by Vincent Berg
Copyright 2016, Vincent Berg
The receptionist, Hope Johnson, glanced up when Rudolf and Taylor entered. Hope's attention was immediately drawn to Taylor's face, bearing a large bandage and bruise. The ever cheerful worker graced them with a forced smile that seemed to quiver in place, fighting conflicting impulses.
"Can I help you?"
"Yes, we need to change Taylor's contact information and home address. There's been an incident at his home, and he'll be staying with our family for an indefinite period."
She glanced down, rather than continuing to stare at the local football hero. "You'll have to discuss that with Principal Waters. Take a seat and I'll call you when he's ready to see you."
Rudolf smiled. "That's what we're here for."
It didn't take long. When the lead football star, who is one of the school's top academic students, shows up requesting something unusual, things tend to move faster than normal.
"You may go in now."
Rudolf tipped his head. "Thank you. We appreciate it." Taylor didn't say anything, following Jacob's father, remaining two steps behind.
"I understand you've got a slightly unusual request?" Principal Walters asked.
"Yes. There's been an altercation at Taylor's home. He'll be staying with us for the rest of the year."
Principal Waters stared in Rudolf's eyes, measuring his resolve. "Do you have a Court Order, a Police Report, anything to confirm the change in his status?"
"No, we don't," Rudolf said, "but he's already eighteen years old. This is strictly to change the contact information. The relocation is his choice, and I'm more than prepared to do whatever I can for him."
Waters frowned. "That makes this tricky. You're right, legally it's his choice. However, I'd feel remiss if I didn't alert Mr. Barnes that this is happening. As you know, he's been a prominent supporter of the school." He glanced up, examining Taylor. "Have you discussed this with your family?"
"Not yet, but they've made it abundantly clear I'm not accepted in the family."
"Well, since you haven't informed him, allow me to act as an intermediary and contact him. You may not be giving him the opportunity to reconsider. I'd hate to think you're taking such an extreme response due to a simple misunderstanding, your injuries notwithstanding."
Go ahead. I imagine he'll take the call from you better than he would from me. We … didn't exactly discuss this with them, but we're pretty sure they won't object."
Walters glanced at Taylor. The large bandage across his nose and his black eye were impossible to miss. Still, this was an unusual situation, and he wanted to ensure he wouldn't be held responsible however it turned out. As they waited, he picked up his phone, looked up the number and dialed. Rudolf turned to Taylor to determine how he was handling it, but he showed no emotions whatsoever. He nodded that he was okay and sat back. Rudolf leaned forward, his arms on his legs and his hands hanging over his knees.
"Good morning. Is this Andrew Barnes? This is West Biltmore High School, Principal Wal—" His eyelid shot up, his eyes widening. He was a man of medium height. Short hair with close cropped sides. He wore a thin mustache and beard, kept trimmed to a two week's growth at all times. He brown shirt was neatly ironed, without any telltale sign of dust or dandruff. The man appeared to like order in his life. He had deep bags under his eyes, but was still young and in good shape. "There's no need for profanity, Mr. Barnes. We've always gotten along in the past." Rudolf and Taylor could hear yelling over the phone, despite the distance. "I understand, but we wanted to inform you of our transferring control of—" There was another remote tirade, and the principal's head involuntarily twitched.
"As long as you don't object, I'll make the changes—" he said, arching his eyebrow and studying Taylor's face. He removed the receiver from his ear, allowing more bellowing to escape. "Very wel—" He moved the phone in front of his face, examining it for some clue as to what happened.
"I can see why this action is necessary," he said, hanging the phone up. "Since there's no objection, I'll authorize the transfer. I'm sorry it's come to this. You have my sympathies." The principal turned to Taylor, considering him. "He made some … claims about you. Do you have any comment about them?"
"No," Taylor responded. "He's speaking out of anger. Without knowing what he's saying, I can't validate it, but I wouldn't trust it. He was drinking all night, and would do just about anything to hurt me at this point, either directly or indirectly."
The principal glanced down, jotted something on the papers on his desk and stamped the form. "Okay, it's taken care of. Taylor, you'd better hurry to class. There's only a couple minutes till first period."
Taylor leaned forward, his arms resting on his thighs. "One more thing, this is all … confidential, isn't it?"
"Of course, everything concerning our students is confidential."
Rudolf glanced at the door. "Are you sure everyone understands that?"
Waters sighed, tapping his pencil on his desk. "I'll have to discuss it with a few people, but I'll ensure word doesn't spread." He bit his lip as he considered it, but didn't add anything more.
"Thank you for your time," Rudolf said, standing and holding his hand out.
Walters reached out, shaking his hand. "You both have my sincere sympathy. This … can't be easy."
"It isn't, but so far, we're managing. We'll see ourselves out. Thank you for your time."
"I'm just glad I could help resolve this quickly. Good luck over the next few days. Things are likely to be uncertain."
Rudolf and Taylor exited. Once they left the principal's office, Taylor headed to class. Rudolf waved, waited a minute, and when he didn't respond, turned and left the building.
Taylor strode down the hall, biting his lip. He wiped his eye, hoping no one noticed. He observed people staring. It took a few moments to remember his black eye and bandaged nose. "Football injury during practice yesterday," he mumbled as he passed. When he entered his API Calculus class, everyone stared, but once the lecture started, they focused on the subject matter.
As the day progressed, he got used to the curious glances, but thought he noticed a certain undercurrent, a hard-edged aggressive stare. He assumed he was getting paranoid, reading too much into it.
During the sixth period shuffle, as he headed to his last class, someone stopped him in the hallway.
"Taylor, there's a lot of talk about you, and—"
Taylor winced, holding his left hand up halting the discussion. "Look, I appreciate the concern. Showing up with a bruise gets people guessing about other issues, and soon every crazy theory seems justified. Take it from me, even without knowing the specifics of your claim, I can categorically tell you that it's false. I'm pretty boring. I don't do much besides play football, study, eat and sleep. There just isn't that much interesting about me."
"Yeah, but …"
Taylor patted him on the shoulder, already moving away. "Classes are about to begin. Don't get so wrapped up in gossip. You'll be happier if you don't get so invested in idle speculation." He was gone before the student could say anything more.
After school, as he changed for football practice, two teammates, Juan and Robert, approached.
"Taylor, we … wanted to …"
"People are talking," Juan jumped in, "and we wanted to know whether it was true or not."
"Who the hell is talking about me?" Taylor growled, cocking his head and glaring at the two.
"Actually, it's your sister, Caitlyn," Robert said, blushing slightly. "She's saying some outrageous things. We didn't know whether to defend you or what."
"My sister?" Taylor asked, his voice cracking. He'd know how to respond if it was some stranger or school administrator, but if his own sister was spreading tales of his sexuality, it would be hard to deny. She not only knew what was happening, but could prove her assertions. He leaned back, running his hands over his face, taking a deep breath. Dropping his hands, he walked towards the larger central area of the locker room, motioning Robert and Juan along. "I've got an announcement to make. Get the coach. Juan, get everyone out of the shower. I want to clear this nonsense up once and for all."
As the two ran off, he raised his voice. "All right, everyone, there have been stories running around the school about me. Gather around, I want to set the record straight."
Everyone found a place to stand, eager to discover what was up. When they'd all gathered, Taylor swallowed, clenched his fists, and began.
"As many of you have heard, rumors have been floating around the school." He paused before continuing. "Many of them spread by my own sister. As you can tell, we had a bit of a family altercation last night, and everyone's emotions are running high. As a result, they're speaking out of turn." He glanced around the room, taking in everyone's reactions. "Without knowing the full extent of the rumors, I'll admit this much: I'm gay."
Taylor paused. There wasn't a sound to be heard as everyone absorbed what he'd revealed. "I've known I'm gay since I was a boy. It's never affected my performance, nor how I responded to any of you. However, I realize this changes everything. I've long planned on getting a football scholarship to an Ivy League school, and hopefully making it into professional football. As most of you know, my family has always pushed me hard to achieve that goal. Even if I didn't have to worry about the rest of you, I've got to take into account how the scouts will respond. Despite improved perceptions, it'll still have a highly disruptive effect on the team. Rather than embarrass myself, and the team, I'm hereby resigning."
"Taylor, you don't need to …"
"No, Coach, there's no sense maintaining a brave front. If there's little chance of achieving my goals, I'd rather not waste everyone's time. By stepping down now, I can save the team embarrassment. Luckily, my grades are good, so I can still arrange an academic scholarship—which I'll need since I can't count on my parent's help. It's been nice knowing you, but honestly, you'll have an easier time without stumbling over me."
With that, he turned, walked to his locked, dumped his stuff into his gym bag, tossed it over his shoulder, and walked out. Not a word was said behind him.
Jacob strode across the park, rushing forward as if his target might scramble away. "There you are. I've been searching all over for you. Why didn't you come home? What the hell happened in school today?"
Taylor waited until he caught up with him. He was sitting on a swing in a nearby park, swinging idly, observing the world pass by. "I've been … thinking."
Jacob signed, slapping his head. "Trust me, having been through this before, obsessive worrying is the last thing you should do. It'll develop into a rat's hole in no time. You're better surrounding yourself with friends who'll distract you when you need it, and who'll stand beside you when called for. Most of all, they'll recognize when you're in too deep and in need of someone to drag you out of the abyss."
Taylor waved his concern aside. "Don't worry. I'm not a danger to myself. I've just been … considering where my life has been heading, and where it's likely to go in the future."
"Again, while it makes sense to ponder those issues, you need distance before you can put those considerations into perspective. Now, you feel like you're at the bottom of a hole looking up, unable to climb to the surface. You don't have the distance to properly evaluate the facts yet. You need people beside you who can catch you when you start losing your way."
"I told you, I simply wanted to be alone to consider things. I'm not going to try anything."
Jacob sighed, seeing he wasn't getting through his armor, so he took another tact. "Look, whatever you do, promise me you'll give yourself time. As bad as things seem, they won't be any worse a week from now. When you're at the bottom of your own world, it's easy to act on your depression. You'll see no way out and decide there's no sense continuing, and you'll figure there's nothing keeping you from acting. If that does happen, pull back and give it time. Wait two weeks. If things don't improve, we'll reevaluate things then. But the key isn't acting before you plan out the repercussions."
Taylor stopped swinging, patting his lap. Cocking his head at the unexpected welcoming gesture, Jacob did as he requested, sitting down and holding onto the chains for fear they both might topple over. "I'm not suicidal. You don't need to worry about me. I know a lot of your friends either tried or succeeded in killing themselves, but that's not where I'm at.
Taylor whispered his explanation in Jacob's ear, in a moment of honesty and sensitivity. One which Jacob wasn't sure he could trust at the moment. "You suggested that I need distance, and that's what I'm trying to give myself. My thoughts are in a tumble, and the last thing I need are people hovering over me, constantly asking how I'm doing. Instead, I'm pulling back and letting everything pass by while I reevaluate where I stand." He took a deep breath before continuing.
"My sister's been telling everyone she can that I'm gay. As such, it's a little hard to deny any longer. As a result, I confessed everything to my team." Jacob turned, ready to confer condolences, but Taylor continued, not giving him the chance. "I wanted to make a clean break. The future I'd planned was a million-to-one shot. I realized the abysmal odds, but had a decent chance to make it as long as I played my cards right.
"This … latest bump in the road changes the situation. Now, not only do I have to beat unbelievable odds, but I'll have to confront everyone along my path and consider whether they'll stab me in the back for who and what I am." Jacob tried to say something, but again, Taylor didn't let him. "That's always been a constant concern. When you're in this line of work, everyone is always scheming. They'll pull every trick in the book to upset you so you'll stumble. If you do, they'll rush in, shoving you out of the way and taking your place. But those are concerns that I'm used to, so I know how to handle them. This…," Taylor made a wide sweeping gesture, not indicating anything in particular, but Jacob understood what he meant, "is different. I don't know how to defend myself from someone's preconceptions, from their bigotry and hate. They aren't trying to get ahead any more, now they're willing to hurt themselves just to knock me down me."
Jacob leaned back, grasping the chains for support, and kissed Taylor, nuzzling his cheek a moment. "That's why you need people around you. I won't distract you, merely assist. While you've been dealing with a known commodity—competitive athletes—I've been dealing with these issues for a long time. I know what you don't, and when you're ready, I can guide you through the obstacles. The key is allowing time to pass. You family needs time to adjust, your friends need time, and so do you. So as bad as everything seems now, allow time to pass without trying anything. Wait to see what this new world is like, and then we'll evaluate it and come to a collective decision. I know it's scary as hell, but this is a path that the rest of us have trod many times before. We know the pitfalls, and we know how to dance around the traps." He nuzzled Taylor's ear with his nose as he whispered to him. "Allow the rest of us to guide you, until you know the way to go a little better."
Taylor twisted his head, nuzzling Jacob's ear before biting the edge. "Again, that's not my issue at the moment. I'm not a dumb jock. I've got options. I wasn't contemplating how bad things are, instead I've been weighing my choices. I've always known that there are thousands of things which could interrupt a football career, so I've been providing for alternatives. Now, my goal is college. I was counting on a football scholarship to a top-tier school where I could learn enough, and make enough contacts, to capitalize on them if things went south.
"My grades are good enough, I can switch to an academic scholarship at a reputable school, but it's not equivalent. Chances are, it won't be a free ride like a football scholarship would. Without the extra funding, or my father's support, I'll need to take extra jobs and cut back on my plans. I'll need to pick a major sooner, and figure out the most effective way of achieving it. I have options, so I'm not going to chicken out, but I've been considering what the next steps in the process are. Since you don't know what I've done leading up to this step, you can't guide me at this stage until I'm aware of where I stand."
Jacob poked Taylor in the side, making him jump which almost toppled them both to the ground. They laughed, which released a lot of stress in them both. "That's fine, but you don't need to do it on your own. Your friends and your new family are here to support you. We'll allow you to consider these issues, but we'll be there when you need us. Take it from someone who's been down this path before, as bad as things appear now, you have more options than even you realize." Jacob leaned forward, jumping off the swing before turning and offering his hand. "Now, come on. Mom and Dad are worried sick. They're calling everyone they can think of. We need to get you home, feed that ravenous appetite of yours, and assure everyone—myself included—that you're okay. You can plan this next step just as well at home as you can in a park, but there, you'll have people to bounce ideas off of so you'll know which are legitimate concerns and which aren't."
Taylor took his hand, standing beside Jacob and hugging him a moment before pulling back. "That sounds good. I've thought about as much as I can stand, and I've burned enough brain cells that I need to refuel. Food sounds good, as well as eating something else. Lead me home and we'll talk to my new parents and see what you all can tell me."
Jacob didn't say anything, simply kissing his friend, taking his hand, and leading him back to his car. Taylor's step contained a little skip, but he didn't care. As bad as things seemed, Taylor was happy, at least for the moment.
When they reached the car and began the drive home, Jacob pulled out his phone.
"Hey, I found him. We'll be home soon. The plans are on." He paused as the other party responded. "No, that's fine. We're still about fifteen minutes out. Should we stop for anything? No? You're sure? In that case, we'll be home soon."
When he hung up, Taylor turned to him. "Who was that?"
"Hmm? Oh, I was calling home to let everyone know you're okay. As I'd said, Mom and Dad were upset when you didn't show up."
"Really? It's strange you wouldn't refer to your father as 'Dad'. Also, that bit about 'plans' sounded suspiciously like a code word, though I don't know what it was in reference to."
Jacob grinned. "That's the issue dating a genius jock. I see the big bruising shoulders and think 'dumb jock', but then you keep reading between the lines, spoiling my surprises. No, there were a couple people beside my parents who were worried about you. My friends were asking what was up with you, and we've all lost people close to us after they came out. They were helping us search for you. My parents are out looking for you, and my friends were staying at my house, keeping tabs on everyone. We're part of a network. That's one thing you have yet to learn about gays, we're as much of a team and a networking source as your teammates and football fans. We stick up for and support each other. You may have lost your team, but you've gained a whole world of new connections."
Taylor shrugged. "I hadn't considered that, either about your friends helping out or gays playing a role in my future success. Tell your friends I appreciate their efforts, but for now, I'd prefer being left in peace."
Jacob laughed. "You can tell them yourself. They're not about to surrender their task until it's completed and everyone is safely home. Once we get there, and they're assured you're fine, they'll leave you in peace. We're not about forcing ourselves on people. We're just here for support."
"Okay. I can live with that," Taylor said. "But let's inform your friends that, for now at least, I'm still somewhat in the closet. I'm not sure how much anyone knows, or who believes what, but most of my friends aren't ready for me to start talking about musicals, flipping my wrist, or my picking an entirely new cast of friends."
"Don't worry, they'll understand. They all know that this is a process, rather than an immersion experience. No one is ever 'saved' from being straight. It happens a little at a time."
"Good. As long as we understand each other."
"Don't worry," Jacob replied, rolling his eyes. "You've made your opinion crystal clear. I don't think anyone will mistake it." Taylor didn't bother responding, but realized he'd have to make amends to Jacob. It was a fairly insensitive thing to say. But that was a bridge he'd have to cross later, and there was plenty of time to so, hand-in-hand.
When they arrived, there were two cars and only one light on in the Morgan's house.
"Promise me you'll get your friends out of the house quickly." Taylor reconsidered how intrusive he was being and amended his request. "At least entertain them somewhere else. If you take them to your room, I'll stay downstairs and read, or if you stay downstairs, I'll hide out in the room."
"You realize these people might just like meeting you, and you might pick up some less finicky friends."
Taylor groaned, glancing skyward as they approached the front door. "Somehow, I can't picture many of your friends having much in common with a football player. We're kind of anathema to each other. We're known for picking on geeks, and they have no interest in sports."
"That's not true, we just prefer it presented in a musical arrangement." Jacob laughed as he unlocked the door and held it open for Taylor.
The one light in the house was the kitchen light, so it was dark when he entered. He took about two steps when the lights turned on and a crowd jumped out.
"SURPRISE!" they shouted.
Taylor stumbled backwards, bumping into Jacob, who caught him with a laugh.
"I was afraid I'd spoiled the surprise when you saw through my subterfuge. I'm glad I didn't spoil it completely."
Taylor glanced around. There were almost twenty people. Most were Jacob's friends, and like him, were the more effeminate gays, but several were older. He assumed they were the parents and siblings of the others.
Ruth Morgan laughed as she entered carrying a cake with birthday candles. "Sorry to disappoint you, Taylor, but Jacob's friends wouldn't hear of letting you off so easy. They firmly believe in support when one first comes out of the closet."
"Normally when someone does, they feel isolated. So we try to ensure they feel welcome, whether they're ready for it or not."
"Pardon me. You are?" Taylor asked the slim, shorter kid.
"You've probably heard of me already," he said. "I'm Peter Rodriguez, Jacob's best friend. You've likely seen us hanging around at school."
Taylor looked Peter over as he offered him his hand. He was thin, no more than 110 pounds and well under 5'8". He had short, dark hair, but had an intensity behind his eyes. Instead of shaking hands, he grabbed it and pulled Taylor into him and enfolded him in a bear hug.
"Sorry, no handshakes allowed. I figure you're too much a newbie for a kiss, so a hug it is."
Jacob's friends were now clustered around them, the parents standing in the background. Taylor found himself blushing as Peter released him, but he didn't have much time to recover before Jacob's other friends followed suit, each wanting a full body hug.
"Now boys, give him a break. He either has to blow out these candles, or we'll all be eating wax cake!"
"Sorry, Mama Ruth," Peter said. "You know how we get. When there's a party, or a hunky guy, we're all in."
Ruth came forward, separating the guys and drawing Taylor to the table. She'd laid a pan cake before him, big enough to feed everyone. It was emblazoned with the message "Happy Coming Out Day!" Along with the candles there were several sparklers, making for quite a spectacle!
"I … I don't know what to say. Thanks, I think. I was looking forward to coming home and finding a cubbyhole, but now that plan's out the window."
"Hey, I think you pulled a body double on us," someone said. "Since when do football players know what a 'cubbyhole' is?"
"Shush, Peter. In case you forgot, Taylor is scheduled to be our summa cum laude this year."
"Congratulations!" Taylor said slapping Jacob on the back. "I didn't think you gays knew how to say 'summa cum laude'. I'm impressed!"
Everyone laughed. "Sorry, it was a rookie mistake," Peter said. "Sometimes it's easier to rely on stereotypes, but we should all know better than that."
"I forgive you, now can someone pour a bucket of water over this cake before it sets the house on fire?"
"Just blow. Now that you're officially one of us, you need to learn. It's a necessary skill! The sparklers will go out on their own."
He did, and everyone cheered. Taylor noted the adults had wine, while his schoolmates held soft drinks. He didn't recognize any of the adults, but then when he first came home with Jacob, he hadn't recognized Ruth and Rudolf either.
"Pardon me, but you'll all need to introduce yourselves," Taylor said. "I recognize most of you, but who are all these people hanging around in the back rows? Surely there's a sports fan hiding out who can help support me?"
That provoked a laugh, and a few slaps either on his back or on his ass. He glanced at Jacob and shot him a glare, but Jacob was having none of it. He stood back and laughed, enjoying Taylor's predicament.
Everyone introduced themselves, going by families. The others were families, including a few teenage girls. After the introductions were made, Taylor addressed everyone in the room.
"Look, I appreciate this, but I've got to ask everyone a favor. I don't mean to be insensitive, but until I determine how everything plays out, I can't afford to have you slapping me on the back at school."
Peter laughed. "Have no fear. Jacob spelled out your paranoia. You won't hear anyone spilling your secrets. We're all familiar with withholding private information, as few of us fully admit who we are to everyone. We're used to maintaining secrets, and that goes for parents and students both. None of us will use your name while we're at school. For that matter, not all of us are completely out, so be careful what you say, too."
"I'm sorry for being a dick, but I'm afraid how my friends will respond over the next couple weeks. I don't mean to diminish the rest of you, but I want to minimize the shock to my current friends, assuming I still have any."
Peter dismissively waved his concerns aside as he grabbed a slice of cake. "Don't sweat it. We all know what being in the closet is like. Some of us come out earlier than others, since we never fit into any existing closets anyway, but we're familiar with the protocol."
Taylor, still glaring at Jacob, took a bite of the cake, and stopped, his mouth dropping open.
"What the hell is this?"
Someone else laughed. "Surely you didn't expect us to serve you a crappy store-bought cake, did you? We were forced to use a sheet pan—mainly because Mrs. Morgan doesn't own any decent cake pans—but believe me, we know how to cook!"
"And bake," someone else added.
"And shimmy!" yelled someone's sister.
"And sing!" someone bellowed, carrying the tune for an incredibly long time. Taylor groaned, realizing their neighbors now knew he was coming out as well.
"Drink up," Jacob suggested, slapping him on his back and handing him a soda. Taylor glanced at it with a healthy skepticism, but shrugged and drank it anyway. "We're a bit hard to adapt to at first, but you get used to us given enough time. We'll party hard tonight, but after this, you won't even know any of us recognize you while we're at school. But anytime you need a friend, call on anyone here and we'll be there for you, regardless of what you say about us."
"Thanks. That's just what I need now," he answered. "Both the support, and the silence. At least until I can determine where I'm going to end up." With that, he tilted his head back and swallowed the entire cup. "Now where can a hungry man get a decent meal? I'm starving!"
To Be Continued ...
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