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The Circle

Chapter 28

Monday: Confrontations

I was being sold at auction, being bid on by two man-sized, talking sausages. One was dressed like the Hostess Twinkie, with hat, boots, twirling lariat, and gun in holster, nothing else. The other was wearing only torn-off jean shorts held up by wide, crossed, leather suspenders, a Chicago Cubs baseball cap, and sunglasses. I was terrified of going with either of them, knowing a horrible fate lay with either one.

I lay cowering on the ground, in chains, dirty and bedraggled in only a torn loincloth. Scores - multitudes - of half-dressed sausages filled the arena, their collective roars nearly bursting my eardrums. The auctioneer was trying to get someone - somesausage - to bid just a little higher, but not a single one offered anything more than the two before me, except jeers and rotten thrown fruit.

 I heard my father's voice drowning out the auctioneer and the crowds.

"At least you skin his feet?"

What? Skin my feet? He's going to buy me and eat me? Or is he just offering recipe advice? All the trouble I have, and now my own father's an enemy as well!

"Why?" I groaned loudly, curling into a tighter ball in the mud at the base of the auctioneer's podium, wishing I were allowed to die.

"Alex! I asked if you're still asleep," dad seemingly repeated.

Usually my alarm clock set to radio was the first thing I heard on school mornings.

"What is it?"

"Just making sure you're getting up."

Just how fucking stupid does he think I am? He knows I'll set my alarm for when I want to get up.

"I guess I am now, thanks."

Why is my tee-vee on?

"Well, we're heading to work, have a good day at school!"

"Yeah," I tossed back at him, wishing he would just let me sleep.

Just leave me get up when... heading to work? Already?

My eyes shot to the alarm clock, and there was a terrible pounding from the temple cut at the movement. I saw I was nearly an hour behind. The rough handling of the clock didn't prove that I hadn't set it last night, the first glance had proved that, but the rough handling was done anyway.

I had twelve minutes to meet Tom outside if I wanted to catch the bus. The temple injury was burning like fire from sleeping on it, and I felt as if I were stretched into transparency. And judging by the dream as well, I was still very stoned.

I noticed that I had a morning woody; a hard and insistent one was asking for attention. I tried to remember the last time it had gotten attention, and had to concentrate for a time.

Friday. With Tom. Before the parties. We did it, like, my way he called it. Like it's supposed to be. Or closer, anyway. Still not like Toby, but so close! And nothing since. Just a fast jack in the shower all that time. Three days. Record. Gotta be. And not this morning, either. And why was I hard from that dream? I ain't got time to worry about it!

Shower? No time. How bad? Two sniffs later, I was planning on riding my bike. In order to make the bus, I would have to skip a shower, and that wasn't going to happen. I just didn't understand why I hadn't set my alarm last night. I could have ridden the bus.

I looked at the roach then, laying on the bedside table, as if my thoughts had caused it to appear there.

Oh yeah! Damn fine shit! For a while I forgot...

Jeff. It wasn't to be. Jeff just can't be. He's gotta deal with his mom. And his dad. And the church. And himself. He won't be out from under all that until he's out living on his own. Fuck!

So, do I ride the bus? Or bike? Do I want to see him? What if I don't?

I held my face in my hands for a while, trying to not let it all matter, convincing myself that none of it would matter in time. I slapped my legs, stood and stretched, then turned off the television.

Tim is gone, or will be leaving in hours, and I won't see him until his leave after training, then after that not for two years and more I bet. That leave's gonna be fun, I hope. I sure won't have anybody when Tim comes back on leave, I'm sure. Sure not Jeff. No way.

Bike. I'll make it. Tom'll catch the bus or come wait. Might as well wake 'n bake, I'm pretty stoned anyway. That's some good shit. I should. I will. Fuck the day.

I gathered a half-smoked joint of normal weed, putting away the volatile merta one with respect. Joint and lighter in hand, I did what was usually done with those two things together, flipped on the clock radio - half-surprised it still worked - and started getting dressed.

Don't look forward to the ride today, or classes, or anything. Except the cafeteria. Fucking donuts! Cinnamon ones and milks. And a jelly one. Or custard? Both? What the fuck. And at lunch, if anybody asks anything, I'll figure what to say about whatever when they do. Wait? Say about what? Last they knew was the party Friday, some of 'em. They don't know shit about any of it! That'll make it easier. Jeff won't've said anything. He's probably gonna act as normal as ever. I need to, too. No shit.

No Jeff. He can't tell his mom and he can't sneak around being gay behind her back. Maybe he'll play around? Maybe. Won't be anything. Won't be as fun. Not even as fun as it was. I might not even want to. Wow. Not wanna play around with Jeff? Maybe not. Really. Fucking wow.

Oh well. Things change, but it fucking hurts. But don't let the hurt matter. It don't matter. It won't matter in a year. Or ten. Maybe not even in a month or maybe a week. It just seems big now is all. It's nothing in time.

As I hit the joint intentionally as deeply as I could, the radio announced a new song from Styx. I was anxious to hear one of the new ones, and couldn't wait to get my hands on Kilroy Was Here when it was set to be released in another three months. The dee-jay introduced "Don't Let It End," and I literally groaned with the syncopation of the title and my thoughts. I shot to the stereo, flipped it on, tuned in the station, and turned it up.

It was beautiful! The song was written just for me, I was sure, and the entire band was sitting around at one of their mansions, trying right that moment to find a way for things to work out for me. I just knew it. I had tears in my eyes long before the song ended, and I wished it would do any good to record it and send it to Jeff. The last, sorrowful, heart-rending measures tore my heart from my chest.

The jock mentioned the time, reminding me that I was already running late, and that every moment I stood there, leaning against the wall nearly crying, was another moment I'd be late. It would also be another moment that would build up Tom's curiosity.

I shook the song off, knowing I had another favorite Styx song. I turned off the stereo and clock radio, then looked around for anything I was forgetting as I wiped over my eyes and put the emotions away along with the thoughts that accompanied them. I hit the joint again, trying to smother any coherent thoughts for the day.

Let's see here. The big report due today, all neat and corrected. Math book, homework, English and the homework, and there's the rest. All good to go.

Dressed, and with everything I could think of, I stubbed the joint in the dragon incense holder and ran downstairs, out into the cold January morning, onto my bike and down the drive. Tom was waiting at the street.

"Ya didn't call last night," he hinted as I approached.

"Hey. I'm sorry I didn't. I got real distracted. I'll tell ya on the way home, okay?"

He nodded and pushed his glasses back up his nose with a half-smile as we kicked off. We rode in silence. I thought of ways to thank Tom for some of the things he had done for me, but I couldn't find the words to match the many things that I knew about, let alone the rest. I wondered if there was any way at all that I could ever tell Tom how much he meant to me. Even handing him the planet on a silver platter the size of the solar system seemed weak and cheap.

I asked Tom if he wanted to grab something in the cafeteria with me. He declined, surprising me quite a bit.

"Got breakfast, like usual. Just 'cause you slept in, don't mean we all missed it," he said seriously.

I wanted to ask how he knew I had slept late, but then I knew how. I knew when he did, even if he hadn't said so. We just knew. It was his eyes sometimes, or his weaker, slower smile, or the hunch of his shoulders just so. I wondered what clues I gave him.

This ought to give him a big clue, then, I thought.

"Don't ask, him, anything, okay?"

"Sure bud."

We were silent until we were locking our bikes at the north entrance.

"Have a good day, okay?" Tom seemed to ask more than wish.

"Thanks. You too. I think I'll have a decent one, anyway," I replied, very much hoping so, and enjoying a morning buzz for a change even though those heavy, depressing thoughts and realities wore down on me as usual.

I hefted my pack off the handlebars, and as I finished speaking, the bottom of it gave out, dropping everything onto the slushy, salty, snowy sidewalk.

The report was face down, on the bottom of course, pressed firmly into the half frozen muck.

"Well... that seemed, ominous... " Tom droned.

"Well, she gets it as is. Beyond my control," I said firmly, gathering the spilled things. "Or she can take it tomorrow."

"Not gonna go off?" Tom asked, clearly surprised.

"I know. I so should. But why?" I shrugged, more at what I was thinking than at what I said.

It won't matter next year, and even less after that, right? So why?

"Well, wait for me after? Don't ride home early?"

"Sure thing," I promised, putting the last of the slushy items into the upside-down pack.

We split at the doors with a nod to each other. I kept my mind blank, thinking of nothing, which was helped by the buzz I was intently trying to continue to enjoy. In the cafeteria I chowed the donuts down rapidly, chasing them with gulps of milk, then an orange juice to top it off. Still no thoughts; just eating, drinking, swallowing, breathing when needed, eventually digesting. And trying to save what I could of the contents of my pack from the slush.

There was no Jeff, and I tried not to worry about that fact. There had to be a good reason for his missing school. Surely he hadn't told his mom about the raging homo that was trying to molest him. Surely she hadn't taken him out of school to protect him from the faggot. Surely not.

I wondered where he went to hide from me. I felt awful that he couldn't even stand to be seen around me at at school now.

The regular guys were at the usual breakfast table, and the usual few topics were displaced or replaced by talk of my party. Those who had been at my party agreed it had been a great party, especially the ones who had stayed the latest. 

When the bell rang I set off to see what else the day would throw at me. I vowed to remember to just act normal. I felt the day was going to suck after the omen at the bikes, but I never suspected. I could never have expected the things to come yet that day. How's that for ominous?

The headache throbbed along, unchanging. I tried following the lessons, the teachers, the questions and answers, but I felt, for the first real time, that I knew what Douglas Adams intended when he had written the Guide's description of the effects of a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster. And I was certain that I could actually smell the lemon.

At lunch, instead of heading off for a solitary meal like I really felt like doing, I went to the lunch table like normal, smiling like normal, and saying hi like normal; being nice and normal, and remembering to be so. They carried on like normal, and I joined in a bit, like normal.

"Alex, trouble!" Tom said, instantly changing the mood among us as he sat down frantically across from me before I had finished my food.

All the other guys couldn't help but notice. Most of them knew that Tom was my best friend, and a few of them had met him at the party on Friday, and they knew he was skipping, or least being late to his next class. His being there during our lunch previously had always meant something big indeed.

"What up?" I asked, trying to sound normal, and figuring there wasn't much I would need to be worried about, but knowing Tom wasn't panic-prone either.

"Dude. I got Kurt Troyer in shop last class, right? He was going out for a smoke and heard Charlie Derek telling his two buddies he was gonna mess with you bad today after school!"

Oh. Perfect. How else to wrap up this mess, or make it more public, or top it all off more perfectly than a good old fashioned beating? Sure, why not? I got the constant headache going, why not just let him make it a concussion? Or worse? Maybe I could end up in the hospital, brain dead, so I'd be with Toby all the time. Hey, maybe... nah. Brain dead is brain dead. Not dreaming or hallucinating. But why Derek?

"Charlie Derek? What the fuck I do to him?"

I didn't want a bully after me, and Charlie had seemingly been interested in making me his bullying toy before, but I could think of nothing I'd done to get his attention lately.

"Come on," Tom said conspiratorially, beginning to stand up.

"Oh, come on. Enough secrets and shit, okay?"

"You might wanna keep this one."

I knew all of his faces, and this one was the old faithful, 'seriously' expression with even more conviction than usual. His dark brown, almost black, eyes seemed even darker than usual under his thin, black eyebrows. His narrow, pale lips were almost board straight and barely apart. His pale complexion was brightly marred by a rash-like blush on his cheeks .

I believed him, and knew that what he had to say was probably very embarrassing and very personal, but I suddenly didn't care.

"No. I don't. Honest. Tell me. My other friends can hear."

"Man, Alex, trust me. Come on," he said, gesturing toward a vacant area again, and now wearing a pleading and demanding combination of expressions.

I had no idea of what Charlie Derek could do to embarrass me any further. Maybe I should have taken Tom's advice, again, but didn't. Again.

Our eyes were locked until Tom glanced very quickly toward the other guys at the table. When he looked back at me he paused momentarily before he visibly gave in with a deep, inward, sighing breath and then explosive exhalation.

"Fine. Fine. Charlie Derek says you sucked Tim's dick for weed. Okay? That's why you got the van, he says. And he says he's gonna say so and fuck you up after school right in front of everybody."

Well, ain't that a bitch? So he figured it out. Probably not on his own, he couldn't figure his way out of a mono-pole. Someone tipped him, or he just got lucky. But why's he give a shit about Tim's van or who got it? Did he want it? Didn't he buy his pot from Tim? I'm sure. I know I saw him at Tim's van a few times and had to wait until he left. So why come bitching on me?

"True, isn't it?" Cooley asked. "At least, part of it. Right? I mean, you are gay, right? But I doubt you got that van for blow-jobs. Geeze."

"No! Yes. Sometimes. When I didn't have money, sometimes."

Surprised gasps proved to me that I really had said that out loud. Tom's face wore an entirely new expression. I recorded it, making note of it's probable origins; complete shock at me. I had probably never done that to him before.

Kinda a cute look, too, I thought. Even better than his usual shocked look that was so hard for anybody to get from him. Damn, he saw me seeing it and hid it. Too bad, though, I done saw I blew your mind, Tom, and not just yours...

And there, I said it. They know it now. And if Charlie Derek knows it, the whole school knows it, or heard it. Or's gonna real soon. Trouble. Fuck and fuck.

"You gonna do anything about it?" Marcus asked.

"What? Charlie? What? Kick his ass?" I asked with a snicker. "He's older, bigger, too. And I'm gonna try. Maybe"

"What?" chorused around me.

"So, what ya gonna do?" Tom asked, his face wearing his sly, plotting grin.

I knew he suspected something. He knew I was acting too cool not to have at least a thousand watt idea. He didn't know how past feeling things I was. Neither did I. I just knew I could think clearly without the emotions messing with me.

"I gotta plan," I said softly, leaning forward.

I pushed the rest of the spaghetti away and the guys huddled around, surprising me. I had thought that after hearing me as much as say that I was gay, and not dispute Cooley's statement, that they would file away with their trays and books, or at the least be very quiet the rest of lunch and pick somewhere else to sit tomorrow. That they hadn't left already did more to improve my mood than almost anything else could have.

Once I had shared the long-worked and reworked plan, Tom declared, "Oh shit! That can work. Where'd you get it?"

"I been thinking about if something like this happened for a long time, you know," I said, grinning, then admitted, "In a book."

"You know we'll help. Why do you think Jeff said that at the Circle party? About not letting asses give you shit or anything. We all meant it. Mean it. What about the rest of the guys?"

"Rest of the guys?"

Tom looked confused, then said, "I mean, the other guys," nodding not very subtly to the guys at the table.

Most had stopped eating and were waiting for further developments. They were all watching us, making me feel uncomfortable and exposed. Tom was probably lapping it up and sniffing around for more.

"Okay. I don't know why this is so easy, but it seems so right now, so I'm gonna say it." I paused, took a breath, and only a tiny bit shakily, but very quietly, said, "I am gay. I like guys. I'm not into chicks. At all. Okay? I don't dig 'em. And, uh, yeah. Okay? So the whole school's gonna know by tomorrow. So you know now. So you can get up and sit somewhere else if you wanna. I won't be mad. I know you're gonna get a lot of shit for being around me if you stick around. So, there ya go. I'll sit at the empty tables by the back, so you guys won't even have to move starting tomorrow. I thought this out a lot. And I know what I'm saying is true, and so do all you I bet."

I had not looked up, preferring to intently pick at a scar on the table. No crying threatened, but my guts and my throat ached, as if the words I spoke were acid, burning them in passing.

"I'm gay, but Tom ain't!" I added quickly. "He's not even. He's been my best friend since I moved here a few years ago and he figured it out before I did, sorta. And he's been my best friend since, too. But he's not, at all. No matter what lies or bull shit you hear or anything from now on. Or any of my friends. I'm prob'ly the only fag in school," I said, stopping before I did choke up.

I waited for them, or some of them at least, to get up and leave then, for sure. They all looked a bit surprised, except Thomas Bechtel, who looked hurt. None of them moved, but some looked uncomfortable as well. I only spared a moment to wonder at the origins of Thomas' odd expression; I had many other pressing things to deal with.

"I ain't gonna be all proud and shit. I ain't ever gonna make a big deal about it. And I ain't gonna hide from it. I'd like to not have everybody know, but if Derek is gonna start shit, I gotta do something. I ain't runnin' away from him all year, but if he does this and I have to fight him, I'm gonna fight him. And my close friends will prob'ly help. I think Tom will, for sure, I think," I said, looking at him finally.

"You kidding? Yes! He's only three with his two bitch-boys, so yeah. I'm sure I know a couple other guys who'll want to help, too! We can take his ass out!"

He was smiling as he punched the air slightly.

I felt a shudder go through me as I noticed that Tom had mentioned the others by name, but not Jeff.

"Seen Jeff?" I asked casually, and before I thought of asking, knowing he should have at least twice already.

Tom paled, then swallowed, shook his head, and finally shrugged. The thoughts and fears that raced through my mind were innumerable.

"Nope. He's in a class with me and wasn't today," Dan said, seemingly a bit worried to give the news.

I can't worry about it. I can't deal with more right now. I can't.

The temple headache was punching through my skull.

"Ummmm... " Tom Bechtel droned.

"What?" I asked, actually very curious, as long as it wasn't more to do with Jeff being missing.

I was so curious because Tom Bechtel rarely hemmed or hawed. Tom Bechtel rarely talked. When he did, it was quick, accurate, and usually inarguable. Usually he said something, usually shrugged because what he said was pretty much the last thing to be said on the topic, then usually shut up. If you asked him a question that required a simple yes or no, you got it, almost never with a qualifier or appended information, and never with a 'because'. If you asked something that needed more, you got it, but only what was needed to answer. If the talk was just of this and that among us around the table, he'd nod, or shake his head, even use facial expressions to communicate with us, as we all did, but words were rare. I was especially curious because the humming prelude was a new experience coming from the short, curt, precise, Tom Bechtel.

"Ummm... Derek pushed my head into the toilet freshman year with his buddies. Freshman initiation. It was just me and all three of them. I had taken karate before that, but not for very long. Now it's been over two years of real hard work. But I think he knows that, as he leaves me alone," he said, grinning. "I'd love to be part of this, if it's what it sounds like, giving Derek some payback, or at least standing him down. I don't care you're gay. And how come I didn't get invited to your party?"

Wow, Tom! Where did you come from? I didn't know you're so cute! Whoa! Am I attracted to guys who stand up for me? Or just guys named Tom? Or Toby. Or Jeff. Screw... no, I don't hate him. It just can't be, is all. And Thomas is just cute when he's talking is all. Or just because he's being cool. Or, maybe I just never noticed? No, I saw he's cute before, I just think he's cuter because he wants to help if he can. Cool.

"Me either," and "Me too," were circling the table.

"What about if everybody hears about you being, gay, though?"

Can't have Jeff, so what've I got to lose? I thought. The Circle'll be my friends even if I do get the shit beat out of me for being gay. They already know and said they'd help if this happened. Maybe not so much at school anymore, but outside will be okay, I know it. These guys here in lunch might want to be away from me, but I can live with that. They ain't good friends if so anyway.

Another puzzle piece slapped me in the forehead, showing me that the little speech Friday night during the Circle party at Tim's about being there for me if it got out at school wasn't as random as it seemed until then. I wondered if Tom had slipped it to Jeff, or if Jeff had known about Derek somehow, and even if Jeff wasn't really 'missing', but hiding out, knowing what was going down. Tom's expression gave me nothing to go on, but I still strongly suspected he knew more than he had offered so far.

Hmmm. If he wanted me to know, he'd let me know. So what if everybody hears? They're gonna. I can't shut Derek up. I can try to make it so he won't bother us, but he'll just spread what rumors and shit he wants. So... what if everybody hears him call me gay?

"Let 'em all think what they want. You guys know I'm gay. My mom and dad know. I told everyone at the Circle party Friday, so all my close friends know. I won't care who else knows after this. Fuck 'em," I said with considerable anger.

That question answered, we set to answering the questions regarding the plan for Derek and his two assholes. Tom and I were sure that four others would be willing to be there to help, and if that made a difference or not I didn't know, but the guys around the table all agreed to do the same thing any of my other friends did when the moment came. I had thought that I was going to choke up earlier when I was confessing myself, but I barely maintained when they all agreed to be part of the plan and stand by me.

"So, you guys really wanna stand around in case? Do something if you have to? With all you guys they'll be sure to really think before they start a fight."

"Yeah!" they all chorused.

We all cringed, fearing the attention we might have brought. We all grinned together in conspiratorial glee as we talked further of what to do, when, and how.

We worked out the plan, and I came up with the cue. We agreed that it should work, that it might even be fun. So many against Charlie and his two friends seemed a sure thing. There wouldn't be any fight, just the three bullies taking a hike so they didn't have to fight a group of us.

Tom was known for getting into a scrap now and then, and usually giving at least as well as he got despite his smallish size.

When I voiced the worry that someone might be hurt, I was assured all around that it wouldn't be my fault. I hadn't really asked, they pointed out, they had volunteered. Our superior numbers were pointed out, as well as was the fact that there was no one we could think of who would come in on Charlie's side. It should only be him and his two buddies against as many as six or eight of us - surely he'd duck a fight against that many, we assured each other. Everyone seemed willing to help give Charlie Derek a bad time.

It felt very good, having them back me like that, even if it was only in voice so far, and maybe only because it was to shut Derek down. I knew some at least wouldn't show, but I resolved not to hold it against any who ducked it. I decided that I would be just as nice, just as friendly, with anyone who didn't show up as I was with the rest. I would make no distinctions, so long as they didn't make any about my being gay.

I wonder if straight guys go through all this? Or is this something just for us evil faggots? And will my friends have to suffer because of me? Will they get hurt over helping me? Will any get really hurt? What will that feel like, knowing it was my fault if they were? 

Why worry about it so much? Why let things matter so much so soon? It probably won't matter in the long run, anyway. It's gonna happen, no matter what way. Let it happen and just deal as it goes. Don't dwell. Don't get down more. I got good friends here right now as far it goes, and I shouldn't be so down.

The plan set, the rest of lunch went by quickly as we tried to predict the future. At the bell, Tom gave me a Circle shake and took off for his class in the opposite direction I needed to head. We all looked and seemed confident as we broke up.

The report that had been ruined was due the period after the next. For one of the very few times in my life, I skipped a class. I had already been late for every class since lunch, and I was well ahead in the next class anyway, so I went to the library and copied the ruined paper. I missed the next class, the one it was due in, as I knew I would, before I was finished. As the bell rang to end that class, I left the library and headed to her classroom.

"I, ah, sorry I missed class," I said as I approached her desk. "My fault. Just say it won't happen again. Unless I can't help it. But, can I turn in the paper?"

"Are you feeling okay?" she asked, taking it from me. "You don't look very well."

"I'm not. But nothing serious. I'll be okay tomorrow, I guess."

"Well, I'll take it. I might mark it down a grade for being late, depends on what I think of it. I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Yeah, sure," I promised without a thought.

"Good. I hope you're feeling better, Alex."

"Yeah," I verified without emotion.

"And be careful," she added.

"Yeah," I repeated, having no idea what she meant, and not very concerned about it; I had bigger problems.

I let the door close behind me as I exited. I was twenty steps down the hall and accelerating toward the library before it clicked closed.

I wished that I had the guts to ride home then, despite the promise to Tom. It occurred to me again that he could have known about the fight before, and that was why he had asked me not to ride home early. I shook my head at the paranoia that had to have spawned that thought and dismissed it. It was tempting though, to just ride away and leave it for another day. I had almost never left early when I rode to school with Tom, unless it was for something like the books and the hobby shop, or some appointment, but I was ready to right then.

Tomorrow. The next. Whenever, as long as it isn't today. But it won't help any, only delay it, and with the plan in motion, today's the best chance I got to get him off me. For good, maybe, I hope.

But where's Jeff? Sick day? Maybe he felt really bad about shit, and it was enough he was able to convince his mom he's actually sick. I'm not going to worry he told his mom and she won't let him come to school and be contaminated more. I'm not going to do that. I know it's bullshit. I know it's just a stupid worry. But he did miss school, and that's not normal. But I can't do anything about it, so stop worrying about it. I can call him later. Or... I could. I should. I'll think about it.

What I really need to think about is what's gonna happen after next period. Fuck. What the hell-e-o? Shit. There's Jeff's phrase again. I should stop even thinking it so I don't ever say it. But I'm gonna miss... and I need to concentrate on Derek!

Shit. Why? And another fucking coincidence to put in the journal! Tim and I talk about him yesterday and then today he's...

Fucking shit!


Tim said he was there that day I had told off Charlie Derek! He saw and heard! And now he's leaving! And he said how he did stuff to help out guys he found out was gay! He... he fucking probably told Derek if he bothered me again he wouldn't sell him any grass! And now that Tim's leaving, Charlie knows it's safe for him to get me now!

And today, suddenly, Charlie Derek is out to kick my ass!

How come Tim didn't know? Why didn't he think about...

... something that happened two years ago, and we hardly even mentioned but once, and that only yesterday? He's not psychic or omnipotent. He didn't even think about Derek going after me after two years and Tim not even going to school anymore.

Well, fuck. Those puzzle pieces in place now. And now I got to wrap it all up today. Been two years stewing, so Derek's been looking forward to this the whole time since he knew Tim was going.

I waited in the library through the next class for the final bell, thinking over those things when thoughts of Jeff didn't interrupt. When the bell rang as I was still staring out the window and thinking of Jeff, I threw up. No one saw, I was sure, as I was in the back of the library, next to the periodicals, and hidden by almost everyone else there by the tall catalogue cabinet. Suddenly my stomach decided what was left of breakfast had to go. There wasn't a huge mess, but it smelled strongly and horribly. I marched out of the library, hoping no one could remember who sat in the dusty corner almost no one used.

I walked to my locker, feeling weak and scared. I didn't bother to watch out for him, knowing where he would meet me, where he would do it at. I had hoped some of the guys might meet me at my locker, but we had said to keep it normal and not give away any clues. I closed the locker, shouldered my pack, didn't bother zipping my coat or wrapping my scarf around my head, then walked out into the cold winder day mostly exposed. The icy wind bit through my sweat painfully.

As I walked out of the doors, I started looking; for Charlie Derek, his goons, my friends, anyone there to help. I was hoping I would see most of my friends in the milling crowd, waiting to do their parts. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I was deeply worried.

Derek's two goons were drooling with anticipation under the big tree not far from the stairs, between me and the bike racks. I finally saw Tom come out of the crowd, chatting like normal and acting as if there were no bullies about to descend on us. I was suddenly glad that Jeff had missed the day; I didn't want him there. I wondered if I would have left during last period to avoid Derek if Jeff had been in school.

It happened instantly; suddenly Brian and Kyle were in front of us.

"Cee-dee has some business with you, faggot," Brian said loudly, pushing my chest.

Kyle put his face down into Tom's, daring him to react; Tom didn't. He looked as scared as I had ever seen him. I could tell that he wasn't faking all of it.

"What's he got to do with me?" I asked, trying to sound firm and brave, but still sounding shaky and scared.

"He just wants to talk, is all," Brian assured me with a sneer. "Now let's go, queer boy," he insisted, pulling me forward by the front of my coat and my scarf.

I held onto my scarf and tried to keep on my feet as Brian hauled me along. I heard Kyle urging Tom onward and the crowd beginning to form. Like condemned prisoners we were led side by side, two guards compelling our direction, to bow before the judge. A judge who had already decided his verdict, and who looked forward to delivering his justice. I heard the crowd becoming excited, and it angered me that people liked that kind of thing.

Fucking animals, I growled inside. Bunch of blood-thirsty animals is all they are. Eat, shit, breed! And drool over violence when they weren't doing one of those. They all make me fucking sick. That's what happened to the orcs, they bred with humans and faded into humanity, marring it with their contemptible, animalistic urges and violence.

I would have continued my diatribe against society longer, keeping myself from having to think of what was about to happen, but suddenly, Charlie Derek, the Almighty Asshole of the Ogres stood in front of us with his arms crossed, grinning his shitty grin. I was almost ready to try knocking those two oversized front teeth out, and almost hoped the plan didn't work so I could try.

"So, it's the fag who sucked his way into Tim Miller's van. And his boyfriend, too. Ain't you guys a cute couple! I see someone already got a piece of ya, huh, faggot? Damn. I'm gonna make that one look like nothing, though," he threatened, having obviously noticed my bruised left temple and eye.

I had known that he would start with something like that, but not so elegantly. He had directly said that I was gay, smoked pot, and how I supposedly got the van from Tim, all in his first sentence. I had hoped he was too stupid to think of anything clever to say, or of being so clear in his claims. I had never expected him to be so concise. I had also hoped I was ready. So much for hopes.

I saw Thomas behind Charlie Derek, moving in the crowd, getting up front, smiling nervously and nodding at me. He made a series of gestures that clearly were directing me to slow down; I had no idea what he was trying to tell me.

No one else? I worried, seeing none.

"So you gonna say you ain't a cock sucker, Raymond? Huh? I mean, what a pussy name, Alex Raymond. Sounds like Elton John!" he sneered. "How fucking perfect for ya, huh? Since ya wear a ring, too, like fags do!"

I ignored his jibe at my wearing a class ring, and instead opened my mouth to make my first, well-thought-out, reasoned statement, but was cut off by Tom.

"It doesn't sound anything like it. You can't even insult good."

I nearly wet my pants. It was against the plan, and not only didn't keep things calm so that a reasoned wall of friends could prevent any violence, it literally incensed violence, begged for it.

"Oh come on faggot! We all know he sucked Tim's cock, and took it up the ass, but we didn't know you guys had three ways!" he laughed.

The crowd laughed too.

"How's that for a insult, faggot?"

Up the ass? So, he didn't really know shit, then. He don't know shit! That's a relief! He's just blowing hot air.

"And you, Raymond, was so good, he gave you his van! I bet you got a lot a free pot, too!" he said, motioning as if sucking a cock.

"Looks like somebody's been practicing," Tom said boldly, and with a loud snicker. "How's that for an insult? Or two?"

My eyes grew wide and round, but otherwise I managed not to react. The crowd ate it up.

People are gonna probably know about me smoking pot seeing me in the van, but now they all heard him call me a faggot in more ways than one, and when they see me in the van they're gonna think they know how I got it. I'm marked. But what does it fucking matter, anyway? I can't have what I want, so why worry about shit? Only him calling Tom a fag matters. And I wish I knew what the hell Thomas was trying to tell me! What about the plan? And fucking Derek don't know what he's into if he's gonna get into a dissing match with Tom. Why is Tom doing this?

"What the hell? You wanna die?" Derek threatened Tom. "You his sex slave? Huh? You gotta protect him or somethin'? Oh, wait, I get it! Raymond here's the bitch, and Tom's gettin' all protective of her!"

The crowd appreciated it, and I had to admit that if it were a Circle dis-fight, Charlie would have just tied things up.

"Your just jealous, Derek!" was called out from the crowd.

I recognized Marcus's voice, even if he did try to change it, and I didn't know what he thought he was doing either, except to make things even worse. Tom had already delayed the reasoned approach, at least until I could somehow take control of Tom and the situation, but Marcus was making it worse. I also wondered just how I was going to take charge of anything, since I couldn't get a handle on how to even get started after Tom seemingly went maverick.

"Fuck you! Who said that?"

When no reaction occurred, when the offender wasn't thrown to him, he repeated himself.

"I did, you career senior!" came from the other side of the crowd.

That was the last straw as far as I was concerned. Tom going off on a tangent was shocking enough, and Marcus also breaking with the plan was nearly impossible to believe, but Cooley also antagonizing Derek finally broke me out of the shocked mental paralysis.

I finally looked over at Tom. He mouthed, "Thomas," at me. I nodded then shrugged. His face looked sly, like he was working something, and I knew there was more going on than I knew about.

At least somem of the guys are around us, and they're all up to something, together, but what? And why didn't they tell me? But how? I was hiding in the back of the library after talking to everybody like an idiot! They could'a told me if I went to classes like normal! Or hung out like normal in the cafeteria or somewhere they know I'd be! Shit! But what the fuck are they pulling? Saying things like that wasn't part of my plan. And what's it supposed to do anyway? Just let me know they was here?

I saw Kevin Thorne, then, wearing his blue-belted karate gi, standing on the edge of the crowd next to Thomas. That reminded me of the hours Todd spent trying to teach me Karate moves. Several of them came back to me and I hoped I could pull them off if things got so it would be possible. And I was growing more and more certain that things were definitely going that way.

They were directly behind Charlie Derek and seemingly staring at his back with intensity. When Thomas Bechtel looked at me instead, he started smiling, then smiled wider and nodded at me. Then he winked and mouthed something I didn't understand, then nodded more vigorously. Thomas gestured wildly, making no sense whatsoever. How could I possibly do whatever they were trying to tell me to do when I was nearly paralyzed and unable to say or do anything?

At least some of them showed up, I thought, feeling better once I knew the odds weren't so against me and Tom. Tom and Thomas, Dan, Cooley, Marcus, and the others. And I forgot Tom's blue belt! And there's two more guys in gis behind him. I wonder what ranks they are? About our age, so-

"Fuck you! Come out here and say that or shut the fuck up!" Derek ordered, his face showing his anger and discomfort.

No one was thrown, or came groveling, to his feet yet again, defying his self-decided supremacy.

"Yeah. I thought so. Fucking more faggot queers. Friends of yours I bet. You fuck them or they fuck you? Or you all take turns?"

He snickered again, showing off his two large front teeth. I ached to be able to knock them down his throat. I wanted to start the speech to calm him and show him there were plenty of guys who didn't want to play his game, but that we all would if he forced us to. Instead, Tom blew away the last possibility of any peace plan.

"We don't do anything when you aren't around to be our dumpster. We know how you hate missing out on some hot fresh cum!"

Oh shit! Fucking hell, Tom! What are you trying to do?

I looked back at him, open mouthed. Tom shrugged, as if what he said was as obvious as blue is the color of the sky.

"Oh, you gonna pay for that one, she-he," Kyle said, pushing him from behind.

"Just drop it and leave us alone. You won't get any trouble that way," I said, trying to sound as brave as I wanted to when the plan had a hope; the squeaks really ruined it, but it wouldn't have sounded right without them anyway.

"Yeah, you and your boyfriend  here gonna do something?" Kyle asked, pushing Tom from behind again, hard enough that Tom stumbled forward almost onto his knees. "You gonna hit me with another one of your faggy slaps?"

Of course! Tom accidentally back-handed him in gym last week! And with the coaches and everybody around, Kyle hadn't been able to retaliate! Tom had told me about that with glee, but worried that he was due payback. I wonder what Tom was thinking during the planning session, then? Now I'm impressed he hadn't jumped the gun even more! Yet.

But hell, my signal is useless now. They're getting him riled, not trying to keep things from getting ugly. And why? And why is Bechtel doing that? It's like, like when you're cheering somebody on. No, more like when you're trying to get somebody to do something. But sly like, like you're trying to urge somebody into something.

"Why can't you just like girls? Be like everybody else? Huh?" Derek sneered, grinning, enjoying himself.

Be like everybody else? Don't you know I'd love to be like everybody else? I'd fucking love to not be gay! I'd love it if I didn't have to hide how I feel! There almost isn't anything I'd like more! But not if it meant being just like you, Derek! All you know how to do is push people into fighting.



Talk about a light bulb going off! Why didn't I know what they was trying to tell me? I'm a fucking idiot! They want us to urge him to start the fight! Why?

"If you're normal, I'd rather be gay," Tom said, almost sounding as if he meant it, and as if he had read my thoughts.

I gotcha, I nodded to Bechtel. He looked as if he had just missed being run down by a truck. Next to him, Kevin looked exasperation at me.

 Huh?" Charlie asked.

Then after apparently having a very rare thing, a thought, he asked again.

"Huh?" but with disbelief this time.

I couldn't believe he was thinking about it, trying to figure out if he had been insulted or not. It was insanely bizarre to think that he really needed to consider and turn that sentence around in his vacuous skull to try to make sense of it.

Tom slowly said, "I said, I would rather be gay than be like you. But I'm not either one. Especially thankfully not like you. Even retards have a reason for being retarded."

Charlie's light bulb lit. Finally.

I turned to look at Tom. He and I shared our thoughts. I suddenly understood how the twins did it. Tom and I communicated with our eyes, seeing what the other meant to say, feeling it, sensing it, knowing it, all with the slightest shift of eyes, or head, or expression.

Tom told me Kyle was behind me, just to my left, by nodding with his eyes at him. I pointed at Brian behind him with my eyes. I saw that the others were ready, waiting for the signal for Plan B. The original wall of friends plan didn't get a chance.

I trusted Tom, to say the very least. And Cooley, Marcus, and Thomas, and the rest. I threw myself behind their plan.

What the hell, all or nothing, right? I sent at Tom. Whatever you guys got, let's do it.

We blinked. It was the longest blink ever. It wasn't anything other than a normal blink, not to every other human being but the two of us, I knew that, but it seemed that our eyes were locked together eternally and then closed forever until we opened them.

Tom's ready, I'm as ready as I can be. Hope the others are ready, now that the wall of resistance is abandoned. Are there too few of us to make a difference in a real fight? Will any of them get hurt? Do they know what the fuck they are doing?

"Why you gotta be fags? Why can't you be like everybody else?" he asked again, cracking his fingers in anticipation.

I said, slowly but not insultingly, and oh so nicely, gesturing appropriately, "If we are all meant to be the same," pausing to allow him to assemble that first part of the idea, "then why the fuck are you so stupid?"

The crowd loved it, then grew quiet in anticipation.

It worked! He got it right off! Knew I can talk to idiots clearly. Now, I got the bull by the balls, go ahead and start swinging it around by them!

I said at him, again, just a bit slowly, even though he was literally digging his feet in to charge, "You just want us all to be the same so you won't be so stupid compared to everybody else."

The crowd was silent, or I was past hearing them.

Tom spun and I lost sight of him as I turned with all my strength to my left, my head turning, both arms swinging outward and around like catapults. Brian's left arm stopped my wild left forearm, but his surprised face stopped my following right fist, and I got a wonderful view of it happening. His legs seemed to fly out from under him and he fell on his side, both of his hands already covering his face.

The crowd erupted.

His voice sounded funny as he asked, "What the fuck?" and gently shook his head side to side.

When he took his hands away, one had blood nearly covering the palm. He stared up at me in shock, more blood dripping from the corner of his left eye, which was blinking rapidly and repeatedly. I held up my hand, looked down at my class ring, and grinned.

He kicked at the dirt, pushing himself away from me on his ass and hands. I watched, amazed, as Brian stood up and ran away from me through the crowd of blurred bodies.

I spun around and saw that Tom was walking toward Kyle, who was standing, but holding his face as well. Tom's left arm was held out behind him, elbow slightly bent, ready to fling forward another hit. Four of the guys from the lunch table arrived at Tom's side. Kyle looked around and started back-wheeling.

 I wished that I could stop to watch, but Charlie was a concern. I turned again, and Charlie Derek was on the ground, half a dozen guys in gis pinning him to the snow-packed ground.

"Holy shit!" Tom yelled.

"Is that it?" I heard Eric ask loudly enough to be heard over the laughing crowd.

I was stunned myself. It was over with two punches and a tackle. A group tackle at that. Just seconds.

"You fucking queers get off me!" Charlie yelled, struggling against the six gi-clad guys.

Tom started toward him, his fists clenched. I reached out and grabbed his arm to hold him back. I didn't want him to get that way. I hated it when he did, or any of my friends did, and I knew a way to deal with things. It was part of the plan I had worked out, but not mentioned to the others; I had never been sure it would be possible.

There was a scene from a movie, an old war movie I had watched with my dad so long ago I no longer had any other memories but that single scene. It stuck with me, it seemed, like it had lodged in my memory just for this one particular moment so long away in my future.

I walked up to Charlie as the guys, most I didn't know, held him down or stood around and over him. I changed what the guy had said he was in the move, from his race to my sexuality, and I spat it at him.

"I'm the only fag here. You got that? All these guys are my friends, and they all know about me, and they all came to help me out. Do you see that?"

It felt good to make that declaration; far better than I would have anticipated had I actually allowed myself the luxury of imagining such an actual situation. I felt charged, and lightened, and overjoyed, and protected. And more. Nearly invulnerable. I wondered if this was how Charlie Derek felt when he had someone terrified before him.

He looked at the guys holding him down, then around at the guys standing over him, then at Thomas and Kevin, then Tom, myself, and finally around at the guys holding him down again. I corrected my statement then.

"Not all them are my friends, some are my friend's friends. Even they helped out. And they only knew for a period or two. And I didn't know shit about them going to even. Do you see that?"

I did, and I hardly believed it.

Charlie Derek nodded at me. I stood up and waved the guys back and held my hand out to him, as the guy had done in that scene. Like the character in the movie, he thought a moment, looking at my hand, then he reached out for it. Once back on his feet, he walked away without a word.

The crowd had already thinned, since the violence was obviously over, and the guys started congratulating each other. I turned my thoughts inward momentarily, where there was, disappointingly, little enjoyment at winning against Derek and his goons. I saw the exultation around me, faintly heard them celebrating, nodded when I could manage to, but I felt empty.

My temple throbbed and a sharp, hot core there seemed intent on heating my brain to boiling. I tried to concentrate on the fight and the celebration. It had felt great to make those declarations, but those feelings had gone as quickly as they had arrived. I wondered if there would be retaliation, or an uneasy truce, or maybe peace. I wondered again where Jeff was and why he had missed school. I worried through nightmare scenarios involving police and coroners before I realized where I was taking myself, again. I derailed those thoughts.

Turning to Tom, I asked, "What the hell?"

I cut myself there, stopping the 'e-o' ending as Jeff said it so cutely.

"He wasn't gonna let it go. Ever. If we stood his ass down like you wanted today, he'd of gotten us one at a time. We figured we had to prove we was gonna bust his ass if he didn't drop it. You gotta do it all or nothin'!" he explained, then emphasized his point by slamming his fist upward into his palm and adding, "BAM!"

I was startled enough to visibly jump a bit. As he struck his fist to his palm, my body shuddered once, violently, as if I had jumped at the sound. I had heard the sound, and the sound he made with his voice, but neither was what had startled me so very much.

As the idea took shape, I was looking at Tom, but I only saw the shapes and colors as they came together in my head, revealing something fascinating within the image of my life's puzzle. 

Sudden thoughts of a single person were occupying my mind. Thoughts of one situation again and again. And what thoughts they were! Pieces I had never examined, some I had not so much as looked at, believing they belonged far from where I was working the puzzle, suddenly belonged in the obvious holes I had been working around.

But how? What was the key? There has to be something to build it around, like a dust mote to start a raindrop. An impurity to start a snowflake. A noise to start the avalanche. What? I need that catalyst. Like Toby'd say, I need the seed.

I heard someone's radio playing "Lunatic Fringe" by Red Rider. I shivered.

Not only did a bulb light up in my mind, every one of them lit up. They flashed and ran in patterns. Several exploded.

"Tom, there's something I gotta go do," I said calmly, then ran.

I was rolling away from the bike rack, twirling my lock chain around the handlebars, when I heard Tom yell my name. He was running toward me at full speed, nearly out-running himself, stumbling several times. He was grinning ear to ear and blushing as he rolled up to me after unlocking his bike. I almost asked what was up, why he looked like the cat that had ate the chicken from Mysterious Island, but his eyes told me he didn't want to, at lest not yet, and that was something I could very much understand.

I had enough to occupy my mind anyway. Once I had seen the pattern, thanks to Tim and Tom, mostly, but others as well, including Jessie, Cooley, and whomever had played Lunatic Fringe at that time, I knew there had to be a way. And then I knew the key, the answer, and the way. I planned and plotted, imagined the conversation every way I could.

When we were almost home, and we had ridden in total silence that far, I finally broke it.

"I want it public, he wants it private. His mom's too religious and strict to allow it. I like him too much to not do something. If she's the woman I think she is, she's not ignorant. And Todd is so sure of what he thinks their mom thinks. And I should trust that. Like I should have trusted you a few million times. The thing is, I think I know the way through it to her. I know what it'll take. And I'll do it. And if it don't work, then, nothing's changed. Right?"

He didn't answer in any way. Not verbally, not with his eyes, not with his expression or movements. I worried, then he nodded.

"You gotta do what you gotta do."

It is that now. Gotta do what I gotta do to have what I want if I can have it. If he wants to, after. If it ruins our friendship, if my trying something so soon, and so much of a something, then, he's not the Jeff I think I know. It's having it all, the way it should be, everyone who matters knowing, or it's having nothing. It's he stays, or he goes. It's we do, or we don't. It's go for broke. All or nothing.

"Tom? When I get back, we're so gonna celebrate! Either way. Okay?"

He grinned a bit wider and nodded.

"Shit! Dude! Got anything to smoke?"

"Yeah, thanks."

As we neared the front of my house, Tom said, "Good luck, buddy. And let me know, okay?"

"Absolutely," I promised, remembering that I had as much as blown him off last night after a similar promise. "If you don't hear from me, come over, okay? If I forget, or, something."

His face told a long tale, but to sum it up, I had a best friend.

I turned up my drive as he rolled on straight down the street toward his own house, leaned back and rode handless for a bit, then threw his arms up and yelled, "Don't, fuck, with-the-Circle! WOOOOO !"


I was later told that it was the best fight of the year, because both of Derek's buddies got bloody noses and Charlie Derek stopped bullying. It was the largest fight of the year, without question. To me it was the largest, best, most important fight of the year, in the school's history. And I wasn't alone.

It was a cakewalk compared to what I planned to do next. Right away, before it was too late.

All or nothing, baby...

Monday Afternoon: All Or Nothing