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"Ya never know when you'll get pranked," Jeff warned. Again, his new speech without his braces, and his new haircut, almost made him seem someone new. "But usually you end up on the plotting side," he added.
"You guys torture each other like that all the time?" Erich asked incredulously.
"Oh hell ya!" we all answered.
Erich looked horrified. I knew what he was thinking.
"Oh, yeah, you'll be the other side, too. Sooner or later. So don't worry about it. Just enjoy it when it happens to ya," I offered.
"Fuck," he said with a grimace, which caused most of us to mentally wring our hands in anticipatory glee. "Please be gentle," he added with a snicker and puppy-dog eyes.
"Bet you've heard him say that before, Alex!" Eric just had to say.
"That was a gentle one," I offered Erich. "And actually, I have heard him say that to me before."
Erich looked horrified. Everyone else laughed.
"He needed his gloves taken off so he could use the john," I lied smoothly, turning it into a joke.
Erich inhaled with relief, and I was sure that most of them swallowed the lie. A quick glance around confirmed it, but two or three didn't seem to have.
'I'm sure,' Jeff said sarcastically with his expression, then said aloud, "I'm surprised Alex didn't offer to hold it for ya, the way you guys took off that day."
Laughter. Except from Erich, whose face darkened even further.
"That was a prank!" Erich insisted.
I saw Tom's light bulb flicker, flash, then hold a steady, bright illumination. That wasn't so bad in itself, though it often turned out badly. Like then. I knew it was coming for a moment as he turned his familiar Circle grin on me.
"About that day," then he turned his expression to Erich and asked, "Who did you guys think we would think you were picking up in the lane, Erich?"
He held his gaze on him as Erich's expression turned from curious to knowing.
Relieved now that I knew it was only that, I saved Erich with, "You finally got that, huh?"
Tom turned back to me, stared deep, then said, "You never thought of it."
I rolled my eyes in defeat.
"Aw, damn," Erich said as he became sure. "I never even thought about picking him up in the lane giving that away!"
"I missed it," Jeff admitted flatly.
"What?" Todd asked.
He wasn't familiar with the north campus, so his brother explained.
"Erich pulled into the pick-up lane, only picked up Alex, and left with him. So how did Erich know Alex wanted a ride? If he was there to pick up someone else, why didn't he pick them up, too? Or at all?"
Several, "Ahs" in reaction.
"Oh, wow!" Eric exclaimed directly at Erich, "You drove off with Jeff's boyfriend right in front of him?"
Erich exclaimed, "I didn't know Jeff was with Alex then! Honest!"
"You knew at all?" Jeff asked, seemingly angry.
"No!" Erich said too quickly. "I mean, until Tom said you guys were together, I didn't have a clue," he said adamantly at Jeff and me.
Erich really wasn't any good at it. At least, not yet.
"Tom! You told Erich that me and Alex were together?" Jeff asked him, infuriated.
"Well, he knew, but I sorta confirmed it," he said, obviously guilty.
"You just sorta told everybody, Jeff," Todd said with a snicker.
Jeff's jaw dropped and he lost color.
"So when did you tell him? That Monday night, right before?" I asked Tom.
"Hell no. Monday night I had to talk to Corless, duh. You didn't even tell me you guys had broke up yet. That was Tuesday, next day. I didn't even know you guys had broke up until after Puppy Dog-"
Tom cut off suddenly. He knew he had just screwed himself.
"So, when did-" Jeff began, not noticing that, before I could cut him off.
"Wait, what?" I asked, hoping to steer the conversation away from the sudden rocks in the path, and already curious on the matter anyway. "You called Corless? After the fight?"
For a moment Tom looked guilty before he changed his expression to a smile.
"Someone had to put some sense back in his head after you knocked it outta there," he said laughing.
"Oh my God! You talked to him that Monday night, and you told him what I told you! That's why his story suddenly was so much like mine and had the Dean all curious!"
He shrugged. Kevin shrugged.
"Oh my God. Now I owe you for that, too. What the fuck?"
I wondered just how much Tom did that I would never find out, which reminded me of a certain list.
"Is this gonna be on that list, too?"
"Probably," he replied with a snicker.
"Better ask if telling me that you thought I was, um, interesting, is on it," Erich said to me with glee, getting payback on Tom and beginning his Circle career.
"Whoa. Wait up," I said, seeming to grow dizzy. "You said that to Erich?"
Tom rolled his eyes and said, "Bastard."
"Yeah, he said that," Erich verified.
"Why the hell did you do that?" from me.
"Hey, you and Jeff were broke up, remember? So I figured you could use a little help moving on is all."
"Moving on?" Jeff asked, still angry. "So, wait a sec. Erich, you didn't know me and Alex were going out yet when the Corless thing happened?"
Uh-oh, I thought. I wonder if I can get outta here somehow? The shit's hittin' the fan if he figures this out.
"Which Corless thing? The band or the fight?"
"Fight," Jeff growled.
"Nope," he said smoothly.
I hoped not too smoothly.
"Or when he was out of school?"
"No. Wait, you guys were? Then?"
Todd started snickering.
"Yes," Jeff said firmly, staring me down.
"You were the one who wanted it all secret, remember?" I said to his face. "So I couldn't tell Erich. And Tom knew you wanted it secret, so what could he say to Erich?"
"Oh my God! So Tom makes me go and make a idiot of myself!" Erich said, also looking a bit angry now.
"Yes, he did, didn't he?" I pointed out, now knowing for sure.
Tom opened his mouth to say something to Erich, but nothing came out. Instead, he looked at me and lost his smile.
"Fuck. You just worked me! You didn't know shit, you just guessed!" he said angrily.
I nodded and grinned evilly.
"Guessed what?" Erich asked.
"That I knew about you," Tom answered.
Jeff gasped in that way I had loved so much, and wore his cutest expression of surprised disbelief.
"Erich is the one?" Jeff asked Tom.
"Well, duh, Jeff. Keep up," Todd offered.
"Shut, up," Jeff growled.
"Oh, touchy, touchy," Todd replied.
"The one, what?" Erich asked.
"And yeah, Erich," Tom confirmed again, this time to laughter.
"I just didn't think, Erich, ya know?" Jeff said, seemingly stunned.
"And just why not me?" Erich asked, offended.
"Because I didn't know you were Puppy Dog," Jeff said.
"Oh, really?" Erich asked. "So, just why not? Oh, wait. What? Puppy Dog?"
"And I didn't know he was Puppy Dog until just now," I said directly to Tom, grinning.
"Again?" Tom asked, stunned. "What? Am I getting that easy to manipulate?"
"Puppy dog?" Erich asked again. "What the fuck? Why do you guys call me a puppy dog?"
Awww, damn it.
"Well, only I did. I didn't want Alex to know who I was talking about."
"Why not?" Jeff asked.
"Because he was with you when I made it up. I said there was someone else giving him the eye, and if he opened his damned eyes he might see who."
"What do you mean?" Erich asked.
"And just why would you want him to see someone else interested in him when you were helping him get with me?" Jeff asked him, cutting off Erich's question.
"He didn't even know you were interested, I had to point it out a hundred times."
"Yeah, and so? That don't explain telling him someone else was interested!"
Jeff was getting angrier.
"It was after you guys' big fight. He was all pissy and shit and needed cheered up is all."
"So you cheer him up by telling him to go after someone else?" Jeff asked, still angry.
"Not going after someone else, just that there... was someone else, is all."
"Yeah, and it helped," I put in before I thought.
Jeff did a double-take before asking, "It helped? It helped to know there was someone else interested?"
I nodded. It had. I shrugged.
"Don't worry, Alex didn't even know until after you guys fought that last time," Tom repeated to Jeff.
"After Tom told Kevin about me playing Styx," I slid in.
"Yup," Tom agreed.
Probably, I thought. But not the time Kevin told me about, now is it?
I glanced at Kevin, who was enjoying the show. He shrugged with a smile, shaking his head; he'd caught it. The band guys were all passing a joint among themselves, chatting quietly, apparently trying to help each other keep up.
"How easy we fall into the pits we prepare for others," I said, telling Tom that I knew.
"What?" Tom asked innocently.
"You also reminded him while you talked about getting out of legal stuff. How if he pressed charges it would go to court and such, and everybody'd know he got his ass kicked by a, fag. You talked him into having me play with the band. How that way, he could have his Styx band, and not have any legal stuff going on, either."
"Oh, ya caught that, huh?"
"Ass-hat!" I shouted.
"It worked out, right?" he asked, grinning again.
"And how did you know how things would go to tell Kevin? Huh? What if he pressed charges, anyway?"
"Duh, dad, lawyer. Hello?"
"Asked him to explain to his folks what was what. She said all she could tell them was what the law had to say in situations like that. The school can't get sued unless it was their fault, and it wasn't. And if he sued you, he'd lose 'cause he came over to where you sat, you didn't go walking up behind him."
"And he mentioned how assaulting a gay student wasn't gonna get me a light sentence, either. Plus I turned eighteen last month," Kevin said.
"O-o-o, busted!" Eric laughed.
"Okay, so it worked out. But it could'a burned ya, or me, if it went wrong."
"Pffft," Tom dismissed my concern.
"So he helped get ya in that band? So? It made it so you got to play. And sing," Jeff said, now grinning.
And I wasn't about to argue that point. He had, and it had. And I had.
"I thought he sang great," Erich said in a soft voice.
"You were there?" I asked, stunned.
He flinched and looked like a deer caught in the glare of oncoming traffic, only to find it's of a flock of sheep wearing miner's helmets; stunned and confused.
"What? Yeah. I got the right to go to the student union, don't I? I didn't know you were playin'. Honest."
If he was gonna play innocent, he had to learn how to look it - he wasn't. Innocent or looking it.
"Who told you?" I asked.
"Nobody," he said, glancing at Tom.
So, I glanced at Tom, but held that glance. And he held it. He finally gave in.
"Fine. I, let it slip?"
He wasn't even trying to cover.
"Where, when, and how?" I asked Tom, then suddenly switched to Erich. "You tell me."
"I know what, Tom, letting it slip, that I was playing. I wanna know when, where, and how he, let it slip, to you."
"Well," he began.
"Then I wanna know why, from you," I said, switching back to Tom.
"Does it matter?" Tom asked.
I almost simply declared yes, it does matter, but for some reason I thought about it. It really didn't. Only why.
"No. Just wanna know why, Tom."
He sighed in his patient way, then said, "Because he deserved to see it."
"If you got famous for doing good, or for fuckin' up. Either one. He'd a wanna seen it."
I had no idea how to count the number of puzzle pieces that suddenly fell into place one after another. Like an avalanche.
"You, fucking, knew, I was gonna end up singing those songs!"
I turned to Kevin.
"So, what? Tom told you to make me do them?"
"No," he said at first. Then, "Well, sorta. I mean, he thought you were good, and so did I, and, uh, now I think about it, fuck if he didn't."
Kevin turned to look at Tom with an expression something like a student whose teacher had just proven something to him that he had always thought impossible.
"And he didn't even actually say to do it. He just, we just, we talked, and, it seemed like my idea..."
Poor Kevin, I thought.
"Both nights? All those songs?" I asked.
Kevin shrugged, indicating it was so.
"So you arranged it so I ended up singing those songs to Jeff?" I asked Tom.
Even I couldn't believe it.
"I thought, when you kept looking where I was sitting, I thought..." Erich trailed off.
"You thought I was singing them to you? On purpose?" I asked incredulously.
He nodded, but barely.
"And where were you sitting?"
He flinched. I saw that I had just hurt him. Without thinking, I had told him I had never even noticed him, even though he was obviously very near where Jeff was sitting. I flinched then.
"The right side, left from looking out from the stage. About three rows back."
Directly behind Jeff from my point of view.
"Oh, my, God. Tom, if you tell me you arranged for him to sit there, of all places, I'm gonna-"
"I sat there because I knew someone sitting there already, is all."
"Well, I don't put it past Tom to have sat that person there to have gotten you to sit there."
Erich looked doubtful, Jeff looked thoughtful, Tom looked surprised. I looked back at Jeff, who now was looking at Tom with surprise. Now, looking at us, Erich looked confused. I looked back at Tom. Now he looked like the rat who just realized he was cornered.
"How?" I asked in a squeak, surprising myself.
He grinned and rolled his eyes.
"I snuck up behind Jeff when the table was empty and sat down and got Thomas to sit with me so Erich would."
"Wow," David said with awe. "I think I'm gettin' a headache trying to follow this."
"Oh, wait, it's just gettin' started," Jeff advised him.
"Yeah, but that one's a whopper," I said, awed myself.
"Oh, of no doubt," Jeff agreed. "And why?" he asked Tom, staring.
"Well, in case."
I had to ask it.
"In case it was Erich he ended up with. I mean, he might'a sung it to Erich."
We were all aghast, but Tom; he looked calm and placid.
"Fuck," Erich finally injected into the silence.
Now Erich was getting it.
"Like I said, it's just gettin' started," Jeff repeated, looking at me.
I had to ask what again.
"There's another question begging asking," he said slowly.
I thought of what Tom had admitted to doing, and wondered what I'd missed. After a moment, I realized, "You got Thomas there?"
"Oh, please. I told him there was someone secretly playing in the band, and he'd find it interesting who, that's all. So he showed."
Tom seemed as if it were all normal to do. Puzzle pieces came together in my head.
"But that isn't even what I meant," Jeff said, prodding me.
When it was obvious that something still eluded me, he continued, "Just how did that table get empty?"
"Behind yours?" I asked, turning to Tom.
"I was workin' the kitchen. Their pizza had, uh, unexpected toppings," he said with one of his best evil grins.
"No, way," Todd whispered, nearly laughing.
Wil gasped and asked, "Holy shit, is Tom like one of those savant guys?"
Tom looked confused, Jeff just grinned and shrugged, and I did a 'dunno' face.
"So how did he get to be able to work in the kitchen?" Kevin asked.
"Ooo! Good question," David said with relish.
"Alex used to work there. I dropped his name and said I wanted to volunteer so I could hear the show."
I blinked again in surprise.
Better than the forced blink and hand spasm, I thought.
"To who?" I asked.
"Mrs. Menger, she remembered me hanging around with you when you worked there."
"Holy, shit," I whispered.
"I just wanted to make sure everything worked out, is all."
He was grinning innocently, as if anyone would have gone so far.
"I think Tom's a tool of fate," Erich said softly, and with a bit of humor.
"Try being the target of it," I opined.
"Tool?" Tom asked incredulously. "Target?" he repeated with some anger. "You wanna talk fate? Let's talk fate. How about you remember the day of the fight with Derek. And right after, when you were all, kinda outta it. Like a zombie and shit, and everybody is celebrating and shit, and you're standin' there like a statue but weaving and shit. Remember that day?"
I did, and I remembered it clearly. That had been when I felt confused about what had just happened. We had turned Charlie Derek and his pushy buddies into vanquished fears. I heard everyone celebrating, but I felt like an ass for humiliating him. And I felt great for the victory. And then I had thought of Jeff. Suddenly I'd seen it differently, seen the whole situation as something I could do something about, instead of something out of my ability to influence. I had been turning puzzle pieces over and around in my head, knowing there had to be a way to get through to Jeff and his mother. Then I had heard it; possibly the only sound in the world that could have sparked the glorious thought that I needed.
"You remember?" Tom asked again.
"You suddenly went all surprised looking, then you looked like you just got the idea of the century, then you said you had to leave. Remember?"
"It was the song, wasn't it?"
How the fuck can he know that? I wondered in awe. So I asked.
"Just the way you reacted, I guess. I figured it was. So before I followed you to the bikes, I looked around for the song."
I waited as Tom drew out his dramatic pause.
"Well? Ain't you figured out who it was yet? Who played that song right then?"
"I don't remember the dee-jay. Or the station," I said honestly.
"No, I mean who played it in their car, dumb-ass!" Tom said, rolling his eyes. "And it was on a tape made off the radio, just like you do," Tom said simply, but wore an expression of expectant payment.
"Red Rider? Lunatic Fringe?" Erich asked innocently.
I snapped my head to face him in astonishment.
How in the holy fuck could he know that? I wondered in complete astonishment.
"How in the holy fuck can you know that?"
"I always wondered why Tom asked me about that that day," Erich didn't answer.
"You? You played it that day?"
"I was waitin' to pick up Steve. I had that tape I made from the radio and played it, and Lunatic Fringe was next, was all. Thought Tom was brain damaged or something, running up and asking me where I got the song that was playin', and why I was there, and shit like that. I didn't know the big fight had happened until Steve came running up and told me what happened. And I just missed it. Was parked right fucking there!"
I looked at Tom with complete astonishment.
"You keep whining about being the target of fate, try being its tool," he complained.
Todd snickered, and we all knew where he was going.
"Shut up, Todd," from all of us older members at the same time.
"So what did my playing Lunatic Fringe right then have to do with anything?" Erich asked.
"And how could you hear it if he was playin' it in his car?" Jeff asked.
"You ain't heard my system," Erich said, grinning proudly. "A thousand watts, and that's just the speakers and amps in back."
"In that thing?" Eric asked disbelievingly.
"If you dis my ride one more time," Erich warned firmly.
"What? You gonna push-start it and chase me around the neighborhood with it? All I gotta do is find a hill to run up to get away from it."
"Bad, Eric," Tom said firmly. "I'm gonna cut you off if you don't shut it."
Erich rolled his eyes and sat back, quiet. For now.
"What the hell? He your pet?" Erich asked.
"Until next weekend, yeah. He lost a bet, and if he don't behave, he don't get any Scooby-Snacks."
Tom pulled another joint from his coat, lit it, and passed it. I noticed that two others were lit and passed as well.
I almost asked about the bet, but knew I would hear of it sooner or later. Instead, I explained, "It reminded me of someone, and what someone said once. And how I was missing one thing, and it was right there in front of me the whole time. That's all."
"It saved his relationship with Jeff," Tom explained fully.
Erich blinked in surprise.
Jeff put his face in his hands and sighed.
"You didn't think it'd stay totally secret, did ya?" I asked, feeling a little bad for him.
"A guy can hope," he said through his hands. "And ya didn't have to put it that way, Tom."
"Let me get this straight," David said. "Alex and Jeff were together, for a while, but it didn't work out. Jeff wanted it to stay a secret. Erich played some song on his radio that reminded Alex of something to help him get together with Jeff in the first place. But later, Alex started going around with Erich, who didn't know about Alex and Jeff. Not until later, after some prank in his car, and then Tom told him about them. But by then, Alex and Erich were together, and Jeff still didn't want anyone to know about him and Alex. But then, Tom gets Erich and Jeff to the union, and talks Kevin into talking Alex into singing a song that meant something between him and Jeff. This was after Alex and Kevin had a fight, but a normal fight, nothing about being, boyfriends, but Kevin and Alex end up friends, and Kevin asks him to play in his band, because Tom told him Alex can play Styx. So Tom puts Erich where he would think Alex was singing to him, too, just in case Alex wanted Erich instead of Jeff and they didn't get back together. So now, Alex isn't with Jeff, or Erich, and don't want to be."
"I was never with Erich. I was with Jeff, but it was too weird. We were friends too long, first. And, we, aren't a good match, for more than friends, anyway. Erich and me was just a prank. On Tom and Jeff."
"So, you was with Jeff, and it didn't work out, but not with Erich, but you're good friends with him. And being together was just a prank. With Erich. On Tom and Jeff."
"Right," several of us said together.
"Right?" David asked.
"Right," I said firmly.
"I'm glad someone understands it," he said, shaking his head. "Now I am getting a headache."
"You'll get used to it and won't get them anymore," Eric told him.
We heard the sound of munching in the silence. We all looked over at Todd and the twins, who were eating chips, watching us.
"What?" Todd asked with what I believed was one of his innocent faces. "This is better than soap operas."
There was another pause.
"I'm not sure I want in this, this..." Wil said solemnly.
"No shit. Everybody knows all your shit," Adam said.
"Yeah, but if anybody messes with any one of us, they mess with all of us," Tom said emphatically.
"Oh. Well, I sure wouldn't want any of you devious sons-of-bitches pissed at me," Kevin said firmly.
"No, you wouldn't," Charlie said softly, the first words he had spoken since Darrel had left. "I ain't hung with these guys too long, but I learned already, the hard way, you don't wanna mess with 'em."
"Oh, I know," Kevin said, hefting his injured foot.
"Is anybody gonna tell me why I was called a puppy-dog?" Erich demanded loudly.
Tom met my eyes and grinned. I saw it coming. I grinned too.
"Because of the way you looked at Alex."
Erich gasped repeatedly in disbelief before he choked out, "I so did not!"
All three of us turned 'oh, please' looks on him. He was literally squirming in mental anguish. I felt sorry for him, knowing exactly what he was going through. And his physical attitude, how he held himself, seemed even more alluring.
"Do you think anyone else noticed?" he asked in obvious agony.
"Probably not," "Nah," "Don't think so," the three of us lied.
His relief was evident.
I couldn't help but think, welcome to the Circle, dude. And to wonder if he really was gay, and if so, why he wouldn't tell me. I decided to try out a puzzle piece for fit.
"And thanks for the Valentine's Day card," I said to him.
He looked confused. Honestly confused.
"Not me," he said flatly.
"Uh-oh," Tom said gleefully.
"Card?" David asked.
"Uh, looks like one puzzle piece is left," I said.
Well, two. No, wait, three. No, four. No... oh, hell.
"Ya know, it's funny how so many things all link up," Todd said solemnly. "A thousand ways things could'a gone, but someone does or says something, and things go that way instead of the other way. Or a thousand other ways."
"Somebody makes a decision and it affects someone else, and how that affects them makes them make a change that affects somebody else, and it all starts all over."
"And each person's change affects more than one person, so it gets all, wha'd'ya call it? Uh..."
"The old butterfly in China makes it rain in the States thing."
"Chaotic random chance interacting with free choice. What a fucking mess," I said solemnly.
There was silence for a moment.
"Well, now that you guys entertained the hell outta me, I gotta get home," Charlie said, standing and putting on his coat. "Sunday night is chores night, and I'm way behind already. As usual, been real, been fun, been real fun. Later, you weird-ass bunch of sorry bastards,"
Everyone said goodnight to him, most with added insults.
He paused at the side door, and said, "Ya know, pickin' that fight with you, Alex, was the dumbest and the smartest thing I ever did. I'm sorry I did it, and I'm glad I did it, too. Is that weird, or what?"
He didn't wait for an answer, just walked out the side door and closed it behind him.
"This is one of the strangest parties I've ever been to," Adam said appreciatively.
"One of?" Riley asked disbelievingly. "One of? Come on! When have you ever been to anything even close to as weird as this?"
"Like some kind of twisted fairy tale," Brian agreed.
"Someone slip acid in a joint?" Terry asked with a laugh.
"I think they're all insane," Wil said.
"Yeah, I think we'll fit right in," Kevin replied, nodding.
The two of them high-fived, grinning.
"Did you just call us weird?" Tom asked angrily.
"No shit!" Jeff said, angry as well.
"They sit here and smoke our weed, then call us weird and insane!" I said, scowling.
"How fucking rude!" Eric added.
"There's nothing weird about us!" the twins said together.
The six of them, and Erich and David as well, looked worried. Again.
"Hey, we didn't mean anything by it. It was just-"
And again, Todd was the one to crack first.
"Oh, you asses!" Kevin suddenly said, a grin starting.
"Are ya all flippin' sick in the head?" David asked Ryan.
Ryan nodded vigorously, grinning widely.
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