This is, it turns out, a story about fear and cowardice. Standard disclaimers would apply if there were any actual sex in this but, as it turns out, there isn't. So, if relationship stories freak you out, or you're looking to get your keyboard sticky, now would be a good time to run away. No, really. Probably the best time, thinking about it.
Many thanks to Ashken, Ender, and Kitty, intrepid editors.
* * *
It was about six at night, I was up in my room, and I was working with my notecards when the phone rang. I let it go, since it wasn't ever for me and I always forget to give people messages. Mom would get it or it'd ring over to the answering machine, but either way I didn't have to deal with it, which was fine by me. That's why I was so surprised when I heard my mom call up.
I dropped all my notecards when she said that, and kind of sat there surprised for a second. I figured I must've misheard her. "What?"
Or maybe not. I hoped it wasn't anything bad, and had no idea who'd be calling me anyway. "Who is it?"
I heard some mumbling for a second, then she yelled up "It's a Rick Barker."
I couldn't imagine what Rick'd be calling me on a weekend for -- I hoped there wasn't anything wrong, but I was kind of worried, so I ran to the kitchen and grabbed the phone from Mom.
"Hey, Justin! Trevor and Paul and I were going to go to the concert at the park downtown tonight. You want to come?"
"What?" This wasn't what I'd expected. It didn't sound like anyone was hurt or the world was coming to an end.
"There's a concert tonight at the park. Paul's got a car tonight, and we were thinking we'd all go. Do you want to come with us?"
I just looked at the phone like it was some kind of alien artifact. Nobody'd ever asked me to go anywhere that I could remember, and I didn't know exactly what to do.
"Justin, you still there?" Rick sounded a little worried.
"Yeah," I said, making a decision. "Yeah, I'm here. I'd like to go, sure. What time?"
"Seven thirty at the park. Are you going to drive?"
"I think I'll drive, yeah. Should I come and pick you up?"
"We're set to get there, but Trevor might need a ride home. Paul and I were going to go over some stuff for the show tonight, and he lives near you."
"No problem, I can do that. I'll see you in about an hour?"
"Yup. Later, Justin!" The conversation ended with a click on the other end of the line.
I hung the phone up, and just stood there in the kitchen. A concert. Going out with people. I'd never done that before, and it was... well, it was terrifying, really. I went to my room to change and worry.
* * *
I'd gotten to the park a little after seven thirty, and everyone was already together. There was a good-sized crowd there, maybe five hundred people, milling around in front of a portable stage that had been set up at one end of the park. Along the edges were a dozen or so booths, most selling food, and they all had pretty good-sized lines. The band was still getting ready, but it looked like things were going to start pretty soon.
I took a deep breath, pasted on a smile, and walked over to Rick and the guys.
"Hey," I said as I got close.
"Hi Justin," said Trevor. Rick and Paul both waved. "Rick said you might come."
"Yeah, he called, so here I am."
"Glad you could make it," said Rick. He looked kind of happy, so I figured I'd made the right decision. "So what do you do on the weekends anyway? Your mom said you might be busy."
Or maybe not the right decision. "I, um..." I didn't really want to answer that question, because what I did on the weekends was embarrassing. I wasn't sure how to not answer, though, so I did. "I... practice," I said.
"Kung fu? Boy, you do that all the time, Justin," said Rick.
It would've been easy to lie to them, but I didn't really want to. I wasn't good at it, and it didn't feel right to lie to people I was thinking of as friends. Especially not Rick. "No. Um... on weekends I practice walking. And talking." And at concerts, feeling stupid.
They looked at me like I was nuts, and I can't really blame them, since I know what I said hadn't come out right.
"Walking," asked Paul. He gave me a look I couldn't figure out. "And... talking?"
"Yeah. I mean, not like regular walking," I said quickly, really feeling the need to explain. "I don't fall over or anything, but... walking." I could tell this wasn't going over well. It even sounded lame to me.
"And talking," threw in Rick, who was grinning like a maniac at me. "Don't forget that." I wasn't sure if he was making fun of me or not. I hoped he wasn't, but it still hurt a little.
"Dude, how can anyone practice talking," asked Paul. "Or is this some accent thing?"
"No, I don't need to practice those, I just have to listen. I mean, y'know, talking to people. Conversations and stuff."
"You practice conversations," Paul asked. I nodded. "By yourself?" I nodded again. "That's..." Paul trailed off.
"I'm not very good at them," I said in my defense. I was squirming and feeling really uncomfortable and I had an urge to run, but I was trying hard not to just bail on these guys. "Like, um, this one." It was hard to keep my eyes on Paul while I was saying this -- they kept darting around, looking at things that were less uncomfortable.
"Hey, is anyone else thirsty?" Trevor asked suddenly. I was really glad for the change of subject.
"Yeah," said Paul, "I could go for a root beer right now." He was giving me a look I couldn't quite read.
"I'll go get them," I said, as fast as I could. I didn't want to leave, but I needed to get from them for a little while and try to get calmed down. "Root beer all around?" Everyone nodded their agreement, so I left to get them.
One of the booths was selling only sodas, so the line was moving pretty quickly. It was being manned by an older woman with a big white beehive hairdo who acted like she was everyone's grandmother. Heck, for all I knew she could've been just about everyone's grandmother.
"What kind of cokes do you want, hun?" she asked me when I got to the head of the line.
"Huh? No, I don't want cokes, thanks."
"That's fine. I have water and lemonade, too."
The portable soda machine on the table next to her was one of the standard ones, with pulls for Coke, Sprite, and root beer, but I guess they were out of everything but Coke. I wasn't sure what to do with them not having root beer, since I wasn't sure what everyone else would have wanted instead. "A water, please. Are you sure you don't you have any root beer?"
"Sure, hun. I thought you said you didn't want any cokes, though."
"I don't. I want a water and three root beers. No Coke." That didn't make any sense. Maybe I had misheard her or misunderstood her accent or something. She didn't seem like she'd be the type to do that stupid 'mess with the Yankee' stuff that some of the people here liked to do.
"Hun, root beer is a coke." The woman looked at me like I was nuts, but the feeling was mutual. Root beer was not Coke. I had a feeling this was some weird regional thing and I just didn't want to try and figure it out here. I could do that later -- right now I just wanted my sodas.
"Um, okay. Three root beers and a water, please."
I forked over the ten bucks, took my four plastic cups, and left feeling confused. At least I had my sodas.
Getting back through the crowd without spilling anything was kind of a pain. I didn't figure this town could manage enough people to fill the park, but it did, and they were everywhere. I took it slowly, since I'd forgotten to get anything to hold the cups with, so it took a couple of minutes to make it back to where I'd left them.
"Got the sodas, guys," I said, as I came up on them. Rick, Trevor, and Paul were standing shoulder to shoulder, looking pretty grim, and facing four other guys. If I didn't know better I'd think they were looking for a fight. I didn't recognize any of the four guys from behind, but when I'd spoken one of them had turned around and looked at me. He nudged the guy to his left, then all four of them just took off. Strange.
"What was going on with them?" I asked, as I handed around the cups.
Trevor was wide-eyed. "That was so cool!"
"What, root beer?" I wasn't sure what he was talking about. Of course it was cool, they came with ice.
"No, what happened with those guys. You just walked up and they ran away. That was great! They were like all afraid of you and everything!" Trevor was waving his arms around as he spoke, and almost threw his root beer at Paul.
I spat out a mouthful of water when I heard Trevor say that. "They were what?"
"They were scared of you, Justin," said Rick. He wasn't as excited as Trevor but he was sounding pretty happy. "They were some kids from school who like to give us a hard time."
"Oh," I said. It made more sense now, though I didn't like it. "They were looking for trouble, huh?"
"We were getting ready. I think we could've taken 'em," said Trevor. He punched the air a couple of times with his empty hand.
"It was four on three. I think you would've gotten creamed," I said. I was starting to get a little angry, too. This wasn't what I was teaching them things for. "Guys, you can't go picking fights, it's not safe and it's not right."
"What about you and Bobby?" asked Paul. "You started it with him."
"That was different," I said.
"Oh? Different how, exactly?" Paul crossed his arms and looked at me. He wasn't angry, I think, but he wasn't impressed either.
"Different like... well, it just was," I said. I knew that was a lame answer, but I didn't have anything better right then. It was different. Really. At least, I think it was.
"Come on, Justin," said Paul. "It wasn't." He didn't sound convinced.
"Yeah, it was," I said. My voice was hard . I was definitely pissed, and that overrode any uncertainty just them. "What happened between Bobby and me was personal, it was one on one, he started it, and I could finish it. You guys can't finish it, not without getting hurt."
Trevor started to say something, but I wouldn't let him. "No, I'm serious. Guys, it's only been a few weeks. You don't know enough. Get in some stupid brawl and..."
"Yeah, but they don't know that, Justin," Paul said, cutting me off. "And we do know enough -- we know we're tired of getting the crap kicked out of us. Maybe we don't know how to fight yet, but we know how not to roll over. There were too many people around here anyway. Besides," he said, drawing himself up and putting on an overdone haughty accent, "we're actors. We just acted like we knew what we were doing."
I looked at him blankly as what he said sunk in. While I normally felt about thirty seconds behind most conversations, today I was doing really well, and it only took about ten. What Paul had said made a bizarre kind of sense, and once I realized it I started laughing and just couldn't stop. It didn't help when Trevor whacked Paul in the back of the head and said, "you're not an actor, you're stage crew!"
Paul was right -- it didn't matter whether they won or lost, what mattered was they'd stood up and said enough was enough. It honestly was the same as what I'd done with Bobby, and just as personal. In a way it was a braver thing to do, since they were risking a lot more hurt than I was, handy crowd or not.
"See," said Trevor as the band started playing, "I told you we could've taken 'em!"
The concert was OK, if you like guys singing about girls and trucks, and we didn't really talk while it was going on. That was fine, since I wasn't sure what exactly to say. We were out having fun, and it was fun, really, but I just didn't know what to do. At least it wasn't tense.
I applauded along with everyone else when the last song was done, though I think I was happier it was over than actually appreciative of the concert itself. It had been awfully loud, and there were way too many people around for me to be comfortable.
"So," I said to Rick as things were breaking up, "you said Trevor might need a ride home?"
"I'm right here, Justin," Trevor said, smacking me on the shoulder.
"Oh. Um, sorry. Do you need a ride home?"
"Yes, please. Those two," he said, waving at Rick and Paul, "have something plebeian to do with flashlights or something."
"Well, forgive the humble stage crew, oh great actor," Paul said with a deep bow. "We forget we're in the presence of someone so skilled they can act in the dark on an empty stage."
"C'mon, Justin," Trevor said, grabbing my arm and sticking his tongue out at Rick and Paul, who were both laughing. "Let's blow this popsicle stand!"
"Uh, OK," I replied. I figured I ought to say something, but I wasn't sure how, exactly. These guys had been bantering back and forth all evening while the concert was going on. I knew what it was -- I did sometimes watch TV, and I could recognize banter when I heard it -- but I didn't know how to do it. I was feeling a little left out and uncomfortable.
"That was fun, huh," asked Trevor as we got to my car.
"Sort of. I guess," I replied. It was, but it wasn't, too. I wasn't sure how I felt about tonight. It wasn't bad, but I wasn't sure it was good, either.
"Not a big country fan, huh?" Trevor was grinning at me as he got into the car.
"No, not that either," I said before I could stop myself. Yet another reminder of why I hated conversations I wasn't ready for. I'd been messing up all evening, and I now was beginning to regret coming. I was getting nervous on top of the uncomfortable. It wasn't a good feeling.
"It's not us, is it?" Trevor sounded worried. "I mean, you like us, right?"
"What? No, no, I like you guys just fine," I said as I pulled out and started towards home. I got worried myself, and a nasty thought popped in my head. "You like me, though, right?"
"Geez," Trevor said, "what do you think?"
I'd been on edge all evening, and that bit of uncertainty was the last straw. I wanted to leave, but I couldn't - it was my car, and I'd promised I'd give Trevor a ride. It was probably stupid, but I started to panic. Trembling hands, sweaty palms, hard time breathing, the works. I hadn't felt like this since the time I got lost at an amusement park when I was eight. I had to pull over to the side of the road before I crashed us into a tree.
"It's OK, Justin. Breathe," said Trevor. I felt his hand on my shoulder, gently rubbing it.
Breathing sounded like a good idea right then, so I did, and it did help calm me down some.
"Not good with people, huh," asked Trevor.
I couldn't bring myself to look at him, but at least he didn't sound like he was laughing. That was something. "What gave you that idea?"
"I'm not sure. Could've been the panic, could've been the hyperventilating. Hard to tell."
"Fucking swell," I said, dropping my head on the steering wheel and feeling like crap. I think I really managed to blow it this time. I hate not being able to tell what people are thinking. Hate it. Now he knew how badly I sucked with people. So much for friends. Fuck.
"It's OK, Justin," Trevor repeated. He even patted me on the shoulder. "Really, it is. Don't worry, we like you."
"You do?" I lifted my head up and looked at him. Trevor was smiling at me.
"Yeah, of course. You didn't know?"
"I can't tell," I mumbled. I never could, and it was one of the things that'd been nagging at me all evening, thinking that maybe everyone was only pretending to be nice. It wouldn't have been the first time.
"Why'd you come, then, if you didn't know whether we liked you or not?" Trevor sat back. "That must've been kind of scary."
"It was," I sighed and rubbed my forehead. "I wasn't sure how tonight would be. It's the first concert I've ever been to, and I don't really get out with people. When Rick called, though, I figured I'd go. Rick's my friend, and I hoped he wouldn't ask if you didn't want me around."
"You know, you're the only person in school who calls him Rick?"
The change of topic took me by surprise. "What? I am? That's his name, right?" I had this sudden fear that I'd been calling Rick by the wrong name since school started and didn't know it.
"Yeah, but nobody calls him that. It's always Ricky or Little Ricky. He hates it, but everybody calls him that anyway. Everybody but you, at least."
"Oh. Well, that's how he introduced himself, so that's what I call him." It was, too. The first day, when I sat down in trig class, he'd turned to me and said 'Hi, I'm Rick.' We even shook hands. He was the first person I'd talked to voluntarily in school. I think he might've been the only person I'd talked to voluntarily in school before Bobby and I had our discussion.
"It's nice, you know," Trevor said suddenly, "to not be treated like a little kid or a freak. You do that. We're just... us. It's like you don't even notice we're different."
I hadn't really thought about it before, but he was right. It was, and that was why I enjoyed hanging around the drama class. Everyone there just treated me like I was normal, not like some side-show attraction or something. I liked it, and I hadn't realized until just now how much I liked it. Hadn't realized how much everyone else liked it, too.
"Yeah," I said, "I know what you mean. Not being treated differently."
"You weren't joking, were you," he asked changing the subject again. It was starting to make my head hurt a little "About the practicing? I mean, you seem pretty normal around school. Maybe a little different, but you're not from around here."
"I wasn't, no," I said, remembering that part of the conversation and slumping a little. "Pretending to be normal when you're not takes a lot of work. Thanks for the save, too," I added.
"No problem," Trevor said, "I could tell you were kinda freaking on us there."
'Kinda'? That was an understatement. I still was, a little. Talking with Trevor was helping, though. "It was really embarrassing, and it was something I didn't know how to talk about."
"It's OK, Justin. Most everyone in drama's different in one way or another. We stick together and help each other out."
He thought for a moment. "Hey, tell you what, Justin. I think you're cool, and I really appreciate what you're doing for me with the class and all... Um, do you want some help? You know, someone to practice with? I'm kinda good with people." Trevor had a hopeful puppy look on his face that almost made me laugh.
The offer was nice -- really nice, and I don't know that Trevor would ever understand how much it meant to me. "Yeah," I said with a big smile, "I'd really like that."
"Cool. One thing, though," he said, grinning like a maniac. "You gotta do it all with an accent. I want to nail the lead in the play!"
I grinned back at him and slipped on my Bronx. "You got it, kid."
* * *
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