By Dashiell Walraven
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In the winter, the long walk from my house, out to the road to catch the bus, could be challenging. In addition to the darkness of the early morning, sometimes I'd have to bring a shovel with me to dig past the snow the plows had piled into the driveway as they passed. January and February seemed to always bring so much snow that the roads became dirty, white labyrinths. High embankments, combined with drifts from the driving, cold wind, sometimes made for interesting navigation. The ancient bus that took me to the school didn't have a very good heater, so when I headed off in the morning, I was always layered-up under my winter ducks, pulling down the earlaps on my hat to cover my tender ears. The twenty or so children on my route always arrived ruddy-faced, chapped-cheek, and eager to scamper into the warm embrace of the monolithic school building with its monstrous, coal-fired furnaces.
"So, Oliver," Lizzie-B hung an arm over her seat and looked back at me, "I heard Garrett is awake and gonna be okay."
"Yeah," I said, over the cranky din of the bus, "My dad told me his parents called, and said he woke up a couple of days ago and it seem's like he's got all his marbles and stuff, but he doesn't remember much about what happened." She nodded. I hoped the news of Garrett's impending recovery would be the end of all the rumors about the cause of his accident. In the days after the holidays, the gossip-mill regarding Garrett and his accident, ran to full capacity, churning out wild stories that ran the gamut from the plausible on the one hand, to things my father described as "balls-out-crazy", on the other. Most of the looniest ones, I heard only third-hand, from Lizzie-B, or other friends. For some reason, nobody really spoke to me directly about it.
"Cool," Lizzie said with a thumbs-up, "I can't wait to see him and give him a hug." Me too, I thought to myself as I nodded to her, me too.
There seemed to be an undercurrent about the subject of Garrett, which I couldn't quite get my arms around. My gut told me something was up, but I could not figure what. Maybe because it seemed like some conversations came to stop when I turned a corner or showed up in a classroom, or perhaps because I kept catching people looking at me and then glancing away. Everyone seemed to have a question on their lips, but never dared ask it.
I've always felt like a pretty normal guy, I have plenty of friends, I'm not strange, withdrawn loners that every school seems to have. I do good at winter sports, I love to swim, run, jump and climb in the summers at the lake, and I try to be like Pastor Dave and my Dad, nice to everybody. There is this one older guy though, for some reason, who never liked me. Don't ask me why, because I never did anything to him. His name is Peter Gilbert and he's a Junior, same class as Garrett. From the start, he regarded me with nothing but derision and bile.
Mom is always saying stuff like "you can't please everyone" or "you can't make everybody like you", but I found Peter's attitude toward me genuinely puzzling. To my knowledge, I never did or said anything to draw his ire or judgement of my character, which he clearly found lacking, so I had no idea why he disliked me so much. As one might expect, I tried avoiding him as much as possible, a fact that did not escape his notice.
"Whassamatter Red," he would sneer, "you afraid of me?"
First off, it is no secret how much I dislike being called anything but "Oliver". Being referred to as "Red", however, really sets my teeth on edge. Peter spoke the appellation like one might talk of a something he'd stepped in, and I resented how it made me feel. I wasn't afraid, exactly, just confused. Peter's little circle of cronies shared in his disdain for Middle school kids in general and me in particular, so I was carefule to avoid being caught alone when they were about.
For the most part, high-schoolers were segregated from us junior high kids. Unfortunately, the schedule for my Phys-Ed class meant that we were getting out of the showers just about the time Peter and his cohorts were coming in to the locker room for their class. This, of course, provided no end of opportunities for Peter and company to belittle and haze us eighth-graders. On a good day, I could, maybe, hope to quickly shower, towel off and change back into my school clothes, unmolested. Otherwise it was classic maneuvers like the ever popular atomic-wedgie, hiding of one's clothes, jock-strap "oxygen mask" treatments and all conceivable manner of adolescent humiliations. The onset of puberty and it's attendant changes meant my classmates and I were awkward enough around each other; adding Peter and his goons to the mix made the situation almost intolerable.
After a particularly strenuous class of calisthenics, laps and rope-climbing in the gymnasium, I entered the shower right away, to be done as fast as possible. I lathered up and rinsed off quickly, not noticing the approach of Howard Bridges and Keith Sellers, two of Peter's capos. Luckily for me, I wasn't their quarry, they caught up Jeffrey Darabont, the kid showering next to me, and dragged him wet, wriggling and protesting from the shower, with a hand over his mouth.
"Come on guys," I protested weakly, "leave him alone." Jeffrey was your classic middle-school dweebazoid. From the taped-up, military-style BCGs, cracking voice and melon-head atop a skinny body, down to his canoe-sized feet, Jeffrey was your classic, middle-school dweebazoid; He might as well have had "Official Wedgie Tester" branded onto his backside. Jeffrey was such an obvious target, I wondered where there was any sport in messing with him.
"Shaddup Red," came the witty retort from Keith, ostensibly the smart one, "mind yer own beeswax." With that, they carried him off to the weight room where I could hear Jeff's muffled entreaties as he begged them to stop whatever it was they were doing. Soon enough, they released him. Jeff tugged on his clothes and beat a hasty, if somewhat rumpled looking, exit from the locker room. I tried to look unobtrusive and blend into the woodwork while all of this went on. Naturally, this served only to turn Peter's attentions toward me.
"Hey Red!" he exclaimed, just as I dropped my towel to put on my underwear. I knew that neither acknowledging him nor ignoring him would do much good, so I opted for the former.
"What Peter?" I asked, sagging my shoulders, trying to signal my defeat right from the outset, in the mad hope he'd get bored with me and turn on somebody else. Fat chance.
"Miss your buddy Garrett much?" I wasn't expecting that, it took me off my guard.
"Bet your ass feels mighty empty without your butt buddy around to stuff his dick up it all the time." The normally noisy locker room fell to a deathly silence. My ears started to burn and I felt the skin on my neck and shoulders start to prickle. Dumbfounded, I stood there, completly naked, both physically and emotionally.
"Wait..., what?" I stuttered, "I don't..."
"Oh stop it Red," he taunted in a grossly affected effeminate tone, "you know it, and I know it and everybody in the fucking world knows. You and Garry are a coupla fag cornholers. C'mon, fer Chrissakes!" Peter had me cold. I hadn't expected to be called out like that, if ever, I just hadn't occurred to me. My mind was a whirling mass of thoughts and emotions. I had heard people talk of fags and queers before, always in less than flattering terms, but I never fully understood what that meant. I certainly would never have compared Garrett and me with those mincing fairies everyone seemed to despise. Even though Garrett and I had shared much in the way of physical contact, it was always about friendship to me. Now, standing naked in front of Peter and his vultures in the locker room, it sounded dirty and disgusting. I felt like I was melting before him. I clenched my fists, not in anger, but in a desperate attempt not to cry.
"Oh yea, pussy boy," Peter advanced toward me, taking my clenching fists as a challenge, "you ready to fight me, are ya?" Peter suddenly found himself jacked up against the lockers in a noisy clang as Mr. Egon, the Phys-Ed teacher seemed to appear out of thin air. I watched out of the corner of my eye as Keith and Howard made with a disappearing act worthy of Houdini.
"What the hell is the matter with you Peter?" Mr. Egon growled, twisting the boy's collar in his fist up near his ear. "Do you make it your practice accost boys four years your junior?"
"Awe c'mon Mr. Egon," Peter smiled, "I was just having some fun, I didn't mean any harm."
"That was a terrible thing you said to Oliver, Peter," Egon said, "I think you should apologize."
"Apologize?" Peter's mouth gaped incredulously, "For what? Everybody knows Red here is Garry's little boy-toy."
"We're just friends," I said quietly, not meaning to speak at all. Mr. Egon looked over to me and gave me a look of sympathy.
"See that Peter," Egon said, "they're just friends."
"Yea, but..." Peter sputtered.
"Yea but nothing!" Mr. Egon spoke slowly, making sure everybody in the locker room heard him, "The only reason I can imagine that you'd say such a vile thing, is if maybe you've got a thing for Garrett yourself and you're perhaps a little jealous.". Peter blanched under the grip on his collar, and sagged against the locker and muttered a barely audible apology. Mr. Egon released him, and Peter ducked out and around the locker to get ready for class. Mr. Egon walked over to me and put a hand on my shoulder. "You okay Oliver?" I nodded my head dumbly, and whispered my empty thanks. Egon walked away with a self-satisfied smile, but I knew full well that by intervening, he had only forestalled the inevitable. If anything, it would be worse next time Peter had the chance to corner me, and the very idea filled me with dread. After Mr. Egon strode out of the locker room, I heard Peter's voice, ominous and low, as if speaking to his minions,
"Fucking faggot got what he deserved." Peter punctuated his outburst with a vicious slam of the locker door, which made all the other lockers vibrate and rattle.
On the bus going home, Lizzie sat next to me, sensing my quietude. Of all the girls in the world, I counted myself lucky to be friends with Lizzie-B. It was never weird between us they way it gets between girls and boys sometimes. We were best buddies from the day we first met on the shores of the lake, playing in the sand under the watchful gaze of our parents. We knew each other's moods better than most friends, and it was our habit to try to cheer the other up when needed. She prodded my ribs with her finger and gave me a big, freckle spangled smile. I smiled weakly back, but she wasn't buying it.
"I heard Peter was a dick to you today," she said quietly.
"Sheez," I sighed, "news gets around fast, don't it?" I slumped a little bit, trying to will away the tears that were threatening to fill my eyes.
"Yeah, well don't sweat it," Lizzie said with determination, "he's a douche." I snorted a little laugh, which helped the tears retreat to a place where I could hold them back.
"No kidding," I breathed, "I wish I knew what I ever did to him to make him hate me so much."
"Probably nothing," she shrugged, "don't take much for an asshole to shit."
I completely burst out into laughter. I don't know why, but I couldn't contain myself, I giggled like a mad fiend. The mental picture of Peter, his mouth puckered up like some horse's bunghole, periodically vomiting out huge, brown dollops of poop, just sent me entirely over the edge. Lizzie started laughing too, and presently, the entire bus was laughing along with us, for no other reason than the contagion of our mirth.
"Seriously," I said, as the paroxysms of laughter subsided, "what's Peter got against Garrett? I thought everybody liked him."
"Has Peter been saying that stuff about me and Garrett?" I asked, knowing that if Lizzie knew, she'd tell me.
"Uh, yeah, actually, and he's got other people wondering about it too." My shoulders sagged again. I couldn't believe it. "I don't know where he came up with that one," she continued, "it's just as crazy as people saying Garrett got spooked by Bigfoot to have his accident." I didn't say anything, but continued to look at my hands in my lap. Lizzie turned towards me and narrowed her eyes. "It's not true right? What Peter said... right?" When I didn't speak, Lizzie turned my shoulders toward her and looked directly into my soul with those piercing blue eyes of hers.
"No," I said, "It's not like what Peter said at all, we're just friends and that's it."
"Oliver, look at me," she commanded quietly, "I know something happened, I can see it by how you're acting. Did Garrett ever hurt you?"
"No!" I said angrily. She hushed me with her finger, and then whispered so nobody else could overhear, "Okay, okay... did you two ever, uh, like mess around?" I stared back at her, knowing that any denial was futile, I gave an almost imperceptible nod. I felt like a world-class cad, like a betrayer. I was not ashamed of what Garrett and me did together, but it was for us, nobody else. Garrett was my hero and I loved him in a way that I could never describe. It sure wasn't like all that kissy-face stuff in my Mom's romance novels, it was much deeper. Garrett was a guardian for me, a teacher, a mentor and friend. He made me feel valued and invincible, not at all like how I felt right at that moment. I don't know if Lizzie read all that in my eyes, but she seemed to get the high points. "Alright," she said matter-of-factly, "so, lots of guys and gals do that, it's normal. No big deal. It's not like you two are lovers or anything."
A wave of relief washed over me and I couldn't help but smile. She jabbed my ribs again, but this time in that spot that she knows drives me crazy. I broke out into gales of laughter to the extent that the bus driver looked up into her long mirror and told us to settle down. We did, and as I collapsed against the window, I became aware that, for some reason, under the many layers of winter clothes, I had a very stiff penis.