Disclaimer: All the normal rules apply. Do not read if you'd
be offended by material of a sexual nature; if local laws prohibit
you from reading this, read no further. Do not copy or reproduce,
in whole or in part, without permission of the author, Nicholas Nurse.
All material is copyright Nicholas Nurse 2003. All individuals
depicted are imaginary, and any resemblance to real persons or events,
express or implied, is purely coincidental.
By Nicholas Nurse
Chapter Sixteen: Redemption
I pulled into a parking spot near Ms. Heimdall's room and cut the engine. "Are you sure you want to do this?" I asked Garrett for what must've been the umpteenth time.
"Would you stop asking me already?" Garrett said, sounding irritated.
"Fine, fine, sorry." I got out of my car. I was anxious to see Jared. I stopped and evaluated that thought for a moment; yes, I was anxious to explain things to Jared, but more than that, I was anxious to see him. We hurried to Ms. Heimdall's room. As we turned the corner, we heard the sounds of raised voices.
Oh, shit. There were about ten very large guys—some athletes, a few from the Christian club, and other randoms from various school cliques—standing threateningly in front of about six or seven of the GSA members. Things were about five seconds away from coming to blows. Julian was there, and Taylor, and, in the center—Jared. I broke into a run. As I ran, I saw Jared raise both his hands in a placating gesture and heard him say, "Look, there's no need to fight about it—"
"Fuck off, you little shit," one of the guys said, shoving Jared backwards. Jared fell backward against a few of the other GSA members and then hit the ground heavily. I was so angry that there was, quite literally, a haze over my vision. Not caring if Garrett was behind me or not, I pushed through the GSA members and stood toe to toe with the guy who had shoved Jared. He was my height, but broader across the chest. "What the fuck—" he started before I shoved him backward.
"You guys need to leave," I said. Spit flew from my mouth. I was barely keeping myself under control. "Right fucking now." Someone helped Jared to his feet, but there was no time to check if he was okay.
They looked as though they were about to fight me anyhow, but just then Ms. Heimdall rounded the corner. I saw her take in the situation with a dismayed glance and then say, "What's going on here, gentlemen?" Her voice was heavy because she already knew. She'd lived with this fear too.
"They were just leaving," I said in reply. I turned back to stare at them, still trembling with a barely-suppressed need to strike out. They stared at me for a few moments, and then at Jared and Julian, and I saw a promise of hatred in those eyes. What could cause such anger? I unclenched my fists and watched them walk away.
Garrett put a hand on my shoulder. "I have your back," he said in my ear. I nodded once as he squeezed my shoulder and turned to watch the attackers leave.
"Come inside, boys," Ms. Heimdall said softly. We all shuffled inside and before I had a chance to talk to Jared, Liza was darting over to see what was wrong. One side of his face was cut and bleeding, I saw, but the wound was nothing serious. I started to make my way over, but Ms. Heimdall held me back. "What was going on?" she asked.
"I don't know," I responded honestly. "I was just turning the corner when they were shoving Jared to the ground. Ask Julian."
She turned to Julian. "Well?" I turned and saw Taylor talking quietly to Sarah—obviously they'd patched things up—and I saw them both shoot surprised glances at Garrett, who was sitting down somewhat uncomfortably in the front row.
"They've been here before," Julian said. "There've been other days, other meetings, where they're sitting outside when we get out. I don't know what they want. To beat us up, I guess. Some of them are the religious ones, and a few are athletes, and some of the others are just a few of the loner type kids at school." I neglected to mention that Julian himself had been one of those "loner types" until he started the GSA.
"I'm sorry," said Ms. Heimdall. She sat down, looking like a balloon that had lost all of its air. "I will contact the office—you saw them all, I'm sure, and that was a hate crime." She reached for the phone. "We'll get them all suspended—"
"And then they'll just be back again, angrier than before," Julian said, laying a hand over hers on the phone. "And they'll do it again and get expelled. And then they'll be waiting for us, at bus stops and at parks and in malls, and each one of us they see becomes a walking target." He shook his head sadly. "I won't have that happen to these kids. They don't deserve that."
"What do you propose, then?" Ms. Heimdall asked. Her hand had not left the phone, but neither had Julian's, covering hers.
"The GSA can't meet here," he said simply. "Not on campus. It's not safe." His face was sad. I put a hand on his shoulder and he glanced at me, surprise warring with the sadness in his face. I realized I hadn't apologized to him yet and for a moment I feared he would throw my hand off, but instead he turned back to Ms. Heimdall and smiled sadly. "Thanks for letting us have these couple of meetings, though. Listen . . . maybe we'll organize at a coffee house or a park or something, if these kids can get away . . . most of them are closeted . . . but I want you to be there."
"Don't give up yet, Julian," Ms. Heimdall said. "Give it the weekend. Okay? Promise me that. You'll think about it over the weekend."
"Alright." Julian knew it was just a formality. I followed his logic: the kids would always be threatened here, so it didn't make sense to keep meeting here when the location could be moved. Julian was right; there were some kids who wouldn't be able to come to the new meetings, but better to lose a few members than to make all of them walking targets in a place where anyone could strike out at them. And in these days, it wasn't just fists one had to worry about. High school wasn't a safe place anymore.
And so, after only three weeks, Julian Lambowski presided over the last meeting of the Gay-Straight Alliance of Laguna Hills High. "I think you all saw what just happened outside," he said, turning to the kids. I watched their faces. Almost uniformly, they were frightened, their eyes on the door as much as they were on Julian. Unobtrusively, Ms. Heimdall got up and locked the door. The kids still glanced at it every few minutes. Julian spoke for awhile, outlining his reasons for disbanding the club. "We can still meet in an alternate location, away from people like . . . them. I know all of your names and I have your email addresses and your phone numbers. I'll contact you all individually and let you know where we'll be meeting from now on. Pass the word along carefully. Carefully, do you understand me?" Several members of the group nodded. "When you leave, I want you to leave as a group," Julian said. "Be careful. Keep your eyes open for any threats. I'm sorry to scare you, but that's just the reality of the situation." Julian barked a short laugh, but I think it might've been the most bitter noise I've ever heard in my life. "Apparently they could handle one gay kid, but get twenty together and suddenly . . . well, never mind that. I will be in touch with all of you. Thank you for coming." He glanced at me then, as though for support; I was surprised, but I nodded solemnly. He was doing well. "Be safe, and be careful, and know that I am always available to talk to you if you need me. Now, go. I'll see you all around."
The kids got up to shuffle out. I saw several of them, boys and girls both, give Julian hugs. Surprisingly, several of them came up to me as well. I hugged them all, feeling strange and yet somehow thrilled at the contact, and they all murmured their thanks as they shuffled off. I glanced over at Sarah and Taylor, who were standing together and talking to some of the members before they left. Sarah looked like a radiant Fury, and I could tell that she'd give Julian a piece of her mind later for declining to prosecute the attackers. Julian himself had sat quietly in a corner, making it clear that he didn't want to be disturbed. His head was in his hands. Ms. Heimdall was standing near the door, hugging several of the kids and watching worriedly as they left and then turned to wait for everyone before heading off down the hall. Julian did not look up, and I could tell by the heaving of his shoulders that he was near to breaking down. I stole a glance at Jared; he was sitting still with his eyes closed as Liza and Garrett put gauze on his wound. Torn, I looked back at Julian. Jared was taken care of, for the moment; Julian was the one who needed someone just then. I squatted near the desk. "You did well," I said to him.
He looked up at me. His eyes were red and puffy, but he was holding himself in. I knew he was waiting for the kids to leave before he broke down entirely. "Thanks," he whispered.
"I'm sorry," I said. "For the phone call. I mean. For being an asshole."
"I know," he said.
"Listen, I owe you all an explanation," I started, but then Taylor came up. I glanced at him and said, "Hi, Taylor." I cursed my voice when it came out as quietly as it did.
"Hi, Tristan," he said guardedly. "So you're talking to me again?"
"Yeah," I said. "I'm sorry, Taylor. Both of you. I'm really sorry. Look . . . let's go somewhere so we can talk."
"Okay," Taylor said, turning to Julian. "Julian, can I talk to you?" he said, and it was then that I realized that even though Taylor and Sarah were apparently on good terms, he and Julian had yet to patch things up. Knowing my presence was unnecessary, I shifted off to the side.
"I heard you talking to them," Sarah said, coming up alongside me. "We can go to my place. I'm the closest to the school."
"Thanks, Sarah," I said. "And you know I'm—"
"Don't say it," she said, laying a finger against my lips. "I know you are. I can see it on every line of your face." She watched me for a moment. "You're different somehow," she said. "There's . . . I can't put my finger on it just yet, but . . . "
I nodded. "I have a very long story to tell you all," I said simply. "Soon. Soon."
"Garrett?" she asked.
"We talked. I don't know if it can be the same, Sarah. I really don't. But I'm going to try, and more importantly, so is he."
"That's what matters," she said. I realized she was right. "What about Liza? Have you talked to her yet?"
"No, but invite her along for me," I said, suddenly reluctant to talk to her right then. Everything was collapsing together all at once, and much as it was a necessary collapse, I was dreading the moment when I finally sat down to face their judgment.
"Do it yourself," she said.
"Please," I begged. There was too much on my mind right now, and if I did everything that needed doing, my head would explode. I had to talk to Jared. Julian. Liza. Sarah. Taylor. Make sure the other kids were safe. No, no, no. "Please. I need to do it all at once, not piecemeal like this, or it'll never get done. I'm on the verge of it right now."
"Fine," Sarah said. She turned and talked to the three of them—Jared, Liza and Garrett—and I saw them glance my way quickly and nod. I turned aside, somehow embarrassed, and decided to stand outside. I leaned against the wall. Nervousness was eating at my stomach. I wasn't entirely sure why—all I had to do was apologize to everyone and explain what had happened with Seth; was it really that hard? Something about it was. I would be telling Liza and Jared for the first time that I was gay. Sarah, Taylor and Julian would hear how things ended, and Taylor would know he had been right. Garrett would hear all the sordid details of my first failed romance. Yes, it was hard.
Garrett came outside, joining me against the wall. "So we're all going to Sarah's house," he began.
"Listen, I'll take Jared and Liza. You look like you need time to yourself right now."
I smiled faintly. "You were always good at reading me, Garrett."
He shook his head. "Not good enough at reading myself, though," he replied, and I did not deny the charge. He turned to go back into the room. "Let's get moving," he said to me as he went back inside. I started walking back to my car; I'd rather not see anyone before I met them all at Sarah's house. When I parked my car at Sarah's I waited until first Garrett's car, then Sarah's, pulled up behind me. Out of Garrett's car emerged Jared and Liza; Taylor, Julian and Sarah hopped out of hers.
And then two more cars, ones I did not recognize, pulled up in front of Sarah's driveway, blocking the other cars in. I opened my door, realizing what was about to happen. Julian was right, just like he said, here they are—the doors opened and six—seven—eight boys hopped out of the cars. They were heading for Jared and Julian. I was running around the front of my car as they came across the grass. "Jared!" I yelled just as the first of the assailants, a lacrosse player even larger than Kyle Faber, plowed into him from behind. Two seconds later, Garrett was springing into action, and I was a few steps behind him.
We weren't fast enough. The lacrosse player landed two solid blows to Jared's back and head and the boy crumpled in an instant. He hadn't even had a chance to turn around. Garrett kicked at the lacrosse player's knees, bringing him crashing down, and finished with a knee to the chin. He spun to face the next attacker. For my part, I cut off three of the guys heading for Julian and brought one to the ground before the others even realized I was there. All I could think about was getting to Jared. I'd have to cut through the attackers first. The other two rounded on me and came forward, but I knew that at least these were two less guys who would aim for Jared or Julian. I sidestepped and kicked out, catching one in the throat; he gurgled and fell backward while the other, more cautious now, kept his chin back and held his fists up in front of his face. I waited until he swung before dodging back and kicking him in the ribs. A flat hand smashed across his face and I suddenly saw Rory again, clutching at the fountaining of blood from his nose, and I felt vaguely ill. In the momentary lull, I saw Garrett hit a fifth guy in the solar plexus and groin. Taylor was involved in a fistfight with the sixth, but he was giving as good as he got. Julian, however, was sprawled out on the ground, clutching his arm and groaning, oblivious to the attacker nearing him. I ran past Garrett and threw myself between Julian and the sixth guy, who was rearing back for a kick to Julian's head. I darted in and struck the kick aside, but the force of it left my entire arm numb. >From my position on the ground I took another kick to the side of my leg before I was able to roll aside and strike, stiff-handed, at the assailant's groin. He bent forward, vomiting, and as he did I struck at his chin. I got up, feeling the pain in my arm and leg, and whirled about. There were two attackers left. Garrett was up, his face and arms bloody. Jared was out cold, Julian's arm looked like it was broken, Liza was running to her brother's side, frantically talking on her cell phone—everything had happened so quickly that she hadn't even had a chance to get to him—Taylor was standing, but looking the worse for wear, and—where was Sarah? I turned again, but just then, Garrett cried out, "Tris! The last two have switchblades!" Indeed, the last two were holding back, arms outstretched and holding rather long knives. I took a step back. Fighting unarmed lacrosse players was one thing; fending off two determined guys with switchblades quite another. I knew Garrett and I could probably take them, but the likelihood of one of us getting seriously hurt was high. Liza finished giving directions—I realized she had dialed 911—and tried to shield Jared's body with her own, although we were between the ones who were hurt and the guys with the knives.
Everyone stood still for a moment. I wasn't sure what the guys with
the knives were waiting for until I realized that both Garrett and I were
in wide-legged stances, waiting for their attack, and Taylor was right behind
us, doing his best to look ready to fight. "What the fuck do you want?"
I shouted—possibly not the wisest idea, but thinking wasn't exactly a high
priority at the moment. Survival was trumping just about everything
else in that moment. Jared. Please be okay.
"What do you think?" one of the guys sneered. I recognized him; he was one of the social outcast types. "You queers better not come back to school again, you hear me?"
Fuck caution. I wasn't going to let anyone talk to me like that. "I bet you feel all proud, finally finding something you can belong to, huh?" I sneered. "First time in your life you can join a group, even if it is a bunch of worthless bigots."
"Don't talk back, you stupid faggot," the other one said.
"This 'faggot' will talk back all he fucking wants to," I shot back. It was then that one of them darted forward. I willed myself to stillness, quashing the fright and the need to flee, and moved forward, arm high in an attempt to block the raised knife. I knew even as I did it that I was likely to still get slashed. Garrett sprung into motion as the second attacker moved forward, and then suddenly both of them were throwing themselves back, looks of terror on their faces; puzzled, I half-turned and there was Sarah, standing in the doorway, her pistols in her hands. "Holy shit," I gasped.
Sarah ignored us and stepped onto the walkway toward the knife-wielders, both guns aimed at their heads. "Get down!" she shouted, and they obeyed. "Drop the knives and kick them away from yourselves, and then put your faces on the concrete!"
Liza, God bless her, had the presence of mind to say into the phone, "There will be a girl with two handguns. She's on our side; don't shoot or anything. When you get here, she'll put them down. Two of the guys pulled knives and she's got them under control." She listened for a moment, said a bit more, and waited. In the distance, we could hear the sirens. I darted to Jared's side; Taylor went to Julian's. Jared was facedown in the grass. He was not moving. "He's unconscious," Liza said—the first words she'd said to me in a very long time. Tears made long tracks down her face and she was near to collapse herself even though she hadn't been attacked. It seemed the assailants were gentlemen after all; they could sure try to beat up the faggots, but of course no self-respecting man would ever lay a hand on a girl. I suppressed a sudden urge to borrow one of Sarah's guns.
"He got hit in the head," I replied. "Don't roll him over." I put my hand near his nose; he was breathing. "He's breathing fine. I don't know what's wrong, but at least—" I was unable to continue. I put a hand on his head and ran it through his hair, as though it would help. Liza fell against my side and I held her as she wept, great gasping sobs that left her red-faced and shaking, not in little trembling motions like a cold person but in huge body-wrenching shudders closer to a seizure than anything else.
The police cars, three of them, rolled up just ahead of the ambulance. The paramedics took one look at Jared and rushed to his side first; as they stabilized his neck, they rolled him over and lifted him onto a stretcher. Sarah set her guns down on the ground beside her the second the police officers burst out of their screaming cars. The police officers cuffed the two conscious attackers and began collecting the rest, sitting or lying them along the curb depending on their condition. Only three of them were able to sit. The other five were on the grass along the curb. The cops were paying little attention to their comfort. "What happened here?" one of the officers asked.
"They attacked us," Sarah said. "Drove up to my house and attacked us." Julian was rising, his right arm held in his left and his shirt covered in vomit. I went to his side, but as I got there the paramedics pushed me aside and took him to a second ambulance. Shit, where was Jared? They'd moved him when I wasn't watching. I took my eyes off of him for a second and . . .
The officer jotted something down while the other five kept an eye on the attackers and started poring over the grass and sidewalk. "Do you know why they did?" he asked.
"Yes," I said. "We're members of a gay-straight alliance at our high school."
The officer stopped writing and raised his eyebrows, looking at me. "Is that so?" he asked.
"I'm the vice president," I said. "Julian's our president. Sarah, tell him the rest." I made my way over to the first ambulance, paranoia rising within me, and saw Liza watching as Jared's unconscious form was loaded inside. I ignored the raised voices of the paramedics and reached into to touch Jared. I squeezed his hand and I'd like to be able to say that he squeezed back, that the force of love was enough to ignore injury, even death, but the lonely truth is that his hand, pale and limp like wax, was cold in my own.
And then they were upon us, and there were flashing lights and radioed voices and the swift, sure movements of people who have done this a thousand times before; I was being helped into the backseat of a police car—"Watch your head there, kid"—and we were rolling forward and away, faster now, so I pressed my face up against the glass of the rear-view mirror to catch the last glimpses of everything I was leaving.
I had a feeling like something huge was ending. Or perhaps beginning. It was all one and the same, really. The ambulance's sirens went on and it pulled away in the opposite direction. The second, holding Julian, followed, and soon the street was empty. Then we were turning and Sarah's house was gone.
* * *
We spent five hours at the police station filing reports. Once they'd determined that there was enough evidence to prove in court that we'd all acted in self-defense, they released us without bail and told us that, regardless of self-defense or not, we'd be wise not to leave the city until we'd heard back from the district attorney's office. By the time we left the station, it was after nine. I sat against the brick steps of the station. Now that it was over, I felt almost dizzy. It wasn't an actual dizziness, though—it was more like everything around me was somehow wrong, or like I didn't fit quite right into everything else. Whatever it was, it was giving me a terrible headache. My parents would be on their way soon to pick me up; in the interim, I called the Luceris. No one answered the phone. I called Julian's house instead, but the answering machine came on right away, so I hung up and sat there, staring at the phone in my hands, until my parents came.
The lights were bright and flickered quickly as they fell across my face. Maybe I should close my eyes, or cover them with my hand. I was still thinking about it when my mom got out of the passenger seat. "Tris!" she called, rushing over to my side. She wrapped a long jacket around my shoulders, and it wasn't until that moment that I realized how cold I was. "Come on, let's go," she said, leading me to the backseat of the car. She helped me in. "Buckle up," she said, tapping the seat belt. I did. "What's wrong?" she asked. Nothing was wrong, so I just shook my head.
Well, my head hurt, and I couldn't find where Julian and Jared were. That was wrong. "I can't find Jared or Julian," I said after she'd turned back around to face the front.
"What did you say?" she asked, looking at me again.
"My head hurts," I said.
My mother looked at my father. "Hurts like what? Did you hit your head?" he asked.
"I have a headache," I said. "Jared was the one who hit his head. I need to see him."
My mom and dad looked at each other again and my mom shook her head quickly before saying to me, "Listen, Tris, we're going to take you home and you can rest, okay? You can stay home tomorrow and just sleep in. Okay?"
Their voices sounded funny and I couldn't figure out why. "I need to see them," I insisted. It was very important that I see them. "They're hurt."
"Where are they now?"
"The hospital. Can I go there?"
"Not right now, dear. Listen, we'll call the hospital for you while you rest. You can see them tomorrow, okay?"
This seemed reasonable. "Okay," I said. "Tell them I was sleepy." I was, I discovered. Without waiting for a response, I closed my eyes. I could feel the car moving all around me, but it felt like it was in reverse. I imagined that maybe the car was standing still and for the first time ever I could actually feel the earth turning, but it was too fast and it went from day to night to day again in my head. There were whispering voices around me. I saw as though I were looking through frosted glass white light and hospital gowns and there, small and blond against the bed, Jared. His eyes were closed, so with mine closed too I went over to his side and grasped his hand and together we got up and left.
* * *
When I woke up, I was in my own bed. My headache was gone and the sun was hot and golden through the slats over the window. I squinted and looked at the clock. School was starting in twenty minutes, but more importantly, I hadn't heard from either Jared or Julian. Jared. He'd been in my dream last night, but it was both him and not him—or, rather, both him and someone more than just him. I reached for my phone and called Jared's house again. When the answering machine picked up, I hung up in frustration. I dialed Julian's number instead.
"Hello?" Finally, an answer!
"Hi, this is Tristan," I said hurriedly. If I didn't respond right away, Julian's mom might suddenly turn into another answering machine, and right now I was kind of sick of that. I'm buying Jared a cell phone or something, I thought. "Is Julian home?"
"I'm sorry, Tristan, but Julian went to school today." I relaxed against my pillows. Whatever had happened to him hadn't kept him from going to school. "They put his arm in a cast and sent him on his way."
"They broke his arm?"
"Yes, but it's the kind of fracture that heals quickly, they say. Six weeks and he's out of the cast."
"And he went to school?"
Julian's mom sighed. "I tried to talk him out of it." I could hear frustration and worry in her voice. "He said he wouldn't run and hide."
Something hot and fiercely proud rose up, but with it was shame, too. "Julian's courage is . . . "
"Hard, sometimes," his mother said, and suddenly I saw things from her eyes. "We're lucky it was just a broken arm this time, Tristan."
"Yes, I know. Jared had it worse. Which reminds me: was Jared there?"
Julian's mother didn't respond right away; I assumed she was trying to remember if she'd seen Jared yesterday. I was gripping the sheet. "Julian mentioned Jared—the other boy who was there, right? Jared was in a different wing of the hospital, or at least he was after they left Emergency."
"I have to find him," I said without realizing I'd spoken.
"Julian tells me a lot about you, Tristan. You understand him, don't you? You've . . . you've been there, too."
"Not a place so much. More . . . you've been through things—the things that make you who you are."
"I don't know."
"No, you have. Or are. You have the sound of it. Aboriginal fire-walkers have very tough, calloused feet, Tristan. They may not be pretty, but they've been across the coals."
I understood. "Your son. He's . . . "
"And you, too. Maybe you don't see it yet. It takes time. But you have." There was a noise in the background, a fax machine perhaps, and when it stopped, Julian's mother continued. "Listen, you ought to get to school and I need to take care of some paperwork. I'd tell you to be careful, but you don't need warnings anymore."
"Thanks," I said. "For understanding, I mean." We said our goodbyes and I hung up, but I didn't get out of bed right away. Instead, I rolled onto my side. What about Jared? Fuck. I turned over again. Well, I couldn't just stay here. I kicked the covers off and opened my door. Surprisingly, I could hear the sounds of dishes being rattled; the smell of eggs rose up the stairwell. I put on a robe and went downstairs. My parents—both of them—were cooking breakfast. The table was set for three. "What's going on?" I asked.
"We took the day off," my dad said, catching toast as it popped out of the toaster. "You can too, if you'd like."
"I'll have breakfast, but I think I need to go to school," I said.
"You're feeling alright, then?" my mom asked.
"Better," I said. "I was . . . pretty bad last night, wasn't I?"
"You were," my dad confirmed. "We almost took you to the hospital, but you fell asleep right away and we figured we'd give you until morning to sort things out."
"I need to find Jared," I told them.
"We know." My mother set a plate of bacon in front of me. "Listen, eat first and get dressed, and then you can go to school and see if he's there. Did you try calling?"
"No one answered," I said.
"You'll find him," my dad said. "Just make sure to call us when you do."
"Alright." I discovered I had a huge appetite. "Did I eat last night?"
"Last thing you probably ate was lunch yesterday," my mom said. "There's more food coming; don't you worry."
"Good," I said. "I'm starving."
"That's a good sign," my dad said.
"Where are the twins?"
"I took them to school already," my dad said. "Now, quiet, and eat." I ate as quickly as I could and ran up to shower and get dressed. By the time I made it to school, first period had already begun, but I was waylaid by the principal before I could make it to class. I accompanied the principal to his offices. When he opened the door, Julian was already seated on a couch there; he looked tired and his arm was indeed in a narrow white cast, but he smiled when he saw me.
"Julian!" I said, hugging him. "I'm glad you're okay. You look tired! Did you sleep? Why'd you come to school today? Is Jared here? Are the others coming?"
Julian laughed. "One question at a time, Tris! Yes, I'm okay, and as for the others, Dr. Cavert is gathering them up right now."
I had forgotten that the principal was in the room. "You're looking for Sarah and Taylor and the others, then? Are they here today?"
"I'm checking on that right now," he responded. "The attendance sheets from first period aren't in yet, and the attendance office is sorting through the excused absences for the morning. Listen, just sit here for a few minutes while we try to take care of things from our end."
"The other student who was injured—"
"We are checking on Jared Luceri right now as well." Dr. Cavert sat behind his desk. "I presume you know why you boys are both here." We nodded. "I received the police report this morning. It's in the papers, too, although thankfully they don't mention any names. Everyone involved were minors. Now, obviously since the students went to our school, and they were on their way home from school or a school function—in this case, you were on your way home from the GSA meeting and they were leaving school grounds after the school day had ended—we have the right to prosecute them according to school guidelines. Boys, I'm looking at expelling every one of your attackers; this is, of course, on top of any criminal charges filed. We won't tolerate hate crimes here at Laguna Hills High."
"Good," Julian said. "They're a danger to everyone in the GSA. Who knows—they're probably a danger to other students as well. People like that tend to hate more than just one type of people different from them." He leaned forward and, I noticed, placed his casted arm on the principal's desk. "I was talking to Ms. Heimdall yesterday, though, and I told her I was disbanding the GSA—that we couldn't know if these guys, even if they were expelled, would stalk us outside of school, in malls or parks or walking down the street or whatever."
"That's the criminal end of things," Dr. Cavert said. "And I don't have any control over that other than my willingness to be a witness if it comes to trial. Ah, good, here come Miss Vergell and Mr. Darman."
"What about Garrett, Liza and Jared?" I asked.
"We're still waiting on them," Dr. Cavert said. "I should know if they're in school in just a minute here."
Sarah opened the door and came through, followed by Taylor. "Julian! I'm glad you made it," she said, giving him a hug. Taylor did the same and they both greeted me. I knew I still had to explain everything to them, but for the moment they looked like they'd set it aside. They hugged me and we all sat down. I had a sudden shameful feeling. Here were two friends I'd driven away from me and still they accepted me without question.
Garrett came through the door a minute later. He had a bruise on his cheek and a cut below his right eye, but other than that he looked none the worse for wear. "Hey, guys," he said, sitting beside us. "I guess we're here to talk about what happened, huh?"
"Exactly," Dr. Cavert said, launching into the same explanation he'd given Julian and myself. When he'd finished, he picked up the phone and called the attendance office. "It seems Jared and Liza Luceri aren't in school today," he said, hanging up the phone.
I couldn't take it anymore. I was itching to get up and leave, to drive down to the hospital and find Jared myself. The meeting wasn't over, though. Dr. Cavert had us all write down statements about yesterday's events; as I wrote, I realized I was pressing harder and harder down on the paper. The ink was starting to run. I found myself wishing I'd smashed a few of their faces in, maybe broken a nose or two. After a few minutes of this, I realized I was still the only one scribbling furiously. I finished and looked up; close to an hour had passed and the others were all done. "Sorry, guys," I said.
"It's cool," Garrett said. "Dr. Cavert said he'd be back in about ten more minutes anyway."
"Okay." The tip of the pen was ruined. I threw it in the trash. "Did anyone else get really pissed writing this?" Everyone kind of looked at me blankly. "I'm glad I signed up for the GSA, Julian," I said. "It's important. Beyond just what's going on at school, I mean." Julian nodded. "I got pissed because what happened yesterday was so fucked up. And it happens all over. Julian, we can't give up on the GSA. It means too much to those kids, you know. And what it stands for. It means too much to itself—you know what I mean? It's a fucking symbol, and we can't let it get torn down by the people we're trying to change."
I looked at everyone after I'd spoken, but no one said anything. After a moment, Sarah said, "You know what, Julian, he's right. I say fuck them. If we give up now, then, shit, we might've as well never had the club at all. Fight the system and all that. Seriously, we have to keep going."
"Anyone who really wants to come after us already knows who we all are," Taylor added. "So it makes no sense to cancel the meetings now."
"I don't know," said Julian, and he rubbed his hand along his cast unconsciously. "I'm tired. You guys are all excited by defiance and pushing expectations, but I've been doing this for years now, and it's hard."
"But now you're not just doing it by yourself," Sarah said. "And it's not just about you anymore."
Garrett grinned and raised his hand. "As the token straight guy, I say don't quit now."
"The token straight girl seconds that motion," Sarah said.
"Oh, come on; if you're not bi, I'll do the principal in the butt," Garrett said.
"Do it first and then I'll tell you," Sarah replied. "So, what of it, Julian?"
"Let's see what Dr. Cavert says first," Julian said.
Nothing further was going to get decided now, and I hadn't grown any less angry in the last few minutes. I needed to find Jared. I needed to be sure he was okay. "Listen, guys," I said. "I need to do this now. I really need to apologize."
"You and I already said our piece," Garrett said.
"Well, there's more, and I owe apologies to everyone here. And Liza, too, but I'll get her when I find Jared. Which is where I am going. So let me say this now. I'm sorry, all of you. I've done a lot of harm out of stupidity. I made a promise that I wouldn't do it again, ever. Maybe it's impossible to keep, but it certainly can't hurt to try. When I was in San Francisco and I thought I was totally alone . . . shit, that's when you really hit rock bottom."
"San Francisco?" Sarah asked.
Taylor shook his head. "Seth," he murmured.
"Yes, Seth," I said. "You were right, Taylor. Well, let me back up. Square one. I met this guy at The Bean and we started dating. His name was Seth. Well, he and I hit it off and I went up to San Francisco twice. The second time things were pretty serious. I really thought I loved him, I think. I was definitely infatuated." I sighed and took a deep breath. "Look, this is still really hard. Well, he ended up doing exactly what Taylor said he'd do. We'd gone clubbing and I'd gotten really smashed and he made me feel guilty for leaving the club early. We got back to his apartment and there was a party going on and I left to take a walk. I . . . passed out on the street, in a gutter. When I made it back to the apartment, he was . . . well, he was fucking a friend of his. He didn't seem to think it was a big deal."
Taylor nodded. "I'm sorry, Tris. I tried to warn you."
"I know, Taylor, and I'm sorry. I really am. I'm sorry I walked away from you on the beach. That I didn't believe you."
"Love is blind," Taylor said.
I laughed. It was harsh even to my own ears. "Yeah. I found that out." I pinched the bridge of my nose. I was getting a headache. "I left after that. I wandered the streets for awhile. At some point I realized I'd made a lot of mistakes here. That I had to come back. See, I'd alienated all of you and I pretty much ran away from home because I thought . . . well, I came out to my parents and I thought it didn't go well. I seriously thought about staying in San Francisco, finding a way to get a job and live up there, but I realized that if I did that I'd always wonder if I could've fixed things here, and I knew I had to try. So I'm sorry. I've treated you all like shit, and I can't even claim that I didn't mean to, because obviously I wouldn't have done it if I didn't. But I am sorry."
"It's alright," Sarah said. The others nodded. Just like that, they'd accepted my apology, but to me it still didn't feel like enough. I fumbled for a moment for something to say, but then Julian looked up at me.
"What?" I asked him.
"Go," he said. "We know what you want to do. Go find him. We'll let the principal know."
I glanced around; Taylor and Garrett nodded, and Sarah said, "Find Liza too and tell her what you told us."
"Call us when you find them," Taylor added. "Don't forget. Do you want one of us to go with you?"
"I should be fine." I headed for the door, then turned. " Thanks, guys. For understanding." I let myself out and ran for my car.
* * *
Hospitals were strange places. They were vast waiting rooms for humanity, one place that seemed to bridge the gap between the lands of the living and the dead. It was almost as if in some respect they existed in two worlds at once, and I imagined revolving doors at either end, one side leading back out into the wind and the sun and the sounds of cars rushing by on busy streets, the other leading to a quiet place where the feel of the wind and the sounds of life were a muted and fading memory. In those places where the moribund went and divided into two fateful lines—we were all dying in every second, sure, but it was in places like this that that distinction was made so clear. You go in, and you come out. The only question is which exit you take as you leave.
I don't know the last time I'd driven so quickly. I was sure I was going to get pulled over, but I figured I could tell the police officer what was going on and he'd let me go with a warning. I knew the nearest hospital was St. Mary's, so I headed there. I had to stop myself from running headlong through the emergency doors. The closer I got, the faster I felt the need to move. I went up to the counter and asked, "Where can I find a patient who came into Emergency yesterday and is probably upstairs now?"
"What is the patient's name?" the attendant at the desk asked me.
"Jared Luceri," I replied. "He came in here yesterday afternoon."
"Hang on a sec while I check," she replied. She reached for her keyboard and clicked a few times. I imagined her closing a game of solitaire or perhaps Minesweeper and I had an urge to scream at her as she typed so fucking slowly. If I shoved her out of the way, I wondered, could I make the computer search more quickly?
Finally, the nurse turned back to me. "My records show that they moved him up to a room on the fifth floor—506. You'll need to check in at—" the nurse stopped and looked surprised as I turned and began speed-walking away.
"Thanks," I hollered as I dashed down the hallway.
"You'll need to check in!" she yelled, but I ignored her as I followed the signs to the elevator. I could check in later. I needed to see him. I half-walked, half-ran down white corridors with signs pointing every which way. I hated hospitals. They were big, confusing and filled with the smell of nothing. Finally, I found the elevator, a big stainless steel thing that was deeper than an ordinary elevator. I understood why when two orderlies in scrubs wheeled in two patients in wheelchairs. We rode up to the fifth floor and I stumbled out the doors almost before they opened.
The hallway split into two corridors; I read the sign and turned the corner so quickly I almost ran smack into a nurse. "Watch where you're going!" she shouted.
I jumped backwards and let her pass, murmuring "Sorry" as she went by. My shoes squeaked against the white linoleum floor and the windows into the patients' rooms blurred by me in a streak of reflected fluorescence. Finally, I ran past room 506, doubled back and stopped in front of the door. Curtains were drawn across the window, so I couldn't see into the room. Suddenly, I was nervous; I paused for a moment before I set my hand on the handle. I had a hard time making my fist close around it. I took a deep breath and opened the door.
The room was empty. For a moment, I didn't believe what my eyes were telling me. There was the hospital bed, curtains drawn back and sheets tucked tightly in at the corners, but there was no Jared in it. I spun around and resisted the not-quite-sane urge to look under the bed. "Fuck oh fuck fuck," I muttered, feeling my breath come faster and faster. I held on to the rail attached to the hospital bed for a moment. I didn't think I could stand on my own. Where the fuck is he? All sorts of horrible possibilities unfolded, cinematic, each one worse than the last—doctors wheeling him at a run into emergency surgery, nurses yelling "Stat!" and pumping at his chest with defibrillators, orderlies shaking their heads sadly as they drew a clean sheet over an equally white face—"Help!" I shouted. I was clutching the bedsheets as though by ripping them off Jared would suddenly be there again. I couldn't remember the last thing I'd said to him. I couldn't remember the last time I'd touched him. If that was the last thing that would ever pass between us, I wanted to remember it, and I couldn't. All I remembered was the receding lights of the ambulance as it pulled away from Sarah's house. I'd wanted to chase it, to make time stop or run backward, but the lights and the sirens were pushing inexorably forward far faster than I could ever hope to run.
And now . . .
Pale sunlight through the narrow window cut a sharp diagonal across the bed. The light somehow emphasized the bed's emptiness, as though the presence of something as ephemeral as a beam of sunlight reinforced the fact that these beds held only transient things, people ever on their way to somewhere else. How many people had been in this bed, only to die the next day? Jared had been here, and now he had gone. The light was warm against the side of my face that was pressed against the bed. Jared, I'm sorry. I wasn't fast enough. God damn it, I'm always two seconds behind everyone else, and I'll spend my whole life paying for that.
Two nurses rushed into the room then and I was surprised to realize that it had only been a few seconds since I'd shouted. I felt as though I'd lived a lifetime's worth of fear in those few sunlit seconds on the neatly-made hospital bed. I raised my face from the bed. "Where is he?" I asked.
The nurses didn't answer my immediate question. "What are you doing? Are you ill?"
"Where is he?" I asked again, my voice louder this time. "Jared Luceri. The patient who was here. Where is he?"
The nurses glanced at each other and then at me. "I think you'd better step outside with us," they said, flanking the door. I couldn't tell if they thought I was sane or not. I wasn't sure if I was sane or not. I got up and moved in the direction of the door. They kept their eyes on me the whole time much in the same manner that one watches a vicious dog—the slow and heavy stare of someone wary of the unpredictable and potentially violent. I felt violent.
When I was standing outside of the room, I leaned against the wall and allowed myself to slide down until I was sitting on the floor, knees at my chest. "Tell me," I said. "I'm not going to do anything. Just tell me."
"Are you alright?" the nurse asked again.
"I am," I replied. "Just tell me."
"Jared Luceri was the boy who was here last night and earlier today, right?" the nurse who had done most of the talking asked the other.
"Yes," I responded, even though the question hadn't been directed at me. "Blond hair, about five-foot-four, thin . . . was in a fight."
"Oh, yes, him," the other nurse said. He reached for a chart. "It looks like he left at about noon today."
"Left for where?" I asked, my voice rising.
"He was discharged and sent home," he responded, closing the chart. "He should be there now, although he'll be back for a scheduled appointment tomorrow morning. There. Now, are you going to be okay?"
Relief lifted me off of the ground. The bed might've been empty, but its occupant had traveled back into the daylight. "Yes," I said as I stood. "I'll be okay now."
* * *
I stood again at the threshold of the Luceri house. I knew finally why I was here. Still, it was hard to walk up the steps to the front door. My boots echoed against the concrete path and in my mind I heard the staccato running footsteps of yesterday, saw the blood splatter along the sidewalk and grass. The wind sent dried leaves skittering in front of me; they leapt skyward one by one and, limp, fluttered down again. Those sad little broken things. The voice of a changeling boy pushed me on. His words were the leaves, a distant and windborne call, but I heard it all the same. I'd know it anyhere. We'd raced through the air in my dreams. My arm was almost too heavy to lift and my hand like stone as I reached for the doorbell. Mrs. Luceri answered. "Tristan! Come in. Liza's gone to pick up medication, but Jared was just released from the hospital today. He's resting upstairs. How are you? You look tired."
I leaned against the door. "I'm running on empty," I said. "There's nothing left in me now."
"Oh, Tristan." Mrs. Luceri stepped toward me and embraced me. "It'll be okay," she whispered into my ear as she pulled away. "Go upstairs," she said. "Jared'll be glad to see you. He's been asking me to call you all day."
"Thank you." I turned and when I got to Jared's door I opened it without hesitating, like the way one pulls out a splinter from a finger or severs a limb—quickly, with a sharp inhaled breath, so that the fear will be over in a moment. I must tell him why I am here. This time, the bed was occupied, the sheets rumpled and the room filled with everything that was Jared. He couldn't know it, but at long last I felt as though I'd caught sunlight and held it fast. I felt myself smile at him and he grinned back. Part of me wanted to launch myself at him, but leaden feet could not fly. Besides, I was worried about hurting him. When I got to the side of the bed, I reached for his hand. "Jared," I whispered. It wasn't much of a greeting, but it was enough.
Jared's hand was warm in mine. He shifted slightly and looked sideways at me. "Are you okay, Tris?"
"Now I am," I said truthfully. "They didn't really manage to hurt me too badly yesterday. I mean, my leg and arm are bruised, sore . . . what about you? I was worried about you, Jared. I . . . "
"They thought I had a mild concussion," Jared said. "I guess I woke up just fine, though . . . I don't remember much, really. But they said I could go home this morning, so I got back and fell asleep. I was just about to call you—" he shifted again, making room for me, and I sat at the edge of the bed, my hand still clutching his, "—but here you are. I was worried about you all night, Tris. I wanted to call you so badly, but they said I couldn't, not until they knew I would be alright . . . I'm sorry, Tris. I'm really sorry."
"There's nothing to be sorry for," I said back. "I'm glad you're okay. I'll be gladder when those guys get kicked out of school, though. The police are going to fuck them over, too."
Jared closed his eyes and leaned back. "Is it really worth it?"
"What do you mean?"
"Them getting arrested, expelled, all that. What's it gonna solve? They're just going to get angrier."
"Jared . . . they would've killed you."
Jared shook his head. "Stuff for later. I . . . thanks for coming, Tris. I mean, I knew you would. But thanks anyway."
"I've been looking for you all damn morning," I replied. "I went to the hospital, went to the room you were in, everything . . . took me forever to track you down." I stopped for a moment. The next words burned in my throat. I couldn't say them. I couldn't tell him the reason I was really here. I remembered all too well the quiet, the red of taillights like eyes, and the aloneness of the world at low tide.
Jared saw, though. He knew I was pulling something into myself. Maybe he could hear the gentle sounds of tearing as I buried swords in my heart. "What is it?" he asked. The connection, the link that was our hands frightened me. I held back from passing everything to him through that connection—if I did I would pour into him entirely, like a dam bursting, and the life would drain out of me. "What's wrong, Tristan?"
It almost sounded weird to hear him use my full name. "I don't want to say, " I whispered. I let go his hand and walked to the window. The trellis up which I'd climbed wrapped around the pane. I'd almost given in that night and the following morning. I couldn't give in now. I'd done it once, walked away once; I could do it again. It was better this way. Jared would thank me, one day. From somewhere. Even if the boy in my head was running faster than I could ever hope to follow.
"God damn it, Tris." I jumped. Jared was right behind me. He was trembling—whether from weakness or from anger, I didn't know—and he looked as though he were about to throw me out the window. "You did this once before, and you were wrong. Why do you want to do it again? How many times are you going to do this?"
"Jared, just . . . "
"Just what? Let you walk away again? Like it wasn't bad enough the first time? Like I didn't spend that whole day crying and trying to hide so no one would see?"
I sighed and turned. "Ever since I was a little boy, I've had this dream. It was always different, every time, but it was the same dream, too—or maybe a better way of saying it is that it was the continuation of one really long dream, one that's lasted my entire life." I sat on the edge of the bed and Jared sat in a chair across from me. He met my eyes and I didn't look away. If he wanted the truth, I would give it to him. "It didn't always pick up where it left off, but it always felt the same. Anyway, there was a boy in the dream. He wasn't ever the same, either . . . there were some times that I never saw his face, and then there were times that I did, and sometimes he had a narrow face, kind of foxlike, and other times he had eyes like an owl, or a deer, but his laugh and his smile were always the same, even if he had blond hair or black hair or whatever it was that night." I realized I was rambling a bit. "Anyway, I haven't had the dream in a long time . . . about a year, I guess. But then last night I dreamt that I was in the hospital, looking for you, and I went through sunlight and then doors—and when I finally came into a room, you were in the bed, but you were the boy." I took a deep breath, but I didn't look away. "Wow, talk about déjà vu. Listen, Jared, you're the boy, the boy that I've been chasing around in my head for years, and I'm gay."
This time, unlike all the other times, with Julian or Garrett or my parents, there wasn't that silent humming pause where the world seemed as though it might break apart. Instead, instantly and without thought, Jared said, "Oh, good, me too."
This time it was my turn to pause. "What?" I asked after I'd gotten breath back into my lungs.
"I said 'me too,' " Jared replied. And he grinned! "Why do you think I joined the GSA? Just because you asked me to?" Suddenly everything fell into place and I flushed a deep crimson: Jared's joy every time he saw me, and the mirror of that within me, Jared at the airport, tripping over the sign in his rush to meet me, his friendship with Julian, the funny look he'd given me at the swim meet—I remembered what I'd said then: "Hey, some guys like that"—even Jared's anger at my exit on that day when I thought I would leave this place forever . . .
"Does this mean that you—that we—" I was so red-faced and Jared was so calm, as though he'd been waiting for this all of his life, and then it struck me that perhaps he had.
"I think that's your decision as much as mine," Jared replied. I was silent then, and he who knew me so well read it instantly and said, "You're thinking about that guy in San Francisco you went to visit—Seth—aren't you. You loved him, right? And it—it didn't work out, and that's why you came back, right?" I nodded, and again he could read the lines of pain in my face. "He hurt you."
"Yes," I whispered. "Yes, he did." I couldn't do it. I couldn't risk it again. I'd been slapped down twice already; a third time would be more than I could bear. We would try and it would work for a little while—it had with Seth—and then it would fall apart and I would lose this golden boy that I loved so terribly that it felt as though my very heart would burst with this exquisite pain—
"That was Seth. I am Jared," was all he said. I glanced back at him, but his head was down; and then I heard Julian's voice—Every breath we take is another moment of a rare experience, and it won't come our way again—and finally, like the turning of a key in a lock, the words fit perfectly for the very first time. I might lose it all again, but if I didn't try, if we didn't try, we'd be committing our love to the flames before it had even had a chance at life. I would not go through my life empty and alone until the day when I was an old man ready to give over into death and still wondering at what might have been, had I let that stillborn love take hold. As though he could sense my conclusion, Jared met my eyes. I gasped at what I saw there, at what had been there all along, and I reached out to him and took his hand and then the door opened, light spilled through, and the dream child whose face and body had never been the same in the grassy fields of my mind suddenly took shape before me, here, alive and breathing and smiling back at me as he had so many times before in the split-second before we ran together in that place where time had no meaning.
"I love you," I said, trembling with the force of it. "I've loved you all my life, even before I knew you."
"I love you too," Jared said. We moved together, two parts of an inscribed circle, and then our lips touched and the circle was complete, one unit with no dividing lines, merged here in a kiss filled with innocence and passion and a sense that everything in our lives had led up to this moment, this moment and everything that comes after.