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Track 8



Back To School

There are few things more dangerous than riding a bicycle along the curb of a major road in the near-westside suburbs of Chicago in February. One of those is doing so in the morning rush hour. Beside the obvious dangers of traffic moving along at thirty-five to forty-five miles an hour within inches of you, there is the added danger of piles of snow-turned-ice, and half-frozen slush piles that will twist your handlebars out of your grasp - and of course, barely hidden steel grates that can trap your front wheel and send you airborne over those same handlebars.

I had to ride fast, too. If I took the shortest and most dangerous bridge across the interstate, I'd make it before the bus. My legs were already complaining, and my breathing was fast and ragged - made worse by the frigid air. I started to wonder if I was going to make it.

I tried to take my mind off my growing agony by keeping it busy.

I pondered how hiding from something had put me in a position where I was once again riding my bike to school in winter. I had gone backwards.

I knew that Tom had tried to make things normal, to pretend that it never happened, or maybe at least talk about it before we got to the bus. I wondered what he'd told Jeff on the bus. I wondered if Tom and Jeff would wait at my locker, or go to the cafeteria. Then I wondered hw manyof the usual gang had moved away from the table soon to be occupied by the school fag today. That was quickly followed by worries about what horrible things would be said and done to that same school fag throughout the day.

It was an agonizing ride to school, and not just because of the thoughts that plagued the entire ride. I was panting and coughing up chunks of phlegm before I got a good hitch on a delivery truck. My lungs burned with each breath of frigid February air. My throat felt as if sandpaper were sliding up and down it with each labored breath. My legs burned with exhaustion and grew weaker with each passing block. My buttocks grew cold, then painful, and finally numb but still painful. As the large, old building appeared around that last corner, I was in no way sure I would make it.

I wasn't even sure that I wanted to make it.

Everyone there knows I'm gay. Holy fuck. It's been almost a month since I told Charlie Derek and his two friends, in front of dozens of others watching the fight. Fuck! Surprised there isn't a bunch of kids out front with picket signs and protest banners. Cripes, why did I say that? How stupid am I? Shit, do I go to the breakfast table like normal? Or will anyone even be there? Tom and Jeff said they were, that they were waiting for me to come back. For things to be normal.

Despite the assurances of Tom and Jeff and the others, I was growing so nervous that I was afraid I would vomit again. I shook, and not just from the cold or the exhaustion of the ride.

I locked the bike in the usual place, making it obvious, but there was little hope of hiding it no matter where I parked it: There weren't many chrome-framed Huffys with blue anodized aluminum wheels and parts, and a ten year old granny seat in worn leather. I was panting and sweaty, tired and sore, coughing up my guts, and the day hadn't even begun yet.

Once I was inside, the first stop was a drinking fountain. My glasses immediately fogged as I entered the building, but the fountain was just around the corner. I tore off my glasses and delicately held them with my injured hand, which was complaining enough from the handlebars and the ride, tore open the gap in the scarf, and gulped water and spat up phlegm until I felt my stomach fill and my chest empty. By then, my breath was slowing and my back and side muscles began aching painfully. My ass was still painfully numb. My legs threatened to fold up with every step through the mostly deserted halls as I walked with my glasses hanging from my lips, carried my pack with the hurt hand, and finished removing the scarf with the other.

Tom was leaning against my locker, looking nonchalant, but if you knew him well, rather worried. When his eyes swung my way they opened wider, his brows shot up, and he stood up straighter. When I got close, he nodded and smiled, hands in pockets.

"Gonna explain this one?" he asked with a grin that told me he wasn't going to buy it, no matter what it was.

"I didn't want to ride the bus with Jeff this morning. I left early so you couldn't talk me into it."

He leaned in a little closer and whispered, "Everything cool?" even though the hallway was nearly deserted.

I didn't say anything while I spun my combination, enjoying the short moments I would have with him not knowing what was going on for a change. Once I jerked the lock open and out and swung the door open, a square, blue envelope fell onto the floor. My stomach fell there with it.

A letter telling me that a faggot wasn't welcome at the school, and if I showed my face, someone would kill me? I wondered. Or someone telling me to stay away from the gym locker room? Or some other threat?

I stood there looking at it for so long, that Tom leaned down and picked it up, and then flipped it over. My name was on the front of it, and it was sealed.  After I got my coat off and in my locker, he handed the blue, square envelope to me.

"Gonna open it?"

I shook my head.

"Open it."

Calmly, firmly. He didn't have to command me, just use that tone.

I tore it open, dreading, my hands shaking.

It was a Valentine's Day card. I wondered what kind of sick fuck would use a Valentine's Day card to threaten me with. I looked at Tom. He looked very curious. It was an adult-style card, a single red rose, raised and embossed on a pale, parchment-colored background. I had a very hard time opening the card with my shaking hands. Inside on the left was printed the usual kind of poem about love and friendship, giving and caring. On the opposite page was hand-written:

I know this will come late, but happy birthday. I am very glad you are doing well and will be back soon. You have my admiration, my respect, and my love. You will always be my Valentine.

"Wow," Tom offered, a serious smile on his face.

"Not your doing?" I asked unnecessarily.

He shook his head with a very serious expression.

"Not Jeff," I said firmly, knowing.

"Got a secret admirer!" Tom said with a genial grin.

I rolled my eyes.

"Just somebody being funny," I said firmly as I tossed the card onto the top shelf.

"Puppy Dog," Tom said flatly.

"Okay, now enough with Puppy Dog. Unless you're gonna tell me who it is."

I still doubted any such person existed.

"Well, anyway. We cool?" Tom asked again.

I turned to him. I kept my face as stern and serious as I could. As long as I could, anyway.

"If they are with you. But don't expect another one. Even if you get me really stoned and drunk and try to take advantage of poor little me."

He looked relieved after "another," was grinning by, "take advantage," and laughing at, "poor little me," which was where I lost my stern countenance.

"Cool. And man, did your voice change again! Keep goin' and I'll start calling ya Lurch." Then he got serious. "He's worried, 'cause ya missed the bus. I said I didn't know where you were, that I knocked and you didn't answer."

I didn't even have to ask. Cool.



"Guess we better head that way, then. Feel like a doughnut?"

"Nah. Nothin' but sugar and fat. Makes ya soft. You should have a couple," he said, nodding at my stomach.

I nodded. Last year we'd had doughnuts each morning, often two. Over the last summer, Tom had hit his brother's weights and eaten better, and he was showing the rewards for his efforts. Once slightly tubby, Tom was now nearly thin, and nearly muscle-bound. His stomach was nearly flat, his arms, legs, chest, and butt firming up. I had noticed, last night.

Immediately putting those memories away, I tried my best to lock them away, to lose those particular puzzle pieces. I didn't want them.

"So, we're all cool?" Tom asked again.

I nodded, then said, "Look. I'm sorry I got so... frisky? I mean, I didn't mean to. It just sort of happened. I mean, I saw it, and I just... grabbed it."

"Don't fucking sweat it. I mean, I should'a tried to hide it, ya know? Just, I thought if I tried it would make it obvious. Ya know? So, I just ignored it. Pretended it didn't exist."

His choice of words struck home for me. Another example of how ignoring something doesn't help, it usually only makes it worse. I smiled to myself as I recognized the further evidence of it. I added it to my repertoire of snappy phrases and truisms of life that Toby had gotten me started on so long ago.

I grinned wider with the very thought of him. And of Tom. And even of Jeff. I almost looked forward to putting things right between us all.

"Forget it, Tom. We messed up. It's over. Hell, if it happens again I won't even stress it. It just happened. But don't expect it again, is all."

Tom shrugged and grinned, then said, "Was fucking good, though!"

I laughed in embarrassment and punched him on the shoulder, hard, closed my locker, and we walked silently to the cafeteria. Our shoes squeaked on the floor, and doors made familiar sounds as the bars were pushed to open them, and then the double-click as the door closed. Lockers squealed and clunked. Tom's cough echoed loudly. The sun slanted in from the east-side classrooms, throwing blocks of light against the floors from the open doorways. That early, it always smelled of disinfectant.

I felt odd, walking the halls of school stoned. Not only stoned, but stoned right after waking up. I almost didn't know what way to go without thinking about it. The walls, the rows of lockers, the floor, the pattern of light on the tiles, the colors, the pattern of doors on either side, all were familiar to my vision, but didn't feel the same at all. The sounds sounded the same, and the images looked the same, and the smells smelled the same, but there was almost nothing familiar about them.

I felt as if this were the very first day at a new school. I tried not to watch others in the halls, tried not to notice if they were watching me. I had always walked with my head down anyway. I knew that most of them had at least heard about me. I went from feeling lost to feeling on display, then feeling alone despite Tom walking along beside me, and then feeling glad that I had at least one friend who wouldn't abandon me.

Immediately upon the thought of being abandoned, I thought of Jeff. I worried that he would feel abandoned, or worse, after I had thrown him out of my room. That guilt rose again and then was joined by the guilt of what I had done with Tom afterward.

Then my worries about who was still at the table, and who had moved elsewhere, took over as I got closer to the once-familiar breakfast table, which now seemed strange, new, and frightening.

I was dizzy with worries and fears, and had to concentrate firmly on breathing properly and maintaining enough composure not to stumble over my own feet.

There was the table, by the windows, where some who were invited to my party in the garage with the van two weeks ago sat with a mix of other semi-geeks, near-nerds, and demi-dorks. Some of the lunch guys were there, guys who were part of the fight with Charlie Derek that I had thought had been so well planned out during that lunch period nearly a month ago. The last day I had been in school.

So much had happened that day at school, but so much more had happened the next day, and yet again so much more had happened in the intervening month. So much. So many changes.

For days I had been both looking forward to and dreading this moment. These were most of the people I considered friends, or at least friendly. None of them were part of the popular crowd, but they were all good guys. We were outcasts from the mainstream, but not the lowest on the social ladder, either.

Tom and Jeff had said that no one had left the table, and they didn't think that anyone would when I got back. Many of them had visited in the hospital. The phone call from three of them had been a welcome surprise, as well as the one who hadn't identified himself. But now I faced the true test. Today I would return, tomorrow would reveal the results.

I saw that nearly everyone was there.

The first to see me was Jeff, who locked eyes with me right away. He wasn't sitting in his usual place, but was instead on the end, where I had no opportunity to sit next to or even across from him. I felt a sense of loss and anger well up at his choice of location. I saw him suppress his smile, but he didn't or couldn't hide the way he visibly tensed up.

I was sure that our fight was causing him some of that visible discomfort, but not all of it. I knew it was a huge source of worry for me, so I assumed that it was for him as well. I tried to figure out some way to eliminate it as soon as possible, but no plan came to me as I arrived at the table.

Jeff's empty seat seemed to mock me. I wondered if he had changed places by accident - which I doubted very much, or to distance himself from the fag, to reduce any chance of himself being discovered as gay. Or maybe he was still angry over my throwing him out of my house yesterday?

Naturally, thinking of that event triggered my guilt over doing so, again, as well as over the following event, again.

No, don't think of that. Forget it, I reminded myself. You don't wanna be thinking of that and bringing yourself down right now! Dumb-ass!

"Hey!" Ed Scallis said brightly as I arrived. He sat across the table, to the left of Tom's and Jeff's usual places. He had a narrow, oval head with narrow features and jaw, but a prominent nose. His blue eyes looked large behind his glasses. He had changed his hairstyle, and now wore his dark-blond hair parted in the center and feathered back. I'd always thought of him as attractive with his narrow build and thin limbs. We had been about the same height last year, but now he was developing a shorter stature than mine. He was funny when he wanted to be and was a member of the D&D club with an encyclopedic knowledge of the game. He had come to my sixteenth birthday party in the garage.

"Welcome back," Paul Reston said, grinning nicely. He sat on the other side of Ed, and was another cute geek. He was formerly the bookend, but Jeff had now taken that position. He was also thin, but one of the tallest at our table. He had a square face with bold features and a very square jaw. His hair was so light blond that it was almost white, and he let it be more wild than tamed. His nearly white hair almost made him look as if he had no eyebrows or lashes. His eyes were so pale a blue as to be gray. Like most boys with almost white hair, his skin was pale as well. His lips were pale, too, and narrow. Even his personality was pale. He was a serious sort, never telling jokes, never getting agitated or overjoyed, upset or depressed. The one thing about him that wasn't average or pale was his ability to play chess and other logic games. I knew of no one who could regularly or repeatedly beat him.

Cooley Black had also come to my birthday party. He sat almost across from me, to the right of Tom. He had called last week along with Marcus and Dan. "'Bout time!" he said cheerfully with his wide grin. He was still just a little short, and would remain so, judging by the scale of his body. This year I had noticed that his butt had rounded out nicely, as had the front of his pants: with his long fingers, long arms and legs, and longish nose, I was sure there was an appreciable appendage tucked in there. His hair was light brown, almost blond, and he had matching eyebrows. His eyes were always hard to pin down. Outside, anyone would swear they were a little blue; inside, at night, they looked gray; at school, they flashed as if they were sea-foam on rocks. Cooley had a Tennessee accent, moving here from a small town near Chattanooga just before high school. I loved accents. Cooley had also endeared himself to me a few months ago, at a meeting of the D&D club. While we were all chatting and getting ready, Derek White said that his cousin had told the family that he was gay, just after he left for college. That led to the topic of people at school being gay. Cooley had said that it didn't matter who at school was gay, that it was their business and it wouldn't bother him, and that he was sure that one of his friends back in Tennessee had been gay. I agreed that it wouldn't bother me either, but almost everyone else said that it would be weird, mostly because of the showers in gym: they didn't like the idea that a queer might be checking them out. Cooley then said that he didn't care who looked: he had gone skinny dipping with guys and girls all the time back in Tennessee. That led to jokes about sharing moms and inbreeding, ending the fascinating topic, which I had always meant to follow up on with Cooley.

Marcus Dolby, who sat across from me, next to and to the right of Cooley, was one of the smartest guys at the table. He was the smallest, and the youngest at fourteen. He had skipped two grades, and was the youngest junior in our class. I once caught a glimpse of his report card, and had seen several third-year advanced-placement classes, with no grades below A, except for a B in Phys. Ed. His big, brown eyes widened and he said, "Welcome back, dude!" in his almost country-boy way. He was almost cute. His hair was dark blond, almost brown, and had light highlights. His bushy, light brown eyebrows almost met over his wide nose. He had brown eyes and slightly brown skin with an almost clear complexion. At about five feet tall and just barely a hundred pounds, he was small, slight and wiry. He also had a shy complex that radiated around him like a spell. You could not spend one minute near him and not know he was shy. He was one of the nicest guys I had ever known, too. Generous, caring, thoughtful, even friendly once he got to know you. It had been an easy choice to ask him to my birthday party.

"Wow! He lives!" Kevin Thorn said. He was an all-around good guy, and sat on the far left of my side, across from Paul, and now Jeff. He had been in several of my classes since our freshman year and had ended up with the locker next to me in gym last year. He was one of the smartest guys in our school, but was not attractive, even for my taste in geeky guys: his face was too sharply defined, too heavily freckled, and too overtaken with acne. His tight, curly, black hair was so unkempt that it often seemed to have been cut into a random shape by out-of-control shears. He had braces: that didn't matter to me, but it didn't help, either. He was gangly this year, having grown quite a bit. He loved fantasy gaming, science fiction, Godzilla, Gamera, and Rodan, and he wore t-shirts stating so. I had asked him to my party because he was funny, fun to be with, and well liked by all of us.

Tom Bechtel was directly to the left of my usual spot, as usual. Sandy brown hair of average length parted down the center, brown eyes, slightly pale, slightly long face with a slim nose that spoke of his Anglo-Germanic heritage, smallish mouth with nicely curved and generous lips, clear skin, and average weight for his fairly smallish stature. He always wore dress shirts and dark blue jeans, was always neat, and was painfully quiet. His smile was very warm as he nodded at me. He rarely talked, but when he did, it was quick, accurate, and usually inarguable. What he said was pretty much the last thing to be said on the topic. He loved Sherlock Holmes, calligraphy, puzzles and logic games, but lived astronomy, and we all imagined him taking those classes in college and settling into it as a career. He laughed, but not for long, and never loudly. Often, a grin and a single, wispy emanation was all he gave for even the most hilarious joke or occurrence, though he almost always wore a faint smile.

Then there was William Berry, or B.B., as we called him, mostly short for Big Bill, not Bill Berry. Loud, raucous, rambunctious, Bill. "Well, holy shit! You decide to grace us with your presence after all?" He sat to my right, on the other side of Erich's empty seat. Short, curly, sandy-blond hair. Eyes of an unusual, light brown. Light brown skin, as if he had a perpetual tan. Fat. Not overly so, and not morbidly so, but definitely round and soft. Talkative to the point of never shutting up. He always had a joke for any topic, and wasn't afraid to tell one more than once. He always, and I do mean always, wore a hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and black sneakers. Not smart, not stupid, always struggling with math, and a natural artist with pen and pencil. In fact, all of his notebooks had more drawings in them than words. I rarely saw him with anyone that wasn't at the breakfast table, so I took it that he had few if any other friends than the ones there. I would have asked him to my party, but he had never accepted such invitations from any of us before.

Rick Banden, the only black nerd in school, was the right-side bookend on my side of the table. He had no athletic ability and was relegated to our clique once his intelligence became common knowledge. His parents being filthy rich, he could have hung out with the rich kids, but he apparently preferred our company. He was a little shy, was small in stature and frame, and had a coffee complexion. His wide smile was infectious, and his quick imagination meant that he was fast with quips and disses. "So, you had another party without us, and end up smoked, huh? Should'a invited us!" He loved classical music, and was the only one I knew of, besides myself, who did. He was horrible at sports, but his hands could accomplish the most amazing things with tools: his metal- and wood-shop creations had been the envy of his classes. He tended to keep a little to himself, even within our group, and I had hesitated a bit before asking him to my party. I was glad when he accepted. At the party, Rick, along with Thomas Cassey from my computer class, had both smoked pot for the first time.

There was one person missing: Erich Mays. His empty seat to the right of me seemed to make this side of the table appear nearly vacant. I very much liked him, not only for how he looked, but for who he was and for his quick and easy laughter and his intelligence: he was smart, but not overly so. He liked the same movies and books as I did. He played Dungeons and Dragons, and, like me, sometimes went to the club meetings. His messy blond hair, his faint eyebrows, his clean smile with a retainer, his red, round lips, pale gray eyes, fair skin, and Nordic features: all of it was attractive. He was thin, almost skinny, and just a little shorter than I was.

Erich was my current leading suspect as Puppy Dog. I wondered if I thought he was, simply because I wanted him to be. His absence dashed that hope to pieces, and it hurt. He was in several of my classes, including chemistry, where he was my lab partner, and he always sat at our lunch table. And he was in my little group of friends in gym class. I began to seriously dread the rest of the day.

Someone's books were in my place, so to break the ice - I hoped - I said, "Hey, asshole. Move your shit. Cripes. I take a little time off and my spot becomes a storage space."

The incredibly quiet Thomas Bechtel gave me his grin again, and a nod, as he slid his books aside. He rarely spoke: that grin and nod was all that I could have expected. If he had said anything, I would have been stunned nearly speechless.

After his smile and nod, he didn't look away, and I got, "Hi, Alex. Been a while. Glad you're doing well and you're back."

Those were quite possibly the most words he had ever spoken, unless he was answering a direct question or giving his opinion on a topic about which he really cared.

I was indeed stunned nearly speechless, managing only, "Uh, hi. Thanks."

Thomas went on with his reading, ignoring the rest of us and the sudden silence that had fallen on his outburst.

"Sorry I'm late. What'd I miss?" I asked as cool as I could, taking my usual seat, now across from and about three-quarters of the way down the table from Jeff - but still across from Tom.

I felt fairly recovered from the ride, but my ass was still cold and painful. There was a lingering weakness and tiredness that I hoped went away fairly soon, though I doubted it would.

I tried to feel that old sense of safety and comfort that the breakfast table used to have, but it wasn't there. Jeff's move to the end of the table was reason enough for my discomfort, but it was more than that. Now they all knew about me, no doubts. Now other kids, at other tables, also knew. And everyone in every class would know.

There was no safety nor comfort at the table.

Cooley grinned his wide, open smile and said, "'Just how long ya think ya could play hooky, ya bastard?"

There were a few jokes about milking a cigarette burn too far, and the inevitable, "Doobie burn, ya mean."

"Look, I ain't showin' ya here, but they are burns, ya know. Plus I still cough up a lung now and then."

After the predictable advice to stop smoking pot, I was teased about my new voice. Jokes were made about hosting weekend horror movie marathons and doing filmstrip voice-over work. I had to explain the bandage on my temple, so I told them I had hit my head on something inside the van. As Tom and Jeff had already informed me, no one at school seemed to have heard about the surgery, or that I had actually died for a brief time.

Talk turned to the party over three weeks ago in my garage, which some of them had attended. It was very reminiscent of that Monday after the party, that last day of school before the fire. Everybody said that it was a good party, and many mentioned some of the more memorable events, including the ice fight in the van.

My knowing that Tom had planned the ice fight, so that Jeff and I would have to change clothes, turned the innocent tale into something intensely embarrassing, more so than the incident itself had ever been.

I caught myself giving Tom the laser eye. So did he. His reaction was predictable; innocent curiosity - or an excellent facsimile of it.

"I heard there was a secret party, later," Bill said, looking at me with an evil grin.

"Just friends that could stay out all night is all," I said, a bit surprised that anyone not there would have heard about it.

"So, was there an orgy?" he asked, grinning even more evilly.

My right eye winked and my right hand jerked spasmodically - something still new to me - and I worried again that I might have developed some neurological disorder.

A startled, "What?" was all I could come up with.

B. B. turned to Jeff.

"You was there, right? You're like one of his best friends and shit. Was there an orgy?"

"I can kill you in gym," Jeff threatened in a very low voice. "When we're on the bleachers on ropes, I can make you have an accident."

His face was serious, but I knew that he wasn't. He looked serious enough in that moment that I wondered if I should be so sure that he wasn't. Bill, though, clearly wasn't sure. Tom vigorously flipped Bill off.

"Look, man, I'm just teasing, okay?"

"Drop it," Jeff said, warnings of violence apparent on his face. "There was no fucking orgy, alright?"

Jeff was again in charge. He was taking control of situations more and more. Last year he would have put up with it, simply said no or ignored it, but no longer. Now when things went somewhere he didn't want them to go, he grabbed hold of the conversation and jerked it to a stop with a vengeance.

I wished he had the same resolve in a more positive light, about others knowing about him, and us.

Jeff was showing signs of discomfort if you knew him well enough. I certainly did, and I certainly saw those signs. His beautiful blue eyes were restless and dimmed. He held his shoulders up nearly to his ears, he hunched forward defensively, he kept his arms and hands together in front of him and close to his chest. He wasn't smiling, and hadn't been since he first saw me.

I could nearly feel his anger toward Bill, just as I felt his anger toward me. I wanted to end it, somehow, but could think of nothing to do about it. I'd forced him to leave my house; I even gave him money for the cab that I had called. And he was pegged as a best friend of the class faggot. How could I make that better?

I wished to be with him in public, even if we had to put up with hell, but Jeff did not. Maybe only the guys in the Circle were aware of our relationship, but Jeff was not happy with even just them knowing. His slip at my defense last week had resulted in his outing himself to a very few. And he had a long history placing him squarely with the now publicly known fag.

I knew we needed to talk, even though neither of us wanted to. Now that the situation was imminent, it was apparent that we had to deal with it. I almost followed him when he got up, I assumed to head to the john, but Tom involved me in the discussion of the moment.

As time passed at the table, I became more comfortable but hardly felt normal. I wondered how long it would be before I would feel normal at the table. While I was considering this, the bell suddenly rang.

Now everyone knows about me, I thought, standing to head to first period. How's this gonna play out? I'm not home worrying about it anymore. I'm here. And here goes.

My guts wrenched and I started to sweat. That odd feeling of not belonging where I was set in powerfully. I didn't recognize the place I was in. I didn't know where my first class was. I didn't know in what direction to go. I felt lost, exposed, and scared.

Several "See ya in lunch, Alex," and "See ya in class," were tossed around, bringing me back from the deep, dark place I had gone. I nodded back, but mostly kept my eyes on Jeff. He looked a bit sly as he headed quickly away with Tom. I wanted to chase him down, to talk as much as we could on the way to our first classes, but he and Tom were walking away very quickly.

I was headed the other way, anyway, I realized. Marcus walked with Thomas and me, which was unusual. There was a commotion a couple of tables away, but Thomas and Marcus kept me moving, saying we didn't need to get tied up with some fight or something on my first day back. I had to agree with that. They walked with me as far as the hallway to the west end of the school, where they both had to go that way and I had to turn the other. They waved and said they would see me later. So far I had noticed no one staring at me, yelling at me, or even seeming to avoid me, but I was keeping my eyes down, watching my feet the entire way, afraid to look up, afraid of what I'd see.

I was winded and my legs were tired by the time I got to class. Once in my seat in physics, there was a "Welcome back. How are you?" from Chris, who sat behind me. I nodded a greeting and said that I was doing fine. We talked about what I had missed in the class until the bell rang and we turned to the front. Things went back to normal. Sort of.

I found out that I was as behind as I had feared. Jeff and Tom, with the help of others, had gotten my assignments to me, and I had gotten fairly caught up with those assignments, but they were behind the rest of the class.

We were promptly reminded that mid-year exams were coming up in two weeks. My heart dropped.

Fuck! I missed weeks of school, and now got less time than that before fucking finals! Oh, man, am I screwed! How can I ever get caught up and ready in time?

I dropped into good-student mode, paying attention and trying to make sense of the new information, tying it to lessons learned, committing the new information to memory. The pot interfered considerably. It was like a heavy fog in my mind, blurring and obscuring my thoughts. I became frustrated and angry. By the end of the period I had given up, hoping I would find it easier to pay attention, absorb, and even think, later in the day. I resolved to study all afternoon, and not only get caught up, but ahead again, well before the exams.

My physics class was the only bit of normality for the entire day.

I started walking to my German class, wondering how far behind I would be after not being able to hear or practice speaking the new vocabulary words. I wasn't looking around at the hallway, wasn't seeing the same shiny cinder-block brick walls, the same doors, the same endless rows of painted lockers, the faces staring or pointing or laughing at me. Only the floor and my shoes. Almost like always, anyway.

I bumped into someone. Out of reflex I looked up, afraid I was about to be confronted and humiliated.

"Hey, forget how to walk?" a cute guy said with a smile.

I hadn't seen him around, and had no classes with him, but he seemed familiar. He was just a bit shorter than I was, with a long, smooth face, short, wavy, blonde hair, brown eyes, and a slim, almost athletic body. I didn't know his name, but he seemed oddly familiar.

I mumbled, "Sorry," and stepped around him.

"Welcome back, Alex" he said behind me.

I didn't turn around or say anything back to him. It was odd having him know my name, and him welcoming me back, when I had never spoken to him before. I knew that I had seen him before, he seemed somewhat familiar, but I couldn't place him. He obviously knew me, or at least my name. His face stirred something. Or maybe his voice. Or something. I began to feel even more paranoid.

Second period German always sucked, being on the fourth floor: my previous class was on the ground floor. Previously it had been no big deal to climb four flights of stairs, but today it was a chore. By the time I was up the last of the stairs, I was breathing quickly, my legs were wobbly, and I was starting to sweat.

I shared the class with Erich Mays. He had been noticeably absent at the breakfast table, and now I would have him sitting a few desks away from me in the class. He had been my prime suspect as the much-rumored Puppy Dog that Tom had spoken of and hinted at. I liked Erich, and I had even hoped that he was indeed gay and interested in me, but the fact that he had moved from the breakfast table before my return to school had proved Tom wrong.

I barely made it in by the bell. Erich wasn't there, which was normal as he often got to the class later than I did. I kept my head down and no one spoke to me, as was also usual. I was sure that the shadows and noises just before the bell rang were Erich arriving, but I didn't look up. I stared at the book in front of me, following the teacher and hoping that I could catch up on the pronunciations. I was picked on to read from a chapter, and did horribly. I stumbled over the new words, knowing them, but not knowing their pronunciations.

The teacher was patient, and asked if anyone was willing to work with me outside of class. Apparently not a single hand went up, not even Erich's, who was also my lab partner in chemistry later, was in my gym class, and sat at my lunch table as well. And whom I had considered enough of a friend that I had almost invited him to my public party. I had finally decided against it because he was too attractive to be comfortable with in a non-school situation, especially if he was Puppy Dog.

That attraction had started in freshman year, just hours after meeting Jeff for the first time. If I hadn't fallen for Jeff, I often wondered if I would have fallen for Erich. Over the years, I had only grown more fond of him. Most of the time I had been pining over Jeff or missing Toby and hadn't been looking. His laughter was contagious, his smile infectious, and his sense of humor flawless. He had few friends, and so did I. What he didn't get in one class, I could help him with, and what I missed, he could help me with. During the years we had helped each other again and again, and had even been study partners in more than one class together.

The only things that kept us from becoming very close friends were that we never saw each other outside of school and that I found him so attractive. And now it seemed that Erich was one of the guys abandoning me. I knew that I hadn't changed; only what people knew about me had changed, so that meant they had changed.

I should get used to that, I thought to myself.

The teacher asked again if anyone was willing to help me, and offered extra credit to do it. No responses. I began to feel abandoned, but resolved to not let it be that big a deal, even as much as it bothered me that even Erich wouldn't offer his help, though he had done so before.

"I'll catch on as we go," I offered, trying not to let my voice break.

If he wasn't willing to help me with the pronunciations, I figured he'd already gotten a new chemistry-lab partner. I wasn't looking forward to that bit of uncomfortable embarrassment later in the day. When the bell rang, I literally ran out of the class, not wanting any chance encounter with Erich on the way out of the door. I kept my head down until I got to my next class, as normal.

Third period was geometry. At least I was caught up on the material, though I hardly felt I understood it. There were no "Welcome backs." or "How you doings." Worst of all, Kevin Corliss glared at me as if I were throwing kisses his way. He didn't look away, either, staring at me with daggers for eyes until I looked away.

I'd liked him since freshman year, when I saw him wearing one of Styx's Equinox concert shirts. He had always been friendly, nodding in the halls on occasion, a few words about something everyone was talking about on some particular day, or a, "Hey" in passing at the lunch line. He'd had at least three girlfriends that I'd noticed over the years, though he wasn't considered hunky. I considered him kind of cute, and he was a good guy with a good personality, fairly popular, and in a band that I'd heard when I was working at the student union. He and his band were almost legendary. They were well known as the best band in school, playing almost every weekend at the student union, and many school dances.

But when I glanced his way, I felt physically stabbed by his glare.

That was why it was the straw that broke my back, when on the way out of class he managed to get close to me at the door, and whisper, "Faggot." He then give me a solid shove with his shoulder and elbow, checking me into the door frame.

I found myself in my computer class without being able to remember what I'd done after bouncing off the door frame. What had ripped me back from wherever I'd walked through to arrive in class was that everyone had to talk to me as I entered.

It was one of my favorite classes for many reasons: the class was easy; I had taken typing freshman year, making it that much easier; I liked computers, making it fun; I got along with almost everyone in it, making it that much more fun. I could type faster than anyone else in the class; but that was before. Getting back there was an expected highlight of the return to school. It was almost all geeks and nerds, and I felt more at home among them than with the rich or popular kids, or even the average clique.

At first I was pleased when so many of them wanted to know how I was, but that waned quickly. I had never liked attention, and being the center of it only made me uncomfortable.

I was terribly behind. I had no computer at home to work with, almost no one did, as they were still very expensive. The TRS-80 Model III computers that the school had put in the north campus that year cost just over one thousand dollars each. But with thirty-two thousand bytes of memory and the new three-and-a-half inch floppy diskettes, they were pretty much state of the art. Some of them also had the standard five-and-one-quarter inch floppy drives so that everyone didn't have to make the switch, and we could still use the older TRS-80 Model I computers in the labs at south campus or the library. The Model III even had thirty-two characters by sixteen lines of text capability, and incredible one hundred and twenty-eight by forty-eight graphics. Everyone in class was expecting color screens and multiple color text and graphics to be coming someday soon.

At home, I could study the new commands and learn what they did, and I could write the code to use them, but I couldn't enter them to execute them or test them in any way. I had three programs written using new commands and sub-commands, but had to enter them. My fingers were still sore from the punches to the sink that morning, and they weren't up to typing at any kind of speed, and of course the ones injured in the van were useless; I was down to pecking at the keys.

The teacher took pity on me, as I was obviously not up to typing speed. He made it clear I'd have time to get caught up, even if I was going to be longer than he hoped I would.

Thomas Cassey offered to type in a program for me at home, then bring it to class tomorrow on a floppy. I thanked him, but insisted I didn't want anyone going out of their way to help me. His mentioning that he had a computer at home proved his family was at least very well off, if not just plain rich. I think that put me off his offer more than anything else. I knew that Thomas was as straight as an arrow, kind of afraid of homosexuality, and still a virgin. I was surprised that he still spoke to me now that everyone knew about me.

He was very attractive, at least to me, though I supposed the girls didn't find him so. He had been in my freshman gym class, so I had seen all there was to see of him, and it had been very nice even back then. I often wondered what he looked like naked now, and often fantasized about him. He was tall now, almost six feet, and pretty smart. He was a great DM and knew how to keep magic and enemies in balance against the strength of the party of adventurers. He had curly, dark brown hair, and golden-brown eyes under his thin, fine brows. He had an oval face with an equine nose; fairly long, fairly narrow, with a little flare to the nostrils. Thomas also had the sweetest smile - I loved it. I often thought he could be in the more popular cliques, but his love of D&D and sciences overrode his desire to be more popular. Asking him to my party had been easy, though I had feared it would be difficult; he had accepted quickly and seemed very grateful. He had surprised Rick, the Circle guys, and me, when, toward the end of my birthday party in the garage, with only us remaining, he asked if we were going to get high.

The teacher announced that the final exam would be writing a program using all the commands and subroutine styles taught for the term, and we would have all four days of the semester final exams week to do it in class. What the program would have to do was not announced yet.

Finally, lunch. The buzz was gone, and I was feeling the worry over finals even more acutely, along with the whole other gambit of worries during the first day back in school. The fact that the pot had worn off in no way diminished my sense of paranoia as I neared the lunch room.

"Alex! Good to see ya back, man!"

Charlie Derek was walking next to me. I had kept my eyes downward so successfully that I hadn't noticed.

Surprised, not only by his sudden appearance, but that he would be seen walking the hall with the school faggot, I barely stammered out, "H-hi."

"How ya doin'? Ya okay?"

I glanced up at him. He was smiling at me, seemingly glad to see me. He was walking alongside as if we had been friends for years. He had been hanging around with us since the fight, and was the newest Circle member, even though I hardly knew him. I had been told of his visit to my hospital room while I was unconscious, and his induction into the Circle while I had been recuperating before getting home.

"Uh, doing okay."

"Hey, when ya want your album back? And thanks for letting me use it. Fucking rocked."

I had completely forgotten that I had given him Sounds Of Mystery And Imagination by The Alan Parsons Project at the Circle meeting that Friday after my birthday party.

"Oh. Um, guess you can return it whenever."

"Cool. I'll bring it tomorrow. Okay? And thanks for that merta, man. Kicked my ass! See ya later, I gotta head this way," he said as he turned left, waving.

I nodded, still shocked that he would be seen with me at school.

While class seating was fairly permanent, and I didn't expect anyone to have moved in any of my classes, lunch was different. You could sit anywhere you wanted, as long as there was room. Knowing that everyone would know about me by now, I was worried about seeing who had moved, or possibly seeing the table empty.

The sound of the lunchroom filled the hall before I was through the doors. Also before I was through the doors, my stomach had slid deep into my bowels in dread and fear. The table I sat at was near the far side of the cafeteria, so as usual, I had to wait until I was past the lunch line before I could see it. The choices for lunch didn't matter, I wasn't hungry, so I walked past the lunch line, and felt the sweating begin.

It was now impossible to not look up, impossible not to notice that nearly everyone looked at me. Most looked away when I looked in their direction, but a few didn't. Some of those nodded, or grinned, or even said something welcoming. There were others, though, who glared, or smirked, and more than a few who said something softly to those next to them and then laughed. Several guys threw kissing gestures at me, then flipped me off.

I had never felt so exposed. I knew that not everyone was watching me, but it felt as if they all were. Before I was half the way to the lunch table, I had become as uncomfortable in school as I had ever been. I wanted to turn around and walk out, find some place where no one would be able to look at me, but I knew that turning around and running away would only make me stand out that much more. I wanted to flip them all the bird, but knew it would only make me stand out that much more as well.

What kept me from turning around the most, though, was that I didn't want to give any kind of satisfaction to anyone who would get it from my running away. Instead, I focused on the table ahead of me as I neared it, shutting out the vision of everyone else in the cafeteria. Every step toward that table seemed to require more effort than the previous one. I felt the sweat beading on my forehead and was forced to wipe it away as casually as I could.

The table was half empty.

I tried to console myself with the knowledge that it wasn't all that uncommon for guys to move around from table to table through the year. Some even seemed to move around from table to table day to day, or even during a single lunch period. Erich had hardly ever moved, and was noticeably absent from another usual place today.

Scott was another of the intelli-geeks, and one of the cutest guys in school as far as I was concerned. He was slim and short, had a nearly perfect ass, and was nicely gifted; being in his gym class, I was well aware of those facts. Scott was fun, funny, outgoing, and all-around nice. He had been one of the most supportive on the day that I had told them that I was gay, and that I would fight Kevin Corless. I wasn't surprised that he was one of the half or so who remained at the lunch table.

Next to adorable Scott, the sort-of-cute Rick Banden's seat was empty, though he had been at the breakfast table and in algebra class earlier. Ugly, pimply, Brian "Brain" Collier, and goofy, kind-of-cute Danny Paulson were in their places across from me and to my left, but the space between them and Scott, where the average Paul Toomee and the stereotypically Jewish-appearing Jeremy Wischtein would normally sit, was empty. The cute, cuddly, and smart Wesley Howard should have been on that end of the table, but was M.I.A.. On the other side of Scott's and Rick's empty seats, the handsome, dirty-blond, funny, smart Danny Richter, and the attractive, very blond, smart Larry Rawlins were busy reading the same textbook and taking notes. Further down that side of the table, the comical and rather unattractive pair of Steven "Stick Boy" Hardeston and Perry "Zit Boy" Zybregenski were missing. The hot Barry Moreston of the incredible ass, and the very cute Wil Braden were sitting with the cuddly Andrew Cardesty. Barry and Wil moved from table to table among us lessers but were more than capable of hanging out with the average kids if they had wanted to.

Quiet, brainy, small, and very cute Thomas Bechtel usually sat to my left, but he was missing even though he had been at the breakfast table that morning. The gross Ted Meyers, and the pimply, fat, Dungeon Master, Nick Brandburg were missing from the other side of him. The adorable Erich Mays would have normally sat to my right, and seeing his empty seat only hurt that much more. The incredibly long-limbed James Nedwick was at his usual space further to my right, but tall, lanky Chris Tablowski, and tall, broad, powerful Mike Howard weren't present in their usual places on that end of the table. James didn't go anywhere that Chris and Mike didn't go, so I suspected the two of them would arrive soon, and I feared that they would appear only to drag James off with them. The three of them were the geek stoners, not cool enough to hang out with the majority stoner groups; not mean enough for the rough stoners, not musical enough for the rock-band stoners, and not rich enough for the monied stoners. They sat at our table only to avoid sitting entirely alone, and they weren't really good friends with any of us.

As I approached, I wondered if I would even be welcome. No one had looked up to see me coming, so I had no clue as to their thoughts or feelings about my return. My usual space, across from Scott Swenson, was open. As I sat down and placed my books on the table, Scott looked up from his book and did an actual double-take. His eyes widened, and he grinned.

"Hey, Alex! Good to see ya, man! Glad we didn't have to contact the United Appeal for the Dead and get ya propped up at the table or somethin'!"

"Thanks, man," I said around the laughter of the others, wanting to laugh with them, but barely able to allow the small smile.

I wasn't far from throwing up, and I knew it. I hoped that I didn't sweat through my shirt.

Paul Toomee and Jeremy Wischtein arrived, trays in hand, and welcomed me back before taking seats. I felt better knowing at least a few of the missing were just in the lunch line. I wondered if anyone else was also just late arriving. Almost exactly half of the table regulars were present.

"How are ya? Heard ya got some nasty burns, man," Chris asked, then said, "You shouldn't be using your dragon to light your doobies."

"It wasn't the dragon that was the problem. He shouldn't of cleaned the inside of the van with carbon disulfide. Welcome back." Wesley Howard said as he passed behind me before taking his seat at the end of the table.

The chemistry guys got it, and had a great laugh.

Larry explained, "It's an industrial solvent that pretty much explodes in a warm oven or on a hot rock. Pretty much just show it a naked flame, and, BOOM!"

"So, like Paul when you show him a naked chic in a Hustler?" Danny asked as he and Brian joined the table.

Paul dropped his head on his forearms in humiliation. He was never going to live down that particular episode from two years ago. We still referred to it anytime something occurred too early or without warning. Premature ejaculation or premature orgasm were too long and often embarrassing to verbalize, so saying that a girl was very attractive by saying that she could give you a Paulism, or was Paulism inducing, was much easier, and could be said aloud without others knowing what we were talking about.

Chris Tablowski, Mike Howard, and Ted Meyers arrived, along with Ted's best friend, Nick Brandburg. To my surprise, they all welcomed me back and sat down instead of dragging James to another table. Thomas arrived silently, and took his usual seat next to me with a small, silent smile. Almost everyone was there. Except Erich.

I had expected it, and it came once nearly everyone was present.

"Hey, Alex, so you gotta tell us what happened, man."

I had to relate the events of the fire to them. I made a short story of it, saying in the end that I had choked out. A few jokes were made at the predictable points, and I laughed them off with the rest of the guys. I omitted many things, like Toby, the horrible suffocation, other things I didn't care to relate - especially that I had died.

After the inevitable question-and-answer period, in which Thomas surprisingly took part, I was given several offers of help with studying if I wished, especially for finals, which went a long way toward making me feel more welcome and more liked than I had feared. There were plenty of jokes and jibes thrown around, making it feel that they seemed to be entertaining me, but I was too nervous and worried to laugh much. I felt exposed. I tried not to feel it. I was afraid to look around at the other tables to see if anyone was leering at me, pointing, or laughing.

By the end of lunch, it seemed that Frank Clandess, Jeremy Waight, and as I predicted, Erich Mays, had decided that sitting at the table with a newly-outed faggot was more than they wanted. I tried to console myself about Erich seemingly abandoning me, as well as the others, but it was Erich that hurt the most. Eventually I noticed that he was sitting at another table, and I noticed that he didn't look my way even once. I had counted him an almost real friend. At least an at-school good friend. But now it was obvious that he didn't want anything to do with me anymore.

When the bell rang, I stood and walked out with Wesley Howard, who was also in my chem class, which was next. I was stunned that Wes was willing to be seen walking with me. Normally Erich would have walked to class with us. Thomas Bechtel walked silently with us, which was fairly usual. I kept my eyes downward, not wanting to see the faces laughing at me and at the guys dumb enough to walk with me.

I expected Wes to ask some more personal questions or such as we walked, but he kept it to our coming chemistry class. He asked if I had studied the upcoming materials, and offered to help out if I needed it. He knew that I had Erich as my lab partner, so his offer of help only seemed to verify the fact that Erich had already moved to another station in chemistry class well before I returned to school. That, and the fact that Erich wasn't at the breakfast or lunch tables, hadn't offered to help me in German class, and wasn't walking to our class with us, only hammered the nail further into me.

Erich had been a good school friend, and at times he seemed a very close one, too. But now it was clear he had changed. I knew that I hadn't, that only what people knew of me had changed. And Erich had changed his table in the morning and at lunch.

Thomas broke off from us in his customary way, with a silent nod. I had turned back to listen to Wes as he continued to talk, when Thomas threw another surprising, "Welcome back," at me.

Wes stopped in mid-word, to say, instead, "He's talked more in lunch today than the entire time you was gone," before returning to his interrupted monologue.

In chemistry class, Erich and I had sat on a pair of stools on one side of a four-person, granite lab-top with a pair of gas valves and a sink. Another team sat across from us. As Wes and I entered the classroom, I almost turned and ran. Almost. If I hadn't been so determined to let as little of any crap touch me as possible, I would have. Instead, I forced myself to breathe normally, fought down the nausea, and tried to secretly wipe away the sweat on my face and keep my glasses from sliding down my nose.

I saw Erich at his usual place. My heart stuttered in shock. My eye winked and my hand twitched, I nearly dropped my books. I approached and silently sat on my stool, not looking at Erich, and wondering how he was going to bring up the topic of asking to change partners so late in the year. Stephanie Hunter and Mike Walters sat across from us. They weren't nerds, so we hardly spoke. Mike wrestled and Steph was in pep squad and a second cheerleader. Neither was a top preppy, but both were well-monied and so preppy. They completely ignored us as usual.

I sat without looking away from the books I set before me.

Erich said, "Sorry I didn't put my hand up in class. Honest. I just... Man, I hope you understand? And I want to help if you need it. Verstehen? Ich vollen das gut die macht."

We'd long ago devised the phrase, and used it on many occasions for many reasons, mostly to make each other laugh. Despite myself, I grinned then laughed. I did need his help, and despite myself again, I did understand why he didn't make himself stick out in class. Something else, though, wasn't answered by that apology.

Without looking up yet, "So what about this morning and lunch? Where were ya?"

"Fucking car wouldn't start this morning, had to ride the bus. And I was doin' trig with Mike and Chris during lunch. Need the help or I'll maybe not pass."

He'd complained about trigonometry often enough that I could easily believe it. My memory was jogged, and the days he had spent at that table getting help with the classwork returned.

How can I stay mad at him? He's been a good friend for so long. Plus he's so cute. And we helped each other so many times. I guess I can understand how he didn't want to draw attention to himself by helping the fag. I probably wouldn't have the guts to, either. So why stay mad at him?

"Yeah, sure Erich. Danke sehr. Vollen du das gut die macht."

"Nichts," he replied with a wide smile that softened my anger nearly to the point of non-existence. "I felt like an asshole for not speaking up in German. Ya just ran out of there so fast. And I just, figured I'd talk to ya in chem. Ya know?"

I nodded, satisfied, and feeling far better, even glad that I had worked up the courage to ask. We returned to using German about as much as we could during the class. Steph and Mike spared no glances our way that weren't full of revulsion of the nerds. The last thing that Erich said as we left the class was another, "Sorry, again" in German.

Next was Lit. I had no friends in the class. I wasn't greeted or spoken to. I handed in the composition that had been due last week and listened to the details about using tenses to manipulate your readers' emotions. Then I mostly dozed out, and the class ended sooner than seemed possible. On the way out someone coughed, "Fag." It was from behind and to the side, and we were crushing out of the doorway as usual, so I wasn't sure who had said it. I suspected one of the jocks, of course. I didn't look up as there was some commotion or another, and I just didn't care.

Phys Ed was next. As I entered the long, wide hallway with locker rooms on both sides leading to the gymnasium, I heard the familiar noises of guys changing in a public setting. My guts shrunk and shriveled. I dreaded entering the locker room more than I had ever before. My shirt was getting damp.

I was excused from activity, even dressing, so I thankfully walked past the locker rooms and toward the main gym. I couldn't stop myself from wondering what would happen on the day I walked into the locker room and changed. And I wondered even more what would happen when I took a shower.

Out in the gym, I moved toward the usual group, wondering what kind of welcome I'd get there. Three of them peeled off as I neared and they saw me. More deserters. The rest of the guys looked guilty as I arrived. Talk was muted and embarrassed. A couple said "Welcome back," and there were a few questions about the van and the fire, the burns, the metallic bandage on my temple, and the hospital stay.

I felt a bit torn. While I was glad and relieved that many had tried to act and treat me as normally as they could, I was also dismayed that some had simply walked away from me and the other guys. I would never have suspected that two of them, Mike and Terrel, would walk away. Terrel, especially, I hadn't expected to act differently. He'd always been open and fun, never making fun of anyone. I wondered if any of those still talking to me would still be doing so tomorrow.

The bell rang and the coaches yelled for us to break up into our subject groups. I was taking outdoor survival, which was mostly rope climbing and rappelling, and was held in the main gym where we assembled. I liked it, and wished I could join in, but was glad that I didn't have to climb that damned rope hanging from the thirty-foot-high rafter. I sat on the open bleachers across the gym from the folded bleachers they were climbing, and once on top, rappelling down with someone holding their safety ropes.

Not knowing exactly how I felt, I sat back and tried to enjoy the views. If I was now openly known to be gay, I decided, I might as well enjoy being gay. I considered doing some classwork in preparation for finals, but with guys climbing ropes and swinging across gaps, it was too tempting. I sat reclining with my chemistry book open as if I were reading it, but I paid it no mind at all. All the book was doing was covering my lap. As they climbed and rappelled down the bleachers, there were lots of views of packages and asses in those tight, yellow gym shorts and the flesh-cutting harnesses that only accentuated them. I got hard and enjoyed the fact that I was hard in such a public place - school of all places - and no one knew.

Everyone in this gym knows I'm gay, I thought. Some of them even still talked to me! But are they going to dress or undress in front of me? What about showers? Fuck. Well, I get this week to not worry about it, anyway.

For a while, I watched Erich climbing the bleachers and making the gap between the set being climbed and the set being rappelled down.

Mostly unremarkable to most people, he did have one particular trait that caused him to stand well out from almost everyone else in the showers; he was most well endowed. So much so that I believed that he rivaled Jeff in length, but not girth. It was uncircumcised and regularly formed, a perfect tube, straight and smooth. It was never shriveled and was always nearly plump, topped over by a short patch of surprisingly light blond pubic hair. By seeming to examine my own feet, I had been able, more than once, to notice that the head under his foreskin was elongated and smooth. His sack was smooth and tight, rarely dropping low, but the showers caused that to happen to almost everyone. His body was smooth and tight at seventeen, thin with normal definition of his chest and arms, nothing muscular, mostly soft.

As Erich completed the rappel down the bleachers and loosed himself from the safety rope, Scott Fisher caught my eye, crossing in front of me with a nod. In the same year as I was, and thus a year older than I, he had straight, medium-brown hair that he wore longish, a smooth face with average features, nice lips, and excellent brown eyes behind large glasses. He was a bit taller than I was, a bit hairier, and definitely hung. While he didn't rival Jeff or Erich in length, he was well formed. Scott's cock was smooth, with a moderate bend to his left. His short foreskin never covered the head, allowing its sleekness to be clearly viewed. He also had a nice, large set of balls with an attractive sack that let them hang well unless the locker room was particularly cold. He was in the geek clique, smiled almost all of the time, played D&D, loved computers, got great grades, and had a loud, infectious laugh. He was also one of the few guys in my gym group who pretended that nothing was changed.

Scott was partnered with Scott Swenson, who also remained in the little group as I entered, and had been at the lunch table earlier. The two Scotts moved off to aid each other, taking turns as anchor while the other climbed. I watched them, enjoying the two types of hotness they represented.

It was fun to sit there, hard in my pants, imagining guys that I saw naked every day, doing things they themselves would probably never want to do, all while they moved around in front of me in skimpy gym clothes.

As the class ended, I had to concentrate on something dull while they showered, so that I wouldn't have to stand around at the doors with the guys, hard and tenting my jeans. Worrying about who else would start avoiding me, about Jeff and our situation, about the new situation with Kevin Corless, and plenty of other things, knocked down my erection with ease.

The same little group coalesced as we waited for the bell, and the same three were absent who had walked away when I had arrived at the start of class. Nothing was said about them.

I was barely caught up in English. I was confused by the details and complexities of the English language: It seemed a ridiculously complicated way to communicate. So many rules, exceptions, multiple meanings, terms. I struggled to feel caught up, or at least to not feel so horribly behind; or stupid. I honestly felt that English was as difficult to learn as German. I tried to pay attention, to prepare for those looming finals, but it wasn't long at all before I was fighting to stay awake. I yawned endlessly and my eyes watered. More than once I drifted off completely.

Ninth period I had Mr. B, who was also my student adviser. His last name was horribly hard to pronounce, a Bangladeshi crashing of consonants, and even he suggested we simply call him Mr. B. He taught civics, and I knew the material already from a junior high class. There wasn't a lot to the entire course, so I had taken it expecting an easy good grade.

By the end of the first month, he had asked if I had another class I would rather take. I told him that I wanted the credit and grade, and I wanted to stay in his class. The week of my birthday last month he had agreed that I could miss his class several times a week so I could go work at the hobby store for Mr. Broft. I had also agreed to tutor two students in his next period by sitting with them and explaining some things further to them, possibly outside of class as well.

As I entered the class, I nodded to Mr. B and waited for him to finish with the student from last period. When he was done, I handed him the paper that had been due last week.

"I think I did okay."

"You probably did," was all he answered.

I waited for a bit, but he seemed done. I shrugged and took my seat. The class was boring, I knew the stuff already, so staying awake was almost impossible. When the class ended, I returned to his desk.

"So, sorry I didn't get to start tutoring. But I'm ready to get started this week."

He looked back to the papers on his desk. He didn't look up when he said, "I don't think that will be necessary now."

I said, "Uhhh..."

"I found another student to do it. I won't be needing you to. If that's all, Mr. Raymond?"

He still hadn't looked up at me.

"Umm, can I still work at the hobby store a few days a week? Leave early?" I asked.

"Yes. If that's all?"

He was dismissing me. Clearly. He wasn't friendly anymore. He was cold and blunt. His smiles at my appreciation of civics were gone. His friendly manner and open speech was ended.

I walked out of his classroom. I clearly felt his new distance from me. It bothered me. I had never once expected, ever considered, that a relationship with a teacher would change. Other students I expected, but not a teacher, and never Mr. B. I knew there had to be something else to blame, and I wanted to know what it was. I walked back into his room, walked right up to his desk.

"Is there a problem?" I asked. "Did I do something?"

He ignored me for a moment as his students entered for the next class, including the two I was to have tutored. With an explosive breath he stood up, wiping his hands on his slacks.

"Come with me," he said, walking into the hallway.

He looked up and down the hallway before meeting my face.

"Look, Mr. Raymond," he said. Not Alex, Mr. Raymond. "I don't approve of... your... choice. I especially will not willingly expose other students to private tutoring with you in that light. Don't ask me to do so. As far as I am concerned, you are a bright student, but don't expect me to accept your... sexuality."

My right eye winked and my hand twitched.

So that was it. Mr. B is a homo hater. He'd been fine with me before he knew. He'd even been friendly and helpful. But now, now that he knows I'm was gay, it's gonna be like this.

I couldn't believe it. Not from him. The sinking sensation in my guts was intense and painful.

"Don't take me the wrong way! I will in no way let that interfere with fair grading of your work. I will not treat your grading any differently. But I will not use you to tutor any students. Are we clear?"

His tone was flat, emotionless, free of any hatred, but it came through all the same. To me, anyway.

He was being clear.

After being one of the teachers that I most respected, and one of the ones who treated me most like a real person instead of a student, he now was against me because he knew I was gay.

It was just like what Tom had slurred out after the Circle party in Tim's basement. We had gotten back to my room, some of the guys already gone that early morning. Tom was nearly unconscious, still drunk, slurring, weaving side to side in a chair.

"Everybody's always gotta think that everybody's gonna think they're not the same fucking person because they learn something they didn't know about 'em before. So fucking what. They the same person. You only just learned somethin' new about 'em is all."

And here I faced it directly. His entire opinion of me revolved directly around whom I was attracted to. Not what I knew, or how well I learned what he taught, or even if I tried or not.

I resolved immediately to not suddenly hate him. I had respected and liked him. I didn't want to do the same to him as he was now doing to me. I didn't want to be that low, or shallow. I considered for a few moments.

I turned my eyes into slits, glaring at him without even thinking of doing so. I didn't know how I had come to such a decision so quickly, but I had. I turned and walked slowly away from him. I walked to the offices and asked to see the dean. I was asked why.

I had to wait a few minutes before he was available. The moment I walked into his office, I immediately said, "I need to drop ninth-period civics."

He tried to talk me out of it, but I was resolute. When he asked if I had another class I would rather take, an idea occurred to me out of the blue. I asked if I could swap to the other ninth period civics class.

He agreed, and told me to attend that class tomorrow. He expressed his regret over one of his teachers not handling the situation as well as he should have, and reminded me that I could see a counselor if I wished. I reminded him that Mr. B. was my counselor. He asked if I wanted to change that. I nodded.

The whole conversation took nearly the entire hour. When it ended, I was still so very angry at Mr. B.. I was also a little mad, but more hurt, over those who had moved from the lunch table and away from me in gym. There was also those who had called me a fag, and on top of them all was Kevin Corliss and his threatening looks.

I left his office and walked to my locker, again without a single glance up from my shoes. I swapped books, notebooks and such. I closed the locker, and Jeff and Tom were flanking me. Both were grinning in a way that caused me to shiver.

I went on high alert inside.

Shit! Jeff doesn't look pissed, so is he, but hiding it? Did Tom ask him to get over it? Is he? I should be the one pissed, since he changed to sitting way down the breakfast table. What do I say? Shit!

"Hey, what's up?" I asked smoothly, innocently. "The last bell ring? I didn't hear it."

"Yeah, it rang, ya putz," Tom said.

"I was..." what did I want to tell them? "... busy."

"Oh? Do tell," Jeff prompted.

Something was up. They were clearly trying not to give it away. Or they were covering for something. But something was up. I could almost smell the canned pork product.

We walked toward the doors. The very same doors that I had last walked out of and into the fight with Charlie Derek. That day, Jeff had missed school, and I walked out those very doors, side by side with Tom, both of us knowing that Charlie Derek and his buddies were waiting. I nearly shivered at the memory.

The fact that Tom and Jeff were up to something this time as I walked through those doors only made it more bizarre and uncomfortable. And yet more, on top of that, was the fact that Jeff seemed normal, despite what had happened Sunday, and his sitting further away from me at breakfast.

It was more complications. More unpredictability and instability. More confusion. More stress.

At the bottom of the stone stairs, I asked, "Okay, what's the deal? What's going on? I smell Spam."

Tom shrugged. Jeff copied him. I shook my head in dread.

"So who says somethin's goin' on?" Tom asked.

"I don't have to be told the sky is blue," I answered back.

"What? There's always something going on?" Jeff asked, heavy on the sarcasm.

I sighed and stopped in my tracks. I looked at one then the other. They tried not to reveal anything. They failed.

"Neither one of you is an Alfred E. Neuman, okay?"

They looked to each other for a moment before returning their gazes to mine. They said nothing.

I rolled my eyes and said, "Fine, I get to find out soon, or what?"

They looked at each other, grinned wider, then looked back at me, then nodded together.

It was too much like the twins. I shivered.

After a tough day, I really wasn't up to games with the guys, even if the guys were Tom and Jeff themselves. I wanted peace and quiet. Some weed. A little relaxation alone. Sleep.

But noooo! I screamed internally, Jeff and Tom got some wacko scheme together to pull on me right after the longest day of school of my life. And Jeff's acting like I never kicked him out.

It was only then that I realized that I had a stunner of my own. If there was an empty desk, I would be in Jeff's ninth period Civics class tomorrow.

Three years at the same school, ten or so classes a year, and Jeff and I never had a class together, I thought again. Not once. And now we're kind of together, and kind of fighting, and I manage it. What a fucking life. I can relish it in secret until then. I wonder how he'll react when I show up? Maybe make him as uncomfortable as he made me? Damn! Why'd I even do that? With Jeff and me fighting, why? But are we fighting? Jeff sure seems normal. I know he's doing that "Ignore it and it'll go away," thing that he does. Or how Tom does his, "Just forget it." I can't do that. They can pretend something never happened, I can't. Why can't I? Why can't I just let it go?

But what the hell they got in store? I worried again.

I threw up my free hand and said, "Fine, have your prank, or joke, or stunt, or whatever, then," and walked between them, stewing in a foul mood.

"Hey, come on," Jeff's voice said beseechingly from my right.

"Yeah, cheer up, man," Tom offered from my left.

"Cheer up? After a totally shitty day, you say cheer up?"

"What went bad?" Jeff asked, his concern clear in his voice.

What went wrong? I wanted to scream.

"Most everything," I answered back, wondering why he would even care, how he could even stand talking to me after how I had treated him, and why he was even talking to me if he couldn't stand being seen sitting near me. "I'm just sick of sticking out. Sick of being singled out. I like it in the shadows, but now I'm in some kind of fucking limelight, and I fucking hate it."

I really did want that alone time, and even though it was Jeff and Tom, I still wanted to be alone. That fact surprised me a great deal.

"Look, guys, I'll see yas tomorrow. Okay? See you both on the bus. Promise. I'm just sick of standing out. Right now I just wanna be alone. Go home, is all."

Tom whispered something to Jeff, who nodded.

"What the fuck?" I asked angrily as Tom ran past me.

"He's gotta take care of something. Okay?"

Jeff was clearly hiding something, and trying to hide that fact. He wasn't doing really well. The walk to my bike was even more uncomfortable, and I seemed to grow angrier with each step.

"Okay, what the hell?" I demanded as we arrived at the deserted bike rack where Tom was waiting.

I unlocked the bike and pulled it free, and still nothing from them.

"Well?" I asked, wrapping the long scarf around my head and neck.

"There was a welcome back thing, at your bike, is all," Tom answered. "Since you was in such a bad mood, I waved it off. They was here to say welcome back and stuff, is all."

I pulled on my gloves and said angrily, "Welcome back. Yeah. Fucking welcome back."

Don't they understand that all I want is for things to be normal? As if I could have anything normal, but still, I sure as hell didn't want something like what they had planned. I want to be left alone, not pointed out. I want to just get through, not make waves. I don't want to be noticed. Why can't they fucking understand that?

Disgusted, I hopped on my bike and pedaled off, fuming.

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