The showers taunt me. I'm the only kid in the school who wants to use them, and I didn't bring anything to protect my cast. It's times like these which remind me how much of a hypocrite I can be. Ever since I came to this school I've wondered how the other students can stand not showering after gym; I've wondered what they're afraid of. Yet, despite how I feel about it, I'm not brave enough to lead the way.
Until now; and now I can't. By the time the doctors take the cast off, I'll probably be back to the coward's role. Whatever. I'll find some other way to make an impression on the student body. There's always the option of getting into an argument with a teacher.
"What are you looking at?"
I chuckle before turning to Travis. He's watching me curiously from where he sits in the corner of the changing area, his back to two walls of green gym lockers. His shirt is off, revealing his pale skin covered with freckles. He's definitely the skinniest kid I've ever seen, and bony as can be. I can even see his ribs and wonder if he eats anything at all.
"I'm just thinking about something."
"What? Come on, you can tell me."
"Well, if you must know, I'm wishing I could take a shower, but I can't with this thing on unless I prepare it properly."
Travis shakes his head and then pulls his regular shirt back over his sweaty body. He says something as the shirt passes in front of his mouth, but it's muffled enough I can't make it out.
"What?" I ask when he's wearing his shirt properly once more.
"I said, you talked about that yesterday. Why is it that important to you?"
"I explained that yesterday, too."
"Yeah, but. Dude, aren't you worried people will think you're gay or something?"
For a moment, I consider coming clean then and there and telling him about my sexuality, but, like my sister, it's still all or nothing for me. Instead, I decide to go a neutral route. "No. It wouldn't bother me. And why would people think that?"
"Because... all I know is, I get called a faggot all the time just for using the urinal next to someone else."
"Okay, but I'd be the only one naked in this case. Why would they think I'm trying to check anyone else out?"
"I don't know. I guess I just don't trust anyone at this school."
Travis leans back, his shoes forgotten on the bench next to him as he pensively bites his lower lip. To give him time to find the courage to answer, I pick up my shirt for the day. I decided to go with a t-shirt this time. As much as I liked the blue shirt, the hassle of the buttons got to me by the end of the day. When I tried the t-shirt, I found I didn't have any trouble getting my cast through the sleeve at all, and wondered why I'd worried so much about it.
"Can I tell you later?"
Travis' question bears the same timidity from his voice yesterday. His trepidation makes me question if, for a moment, he might be just like me. For the second time in as many minutes, I think about coming out to him.
"Of course. You don't have to tell me anything you aren't comfortable with."
Travis smiles, and I know he's grateful for my patience. "You know, you're really easy to talk to."
"I try," I say with a broad grin.
"Are you ever going to put your shirt on?"
I look down at the shirt in my hands, a shirt which for some reason isn't on my body. With a flourish of my hand I show off my naked torso and ask, "What? Sick of staring at my gorgeous body?"
Travis snorts. "Yes. You're really skinny."
"Hah!" I say as I prepare once again to slip the shirt over my head. "You're one to talk."
"Yeah..." Travis says quietly as I pull my shirt down over my body. "I usually skip lunch."
Travis shrugs, but I have a feeling he's hiding something from me. "I don't like the lunch room."
"Okay. Will you go there with me, today?"
He's hesitant, but after a moment he nods. "Sure, I guess."
"Cool. Then I guess I better finish getting dressed."
Travis chuckles and kicks one of my shoes over to me. I laugh and finish switching out of my gym clothes, giving one final forlorn look at the showers before slinging my backpack over my shoulder again and leading the way from the gym. I can feel the sweat dripping down my body from the intense soccer game I'd played during the period, and it begins to affect my mood.
By the time we reach the lunch room, I'm not only hungry but also irritated at the perspiration making my shirt cling to my back. This is no longer my idea of a good day, and I'm already strategizing different ways to get past it when I realize Travis is no longer with me.
I'm standing at the back of the lunch line and glance behind me, then see him nervously watching the students gathered around the tables to the side of us.
"You planning on getting in line?" I ask.
"I guess. Can I..." Travis takes several steps toward me than glances at the crowd again. When he continues, the hesitation in his voice has fully returned. "Can I go in front of you?"
I step back and give him room to go ahead of me. "Sure. I don't see why not."
He smiles weakly then takes his place in line. We move forward a couple of feet and then his face pales. He turns his back on the group, his hand covering his mouth as he mumbles, "Dang it. She's here."
"Sheila." He says the name with quiet reverence and fear, the way a religious man would say the name of a dark god, the epitome of evil. This intrigues me more than anything, and I turn to look back at the crowd, seeing a short but wide girl coming our way. She has a thick black single braid and a deep tan, and she's wearing a self-important sneer. Her eyes are locked on Travis' back and she's walking straight for him, using her bulk to muscle through the students which get in her way.
Travis sighs and whispers, "You'll find out."
And it doesn't take long for Travis' words to come true. Sheila marches straight up to him and pushes him from behind, not hard enough to push him down, but hard enough to make him stumble. "Hey, faggot, what are you doing here? I thought I told you to stay out of the lunch room. Some of us are trying to eat, here."
I step up and put my hand on Travis' shoulder, leaning into him and nodding at Sheila. "Huh, Trav," I say with a straight face, "the fat chick is trying to eat. Big surprise."
Sheila rounds on me instantly, eyeing me up and down. "What the fuck did you say?"
I straighten to my full height and step all the way between her and Travis, and I fight to keep a cool head as I respond to her anger. "You heard me, cow. You think you can talk to my friend like that?"
She steps in closer, close enough for me to smell the school pizza on her breath, and it makes my stomach turn for a moment. I'm surprised she doesn't put her hands on me as she says, "Fuck you, pipsqueak. You a little fag, too?"
I smirk and roll my eyes. She's certainly easy to provoke, and that's saying something as far as bullies are concerned. Perfect, that's just where I like them, primed and ready to do something stupid. "I've never met a girl as crude as you, but I guess this is the decade for breaking stereotypes. You should talk to my sister; she has a better vocabulary for it. Maybe you could learn to bully more intelligently from her."
"Did you just call me stupid?" Sheila asks, her voice a dangerous whisper promising pain. For a moment I think she might actually try and deliver, too.
"No, stupid," I say, grinning like an idiot. "Now I called you stupid. You have much worse traits for me to point out if you'd like me to do so."
Every nearby student is watching us now, and they're interested to see what's next. As much as I hate it, it's not every day that someone stands up to one of the biggest bullies in the school. Being new here, I don't know if Sheila qualifies, but it's easy to tell no one expected to see this kind of show today.
And she has no idea what she's doing. Doesn't she know fighting in the lunchroom is the worst idea you could have? But she's all riled up, and she's going to get what's coming to her, I'm sure of it.
She balls her fist and pounds it into her other palm. "I'm going to fuck you up, faggot."
Her fist is big, but my ego is bigger, and my tongue fights my battles once again. "Seriously, don't you know any other words? You must know something more original."
As Sheila takes another step toward me, my cavalry arrives. One of the administrators on lunch duty walks toward us, her eyes glued on the unfolding scene. Her name is Mrs. Peters, or Walters, or something like that, and she has a reputation for strictness. My favorite type to have around when a bully goes too far.
But before Sheila actually makes a move, Mrs. Peters makes hers. "What's going on here?" She asks, stopping Sheila in her tracks. I sigh deeply, wishing Mrs. Peters had waited just one more second for Sheila to take a swing.
Not one to be deterred from seeing bullies get what they deserve, I try to make the best of the situation. "Sheila here seems to think she can decide who enters the lunch room or not." I look to Travis for backup, but he's silently fixated on Sheila and says nothing. He doesn't even notice I'm looking at him. Fuck. There goes my backup.
"I didn't do nothing," Sheila says defiantly, crossing her arms over her chest and looking Mrs. Peters in the eye.
Mrs. Peters looks from Sheila to me, as if expecting me to offer more evidence to support my claim, but without Travis, I have nothing. I shrug and shake my head. "I guess she really 'didn't do nothing'."
With a deep sigh of resignation, Mrs. Peters gives up on the situation. I've seen it before. What can she do without evidence one way or the other? "Keep it civil, kids," she says, smiling politely. "Remember, we're all friends here."
Mrs. Peters walks away and the crowd disperses, but I keep my eyes glued on Sheila. I know she's not done with me yet, and I'm not going to turn my back on her while she's nearby.
Sheila glances at my cast then grinds her fist into her other palm again, growling. "You're dead, pink boy."
I roll my eyes dramatically then meet her with an exasperated stare. "Ooh, you're going after the color of my cast, huh? Yeah, that's about the most original thing I've heard."
Her next words seem so out of place, I wonder if we're even having the same conversation anymore. "You trying to get me in trouble with Mrs. Butters? You trying to tattle on me?" Butters, not Peters. I'll have to remember that.
I laugh in her face, shaking my head emphatically. "Are you fucking brain damaged? Jesus fuck!"
Her face turns a deep shade of angry red, and she pulls her fist back to hit me, but then she glances at Mrs. Butters who is still standing nearby. She lowers her fist and spits at my feet. "Dead, pinky. Dead." Then she turns and walks away, leaving me to watch her go with a look of complete bewilderment. What a crazy bitch.
"Who the fuck was she, Travis?" I ask, turning to see Travis watching me with astonishment.
His tone is robotic, but his face continues to show complete surprise as he meets my eyes. "My next door neighbor. She's... she's a bitc-" he covers his mouth suddenly and blushes, then lowers his hand a second later and says quietly, "she's a terrible person."
I shake my head in wonder. What have I just walked into the middle of? Travis has some dangerous secrets, it seems. "You don't curse, do you?"
Travis shrugs. "I try not to. It's not how I was raised."
"I'm sorry, I'll try and tone it down, then."
"It's okay. The way you stood up to Sheila..." he pauses and laughs nervously. It's a strange sound, with as much relief as there is mirth. "That was awesome."
"I hate bullies, dude. The best way I know to beat them is to show you can't be beaten. Most of them are cowards."
"She threatened to kill you."
Travis' surprise only makes me grin wider as I say, "Yeah, but I bet I'm faster than her. I'm certainly smarter."
"You're a bit cocky, but I like you, anyway."
"Thanks, Travis." I wiggle my eyebrows at him suggestively as I continue. "That's the nicest thing anyone has said to me all day. Except maybe that 'easy to talk to' thing you said earlier."
He blushes, then clears his throat and steps back into the lunch line. "Um, let's get lunch."
I laugh silently to myself for nearly a minute before I'm able to speak again. "Sure, Trav. What's good here? My Dad usually makes lunch for us, so I've only eaten school lunch twice since I got here."
"I don't know..." he says, stopping to enter his student information on the automated system, then pulling out his meal ticket for the day. I've only made it through the line once, and then Sheila took it."
His answer troubles me, and I keep pondering it over and over again as we follow along the line, looking at all the options available. Today the school cafeteria offers pizza, macaroni and cheese, and chicken fried steak. I hate mac and cheese, and after smelling Sheila's breath, I don't think I could stomach the pizza, so I guess chicken fried steak wins.
Travis and I find a quiet corner of one of the tables to sit together. There are several students sitting down at the other end, and I recognize two of them from yesterday, though they don't see me. It's the kid who complimented my pink cast and the friend who gave me a thumbs up. Whoever they are, I doubt they'll mind Travis and I sitting near them.
If I didn't have something else on my mind, I'd go over there right now and try and make friends with them, but Travis has given me a lot to think about, and a lot I want to learn more about. I cut off a piece of my steak and stick it in my mouth, thinking of how to broach the subject. After I swallow the bite, I ask, "Why didn't you tell anyone about Sheila?"
Travis looks up at me from his macaroni and shrugs helplessly. "Who would help me? I'm not worth it."
I drop my fork at the absurdity of that comment. "Shit, man, that's the biggest load of crap in the world." Shaking my head, I open up my milk and prepare to drink it when I see Travis staring at me with alarm and a bit of fear. I realize he must think I'm angry with him, and instead of drinking I continue my thought. "Everyone is worth it. Trav, I'd still be eating alone if you hadn't reached out to me yesterday. I definitely think you're worth my time, and I'm glad we became friends."
"You mean it?" Travis asks quietly.
"Every word. Cross my heart and hope to punch Sheila in the eye."
"You'd punch a girl?" Travis asks, scandalized.
I nod emphatically. "If she were trying to kill me, fuck yes!"
"I don't know if I could," Travis says quietly. "They're too pretty."
Too bad. I guess I'm wrong about Travis. He's straight. Though, I guess he could be bisexual. I'm a little disappointed, though. If I'm honest with myself, I hoped he'd be gay, and my first friend in this new town would be able to relate to me on that level as well, but it just isn't meant to be.
I smirk to cover up my disappointment and say, "You haven't met my sister yet."
"You really have a sister?" Travis asks. The amount of excitement in his voice catches me off guard.
"Yeah," I say cautiously, "she's my twin."
He blushes as he says, "There's a female version of you? She must be something."
What does that mean? I wonder as I reply, "She's definitely something, but I don't know what ideas you have in your head, now. Maybe I should introduce her to you instead of giving you the wrong idea."
He looks around the lunchroom excitedly. "Is she here right now?"
I shake my head, bemused by Travis' reaction. "I think she has the other lunch period. I've never seen her in here, but she made friends with some of the other girls the first day. I honestly didn't really try. I was hoping I'd find someone I wanted to be friends with and then approach them, instead..." I trail off as I watch Travis return his full attention to me.
I grin and continue. "Instead I found someone who wanted to be friends with me first, and that's pretty damn awesome. Hopefully more will follow, but you're always going to be there."
Travis doesn't immediately respond, and instead we spend the next few minutes finishing off our food. It's not that great, but it isn't the worst school food I've ever had either. It certainly beats whatever caused Sheila's pizza breath.
"I don't have any other friends." Travis words catch me off guard at first, but then I home in on his words and listen intently. He's hesitant again, and struggling to get his next words out. "To tell you the truth, I had to psyche myself up to talk to you yesterday."
"Are you just shy?" I ask carefully.
"No..." he pauses, pushing the last piece of elbow macaroni around on his tray as he avoids eye contact with me. "Not really. I'll..." he looks up at me and shrugs.
"You'll tell me later?" I finish for him.
"Yeah," Travis says, smiling appreciatively. "You never gave me your email address. Send me an email, and I'll tell you in writing. I don't..." his smile fades. "I don't talk about it easily."
"Okay. I'll email you tonight when I get home from school."
"Cool. I'll look for it."
I stand then and pick up my tray. "I have to stop by my locker before next period. If you want an escort out of the lunch room to protect you from Sheila, now's the time."
Travis stands quickly and shoves the last noodle into his mouth before wiping his mouth with a napkin. He picks up his tray and says, "Definitely. I'm right behind you."
We take our trays to the dirty dishes area and drop them off, then leave the lunch room. I don't see Sheila anywhere, and I'm glad we won't have to worry about another confrontation today. I know she's far from done with me, especially after I stood up to her, but I doubted I'd see her again today, anyway. If she's like any other bully I've ever met, she's going to need time to build herself up before she takes on a challenger.
After we leave the lunchroom, we head straight to our lockers, which are thankfully in the same hall. Travis walks down to his while I open mine, but I stop as soon as I see the folded paper resting atop everything else in my locker.
"What's this?" I wonder out loud as I pick up the note and unfold it. My eyes widen and I wave Travis over to me. "Travis, look at this." I read it again over his shoulder as he takes it from me. It says: I have your phone. Meet me at Liberty Park at 3:00. I know. The penmanship is good, though not as skilled as Travis' handwriting. I wonder who wrote it.
"What does, 'I know' mean?" Travis asks.
"I'm not one hundred percent sure," I say cautiously, "but I have an idea."
"And?" Travis asks expectantly.
I think about telling him I'm gay, then a better idea comes to mind, and despite how nervous the note makes me, I can't help but grin. "I'll tell you later. Consider it a barter for your story."
Travis nods, then sticks out his hand for me to shake. I take it and he says, "It's a deal."
"All right," I say, letting go of his hand. "But it might take me a little longer to get that email to you. It appears I have to go to the park after school."
"I understand," Travis says, then adds hesitantly, "You want me to come with you?"
"Thanks, but I think this is something I better do alone. Whoever this is, they obviously want our meeting kept secret. I'd rather honor that than not."
Travis bites his lower lip then asks, "What if it's Sheila?"
I snort at that. "Do you think she could write this coherently?"
"Probably not," Travis replies with a nervous chuckle, just before the bell rings announcing that it's time for class.
"All right, there's the bell. I'll email you later, and I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"
"Cool. See you later, Clint."
We part ways, and I fold the paper and gently tuck it into my pocket. Whoever wrote it, I intend to find out, and hopefully keep them silent. This could mess up everything, but I'll do everything I can to keep my coming out on my terms.
I'd had Liberty Park pointed out to me my first week here. It sat between my house and the school, and my dad told us that a number of community events were held there throughout the year. It had a large number of old oak trees all over, and a large open green on the north side. A playground built in the middle always seemed to be crawling with kids, and a small duck pond fed by a narrow creek occupied the southwest corner. The only other features of the park are the pavilion in the southeast, and the cement walkways which connect each section of the park to the others.
When I enter the park, I head to the pavilion first. It's a gathering place, and it makes sense to meet someone there, but all I find is a family preparing for an early fall barbeque. The duck pond is my next choice, and I head down the walkway toward it.
After closing half the distance to the pond, I hear a voice behind me and stop, preparing for an ambush. "Clint."
I turn slowly and can't keep the surprise from my expression. Standing in front of me is Brent's friend, Donovan Sharpe. He's the last person I expected to see, but at least he was the nicer of the two. With a guarded smile I ask, "Donny, right?"
"Yep," he says, pulling away from the tree he'd been leaning against, keeping him from my view at first. He takes a step toward me and I take a step back. I don't feel threatened, but I'm not yet willing to believe this can't be a trap. Donny notices my discomfort and stops moving forward. "I learned your name last night. I thought about talking to you in gym, but I didn't want Brent to catch me."
"You wrote the note?" I ask, careful to avoid giving any further detail in case this is a setup.
Donny pulls my phone out of his pocket and holds it up for me. "Yeah," he says, smiling pleasantly.
I cross my arms over my chest and ask, "Why do you have my phone?"
Donny's smile fades slightly, and he explains, "I happened to walk past your locker shortly after your, um, incident. I repair phones as a hobby. I've done it for the last couple years, and I thought I'd give it a shot with yours. Turns out, it wasn't in as bad of condition as it seemed at first." He turns it toward me and I see that he's replaced the screen. It looks brand new.
"You fixed it," I state more than ask, though I'm completely surprised.
"Yeah, and..." Donny clears his throat awkwardly. "Well, I didn't know who you were at the time. I thought if I looked through it for a second, I might be able to figure out how to get it to its owner."
Donny sighs and winces. "I found your pictures."
I have a habit of downloading naughty pictures of cute boys from the internet. I'm only human. Please stop judging me. As you can see, I have enough problems as is without you thinking of me as a porn addict. Most of them are wearing clothes... at least some clothes...
"Hey, dude..." Donny says as he sees my discomfort. "Clint. Can I call you Clint?"
I shake my head helplessly and reply, "Considering you're in the position to blackmail me, I guess you can do whatever you want."
"Blackma..." Donny can't even finish the word. He steps forward and hands the phone to me. "Clint, you have the wrong idea."
I take it cautiously and look up at him in surprise. "You're just giving it back to me?"
Donny laughs at my expression, but there's no judgment in it. "I may hang out with some jerks, but I'd never do something like that. I'm a nice guy. Promise."
"So, what do you want in exchange?"
"Well, this may come as a surprise, but..." Donny blushes, but maintains eye contact with me. "Would you go out with me?"
My jaw drops, leaving my mouth hanging open for what feels like an eternity as I process what just happened. "What? You're gay, too?"
Donny raises his hand to stop me. "I'm not one hundred percent sure on that. I like girls, too. Not sure I'd label it bisexual or gay, or if I'd rather leave it alone and just enjoy my life."
"This is crazy. Is this a setup?" I ask, then start looking around for other kids from school.
"Why would you think that?" Donny asks. His expression shows how hurt he is, and I start to feel guilty for making assumptions.
"Travis seems to think you're not that nice of a guy," I say, unsure how to follow up my assumptions. I've already made an ass out of myself, but then again, I am pretty good at that.
Donny gives me a strange look. "Travis? Who's that?"
"My best friend..." I say automatically. "At least, my best friend here. I had other friends back in Cloverfield, but I haven't really talked to them since I moved here. It seemed irrelevant, since we'd never be able to get together."
"Is Travis the kid you were talking to yesterday?"
"Yeah, sorry," Donny says, shrugging. "I really don't know who he is. He's two grades younger than me."
"So am I."
"Yeah," Donny laughs, nodding at the phone in my hand. "But I had an advantage in getting to know you."
"Fair enough," I say, then hesitate. Donny certainly seems genuine, but can I really trust someone who hangs out with Brent? I'm not sure. "So, what's the catch of me going out with you?"
"No catch. You just seem interesting. And what you did to Brent yesterday..." Donny chuckles and shakes his head, ending the laughter in a whistle. "Oh boy did he have it coming, and I loved seeing someone put him in his place for once."
That answers that question. I guess Donny isn't like Brent at all. He's also good looking, and I could certainly do worse, especially since I've never dated any guys before. Donny is going to get his chance. I grin at him and say, "Okay, let's do it. When?"
Donny's face lights up immediately. "How about this Sunday?"
"What are we going to do?"
"I was thinking a movie. Dark Miracle is playing."
"Isn't that a horror movie?" I ask, remembering the trailer. It was something about a witch healing someone, but the healing spell having a catch. It looks good, from a storyline point of view, but it also looks creepy, and I'm not crazy about horror films.
"I've heard it's more of a suspenseful movie than a horror. Do you hate scary movies?"
Hmmm. Suspense. I could do suspense. "No, it's cool," I say with a grin. "I'll go."
"Yes!" Donny actually shouts, earning a look from the family up in the pavilion. Donny gives them a show, as he's practically dancing as he asks, "When should I pick you up?"
"Do you know my address?" I ask.
Donny shakes his head. "No, actually. After I saw your pictures, I didn't want to pry any further, plus, I knew who you were already, so I had a way to contact you."
"It's not in my phone, anyway, so I would have known you were stalking me if you somehow knew," I say, grinning wide. "You passed the test, Donny."
He grins back, and I like the way he smiles when he shows his teeth. He's certainly a handsome man, and I think I might just enjoy this date. "I hope I'll keep that up," Donny says, blushing.
I unlock my phone and go to my contacts. It works like a charm, and I'm already impressed with Donny's handiwork. "All right, give me your number, and I'll text you my address."
After he gives me his number, I shoot him a quick text and he saves my contact information as well. I then send him a second text with my address, and we both mark Sunday in our calendars before putting our phones away.
"This will be my first date with a guy," I say excitedly. "I dated a couple of girls through my middle school days, but that was more for show."
Donny chuckles and then blushes. "It'll be my first, too, though..." He trails off, and the amusement disappears somewhat from his eyes.
"What?" I ask.
"Never mind," he says, shaking his head. "It's not important. I'll pick you up around six. Sound good?"
"Perfect. See you then."
"Later, Clint. I'll see you around," Donny says before turning away. I start to turn and go the other direction when he spins back around and adds, "Oh, one last thing... I can't afford to be outed. Would you mind pretending this conversation never happened unless we're alone?"
I'm not sure how I feel about this news, and I voice my concern immediately. "I don't know if I like being a secret. That's really not what I'm looking for in the long term."
"Well, maybe it won't be that way forever, but I'm not ready to come out right now, you know? Could we just keep it a secret for now, please?"
I sigh and nod. "I guess I can put up with that for now, but if this goes further between us, we're going to have to talk about it again."
"Fair enough," Donny says, smiling appreciatively. "Thanks, Clint."
"See you Sunday, Donny. I'm looking forward to it."