My thanks to Cia for editing.
“Would you just look at him?” Contempt dripped from David's voice. I glanced in the direction he was looking and noticed a boy with a shock of dark hair and freckles dancing across his face. His face was slightly downcast, just enough that he wasn't meeting anyone's eyes. It was a position I was familiar with and more than enough to get David' attention.
“What's the matter, Suzy?” David said, stepping in front of the other boy. “Your boyfriend forget to kiss you this morning?”
The other boy stopped short and glanced around, his eyes wide and his stance wary. It was the wrong thing to do, with David. He sensed the discomfiture he'd awakened in the other boy and reveled in it, breathed it like air. David took a step closer, increasing the pressure on his victim. His steps were small, however, and I knew from experience that he enjoyed applying the pressure slowly and watching people squirm. The other boy complied with David's silent desire, moving awkwardly to go around him. David sidestepped and closed the gap once more.
The other boy wore his confusion and burgeoning fear on his face, and my heart went out to him, even though there was nothing I could do. It wasn't because I didn't want to; I just didn't have the guts. David had slapped me down too many times for me not to know what would happen if I stepped out of line. So I watched as David cornered the other boy – and then it happened. That thing that never happens. Someone stepped in between David and his plaything and shoved him back.
My jaw unhinged as this new kid, Jamie Kirkwood, stood defiantly in front of David. It took mere moments for David to recover and begin posturing at Jamie, who sloughed it off as if it were unimportant. David took a menacing step, and Jamie shoved him back two steps. David flew forward, but his progress was stopped by Jamie's fist right into David's gut. David doubled over, gasping and moving backward slowly; the reptile part of his perhaps brain realizing he was not in a position of power. As Jamie and the other boy, who looked familiar – oh, wait. It was Seth McAllister. He'd been out of school for a long time because of an injury and I'd forgotten about him, I guess.
As Seth and Jamie walked past David, Jamie gave David a final shove that sent David down onto his tailbone with a 'whoof' of air. Well, good for Seth but now David was going to be pissed. The warning bell rang inside and I turned and went to class and left David to his own recovery.
I sat in class and my mind wandered, as I did frequently and was reflected in my grades, and found myself thinking of Jamie and Seth. Were they friends? Would David dare to pick on Seth again? Or would he channel his humiliation elsewhere? Well, that I could answer – I'd likely bear the brunt of it. Not that David was physical with me, much. Usually I suffered his verbal tirades because he'd long ago beaten me into submissiveness; there was never a Jamie around for me.
Sure enough, David started as soon as we got on the bus.
“Did you see that fucker Kirkwood this morning?” he demanded.
“Yeah,” I replied. I made sure not to make eye contact with David, just let him rant.
“What did he think he was doing? Who is he, some hero all of a sudden?” David let loose, his voice rise into a falsetto when he said 'hero'. “Maybe he's McAllister's boyfriend. Why else would he defend him?”
Maybe because you were picking on him? Was that enough of a reason? “I dunno,” I wisely replied.
“Well, I know you won't know, numbnuts. But I don't remember Jamie ever sticking up for anyone, so he must have a thing for McAllister. It's the only thing that makes sense.”
We grabbed our bags and got off the bus. David gave me a shove hard enough to make me stumble and laughed before heading toward his home. I ambled towards my own, happy to have left David behind for the day but not exactly thrilled to go home.
We lived in the Eastern Avenue Trailer Park next door to a used auto place that used to be a gas station and garage. The pumps were long gone but the garage performed minor service and detailing for the junkers they peddled. My father was the quasi-mechanic there which suited him fine since he didn't have to drive to work. That was handy considering his license had been revoked.
I opened the door of our double-wide and crossed the shabby living room to put my things in my bedroom closet. Leaving anything in the living room got it thrown away and it only took one day of freezing my ass off without a coat for that message to get through. I went into the kitchen and tried to find something to eat, finally settling on a sandwich. I tended to overeat at school since they provided breakfast and lunch to poor people, but anything after that was always sketchy at best here in our house.
That was a snapshot of my life and it stayed in that same dull gray until long after the winter skies had settled in overhead. Perpetually leaden and accompanied by cold winds, I was just hoping to get through it, even though spring would only bring relief from the weather.
I slumped onto the couch, turning on the TV and mindlessly watched some court show with a sassy judge telling off the people in front of her. Loud music from outside let me know my sister was home with her boyfriend, Edward Mullins. Yes, he's David's older brother and no, he's not any better.
The door opened and cold air blew in, and they blew in along with it. The door clapped shut behind them, but neither took notice. They were arguing and it made no difference if they were in public or here at home. I tuned them out long enough to escape to my room and they didn't even notice me. That was okay. My sister and I weren't close and Edward was just a bigger, nastier version of David. I milled around in my room, the only thing to do in here was homework and even though I wasn't interested, I knew if the school called my father he'd be nasty with me.
Just so we're clear, not because he was worried about my education, more that he was bothered by phone calls from the school. I pulled my backpack out and took a seat on my bed. I emptied things out, the bag was stuffed with every notice the school had printed up among other things. I stacked my books and notebooks to one side and then started pulling the papers together so I could stuff them in the garbage. There was notices for teams, clubs and other special interest items. I walked out to the kitchen and tossed the papers and a few slid free and glided through the air and landed on the kitchen floor.
Sighing I picked them up but stopped as I happened to read one for the school's Gay Straight Alliance. I knew it was a bad idea as soon as the idea of attending crossed my mind, but I wanted to think about it anyway. Not only would I never hear the end of it if David found out, but he might actually go back to kicking my ass. Even though I was his height and weight, I wasn't very coordinated when it came to fighting. Not only that, because I'm a coward, I tended to get frightened and freeze up. My heart beat like a caged animal and so I avoided fighting at all costs.
What would it be like to attend a meeting with others like me? Would they...? No. No they wouldn't accept me any more than anyone else does. I don't dress well, not like other kids. My clothes are from charity, a whole garbage bag full can be had for a dollar. My face is broken out probably seventy-five percent of the time and even though I'm not overweight, I don't look exactly svelte either – no one's idea of a fashion plate. I crushed the paper and threw it in the garbage with the rest; yet a spark in the back of my mind wished it could be.
Instead I went back to my room and rushed through my homework. But later, with nothing but moonlight to illuminate my room, it came back to me as I stared at the stained ceiling of my room. What would it be like?
My invisible leash loosened a few weeks later as David fell in with a new crowd. Really they were more his brother's friends, but for some reason he was able to hang with them. They would smoke cigarettes and, there was a rumor, get stoned between classes. When that happened I began to feel rudderless and even more worthless than before. Sure, David hadn't been a friend, but now I didn't even have that.
So one Wednesday afternoon, I found myself standing in the doorway of the classroom and trying to see who was there without making eye contact. Sweat slicked my palms and my heart rate jumped. I tried to back out but instead I ran into someone and was carried forward. I apologized and found a corner to wait in, just observing those around me. Were they all gay? There were big guys who looked like football players and there were girls and some regular looking guys...and wow, who was that? I looked down at my feet quickly so I wouldn't be caught staring, even though I don't think he realized I was looking. After all, it had just been a moment.
Keeping my head down, I moved to a chair, stealing the occasional glances at this guy. He was dressed a little preppy in nice jeans with the cuff turned up at the bottom and a long, loose sweater. His dark hair was just...lush. I glanced down again, feeling my face flush. It was bad enough I was here; what if I got caught staring? He probably had a big boyfriend – one of the football players – who would pound me to paste for looking at his boyfriend. And yet...I couldn't entirely look away.
I let my gaze drift up again and took in just a bit more, like a sip from a vast lake. His skin was pale but, unlike mine, his wasn't ravaged with acne. He smiled readily and was talking to two other boys who were both tall and well built. Hey, I knew them! Trent Davis and Teddy Granger! We weren't friends or anything, but I suddenly felt less alone. I realized I'd actually seen this guy before, just around, but I didn't know him from my previous school. I got up from my chair in the corner and moved a little bit closer, but stopped when the meeting was called to order.
The meeting wasn't all that exciting. They talked about things in the news, possibly doing some kind of fundraiser, and safety issues with being out. I'd been afraid it would be a situation where people have to stand up and tell others their life story. I watched my guy leave with his friends and I wondered if he was dating one of them. I wandered out of the room and made my way to the late bus, my mind swirling and wondering who this guy was.
I'd recognized a lot of people in the room. Granted, Columbia had a lot of feeder schools, yet I think I recognized at least half of the people, if not more. This fellow, though, had looked different to me today. Was it just knowing we were at a GSA meeting together? Did that tilt him from being another pretty face to something – someone – more interesting? He was hanging out with the jocks, so he could be one too or simply related. No, he must be one; if he were related then he'd have gone to school with them, right? Well, not a watertight theory, but it gave me something to think about. In fact, I could think about very little else.
I daydreamed about getting to talk to him, maybe making him laugh or getting to hold his hand. As long as I wasn't looking at the ruinous acne on my face, which happened anytime I was confronted with a mirror, I could dream. It took two days before my dreams started to turn. As I remembered him I was hard pressed to ignore his fine clothes. Where mine were ill-fitting and worn, his were stylish and fit comfortably. His face was much clearer than mine, and his hair had benefited from a recent cut. Mine was done at home, in a mirror.
Even his sneakers were expensive, and I had nothing equivalent. He, apparently, came from some money, played sports, had friends, and I didn't. Faced with that, I was plainly not on his level and couldn't hope to be. Still, he seemed nice, and I longed to hold his hand. In fact, holding his hand would be a fantasy come true.
The following Wednesday I dressed in the nicest clothes I owned. I wore a ball cap to hide my unruly, asymmetrical brown hair and spent time cleaning up my sneakers with hot water and a towel. I was buoyed by an idea that had come to me from nowhere and that I refused to think too deeply about lest I lose my nerve. Today, I was going to say hello to him.
I wasted no time delaying after my last class, I just walked straight to the meeting room. I figured, if I had gone to my locker and given myself even a minute more to think about this, I'd have scared myself off. As it was I nearly turned around in the doorway, except that I spied him in the room. There were a few others, but he was leaning by himself and reading from his phone, smiling. I approached him on unsteady legs, my eyes darting around as I looked for unseen dangers. Quite suddenly I found myself standing in front of him.
He sensed me being there and raised his eyes. He had probably thought I was one of his friends, and his smile of greeting shifted into one of curiosity as he realized there was a stranger in front of him. I wet my lips and extended my hand.
“Hi. I'm Asher Romanski.”
His smile blossomed, and he accepted my hand, “Hello, I'm Sean Kelly.” His hand was so soft in mine, I nearly forgot to breathe. I felt him begin to pull his hand back, and I reluctantly let it go.
“I. Uh, I saw you here last week,” I said, struggling to find something to say.
“I'm here every week, with the football season over. I couldn't come because of practice,” he said. “So was last week your first meeting then?”
“Yeah. Yes. I.” I closed my mouth and tried to engage my brain. Before I really formed what to say, my mouth opened and I said, “I wanted to tell you I thought you were really...cute.”
“Aww, dude! Thanks!” Sean replied, grinning and generally not throwing up at the thought of me liking him. My heart skipped a beat, but then soared as the seconds ticked by, and he didn't shoot me down. Recklessly, I moved ahead.
“So, uh, are you with anyone? I mean, you know, here....”
“My friends will be here soon. I'm seeing Ally Marcus, but it's not really a dating thing, yet,” he replied, trying to cover all the bases of my messy question. However, my heart had begun to spin wildly as he mentioned Ally's name – a very pretty girl with long hair and a winsome smile.
“Oh,” I said, taking a half step back. “You're straight. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-”
“Hey! Get away from my brother!”
It didn't register that the voice was directed at me until I felt a hand on my shoulder jerking me around to face a very angry-looking Jamie Kirkwood. He followed his yank of my shoulder with a shove backward, and I stumbled awkwardly, just barely keeping my balance.
“I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” I babbled repeatedly. I'd seen angry looks like that before; it always turned into angry fists and feet soon after.
“Did Mullins put you up to something, you worm?” Jamie asked, advancing on me. Sean placed a hand on Jamie's arm, and Jamie looked away to hear what he had to say. I took the chance as it was presented and ran, pell mell, for the door. I was into the hallway and racing for the stairs without any real thought in my head, just the animal flight response that was my first and only defense. I exited the stairs and ran through the front door of the school, the buses having departed, and continued on my flight.
I moved up the sidewalk quickly, glancing back over my shoulder to see if I was being pursued, and made my long way home.
Two days later, on Friday morning, David rode the bus. He had stopped doing so at some point, no doubt getting a ride with his older brother. I wasn't going to ask why he was here that day – all that mattered was that he was.
“So, I saw you come out of the fag club meeting Wednesday,” he said. His voice was dangerously quiet, and I was instantly on alert. “In there looking for a boyfriend?”
There was no right answer, so I stayed quiet and let my head hang down.
“I should have guessed you were a cocksucker,” he said, speaking softly but his voice carrying contempt. “My dad says people like you should be lynched 'cause you're unnatural. What do you think about that?”
I remained silent, but flicked my eyes around, hoping to catch sight of the bus.
“Did you have your eye one someone's ass, Romanski? Or are you the kind that likes taking it?” He chuckled humorlessly. “I'll bet that's it. You like to take cock, don't you? Fucking cock slut.”
Finally the growl of the diesel approaching ended this session with Mullins, and I was grateful to break away and find a seat. Mullins gave me some very scary, very appraising looks, and I was suddenly very frightened that this wasn't the end of it.
I made myself more forgettable than usual today, even taking lunch break in the library. If it had been nice out I might have hidden outside, but I thought the library – where an adult was – would be safer. I was relieved Mullins wasn't on my bus that afternoon, and I made my way home, my mind a rambling mess as I wondered what would come of Mullins' statements this morning.
I knew it had been a mistake to go, this morning was just the latest reminder. With the scare I'd had in the GSA meeting and the disappointment of finding Sean to be straight...then again, I knew I was reaching too close to the sun in even trying with him. His sexuality was just putting the cherry on top of my stupidity cupcake. The sad part was I couldn't blame fate or anything else – I'd known he was far beyond me before I'd started.
I entered the trailer and stashed my things in my room. I took a quick inventory of the fridge and found some eggs, so I made myself an egg sandwich even though I wasn't hungry. Eggs had plenty of protein and would fill me up and keep me from being hungry later tonight. I hated being hungry at home; it just lasted forever. After wolfing the food down I retreated to my room. Being Friday, there was no homework for me to complete in a slipshod fashion. I considered going out somewhere, but there wasn't really anyplace within walking distance; plus, it was fucking cold.
I decided to lie down and take a nap, maybe jerk off later. That was going to be the extent of my weekend, except worrying about the fallout from Mullins. I kicked my boots off and huddled under the blanket, but couldn't sleep. For one thing I wasn't tired, and, for two, my mind was busy screwing with me.
I pictured Sean in my head, leaning back and looking at his phone, smiling. He was dressed nicely, those over-sized sweaters giving him a soft, cuddly appearance. He was put together carefully, like he was constructed in a lab and dressed by fashion consultants. The only bad thing about his manner of dress was that I had no idea what lay underneath – the clothes hid every outline! I had no idea what his body looked like, just that smile and his thick hair. Oh, and his soft hand. I held that memory close.
The door to the trailer banged open, and I heard a group of voices. I assumed it was my sister and some of her friends. They'd likely get some beer so I might be able to grab one later, after they were drunk or stoned. I didn't really like beer, much, but it beat doing nothing – after all, you can only jerk off so much.
I stayed in my room and listened to the noises of the people in the living room. There was laughter and the occasional thump or bang as some of them wrestled or a minor pushing and shoving match broke out. Either that or they'd just suddenly drop to the floor, randomly trying to break a tailbone. There was some music, but not overly loud, and it was just the radio. I may have imagined it, but I thought I heard my father come home and demand someone give him a beer.
At some point the sweet scent of pot drifted into my nose, and I shook my head. I hated that smell. I got up and made sure my dresser doors were all tightly shut so I wouldn't stink of that stuff. After a few hours I ventured out and was largely ignored. I snagged a beer for myself and a slice of pizza and retreated to my room.
The pizza was cool, but it would help to fend of hunger later. The beer was crap – someone should be shot for buying this cheap shit. It didn't stop me from sipping it, mind you, but it was still the bottom of the barrel. As I listened to the party, or whatever this was, I heard heavy feet and giggling going past my door and then there was the sound of my sister's door closing. My guess was she was about to let Edward screw her to the wall so you can imagine my surprise when, minutes later, an argument erupted next door.
The thin walls of a trailer are no way to hide an argument, sex, or anything you'd rather the world not know about. Edward bellowed, and she shouted back, her shrill harpy voice matching his stridently. They argued sometimes; I tended to tune it out. As you might have guessed, our family unit wasn't all that tight. In fact we were more or less three strangers sharing space. A rather loud bang made me jump, and I figured Edward had just slammed his fist into the wall, likely to intimidate my sister. Good luck.
Her door slapped open, hitting the wall, and I was shocked when my own door opened moments later. Edward entered my room, carelessly shoving the door closed behind him. It was such a violent action, that careless shove, that it actually banged into the door frame and popped back out, not latching.
“David says you're a fag,” Edward said as he unbuckled his belt. Oh shit! My mind went into full panic, and I began to withdraw from Edward. His paw reached for me, snagging my pant leg and yanked me to him.
“No!” I yelled.
“Shut up!” he said with a scowl and punched me square in the face. Lights danced in my vision, but I was still trying desperately to get away from Edward – my flight response was in full force.
“Hold the fuck still!” Edward demanded, and his fist crashed into me. I suddenly was unable to breathe. My world shrank down to desperately trying to draw breath, and everything else was as if it were happening to someone else. My pants and underwear were yanked down, and I was flopped over onto my stomach, but my panic was solely focused on trying to breathe – even though a small, gibbering voice was telling me what was about to happen.
“Your fucking whore of a sister won't put out, I guess I'll get my brown belt,” Edward said. It barely registered as I gasped like a fish out of water. I felt my ass being pried apart and heard him spit. Just as my first breath started to fill my lungs, I felt a horrible stinging, pinching pain spike all around my anus as Edward tried to force his way into me. I started to scrabble forward, my movements still weak from lack of air, but the pain motivated me.
Edward pushed a huge hand down on the middle of my back and snarled at me, “Hold still. Don't act like you don't want it.”
He pushed, and a tiny scream left my mouth and the pain inside my ass trebled, and then did it again. I started fighting harder, repeatedly saying 'no', but he didn't pull out. He didn't laugh or sneer, he just maintained the pressure on my back and on my hole.
“Oh, what the fuck?” my sister exclaimed. I turned my head and called to her desperately for help, but her focus wasn't on me. “Are you kidding me? I say no one time 'cause I'm on the rag and you go shove it in someone else?”
“Hey, I got needs.” Edward snorted.
“No! Get off me!” I said, my voice growing stronger. The pain in my ass was still an intense feeling like a massive pinch, like something circular was squeezing the ring of my anus painfully.
“Shut the fuck up,” Edward said and landed a punch in my side. It didn't wind me like the shot to my gut, but it did leave me sore and wheezing. He shifted and the pressure on my ass did as well, sparking a fresh spike of pain deeper inside me.
“Are you fucking kidding me right now?” my sister screeched. “You're going to fuck a guy just because you can't have the real thing for one night? You take your dick outta him right now, or you're never fucking me again! That's gross!”
“He's tighter than you are,” he snarled.
“But he shits from there!” my sister wailed. “I ain't sucking no dick what's had shit on it!”
“Fuck is all the yelling?” my father said, appearing in the doorway. “The fuck?”
“Dad! Help!” I cried out. My father looked at me blearily and slowly started to shake his head.
“No. Helping you just enables...dependence. I won't always be around, you know? You gotta defend yourself,” he slurred.
“He's raping me!” I screamed and continued to do so while Edward pummeled my back with his fists.
“Jesus, can't you take care of your man? You're worse than your mother,” my father said as he stumbled away from the scene. But now, others were coming to see what the noise was and there was a mixture of drunken cheers and groans of disgust. My heart raced when someone called out sloppy seconds.
“Help! Rape!” I screamed again.
“Help! Rape!” someone echoed in a giggly falsetto.
“Guys can't get raped,” my sister said angrily. “Eddy, take your dick outta there!” They began screaming at each other, and I took advantage of that by using my arms to yank myself forward hard. Edward popped out of me – Jesus that hurt! - and I was scrambling off the bed and grabbing my old wooden baseball bat from the far corner.
“Hey, Eddy! Looks like you gotta work for that ass, now!” someone jeered.
I held the bat up, but Edward was too busy screaming back and forth with my sister. I guess he finally had enough of her lip and yanked his pants up so he could follow her and keep arguing.
“Hey,” said some older guy I didn't recognize. “I heard you're a fag. I don't want to fuck you, how 'bout a nice blow job, though?”
I brandished the bat and took a mighty swing at him as he foolishly stepped forward. He jumped back and laughed like it was a game. He started moving side to side, moving forward and then back. By dumb luck he moved forward as I swung, and I felt the bat land solidly against his rib cage.
“Ah!” he cried out, clutching his side and backing out my door. I raced forward and slammed it shut, leaning my back against it and heaving. My eyes begin to tear up and my face was hot and tight from Edward's first punch. I slid down the door, tears threatening, but scrambled to my feet when my butt his the ground. Fuck I was sore! I grabbed the lone chair in my room and wedged it under the doorknob and then locked the flimsy door. Backing away I curled up on the bed, clutching my bat close.
In the morning I crept out, bat in hand, and found some leftover pizza. The smell of pot was lingering – that smell never really went away at our place, not least of which because Dad grew some in his room. There were still a few bodies lying around, but most had departed. I got a glass of water, but nearly dropped it when Ed appeared at the far end of the hall. I clutched the bat to me as he went into the bathroom and began to relieve himself.
There was a tentative knock at the door, which was bizarre enough – everyone just walked into this place. I made my way through the passed out bodies to the door and pushed it open to reveal...Sean?
“Hi, Asher,” Sean said as he glanced around, and his nose wrinkled. “Uh, I wasn't sure this was the right place...”
“Sean,” I said fearfully. “You shouldn't be here! Go home!”
“What?” Sean asked in confusion. “But I just got here and, listen, I wanted to apologize for the way Jamie acted the other day.”
“What?” I asked. “Nevermind, you have to go.”
“Who's this, Faggy McFagpants?” Ed said, shoving me aside hard. I tripped over a body and crashed to the floor. I scrambled to my feet as Ed pulled Sean into the doorway by the front of his coat.
“Hey, you look like that fuck that was hassling my little brother. You a fag too? Here for your boyfriend? I loosened him up for you last night,” Ed sneered.
“Let him go!” I screamed and swung the bat and punched a hole into the cheap paneling. Ed jumped and snarled at me, shoving Sean backward. He fell out the open door and onto the slush outside our door, but at least he was out.
“The fuck you think you're doing?” Ed snarled. I cocked the bat and he began to dance a little, like the guy I'd hit in the ribs last night. Ed grabbed a bottle from the counter and whipped it past me. I heard it shatter but didn't dare to look and see where.
“What's the fucking noise?” my sister whined from the end of the hall. “Eddy?”
“Shut up,” Ed said, not taking his mean eyes off me.
“Asher?” Sean said from the door. His voice was laced with uncertainty and fear. I could relate, I was about to shit myself as it was.
“Sean! Run!” I yelled. Ed, sensing a weak spot, turned and reached for Sean. I stepped forward and brought the bat down on the side of his knee, swinging for the fences. There was a solid crack, and Ed collapsed, grabbing his knee and screaming in pain. I looked at Sean, dripping from the slush and covered in grime and I yelled at him again to run. He glanced at me wide eyed and then stumbled backward from the still screaming Ed, then turned and fled to his bike.
David was righteously pissed with me come Monday morning, but I wasn't as scared as I had been, before. I'd had a miserable weekend; it was uncomfortable to sit, and I don't want to think about taking a dump. I'd hidden in my room a lot, which wasn't all that different than my usual weekend, but this time I'd had the bat. My sister and I had yelled some through my door, but that was about it. Considering David had told Ed, I felt pretty fearful about how I might be treated at school. After all I wasn't a Kirkwood, I wouldn't get the benefit of the doubt or even a little leeway.
In the end, I was a poor kid from the wrong end of town and just about everything could be used to hurt me. That realization had depressed me, initially. But then I figured, it couldn't get that much worse, right? So when David started his shit on the bus, I didn't ignore him or cower per usual. I stared at his eyes, and he didn't like the challenge. There was some pushing and shoving, a few swings of our fists, but it was mostly like seeing a fight at a hockey game where none of the gear came off.
There were a few whispers in the hallway, and a few of the upperclassmen shoved me around a little, but nothing I couldn't handle. I was a little curious, though, when I got called to the office just before lunch. I met with the principal, Mr. Kissick, and a lady in a pantsuit of some kind who introduced herself as Mrs. Clemons.
“Asher, Mrs. Clemons is from the Department of Children and Family Services. Her specialty is the Child Protective Service and she has to ask you a few questions,” Mr. Kissick said. “Be truthful, help her out, okay?”
I glanced at her and was completely on guard. I'd dealt with these folks before, and it all came down to one thing. They wanted to take you away, put you in some facility. It's how they make their money, taking kids away. I knew I was okay, though, because I was handling it. I didn't need anyone else.
“Hi, Asher,” she said and offered a perfunctory smile. “I understand things may be a little difficult for you right now, can you tell me anything about it?”
“No. Everything is fine,” I replied.
“Really?” she said, tilting her head down and giving me a look like she didn't believe me. “How are you eating at home?”
“With my mouth,” I replied and slouched in my chair.
“Are you getting enough to eat?” she tried again.
“Can't see my ribs, so I guess I am,” I replied. Her lips compressed and she glanced down, making notes on a document. Without looking up she said, “I hear you eat breakfast Monday morning like you haven't eaten in a few days.”
“I'm a pig, what can I say?” I retorted.
“Well, if that's true, why don't you eat that way the rest of the week?” she asked, lifting her eyes from her forms.
I shrugged. Mr. Kissick leaned back in his chair and considered me. I couldn't read his face but it was pretty obvious neither of them believed me. I guess I'm not a good liar, but that's usually considered a good thing. Mrs. Clemons was watching me, as if I'd suddenly break down and ask her to lock me up somewhere, so I just sat still and waited.
“We have a report of an assault at your home over the weekend. Something to do with a baseball bat?” she prompted.
Was she talking about Edward and him raping me? No, Edward wouldn't have said anything. Who would have...Sean. Shit, that stupid....
“I don't play baseball,” I said, some of my sullenness gone. I adjusted in my chair. I'd really slouched to the point I was no longer comfortable.
“Asher,” she said, and then stopped herself. She placed her forms and folders on the corner of the desk and then leaned forward, placing her forearms on her thighs and regarded me soberly.
“There was a report filed this morning that detailed drug use at your home and violence. This morning the sheriff's department met with your father and served a warrant to search your home. Not only were drugs found but there is damage that is consistent with the report we received of violence in the home. It was also confirmed that there was no food in the home, which is neglect.” She leaned back and crossed her legs and watching my reaction.
“So?” Honestly, what did she expect? Was I supposed to hand myself over to her on a silver platter? I certainly wasn't going to help her yank me out of there; I could take care of myself. After all, I thought bitterly, I'd had a lot of practice at it.
“Asher,” she said slowly. “Neglect – not feeding you – is against the law. That's without even mentioning the drug charges your father faces.”
“For having a little pot?” I scoffed.
“He had enough to be charged with an intent to distribute,” she said carefully.
I rolled my eyes at her. “You give him too much credit. He's not ambitious enough to try and sell it, and he's too lazy to actually do anything.”
“That may be true, but he had enough for that charge to be made against him. He's in police custody and...can you tell me where your mother is?” she asked, a gentle thread entering her tone.
“Have you seen my family? She's long gone.” I snorted.
“Do you have any nearby relatives?”
“Nope,” I answered with an attitude. I was getting a very uncomfortable feeling that this was building to something unpleasant.
“Well. That's a shame,” she said and reclaimed her forms from the desk. She began to write, and I refused to be baited into asking what she meant. Instead I looked at Mr. Kissick.
“Can I go to lunch now?”
“That will have to wait,” she said without looking up. “We'll need to go to your home for a few things, and I'm sure you can eat afterward.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Your father is in jail, Asher,” she said and raised her gaze to meet mine. “You have to be left in the care of a legal adult.”
“What? Bullshit,” I said. “I'm doing just fine.” I pushed up out of the chair but was stilled by seeing Mr. Kissick smoothly copy my movement.
“Asher, an adult has to be responsible for you. Until that happens, Mrs. Clemons will see that you have the things you need,” he said. He moved slowly around the desk and to my side. “This is one of those times when we have to buckle down and do what has to be done, Ash. Chin up, okay? You'll get through this.”
I blinked a few times and then nodded at him. I liked Mr. Kissick; he always seemed like he cared. I pushed down on my anger and kept myself from boiling over, even though I didn't see too many ways this situation could be made worse. Mrs. Clemons placed her file folders into a bag I hadn't noticed and hoisted it up onto her shoulder. I turned and followed her despondently to the door. Stepping into the office I noted the outer door of the office opening and in walked Sean Kelly, Jamie Kirkwood, and a lady who must have been one of their mothers.
Seeing Sean gave me a focus for my simmering anger and I stepped around Mrs. Clemons quickly and my anger boiled to the surface, the muscles in my face tightened and my voice sound foreign to me.
“What's your problem?” I stated angrily. He glanced at me, not because he knew I was speaking to him, but because of my tone; it was curiosity and nothing more.
“Asher?” he asked.
“What the fuck did I ever do to you?” I snarled, his innocent routine completely lost on me. “Huh? Is this fun for you? Feel all in control?”
“I don't know what you're talking about-”
“The fuck you don't!” I snarled.
“Hey! Back off!” Jamie said, but I ignored him. I kept my focus on Sean, though, and advanced on him around the counter that separated the office staff from the students, normally. Whoever the lady was with them seemed perplexed to the point that what she was seeing shouldn't be happening.
“You had to open your big fucking mouth!” I yelled. “Now they are taking me away!”
“Hey,” Sean said with a little heat in his voice. “You're not safe. What did you expect?” He held an arm out to check Jamie from coming around him, but I wasn't done – far from it.
“Expect? I expected you to leave me alone! I expected you to go right back to fucking ignoring me!” I said, my body barely under control of any kind. Mr. Kissick had a hand on my arm and was saying something stupid to try and gain control, but it wasn't happening – especially after Jamie opened his mouth.
“Leave you alone? Ignore you? Did you forget you talked to him?” Jamie hissed as he stepped around Sean and confronted me. “You, one of Mullins' little toadies? You're lucky he's so nice – I'd have let you rot there, you ungrateful prick!”
Things happened lightning quick, then. I screamed in Jamie's face, and he pushed me away. I swung and he swung back, and then we were too close for punches. Loud voices echoed in my mind telling us to 'knock it off' and to 'break it up'. An adult yanked me back by my shoulder, and there was suddenly room to throw a punch. I clenched my fist, but Jamie was far, far faster. His fist crashed into my nose and eye socket, and I felt something shift in my nose. I screamed and covered my face with my hands, blood sprouting from between my fingers and dripping on my crappy clothes and the tile floor.
“Oh, hell,” Mr. Kissick muttered and called for tissues as he stood between Jamie and me. I let my hands drop and looked at Sean miserably.
“All I wanted was to hold your hand – do I deserve to lose everything because I'm some poor kid and I reached too high?” I asked. Sean's mouth worked but no sounds came out. A wad of tissue was thrust under my nose, and I held it in place gingerly while I got steered out of my old life and into the unknown.
Kilmer Hills Juvenile Detention Center was outside of town and was everything I'd been afraid of since my dad first told me how CPS people make a living. It was a large brick and stone structure that resembled a castle, complete with a turret. Two men walked down and escorted me from Mrs. Clemons' car and through the heavy front door. There was a loud buzzing noise, and we passed through a second set of doors.
I was taken through more sets of doors and up flights of stairs and florescent lit hallways until I was on the third floor. 'Group N Evaluation' was what the sign said. Once inside that area my shoes were taken from me, and I was placed into a room with a metal framed bed that appeared to be bolted to the floor and then the door was locked behind me.
The scene in the school had taken the fight from me, and I slumped onto the mattress and looked out the narrow window to the landscape beyond its bars. There was nothing to see, but my eyes weren't looking outward. Instead I kept up a steady rhythm of beratement. I'd reached too high, dared to approach someone who was leagues away from me. He was smarter, better looking, had more money, would probably go somewhere in life. What had I been thinking?
I suppose my mistake was in acting, in trying to touch the sun and thinking I'd not get burnt. Had I actually thought that, since he was at the GSA meeting, he must be gay? Assuming he was, what in the world made me think that putting on my best tee shirt, my least holey jeans and wiping down my plastic sneakers was going to impress him? If he'd been gay, he'd likely have turned straight right then. I thought of him as I'd seen him that fateful day, smiling down at his phone. His expensive jeans turned up at the bottom for style, not because they were too long. His sweater oversized by design for comfort and appearance, not because the clothes in your dollar bag were all for someone older and larger than you were. Even his shoes...it was better to kiss all that goodbye. Damn me for my stupidity.
Was this cosmic vengeance? It wasn't enough he's straight, but...I stopped my thoughts as I realized I was going in circles. Sean was now my past. The trailer, my father and sister were my past. My present was the pain in my face, the cell I was in, and the money CPS was making for putting me here. My door made a loud clack noise, and it swung open. A young guy, black with cornrows, stood in my doorway and motioned for me to stand.
“Let's take you to the doc, get your face checked out,” he said.
I stood and walked towards the door. He backed out as if I were dangerous and directed me to cross the hall and place my hands on the wall. I complied, and he closed my door behind me.
“Okay, turn to your left and walk down the hall,” he said. I did so, walking past other doors that doubtless lead to other rooms just like the one I was in. The space opened out and looked a little bit like a nurse's station. I was guided past the station and through an over-wide metal door, one meant to accommodate wheelchairs, and into a doctor's exam room.
The door closed behind me, and the man who had escorted me leaned against the wall next to the door. A middle-aged man with graying temples was reading information on a computer screen. He paused and glanced up at me and smiled thinly.
“Hop up onto the table, and let's start with your nose, then we'll give you a physical. Are you hungry?”
I nodded slowly, and he glanced at the other man. “Terrence? Would you ask for a tray to be sent up? Just a snack to hold him until dinner.”
“Sure thing, doc,” Terrence replied and left the room.
Warily I climbed up onto the exam table, and the doctor stepped in front of me.
“Okay, let's check that sniffer out,” he said and placed his hands on my face, gently probing around the sides of my nose and asking about my level of discomfort. He had me tilt my head back and look up inside the nasal passages and made a lot of 'uh huh' and 'hmm' sounds. Finally he stepped back and smiled at me.
“Well the good news is it's a minor break; I won't even have to reset your nose. We'll treat you with a cold compress and some over-the-counter meds to manage your pain. You'll probably bruise up a little, and it'll look worse than it is. Go ahead and strip down to your undershorts and let's get your physical exam out of the way.” He turned from me and walked back to the counter and started entering notes on the computer.
After the exam Terrence met me at the door and provided me with a snack that I wolfed down, having missed lunch. He escorted me back to my room and stood in my doorway as I looked around the small space, rudderlessly.
“I checked all your clothes,” he said, nodding to the garbage bags on the bed. “You can put them on the shelves. There are sandals under the bed you can use for general purpose and for the shower.”
I ended up being escorted to a shower and got cleaned up. Then I was allowed dinner, which was sort of like cafeteria food at school, and then I was given pain meds and told to relax in a common room with a cold compress over my nose. A TV was on and was playing something I didn't recognize. There was two other kids in the room, but we didn't speak, and I was fine with that.
The next day and every day after for the next week I met with a counselor and spent the rest of my time either reading or sleeping. I looked like I had tried to put Zorro's mask on my face with eye shadow, so it wasn't as bad as it could have been. I ignored the other two kids no matter what they said, and they soon got the message. They weren't there all that long anyway.
It turns out my little tussle is what landed me here for evaluation. Apparently I was considered violent. I found it ironic that I was raped and had been bullied for years by the family Mullins, but I was the violent one. I grew bored but managed to remain bitter about the situation. That all changed the following Tuesday, and I went from being bitter to being mortified and then just wanting to die.
I was sitting in Dr. Ellington's office, but it wasn't my scheduled time to see him. Terrence leaned against the wall and a sheriff's deputy walked in with Mrs. Clemons.
“Hello, Asher. My name is Deputy Pat Seeger, and I'm with the Broome County Sheriff's Department,” he said and extended his hand. I shook it to be polite, and he seemed satisfied and took a seat.
“I'm here because it seems as though a crime has been committed, and I'm hoping you can help us out a little.” He pulled out a folder with some forms and glanced down at them before making eye contact with me. “We found a video uploaded to social media. It claims to show one Edward Mullins engaging in sexual intercourse with another male.”
I felt the blood drain from my face. The deputy put his pen down, and his face softened.
“Mr. Romanski, having seen that video...I just need to know if you'll make a statement. We have enough to charge Edward Mullins, and he's already been picked up, but it would help to prosecute him if you could tell us what happened in your own words.”
The door opened and closed behind me, and Dr. Ellington was there, quietly moving to a side chair. I glanced back at the deputy and felt my face flush; he'd seen me get raped.
Instead of telling him, though, I had a question. “You said...social media. Who...who's seen it?”
The deputy looked uncomfortable. “It's hard to say for sure,” he evaded.
“Everybody knows. Don't they,” I stated. I know, the words were a question, but I felt it was true. Someone had lifted up a phone and recorded some of the fun. I felt my stomach lurch, and I dashed suddenly to the wastebasket and threw up. Someone was there with me, quickly, and someone else asked Terrence to get me some water.
I recovered slowly and was guided back to my seat. There was some murmuring from my doctor, telling me about taking my time and being ready and honest. I looked up at the deputy and asked, “What do you need to know?”
Monday morning I met with Dr. Ellington and Mrs. Clemons in his office. I took my accustomed seat across from the doctor, and Mrs. Clemons was seated next to me. We exchanged polite greetings and then Mrs. Clemons began.
“So, you've been here for two weeks for evaluation, and we're moving on to the next step of your plan,” she said.
“What plan?” I asked.
“Your plan for permanency and where we go from here.” She leaned back in the chair and to one side and continued, “I'm here to explain what happens next, and the choices you have to make.”
“I just want...” I trailed off. What did I want? To go home? To go back to school where everyone knows I was raped?
“Let me bring you up to speed,” she said in a gentle tone. “Your father made bail, however he didn't report to his first check in with his probation officer. The sheriff sent someone to check for him, and the trailer was empty. We think he's left town. What that means for you is...any chance he had to bring you home is gone.”
I stared at her. I didn't know what to say. I had been just thinking to myself that going home wasn't any good, but she was telling me it wasn't even on the table.
“Where's my sister?” I asked, more out of wanting to break the silence than actual concern.
“She's in a special home in Binghamton for expectant mothers,” she replied.
Pregnant. I felt sorry for her kid.
“Now, as far as you go,” she continued, “you obviously don't belong here. So we're going to move you into a group home, temporarily, until I can find you a good foster home.”
“Group home?” I closed my eyes. “Where? What school will I go to?”
“Well, for now, you'll go back to Columbia.”
“What?” I said, my eyes popping open wide. “You can't send me back there! Everyone knows!”
“Asher,” the doctor said. “There really is no way to know who saw anything and the police were able to get it taken down quite fast. Don't get too far ahead of yourself. Additionally we are working to set up some supports in case there are any incidents.”
“Also, Asher, I have feelers out for other places, and we'll get you relocated as soon as something comes up – if that needs to happen. For right now, we need to talk about your future,” she said.
“Future?” I barked. “What future? Lady, you're sending me to a school where everyone is going to know Edward Mullins shoved his dick in my ass. You think I'm going to be able to walk down a hallway and not have it thrown in my face every two feet?”
My eyes filled, and I mashed them away. Tears were useless, and I had no time for them here. Unfortunately, that didn't stop them from falling. Soon I needed to blow my nose as I deteriorated into a helpless mess and that served to remind me that my nose was still kind of tender. It probably didn't take very long for me to get myself under control, but I did.
By this time Mrs. Clemons and I were sitting on the couch, and Dr. Ellington had turned one of the visitor chairs around so we could all be together without the desk between us.
“Asher, there are some things I'd like you to think about over the next few days,” Mrs. Clemons said. “Because you're nearly fourteen you should know you have two paths to go down in foster care. One is to seek an adoptive placement, and the other is learning independent living skills.”
“Excuse me,” the doctor interrupted, “ I just wanted to let Asher know that he'll continue to see me once a week so that we can process things that are going on, and perhaps he can talk through what he may want. Given today's upset, he may need a time and place to talk about those things, later.”
“Yes,” she replied, “I was going to mention that. We're going to move you tonight, Asher, and you'll be back in school tomorrow. Do you have any questions?”
I shook my head. I had none for her, but I was contemplating running away. Either that, or maybe I could just...no. I just don't think I could hurt myself like that. It didn't really matter what I thought anyway; I had no control. I was going back to Columbia.
The group home was all about routines. We had a time to get up and a window to shower. There was a chart on the wall that let you know what you were allowed to do, based on your level. As a new arrival I wasn't cut any slack. I was told I had to earn levels, and so my choices were about the same as they had been in the lock down facility.
I rode a different bus to school, but already I could see the smiles, hear the snickers and the whispers. I kept my head down as I walked into school and took a seat in my homeroom. I figured if I didn't look I wouldn't notice the things people were doing, but that could only last so long. By third period word had spread and whatever had held them back from openly mocking me earlier had evaporated. I very much felt like a weak member of the herd about to be culled by predators, and the rest of the herd was turning on me, like I was a sacrifice.
I took my lunch tray and walked over to a wall and leaned against it to eat. I glanced around the room, noting that David Mullins was eyeballing me and speaking to his brother's friends. I didn't like the looks he was giving me so I rammed the rest of the food down as I walked over to dump my tray. I glanced back and saw Mullins and his friends getting up and decided I better hurry. Since class was in session the halls were empty. I slid past the monitor and headed up to the most out-of-the-way bathroom I could think of and headed inside.
The bathroom had a privacy wall as you entered that ran most of the length of the room. At the end was an opening and the urinals were on the other side of the wall and stalls beyond it on the right, sinks on the left. I figured I could wait things out in here, and, when the bell rang, I could just go to my next class. There wasn't that much time left to lunch anyway.
I was walking toward the windows, all warped glass even way up here, and I heard a sniffle. It was hard to miss, what with the way things echo. I glanced at the stalls and walked back past them, and then I saw him with the door partially closed. Sean. Crying.
His gaze met mine and he stood, opening the door and wiping his eyes with his forearms. “Asher, I heard you were back.”
“Yeah. We'll see for how long,” I replied neutrally. His face was wet from the tears, and he tore off some toilet paper to blow his nose.
“Why are you crying?” The sound of my own voice surprised me.
Sean's limbs moved with nervous energy as he glanced at me. He seemed unsure. Maybe he thought I'd go after him again – after all, I was labeled violent.
“I understand; you don't want to tell me and it's really none of my business. I'm just hiding out here anyway,” I said and turned back toward the windows.
“Hiding? From what?”
“Mullins and Edward's buddies. They were giving me an evil look in the lunchroom. I figure I only have to last a few days here before a new group home will open up somewhere, and I can leave before they beat the shit out of me,” I said. I turned my face to the side, not quite enough to see him, and remarked, “I got tossed away because they thought I was violent for that thing we had in the office. But Mullins has been doing worse than that to me for years. It's, what do you call it? Ironic?”
“What do you have to be sorry for?” I snorted and turned back to the window.
“I...my mom died. That's why I was crying,” he said, his voice near a whisper. “Everyone is trying to be nice and ask me how I feel, and I can't tell them I feel....”
I turned and looked at him, dressed much as he'd been before. His pale porcelain cheeks were flushed and his eyes were rimmed with red. He was hurting, and I melted a little. “You feel angry and then sad, but the worst time is when you can't feel anything,” I stated.
“How do you....Yeah. I can't explain it to them, my friends and family.” He shifted on his feet and then leaned his back on the stall divider. “I'm mad at God for taking her, for her getting sick and having to suffer so much. I'm sad that I lost so much time with her, even though she gave me the Kirkwoods and they are...I never knew what I was missing before I got there. Shit, I mean – not that my mom wasn't the best.”
“Yeah. Well, at least your mom took care of you.” I snorted.
“She did,” he agreed. “But then there's times...it's just all burnt out, and I can't feel anything. Uh, did your mom...pass?”
“I don't know,” I replied truthfully. “She just up and left. One day she was in the trailer sitting in her chair and chain smoking her life away, then she was gone. Just ran away and left me behind with my asshole father and my sister.”
“I'm sorry,” he said softly.
“Don't be,” I said bitterly as I turned to look at him. “I'm not worth getting worried about. In a few more days they're going to find me a new group home where no one knows Edward Mullins raped me.”
Sean winced as I said it, confirming he knew all about it.
“I'm sorry your mom passed, I know that's hard, for whatever that's worth coming from me,” I said. “I wish I could say something to make you feel better, but when a parent leaves it just sucks and there isn't really anything except time.”
“Does it still hurt?” he asked.
“Not for me. I went numb. I know why she didn't take me with her: I'm a worthless piece of shit.” My ears perked up as I heard the squeak of several sets of sneakers out in the hallway and some nasty giggling. This bathroom is near the rooms where they usually have Home Economics, but they lost a teacher recently and those students were all reassigned. That's why I picked this bathroom, but I guess David Mullins guessed where I'd go hide.
Sean was talking, but I hadn't heard a thing he'd said. I grabbed him by the front of his sweater and pushed him into a stall.
“Lock the door and stand on the toilet,” I said and glanced over my shoulder as if they were there already. “Don't open it for anything.”
“Why? What's going on?”
“Some guys are coming to kick my ass,” I said and pursed my lips. “It's what I'm good for.”
“No! I can help,” he said and pushed back against me, but I shoved him, hard, and pointed a finger at him as I snarled the best way I could.
“No, you can't! There will probably be five or six of them, and you getting hurt won't make the odds any better.” My finger shook as I pointed at him, my nerves keyed up. “If you want to do something nice, maybe you can call an ambulance when they leave.”
I pulled the door shut and demanded he lock it. The bathroom door opened, and there was a chorus of sing-song voices calling my name. Well, I couldn't make him lock it, but I hope he was smart enough to stay put.
“Asher, there you are,” Mullins said with a sneer.
“Yeah, here I am,” I replied. Edward's friends spread out to flank him and one of them took over, disabusing Mullins of his role as alpha.
“We're here to convince you to tell the sheriff you wanted Ed's dick in your shit-hole,” he said calmly. He wasn't all that much bigger than I was – small compared to Edward, but not too much bigger than me. Of course, he wasn't alone. One guy was very fat and another just looked stoned. Two others milled about, but were ready to join in if things looked like fun. My guess is they'd be the first to run, too. Then there was David, rubbing his crotch.
“Ed knows you wanted it. I might just have to remind you how much you like taking it.”
“Not going to happen, Mullins,” I said. My voice was trembling, and it seemed to feed in to them, predators with trapped prey.
“I guess you need convincing,” said the calm one as he approached me. I set myself and tensed my stomach. God he was fast! His punch slammed into my stomach and knocked me back. I let out a 'woof' but hadn't had the breath knocked from me. I kicked out and struck a glancing blow to his leg. Mullins stepped to his left and tried to flank me, but I moved out of his range.
“He's mine!” Mullins said loudly. “Eddy's my brother, so he's mine!”
“Fine. Make it fast,” the calm one said and backed off a step. David stepped forward, very cocky, and swung his fist. I pulled back but was hit by his weaker left-handed punch, a glancing blow off my shoulder. I stumbled backward and into the metal heating unit, making it clang hollowly.
Sean burst from the stall and, with a yell, kicked Mullins in the nuts from behind. He dropped awkwardly with a hand covering his crotch and a wheezy moan escaped his lips.
“Stupid shit,” the calm one said. He shoved Sean aside, hard. He stumbled back and crashed into the stall door and landed on his butt. My attention was off him because Mr. Calm just started to whip my ass. I tried to fight back, but he was far too fast for me and far too accomplished. In moments I was on my knees, blood running down my face and dripping on the floor. One eye was working on closing up shop. I heard the bathroom door open, and my heart leapt for a moment, until I saw it was Jamie Kirkwood.
“What the fuck?” Jamie asked.
“Walk away. This isn't any of your business,” Mr. Calm said. Sad part is, he was right, and if Jamie was smart he'd just walk away, with Sean in his wake.
“Six on one isn't business,” Jamie replied. “It's damn near murder.”
“Jamie!” Sean called from the stall. He burst out of the stall, looking for Jamie. He caught sight of me, met my gaze and his own widened in horror. I guess I looked good. He took a tentative step toward me, and Mullins regained his feet, enough to stand in his way.
“Walk away,” he said warningly.
Sean looked past him at me. I shook my head and mouthed 'go'. His face hardened, and he glanced at Jamie. My eyes tracked to Jamie's face, and I saw his expression match his brother's.
“Things are kind of uneven right now,” Jamie said as he glanced at Mullins' crew. “But I can't leave here without my brother and our friend. Now, if any of you want to walk away, now's the time.”
“Take your own advice, shrimp,” Mr. Calm replied.
Jamie grinned in a way I was familiar with, a grin that said he was committed to a path. He was about to follow through with something – either a bluff or a fight. He spun on his heel and walked back to the door. Mullins crew was turning to look at me when Jamie's voice echoed into the hallway.
“He's in here guys. Some folks don't think he should leave, though.” The entrance was clogged with five or six guys from the freshie football team, and they took in the room and seemed to get the situation quickly. Even then, you could have heard a pin drop when Jamie locked the door. Oh fuck.
“Someone's gonna get it,” Jamie said, his tone that of an off key singer. Things moved fast. Sean kicked Mullins in the balls again and dropped him, and then it was a melee. Shouts and screams echoed in the confined space, bodies slammed into the metal partitions and put enormous dents in them. One tackled another and hit a sink just right and broke it free from the wall. Blood was on the floor but by the time someone got the door unlocked, I was sure I had a broken wrist to match my bashed face. Everyone had cuts and scrapes, but most of us were still standing and most of them were down.
Was kind of weird being part of an 'us' and to still be standing after a fight. I leaned myself against the wall as the school maintenance staff came in. The school officer was with them, and he was already calling for some help. The vice principal was speaking to people, pulling them aside so they didn't contaminate each other's stories, but Sean and Jamie were standing over me as I'd slid down on my ass, unable to stay up on my rubbery legs.
Sean squatted down and looked into my eyes. “Asher, I know this sounds stupid but, are you okay?”
I looked at him with my one open eye and nodded. “I'll live to get my ass beat another day. Thanks.”
“You know,” he said, shifting around uncomfortably. “I wasn't offended or anything that you liked me. In fact, I'm really flattered.”
“Yeah?” I asked, smiling with my split lip and showing him, what I was sure, were teeth outlined in my own blood. “I can see why you would. It's my haircut, isn't it? Everyone is jealous. I'll tell you my secret, okay?”
“Asher, stop it,” he demanded. “I'm serious. I've dated a few girls, but no one ever approached me. No one came to me and told me they were interested in me, and that felt pretty damn good.”
“Just because I'm not in the market for a boyfriend doesn't mean we can't be friends.”
“Friends?” I said and coughed. “I don't have any friends.”
“We just got into a fucking brawl for you, don't go telling us we aren't your fucking friends,” Jamie said firmly, while nursing a busted lip.
“Last time it was you busting my nose. Now you're my friend?” I snorted.
“Hey,” Jamie said while squatting by Sean and staring at me intently. “I thought you were threatening him, and I won't let anything happen to him. He's my brother. I'll tell you something else you better get used to – he really doesn't mind about you being gay and liking him. Our brothers are gay, and we have a ton of friends who are gay. If you can just be a good friend back, you'll be cool with us.”
I glanced from one to the other. I settled my eyes on Sean. “What about....”
“Doesn't matter. It won't take long before you'll see I'm not the guy you want, anyway. Not least of which because your tits aren't big enough. I mean, I need at least a handful to work with,” he said grinning at me.
I looked at him doubtfully, and his eyes clouded with compassion.
“Look, Asher,” he said and bit his lip. “I know things have been bad. I talked to my minister about what to do, and he must have called the sheriff. I know you...blame me. I deserve that, even though all I wanted to do was help. What I don't deserve is for you to keep punishing me and turning my friendship away.”
“Hey, me too,” Jamie said, bumping his brother and causing him to topple over. “I saw...well, I saw. That could have been anyone, and it makes me want to kill Ed Mullins. I...
Jamie glanced at Sean and then turned back to me. “I promise I know how to be a good friend. I just want you to let us show you that. With...that being out there? I want to be the guy that stands up for you. I heard people talking all day, I heard the shit they said – and they probably said it to you too. I hate it.”
“So,” Sean said as he stood and held a hand out to me. “Friends?”
I glanced back and forth between them. I wanted this. I wanted it badly, and yet part of me was still worried it wasn't real. Maybe I was so used to it not being real I was having trouble accepting it. One last defense, one last statement...
“I'm not sure I know how to be a good friend.”
“You'll have a bunch of us to learn from,” Sean said, continuing to hold out his hand. I reached tentatively for him with my right hand, my left wrist feeling like it was the broken one, and felt my hand slide into his. His grip tightened, and I was pulled up from the floor.
“Thanks,” I said and loosened my grip, but Sean's only tightened. I looked up at him in question.
“You worked pretty hard for this, seems like it's only fair,” Sean said with a little blush.
“People will see,” I said and pulled my hand back. He gripped tighter and shook his head.
In the final tally there were six suspensions and three expulsions. Well, five expulsions, but the last two went to jail for possession, so they don't count as much. I count myself on the suspension side because of my new...friends. They told the truth, even when the school officials were skeptical, and I wasn't bounced with the troublemakers.
Edward accepted some kind of plea deal, and he was locked away in a facility to rehabilitate sex offenders. He'll be forced to register and be listed as a Level 1 sex offender because they didn't think he'd do it again, but he would be forced to register for life because he was considered a violent sex offender. Going to court would have added the charge of a hate crime and his sentence behind bars would have been longer. As it was, he wouldn't trouble me again.
David wasn't expelled, but he found himself to be one lonely guy. His brother's friends were all expelled, and his power to terrorize went with it. Add to that he was on the football team's shitlist and, well, I didn't envy him. One thing was for sure, he had a few bruises from time to time as the people he used to bully came back to haunt him.
My life was not easy, post fight. My wrist was, indeed, broken, and my group home and Mrs. Clemons were less than pleased with my fighting at school. Mrs. Clemons found me a group home upstate near Albany, but I found I was reluctant to let go of Sean and Jamie. I hadn't ever had real friends, and after Jamie realized I wasn't one of Mullins henchmen – yes, he actually said that – he warmed right up to me.
I took some shit from people over the video, and it was far more than embarrassing. I had some very, very black moments. But I also had some very good things, unexpected things, happen. Sean and Jamie really came through in being friends and I never trusted anyone the way I learned to trust them.
A week and a half after the fight Mrs. Clemons came to see me at the group home. We sat at the dining room table together while she sorted through a few documents before addressing me.
“So, I'm getting reports that you're doing all right here at the house,” she said as a lead in.
“Yeah. I haven't been in trouble except for the fight,” I replied. She looked down her glasses at me.
“That fight got you suspended.”
“The fight found me. I admit I was fighting, but I didn't start it. What was I supposed to do?” I replied defensively.
“I know that,” she said quietly. “I'm sorry you were put in that situation, it was a major mistake on our part to have thought we had that under control. But fighting while you're in care complicates things. Listen, Asher...”
“Complicates what?” I asked in annoyance.
“Have you given any thought to the two options I gave you before? Adoption or Independent Living Skills?” she asked.
“Who'd adopt me?” I snorted.
She placed her hand over a document, which was face down on the table, and looked at me expectantly. I looked at her hand and then back to her face. Leaning forward I pointed at the paper.
“What is that?”
“It's a possibility,” she said. I waited, but she stayed quiet and just watched me. I leaned back in my chair and stared at the paper.
“What kind of possibility?”
“Depends on what you want, Asher,” she said with a pursing of her lips. “While I can't excuse your behavior, there are a lot of reasons why you act the way you do. Part of it was not having people at home that you felt safe with.”
I flicked my gaze back and forth from the paper to her face.
“This,” she continued, “could do something to help you with that. But, it has to be your choice.”
“You mean...” I stopped. Sighing, I looked up at her face and said something that had been rattling in the back of my head, but never formed into words, never into coherent thought. “I hated living with my father and my sister. I didn't like Kilmer Hills either, but I didn't have to worry about anything there, either. No one came into my room; I had food everyday...”
“How does that make you feel?”
“Like shit,” I said, and tried not to get all weepy. “I had to get locked up to get fed right and feel safe. This place? It kind of sucks, too. But still, the adults keep shit down. I don't have to worry, and I get food. I got clothes that fit and I got a haircut.”
“It looks nice on you,” she said with a smile pulling at the corner of her mouth. “What are you telling me, Asher?”
I nodded at the paper. “I thought things were always going to be one way. I hated you for taking me out of my dad's place. Now...now I wonder if what's on that paper means things could get a little better for me, again. So what I'm telling you is...I want to know what that paper says.”
She smiled and flipped the paper over. It was blank. I looked up at her in confusion.
“Asher, I just needed to know what you wanted. But before you think this was a cruel joke, let me assure you, it isn't.” She removed a file from her case and pulled out a few documents, searching. Selecting one, she glanced at me and continued.
“I'd like to send you on a weekend visit with a family. They are certified foster parents which means that they have taken training in order to be able to care for kids who are still learning what it means to be part of a family. Now,” she smiled at me, “I've known them a long time and they usually take in younger kids, but they have been convinced to give this a try. It seems you have someone in your corner.”
“Is it Sean or Jamie?” I asked excitedly.
“No. It seems you've impressed someone else. Do you have a friend named Scotty Ellis?”
“Um, yeah, I guess,” I replied. “He's on the football team with Sean and Jamie. He was there for the fight, and, I guess, I've hung out with him some. He's...sticking up for me?”
“I think he feels he knows you well enough, and that, if his parents give you a chance, you could be a good fit in their home.”
“You mean...adopted? Scotty wants to be my brother? I mean, he wants me to be his brother? Or...what?”
“Let's take things one step at a time. Shall I tell them you're in favor of the visit?”
I was shocked, more than shocked with the good news. When I got to school the next day, Friday, I was hunting for Scotty but didn't catch him until lunch. He was sitting with my friends, which still makes me happy to say, and I hope it always does. I approached the table and set my tray down and took a seat. I glanced at Scotty, who was talking to someone, and I was seized with anxiety. I reached down and took Sean's free hand, and he squeezed mine.
“Uh. Can we talk really quick? Maybe Jamie too?”
“Yeah, sure. Now or after lunch?”
“Now,” I gulped air, “please.”
Sean stood, and we maintained our clasp as he tapped Jamie with his free hand, beckoning him out into the hallway. We found a corner free from others and Sean regarded me with a worried frown.
“It's not...wrong, really. I uh. I, shit,” I muttered and took a glance at Jamie. “You've known Scotty a while, right?”
“Yeah, he's good people. Why?”
“Uh...have you guys talked? I mean, about me?”
“A little, sure,” Jamie said. “You know, normal stuff about how you're a pussy with a tiny dick. Why?”
“Jamie,” Sean groaned. I laughed, a nervous snort and pushed Jamie while relinquishing Sean's hand. I was safe with these guys and didn't need to clutch Sean like a security blanket. Didn't need to, but felt better because I could if I wanted to.
“What's this about anyway?” Jamie asked.
“My social worker came to see me last night at the group home. They told me I have to choose to go into independent living skills or an adoption track. I first thought, who'd want to adopt me, you know?”
“Hey, Asher, none of that negative shit – there's nothing wrong with you,” Jamie said firmly.
“That a miracle can't cure, right?” I smiled at him. He grinned back and shrugged.
“Can you two keep some focus?” Sean sighed.
“Right, sorry,” I said and sighed. “She kind of led me to think someone wanted me and - at first – I thought maybe it was one of you guys,” I said shyly. They glanced at each other, but I forged ahead to forestall any awkwardness.
“Instead she told me Scotty Ellis's family were already foster parents, and she said that Scotty had, kind of, convinced his folks to let me come this weekend for a trial or something.”
“That sneaky shit!” Jamie said and laughed. “I didn't know his family were foster parents.”
“This sounds like great news, Ash. Why are you so nervous?” Sean asked.
“I don't know what to think! Scotty seems cool, but I didn't realize I'd made any impression on him or anything – I thought you guys might know?”
Jamie burst out laughing, “Nope, but we're going to find out!”
I trailed behind him, asking him to wait, but he marched right over to the others and put his knuckles on the table and looked at Scotty.
“Scotty, are you jealous of Sean?” he asked. Scotty turned to him and grinned.
“Hell no, he looks just like you!” Scotty roared. Several kids laughed, and Jamie took a playful swipe at Scotty. Sean guided me back to where we'd left our lunch, and we resumed our seats.
“So when were you going to tell me you're a big old softie?” Jamie teased.
“What?” Scotty asked, smiling.
“Sean and I told you we were going to talk to our parents about Ash, and what do you do? Steal him! I'm onto you, Ellis,” Jamie said, squinting one eye and pointing at Scotty. “I got my eye on you.”
Scotty turned to me and grinned. “He's just pissed he's too slow.”
There was some confused murmuring from around the table, and Scotty made a motion for them to quiet down.
“You work fast,” Sean told him. I reached down quickly and touched Sean's hand, and he squeezed once before withdrawing.
“Look,” Scotty said as he looked across the table at me. “I can't pretend to know how fucked up things are for you right now. All I know is what we all talk about here and the rumors. I know if I didn't have my friends and family to get through something like that, I'd be fucked. You got friends, now you just need some family.”
“He's got family.” Jamie pointed a finger at Scotty.
“Nope, he has to choose – I don't want to be related to you,” Scotty quipped.
“Package deal,” Sean said, giving me a crooked grin.
I looked at Scotty whose grin was still in place, and I said seriously, “Thank you. I won't let you down.”
His gaze faltered and went from a grin to something much softer. “It's all good, Ash.”
But, still, some days were bleak. Some days I'm wasn't very strong. On those days, Sean let me hold his hand until I felt stronger. It never matters to him who might see; he always told me to just grab hold if I need to. It was hard to do at first – to admit the need, the weakness – to need his touch. I once asked him if he wasn't worried someone would think he's gay. His reply echoed to me and lifted me up and made me actually and truly love who he is.
He said, “There isn't anything wrong with being gay, so why would I care if they think I am?”