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The Circle

Chapter 31


Where did Toby go? I guess that's over, then. What was it I was supposed to do? Wait. There was a... a wall. No, yes. A wall. And...

Fuck it, gone. But I was supposed to look for something, I know it. I lost something. I have to find it. It proves something, maybe? But what? And why is it so dark?

I opened my eyes, then blinked. Still total darkness.

I'm blind? I can't see anything! What happened to my eyes? The fire! The fucking van exploded and I burned to death! What the hell-e-o, Tobs? Don't start the van unless dad's there? So I can burn to death? I thought you said it was too soon! Shit! So now what?

Why can't I breathe? It feels like fire down my throat! Shit! That hurts! What the hell?

I tried to sit up, but was in even more excruciating pain at the attempted movement. I suddenly felt as if I were laying on my back on a bed of coals; from my shoulders to my hips all burned with excruciating heat. My shins felt as if dozens of hot nails were being forced just an inch into them. I was being suffocated by what felt like hot, dry ashes packing my throat and lungs. My temple, where whatever had struck me, burned and hurt as if a dull, red-hot poker were being thrust through the bones of my skull. Pain in my arms resembled the pin-prickly numbness of being oxygen starved, and any attempt to move them felt as if liquid lava were stirring in the marrow of their bones.

The image that came to mind was of me, hog-tied, hanging by my ankles and wrists, an apple shoved in my mouth, carrots up my nose, and a pit of evilly-vaporous, boiling lava below me. Standing around with plates and forks were everyone I ever knew: My parents, grands, uncles and aunts, cousins, step relatives, old friends and current friends, even Mr. Broft from the hobby shop, my teachers, and people whom I only knew by name or sight. They were all laughing at the homosexual receiving his just rewards, all of them slavering for a sizzling slab of my roasting flesh.

I tried to breathe, but the red-hot ashes still clogged my throat and lungs. I could neither inhale nor exhale. It was maddening! I tried to cough, but the inability to move any air only meant that I built incredible pressure within my body, resulting in popping my ears and causing red spots in my vision; the only visible things. The need to vomit came strongly, overwhelmingly, and that coupled with the stifling, suffocating inability to breath, or pass any air, was all the Hell I considered possible.

So Jeff's mom was right! I'm in Hell, paying for my sins! The Fires Of Perdition burning all around me, my eyes burst ruins dripping down my cheeks! My back turning red then black, then blistering and cracking.

I could see it, too. Very clearly and realistically, until the horrors of my life forcibly played out before my blind eyes. What few joys there were flashed by in an instant, but every shame, guilt, terror was displayed endlessly, again and again, magnified.

It was far too much to bear. It all went away; or I did.


The pain returned. I opened my eyes but saw nothing. The fear returned. I reached for my eyes and felt my arms tingle. I reached for my eyes and felt my arms hurt. I grunted from the effort to move my arms. There was pain everywhere then. I hurt from my hips to my shoulders - mostly on my right side - but my entire back stung painfully. I realized that I was laying down on my back. I blinked my eyes, but I still saw nothing. What felt like dry ashes blocked my throat and lungs. My temple throbbed, seeming as if someone were twisting a screwdriver deep into my brain.

I could barely feel the rest of my body, as if only those painful parts were what was left of me. I felt so weak that I thought maybe my muscles had been burned away. I became as frightened as I had ever been in my life, and as frightened as I think anyone has ever been. I thought that perhaps Hell was weird at first, making you think you're still alive for a bit, then turning on the fires again.

I felt the panic, and I tried to breathe evenly, but I had no ability to; those dry, packed ashes stubbornly blocked my efforts to breathe. That suffocation madness returned. Varying visions of myself as a burned skeleton tormented me endlessly; my blackened lungs, visible between my charred ribs, oozed pus and blood that dribbled down the remains of my abdomen as I strove for breath.

The panic and pain forced me away again, to somewhere, some place of brief respite, but of no comfort.


Pain. Dull, throbbing, aching pains everywhere. My shoulders, my back, some of my right side, nails in my shins, pulsing, pinching agony in my temple.

Oh shit! I'm being burned slowly forever! My eyes already burst and gone! My back turning black and cracking! The heat! No breath. No air. My lungs won't work!

Fuck! That hurts! Why does my back hurt like this? And my side? And my legs? And my throat! Everything! What the fuck! Why does my bed feel like it's on fire? Is it? Fire? Wait...

Fire! The van! Smoke! FIRE! Dad! Shit! That's the pain! The Fires Of Perdition! Hell! She was right! Jeff's mom was right! Now I'm paying for it!

Burning forever! Suffocating forever! Tortured forever for being gay!

The darkness came again, and I was thankful for the empty nothingness, the brief relief from Hell.


I'm back! The torture starts again! The pain! I can't breathe! I can feel my back, burned beyond feeling it, my legs being skewered by hot knitting needles, my head being pried open at my left temple, my lungs filled with the hot ashes of hell's ever-burning brimstone!

Brimstone. Isn't Hell supposed to be a burning pit of that? And, fires. Aren't you supposed to be able to see that stuff? And where was the judgment? Wasn't I supposed to be judged before going to Hell? Some say, but others not. But they kinda all agree about being shown your sins and stuff. Why am I blind?

Why does Hell have music? Is that humming? I know that humming. Is that Mom humming? I heard her hum that song a long time ago. Probably when I was a little kid. It's so familiar, but I don't know any words that go to it. All I can think of is something about roses. Or at least rose petals. Or... maybe carnations? Flowers. Flowers are nice. They smell good too. I'm hungry. I hurt. Is that mom's voice humming? I'm so tired. I think I know that tune. No words though, I don't think... flowers... summer... they bloom then... birds... crickets...


Pain! Fuck, the pain! Not so bad now, but so painful! Everywhere! At least they turned down the fires! And my lungs, did the ashes fall out of them? And my temple only hurts like a broken finger. Is it weekend in Hell? I can stand this, it's not as bad.

I was able to breath, though it felt strange, and itchy. I barely had the strength to inhale on my own, and it seemed like work to move the air back out, but it seemed that my lungs still worked. I heard voices, but they seemed remote and unimportant.

I breathed. There was a weight on my chest, but I didn't seem to mind it out of some kind of instinct. It didn't hamper my newly returned ability to breathe on my own. More than that, it was warm, and it seemed... comforting.

Hell seemed far less worrisome. I wondered why I didn't smell any brimstone or sulphur, or burning flesh. Instead, the cinnamon-based aroma of Jeff's cologne.

Darkness came back quickly.


It was quiet. I hurt. I felt tired. There was pain on my right side and my back, up to my shoulder. My legs ached awfully, mostly below the knees. My head throbbed, seemingly centered behind my left temple. I was nauseous. I could breathe, though my throat and chest felt funny, kind of furry and sore, and heavy.

Wait... mom's humming? I know that tune. She used to hum it way long ago! Mom?

I tried calling for her. During the ensuing coughing I discovered how sore and sensitive my body was.

"Alex? Honey? You awake?" my mother's voice asked full of worry.

Mom? Mom's in Hell too? How did I damn her to this? What did I do?

"Alex? Honey? You're in the hospital. Can, can you hear me? Hun?"

I'm not dead?

I opened my eyes involuntarily and saw a blurry person sitting next to me in a blurry, green room.

I'm not blind?

"Mom?" I started to ask again, coughing uncontrollably again the instant that I tried to speak.

After the fit of coughing ended, resulting in a disgusting multi-colored mess that I spat into the curved dish she held, she wiped my chin and told me not to talk. I saw her face then, and I saw the worry and fear there even though everything was still blurry - but a weird kind of blurry. My throat burned and ached clear down into my chest.

"What . . ." I tried to ask, coughing again despite my best efforts not to.

I was afraid, worried, and uncomfortable. Breathing was difficult, and there was something in my nose. I reached toward my face, but my hand was stopped.

"Don't mess, honey. You gotta keep that on. They had another tube in you, for... a while. But they took it out and let you wake up. But you gotta keep that there, okay?"

I nodded. I wanted to ask questions, but I knew that I couldn't talk. My throat was so dry that I could feel the air rasping across the back of my throat. It was hard to even get started swallowing, let alone carrying out the entire complicated, difficult, painful process. It was a maddening situation, that not being able swallow, nearly as much so as the inability to breathe had seemed before. I wondered if the tube she had talked about was why I couldn't talk, and why my throat felt so badly, perhaps even why I had been unable to breathe before. I scratched at my throat with my fingers; wishing that I could scratch inside it.

Mom held up a cup with a straw in it, and asked me if I would like a drink.

Would I? It seemed as if that cup of water was my salvation!

The nurse that I hadn't noticed, said "Be very careful now, it's going to hurt a bit. Small sips."

"Yes," I rasped out, already weary of her worrying as I motioned for a drink.

I drank deeply from it. The water felt like liquid goodness going down my throat, but then suddenly turned to iced acid. I coughed ferociously, spitting water through my mouth and nose. It was a horrible experience! I was drowning, suffocating, unable to breath because of the unending coughing. The water I had inhaled felt as if it were melting my lungs! My sides hurt more from coughing already, and I knew there were many more coming before I could hope for relief.

I suddenly felt as if I were confined, restrained, being compacted and crushed. I needed out! Out of what didn't matter, I just needed OUT! Only then, when I put enough distance between me and that place, only then could I hope to breathe!

Suddenly mom's face was there directly in front of me. Her hands held my face and she tried to tell me it was okay, but I knew better! I knew I was dying, and it was horrible. I was growing weak and tired. I felt as if everything in the universe were shrinking toward me and about to entomb me motionless for eternity. I was doomed to suffer eternal torment inside of everything, buried deeply and crushingly, suffocating slowly.

I waited, but it never came: I knew that it was coming; I struggled to get free of the doomed location, but I could only try and fail; it was coming; it was about to happen; any second. I grew even weaker and even more exhausted. The torture of the waiting became as bad as the sensations of the suffocation and confinement. It seemed that it went on for hours before there was finally nothing.


The pain returned, but it wasn't so bad. I felt weak, and tired, and exhausted. I was uncomfortable, miserable, and frightened. I remembered that I did have eyes, and that I was alive, and I opened them.

I was in a green room, and someone who looked like Mom was sitting very near me, holding my hand. I opened my mouth to talk, but only coughed again. More weirdly colored chunks of goo came out of me.

"Alex, honey, you're alright! Don't worry. You're going to be okay. Just relax, and let the medicines work, okay hun?"

I nodded.

"It was a good thing the nurse was right here in the room. She put you to sleep for a few hours, but they said you should be okay now. You feeling better? You sure?"

"Yes," I said so softly that I wondered if she could hear me.

I was unwilling to say anything any louder. The last thing I could remember was coughing to death after trying to drink some water. My throat felt worse, but better; the sensation of suffocation was nearly gone, but it was very raw and sore, even down into my chest. Mom still sat at my right side, the nurse hovering over my left.

"Honey, you need to drink, but you have to sip it. Do you understand me?"

I nodded, wanting the water, but afraid of it as well.

"You have to take very small sips, Alex. You understand? Very small sips. Just enough to coat your mouth a bit, and hold it in your mouth a while. Let it trickle down your throat and swallow as you feel it going there. Okay?" the nurse ordered.

I did as ordered, and let the first tiny sip rest in my mouth before allowing it to roll and trickle into my throat. It seemed to lubricate things, allowing the muscles to work properly. Several swallows went down well. It was pure bliss!

"Honey, you're in the hospital. You're fine, don't worry. You just got some light burns. Nothing serious. And some smoke inhalation. That's why you're coughing so much. You're gonna be fine," she explained.

Then why can't I talk?

"You'll be okay, hun. Honest. You've just got to let your throat and lungs heal up some, okay, hun?"

I nodded at them, but I felt the fear well up from inside me, trying to make me panic. Mother's voice kept it in check, for then, but I worried that might not last. I tried not to cough, but my lungs had other ideas. I spat more disgusting blobs of mostly brown and black streaked phlegm into the little kidney shaped pan Mom held for me.

"The doctor gave you something to make you stay relaxed for a while. He says it'll wear off in a few hours. The burns aren't bad at all, hun. So that's the soreness you probably feel. Okay?"

I nodded.

"Do they hurt much?"

I nodded.

"Do you hurt anywhere else?"

I nodded and patted my chest. I coughed again, producing more of that disgusting, multi-colored slime.

"The doctor says that your going to be fine. Okay? Your dad's fine, too. He burned his face and hands, but not too bad. He said he saw the gas spray out, and the engine backfired and set it off. He tried to cover his face with his hands, but it didn't help much. He's fine, though."

Mother's voice wasn't full of fear or worry, though it did contain a bit of both, and surprisingly that reassured me a great deal. As long as she wasn't freaking out, and that I could see her real emotions, and that fear and worry were all I could see, I knew that I had no reason to freak out. At least it felt that way.

"Tom was walking home from the bus, he heard a boom and you and your dad yelling. He ran next door and got a fire extinguisher and put out as much of the fire as he could, and when it was out enough, they got you out."

I motioned for more water, and she held the cup for me to drink from again.

As I sipped repeatedly, she cleared her throat and said, "There is one other thing, hun."

I heard the concern and worry in her voice increase, and I saw her emotions grow heavier on her face, and my emotions followed hers.

"The doctors did some x-rays while you were unconscious. Why didn't you tell me you had hurt your head? That's no wrestling bump. You have signs of a concussion. The doctor said it's a couple of days old. He says something or someone hit your very hard. It caused a blood leak in your head. You had pressure on your brain. You have a bandage on your head where they made a little hole to fix it, or it could have... "

She didn't finish the sentence, but I heard the words all the same.

... killed you.

They echoed through the dark tunnel with me that we were falling through. For the briefest of moments I thought it was another blackout, but there was no pain, dizziness, or other symptoms of one. One moment I was drowsy, weak and tired, as I had been since waking, and the next moment I was falling asleep. I was drifting weightless inside myself, all of my senses growing more and more remote, until eventually only my last, scattered thoughts and my mother's unspoken words existed before there was nothing.


I woke up to the smell of food. My stomach reacted loudly. It was all soft things that would be easy to swallow with a raw, sore throat. The pain killers worked well at keeping the pains down to a dull, roaring throb. By the time I had scarfed down the stuff, with mom's help, I had learned how handy a catheter is; and how embarrassing it is with your mom in the room knowing about it. After I had eaten, my throat felt worse, yet much better, and I was able to talk quietly.

"The nurse said you fainted. So she did something with your medicine on that thing and you slept a few more hours. Do you remember what we were talking about?" she asked after giving me more water.

"You said Tom and Dad got me out the van. And about the, uh, the temple thing. And before you ask, it was an accident. Tom was doing the snow. I ran out to see where he got the snow blower at. I got too close before he saw me is all. It didn't hurt much."

That had been the most words I had strung together yet. I paid for it with a coughing fit that ejected more psychedelic slime. The efforts fired up the pains in my side, back, and the temple. After a few more sips and some breaths, I went on.

"It wasn't bad, just stung a lot. Then I, started, like falling asleep when things got too much, is all. Never lasted very long, and, I just didn't worry."

"You are an incredibly stupid kid sometimes," she said, smiling and rubbing my arm. "You should have known better!"

I shrugged and wondered why I had indeed not thought much of it; I saw then that I should have.

I was blacking out! It could have been serious! It is serious! I could have brain damage! Or worse! Why didn't I worry about it more? Because of the Toby thing? Did I really want to see Toby that much, even if it was only me making him up? I could say I was distracted, but that's a cop-out to the ninth degree. I was distracted, yeah, but I knew it was goin' on. And I got Jeff, so what's it matter? I fucking got Jeff! I better think about that later!

"What happened at the van?" I asked, intentionally changing subjects.

"You weren't breathing when they got you out. Tom did that mouth-to-mouth to you, your dad said, until the paramedics got there. Tom, he feels so bad. He didn't know that bump from the snow blower caused anything, and he had no clue it was why you were fainting. He blames himself. He... you need to talk to him, as soon as you can. You guys can talk. He's been up a few times to see you before you woke up."

"Woke up? How long I been here?"

"They kept you out so you wouldn't be in too much pain. And so they could get the x-rays without any more pain for you than needed to be. When he told the doctor about your fainting spells, he wanted the x-rays right away. Good thing, too. Then they kept you out until this afternoon, since the surgery."

"How long?" I asked again.

"Just three days."

"Three days? Three days asleep? And only one Toby dream? Or, visit, or, whatever? So, it's, Friday!

"I'm gonna miss the Circle meeting. Do the guys know I'm okay? And I'm gonna be so behind in classes," I said with a great deal of exasperation.

Mom laughed.


"You're worried about your friends and school. You must be fine!"

I laughed, too, also feeling a bit of relief.

"They know your going to be okay. Most everyone has been by. Tom and Jon and Todd, and Jeff and Todd and their mom. The twins came up with Eric last night, but you were still out of it. A few friends from school who were at your parties."

I asked for another drink, wishing that my mother didn't have to treat me like a baby. She was a bit blurry as we talked, and when she moved the cup away, I instinctively reached to adjust my glasses. When they weren't there, the memory of Toby mentioning them exploded across my mind's eye.

"Oh, yeah. Where's my glasses?" I asked casually.

"I don't know, hun. I haven't honestly given them any thought. Do you remember if you were wearing them?'

So, I know I had them on, no doubt. So, I must have felt them get knocked off, or maybe noticed them missing by feel. That got in the... dream is all. But where are they? Melted in the fire? Probably. Plastic lenses, but the wire frames should be there. It can't have got that hot and melted the frames, right?

I looked around the room, glad that I wasn't wearing my glasses. It was not a pleasant room, not to my tastes. I never liked greens, especially the gross, disgusting greens used in hospitals, schools, and government buildings; this room used several shades of it. Even the tiles on the floor were variegated greens. The door frames, window frames, trim, and curtains were darker shades, the walls a lighter one. The wall above my head, behind the beds, was wallpapered with an horribly ugly, patterned grayish-green that my eyes were too blurry to make out any details on. The light fixtures there were the darkest green. The sheets were light green, the blanket a darker green. Even the gown I had on; green.

"Well, don't worry. You're due for another exam and new ones anyway, okay?"

I nodded and offered a grin. Since my hands didn't find my glasses on my face, they had roamed and found the bandage around my head, from my eyebrows up. And that there was hair poking out from the bottom of it all around, except at my left temple.

"I must look like Frankenstein!"

"Not really. Just some bandages on your back and around your head. Nothing too bad, and it'll grow back, don't worry about it. Not before Toby's folks come up, but they won't mind, I don't think."

"Oh, crap! My hair! How much did they cut off?"

"Just a circle on the left side by your ear. Not much"

What the fuck did she just say?

"Wait! What about Toby's parents?"

"They're coming up next weekend. Your hair won't grow back before then, I'm sure."

"Wait. Next weekend? Like, a week from now?"



I forgot momentarily to control my volume, and when I said that so loudly I went into another coughing fit. Once it was over, and more slime was in the little bowl, she asked me, "What?" in response.

"Why didn't you say so!"

"About Toby's parents? I thought I just did," she said laughing.

"Okay. As long as I'm not bald."

We laughed again, the last of the real tension evaporating with it.

Toby's parents are coming! Shit! One week! Fuck! I wanted to, want to see them, but, shit! SHIT!


Later, someone started coughing in the bed on the other side of the curtain, and I started coughing spurred on by the neighbor's bout. Mom asked how he felt.

"Not too bad, really. The burns on my hands are hurting some, but not bad. I just feel like I have a ton of stuff in my chest," I heard Dad say.

"Pops! Cool! You okay?"

"Sure, son. Just a bit overdone, is all," he said with a small laugh as Mom slid the curtain back.

His hands were bandaged, and his face was shiny, red, and puffy. His hair was almost gone, barely a crew-cut left behind. It was hard to recognize him, and if he hadn't spoken I probably wouldn't have known it was him by sight. I felt the too-familiar feeling of tears being imminent. I sniffled and wished that I could not cry almost every day of my life. Every waking day, I corrected myself. It was hard not to feel that his injuries and pain were the direct results of saving me.

"Don't worry, son. I'll be fine. You'll be fine. The van is toast, though."

"Shit. How bad?" I asked, hoping that they might think the tears were about it.

"It's too bad to fix," he said softly.

"I'm afraid it's a real mess," Mom said, patting my arm.

I knew it would be that way: I wasn't allowed Toby, I wasn't allowed Jeff, I wasn't even allowed the van; nothing new or wonderful.

"Figures. Seems every time I get something good, I have to lose it," I said sadly, laying back and letting the pain come.

"Well, the good thing is, it was already insured. I had complete coverage on it. I was worried it might have all kinds of problems, so the insurance company will probably cut a check, and that will get a pretty nice car."

"Car? No way! A van! As close to that old heap as I can find!"

"You sure?" both my parents asked simultaneously.

I half-laughed and nodded, my eyes more than merely misty.

"Oh yeah."


"So the van is totaled?" Tom asked, still looking at his shoes.

He had arrived almost an hour ago, and Mom had left with Dad to have dinner in the cafeteria: I knew better, and I was sure that they all knew that I did. He had yet to look me in the face. I noticed that fact instantly, as I had instinctively looked to Tom's face and eyes as he walked in the door. He looked at the floor as he talked at first, before Mom and Dad had 'gone to dinner'. He did eventually take a seat in the chair furthest from my bed, and he had yet to look up from his own hands, lap, or feet since doing so.

He asked about the van, if I remembered the fire, how I felt, how bad the burns were, if I were comfortable, all the things expected from a concerned friend, but the lack of eye contact left me feeling as if Tom was no longer my closest friend; almost as if Tom were a stranger now. Clearly something had changed between us, and I had no clue as to what; except Jeff. I wanted to thank him for what he did at the van, obviously being central to saving my life, but the words wouldn't come. I found myself feeling awkward and uneasy with Tom for the first time since we had met on that late summer day four years ago.

I considered bringing up the subject of his feelings toward me and telling him what had been said about it by nearly everyone. I thought of talking about Jeff. The thoughts came again and again as I tried to keep Tom talking. I felt that Jeff had become a sore point for Tom and I, and the very last thing I wanted was to hurt him in any way.

I had been nearly constantly elated by the thoughts of Jeff and our new situation, but as this new Tom sat with me, I felt that muted to nearly nothing. I had been looking forward to and dreading Jeff's visit. I knew that it was very possible it was that very situation that had Tom in such a low funk, and I tried to come to some simple solution to it; anything to get Tom back to smiling and being himself. No words, no plans, no plots, no thousand-watt ideas came.

I finally answered with the only words that did come to me.

"Yeah. Mom says it's burned out inside, mostly. All that upholstery on the dash burned and melted the dashboard under it. Guess it's what made the little dots on my legs," I said, referring to the strange series of small, rash-like, irregular burns on my shins.

"That really sucks. I saw it getting towed. It looked okay outside."

A long silence fell between us as Tom fidgeted in his seat and looked uncomfortable.

I chewed the words over for a time, wanting so badly to say them, forcing myself to say them. I wanted to make them sound sincere, heart-felt and real, as they should have been, as I felt them, but instead they sounded ironic and sarcastic due to the mood and the way things were between us then.

"Thanks for saving my life."

"Forget it."

Forget it? And he still won't even look at me! What the fuck?

"Forget it? You fucking saved my life! And now you won't even look at me!"

I was suddenly so very angry with Tom. I didn't know why. I couldn't figure it out, or even had a clue, but it was undeniable. Tom stood up without looking at me and walked to the window. He stood there and looked through it in silence for a long time, the orange streetlights outlining him and reflecting off the glass.

Is he worried about me? He has to know I'll be fine. Are they not telling me something about me? Am I worse than Mom and Dad told me and Tom knows and can't tell me? No. No, if it was that, I'd be able to tell! Tom would be acting as normal as he could to hide what he knows. Knew. If he did. He don't. It's something else! What? Is it... is it really Jeff? Is it that? But why would he set me up with Jeff then? He knows how I feel about him! I'd forget Jeff if Tom wanted to go for it together... did I just think that? Forget Jeff if Tom wanted to go for it? Wow. Would I?

I realized that I might. I was surprised, stunned even. I considered it more. It didn't seem impossible. I discovered that I would seriously consider it.

It would be easier if Jeff and I hadn't gotten as far as we have. Now? No. I'd not dump Jeff for Tom now. I couldn't. And that's beside the point! What the fuck is going on with Tom? What? He's not looking at me! He's not talking like he does. He's just standing at the window and looking outside. He looks like fucking shit! What's got between us?

"Why? Tom! What's going on?" I asked, finally breaking the silence, hoping he knew what I was really asking.

Tom sighed, then leaned onto his hands on the small window sill as he put his forehead against the glass. I could just see a bit of his face, and it was obvious Tom was crying even if the shaking of his shoulders wasn't enough to know it.

"Tom? What the hell?"

Seeing him in tears was causing me to tear up. The fact that I didn't know why I suddenly felt like crying was aggravating and only exacerbated the situation.

"I told 'em. Jeff and the guys," he nearly whispered.

Told them what? What could Tom tell them that would be any big deal? He's got tons of my secrets, and some whoppers, but nothing so big a deal as he seems it is. He knew the biggest, and never told anyone I was gay, so what could he tell?

"What? What's the big deal? Why are you acting like this?"

"I love you."

For a moment there was nothing. By nothing, I mean there was nothing. It was as if nothing existed, not even myself. Tom wasn't, 'there', I wasn't, 'there', the hospital wasn't, 'there'; there was nothing, 'there' - but for the part of me that sensed the nothing.

Then I was back.

I choked on his words. I tried to ask ,"What?" and my lips formed the word, but my throat only allowed a short gasp through before it immediately closed tight. Tom didn't move, but to seemingly shake a bit. I tried to see him clearly, but without my glasses I knew that he was too far; the added blurriness from the oncoming spell only made it completely impossible even if I had them. I tried to voice the word again, but I felt my head swimming further from shore, and I knew the fainting spell was coming fast. I had thought that was behind me and had began to think there would be no more blackouts, or visits with, or hallucinations of, Toby.

The pain became so intense that I couldn't think. I put my hands on the sides of my head to push them together to prevent my skull from splitting apart. Only the pain in my head behind my left eye existed for the short time before everything went away in a dizzying, nausea-inducing whirl downward into blackness.


That blackness faded into gray, then shapes and colors swirled together, forming the now familiar forest glen, with Toby on his boulder, the sun slanting down through the trees. It was all close, and clear, no fog or mists to dull it.

"Sorry about last time. I guess seeing it pulled you back there," Toby apologized.

"What happened? I remember looking behind me, at that," I said, gesturing over my shoulder.

"I don't know. Maybe you ain't supposed to see it until you're all the way through it and over here. I don't know. Just don't go looking behind you is all!"

"Agreed! But, I was almost dead in the van before. I'm still that close again? Now?"

"Uh, yeah," he said sadly.

He didn't have to verify it, I could tell it easily. The colors of the sky, the trees, the grass, the flowers, all were nearly normal. I could smell them all, too, each and every one. My bare toes barely felt the grass below them.

"Then why don't I stay?" I asked, unsure that I even wanted to stay that time.

The feeling of the place was different. There was the same warm comfort, but it was shrunken by the knowledge of what was behind me. I felt tense here for the first time. And I didn't want to, couldn't, run away from Tom.

"Hey, don't bug it. It can't do anything to you. And, uh, you are in it, after all."

In it? In it?

"In it ?"

My mind went blank at that thought.

"Well, you are. You're still over there. You're still part of that side. Not much this time, again."

He waited patiently as the wheels and cogs slowly started turning again.

"This, this thing? This is life? It's not just the, the wall? The, barrier?"

I didn't know why I whispered those words, but I felt that I should do so - imperatively so.

"That," Toby said, spreading his arms a bit, gesturing at the ugly chaos behind me, "is life."

I shook on my feet.

"That," he said with emphasis and grinning widely while pointing vaguely behind me, "is the living world."

"Then, then where's the real, wall?"

"You're in it. Part way through it. It's why you can see... everything here and that."

"You look at that the whole time?"

He grinned again, like his old self.

"Heck no! I don't wanna... let's just say I don't wanna."

"Then... "

"I exist. Like we do here. After," he gestured behind me again, "there."

It makes sense, I thought as I stood there on the edge between life and afterlife.

"So, what'cha gonna do?" Toby asked.

"Ya mean, Tom?"

He nodded, looking so solemn and serious.

"Like I got a clue."

"Ha! Ya got tons a clues. Why ya gotta ignore 'em?"

"Ignore what?"

"Why ya think Tom did all that? Ya know, ta get you 'n Jeff together?"

I don't know, I thought as I noticed that I was standing on the very edge of the place again. I could clearly see the crystal clear blue sky, the green leaves of the trees around us, and the colors and shapes of the wild flowers. I could almost feel the grass between my toes as I wriggled them. The breeze blew softly from my left, stirring my bangs and long, curly hair, carrying the smells with it. The smells were strong and alluring, calling me to step just a bit closer and enjoy them in all their glory. I had gotten even closer to Toby's side.

"I can't wait for ya to join all us here. Someday."

"I'm not dead yet?" I asked, even further surprised.

"Sorta. Not really. You're goin' back, I'm sure. Too soon, too."

I stared deep into those green eyes that I so missed.

"Alex. There's, this one thing. Okay?"

His tone alerted me instantly.

"What?" I asked, seeing his seriousness and sudden sadness.

"Well. I can't give anythin' away, in case it don't go that way, but, you're gonna meet someone you ain't yet, and, he's little, just a baby, and... he's the hardest thing about, this, all this. What I did. Had to do. Coming here, now. I... just, when you meet my... brother, can, can you just, I don't know... just, tell'im, just say I'm sorry. No! Wait. Just say, don't tell him, just let him know, that, I'm watching out for him. Okay? That's all. Just let him know that?"

I knew not to ask anything else. I wanted to, very much, but I knew he had said more than he wanted to. I nodded solemnly, looking forward to meeting his brother.

"You'll know. It won't be a puzzle piece or nuttin'. You'll know when you meet him. Okay? Just remember. Okay? Even if you think I'm a dream?"

I nodded firmly. The expression he wore wasn't painful to see, but it wasn't pleasant. He intently meant his words, and it had hurt for him to pass them on to me.

"So what about the glasses?" I asked, curious as to how I would handle this with myself, testing.

"Not yet. I didn't see ya comin' this time. Tom was so, like, so unlikely to do what he did, said, to you, it, just never was likely. When they're all there with ya, and you're telling 'em somethin', then. Then look for 'em. I just never saw ya comin' before then," he shrugged in final answer.

I laughed briefly. I knew that if it was Toby, that he was well aware that I had noticed his near slip. I did want to ask, but I knew there would be no answers. It would only waste my time.

Or quite possibly our time, I began to seriously consider.

"Everyone is given someone to watch over 'em. Guardian angel, sorta. I got to be given you."

"I was lucky enough? I can't think of anyone better," I said with sincerity.

"Luck ain't got nothin' to do with it," he said, shaking his head slowly. "Jeff and Tom?" he reminded me.

I sighed and shook my head.

"Say your piece," I said, frowning.

I thought of how if I had guts there, they would be churning.

"They both love ya, ya know. Can't blame 'em. And, ya have'ta figure your future."

"My choice, ya mean, don't ya?" It was no question.

"If ya have'ta see it that way."

"How long do I have to think about it?"

"Few minutes."


"About the time you wake up, they'll both be there t'see ya. And their both gonna need to know what's gonna happen. If not, ya probably gonna lose 'em both, and, somethin', somethin' bad'll happen if you don't tell 'em very soon."

Toby was always an open book to me, I had thought I knew, so reading the veracity and depth of his concern was easy to do. His certainty of something bad happening if I didn't decide so very soon hit me hard.

"So little time! I just found out about Tom!"

"Life can be a bitch, can't it?" Toby said with his sly grin.

"Tell me!" I said, laughing, surprising myself.

I considered what I would have to do. I loved them both, I wanted them both, and I knew it was wrong. Even making them wait and wonder was wrong, I knew. They both knew the other was a rival, but they were good friends with each other, too. Tom had said that he had told them all how he felt. He told Jeff, JEFF, and the guys, that he loved me. Shit.

"But, Jeff's mom decided to stay! It would be, like, so mean to not, well, follow through. But, wait! He'd still not move, and that would make his mom and Todd happy, anyway. And I think, Jeff happy, too. Even if we didn't become, boyfriends."

I thought aloud a bit longer, and with every passing moment I became more sure, more confident, more convinced. Toby watched and listened silently, as he was so good at doing, not showing any emotions or clues to his own thoughts.

"It feels the best. And time will tell what'll happen. Maybe someone else'll come along for 'em both. Unlikely, sure. And this way there'll be no rejection for one of 'em that'll sour him against the other. We can all stay friends this way. Like it's been. Just, probably not the sex. Maybe they'll even find out each other's a good match?

"How would that be? Could I do that? Would it be okay with me if they got together? Would it? Maybe at first. If they were happy, I think I'd be happy. As long as I wasn't, shit, left out. Shit! Shit!

"Fuck, but I can't be one of the guys leaving the other out. I won't be. All or nothing, and I can't have all. Nobody can. So nothing. Just nothing. No-thing.

"And it doesn't really hurt," I said, surprised again.

He looked hurt and worried.

"Not here, Al. Not here. But it's gonna."

"Oh, shit."

I felt tugged by buffeting winds, the sky, trees, his boulder, even Toby, it all grew distant and hazy so rapidly that I couldn't even say goodbye.


I opened my eyes knowing where I was before doing so. I reached to touch my aching head, but my hand was grabbed and held.

"Don't touch, okay? Needs to heal."

"What this time," I asked softly.

Each word sent throbbing pulses into my skull. The actual vibrations of my vocal chords seemed to set up a painful vibration in my entire skull.

"The doctor said the capillaries are so small in the brain, it's hard to see 'em, let alone find damaged ones, but he's pretty sure his got it. He's been keeping a close eye on you. And more x-rays and the likes. But you're gonna be fine, now."

She had clasped my hand as she spoke and now held it to her lips.

"Then why do you look so scared," I whispered, feeling my own fear increasing.

"I'm a mom, I'm allowed," she said, her eyes growing visibly moist.

"Like listening to my phone calls?" I chided, smiling at her.

She coughed a laugh and smiled wider. She ran her hand up and down my arm.

"Good to see you're snappy comebacks are still there."

I smiled and tried to get more comfortable. The burns on my back and right side no longer bothered me as much. The pain was more an itch, so was far more irritating than painful. My head was the major provider of pain and discomfort at the moment, but everything seemed so remote that I hardly cared.

"How long?"

"What, dear?"

"What day is it?"

"Tuesday, hon."

Tuesday? What day was it when I was awake, before? Friday, right? I was gonna miss the Circle meeting. And it was four days of school I missed. Now it's Tuesday? Two more days of school missed! And four more days and all I got was a few minutes with... thinking about Toby?

"Four days?"

She nodded.

"Tom was so worried, I got worried about him! He felt like he caused it, poor thing."

"Mom, he did. Didn't he tell you?"

"I've tried to tell him it wasn't his fault."

"It is, how he sees it. He hit me with the snow blower, then makes my head explode when I'm in the hospital from almost burning to... almost, dying. Then he says... that. Yeah."

I knew how Tom must see it.

"Son, son, son. What are we gonna do with you?" Dad asked.

"How are you doing?"

"I'll be fine. How're you feeling?" he asked as he sat up on the side of his bed.

He was connected to a heart monitoring machine, but was otherwise unhindered. I, on the other hand, had a pint of blood and a bag of clear fluid going into one arm, and a glass container and a plastic bag dripping into the other. I was also wired to the same kind of heart monitor as Dad, plus I had the oxygen tube in my nose. And the catheter. And I knew I wasn't going to be moving for a while. I hardly felt the pains, let alone my body or much emotion.

"It burns some on my back and shoulders, and my head is killing me, but I guess okay."

"That's good, but it's not what I mean, and I think you know it," he said sternly, glaring at me.

"Oh, geeze. Not now, okay? I just freaking woke up."

"Agreed, you get an extension. But we're going to have a talk sooner or later. And we're in the same room, twenty-four seven, and your mom as well," he warned me.

"Oh, geeze... " I groaned in dread.


"You got visitors, guys," a nurse said, sticking her head in the door. "Feel like a few?"

"Sure. Tell Tom and Jeff and them to come in."

Both my parents looked to each other questioningly as Tom and Jon, Jeff, Todd, and their mother walked in. Greetings were exchanged, in that nervous, kids-in-the-hospital way, and the doctor made an appearance to assure me and my parents that he had found and stopped the offending blood vessel. When I asked if I was likely to have any more blackouts, if I should somehow become very agitated again, the doctor said that it was entirely unlikely.

"The problem was your blood pressure. It would shoot up, causing the damaged vessel to press against the main one it's positioned along. Now that it's taken care of, there's no chance of that happening again. The vessel would swell, cutting off the blood through the main artery, restricting blood flow to areas of your brain. When your brain wasn't getting the oxygen it needed, it shut down, causing your unconsciousness. Once your pressure fell again, the swollen vessel receded, and blood was restored to areas of your left brain, you would wake up. Now, there's no chance of that happening again."

"So I won't be passing out again? Ever?" I asked.

"Not from that. You sound disappointed," the doctor said teasingly, smiling.

I was, and it was a disappointment. I wondered how I'd get that promised last visit to talk about the glasses.

The glasses! I need to find them! Toby, or me, hinted it would show something! Something important. And they're all here that I want to talk about over Tom and Jeff. I can't believe they all walked in like that! Everyone I wanted to talk about it with just strolls in! Except Jon and Todd, but it's cool with me they're here, anyway. Otherwise, it was like everybody was right there like I ordered them from a waiter or something.

The doctor offered a few more platitudes to us before he excused himself. As he left I saw everyone around me, and I decided I had to tell them all of my decision. Since all the involved parties were there, I wanted to do it then. I knew it would be much harder doing it one at a time, or later, and I knew I had little time to prevent something awful from happening. There was also an insistent urging to do so; the time was right, I felt.

I asked everyone to let me talk for a bit without interrupting, and to just listen to me. They immediately became very serious and intent.

"I don't know how to start, or where, or with what," I said with a shrug. "So, I guess I should just tell you my decision."

I heard my own voice, listening to myself for the first time since I'd woken, and it did not sound like me. My voice sounded heavier, deeper, rougher, and stronger.

I saw both of my parents, seated on the other bed, look to each other. Dad looked the worse for wear, what with most of his hair gone, but his face was nearly normal again. Mom clearly needed rest. Her darkly rimmed eyes told much, but it was her thinness that told the most. Jeff, Todd, and their mother were in chairs at the foot of my bed. Todd looked lost, as if he stared at strangers. Jeff, who I had not seen since he had left me at my front door over a week ago, looked worried and confused, to begin with. I could see fear there, too, and sleeplessness. I knew why he hadn't been up to see me. His bright blue eyes seemed dull and dark, not just from the dark circles around them, either. He and I rarely met eyes, one or the other glancing away immediately. Their mother also showed some worry, concern, and fear, but I could see her trying to hide it. I wondered how she saw the events of the van. I wondered how it had affected her, and her decision about her son - and me. Tom was between my bed and the window, near to where he had made his tearful confession, his older brother sitting next to him. Tom also looked worn and tired. His usually dark eyes seemed like empty holes in his pale face. Again he was not meeting my eyes. I felt my sorrow and heartache increasing, threatening my control of my voice. Knowing it was coming, I nevertheless gathered my thoughts and my breath and began.

I had to have them both back.

"Jeff, Tom, I can't choose between you. Jeff, Tom told me he, he just told me, and you were right. And I can't do this with you, not when it's like this. I hope you understand that."

There, the worst was done, and it had hurt as much as I dreaded. I feel like a complete pussy for crying, and an even more complete asshole.

Jeff blanched and appeared to deflate, sitting back in the small chair with his arms hanging loosely in his lap. I hated that I had just hurt him, but I knew it was a lesser hurt than it would have been at a later time. And it prevented something even worse from happening, like Toby had said; and I believed. That didn't help much, though.

"If I go ahead with you, Jeff, it will hurt Tom, and I won't do that. And I can't dump you, Jeff, not even for Tom. That would be the same."

"Alex!" Tom exclaimed. "I did all that so you and Jeff could... could, ya know?"

"I know. And I can't thank you enough. You're probably one of the best friends in the history of friends. But, I can't pretend you don't, don't feel like you do. And if I try with Jeff, it's gonna so get in the way! And I'm gonna have real problems with it, ya know?"

I hoped that my new ability to talk even while crying wouldn't be needed in future, but I was glad I had developed it, and I hoped it wasn't due to the drugs; I knew I could very much use such an ability if my life became what I saw it becoming then.

"I knew I shouldn't of told!" Tom said, obviously growing upset.

Jon patted his back, looking hurt himself.

"Yes you should have! And a lot sooner, ya basss... dummy," I said, changing words after a quick glance at my parents. "I know this stinks, but what can I do? I never knew, Tom, honest. I thought, well, you know. Jeff and some of the guys tried to tell me, but I thought I knew you better than any of them. If you had ever just said something, it would've, maybe been different."

I began tearing up, and Mom came to sit on the bed next to me and take my hand in hers. Tom began to shiver visibly in his seat, his arms wrapped around himself. He put both hands over his face and shook a bit.

"Tom, I'm so sorry, you know?" I choked out past the tears.

"I know. It's my own fucking fault!" he said from behind his hands. "I shouldn't've never have fucking said anything! You could have just been happy with Jeff!"

"No, no way, Tom. When I found out later, it would have been way worse! Nothing would have been worse!" I said loudly, making my head pulse with each word.

Mom made her shoulder available and I accepted the offer. Jeff's eyes were glistening as he held both of his arms across his chest. His face was red, his lips were pulled down into a frown and quivering.

"Can you see, Jeff? Do you know why it has to be like this?" I asked, wiping at my eyes.

Jeff nodded in response before his brother leaned over and put both of his arms around him and his face in Jeff's chest. Jeff pulled his arms from between himself and his brother, putting them over Todd's shoulders as he bent over his little brother. His mother ran her hand over his hair and held his arm with her other hand.

"I know you might see this is Tom's fault, but it isn't. I should have seen it and didn't. He knew I was liking Jeff, and he didn't wanna ruin that for me. For me. How long, Tom? A year? Two? Since Jeff moved here?"

"Almost since we moved here," Tom said from behind his hands still.

"Why didn't you ever say anything? I told you I was gay, you figured it out, why didn't you tell me?"

"Because you liked Jeff. I was going to, when school started, but then, you, you found Jeff."

I thought back as hard as I could to the day I had told Tom about myself. I had just talked about Jeff, I remembered.

"My fault again. I told you how I liked Jeff, then told you why, and you couldn't tell me after. Ever. I see it. I've been torturing you ever since!" I cried out and sobbed harshly onto my mom's shoulder.

I hurt everywhere; inside and out. My muscles complained at the activity, my bones ached, my head throbbed, the burns on my back screamed murder at any movement, and my insides heaved with emotion.

"It wasn't torture!" Tom almost screamed in response.

Jon calmed him with, "Easy, bro, easy," as he forcibly squeezed Tom's shoulders with his long arm.

This is fucking horrible! Why am I doomed to this shit? When do I get the one? When do I get to have the good stuff for more than a time to get to miss it when it goes? What did I ever do? And how can I have missed Tom's feelings? I'd rather be stuck being tortured like I thought I was than this! Is this my new hell?

I had no idea how much time had passed in silence before I spoke again.

"I thought I had some tough times before, but this is the worst thing I've ever had to do. I like you both, so much. But I can't make one wait or be alone and choose the other. How could I? That'd be so much worse than this. And I won't let either one of you be hurt anymore than I have to do to do this!"

And whatever Toby had hinted at would happen, I thought to myself. What would happen if I chose one? After a trauma like a friend nearly burning to death, they both got a lot of emotions involved in this right now. Tom the most, since he's known me the most, but maybe Jeff the most, since we were so close to it. But how can I make one feel rejected? There's no way!

"We'll move and you and Tom can-" Jeff started to say from between his brother and mother.

"Hell no! I want you here! I fought to keep you here! I want us all to be friends! If I pick one, the other will have a hard time even being around us. Like Tom's was that day. I wondered what was bothering you, Tom. You tried to hide it, but, you didn't do a real good job."

"What if I say you and Jeff should be together! You know I can't tell my folks, anyway!" Tom offered, finally lifting his face to meet mine.

I had seen Tom cry before; when his uncle had died, and again later when his dog had died, but I had never seen Tom crying because of me, or something I had done or said. That made it even worse to see. The horror at causing the same thing to Tom that I had done to Jeff gripped me.

I make nothing but pain for anyone I care about! But it stops now! 

"Like it would make it better, huh?" I asked Tom simply. "I would hurt knowing it. You'd hurt because of it. Jeff would, too. Me and Jeff might be happy, but not really. Not knowing every time we rode the bus you would have to see us together, or when we went somewhere and did stuff together, we'd be leaving you out. And you'd have to deal with that. And so would we. And I know I don't want that. Jeff? You?"

"I want to do this with you. Really! But, if Tom feels like I do... I don't know how I would take it if you and, he... " Jeff nearly finished the sentence before his emotions choked him up.

"What I thought. So, everyone sees?" I asked, wiping my eyes and shuddering as the emotions waned ever so slightly.

No one answered, and in that lack of response I knew their answers.

"What are the odds?" I asked, laughing and crying. "I have two best friends, both gay, and I can't be with either one!"

Tom fidgeted in his seat looking terribly uncomfortable and awkward. Jeff and his brother and mother were still a huddled pile of sadness. Mom and Dad both looked as if they could cry, or wanted to, yet smiled.

"I've never seen anything like it," Jeff's mother answered. "I knew you had more than I suspected that day in the apartment, but this, this is... " she shook her head, unable to find the right word.

"This is just right," I answered her.

She turned to her eldest son and forced his face up to meet hers. His crying face and the hurt evident there caused me to loose it in grief and pain at what I had caused.

"Jeff, honey. Do you want to stay? We can move if you think it'd be better?"

"No! I don't care so much if, if what I thought, if... " he ,too, was at a loss for what to say. He looked at me and met my eyes. "I don't want to move. Not just because of Alex, either. We stayed here longer than most places, and we all got friends and stuff. And you like it here, too, Mom. Let's not move, okay?" he said, wiping his eyes and then meeting her gaze.

"Don't," Todd said softly into Jeff's chest. "Don't move."

"We won't, honey. We'll stay. And you both had better pay attention to Alex, here. If you can pick up a bit of his guts and, and whatever it is, I'll be grateful to him. I always thought, that, gays were degenerates. They didn't have values, or decency. If other gays are like him, and, and... and you, Jeff, honey, then I was so wrong. And you, too, Tom. To stand beside him like that, doing so much to make him and Jeff get together, while, feeling like you do. It's, remarkable," she said, wiping at her eyes.

"He is remarkable. So's Jeff. I got so lucky to meet them, both of 'em. All of 'em."

"Luck ain't got nothin' to do with it." I heard Toby say again.

I grinned despite myself for a moment.

"Alex, honey, if you think that van fire was, if you think that was punishment for being gay, then I think you're wrong. In case that's going through your mind. It was just something that happened, is all."

I knew why she would think that, and how I might think so, after threatening me with hellfire and damnation at her apartment. I had considered it, even believed it for a short time, but I didn't feel that it was right. Not after seeing what I had seen, or dreamt, or not. I seemed to know the two things were unrelated to each other in that regard; they were just two separate clumps of random chaos among the infinite stretches of existence. I had no fears of that.

I gently pulled away from Mom and nodded toward Dad using only my eyes, hinting she should rejoin him there. She blinked and smiled every so slightly, kissing me on the forehead as she got up. I marveled at how easy that silent communication was, and how it was seemingly known by everyone, but we never spoke of it, or taught it with words.

"Nothing ever happens without a reason. We might not know the reason, or ever understand why, but there's always a reason. I might deserve punished for some things, sure, but not the way I am. If God punished me for that, he's punishing me for the way he made me. No. That fire wasn't my punishment for being... gay. And I don't believe he punishes anyone for things. Not... here. I don't know if I'll ever know why the van caught fire, other than it was leaking gas, and maybe that's the only reason it happened. But it wasn't punishment. All it taught me is that Tom and Dad saved my life. I can see that much clearly, even without my glasses."

"Here," Jeff said, holding out a black, blurry object. "Tom found them, said I should give them to you." he said, never looking up.

His mother took it and passed it to Mom who handed it to me: My wallet and an apparently brand new glasses case. My wallet smelled awful. Inside the license was safe and sound. I didn't that know I was worried about it until I saw it. Inside the glasses case, after opening the stiff lid, were my glasses. The slightly damaged temple piece made it obvious that they were mine even though both lenses were foggy and milky. They were obviously useless, and I wondered why Jeff had them if Tom had found them, as well as why he had bothered to bring them, let alone put them in a case.

"What the hell?" I asked, holding the useless things up before me. "And why a new case for 'em?"

"Thought, in case, is all," Jeff said softly, curling a lip.

"In case. Good one. But why?"

"I meant, not," he sighed and finally looked up. "I meant, it was in case, you didn't, if you, got worse, or something."

He looked back down after speaking; his horror at the thoughts behind his words was clear to see.

He was going to keep them if I died?

I shivered, but not in such a bad way. The blinking and dizziness as those incredible thoughts began was much more bothersome.

Or was he going to put them in my coffin with me?

Does it matter which?

"What the hell?" I asked again, referring to more than one question, statement, or thought, and put them on.

The view through the milky, heat-ruined lenses instantly reminded me of the visions of Toby. The white, hazed lenses blurred and distorted as well as put a white fog in front of everything. Mom and Dad were close enough that I could tell it was them, but barely. They seemed to tower over the room like the wall of trees in the visits with Toby, protectors of his quiet glen. Jeff, Todd, and their mom at the foot of the bed, huddled as they were, formed a blurry outline that resembled the boulder that Toby had always been sitting on. The picture above them was of trees and a river, mountains in the distance, but I only knew that and couldn't see it. To my left, sitting as close as my parents, Tom was fairly recognizable as well. The sun was shining in from behind him, haloing him, leaving his older brother in shadow. The sun threw his shadow onto my bed, stretching out across it and me like the shadow of the tall, protective tree in Toby's glen. I looked around and saw how the white fog lessened the horrible greens in the room to a faint green outline, again as in the visitations from Toby. I grinned. Reluctantly, worried that I might vanish when I did so, I looked at the wall behind me and the beds. That wall was the closest thing to me in the room, and I could make it out fairly clearly. I saw that it was papered with a wild, chaotic, swirling pattern of greens and grays.

The pieces started falling into place without my trying.

The room shifted. No, I did. Again. There was a blurry feeling in my body and my mind, then when it cleared, everything seemed different. I felt that I were facing a different direction. The closest I could come to understanding the strangeness was to compare it to facing the wrong direction - feeling as if I were facing north, but knowing I was facing south. Or perhaps watching a sunset in the east. At least being able to label or categorize the sensation removed some of the mystique, diminishing some of the fear of it. That did not remove the simple fact that things were different.

Here, where I am now, in this place, both of them love me as my close friend, as a best friend, but only one of them loves me as a... lover, and I was going to find out who by simply watching. As if I don't already know, now. Thanks Toby.

"Are you okay, hun?" Mom's voice called. "Alex? Honey?"


That's right, my name is Alex here.

"I asked if you're okay. You seemed, like you were distant. I thought you might be having a spell, or something."

"No. No spell."

I looked at her and Dad and smiled, letting them know I was fine. I looked at Jeff, still huddled with Todd and his mother, then at Tom and his brother. I knew them all for who they were, and I knew who I was. Finally. Another section of the puzzle was done, many other sections of the puzzle left to do, it felt.

"When I get out of here, Friday, there's gonna be another talk, Jeff, Tom. You guys get me?"

They all looked at me, and they all looked confused and curious, but only Tom and Jeff nodded.

"The doctor was talking Monday next, maybe," Mom said.

"Nothing ever happens without a reason. And even chaos isn't random. Not everything happens like planned, but even the weirdest things have a reason to happen. And sometimes you just have to wait to get the right piece of the puzzle to understand why. And I'll be home Friday."

Their question was obvious, and I knew they were all thinking the same one.

"Right now I don't understand. I just know I'm missing something. These," I said, pointing at the glasses as I wore them, "are the only proof I needed. The puzzle piece fits, and so do a bunch of others. And, we just need to have a talk, just the three of us. After the rest of the pieces come together."

I took off the glasses, grinning slightly, and put them away. I was looking forward to seeing Toby again despite what the doctor said.

A Perfect Circle