looked at him asleep just feet from me. He was even cuter asleep. His long hair hung like liquid fire along the sides of his head and down across his shoulders, then over the back of the couch. His red lips were slightly parted, standing out against his pale, perfect complexion. His crossed arms were lightly peppered with freckles, but his face was nearly free of them. He was very slim, and stretched out in his current position, his groin was the only upward contour on his body. His black jeans weren't very tight, but tight enough that what they held was revealed. It was not difficult to tell that he was hanging to his left, the pair of globes on the other side.

I caught myself staring, and felt guilty again. I berated myself for objectifying him so sexually. He was being a decent friend, and treating me normally, and at every opportunity, I turned him into a sex object.

I vowed not to look at him again. I wished I had another joint to smoke. I thought of the coke. I thought of the nightmare.

If I stay up until six or eight, I'll be too tired to have the damned nightmare. Or I could use one of the bedrooms, and if I had it, no one would know. I should really get the sleep. I need it. I haven't had a good night of sleep in weeks. Well, a couple. But nowhere near enough. I'm fucking tired all the time. But I don't want to dream. I hate that nightmare. It makes me even more tired than not sleeping would. I wake up all worn out. Sweaty and achy.

I decided. I went to the bathroom and did lines.

I thought of how much fun it had been once I got going last night. Once the horrible first and second song were over, the third had been fun. At first, I had been so nervous that I hadn't enjoyed singing at all, but by the end of, "Bad To The Bone," I had been having fun. I grinned as I remembered the sense of accomplishment, and the feeling of having done something that others had enjoyed.

At least there was something good happening, I thought. Tom and me are getting so far apart. And Jeff is as good as gone. And Todd. And the Circle is dead and over. And the van is long gone, and I'm gonna end up with that crappy Plymouth four-door. And my finals grades are going to suck. And nobody else at school who's gay will talk to me because they think me and Erich are together, and being seen with me means people think you are.

I walked into the music room where the twins were nowhere to be seen. I knew the twins were asleep in their rooms, and realized how unusual that was. Ordinarily, they would have sat up with me for a while, and then fallen asleep on the couches. I wondered why they had gone to bed instead, but could come up with no answer. I returned to the entertainment room and stopped behind the couch, looking over David's shoulder at his bulge. I found myself fondling my own groin and looking at David's. I was hard, and now very horny. I very badly wanted to get closer to David's body, to touch him, and feel his groin under my exploring hands.

There I go again! It's like I can't stop it! He'd hate me if he knew how much I thought about having sex with him! Or if he knew what I kept thinking about doing to him. But I keep thinking it! Stop it!

Angry with myself, I dropped onto the other couch and curled into a ball with my back to David and the rest of the room. I was too wired to sleep, so after a few minutes I ended up in the music room, sitting at the keyboard. I plugged in the headset and turned on the Oberheim. I played the entire Paradise Theater album, wanting to be as good as I could at it for the show.

That idea caused enough nervous energy to have kept me awake even if I hadn't just done two lines of coke. I played it okay, messing up on places I shouldn't have, but it wasn't too bad. I hummed lines, sung the low ones. Once through the album, I went to the bathroom for lines, to the bar for a soda, next to David on the couch for a long, lingering look, and then returned to the Oberheim to play again.

I found it almost incredible that I was going to play those songs on a stage, with an actual band, and at the student union. It seemed more like a dream than any kind of reality.

After the second playing of Paradise Theater, I was sure I was about as good as I could get at it without lots more practice. Even though it had been nearly eight months since I had played it, I had played it nearly constantly for two years, and those two years came back easily enough. I had heard the songs countless times, and had often closed my eyes and seen myself playing them, alone or with Toby. I had even let my fingers go through the motions from time to time. It was almost as if I had known I would need to keep the muscle memory intact for future use. Perhaps I hadn't totally given up the hope of playing again those eight months ago.

I did more coke, and then played the album again. The heavy emotions of Toby's memory were lighter, ever since I had discovered the truth of my visits with him, and playing the album now wasn't so sad. I was able to enjoy the music again. Happy with how well I could play it again, I barely resisted the urge to play "Tainted Love" and "Jeopardy." Instead, I played the three Thorogood songs. I almost, almost, wanted Kevin to ask me to do them again. That thought was no longer so frightening.

After more cocaine, my resistance failed, and I ended up playing them. "Tainted Love" and "Jeopardy" filled the headset, and I sang along loud enough to hear myself even beneath the headphones.

I knew playing them would make me think of Toby, but that wasn't so bad. It was that they made me think of Jeff that was horrible. I was soon sliding downward again, feeling sad and angry. It made no sense that he could be so afraid of himself, and of our relationship, and of others knowing about us, while Erich was so unconcerned about what anyone thought about us, even though he wasn't gay and there was nothing like a relationship between us.

Soon I was thinking of Erich, too. And Darrel Myers. And wondering who had bruised Darrel's face, and why they had asked him to hide their identities from me. And how Erich could be so cavalier about the entire situation, especially if he wasn't Puppy Dog, or even gay.

Trey. No. That hadn't happened. And I'd ended it with the note. Over.

Suddenly my back muscles were sore and aching, and my arms felt so tired that they trembled. I was too weak to play anymore, but my mind was racing.

I had already made up my mind to stop being seen with Erich around school, and to stop getting rides home from him, so I threw that worry out as I sat at the Oberheim. Kevin had agreed to pick me up after school and take me to practice at the twins', so that was taken care of. I had also decided on not going to the breakfast table, so that the guys there wouldn't have to put up with any stigma from being seen with me. Another deep worry kicked off the premises. I was also going to go to the library or the computer lab instead of lunch to spare the lunch guys for the same reasons. Another ejected squatter.

So many changes, again. But, at least I'm in charge of these. They aren't forced on me. Not totally, anyway. There's just no reason to make them all suffer for treating me decent. I can prevent that, so I will. I'll just go back to the way things were before high school. At school, anyway. Sort of.

Now I got the band. Maybe Tom and me will get back to normal around his mystery schedule. Maybe he's just got a lot on his mind and hands right now. I should talk to him, make him tell me what's going on. I think I will Sunday, if he comes over. He always makes me tell my shit to him, time to turn it around on him. I won't lose his friendship without a fight. Jeff, well, Jeff I done fought for. A lot. A hell of a lot. Again and again. I can't keep doing that forever. If he's so wimpy he can't be seen with me anymore, then how can I change that? He wants to be macho, but he's a coward.

Oh, geeze. Why can't I stop thinking about the same old shit?

Angry again, and sad, I turned off the Oberheim and stood up. My back complained loudly and my legs were nearly asleep. I stumbled to the entertainment room. It was almost seven o'clock. I knew the twins would be asleep until nearly noon, but I didn't know how late David would sleep. I looked at him again, wishing I could wake him up and take him to a bedroom.

Geeze. Thinking the same old shit. Over and over. Stop. I'm gonna go crazy!

The coke was wearing off, my mind slowing down, and I felt as if I could sleep for a week. My muscles ached, and were screaming at me to lay down.

I fell onto a couch, glad that thinking was becoming almost impossible. A thought would rise, but be swamped and vanish before having a chance. My brain felt as if it were in a whirlpool.

Bet I don't have the nightmare. Can't even think. Maybe get four hours of sleep. If I don't dream the nightmare. Be good to sleep some... instead of that... same old...

... stench of gasoline.

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


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

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

Jeff in his uniform and Trey waiting in glee, grinning. Eric scowling, horrified, ready to run. All as always.

I could only watch and die.

Erich, naked, confused, worried, scared, seeing me, then running to help. As always.

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

Please, Erich, Dad, RUN!

He opened the door of the van. I wanted to grasp his outstretched hand. Instead I kept turning the key, and the starter whined, and the engine coughed and sputtered.

Pop, whoom, an orange light. I was knocked against the van door, my still sore temple striking the pillar.

Everything went fuzzy, wobbly, blurred. Dad yelled my name in horror. Jeff and Trey called my name mockingly, laughing together. Erich called my name, full of horror and fear and agony.

Flames on the dashboard. Heat. Smoke. Fear. Flames on Erich. Eric walking away.

"You'll let Tom and Ryan fuck you, even thinking about letting him! But not me! Who do you love?"

"You want him? You can have him," Trey said, slamming the door behind Erich as he writhed in agony in the seat.

No! Let him go!

Erich's skin reddened, blistered, split open.

I coughed uncontrollably, painfully. My eyes stung, watered, refused to close, focused on Erich's agony. I couldn't breathe.

Jeff laughing from the near door, holding it closed, "Yeah! Take it bitch! How you like that? Huh? Take it!"

I heard others laughing, and Erich wailing in agony, curled into a ball, his burning skin and muscle hissing and popping.

The smoke increased. The heat increased. My fear increased. Erich's wails increased.

"Come on, man! I dare ya! Just one time!" Trey taunted.

Two bodies, wailing parents, Jeff and Trey smiling, laughing, high-fiving.

Panic. Flames. Heat. Smoke. Fear. Their laughter. His dying wails of agony.

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 and Trey wanting me to burn, enjoying the spectacle, Eric walking away, Erich's death for wanting to help me.

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

All of it fading, but clearly Jeff saying, "Now I can play ball!" and Trey, "I loved you first!"

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

Then they grew dim, hazy, irregular, then ceased.

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The Circle parts I and 2 are now available as EPUB/Kindle/PDF at my website here.
The Circle 3 will be available around January 2014.
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