"Dude, they all keep looking at you."
I follow Travis' gaze and see the morning crowd of students whispering in their cliques and pointing at me. It's happened a lot in the last two weeks, ever since the shower incident. They know who I am now, at least, and what's better is I've been able to shower every day without worrying about it. Having done it once, the other times didn't take much courage at all. And as an extra bonus, I smell nice. Isn't that lovely?
"Maybe I should just try the paint thing again," I reply, smirking. "At least I know I'll have an audience."
"Yeah, I don't know about that. I think Coach Peterson put a stop to them staring last time when Johnny and Kevin joined you."
"I honestly thought it would take longer than a couple weeks to get other people to join in. Usually the first person to follow has to be as crazy as the leader."
"Maybe it's because they both decided to join you at the same time?" Travis suggests. "They're good friends, after all."
"Maybe." I glance at Travis and my smirk transforms to a grin. "And when are you going to start showering after gym?"
He raises his hands slightly and says, "Hey now, don't get any ideas. No one wants to see this skinny ass."
I gasp, and he gives me a funny look, so I drape my arm over his shoulder and say, "I'm so proud of you. You said ass."
He snorts and pushes me off him playfully. "What do you know? I guess I did. You must be rubbing off on me."
"Maybe there's hope for you, yet. And for the record," I pause for effect, wiggling my eyebrows suggestively, "I totally wouldn't mind looking at your ass."
He rolls his eyes, but there is a hint of color in his cheeks. "Well, you're gay. I guess it comes with the territory."
"Not always. There's a lot of guys I wouldn't want to see. But you're my best friend, so I guess it's because I already sort of like you."
"There was the sleepover incident, so I can totally believe that. Plus, you kind of have a crush on me, don't you? I mean, that's why you always jack off when I'm at your house, right?"
"How did you know that?" I ask, raising my eyebrows and taking a step back. "I'm not loud, am I?"
"No. But I can tell. You leave the room with a hard-on and come back soft."
I laugh. "I didn't know you were paying attention."
Travis shrugs and replies, "Well, I am bi..."
"So, you're coming to terms with that, huh?" I ask. For the past two weeks he's resisted defining himself by that label, and I'm not saying he should define himself, but I'm glad he's learning more about who he is.
"Yeah," Travis says softly. Then he grins at me and adds, "I still don't think I'm ready to do anything with a guy, yet, though, so your crush on me will have to wait."
"It's just a friend crush, I think," I reply. "I totally do jack off when you're there, though. Maybe it's because I don't want to risk trying something on you again just because my hormones get out of control?"
"I'm kind of surprised you'd admit it."
"Do you know me?" I ask, chuckling when he blushes and looks away. "I don't like hiding anything from you. I'd rather we felt comfortable with each other, and I feel the showering thing helps break down those barriers, which is probably why I'm hoping you'll join in sometime."
Travis is quiet for a moment, considering those words. We walk in silence until we reach our lockers, and I pause next to his as he looks up at me and says, "Maybe we can go skinny dipping sometime, then."
"You mean it?" I ask, with Travis levels of eagerness.
"Sure," He replies, somehow sounding confident while blushing bright red. "School is where I don't want to be naked."
"Fine. When are we going skinny dipping then?"
"How about next summer?"
"I have to wait that long?"
"Dude, it's freezing. It's autumn now. Halloween is next week!" Travis shakes his head in bewilderment. "Where would we even go?"
"Good point," I reply. I'm about to suggest we could always skinny dip in my bathtub so I can get a look at his skinny ass when my phone vibrates in my pocket. "Hang on, I just got a text."
"Who's it from?" Travis asks as I pull my phone out.
"Donny," I reply, looking at my phone. "Maybe he's coming back today?" I slide open my phone and read: Hey Clint. Could you come to the office? Thanks! Donny. "Looks like he needs me," I say, looking up from my phone to Travis' face. "Do you mind if I leave you here?"
"Not at all," He says, then he catches my arm as I turn away. "Hey, we still on for that sleepover this Friday?"
After leaving Travis, I send a quick response to Donny. On my way. When I look up from my phone again I almost walk straight into someone else, and I start apologizing until I realize who it is. Sheila Niven, back in school after a week and a half of suspension, and she looks happy as hell to see me.
By that I mean she looks like a demon, and she's breathing fire as she gets in my face. "Hey faggot, watch where you're-"
"You got something to say, Sheila?" Angie says, coming up from my right. Sheila stops short, and pulls back, giving a sharp upward nod as she punches her palm and walks the other direction.
"Thanks, Angie," I say, turning toward her with a tone of awe. "How are you always in the right place at the right time?"
"I was actually coming to see you at your locker," Angie says, frowning as he watches Sheila walk away. "I wanted to ask you something."
"Can it wait until after school?" I ask, holding up my phone as if it will explain my urgency to go elsewhere. "I need to stop by the office. Apparently Donny's here."
Angie shrugs and says, "Yeah, sure." I nod and start walking away, but she catches my arm and asks, "Hey, are you still mad at me?"
"For what?" I reply, scratching my head.
She shakes her head and lets me go. "Never mind. I'll talk to you after school."
What was that about? What do I have to be mad about? In the past few weeks, Angie has been amazing. Not only did she stand up to Brent for me, but she also utterly destroyed Sheila when she hassled me in front of the school. It's something I planned on handling on my own timetable, but Angie saved me a lot of trouble with Sheila, and I'm incredibly grateful for that. Am I still mad at her? What kind of question is that?
I decide I'll never understand women and thank the universe I'm gay and don't have to. Then, with the gods appeased, I continue on to the office. At least I have a good friend waiting for me there to distract me from my weird sister.
As soon as I step through the door, the secretary, Mr. Richardson, I believe, looks over at me and asks, "Clinton Fjeldsted?"
"Perfect," he replies, then gestures with his open hand to one of the chairs along the wall just inside the door. I look over and see Donny sitting there, a boot over his cast and a pair of crutches leaning against the chair next to him, and his backpack sitting in the chair on the other side. He's lost some weight, and his tan has faded slightly, but he smiles when he sees me. "Donovan Sharpe asked for you by name, and said we could expect you to come expediently," Mr. Richardson continues. "He's going to need someone to carry his backpack for him over the next few weeks while he's recovering, and he says you're the only one he trusts to help him."
"Hey, Donny," I say, waving to him before turning back to Mr. Richardson. "Yeah, I'd be happy to help. So, do I just escort him to class and all that?"
"That's it. We'll notify your teachers that you'll likely be late to class and will have to leave early to meet up with Donovan, but we would appreciate you doing this for him." Mr. Richardson points at my cast and smiles politely. "If you can manage two backpacks with your cast, anyway."
I nod quickly. "I can, especially since I'll only have to manage for another week. The doctor says I can get it cut off next Monday."
"Perfect. I'll leave you to it, then."
I walk over to Donny and lean over him, wrapping him in as good a hug as I can manage as I say, "Welcome back."
"Hey, careful," Donny says, wincing when I pull away. "Sorry, I bruised my collarbone in the accident, too. It's still tender. It's the whole reason I need someone to carry my backpack."
"I'm just glad you're back," I say, smiling wide. "I was worried you wouldn't come."
"Yeah, well, my parents weren't going to let me go to school in Springville just because I was scared of the other students."
"I'm glad they didn't let you run."
Donny snorts. "I couldn't run if I wanted to."
"I guess not," I say, grinning at Donny's joke at his own expense. After handing the crutches to Donny, I pick up his backpack with my right arm and ask, "So, what's your first class?"
"English. Second floor, room 236."
"I'm not familiar with that section. What side of the school is it on?"
"The east side. Just follow me."
Donny uses the armrests to stand from his chair, balancing awkwardly on his good leg and the boot until he gets the crutches fully under him. He looks at me and grins, "No wisecrack about me being too slow to lead?"
"Nah. I figured you'd rather be left alone," I say, opening the office door and let him walk out into the hall. Instantly the nearby students look at us, giving us their full attention. It's the typical response to seeing someone on crutches, especially if they're a school celebrity. Especially if they're walking with a student who's recently become a small celebrity, like I have."
"From the stares we're getting, I'd rather be distracted," Donny says quietly. "I don't like how they're looking at me. It's like they're undressing me with their eyes."
Although I don't entirely believe it, I say, "It might be me they're looking at."
"Why is that?"
I chuckle lightly and say, "I've started a new trend since you've been gone."
"Yeah. I started showering in gym. There's three of us doing it now, and I heard talk of other people joining in. Right now it's just in our class, but..." I shrug. There's nothing else really to explain about it except one last thought. "I was the first one to do it, though."
Donny pauses in his movement to catch his breath, and he looks at me with awe. "That takes some courage, dude. Fuck, no one showers at our school, except the sports teams after practice, and even then some of the guys skip out."
"Yeah..." I shrug awkwardly. The look Donny is giving me makes me a little uncomfortable. Now he's the one undressing me with his eyes, and considering our history, I'm not sure how I feel about that.
"And all because of you, huh?" Donny asks, looking me up and down.
"So, they're not undressing us with their eyes, they're remembering what you look like undressed?" Donny asks, chuckling as he looks away. I breathe out a sigh of relief I hadn't realized I was holding. Maybe Donny really wasn't looking at me that way, and I imagined it all. I sure hope so.
"If they want to, it doesn't really bother me." I reply, though with more uncertainty than I'm used to.
"Really?" Donny asks.
"I'm a nudist at heart, to tell you the complete truth. I don't see what the big deal is, especially in being naked around other guys. We all have the same stuff."
"Yeah, but some are big and some are small."
Donny gives me a funny look, but then doesn't immediately respond as we've reached the stairs. He starts up them slowly, taking them one at a time and making sure he's fully balanced on each stair before starting up to the next one. I stay behind him slightly, ready to catch him if he starts falling backward, but he eventually makes it up without any problems.
The climb upstairs gave him time to think about his response, and he turns to me and asks, "Isn't size important to you? Don't you compare?"
"I thought that's what trucks were for," I say, chuckling. Donny's expression remains unchanged, however, so I give him a more serious answer. "No, I don't give a shit what the size of a guy's package is, or whether it's bigger or smaller than mine, and I hope the guy I fall in love with doesn't care, either."
"Well, from what I felt, I don't think you have much to worry about anyway," Donny says, winking at me before turning down the hallway and moving ahead of me.
I don't follow right away, instead standing open-mouthed at the top of the stairs, reliving the moment of helplessness when Donny copped a feel on me. Donny looks back at me, raising a questioning eyebrow, and I shake myself back to reality before following after him.
We go a short distance before Donny glances at me nervously and asks, "Sorry, was that inappropriate?"
"A little, but I can live with it," I say, though I'm not sure I believe that. Thankfully, I don't have to think about it for long, as we reach room 236. "Here's your class," I say, opening the door for Donny and letting him walk inside. Following him to his desk, I set his backpack down next to him and smile before turning away from him.
"Thanks, Clint," Donny says. "See you in a bit?"
"Yep. Next period," I reply, smiling politely. "We have gym today."
Donny's eyes drop below my waist for a moment, and then back up. "That we do," he says softly. My body stiffens, and I close my eyes, wishing to be anywhere else in that moment. I have to address this now, before it grows out of hand.
I turn back to him, my palms pressed together as well as my cast will allow in a pleading stance. "Donny. I've thought about this a lot, and I want you to know I'm not saying this to be rude, but I have to tell you. I think I'm a better friend to you than I'll ever be a boyfriend. I hope you'll understand."
"Does that mean I can't flirt with you anymore?" Donny asks.
"You can try," I reply, grimacing. "But maybe tone it down a notch." I start to turn and then realize it's not good enough. No, this may be an uncomfortable subject, but I have to make myself clear. "Actually, Donny, no. Please don't flirt with me. It's not that I'm not flattered, it's that the only thing I can remember every time you say something like that is how helpless I felt when you wouldn't take 'no' for an answer."
Donny recoils as if I'd struck him, and he looks sick to his stomach as he looks away from me and says, "Sorry, Clint. I'll stop, I promise. Honestly, I was just trying to be friendly... I didn't know it was bothering you."
"It's okay," I reply, rapping on his desk with my knuckles before turning away. "I'll see you at the end of the period."
Donny doesn't make a single remark about me or my body on the way to gym. He doesn't look at me like I'm an object for his fantasies, or that the thought of my naked body fulfills his lusts. For the first time since he took me up that mountain, I don't feel uncomfortable around him. Speaking up to him is the best thing I've done all day, and I'm at peace once again.
I'm thinking part of Donny's change of heart probably has nothing to do with me. He's distracted, and I don't know why, but as we walk into the gym he's looking everywhere, for whom I'm not quite certain. At least until he leans against the wall and hangs his head, staring at the floor.
"Brent's not here," he whispers.
"Yeah?" I ask.
"I can't find him anywhere. I haven't seen him all day."
"He hasn't missed any other days that I've noticed, and he's come to gym every time," I offer, though I'm not sure how that knowledge helps Donny. From the hurt look Donny gives me, it doesn't.
"I looked for him in our usual spot when I came in the building this morning. Something's up."
"Maybe it's nothing." I shrug, hoping to give him some level of comfort. "He could just be sick today."
"I sent him a text last night, telling him this would be my first day back."
"He's my best friend, Clint." Donny sniffs, and I notice the moisture in his eyes for the first time. "At least he was."
I put a consoling hand on Donny's shoulder and give it a gently squeeze. "Give him some time. Not everyone embraces change easily."
"Yeah, but now I'm scared he really did tell everyone."
"Maybe. But what can you do about that now?" I ask.
"Nothing I guess."
"There you are, Clint!" Travis says, coming up on my left side and acknowledging Donny with a nod. "I've been looking everywhere for you!"
"Hey, Trav." I give him a quick, one-armed hug and then nod back to Donny. "Sorry, I'm Donny's new caddy. I carry his clubs for him now."
"His clubs or just the one?" Travis asks before staring openly at Donny's crotch.
"Travis, did you just make a dirty joke?" I ask, awestruck. This new Travis is starting to grow on me.
Travis nods proudly but keeps his eyes focused on the space between Donny's legs. "Yep."
"Wow, you really are loosening up, huh?" I ask, laughing.
"Loosening up is the first step to the real fun. It makes it easier to fit the clubs in the hole," Donny says deadpan. He breaks into a huge grin when Travis stares at him in confusion.
"Donny!" I howl, laughing.
"What?" Travis asks, shaking his head. "I don't get it."
"It's 'cause you're not gay," Donny says, shrugging.
Travis and I share a knowing look before he says, "Thank God for that. Then Clint would be all over me."
I shrug and reply, "Yeah, probably."
"You guys are that comfortable with each other?" Donny asks, looking between Travis and me with obvious surprise.
"Why not?" I ask. "Beats the other options."
"A long time has passed since Brent and I talked like that. Years even. We've had tension between us since..." Donny trails off and shakes his head.
"Something bothering you, Donny?" I ask.
"It's nothing. Just remembering things."
I give his shoulder a final squeeze just as the late bell for class rings. "He'll come around, don't worry."
A shrill whistle draws our attention to the front of the gym where Coach Peterson is standing beside an EMT behind a long table arranged with an assortment of medical supplies. "All right, everyone," Coach Peterson says, waving us toward him. "This is a no dress day, so set your stuff down and gather over here. The county has asked us to do a basic first aid training related to sports injuries, and today's the day."
"Damn," Donny sighs.
"What?" Travis asks.
"My first day back after Clint started getting naked in gym, and I don't even get to see it?"
Gym passed slowly today, and I don't think I'll remember any of it. First aid is not among my natural talents, and I doubt I'd be of much use in an emergency situation unless you need me to boil water. Thankfully there wasn't a test, and we still ended early enough to get to the lunchroom ahead of most of the other students, even with Donny's hampered movement.
Donny sits down at one of the tables and I leave our stuff with him before walking over to the lunch line with Travis. I have a special note with me which I pass to the monitor, and she hands me an extra tray for Donny. As the line reaches the window and we start making our selection for the day, Travis breaks the silence between us.
"Clint, I won't be able to sleep over on Friday after all."
"What?" I ask, turning to him in surprise. "Why not?"
Travis coughs and then says, "I have a date."
"Really? With whom?" I ask, excited. I know I've built up this idea that I'm attracted to Travis, and even though that's true, I'm really happy for him. Travis deserves to date a lot more often than he has.
He looks away from me and blushes. "I can't tell you."
"Oh, come on..."
I sigh and focus on getting food for me and Donny, then lead the way back to the table with Travis in tow. As we reach the table, I glare at Travis and say, "You're just trying to get me back for withholding my sexuality from you."
"No I'm not," Travis replies, shaking his head firmly as he sets his tray down. "I just can't-"
"They're watching me," Donny says abruptly, interrupting Travis. He doesn't even seem to notice we're there, as he's staring across the lunchroom at the table where a significant number of football players are sitting. Donny isn't imagining things, either. Several of them are looking at us, and they aren't smiling.
"Probably because you didn't even try to sit with them," I say, taking my seat next to Travis and across from Donny.
"Maybe. Or it's because they're talking about me."
"You are overthinking this way more than you should be."
Donny gives me a hard look. "They're my friends, Clint."
I return his gaze with equal intensity. "And if they really are, then they'll be there for you, and they won't believe shit until they hear the full story."
"Clint's right, you know," Travis offers. "He's got the friendship thing down."
I nod appreciatively at Travis and say, "Thanks, Travis."
"Don't mention it."
"Still..." Donny says, glancing back at his teammates.
A shadow passes over the edge of the table, and all three of us turn to see a guy my age standing there. He seems familiar from somewhere, though I can't entirely figure out where. Oh, that's right. He was standing in the crowd when Angie put Sheila in the dirt. But I feel like I should know him from somewhere else, too. Before I can think about it further, the guy opens his smiling mouth and says, "Hey, I don't mean to interrupt, but my friends and I over there were wondering..." he nods to a table a short distance away, where I only vaguely recognize another of the kids sitting there. I do know they're almost all freshmen, though. "You're Clint Fjeldsted, right?"
"Guilty as charged," I reply with a bow.
"They said it was the one with the pink cast," he replies, grinning. Now I know where I've seen him before. He's one of the two guys who complimented me on my cast when I first came back to school. This kid's already in my good graces. "I just wanted to say, you kick ass," he says, giving me a thumbs up. "I have gym last period, and I go straight to work at my Dad's restaurant. He always complains about me not showering, but I just don't have time to stop at home. I end up using tons of deodorant. Well, that's how I used to solve it. Today, I'm doing something different. Today, I'll be showering."
"Why are you telling me all this?" I ask, though I can't help but smile as I'm pretty certain I know where this is headed.
"You started a movement, dude," he replies, laughing as if it's the most obvious thing in the world. "My buddy Zane is planning on doing the same thing tomorrow in gym. Who cares if we're the only ones in our classes? I'm sick of smelling like shit for the rest of the day."
"Right on, dude," I say, offering my fist for a fist bump. "What's your name?"
"Greg," he replies, bumping my knuckles. "You guys should sit with us some time."
I open up the offer to my two friends and ask, "What do you guys think?"
Travis nods enthusiastically and says, "Definitely."
A little more sullen, Donny replies, "It doesn't matter to me either way, anymore. I'll go wherever you're going, Clint."
I turn back to Greg and nod. "We'll join you tomorrow. Thanks for the invitation."
"Sweet!" Greg says, doing a fist pump with his right hand. He nods back toward the table he came from, and the other boy I recognize looks up and meets my eyes briefly. I know who he is now, too. He's the first one who complimented me on my cast, and he's also the one who spoke up and verified Travis' testimony when Sheila got creamed by Angie. "Zane's going to be excited. He wanted to meet you, but he couldn't make it over."
I'm also excited as I give a slight nod to Zane, who nods back and gives me a slight smile before returning his attention to his nearby friends. "No worries," I say, smiling slightly myself as I look back at Greg. "See you tomorrow."
Greg waves and walks away, and I turn back to Travis and Donny, shaking my head in wonder. Travis is the first to speak as we all process what just happened. "Well that was interesting. I've had classes with Greg in the past, but I've never spoken with him before. Maybe I should have tried?"
"You're telling me," I reply. "Maybe the shower thing worked out after all?"
"Huh?" Donny asks.
"Honestly, I was aiming for celebrity status," I reply, shrugging as if it was the most natural answer in the world. "I was trying to come out at the same time, but it didn't work out."
"Probably better this way, honestly," Travis muses. "Now more people are doing it without associating it with being gay."
"Good point. I guess I'll just come out slowly like normal people do."
Travis grins and says, "Well, you're already up to four at school: me, Donny, Angie, and Brent. Five if you count Sheila; she already thinks you are."
"Heh, I suppose so. Anyway, it's time to start getting you to class, Donny."
"Let's get out of here," Donny says, glancing one last time at the football team. "I'm sick of them staring at me, anyway."
The rest of the day has gone smoothly. Donny's been on time to every class and I've only arrived late to one of mine. Thankfully my classes have been close to his for the most part, so the schedule has worked out. Tomorrow, however, will have a different schedule, and it might not work out the same way.
But we won't know until we get there. The future is uncertain, after all. The one thing I do know for sure is I'm glad to be almost done carrying Donny's backpack for the day, and now that he's coming out of his final class, the end is in sight.
One of Donny's classmates hands me Donny's backpack, and after thanking him, I hold the door open for Donny as he comes out of the room and into the hall. "Hey, Donny," I say, smiling as he walks up to me.
"Clint, I can get someone else to carry my stuff outside if you'd like," Donny says as he stops in the hallway. He nods in the direction of the student who handed me the backpack and adds, "Brandon was willing, so it's really not a big deal. You don't have to wait for me at the end of the school day."
I shrug and reply, "I'm happy to do it. Besides, it gets me out of Chemistry five minutes early. How can I complain about that?"
"Fair enough," Donny says, smiling. His eyes are tired, and I can imagine why. The stress of coming back to school after being gone for a few weeks is one thing, but add constant physical strain and emotional worry on top of that, and anybody would be tired. "My mom will be about twenty minutes late, so I'll end up waiting awhile, but she picks me up at the west side, because it's easier to get to than the front. Not so many students use that side, so I'd rather be there anyway."
"That's cool. I'll wait with you," I say, then start down the hallway. I only make it a few feet before I see Travis a few yards ahead of us. "Travis!"
He spins around and grins at us both before waiting for us to catch up to him. "Hey, Clint! Donny! What's up?"
"I didn't realize your last class was over here," I reply.
"Yeah. It's Trig. I love it!"
"You're in Trigonometry as a Freshman?" Donny asks incredulously.
"Yeah? So?" Travis replies. "I'm good at math."
Donny shakes his head, and I decide to change the subject. "Hey, you got time to wait with Donny and me until his Mom shows up?" I ask.
"Sure. Let's go."
We navigate the slowly thinning crowd of students all the way to the western door of the school. It takes us longer than I expect, but thankfully a large portion of students are already outside and heading home by the time we reach the doors and step outside ourselves. There are a few people outside with us, including Greg and Zane who I wave to as we pass them. Unfortunately, they're engaged in conversation with a couple of other people and don't notice me. I consider walking over to say hello to them directly and nearly miss the fact that both Donny and Travis have stopped walking.
"If it isn't the three faggots all together at once. And no psycho bitches to protect them." I know Sheila's voice anywhere by now. Facing forward, I take in the sight of her standing in the middle of the walkway, framed on either side by large, thuggish boys who have a foot and a couple of years on me.
"Sheila!" I say, my voice dripping with sarcasm. "If it isn't my favorite hairy lump of flesh disguised as a human!"
"Can it, pinky," Sheila spits, "I brought friends this time."
"We don't want no faggots at our school!" the boy on her left says.
"Yeah," the boy on the right adds, scowling at Donny, "especially ones that rape little boys."
"You're fucked, Donny," the first one continues where his friend left off.
I look over my shoulder briefly and ask, "Who are these bastards?"
"Sheila's only friends," Donny replies, his eyes full of fear. "Two rejects from the football team, Joey and Vance Montague. They're brothers. Joey's a senior and Vance is a junior. We should leave."
Travis looks every bit as scared as I've ever seen him as he adds, "I agree."
No. Have you two learned nothing? That's not how you win. I'll show you, even if I have to get the shit beaten out of me to do it. "Fuck that. Let's party. It's time these assholes were challenged once and for all." I walk forward, my eyes burning with defiance and wrath. I won't be cowed by the likes of these brutes.
"Clint!" Travis calls after me, but I won't back down. They can't beat me. I won't let this setback get me down, and I'll find a way to turn it to my advantage like always. It's just another climb, and it doesn't matter how high it is, the way to conquer the cliff is always the same. Rise above it.
I. Am. Fearless.