This Halloween I was going to do something truly frightening.
Not just the run-of-the-mill pretend scary stuff like when I was little. No vampires, no zombies, no ghosts, no monsters. Not this year. This time it was going to be something genuinely, truly, profoundly scary. Soul-crushingly and seriously disturbing.
It was going to be awful. I knew, without a doubt in my mind, that I would regret it deeply, and probably be permanently emotionally and physically scarred by the process.
And I was going to do it anyway.
It began two weeks before Halloween, during a typical lunchtime at Archibald McLean Junior High School. At the beginning of October the school had announced that there was not going to be any Halloween activities of any kind within the school this year. No dances, no costumes at school, no lunchtime games, no artwork, nothing. Apparently last year the parent of a student complained. Their family followed a religion, I'm not sure which one, that absolutely forbade any involvement with the very idea of Halloween. It was seen as fundamentally evil, so they had nothng to do with it. That student had come home complaining about all the activities going on and how he wasn't allowed to be involved in them. He was feeling left out. Even worse for any thirteen year old, he was feeling singled out and set apart from his peers. So he complained to his parents.
He didn't get quite the response he was hoping for. Instead, his mom phoned and emailed the school, and the superintendent of the area, and even the board of education. She also sent a letter to several local media outlets. The content of her letter and phone calls was the 'discriminatory and prejiducial nature of activities at that school,' and how they 'infringed on religious freedoms, purposefully fostered evil behaviour,' and intentionally promoted an 'immoral educational agenda.'
Eventually the furor subsided. Eventually, even the ostracization of the unfortunate kid at school died out. But this year our school was pretending Halloween didn't exist. This also went for all the other days that were 'possibly religously controversial.' Even Valentine's Day was nixed, though I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out the connection for that one.
None of this really affected me of course. I just curiously watched how all the other students reacted to it all.
That's what I was doing that October day in the school lunchroom. I sat at my usual table eating my tuna fish and rye and listening, as usual, to the conversations going on around me at the other tables.
“This is stupid,” Ryan was saying, “It's like we have to pretend Halloween doesn't even exist! All because of somebody else's religion!”
“You're just mad because you won't get to show off your tampon costume,” responded Mark around a mouthful of sandwich.
Becky was looking at Ryan in distaste, “A tampon costume?! You are completely disgusting!” Despite Ryan and Mark's chuckles she was frowning mightily at him.
“Yeah! I was going to get some fake blood and….”
“Ewww! Ew, ew, ew, shut up!!!” interrupted Becky loudly, her hands over her ears. Ryan and Mark were looking at each other grinning. But he did shut up.
I couldn't help it. A little grin made its way to my lips as I listened. But Luke Meyers, sutting beside Becky, put me in my place. He looked past Mark and across to my little table, saw me smiling, rolled his eyes, and said, “What are you smiling at, retard? Listening to other people's conversations? Mind your own business you creep.”
Marylou and Becky frowned at Luke but didn't say anything. Nobody looked my way there was a few seconds of silence. I put my eyes firmly downwards and studied my chocolate milk carton while pretending I hadn't noticed any of that.
It seemed that little interplay was already forgotten. Their conversation continued. “You know,” Mark was saying with a thoughtful look on his face, “we don't have to go along with this. We can wear costumes to school if we want.”
Marylou shook her head, “No, we'd get in a lot of trouble.”
“Not if we're not caught,” Mark replied with a little smile on his face.
Becky looked at him like he'd lost his mind. “Umm, hello?! You're going to wear a Halloween costume to school all day and think you won't get caught? How is that going to work?”
Ryan was looking at Mark and nodding. “Holy crap, that's a great idea!”
Marylou looked at both of them. “I get it,” she said. “We make costumes that we know are costumes and other kids know are costumes but the teachers can't say anything about them! Because they still fit in under the radar of acceptable.”
Luke laughed and pointedly looked over at me, “I know! I could dress up and act like a total loser! After all, they seem to let Curtis get away with that.”
I'd had enough. I got up and began walking towards the door of the lunchroom, my eyes firmly on the floor in front of my shoes. I didn't even take my tray and trash with me even though I knew I'd get in trouble if a teacher noticed. But I didn't care. Just as I got to my feet and turned I heard Becky say, “Luke! Stop it! Don't be a jerk.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw her turn towards me, maybe to apologize. I don't know. I didn't stop to find out.
I headed towards Mrs. Towalski's room. She has this thing at lunch. Students can hang out in her classroom if they like until the bell, but they must be absolutely quiet. No talking, no eating, no noisemaking. Just do homework or read. I was probably her most frequent customer. It was one of the few places in school where I could feel somewhat relaxed. It was safe.
Except when I arrived at her classroom the door was closed and locked. Frustrated and disappointed I leaned my forehead against her door and closed my eyes. I could feel my fists clenching as I hung my arms down beside me. When I opened my eyes again I could see, out of my peripheral vision, Mrs. Towalski turn the corner way down at the end of the hallway and head towards her classroom. When she saw me she seemed to speed up, and the expression on her face changed to concern.
I couldn't do it.
I knew from her expression there would be questions. “What's wrong, Curtis? You've got to tell someone Curtis. If something bad is happening you need to talk about it Curtis. Should I call your mom Curtis?”
She meant well. I knew that. But I just couldn't handle that. I was pretty sure as soon as she started talking to me I was going to lose it completely. Either scream or cry. Probably the latter. And I simply couldn't let that happen. Not here. Not in school.
So I pretended I didn't see her and before she got too close I turned and walked fast the opposite way to the end of the hall, down the stairs, and out the fire exit at the back of the school.
I kept walking for half a block until I reached the little park between two houses. I sat on the bench looking at the empty playground equipment. The fall sunshine warmed my hoodie as I listened to a couple of squirrels quarrel over something.
A cat wandered out from under the slide and walked up to me, stopping an arm's length away. I reached out a hand to pet it but it got spooked and took off. I sighed and put my hands in my hoodie pockets.
I wished I could figure it out. I wished it made the tiniest amount of sense. I wished I understood what changed, and when, because I didn't remember it being like this when I was little. I wished I understood, but I didn't even know where to start.
I couldn't get my head around it. I didn't understand why I never knew how to act, what to say, why everything I did came across as weird to all the other kids. I had learned it did though, so I had stopped trying. It was easier that way, just be quiet, mind my own business, and hope everyone would leave me in peace.
It worked, kind of. But doing that had its own consequences. The quieter I became, the weirder it was when I eventually did say something. And the harder it was to actually do so. So, I became even more reserved. And on and on, ever since grade seven two years ago.
Next year was grade ten. High school. I was petrified.
Sighing, I looked at the time on my phone and stood up. I had to half walk, half jog to get back on time for my next class. I barely made it.
By the end of the day the school grapevine had done its job, and the planning for the McLean Junior High Halloween Costume Rebellion was well underway. My last class ended and I heard Rick Michaels whisper to a couple of friends about his plans for his costume. He was going to wear his hockey gear to school, everything except his skates, and tell the teachers he didn't have a choice, he had a game right after school and his little brother had borrowed his hockey bag so the only way he could get his gear to the game was to wear it.
I could just imagine the stink in all his classes that day. Phew.
During the walk home I thought about what kind of costumes the other kids were going to get away with. I'd heard that Aaron and Erin (I still think the only reason they were going out was because they loved the reaction from other kids about their names as a couple) were going to wear formal wedding clothes and say they had to attend a wedding right after school. Jose was going to pretend he was attacked by a coyote on the way to school, and wear ripped clothes and bandages. He was going to tell the teachers he'd borrowed Rick's hockey stick to beat them back and it broke, and that was why Rick didn't have it with him.
I was kind of, almost, looking forward to seeing what would work and what wouldn't. Which kids would get away with it? Who would be sent home? I wondered if the teachers would catch wind of the idea beforehand and nix it.
Arriving home, I opened my back door and yelled out, “I'm home,” and schooled my face into a frozen polite plastic smile.
Mom came in the room, looked me up and down, and sighed. “Curtis, honey, it's four o'clock.”
I blinked, confused. “Uh, okay? I'm not late, it's early, I came straight home. I'll get started on my homework right away.”
“I know. You always come straight home. You always do your homework right away.”
I tried to keep my emotions off my face. I knew what that would lead to. “Okay? So what's the problem then?”
“Curtis, you're fourteen. Almost fifteen. What fourteen year old comes straight home, every day, alone? And then stays home alone every evening, every weekend? And never puts off homework? You should be involved in after school clubs or activities, or going to friends' houses, or inviting them over here, or larking around outside, or, hell, or getting in occasional trouble and making me go mad with worry. You never worry me. And that, Curtis, has me hugely worried.”
I just looked at her. My face frozen. I didn't have anything to say that would help and anything I tried would make it worse. I knew from experience.
“So why don't you do those things, Curtis? Why don't you bring friends over here? Or go over to their house?”
I knew that in another four seconds I wouldn't be able to keep my feelings off my face so I did the only thing I could. I turned around and walked away down the hallway.
I recognized the tone. So I stopped, halfway to my room. I didn't turn around though.
“Don't walk away like that, young man. Respect your mother. Answer my question!”
I was glad she couldn't see my face. But, unfortunately, I know she could see my shoulders. I'm sure they were speaking volumes. My voice rising in pitch as I answered, I said, “Why don't I bring friends over, or go over to their house?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Because,” I wasn't able to keep the heat, or despair, out of my voice, not all of it, “I'd actually have to have some to do that!” I walked the rest of the way to my room and slammed the door behind me.
Mom didn't follow me. She didn't come to my room until she knocked to tell me supper was ready.
Mom nagged. I suppose she meant well. Maybe. But she nagged. She was awfully good at pointing out what I did wrong, or weird, or below her standards. She wasn't so good at noticing much else, like my grades at school or the award for my science project.
I didn't know how to change that, and I didn't know how to change the stuff she always nagged me about either, so I did my best to not let it bug me, to ignore it.
My trembling hands and hot face seemed to be trying to tell me that it wasn't working.
After supper I stood up and began clearing the dishes. But Mom stopped me. “Curtis, I'll clean up. Go. Out. Get out of the house.”
I turned and looked at her, the shock obvious on my face. “What?!”
“You heard me. Out!”
I was almost panicking. “You're….you're kicking me out?!?”
Mom must have, somehow, figured out what I thinking because of my weird reaction. “What? Stop being so melodramatic. I'm telling you to get out of the house for a while, until just before bedtime. I'm not kicking you out, where on earth did you come up with that idea?”
I didn't know, so I couldn't answer. I just got my shoes and hoodie. “Where am I supposed to go?”
Mom sighed. Then her tone became clipped and hard. “The skateboard park, the sports field, the 7-eleven, the library, I don't know! Just not here! Go!”
I had no idea where I would go. But I went.
I walked. I was headed in the general direction of Bowmont Park, a natural area with trees and grass and bushes and wildlife, with lots of hiking paths through it. It should be safe, I doubt many other kids would be there right now.
I had no idea why I was like this. I had no idea why I couldn't make friends, or why everything I did or said made every other kid roll their eyes or walk the other way or say something awful. Sometimes, when they thought I didn't notice, even the teachers would do this. It was a mystery to me. Obviously there was something fundamentally wrong with me. I couldn't figure it out though. I bathed regularly, wore clean clothes, I didn't think I looked disgusting or all that out of the ordinary. But I knew it was obvious. Sometimes it happened even before I started talking to a new kid or they started talking to me. They would look at me, and they would know. That I was a loser. Not friendship material. Not worth the effort.
I thought of my classmates as I walked along the paved pathway, the creek burbling beside me, cyclists whizzing past me every couple of minutes with a ring of their bells. I came out of the natural area of the park and into an area with several soccer pitches and baseball diamonds. I ignored the organized games going on there and walked around the outside towards the field where a bunch of younger kids were playing a casual game of touch football. I sat down on a bench and watched, mulling over my inability to understand why I was such a pariah.
As I watched, thinking hard, I tried to figure it out by paying close attention to the younger kids playing and hanging around the football game. One kid, I knew immediately, was a leader. The others listened to him, and watched him, and tried to emulate him. Another kid, maybe the brother of one of the players, was sitting watching the game. I could tell right away he was maybe a little like me. He seemed to be giving off the wrong kind of vibes. He seemed to be a bit apart from everything else going on.
I looked back and forth, back and forth. Frowning, getting frustated, I tried to figure it out. What was so different? They were both boys, maybe eleven years old or something. Both seemed about the same size, neither was particularly bad looking, or particularly good looking. They both had the regular number of limbs, feet, hands, fingers, noses, eyes, and whatnot. Even their hair was almost the same colour.
As I watched them, looking back and forth, I realized something.
I had known, almost right away, that one kid was a more of a leader, kind of popular, and the other was the opposite. Even me, with my complete lack of social skills, was able to pick that out easily. So even though I was having a hard time figuring it out, some part of me knew exactly what it was. Right away knew it.
I looked at them. Back and forth, back and forth. It took a while, but I started to figure it out. I wasn't sure at first, but the more I watched the more it was obvious.
They didn't act the same. The way the carried themselves. I was having a hard time pinning it down, but it was real obvious once I knew it was there. I watched some more, trying to compare, trying to figure more of it out.
The football game seemed to have taken a break. Most of the kids were chatting, drinking water, or just sitting on the grass. A few were tossing a ball around.
The kid like me, the one that seemed like he wasn't very noticable or popular, he was sitting on the ground. He had chosen a spot a bit away from the others. I realized that he had done that himself. The other kids, they didn't move away from him, not right away. He chose a spot away from them. After that the other kids seemed to realize it and kept that buffer of space around him.
He was sitting cross legged, his forearms on his thighs. He was looking down at something in his hands, probably playing a game on a phone or something. When people would walk by his head seemed to go down further, he seemed to work hard to pretend he didn't know they were there. His shoulders were low and his back bent. He wasn't moving much at all, even when he looked up. When he looked at the other kids it was mostly at their arms, legs, center of their chest, Maybe at their chins, but never their eyes.
In contrast, the popular kid was looking at everyone, those near him and those not near him. He'd look right at them, right in their eyes. His expression was animated, changing often, and included lots of smiles. I even saw him glance at me once or twice, even though I wasn't exactly nearby. His shoulders were relaxed but not slumped, his back was straight. He kept moving around as he chatted with his small group. When someone talked he seemed to move slightly towards them. Not, like, walk towards them, but his body would turn towards them, maybe lean forward an inch or two. He'd look right at them, right in their eyes, nod, and his expression changed to react to whatever was being said.
It was night and day.
I had no idea why it took me so long to see it. But it was obvious. Then I noticed something else. They dressed different. I mean, they both wore standard issue kids clothes. But the more popular boy had clothes with more colour and they fitted better. The loner kid wore an oversized hoodie practically hiding his entire upper body. It wasn't that his clothes were less expensive, I even noticed the brand name was the same, it was just that the outgoing kid seemed to have picked stuff that would stand out and the quiet kid seemed to pick stuff that would blend him into the background.
Like the stuff I picked.
For no reason I could think of the Halloween costume rebellion at my school popped into my head.
And I had the most awful, scary, and downright horrible idea for a Halloween costume I'd ever had in my life.
What if I went to school that day playing the role and wearing the costume of something that scared the complete crap out of me?
What if I dressed up and acted like a cool kid?
I knew I couldn't really do it. But I noticed I was watching all the kids even more carefully now. Posture, voice tone, gestures, eyes. I watched and tried to file it away in my brain. If I was going to pull this off then I had a lot to learn, and not very much time to learn it.
I knew it would be fake. An act. A complete lie, and probably I'd regret it for the rest of my life. But, I rationalized, it was only pretend. It was only Halloween. It wasn't real. And I desperately wanted to know what it would feel like to act like that.
I changed my mind a half dozen times while walking home, and then a half dozen more times by the time I went to sleep that night. But despite that the first thing I did when I got home is start Googling stuff on how to fake confidence, how to force myself to go up to people and talk to them and pretend I knew what I was doing.
I didn't do anything right away other than keep watching the confident kids, read stuff on the internet, and watch Youtube videos on the subject. I realized right away that for this costume to be convincing I would have to have some practice at this role before showtime. I needed a dress rehearsal. So I picked Steven Taylor.
Steven was a bit like me. He mostly kept to himself at school, sat by himself at lunch, and didn't really seem to have any friends he hung around with. I figured he was a reasonably safe target for my practice. I couldn't really imagine him laughing at me or hitting me.
The plans for the McLean Junior High Halloween Costume Rebellion were for it to go into effect Friday before Halloween. I planned my dress rehearsal for Wednesday at lunchtime. That way I had Thursday to reconsider or figure out anything that went horribly wrong before the big day.
So with that I walked to school that Wednesday morning seriously wondering how any kid could do this. I was a nervous wreck. I was all jittery and my hands were cold and sweaty and my heart was beating way too fast. I was breathing too fast too, and seemed to be having a hard time slowing it down. And lunchtime was hours away still! I had no idea how I was going to do this for real in two days if I couldn't manage it for an hour at lunch today with someone who I thought was pretty safe.
I don't remember anything at all from my classes that morning. But, eventually lunchtime rolled around, as it inevitably does every school day, and I made my way to the lunchroom.
My plan was simple, and was mostly devised from reading that stuff on the internet about how to approach people you didn't know very well. Steve usually brought his own lunch, but he always went through the drinks line to buy a chocolate milk. I was going to wait nearby until I saw him there and then go up to him and ask him if he was going to try dressing up in a stealth costume for Halloween. If that didn't work, if he just said no, and there was nothing more to say, I would follow it up with some questions or comments about what I'd heard other kids were going to do.
Boring stuff, I know. But the articles and the guys on the internet forum I'd joined told me that was how to start because it was non-threatening and common ground for both.
So I was standing there stalking the drink line when I saw him. I waited until he joined the end of the line and then scurried in behind him before anyone else could get in the way. There he was in front of me, about as imposing and dangerous as a golden retriever puppy. But I still had to take several deep breaths and concentrate real hard before I could get the words out.
“Hi Steven,” I squeaked.
My voice had pretty much settled down the past few weeks or so, after gaining its brand new lower range. But sometimes it would still betray me. Usually at the worst possible moment.
Steven turned to look at me. There was no expression at all on his face. None. He just looked at me.
Nothing I'd read prepared me for this. He was supposed to give off non-verbal cues if he didn't say anything! That's what the articles said! He was supposed to frown or smile, maybe subtly, or raise an eyebrow or cock his head or make a gesture or...something.
I closed my eyes for a second, then opened them and decided to try again. I was about to repeat my greeting when I noticed he finally had an expression on his face.
Unfortunately, I had no idea what it meant. I think it was confusion. Or puzzlement. Or maybe boredom. I had no idea. So I ignored it and just repeated myself. “So, uh, hi Steven.” At least my voice didn't squeak.
He looked at me for three infinite seconds before answering. “You said that,” he said.
I was blushing now. I wanted to turn and run away. I closed my eyes again and forced myself to open them and try something else. This was torture.
“Uh, yeah, sorry. I, uh, just saw you there and thought I'd say hi.”
Shit! That was about as stupid a thing as it was humanly possible to say under the circumstances. So that was precisely what I came out with. Figures.
“You're sorry for saying hello?” he asked. Still no expression.
I blinked, blushing furiously. “No! That's not what I meant. I mean, well, just hello.”
I swear, if I had seen the tiniest little look of scorn, the smallest rolling of his eyes, I would've bolted.
But, he didn't do that. Though I have no idea why not. Instead, he did something with his mouth that was maybe, almost, a hint of a tiny smile. “Hello,” he said back to me. If he hadn't been blushing too I probably would have given up right then. But he was and so for some reason I didn't.
“Uh, so...Halloween is coming up,” I said. Why was this so hard? Everyone else seemed to do it as easy as breathing! Though it occurred to me at that moment that breathing wasn't real easy right now either.
Another infinite three seconds. We were only two people away from the cashier now, probably forcing an end to this scintillating practice conversation.
“Yeah,” he said. Still no real detectable expression.
“So, uh, you dressing up?”
Only two long seconds this time. Was that an improvement? “We're not allowed,” he said.
He was next to the cashier. I had to hurry. Though I'm not sure why I felt that way. “I know, but a lot of kids are doing it anyway. You know, that stealth costume rebellion thing everyone is talking about.”
He paid for his chocolate milk before answering. But instead of answering yes or no or talking about the other kids, he did the worst thing possible. He looked at me and asked, “Are you?”
How was I going to answer that? Why was this so difficult? I didn't want to lie. But telling him the truth would make me look stupid.
Now it was my turn for a long pause before I answered. Fortunately I had to pay for my own chocolate milk so I had an excuse for the delay. Amazingly, and for no reason I could figure out, he waited for me while I was doing this. I realized I could say something that might work to continue this conversation, if that's what it was. I was desperately trying to remember why I wanted to do that, but I hated to give up halfway through things. I've always been like that. “Uh, actually, yeah I was thinking of something. But it's kinda weird and I'm not sure I'll go through with it.” I tried to look like I was unwilling to say more and was a bit embarrassed. That was real easy because I was unwilling to say more and was a bit embarrassed.
“Oh,” he said. He started to turn towards the little table he usually sat at.
I guess that was it. This social skills and confidence thing was going to be a lot harder than I thought. I probably should forget it completely. If it was this hard with Steven it probably would be ten times worse with anyone else. Especially when they started laughing. Or insulting me.
Somehow I realized something though. It wouldn't be quite like this with other kids. Sure, it may be worse, but Steve was like me. He was almost as bad at this as I was. Maybe that was part of the problem. Maybe I needed to keep trying. Besides, I was kind of pissed off this wasn't working at all like the people in the internet forum told me it was supposed to work.
So, I followed him. In my mind I used the excuse that we were in the middle of a conversation, so that would be a normal and acceptable thing to do. But when he realized I was doing that he turned and kind of looked surprised. I ignored the look and just sat down at his table before he did, and waited.
He held his chocolate milk in one hand, his bagged lunch in the other, and stood looking at me sitting at his table. I expected him to walk away. I expected him to find another table, maybe the one I usually used, and sit down there.
But he didn't. Instead, after a long delay, he shrugged and sat down across from me.
We both pretended to be much too busy unpacking our lunches to say anything for the next minute or so. But I knew I needed to keep trying.
“Do you think the teachers are going to send anyone home?” I asked.
“Melissa,” he said. Then nothing more.
I tried something one of the guys on the internet forum said might work. I just looked at him, raised my eyebrows, and waited.
And yup, it worked! After a few seconds, he said more. “I heard she's going to wear a swimsuit and a bathrobe, and say she has swimming lessons after school. I think she'll get sent home.”
In my head I imagined Melissa showing up that way, in a swimsuit and a bathrobe. The image was shocking. And hilarious. I couldn't help it, just thinking about it make me chuckle. Melissa is, well, let's just say she has no problem with her body image. She looks good and she knows it, and she wants everyone else to know it. She wears clothes that are just barely tolerable, and often not tolerable at all, and sometimes teachers will quietly, or loudly, ask her to go to her locker or go home and change. Imagining what kind of swimsuit she'd wear, and what kind of bathrobe, and all the boys watching and drooling all day, and all the teachers reacting in shock and demanding she leave right now, it was just hilarious.
To my amazement Steven started smiling too. And then he was laughing right along with me. For some reason that made me laugh harder, which made him laugh harder. We were looking at each other now, grinning and laughing. Between chuckles I said “Can you imagine the look on Mrs. Mason's face?”
Steven laughed harder and added, “Or Mr. Shaw?” Mr. Shaw was our principal. To say he was rather old school and conservative would be understating it. I just nodded and kept laughing.
Then, I realized something very strange. I wasn't nervous anymore. Not only that, I was kind of having fun. Me. Having fun. With another kid. At school.
That thought made me stop laughing. I must have had some weird look on my face, because Steven stopped laughing too and looked at me. “What?” he asked. “You look like you just figured something out.”
“I guess I kinda did,” I answered before thinking it through. For some reason I was expecting myself to get all wound up and nervous again, but I didn't. So I continued. “I realized I was having fun.” I hoped I wouldn't have to explain more than that because I wasn't sure how that would go.
Steven, to my relief, just smiled and nodded. “Yeah.”
“So you're really not going to wear anything on Friday?” I asked him.
Steven looked shocked for about half a second, then grinned. It took me a second before I clued into the unintentional double entendre. Instead of getting nervous and blushing though, I just smiled and shook my head. “I don't mean wear nothing nothing! Somehow I think that just might not quite fit under the school's dress code. You know what I mean, a costume. Are you really not going to wear a costume?”
“Nope. Me? Are you kidding? I'd get teased for it forever, no matter what I tried. I can't believe you're going to wear something. What are you going to dress up as?”
I felt my face go blank as I looked at Steven. I didn't know how to answer that. I wasn't sure if I should.
Steven saw my discomfort. “It's okay, sorry, you don't have to tell me.” He'd been looking right at me for the last few minutes, but now he was again looking down at his tray while talking. His body language changed too. He was starting to look like, well, like he usually looked.
I didn't like it. I liked what I saw a minute ago. And what that felt like. So I decided to tell him.
“I'm wearing the scariest costume I can think of. I'm dressing up, and acting like, a cool kid. Someone with confidence.”
His eyes came back up. He looked at me again. As it sunk in what I was saying I could see him process it, and as he did so I could see his face show what he was feeling. “You're not!” he said.
I just nodded. “I know. It's going to be awful. It's going to backfire. I'm never going to hear the end of it. I'll mess it up completely….but I'm going to do it anyway.”
Steven just stared at me. “Why?” he asked.
I tried to figure out how to tell him what I've been thinking, what I needed to say. It was complicated. I didn't know how to sum it up, how to say everything I needed to say. So I just said, kind of quietly while looking right into his eyes, “Because I need to know. I just need to know.” Then I stopped. And just looked at him.
I watched him think this through, much faster and more thoroughly than I had managed, and then, eventually, I saw him nod. “Umm, Curtis?” His voice was anything but confident.
I just nodded for him to continue.
“Um, well, can I do it too? I mean, it's your idea, and I know you'd do it better, and I'm not sure if you want...”
He stopped because I was just grinning at him and nodding my head as emphatically as I could.
Holy crap, this would be so much easier knowing someone else was doing it too. I don't know why, but somehow I was almost looking forward to it now.
“You gotta read some of the stuff I've looked up,” I said. “And there's this internet forum, for people like me who have trouble with confidence and stuff, and its got some tricks. Listen, I can email it to you or something and...” I realized something that would make this way easier, “Well, listen, instead why don't you come over after school today and I'll show you, then we can talk about it and practice. We don't have much time. Can you?”
I'm a little slow sometimes. It was an hour later, halfway through math class, when it hit me.
I'd just invited a friend over to my place after school.
My Aunt is one of my favorite people. She's my mom's sister. She probably 'gets' me more than anyone else. She knows what it's like for me, but doesn't seem to make me feel bad about it. I don't get to see her very often because she lives so far away, but whenever she comes to visit she gives me clothes.
The thing is, the clothes she gives me is stuff I just could never wear. She knows that, too. She works for some super trendy shop with all kinds of clothes for teens and young adults, so she gives me all these colourful shirts, shorts, pants, and hoodies. They all fit perfectly, too. She has a real eye for that. I know they fit because I usually consent to trying the stuff on once 'just so she can see it.' She never bugs me for not wearing what she gives me when she comes over. And when she gives me the stuff she always just says, “For someday. When the time is right.” So, I have a reasonable collection of stuff that I know fits perfectly but I've never worn, because I just couldn't imagine letting myself be seen in that stuff.
So that evening, when Steven asked me what I was planning to wear, I just opened my closet and pointed.
“Wow. I don't have anything like that. But look at this stuff. I've never seen you wear any of it.”
“No,” I answered, sitting on my bed watching Steven look through my closet, “I knew what would happen if I did. Luke or someone would just tease and insult me about being a 'try hard' or a 'wannabe' and I'd feel like shit. So why bother?”
“I don't know if I can wear anything like this. Maybe I'll just have to try and act the right way but not worry about what I'm wearing. Like we've been talking about. Body language and eye contact and all that….” He suddenly turned to look at me, “That's why you came up to me today at lunchtime!”
I blushed. Hard. But I managed to keep looking at him.
“You were practicing.”
I was totally busted. I shrugged, and half smiled.
Steven laughed. “Well, I guess it worked. How about that.” He went back to looking at my clothes.
I was watching him, and I realized he was almost exactly the same size I was. “Steven, uh, you can, like, borrow any of that stuff if you want. I think it'll fit.”
He hesitated before answering, “Are you sure?”
“Sure. Go ahead, grab a shirt you like and try it on.”
Now, just let me be clear. I wasn't trying to get to see him with his shirt off. I didn't even think about that until after.
But I'm still glad it happened.
Maybe he forgot he was shy, or maybe it was the context or maybe it was something else, but he just nodded, grabbed a shirt he was eyeing, and then pulled off the one he was wearing.
I mean, I really did. It was embarrassing. I was so obvious. I was just staring at him. My eyes roaming up and down his flat stomach, innie belly button, pecs with tiny little brown nipples, those shoulders with that curve down to his biceps, not big but definitely not invisible, then down his forearms to his hands, and then back again, around the curve of his underarm and sweeping down his ribs to his waistline.
He caught me. I mean, he couldn't very well do otherwise I was being so obvious.
He blushed. From his forehead down to his waistline.
I figured for sure he'd figured me out. That he was going to call me out on it or just turn around and leave. But, then he shocked me. Still blushing, and looking at me, kind of with his head turned away a bit, but definitely looking at me, he made a pose. Like a body builder or something. And giggled. And then made another pose.
I squeezed my eyes shut, feeling a fool, and just said, “Sorry.” What else could I say?
“It's okay,” he said. He pulled on the shirt he was looking at. He looked fantastic in it. “I kind of like it.”
I didn't know if he meant the shirt or something else. And I dared not ask.
Friday morning, just after I brushed my teeth and was pulling on my 'costume' my phone vibrated. I read the text. 'We still doing this?' From Steven of course. The only person in my contact list. Well, except for my Aunt and my mom.
I texted back. 'Sigh. We're nuts. But...yeah.'
As we agreed, Steven and I met a half block away from school at the convenience store and we walked the rest of the way from there together. As we got closer and started seeing other kids walking towards the school I looked over at Steven, blew out a long breath of air and said, “Here we go.” Then, I looked towards Jim and Stuart walking just ahead and beside us and with my eyes right on them and a forced smile on my face that must have looked ridiculous I said in a much louder voice, “Hi Jim, hi Stuart.”
A bit startled, Stuart turned to look at me and Steven. He hesitated a half beat, probably shocked out of his skull that I, of all people, actually said something to him and he answered, “Uh, Hi Curtis. Hi Steven.” He looked over us carefully, making me feel terribly self conscious, but I kept eye contact and tried my hardest not to look away or look down or do anything weird with my arms. Finally, Stuart continued, “Are you guys dressed up for the costume thing? You don't usually wear those kind of clothes. Or do your hair like that. But I don't get it, what are you trying to be?”
Steven and I knew this might come up. We talked about it, we practiced it a hundred times, so I was more or less ready to answer that question. That didn't make it easier though.
Steven and I had decided to choose the flashiest, best fitting, most trendy clothes we could find. For two reasons. We figured if we were going to do this then we might as well go all out, no half measures.
Second, we figured that if we did then that way we had a built in excuse for the very question Stuart just asked. So, I grinned, though I'm sure it looked totally fake, and said, “Fashion models for New Generation. We have a photo shoot right after school.” I couldn't stop myself from blushing a little, but I forced myself to keep my head up and my eyes on Stuart and Jim. I could see Steven beside me doing exactly the same thing.
Jim and Stuart looked us over, then looked at each other and shrugged. Jim said, “Not bad, guys. I like it.”
I was thrilled! It worked! And they actually were talking to us, almost like we were normal kids.
I felt an urge to just leave before everything went south, but I remembered the tips from that internet forum. So I perservered. I looked Stuart and Jim up and down and grinned. This one was a lot more real and a lot less forced, because what I saw really was funny. “You guys are going as the dorkiest nerds the school has ever seen.”
Jim and Stuart looked at each other. I actually think they were a little embarrassed. I knew why. They were talking to me and Steve. The dorkiest nerds in the school and, to their credit, I think they were worried about how that might have looked to us.
Beside me, Steve was looking at them. Then he just started laughing. “Well Stuart, I think you need some more lessons. Today's nerds don't wear pocket protectors, and horn rimmed glasses aren't nerdy anymore, they're almost cool again.” I was just grinning at them along with Steve.
Stuart and Jim looked relieved. “I guess we should have asked you guys for advice,” Jim said. Then he suddenly looked stricken, “Oh shit, uh, sorry, I didn't mean….”
But I just interrupted and said, “Yeah, you should've. We've got that look down pat. Could've given you pointers on how to slump, how to not look at people. All that stuff.”
Once again, Jim looked relieved. But my comment was maybe a bit too revealing. Stuart was looking at me with a real thoughtful look on his face. Accompanied by a little smile. Oh crap, I think he figured out what we were trying to do. Stuart said, “Listen, if you guys aren't doing anything at lunchtime come and sit with us. I wanna ask you something. But we gotta go now, I gotta drop off something with Mr. Hughes before the first class.”
They walked off. Steven and I looked at each other. “Oh shit,” Steven said. “I think he knew what were doing. Do you think we're in for it at lunch? Should we go sit with them?”
I thought. “Did they seem like they were teasing us to you? Or were going to trash us? I dunno, I thought they felt kinda bad when Jim thought he was telling us we were kinda nerdy.”
“I guess,” Steven answered slowly, “Well, what do you think? Should we go ahead and sit with them? Should we keep trying to act like this?”
I just smiled, “School hasn't even started yet, we've tried this confidence stuff for literally two minutes, less I think, and we've already been asked to sit with some other kids at lunchtime. And you're asking if we should continue?!”
Steven just stared at me. Then he smiled that grin of his and answered, “Good point.”
We walked into the school smiling.
We had to split up then, because we had different classes. I went to Mrs. Towalski's room for math. The whispers were loud and ongoing in the hallways and in the classroom as the kids filtered in. Everybody, well, everyone that had dressed up, was wondering the same thing. Would the teachers figure it out? Who went too far and was going to get kicked out? What would happen to the rest of us when the teachers figured out what we were doing?
Very suddenly, the chatter and laughter completely stopped. The classroom became dead quiet as Mrs. Towalksi walked into the room and stood in front of us. We stared at her, our eyes wide, our jaws dropping. She looked around at us, her eyes spending a few seconds longer on those who were obviously costumed. Then she grinned a huge grin and said, “I hope you don't mind, I have an audition right after school, and won't have time to go home and change.”
We goggled as she stood there grinning at us in her bright pink ballet costume, complete with frilly tutu.
And then: pandemonium.
Everybody was talking at once, loud laughter and cheers were echoing off the walls, it was incredible.
I still don't know where I found the courage, but I had learned a lot the last week or two of research and talking to people on the internet forums. I waited until things were starting to quiet down, saw an opening and went for it. Keeping my face serious, nodding my head at Mrs. Towalski and even though I was blushing furiously I said, as loudly as I dared, “Well, good luck in the audition Mrs. Towalksi. It's not just anyone who can play the Wicked Witch of the West in the dance version of 'The Wiz,' but I think you'd fit the bill perfectly.”
The class went silent again for a half beat. I started to consider crawling under my desk, knowing I'd completely fucked up. But then it happened. Someone breathed in sharply and then said, “Ooohhhhhhh, snap!” Then, just like that, even louder than last time, complete and total chaos. People were cheering, laughing, hooting. Three kids within reach of my desk put out their hands for a fist bump or a high five. Mrs. Towalksi was grinning evilly at me, plotting some kind of good natured revenge by the looks of it. It was incredible! I'd never felt like this in my entire life!
When things started to quiet down Mrs. Towalski looked at me and nodded, “Nice costume, Curtis. Keep it up. I think it suits you.”
Embarrassed, but pleased, I just blushed and nodded.
Mrs. Towalski then made a point of walking over to her cupboard and taking out a bottle of Febreze fabric deodorant that had quite obviously been placed there in preparation. She then walked over to Rick Michaels and began thoroughly spraying down his hockey gear, to the accompaniment of thank yous and laughter from most of the kids around him.
We all just chuckled and grinned while Rick just sat there smiling in the fog of Febreze.
“Okay class, believe it or not, we actually have some stuff to learn today. Let's get to it.” And so the strangest math class I can ever remember got down to business.
I was feeling pretty good about myself when the bell rang for lunchtime. When I entered the lunchroom I looked around for Stuart and Jim. I knew they usually sat towards the back, nearer the left and was scanning that area when I was bumped hard from behind. I didn't quite lose my footing, but I had to take a step forward to catch myself before recovering, and then turned around to see what happened.
Luke was standing there with a sneer on his face. I immediately felt my facade slip. Already several people were curiously watching us. Luke's confident sneer and the watching audience were having the usual effect on me. I felt my throat close up, my face flush hot, and my heart rate triple. I could feel my eyes widen, my mouth do that weird thing that makes me look like I was about to cry, though I was much too frozen for that. I couldn't say anything, couldn't do anything. I was like a statue, and so I did what I always did when this happened. I lowered my eyes and waited for it to end, helpless and useless. I heard a couple of girls begin giggling at the scene and one of Luke's basketball teammates guffawed while looking at me.
I wanted to die. I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me whole. I knew it wouldn't work, my stupid idea for a costume. Sure I could wear the clothes, but I was a loser. Why did I ever think I could fake anything else? I was a wannabe, a try hard, and I knew it.
“Oops. Did I bump into you?” said Luke, the sarcasm thick and heavy in his voice. “I guess I didn't notice you.” I stood there, mute and dumb, looking at Luke's shoes. Luke's eyes roamed over my clothes. “Jesus you look like a dork. You've just completely ruined the brand, now everyone will have to wear something else.”
Hopelessly, I just waited for it to end.
I felt someone's elbow brush mine and my attention was diverted from Luke's shoes. Steven was standing beside me. I could see him out of the corner of my eye. Only instead of looking down at the floor like I was doing, like I'd seen him do a thousand times in this kind of situation, he was just standing there, his eyes directly on Luke, looking right into Luke's eyes.
Steven didn't say anything. I suspect he couldn't. I, of all people, knew how hard this was. But he was forcing himself to keep looking at Luke. His expression wasn't fearful, instead it was hard, his mouth a closed tight line, his eyebrows heavy.
I discovered something in that instant. I'd heard about it, read about it, but I didn't think it was actually real. I thought it was just a silly plot device in a book. As I watched Steven, standing right beside me staring at Luke, I felt something shift inside me. I felt my fear, my helplessness, begin to fade. I felt my anger at Luke begin to gather steam. Even though Steven wasn't saying anything, wasn't doing anything, was just standing there beside me, I could feel his support. And that changed everything.
I had managed, with Steve's support, to force my eyes off the floor. I was looking at Luke now, the building anger inside me I was sure starting to show on my face. But, I still had absolutely no idea what to do or say to get me out of this with any shred of dignity intact.
I watched Luke's sneer increase, his sarcastic smile pull his lips up. He opened his mouth to say something. But then I felt two more people standing beside me, on my right this time. Stuart and Jim.
As soon as he was there Stuart said to Luke, “Meyers, you prick. What kind of shit are you stirring up today?”
Luke looked at the four of us while two of Luke's friends moved to stand beside Luke.
I didn't like this. I didn't like this at all.
Looking right at me, Luke said, “I see you've recruited the school's pansy parade to help you out. Can't do it yourself, Curtis? Didn't think so. Bet all it took was a couple BJ's each to get 'em to do what you can't.” He looked over all four of us. “Oh wait! They're not doing anything either! Fucking pathetic.”
I saw Stuart clench his fists beside me. He opened his mouth to say something, but then, for no reason I could figure out, instead he looked over at me. Right into my eyes. His mouth closed and he kept looking at me.
I knew he was waiting for something. Something from me. But I didn't know what and I didn't know why. I looked back at him, frustrated.
Then I saw it. I saw it in his eyes. I don't know what told me was going on there, but it was plain as the nose on his face. His eyes were telling me that he knew. He knew what I was trying to do today. He knew why. And he knew if he was the one that answered Luke he'd be completely ruining that. He'd be taking that away from me. And he didn't want to do that.
I saw all that in a second. Probably less. But I had no idea at all how it helped me. I was still me. Luke was still there and I couldn't see a way out of this that didn't end up with pain, suspensions, and ridicule.
But I also knew Stuart had made a decision and didn't intend on changing it. Jim didn't look like he was all that interested in saying anything either. In fact, I got the feeling he was eagerly waiting for the first punch to be thrown. Steven was still on my left, standing there with nails shooting out of his eyes, but I don't think he could figure out what would help either.
So, though I had no idea why, it was completely up to me.
I looked at Luke and his buddies, weighing our chances. There were four of us and three of them. So that meant that we were only outweighed by 150 pounds or so. And they were used to this and we weren't, except maybe Jim by the looks of it. Aside from everything else that would happen, there was no way this could go well if it ended up getting physical. And it was very, very close to doing so.
I saw Luke twitch. I knew I only had a second or so. But I still didn't know what to do. From the back of the room, I saw the lunchroom supervisor walking briskly towards us. One way or another this was about to come to an end. Then I saw Becky move through the crowd of people standing behind Luke until she was standing in front. She was looking at Luke with disgust, but Luke, facing away from her, couldn't see that. I thought of something that, maybe, might work. I had figured something out. I had figured out how important the social stuff was to me, and by extension how important it must have been to everyone else, too. So, I forced my eyes off Luke and past him and looked at Becky. I raised my eyebrows and focused on making my voice tone something like what I wanted, and loudly asked Becky so everyone around us could hear, “Becky, do you really let this guy,” I pointed at Luke, “sit beside you at lunch? Walk you home? Hold your hand?” I shook my head. “Why?”
Everyone's attention was now on Becky, including Luke's, who seemed surprised to find her standing there glaring at him. Becky made a face to Luke that cold only be interpreted as cold derision. She looked at me and smiled. “You're right, Curtis.” Then she turned to Luke. “Not anymore. We're done, Luke. And if I hear anything more about you doing this kinda crap I guarantee you I will make you regret it. Remember what I know.” She took hold of Marylou's arm. “Come on, Marylou. Let's go find somewhere civilized to eat lunch.” And with that they marched off, Luke watching her retreating back in shock. I heard the group around us whispering, the grapevine already doing what it did so well, and I heard the laughter and saw more than a few appreciative looks towards me.
“Come on you guys. Let's go outside to eat lunch,” I said to Steven, Stuart, and Jim. “It kinda smells in here.” And with that, I turned and walked out the door, with my friends following.
I'm glad they were behind me. I'm sure the massive grin on my face looked completely ridiculous.
I've got to hand it to my mom. When I showed up after school wearing clothes she'd never seen me wear before and with three friends in tow she didn't bat an eye. She just said, as if she'd been doing it every day forever, “Keep it down to a dull roar, boys. And help yourself to a snack.” She pointed at the tray of cookies and then without another word, no embarrassing questions or weird comments, she just left the room. Maybe she wasn't so bad after all.
In my room we settled down to play a few video games. There was a weird kind of vibe going on with all of us. Stuart kept looking at me and smiling. Steven looked like a different kid, almost like he was glowing. Jim just looked amused.
As I set up the game console Jim said, “I still think we could've taken 'em.” He punched a fist into his open palm for emphasis. Then he looked over at Stuart and raised one eybrow, smirked, and said to Stuart, “But I think you liked the way it turned out a lot better, didn't you?” He then grinned at Stuart.
I knew I was missing something as I watched Stuart just look back at his friend, shrug, and smile.
I finished setting up the game console and handed the controllers to Jim and Steven. The first time anyone other than me or my Aunt had used them. “You guys are up first.” I sat down on the end of my bed to watch as they settled onto the floor to commence battle.
But after sitting down instead of turning towards the TV Jim was just looking at Stuart and smirking. “Told ya you'd chicken out,” he said to Stuart. Steven was by now, like me, watching the two of them and trying to figure out what they were going on about.
Stuart looked back at his friend and frowned. Then he too smiled back at Jim. But he didn't say anything. Instead he walked over and sat down on the edge of my bed. Right beside me. Like, so close he was touching right beside me.
Jim laughed, shook his head, and turned his attention to the video game. Steven just kind of nodded like something he knew already was finally being demonstrated. Then he too turned his attention to the game.
I'm a little slow. I still was trying to figure out what was going on as Stuart took my hand into his. He turned to look at me. “I just love Halloween, don't you?” he asked, his eyes on mine.
I looked at his lips, only a few inches from mine now, then back into his deep brown expressive eyes.
All I could do was smile and nod.
Copyright © 2015 under the pseudonym Gee Whillickers. All rights reserved.
Thanks for reading. As always I want to sincerely thank my editor for his help. The story is better as a result. The mistakes that remain are solely my responsibility, and the story would have considerably more if it weren't for his keen eyes.
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