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Track 8

"Haven't We Been Here Before?"

Part Three

The Show Must Go On

I didn't cry. I beat anger viciously, watched that last bar fall, and anger prowl out, looking for prey.

Okay. Okay. So, it's like that. I don't know why, or understand why, but they want it like that. Okay. Okay. Music. Coke. Speed. Bad grades. Fame?

Fueled by the anger, which kept the tears far away, I marched back to the door, finding David turning back toward it, holding it open.

"Hey!" I shouted.

He had stepped into the doorway, but stopped at the sound of my shout. The stoners and smokers were ignored as I closed on him as quickly as I could.

"Where'd ye go?" he asked.

"Needed air," I growled, walking past him without a glance.

I knew he wouldn't like what I had decided, but he wasn't living my life. Unfortunately for me, I was.

"Ya'kay mate?"

"Fucking fine," I growled.

I marched through the crowd, where everyone could see me. I passed two tables away from Tom and Jeff and the jocks, and I almost looked at them. I saw them from behind as I approached, though, and didn't change course. I walked up onto the stage from the visible side, and took my seat.

I stared solidly at the Oberheim. I was literally bouncing in my seat. I looked over as David walked toward his side of the stage. He threw me a worried glance. I scowled, letting my anger show. He looked away.

If he don't like that I do coke, he'd have to deal with it, I decided. I'm going to be. And speed. And smoking a lot of grass. And playing music. Changes.

And I needed to maintain my anger, or I would fall into a blubbering mess. I'd lose it, in public. In front of everyone. And them.

When Kevin walked up to the microphone, there was applause. He waited for it to die down some before he said, "Well, it's been grand, and we've had a great time playing for ya tonight. We've got fifteen minutes to go, so how about we end the night with some upbeat stuff? A couple of new songs we've been working on doing?"

There was some applause.

I relaxed a fraction, knowing that I hadn't practiced any new songs with them that they had been working on, so I wouldn't have to do anything.

"Alright. Thank you. We're going to give you a peek behind the stage, so to speak, tonight. Sometimes a band needs to experiment a little, do things they haven't gotten practiced and polished yet. So tonight, since we've got a few more minutes, you get to see how a group works on new songs together. The guys and I know this one, and we just this week heard our keyboardist doing it, but he has his own take on it, and we like it. We haven't all played it together yet, so it might be kinda rough. So, once we're done, let us know how we did playing Alex's take on Jeopardy, by Greg Kihn."

Jeopardy? They heard? Fuckers! I didn't mean for that to be heard! I was just fucking around by myself! And I have to scream it to make it sound good. And he's out there! They're both out there!

The anger stopped prowling suddenly, perked up its ears, sensing an opportunity.

I shook my head furiously at Kevin, hoping to get him to change his mind.

The room was clapping.

He started clapping himself, nodding at me.

I felt myself suddenly sweating much more.

Ryan walked over behind me and said, only loud enough for me to hear, "You rocked it, man. Just do what you did before."

What I did before? Think of singing it to Jeff? Right. With all these people here? And Jeff? And Tom? After what I just heard?

Anger crouched, tensed on its hindquarters.

It was too perfect.

I'm already on stage. Fuck! I'm on stage! And playing keyboards. Fuck! I just played Paradise Theater on stage! Holy fucking fuck! And now, do that song? With him here? With Tom here? Like this? In front of all these people? Just exactly what would fry his noodle if not that?

Anger purred in anticipation, still tensed to leap.

And he's here. And Tom. And I always wanted it public. And he was so afraid of it. And here we are.

Shine. Let them hear you.

Fucking perfect.

Anger pounced.

I sat up straight, wiped my forehead with my forearm, and snapped my arms out in front of me over the keyboard. I punched the right buttons for the right sounds. Someone hit the cymbal repeatedly for time.

The synthesizer part was simple and repetitive. Once you knew the melody sections, you basically just repeated them at the right times.

I started, someone drummed, someone played guitar.

"Oh, oh, ay, oh..."

I closed my eyes, but I stared at them. Or where they would be behind the lights.

"Where were you, when I needed you. You could not be fo-o-u-und..."

The lyrics were meaningful to me, and I let it show. I put my feeling into them, making them mine.

"What can I do, well I believed in you. You were running me aro-o-u-und..."

While I sang it very much the way Greg Kihn did, I put more growl into it, sang it lower and at a much louder volume. There was anger in the sound, and anger behind the voice, and it growled up out of me. I heard that they also played much harder, stronger, made the song much more rock than Greg had.

"You can take it, as a warnin', or take it, any way you like..."

I poured it out, screamed it out.

"It's the lightning, not the thunder, you never know when it's gonna stri-i-i-ike..."

The guys all came in on the chorus, sounding almost practiced. I didn't sing the chorus. My voice didn't need to be added to their smooth rendition.

"Our love's in jeopardy, baby! Oo-oo-oo!"

How can a song written by someone who's never met me have lyrics that tell the truth of my situation right now? I wondered. Is this very moment the reason I already loved the song? Did I sense this coming?

"Our love's in jeopardy, baby! Oo-oo-oo!"

I jumped back in with the main lyrics, throwing myself into them, burning them into the air.

"Don't get cute, don't get funny now, it's later than you think..."

It was so very late.

"Oh what's the use, save your money now, it's hangin' on the brink..."

My voice was begging for understanding. I pleaded for him to not let go. I'd been holding on so long. I knew it was so hard to be all alone. And I knew he wasn't that strong.

While singing and playing it with Jeff, I had no idea how true the words would become.

Again, the guys had good timing on the choral section. Then the hardest section for me, leading into a duo with a guitar, and I had no idea who it was going to be. And I knew his part was a bitch, too.

Someone played rhythm, someone else the heavy bass, someone else took the hard lead and whining notes. I refused to move my eyes to see whom. The twins drummed powerfully. I punched the keys, carrying the weight of the song.


"Don't let go, while I'm hangin' on, 'cause I've been, hangin' on so long! It's so hard, to be all alone. I know you're not that strong, yeah, yeah."

I could hear my voice raging from the speakers behind me. It almost knocked me off my timing until I ignored it. I sounded good, even to myself.

Again, the chorus. The guys sounded great.

I added, "Double jeopardy, baby," so low and smooth.

I hadn't expected that smoothness, it hadn't been present before. I put it down as my my new voice getting settled.

Drums and synthesizer duo, with guitar playing in fits and starts before joining in fully and then dragging out that wavering note. Whoever it was, was good.

The last round and the crash ending.

We did it.

I did it.

Anger licked the blood from its chops, but the tears had come. I hoped that my tears weren't visible, or, if they were, that they were taken as sweat from belting out the lyrics at nearly the top of my lungs. I felt almost good. Almost... cured. But tight.

I heard Kevin saying thank you, and then, "Our time isn't up, we have time for at least one more song. Also a new one for us as a group, but we think we're ready to try this one out on you, too. We've never played it together as a whole group before tonight, either, so after the song, let us know how you think we did. This is another one we know Alex can play and sing, we've just never done it with him. He's got his own take on it, too. It's easy for us, but Alex has all the hard parts."

Again? Now what fucking song did I play at some point that all these assholes heard me and know I can do? It has to be the twins telling them. That has to be it!

I looked over at them accusingly. They returned simple grins of absolute enjoyment. I just didn't know if they were grins from playing music, or from playing me.

If they're how Kevin knows about Jeopardy, that means...

Anger paused, sniffed the air, licked the last of the blood from its chops, and then perked its ears toward the next victim.

Kevin pointed at Wil and Terry on bass guitars who started a throbbing, bouncy rhythm.

"That's about all we gotta do for the whole song. It's up to Alex to do the rest. You might have to encourage him a little with some sound of your own. Come on, give him a hand and I'm sure we can get him to do Tainted Love for us."

The crowd was already clapping in time, but got louder when he named it.

I couldn't believe it. It was as if my entire life was on some television somewhere that everyone ran off to watch when they weren't around me, watching me do everything that I thought I was doing alone.

Kevin turned toward me, pointing with both arms, then clapping. Eventually he was close enough that I could tell he was saying, "Do it."

Do it?

You have no fucking idea what you're doing to me here! Jeopardy was bad enough. And hard enough. Tainted Love, too?

Anger crept on its belly beneath the foliage, toward the scent, alert and still hungry.

Wil and Terry were side by side, bouncing side to side in synch to the bluesy bass line they were pounding out. They weren't facing the crowd, but me.

Fuck. This is gonna fuck with Jeff, so big time. Oh my God. Well, obviously not of my doing.

The twins were laying a very easy tempo with damped cymbals and light drums. They had plenty of time for a hand to be free to repeatedly gesture, "Come on" at me.

But it meant so much, I thought. Toby and Jeff.

Toby had said he knew he would always have to share me, and he liked reminding me that I should share him with others. He'd made me promise to do so. And to play. And to let them hear me. And to shine.

The song means more to me than almost any other song! It's Toby, almost incarnate! It was the last song we played together! And I shared it with Jeff that last day we were together! And now I'm supposed to play and sing it in public? With Jeff right here?

Why is Kevin trying to make me sing it? Does he know about it and me and Jeff? Everybody seems to know all about me. He can't. He knows I can do it, though.

How can I? With Jeff right out there. Sitting with Tom. Here, in public, at the student union. In front of most of the school.

The anger growled.

Why not? Jeff wants to keep himself secret. And he says we're wasting our time if we don't do what he thinks is so important. And he says we're just not compatible. And he wants away from the fag so he can play baseball. Fine.

Fuck it.

Anger sprang from cover and charged.

I nodded along with their tempo, dropping myself into myself and the keyboard. With the bass line laid, and the tempo held by those damped cymbals and drums of the twins, all I had to do was just a few different notes. I set them up, tuned levels, and dropped into the start of the song.

With my first note, the twins hit the bass drums and carried the low end.

Only thoughts of Jeff could fill any gaps in this song, and if not him, then Toby. But Toby only meant a little hurt now.

I could feel it. I had lived it, and still was.

So I did it. I stared where I thought Jeff was, and went with it.

I played the effects on the upper keys, the melody on the lower.

Keep the weird but fascinating rhythm going.

Boop, boop, pause, honk, honk, melody.

It was vastly different with two bass guitars and the twins on drums, but it was the same song. My left hand had nearly nothing to do, my right knew what parts to play by long, old habit. I gave more thought to my voice, and those meaningful lyrics.

While once they had been interesting, they had become fascinating shared with Toby, and then beloved, and then loved again when shared with Jeff. And now they were the very litany of my life.

Not too loud, not too rough, yet, "Sometimes I feel I've got to," hard stab, again, "run away, I've got to," hard stab, again, "get away, from the pain you drive into the heart of me."

Low and wavering, the way I had earlier, when I thought I was alone at the twins'. But smoother now, not as rough, knowing that the microphone was turned up and all I had to do was breathe it.

How can yet another song, written over two years ago, and become so important to me for other reasons, have lyrics that tell the truth of my situation right now? I wondered.

"The love we share, seems to go nowhere, and I've lost my light," louder with each of the next words, "for I toss and turn, I can't sleep at night!" Rising low, hollow tones on the keyboard, lower and softer vocal, "once I ran to you, now I run from you," slightly louder, stronger, "this tainted love you've given," just a little louder now, "I give you all a boy could give you," a little louder with each next word, a little stronger, rising, "take my tears and that's not nearly" with full force, "ALL! OH!"

All those times singing and playing it with Toby, and I'd had no idea how true the words would be some day.

Soft again, but still with power, delivered in that smooth but almost growling style my new voice possessed, "Tainted love," pause for their choral join, "tainted love. Now I know I've got to," hard stab, again, "run away, I've got to," hard stab, again, "get away. You don't really want any more from me to make things right, you need someone to hold you tight," a little louder, "and you think love is to pray," louder again, but holding back, "but I'm sorry," louder, but not full force, "I don't pray that that way!"

Softer again, "Once I ran to you, now I run from you," the rising low, hollow tones again. Voice low, soft, "Once I ran to you, now I run from you," slightly louder, stronger, "this tainted love you've given," just a little louder now, "I give you all a boy could give you," a little louder with each next word, a little stronger, rising, "take my tears and that's not really" with full force, "ALL! OH!"

Soft again, but with power, growling, "Tainted love," pause for chorus, "tainted love." Loudly, firmly, "Don't touch, me, please!" softer, "I cannot stand the way you," loudly out low, "tease!" Softer again, "I love you though you hurt me so." Louder and growing stronger with each word, "Now I'm gonna pack my things and GO!"

Softly, with the rest of the guys in chorus, "Tainted love, tainted love, tainted love, tainted love, touch me baby, tainted love, touch me baby, tainted love, oh-h-h, tainted love."

I heard them fading out. I played the strong, punctuating notes solo, sang, "Tainted love," softly with each. Softer each time. I changed the settings for the lower keys as I played those lonely notes, repeating, softer, softer, out.

They want me to play it, fine, I will. All of it.

Anger purred.

I switched the settings for the upper keys to play the low, lonely, hollow notes of the remixed version of, "Where Did Our Love Go."

Then I played the piano opening on the lower row of keys. Nearly sounding like a piano, anyway, but with heavy electronic overtones, a humming quality, almost hollow.

Jeff, you'll never be ready, will you? And you want the baseball team. And they won't let you have me. I can understand, but that don't mean I agree. So, fine. If you love something, let it go. Right?

Soft, low, and rough, "Baby, baby, where did our love go? Oh, don't'cha leave me, don't'cha leave me no more. I've got this burning, yearning, yearning feeling inside me, ooh, deep inside me, and it hurts so bad. You came into my life, so tender-ly, with a burning love, that stings like a bee. And now that I'm surrounded, so helplessly, you know I believe, you wanna leave me."

I begged. I pleaded. My voice rumbled out the desire.

"Oh-h-h, baby, baby, where did our love go? Oh, don't'cha leave me, don't'cha leave me no mo-o-o-re. Oh, baby, baby, where did our love go? Oh, don't'cha leave me, don't'cha leave me no more. You came into my life, so tenderly, with a burning love, that stings like a bee. And now that I'm surrounded, so helplessly, you know I believe, that you wanna leave me."

Had he changed so much? Or had I? Or was it he just wanted away from me?

"Oh, baby, baby, where did our love go? Oh, baby, baby, don't'cha leave me no more. I've got this burning, yearning, yearning feeling inside me, ooh, deep inside me, and it hurts so bad. Oh, baby, baby, baby, where did our love go? Oh, don't'cha leave me, don't'cha leave me no more. And now that I'm surrounded, so helplessly, I believe, that you wanna leave me."

How could I want him, when he couldn't deal with who he was? What he was? What we were. Not even around Tom. But he could hang around with Tom and the jocks.

"Baby, baby, where did our love go? Where where did our love go? Where did our love go? Where? Where? Where did our love go? Now that I'm surrounded, so helplessly, I believe, that you wanna leave me. Where did our love go? Where? Where? Baby, baby, where did our love go? Oh, don't'cha leave me, don't leave me no more. I've got this burning, yearning, yearning feeling inside me, ooh, deep inside me, and it hurts so bad."

It hurts so bad! He's not what I want, after all. Not even close. He's too cowardly to face himself, or us, but he wants to be the big man in charge. And now he doesn't even want me as a friend.

Fading softer with each repeat, "Baby, baby, baby..."

Where did our love go? Nowhere. It just changed. You changed. I changed. We changed. All of us. And we'll keep changing. It's just the way things are.

The lonely notes fading, softly, that sole, low note to punch home the truth.

Then it was over.

I hurt. Anger sat on its haunches, licking its paws, sated at last.

I don't know what I looked at as I marched off the stage. I didn't care if they were done or not - I was. I hoped that the tears were well hidden by the sweat that still poured off my face. The salty tears and sweat made my eyes blink repeatedly, stinging them. I wiped at them, but it did nothing useful, only made my vision worse, the blinking faster, the stinging worse.

My emotions were worn raw, and my throat matched. I had played all night in near bliss, then Paradise Theater in front of an audience, and them. Then ended up baring my heart by playing two songs that meant very much to me personally with two very close relationships. And unexpectedly. And with one of them in the audience. And I had ended the night with the realization that I would lose our friendship, and Tom's as well, and that they wanted it that way.

I marched to the backstage room. Someone put their hand on my shoulder and tried to stop me, or turn me around. I resisted, trying to escape the stage, the crowd, the noise, the pain, the humiliation. I heard someone call my name. The loudness of the speaker system had my ears ringing, and I noticed it for the first time.

I hadn't recognized David's voice when he called my name, and only when I saw him did I know who had called me. He was grinning from ear to ear and put up a hand for a high-five. I had no matching joy to offer, only stood motionless, wanting to leave.

"Alex! You fucking rocked ass!" he was screaming at me. "You got 'em fucking screaming for you, mate!"


I didn't care, at first. But then I remembered that the band was all that I had left. I still wanted away, though. But more of them came, surrounding me. I was trapped in a circle of smiles and congratulations, and all I wanted was silence, solitude.

"He said they're fucking screaming for more! The chicks loved it! Jeopardy, too! You fucking killed!" Adam said as he joined us.

"Alex! Man! You fucking kicked ass!" Bill said, slapping me on the back. "There were girls in the front, crying!"

"Oh-my-God!" Brent said, running up to join the ring of bodies that trapped me. "Alex! Holy shit, dude! That was amazing!"

Ryan came next, adding another brick to the wall surrounding me. "You just became famous!" he claimed. "They're out there shouting for more!"

His wide grin seemed a mockery of joy to me.

"That spotlight is hot, huh?" Kevin asked, throwing a roll of paper towel at me.

Anger perked up, snarled.

"You... wait... what? You had the light on on me?" I asked, agog.

"Fucking-a, I did," he said with a grin and a nod.

"You made me sing those songs... and with a light on me?"

"Fucking-a, I did," he said with a grin and a nod.

"You heard me doing them at the twins'!"

"Fucking-a, I did," he said with a grin and a nod.


"We heard you on the intercom when we went downstairs for food all the time," he said with a grin and a nod.

Oh, fucking Christ! The intercoms are automatic if you set them to it. Sound activated. Fucking idiot!

David took the roll of paper towel from my hands and tore several sheets from it, then moved to wipe my face. I knocked his hand away with a glare. I snatched the towels from his hand and removed my glasses with the other. I held the rough paper sheets over my eyes, squinting into them, forcing out the tears and sweat. I wiped my face and forehead.

"Okay. My fault. I forgot that," I said softly.

"Fault?" Kevin asked.

I sighed.

"I didn't mean for anyone to hear those songs. They..."

I sighed again, this time into the paper towels as I held them over my eyes. I was so very close to tears that all I had to do was let down my guard for the smallest fraction of a second, and I knew it. I also knew that anger was only going to purr and roll around on its back if I tried to rely on it. I poured what energy I had left into my last safeguard from the tears.

"Oh, I get it," he said gently. "Yeah, we all got those kind of songs. Sorry. Didn't know. Just thought you were practicing them before you surprised us with 'em. Sorry, man."

"My fault," I said again.

The breathing exercise was working, as usual. I sniffed, then exhaled shakily. I took more paper towels from David and wiped sweat from my glasses as I said, "I should've thought of the fucking intercom. I knew it could work like that. Fucking stupid."

"Yeah, maybe, but listen," Kevin said, pointing toward the front of the building.

The crowd was singing, "Tainted love, oh-oh-oh," over and over.

Kevin said, "Come out last, and watch!" with an evil grin. "Let's wipe 'em out? Wild style!"

The other members of the band understood, and obviously agreed, like some kind of inside plan. David seemed to catch on. When he saw me and the twins looking as we did, he said quickly, "Brainy plot ahead," with a roll of his eyes.

"What the hell?" I asked anyone.

Surely he didn't think I was about to go back out there, did he?

Kevin walked out and to the microphone.

"Thank you! Thank you. You're a great crowd! Thank you!"

Wil grinned in a way very much like Kevin had, then formed everyone into a line ending with Brent, Ryan, David, and then myself last. Kevin waited for the applause to lessen before he continued. He knew how to work people.

"I'm not going back out there," I said firmly, despite the shaking.

Ryan, who grinned like a banshee, said something to David, then turned around to face his brother's back and the stage. David turned around and put an arm over my shoulder.

"Alex, don't be a wanker. You got talent. You can play like nobody I know, and your voice is so wonderful. Don't be shy to use what you have."

Let them hear you. Shine. Both in a Georgia accent.

"I can't. I'm a coward."

"No, you're brave. I heard about what you said to that Charlie bloke. How you told him you're gay. Right there in front of the school. In front of everyone there. Fucking brave, that. I've never told anyone. And then you stood up to Kevin, then made friends with him, end up in the band. Amazing. And what you said to that Myers arse. Right there in the shop classroom, in front of the others, just to protect a friend from a rumor. You're amazing."

"Amazing? I'm standing here about to piss my pants, and you call me amazing? I told Charlie Derek I was gay, not my friends, so he would leave them alone. That's why. Not to be brave. And what happened with Kevin was all accidents. Nothing but accidents. And Myers, like Derek, was to protect a friend, clear them from the shit I have to face every day. That's all. Nothing brave!"

"Ya just won't see yourself as the wonderful guy ya are, will ye, ya thick bastard?"

"Wonderful guy? Are you fucking kidding me?" I asked angrily, meeting his eyes.

If I'm so fucking wonderful, why am I losing all my friends? Why am I all alone?

"No. I'm not. At all. You, cute, sexy-voiced, keyboard god. Come back out and take your applause like a man. Ye play like a master, and ye sing like a hung angel."


Then David kissed me. On the lips. Before I knew what he was doing, it was over. He leaned back, red in the face.


"D-d-d-d-did, you j-just, k-k-kiss m-me?"

He laughed.

"Did you miss it?"

He did it again.

"Catch it that time?"

I was stunned. Even more than when Ryan had.

Oh, my gawd. Did Ryan put him up to it? Of course! For some reason, he says we can't mess around anymore, so he can't tease me about it anymore, so he sends David in to do it. Why did David do it? Does it matter to him that much if I go back out there?

David just kissed me! Holy shit! Deal with that.

He was biting his lower lip, probably wondering what my reaction was going to be. I could only think of one thing.

I kissed him, to my own surprise. To my further surprise, he didn't pull away. He kissed back. His soft, warm lips were moving with mine in an uncoordinated, clumsy way. It was strange. It was weird. It was wonderful!

Oh my God! Are all Brit guys this casual about kissing other guys? I gotta move there! Holy shit!

His hand went to my groin, where he squeezed firmly.

He pulled his face back, said, "Come play and sing. And later I'll make you glad you did. Ryan said I could come over for the night. We could use a guest room."

His hand squeezed me gently. His long, straight, red hair hung evenly on both sides of his face, framing his vivid blush, his sparkling gray-blue eyes, his red lips shiny with moisture from my own. He was deadly gorgeous.

I couldn't breathe. At all. I squeaked a bit, though. I was stunned beyond comprehension. His words made no sense, I only knew that I wanted to make him happy.

"Uh... uh-kay."

He smiled widely, squeezed again, then let go. He hugged me, kissed me quickly, then took his arm from around me.

"Come on," he said, then turned to the door leading to the stage.

I watched him walk quickly out to the stage, wondering if there was any chance that he was actually gay. Or, at least, going to keep his hinted promise, or if it was only to get me back out there.

"Also on drums, the Thompson twins, Brent and Ryan!"

There was thunderous applause, and a sample of, "Wipeout." The crowd went insane.

"And David Martin on electric piano."

There was applause.

David kissed me! Just to make me come out there. That's all. With Ryan's hinting, I'm sure. They obviously talk outside the band. Or when they can in band meetings. A lot. Too much.

They were all playing their instruments softly now. It was a slightly familiar tune, but I couldn't place it.

"And finally, the guy who beat the daylights out of me without using a single hand, and so bad I had to make him the new digital keyboardist! On keyboards, and vocals, Alex Raymond."

I wasn't sure, but the applause did seem to rise to a high. There were whistles, too.

I walked out and sat down without looking up, feeling like an animal on display. Anger took notice, but didn't stop purring. I never looked up from the floor as my feet moved across it until I sat down.

"Thank you for a great night!"

I couldn't stop thinking that I was on stage. In front of people. And I'd sung and played. And they'd liked it. And Kevin had gotten me to sing and play those songs. In front of, and on my own initiative directly to, Jeff. I wondered if he had fled in horror.

I heard Kevin asking how they had liked "Jeopardy." He got a response. Then he asked about "Tainted Love." He got a response. He said goodnight again, said how great a crowd they were, and hoped they'd all be back next weekend and see if we improved on "Jeopardy" and "Tainted Love."

Again? I thought. No way.

"We're gonna leave ya the same way we came in! This time, old school! Guys, wipe 'em out!"

The crowd applauded insanely loudly.

Brian walked to mid-stage, help up a hand, ticked time on his fingers, and the twins tapped in time with him.

"Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha... wipeout!"

The crowd exploded as Brent and Ryan came down on their bass pedals and the low drums at once. I felt the air sucked from my lungs. I wondered if the effect was diminished any by the few additional feet more of separation the crowd had. I doubted it very much.

Brent and Ryan grinned as wide as I'd ever seen them. Everyone went through their switches, except David and I. The next switches, high drums, low drums, high going to low, low going to high, then together so fast that the twins' hands were blurs.

More switches from Brent to Ryan. Switches between Brian and Kevin, Wil to Terry, pointing at the current guitarist with his guitar.

David and I playing our constant backing melody, with him on the bass and echoing the drums, and me shadowing the guitars and vocals. Together on the double stabs.

Then Kevin joined quietly again, as the song drew out toward the rousing ending. Brian twanged the notes high, shaking his guitar. The crowd went crazy. Then the sudden, jolting ending. The crowd was cheering so loudly that the sound level barely dropped.

The house lights came on and the sound system went dead.

My ears were ringing loudly, but I could hear applause and Kevin shouting.

I crouched my way off the stage and dropped onto the couch. Everyone followed, taking seats, laughing and smiling. Their girls came dancing in, grinning and yelling about how great the show was.

"You guys are gonna be famous on Monday!" Kevin told the twins.

"No joke!" Wil agreed.

"What about Alex?" Ryan said, smiling and red-faced. "He's gonna have damp panties hangin' on his locker!"

"And a jock strap or two!" Brent said, laughing.

Everyone laughed. I managed a grin.

I wanted to join them in their enjoyment of my new fame, but I was too deeply worried about it to enjoy it. I didn't want fame. I wanted to stay in the shadows, get along without making any waves. I wanted to remain unnoticed. It was safer that way.

Not only did I fuck that up when I stood up to Charlie Derek, but I double fucked it up when I went and told him I was gay. Right in front of everybody. That was the end of my anonymity. I can't blame anyone else. I could have taken Charlie down the same way without telling him. But I had to, to clear Tom. And my friends.

And then Kevin pulls his hate thing. Idiot. And where do we end up? Playing in a band together. Cripes. What a life. And I end up singing my heart out to Jeff in front of everyone. But only he knew what the songs meant to me. Us. Kevin said they'd heard me playing it and thought it was good. Jeff had to know it wasn't planned and I didn't know we were going to play it.

Still, hope it fucked Jeff's night up.

I laughed out loud.

"I'm serious," he insisted. "Everyone is gonna be talking about how you sung and played the keyboards. Piano and synthesizer, both! And that voice! Come on."

"Nobody'll care. Or noticed," I said.

Except Jeff. And Tom.

"Oh come off it. You jammed tonight! And you blasted out Jeopardy like no one's business!"

"The chicks went nuts!" Ryan said excitedly.

"Everybody is gonna know who you are now," David added, smiling as if he expected me to be happy at such news.

I rolled my eyes and tried to look happy. I joined the bathroom group and smoked heavily. I stayed as others came and went. I snorted their coke.

I was mentally tired, physically exhausted, and emotionally drained, but the coke burned through my body.

"Okay, guys, we gotta tear those drums down and pack everything up. Gonna be a long night, let's toke up and then get started," Kevin said.

I pointed at him.

"I should fuck you up again," I said. "Why the hell did you fuckin' make me sing? I told you I didn't want to a hundred times!"

"And me and everybody kept telling you you can. You proved it, too. Man, you fucking kicked ass. Dead on. Stayed on tune and held notes. You got control, just limited range. You can sing. You just needed pushed. So, I did. You know any other songs you can sing like that?"

I wanted to be angry, but it only rolled around and purred, sated, unable to stalk, let alone kill.

I left the bathroom, but Kevin followed me.

"Nope. Shot my wad. All done. Nothing else I can sing to for a crap," I declared as I sat down.

Kevin looked to the twins for verification. They only shrugged, so he looked back at me.

"Did hear him singing to, Always Something There To Remind Me, the other night. Real good," Ryan said.

Traitor, I thought. I'm surrounded by traitors. I can't have a single secret. Everyone has to tell everyone all about me and everyone has to know everything about me. This sucks.

"Bet he can do The Clash."


"Oh, yeah, ever try One Thing Leads To Another? I bet you can nail that."

"A-cee, dee-cee!"

"Def Lep! Hell yeah!"

"Stop!" I yelled at them all. My deep voice resonated through the room and the noise. "Fuck. I don't know what I can do. Okay? I just got this voice for fuck's sake. And I don't think it's permanent. So for right now, just stick with what we got, and I'll experiment when I got time and see what else I can sing on. For now, I'll just do keyboards on what I know. Okay?"

That had been anger's last belch, and I knew it. I suddenly felt as if I were on a little yellow pill. Conversations restarted. When I glanced over at the twins, Brent gave me a thumbs-up and a huge grin. Ryan matched the thumb and grin.

I gave them my, "Stuff it," look, and both of them threw back, "Give me a break."

The emotional expression exchange went on, until I relented with a sigh.

They were right, I should be enjoying myself.

"You guys got a lot goin' on between you all," Kevin said.

I heard something odd in his voice, an almost jealousy, or longing perhaps.

"Known each other a while. Get along great. The twins are psychic and read minds."

I said it so simply and so deadpan that everyone cracked up.

"Alex can read people like books," Brent said.

"And could talk the Devil outta Hell and into rehab," his brother added.

"Or kick his ass and make him wish he had," Kevin said, lifting his injured foot off the floor.

"Rumors and innuendo," I declared weakly, defeated.

"Evidence!" Kevin cried, again lifting his injured foot.

"Of accidents. I just slipped. I meant to jump over the bench seat, but landed on your foot is all. Accident."

"And kicking my other leg out next? Like a second later?"

"Accident. I slipped on the slick floor, from the soda you poured on me, and when I fell, I ended up sitting down and my legs went out straight. Your leg just was in the way, is all."

"What about the elbow to the egg sack and then my face to start it?" he challenged. "Your arm accidentally slipped? Twice?"

Everyone laughed. I nodded as strongly as I could manage to.

"Don't matter now, anyway," Kevin said with a wink.

"I think he's lying," Kevin's girl said. "I bet he's all trained and shit, in, like, Karate or something. He just don't want anyone to know so he don't have to, like, prove it all the time."

She was an evil one, I thought. Then her friend Cindy spoke up. They were both obviously stoned, well and along.

"Yeah. And I bet he can play keyboards to anything. He just likes being all mysterious and shit. And he knows it's all sexy and shit. I bet he's not even gay."

"Uh-oh. I think somebody wants to test out just how gay you are," Wil said, laughing.

"Oh, I'd love to test that out," she said, grinning in a most worrisome way.

"Uh-oh, I think Alex might have to fight his way out of here tonight," Ryan said, also laughing.

I flipped him off, not feeling like being amused.

The anger was sated, the nervous worry was burned out, and joy and happiness were long ago ashes. I was left with nearly nothing. I felt empty, but energized by the coke.

I let them all enjoy themselves. I was restless. I said that I needed to use the bathroom. I got started in on the packet I had gotten for singing. I crudely crushed a rock until the pieces were fine enough to inhale. I rolled a bill and felt the chunks hit home. They burned strongly, and make me cough, irritating the delicate lining. I sniffed deeply several times, and I felt some of them go into the back of my throat. I figured they would be wasted, so I crushed more, finer, inhaled them through the other nostril, but gently.

I felt as if I were plugged into an amplifier as I rejoined the band. But I was empty.

It took over two hours to pack up and move the drums back to the twin's place. They were strewn about the music room, no effort made to assemble them.

We smoked joints on the couches. I rolled more. The pot was potent, and an entire night of it was beginning to wear on me. The pot, the coke, the speed, and my own emotional wear and tear put me into a numb state.

Everyone was quiet, worn out, but happy, and most were anxious to get back to their girls.

"Okay, we gotta go pick up all the other gear. It's late, so we'll just head home from there. See ya all for practice Monday," Kevin said as he got back up and onto a crutch.

I knew the gear wasn't his primary concern. But I did notice the other problem with what he said.

"Monday?" I asked. "What about tomorrow? Not coming over to practice?"

Kevin looked surprised, then maybe worried.

"Um, nah. Other stuff goin' on," he said, as if caught in a lie.

I was instantly suspicious. I had no reason to be, but I was. He was still hard to read, and his relying on a crutch kept his body language off.

So what if there's no practice tomorrow. Big deal. Just missing a day, is all. Just, it don't seem like they ever miss a chance to practice. They always talked about never missing a weekend practice. And what would they have going on that would stop a practice? And an all-day practice, at that? But, just saying that there's other stuff going on, I think that's the most suspicious thing about what he said. That, and how he said it. Maybe they want time with their girls? Or their other friends? What's it to me?

Goodnights were spoken and high-fives were given. I took part and acted as normal as ever, I hoped, but I kept wondering what was going on tomorrow that was so important that it precluded an entire day of practice. I was too tired to think on it too much. I wasn't even really interested in figuring out David. I was more interested in thinking about how important the band had become to me, especially since I had overheard Jeff and Tom at the student union.

Once they had all left, the four of us spread out over anything horizontal.

"Fucking kick ass," Brent said softly.

"Best, night, ever," Ryan agreed sleepily.

"There is nothing like playing," David said happily.

I wanted to agree, to feel happy, but I felt empty. And energized. There were two large holes in my life where Tom and Jeff had been, and another where Eric had been, and I couldn't help but wonder why they no longer wanted our friendships. Singing those songs in front of Jeff, at Jeff, to Jeff, had helped considerably with the hurt over him. It still hurt to think of there not being any relationship with him, but nothing like it had before tonight. It hurt far more that he didn't want our friendship.

I didn't know which lost friendship hurt more.

I wondered if it was better to not think and just be empty.

I had no idea what the others were thinking, but my mind became occupied with Tom and Jeff. The conversation between them replayed in my mind, no matter how hard I tried to stop it. I didn't understand, and I didn't think that I ever would. I wondered when I would break.

I was surprised that I hadn't broken down into a blubbering, worthless mass of sobs and tears while I heard them talking. That I had still played after knowing the truth, and had played those songs, seemed impossible.

On top of that, I feared having that breakdown right then and there, in front of David and the twins, and then having to tell them what I'd heard in order to explain why.

I wondered how far off that complete mental breakdown was now.

I was as worn out and exhausted as I could remember ever feeling in my life, yet I was filled with nervous energy. I buzzed, hummed, thrummed. But I couldn't move, and could only barely think, so that's all I did. About Tom and Jeff, mostly, but about Eric, too. And Erich. And the impossible reality of Trey. And my likely horrible finals grades, and showering in gym next week, and having to pretend to like the crappy Plymouth when my parents gave it to me, and lying to them, and most of the school thinking that Erich and I were together while I was actually alone. Nearly completely alone.

"What's wrong, Al?" Ryan asked.

"Nothing. Why?"

My voice sounded flat and dull, even to me.

He tisked. That struck a chord, and brought further sadness.

"You should be at least a little happy," Brent said.

I stayed on my back on the long couch, refusing to look at them, not wanting any conversation. I wanted to take David to a room and be alone, see if he was serious, but I didn't have the energy to talk, let alone do anything. The long weeks of lack of sleep, the drugs, the loss of Jeff and Tom and Eric, the trials at school, finals, the band practice, all had taken a toll. The night's events, hearing Tom and Jeff talking together, singing those songs, had been too much. I was emotionally empty, physically drained, mentally crushed.

Brent asked, "Got any coke?"

"You don't need any," I said irritably.

"Yes mommie Alex," he shot.

"Don't tempt me, frosh," I said testily. "You're wiped out. I'll come over there and leave a human pretzel behind."

"Empty threat," Brent replied disdainfully.

Ryan snickered, "Wipedout."

Brent and David snickered, too.

"Only because I had a," horrible night, I thought, though I said, "busy night."

If only they knew, I thought. I lost my two best friends tonight. At once. And I learned they had planned it that way. Fuck me. Why?

No, don't. It'll only make the nightmare worse. Shit. If I sleep, I'm gonna have it. And they'll probably see me having it. Again. How do I explain that? Will they let me brush it off again? Would I, if one of them was having nightmares every night? I didn't let Toby brush his off. But I loved Toby. They don't love me like that.

Parts of Jeff's conversation with the jocks near the auto shop at school, and his conversation with Tom at the student union, played out in my head. They even commingled, becoming one horrible discussion about playing baseball and having a normal life by getting away from the fag.

I slid deeper into the dark mood, and into the darkness, until...

"Sure," I said, leaning forward, moving the Styx medallion, 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, all adorable in his baseball uniform, tossing his ball and catching it in his mitt. Trey, looking hot, dressed all sleek and slick, grinning knowingly. Eric, scowling, ready to bolt like a frightened kitten. Tom, all cute in nothing but a toga, smiling. All of them, just like always.

Tom told Jeff the abominable actuality of what had happened after I had kicked him out of my bedroom. Jeff looked confused at first, then angry.

Erich appeared, confused, worried, scared, naked, saw me, then ran to help.

Jeff and Tom said that it was, "Too bad," when I told Dad that I hadn't started the van.

Erich opened the door and reached out to me.

Pop, whoom, 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, Trey, and Tom all called my name mockingly, laughing together. Erich called my name, full of horror and fear. Eric grimaced in disgust and walked away.

Heat. Smoke. Fear. Flames.

Erich yelled at me to take his hand. I saw his clothing burning, the agony on his face. Tom and Trey shoved him into the van.

"Here, have him," they said together.

They slammed the door shut behind him.

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

"You'll let Tom and Ryan fuck you, but not me! You want Erich to! And I bet you'd let David, too! Who do you love?"



Oh, no! Now he's here, too. Tom and Jeff will throw him into the burning van with Erich and me! No! Why?

How could anything more cruel happen? It was intolerable.


"Alex, please wake up?"


The pain, the fear, the suffocation, even the heat, lessened.

"Wake up, please. Are you okay?"

The heat and smoke was gone, and I didn't have to cough. I realized they were closed, so I opened my eyes. I saw David's worried face. I looked around me and saw that I was at the twins' house. I sat up.

"Oh, man, were you having a real banger of a bad dream," David said softly.

"Tell me," I said quietly.

I coughed a little. I weaved side to side a little. My body still buzzed, but softly. My head was buzzing loudly, and slowly.

"Will you be okay?"

"Yeah. Just a nightmare," I barely croaked.

My voice was barely a whisper, and I didn't have the energy to raise it. I used what little energy I had to wipe at my face and put my glasses back in place. I picked up a joint laying on the table in front of me. I was so weak that it seemed to be real work. I picked up the lighter, flicked it, but was unable to focus my eyes. My hand weaved the lighter and its flame around the end of the joint without actually touching it at all. He took the lighter from me. I blinked slowly at him.

"Come on," he said softly.

I was too tired to argue, to even think about an argument. He led me by the hand through the room, toward the doors to the hall. I saw that Brent and Ryan were soundly asleep on the couch.

"Which rooms can we use?" he asked.

I pointed.

Oh my God! Is he gonna... are we gonna... is this real? Or am I dreaming it? Shit, can I, even?

I still felt that odd sensation of being asleep, yet awake. I was confused. Tired. Exhausted.

He led me to one of the doors, opened it cautiously, turned on the light, and walked in, dragging me by the hand. He closed the door and led me to the bed.

"I think you're exhausted, Alex. You need some real sleep."

I couldn't argue. He took the joint from my lips and put it on the bedside table. He took my shirt off. I wondered how far he was going to undress me. I started hardening a little. He undid the zipper and button on my jeans, then pulled them down. He grinned at me after noticing my condition.

"Maybe in the morning, big boy," he said, his accent thick.

I laughed briefly, once, too tired even for that. He helped me step out of my jeans.

He pulled the blankets back and pushed me onto the bed. He rolled me onto my side, facing him, and then cuddled his back into the front of me, pulled the blankets over us, then pulled my arm over him.

I snuggled tighter to him, feeling like I had been there before. His hair smelled of cinnamon.

I felt myself falling into an inky, endless blackness, was dizzy with vertigo. I shivered.

David pulled his shirt off, then worked on his jeans. Then he snuggled deeper into me, pulling my arm over him again. I felt his body's warmth all along the front of me, chest to legs. I curled around him, settled tighter to him. I was no longer hard at all. He held my hand with both of his, near his face, as I could feel his breath on my fingers. I grinned.

It was all so familiar, yet so strange.

I fell.

The stench of gasoline.

Dad telling me to try starting it again. The damned medallion in the way. Jeff disgusted as Tom told him what I had done to him. Trey scowling then grinning, waiting to watch me die. Eric scowling and hating me, ready to bolt any second. Erich burning.

"Alex, wake up!" David said as the van shook violently.

"I wish I could! Why are you here? Run! They'll throw you in here too!"

"What? Wake up!"


I was between the nightmare and awake, and I knew it. I didn't know where I was, but I knew David had seen me having the nightmare again. I was humiliated. It felt so familiar.

"You okay?" he asked.

I opened my eyes against their will to remain glued shut. He looked worried.

"You were having a nightmare again. Looked as if you were fighting someone. Sounded it, too. You okay?"

I wiped sweat from my forehead and nodded.

"Just a nightmare," I said dismissively.

I rolled away, scooted to sit at the edge of the bed.

Haven't we been here before? I nearly asked, before remembering it had been Ryan.

"You gonna be okay?" he asked, moving to sit behind me, his hand on my arm.

I nodded again, breathing slower and more regularly. The fear and horror were fading.

He sounded deeply worried, his voice soft. His blue-gray eyes looked dulled, and his hand on my arm was firmly planted there.

He moved to sit against me, pulled the blanket over us, then placed his chin on my shoulder.

This is so familiar. But I've never been in a bed with him before. Am I confusing him with Ryan? He's never sat so close to me before. I've never sat together under a blanket, nearly naked together with Ryan. He's never had his chin on my shoulder before. But, damn it! This is familiar!

"Sometimes it helps to share what's bothering you," he said softly. "You might think you can deal, but no one can all the time. Not totally. And not all alone. I've seen you lately. You act like you've the whole world on your shoulders. You don't eat, you don't sleep. When you do sleep, you don't get rested, 'cause you have nightmares. And the stress of finals, too. And having to catch up. And the band stuff. How can anyone keep all that going?"

I was amazed at how much he seemed to know about me. It wasn't everything, but what he knew was quite a bit.

"What are you, a psychiatrist?" I asked, trying to laugh, but only sounding oddly.

I thought of the female doctor in the hospital who never spoke of my physical injuries, just wanted to talk to me. Or, "with" me, as she insisted. I had told her many times that there wasn't anything much to talk about, that I had survived dying, and that I was glad I had. I had been sure that I had fooled her.

I just hadn't fooled myself, I suddenly realized.

I didn't know what to say, and again I didn't want to lie to him. Especially not him, and especially not lately.

"Got a joint?" I asked.

"Yeah. We didn't smoke this one," he said, reaching for the one on the bedside table without moving away from me.

He retook his position close behind me, his body's warmth against me, and pulled the blanket back over us. He lit the joint, then held it as I hit it. He passed it silently between us, his free arm wrapped tightly around me.

I didn't want to tell him. I saw no reason to burden him with my problems, my horrors. He deserved better than that. I tried to think of things to tell him, lies that he would believe, and let the topic end. Nothing came to mind. Other than the odd familiarity of the impossibly familiar situation. I was far too exhausted to think, let alone come up with a defensible explanation.

When the joint was too short to handle further, he tossed it onto the table. He wrapped both of his arms around me, wrapped his legs around me, placed his chin on my shoulder, pressed himself tightly to my back. He waited. I thought. I fought the fears, the horrors, the tears.

The bizarre sense of having been there before, yet not quite.

"Alex, don't be an arse. I can tell there is something hurting you. Nobody has nightmares like that all the time for no bloody reason. I guess I don't know you all that well, but something seems wrong. You were almost depressed after the show. You should've been beaming, but you wasn't. Why are you so skinny, too? What's wrong? Please tell me."

Oh, my God!

I shivered deeply, from feet to scalp.

I couldn't breathe. My breath caught deep in my throat. My eyes grew hot, my cheeks, too. My chest felt heavy.

It's me and Toby! The night I made him tell me about his nightmare! It's all the same! But I'm, I'm the one with the nightmare, and, and David's the one holding me! Trying to help me!

Oh my God!

Oh, fuck! Don't! Not in front of David! Don't fucking cry, you pussy!

I sniffled, tears forcing their way upward and outward. The shivers turned into deep, racking trembling.

I choked on my breath. I swallowed, or tried to. I tried again. My throat wouldn't perform that simple action. I almost gagged as I forced those muscles to do what they had done millions of times before, what they were designed to do. My breath broke over my vocal chords, making an odd, frightening sound.

"Mate, what's wrong?" he asked gently, hugging me even tighter. "What is it? Let me help."

It was too strange, too bizarre. Too hurtful. To be reminded of that painful night, so long ago, while trying to deal with my own fear and horror left swimming inside of me from my own nightmare.

But what I wanted didn't matter. Suddenly my vision blurred and I felt wetness running down both cheeks. My mouth quivered into a frown and my breath stopped cold for several labored heartbeats. I tried not to let the grief run rampant, but it had broken free from its cage so suddenly that I had no defenses against it, no way to control or influence it. It ravaged my world, howling in glee at my pain.

I sobbed suddenly, my breath returning only between them. I put a hand over my face, as if that could hide the fact that I was a weakling.

I tried to stop the sobs, but they were in full control. I could hear Jeff telling the jocks that he had a loose end to tie up. I sobbed more. I saw Eric run away from me. The sobs grew to heaves. I heard Jeff and Tom talking about their plans to be rid of me. I nearly wailed.

I had no sense of time while David held me silently, letting me hold onto him - onto some sort of sanity, or safety, or stability.

"Alex, you gotta talk about it. It'll own you until you get rid of it."

Oh, God! How can this be? Almost exactly the same words, even!

TOBY! I cried internally.

Deep sobs racked me again suddenly, then left just as suddenly. My breath returned. I heaved air in and out of my lungs. I smelled cinnamon, just like Toby's beloved Atomic Fireballs, and his favorite cologne.

"Share yourself," I heard in his sweet, Georgia accent.

I laughed, sounding like a sob. I grinned, but I knew David couldn't see it. I inhaled deeply, held it, released it evenly. I shuddered, but not badly, and not from the same source as the previous ones had come.

"It's the van. I dream about dying in the fire in the van. Every night."

I swallowed with considerable difficulty. I trembled with dread. I was cold, but hot with shame.

"It always starts with me in the van, and Dad looking under the hood..."

I told him the entire nightmare, explaining how it had changed, how others had appeared in it. How vivid and real it always was. How I would sometimes wake up curled tightly into a ball, or in the fetal position, always soaked with sweat, tired, sore. I cried through the entire tale, tears falling rapidly. My eyes were sore and aching by the time I had finished. My guts felt as if I had been working out harder than I ever had in my life. My heart felt strained to bursting, thumping loudly inside of me, yet, lighter, too.

In my head, Jeff, Trey, Tom, and Eric still mocked me, laughing at the weakling, enjoying my grief. It hurt so very much. They had been integral parts of my life for years, my two best friends, and one of my closest of friends. And now they were gone. Or going soon. Leaving me. No longer interested in being even causal friends.

He didn't say anything. He shifted and tightened his hug.

Finally, the tears stopped, and my respiration settled into a more normal rhythm with several deep, shuddering breaths.

For a long time we were quiet. I had nothing more to say.

"Alex, why does Jeff and Tom, and Eric, all act like that in your nightmare?"

I sighed a shuddering breath.

"Jeff I understand, maybe, because you guys didn't work out. Why Tom, though? I was told he's your best friend."

With no hesitation, but with a heavy heart and voice, I gave up more tears and said, "We don't talk much anymore. He leaves the breakfast table as soon as we get there. Even before, as soon as we get to school. And... I know he lies to me. About not having time to hang out. He's not working at Burger King. He stays at school. Never comes over at night anymore. And... I... heard him and Jeff, at the student union tonight. They... were talking about how good it was going to be next week. How Tom wouldn't take me to school anymore. And he was glad that things would be normal for him then."

It hurt so much to tell him that. I was admitting that Tom and I were no longer friends.

"You think Tom is, trying to get away from you?" he asked disbelievingly from my shoulder.

"I know it. I see how he acts, and I heard him and Jeff."

It was as painful as learning of Toby's death. Nearly so, anyway.

"Don't think that. Okay?"

His voice was so gentle, and his arms held me tighter.

"How can't I? I see him every day. I heard him and Jeff," I demanded, anger adding a growl to my words, stirring again.

"You heard part of them talking, but you don't know what they were talking about, I bet. But, Alex, he's not trying to not be your friend. He's... being more of a friend than you know. Trust me."

I did trust him, but I couldn't see how he could possibly be right.

"What about Eric?" he asked next.

I sighed. That hurt, too.

"I saw him at north campus the other day. Near the shops. He, I called his name, he saw me... then he looked, I dunno, scared, and ran."

He made me look back at him. I saw that his eyes were red-rimmed, his cheeks wet. He smiled. He nodded at me, put his head back on my shoulder, kept holding me. I held on tightly. After a brief few minutes, he moved, pulled me backward and onto my side, then spooned into my back this time. He dropped his arm over my shoulder and I moved my arm out of the way. I held onto his hand with both of mine, against my chest just under my chin.

I shuddered a sudden, deep, post-tears, sob.

"I feel like such a wimp," I said softly.

"If you don't go to sleep, I'm gonna knock you out."

"You and what army?"

"Me and the twins. Sleep, or I'll call them for help."

We lay like that for a long time in silence. I began to feel less worried, lighter. And more tired than ever. Weak, and exhausted. Emotionless. Thoughts were few and far between.

I did manage to wonder what weird turn my life was going to take next during the brief moments that I could have a thought. I tried to feel something, but I was empty. It was almost as if I had taken a little yellow pill. My emotions were used up, burned away. Gone. Though I did feel one thing.


"This better be bloody good," he whispered slowly against the back of my neck.

"Thank you."

"For what?"

"For... making me tell you."


His breath down the back of my neck felt warm and comforting.

It was so familiar, from more than one source, but so different, too.

"Now, sleep, or the guys are right down the hall," he warned.

I had no choice, no matter his warning.

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