I can’t explain how good it was to sleep in my own bed for the first time in almost a week, to smell the familiar scent of the linen, to cuddle into my soft, old pillow, to be covered by the warm blankets that had comforted me for so long now. Even the sounds of the town at night, drifting up from the valley below us and in through the slightly open window, felt comforting and familiar.
It was the first decent night’s sleep that I’d had in ages, since even before the trip away, and when dawn came on the Saturday morning it slipped by unnoticed; well, by me at least. Thankfully my family let me sleep, and when I was eventually woken by the sound of a lawn mower in the yard of a not far distant neighbour I found that it was almost eleven in the morning.
Throwing back the blankets I lay there for a little while longer, letting the sun from the window, which was falling across my bed, warm my skin.
Looking down at myself in the sunlight I could see that my usually pallid body was now tinged a bright shade of pink, no doubt the result of my spending a few days in the wilderness, shirtless. I could also see the shadows of bruises that had been and gone, while others still stood out quite stark, in either black or yellow. Further down I could see the front of my boxers tented out slightly and I fondly recalled the dream that I had been rudely awoken from. I knew that I wouldn’t get that dream back now . . . but there would be others, I was sure of that at least.
With an effort I sat up and swung my legs over the edge of my bed and placed my feet on the carpet, which was so much softer and more comforting than the damp litter on the floor of our little cave out in the mountains.
It felt good to be home, but at the same time things felt different. It felt a little odd not having Dallas close by when I awoke, which surprised me considering how short a time we had actually spent together out there, but that was only a part of what I was feeling. There was much more to it than that, although I was struggling to put my finger on exactly what that was.
Looking around me at the contents of my room I had a sudden feeling that I was almost a stranger in this space. It was as if the model aircraft and warships which I had slaved over lovingly and the posters of sci-fi movies which had meant so much to me all belonged to someone else; the kid who once lived here, perhaps?
It was then that I realised what it was that felt so different. I wasn’t that kid any more. I was no longer the twelve year old boy who liked playing with model airplanes and ships. I was leaving that part of my life behind me and about to start travelling a different path, heading in my own direction. It was exciting, yet at the same time it was scary to think that I was about to embark on a totally new journey. I was finally growing up, although at the same time I knew that a part of me would always be that boy.
I picked up my favourite model, Lord Nelson’s flagship, the H.M.S. Victory, and recalled the many hours I spent trying to get everything just right, trimming pieces here and there to make them fit perfectly, painting each individual piece by hand, then setting them aside to dry, before finally gluing everything together. It was a world which I had enjoyed from an early age, but had immersed myself in thoroughly for a time when things had gone pear-shaped with Dallas the first time round, the results of which were now lining the shelves of my bedroom.
As I scanned the walls of my room looking at the stuff I had collected over the past few years I caught sight of myself in the long mirror that was attached to the back of my bedroom door and was unprepared for what I saw.
The skinny, long-haired, unkempt person who was staring back at me appeared to be a total stranger and suddenly Dallas’ words started to make sense to me. I finally saw myself in the same light that I felt sure others were seeing me in, with my long hair and multiple body piercings, and I decided that I didn’t like it. Black and yellow bruises aside, I had been turning myself into a freak show without even realising it. I guess it was little wonder that people were thinking I was weird, or crying out for attention.
Then and there I resolved to do something about it, but it couldn’t be today, as I needed to get back to the hospital to see how Dallas was doing, and not just in a physical sense.
After putting the H.M.S. Victory back in its place, I was satisfied now in my own mind that things were about to change, and in more ways than one. I pulled my towel from the hook on the back of my door and then found myself some fresh clothes, selecting a pair of blue denim jeans and a respectable plain coloured button up shirt over my usual black, before heading down the hall to the bathroom for a shower.
When I re-emerged some time later I felt (and quite possibly looked) like a whole new person. A shower, a shave, a shampoo, some clean clothes and the removal of some excess metal can have that effect on a person apparently. Well, at least that seemed to be the impression I received, judging by the expressions on the faces of my parents and brother when I finally made it to the kitchen at around noon.
‘Well, good afternoon! Are you feeling all right?’ my father asked as he looked me up and down.
‘Never better,’ I replied.
‘Did you bump your head out there in the wilderness or something? Do we need to take you back to the doctors again?’ Connor added.
I gave him my best you’re so dead glare but he simply came at me and put me in a headlock, which I found impossible to evade, although I did enough squirming around and wrestling with him to let him know I wasn’t the total push over I had once been.
‘Boys!’ my mother exclaimed. ‘When are you two going to grow up?’
‘Never!’ we both answered simultaneously, which caused us both to start laughing and break our hold of the other.
‘Well mother, it seems our boy hasn’t suffered any for his little adventure,’ I heard my father say.
‘Apparently not,’ she replied.
* * * * *
After we had eaten lunch I borrowed my mother’s little Toyota, which was something that I didn’t often do, and headed for the hospital to check on Dallas, eager to continue where we had left off.
‘You’ll need to get some petrol for it,’ my mother said as I kissed her cheek and picked up the keys from the kitchen bench.
‘Okay,’ I replied then headed out the door.
On the way to the hospital I called in at the first little petrol station I came to and put ten dollars’ worth in, then headed inside to pay. While waiting in line I was standing beside a newspaper stand and when I glanced down at it I was surprised to see both Dallas’ and my own smiling faces from our school photos looking back at me, along with a photo of Dallas being transferred from the helicopter to the waiting ambulance.
I picked up a copy of the paper and started reading what appeared to be a somewhat sensationalised version of our little adventure, which brought a smile to my face, thinking that Dallas would certainly get a kick out of it. I picked up a second copy, along with a pack of sweets for Dallas then presented them at the counter when it was my turn. The young guy behind the console did a double-take when he glanced at me, then at the newspaper.
‘Hey, that’s you!’ he said to me.
‘I’m afraid so,’ I replied.
‘Are you okay after that happening? How’s your mate?’
‘Yeah, it’s all good. He’s still in hospital but he’ll be okay too.’
‘That’s good then. You guys sure made the headlines this week!’
‘Certainly looks like it,’ I replied.
After paying the money and getting back into the car I pulled out onto the road and headed for the hospital, managing to find a parking space almost in front. I parked the car and made my way inside and down the long corridor to the lift, then rode up to the third floor where we had shared our room, carrying my gifts for Dallas with me.
It was now Saturday and, while I still felt tired, I was definitely in much better spirits. I could see there was a future for me, and for Dallas, even if there was still that niggling little voice in the back of my mind telling me to tread carefully with him.
When I reached his room I found him asleep, while his mother was sitting in the chair beside his bed reading, with her back to the window. The lights in the room were off and it was quite dim, and in the bed I had slept in there was a new patient, an old guy dressed in striped pyjamas, who was also asleep. The curtain between the two beds was drawn, so at least there was a little privacy.
‘Hello there JJ,’ Dallas’ mother said when she looked up to see me standing at the end of Dallas’ bed. Placing her magazine down on the bedside table she got up and came to me with her arms outreached, then hugging me and kissing me on the cheek. ‘Dallas has told us everything that happened out there. I don’t know how we can ever thank you enough.’
‘It was nothing really, Mrs. P,’ I replied. ‘I only did what anyone else would have tried to do.’
‘Well, we’re just so glad that both you boys are all right.’
‘So am I.’
I looked down at Dallas who was still sleeping, his normally strong features appearing almost angelic in the dim light.
‘He also tells me that you are friends again,’ she said as we stood there at the end of the bed looking down at him. ‘I’m so glad to hear that . . . but . . . but his father is a little worried, you know?’
‘Why would . . .,’ I started to say, then suddenly realised what she was getting at. It hit me like a punch in the guts. I felt the blood drain from my face and a chill go down my spine.
She looked up at me and smiled, then patted me on the arm. ‘It’s all right dear. I know that boys will be boys, but . . . well, these sort of things can worry some parents of course. We love our son, JJ, and I know that Dallas is big enough to start making his own decisions of course, but his father is a bit . . . a bit old fashioned about these sorts of things. Dallas can be just like him in many ways as well, so just . . . just don’t expect too much too soon, if you know what I mean?’
‘Have you been talking to my mother?’ I asked her, while quietly seething that my own mother would betray us like this.
‘We talk . . . and sometimes have coffee,’ she replied, giving me a conspiratorial wink as she did so. It didn’t make me feel any better, but at least it appeared that there was one more person on our side.
‘Hey, what are you two whispering about?’ we suddenly heard and turned to see Dallas awake and staring up at us.
‘Just never you mind,’ his mother said to him, then after picking up her purse added; ‘Now, I’m off to the cafeteria for a coffee. You two behave yourselves while I’m away.’
We watched in silence as she left the room, then when she was gone we turned back to each other.
‘Are you going to tell me what that was all about?’ Dallas demanded.
I was in two minds as to whether I should say anything or not, but in the end I decided he needed to know.
‘She knows,’ I said to him, as I sat down on the edge of his bed. ‘I don’t know how, but she knows.’
‘What? How the fuck could that happen? Did you say something? Somebody must have said something!’
‘Our parents talk, Dal. They seem to have us all figured out already . . . or at least our mothers do.’
‘Jesus. I can’t fucking believe this. First your mother, then mine! My old man will go ballistic if he even hears a whisper of this.’
‘Is it really that bad?’ I asked him, as I reached out to hold his hand, only to have him pull it back away from me.
‘It’s worse than that,’ he replied flatly. ‘Fuck, I can’t handle all this right now.’
‘Please don’t do this, Dallas. It’s not worth getting all worked up over. It really doesn’t matter what other people think.’
‘That’s easy for you to say. You’re already out there. I’ve already told you that I’m not like you. I can’t . . . I can’t be like you.’
‘I’m not asking you to be like me. I only want you to be yourself. Screw everyone else.’
‘It’s not that simple.’
‘That’s just it. It is that simple. You just have to have a little faith in people.’
‘Faith? Fucking hell! How can I have faith in people when they are all whispering about me behind my back? Including our own families even!’
Even I had to admit he had a point there.
‘Just . . . just give me some time to think will you please?’ he finally said after a lengthy silence. ‘I’m sorry, but this is all starting to get way too crazy, way too soon!’
‘Do you want me to go? Is that it?’
He didn’t answer me, instead just rolling his head away and staring out the window. I took that as being a yes, and so I left him, with tears and heartache like I had never felt before starting to build up inside me.
I don’t remember the ride down the lift to the ground floor, but I do remember running down the corridor toward a distant light, past the hospital offices and waiting rooms and clinics and the cafeteria where I knew Dallas’ mother would be sitting drinking coffee, perhaps thinking that her son and his new boyfriend would be upstairs working out their future together. Everything went by in a blur and it wasn’t until I reached the car that I stopped running, collapsing against it from a lack of breath with my head in my arm across the roof above the passenger side door and sobbing uncontrollably.
How could life be such a breeze one minute, then be dragging you through the mud the next?
Dallas was right. This was getting all too crazy, but that didn’t change the way I felt about him. And I was sure it didn’t change the way he felt about me. All it meant was that he was more worried about what others were thinking about him than he was about his own feelings, or mine.
A few minutes later, after I had received some odd looks from passers-by, but had finally managed to compose myself, I fumbled for the car keys in my pocket and managed to unlock and open the door. I got in and sat there for a few moments, before eventually starting the motor and pulling out onto the street. I had no idea where I was going, I just drove and drove and drove around town, before eventually taking one of the roads up into the hills, which led to the lookout, from where you could see down into the town as well as out into the distance.
As I climbed the side of the hill I really floored the accelerator on mum’s little car, taking my frustrations out on the vehicle and with tyres screaming as I rounded the corners on the narrow road, at an almost suicidal pace, I pushed it as hard as I dared. If another car had been coming down the side of the hill as I was climbing I would have surely been totalled, but thankfully there was no one else about. When I reached the top I pulled into the car park in one piece, but with every fibre of my body on edge.
‘Fuck Dallas! And fuck the lot of them!’ I yelled as I slammed my hands down on the steering wheel a few times, then getting out of the car and kicking the front driver's side tyre a few times, just for good measure.
When I had finished I just stood there looking at the car, with my hands on my hips. Slowly it dawned on me how absurd I must have looked, standing there cursing the car, so I looked around to make sure there wasn’t anyone else nearby who may have witnessed my little meltdown.
The car park was quite large and had what I could only describe as an island of grass in the centre of it, with rows of parking spaces down either side. Down the centre of the grassed area were two neat rows of leafy trees, through the centre of which was a paved path which led to the far end from where I was standing, where there was a raised platform of rock with landscaped granite stairs leading up to it, and on top of which was a fenced viewing area.
There were no other cars that I could see, but there was a motor bike parked about half way along one side, just near some stairs which I knew, from having been here a number of times before over the years, led down to a barbeque area and some toilets.
Slamming the door on the car I headed over toward the nearest seat, which was under one of the trees in the middle of the island, and sat down, intent only on trying to shut out the rest of the world for a little while and spending some time alone.
All around me I could hear the sounds of birds flitting about, while from somewhere below the sounds of traffic and the hum of the town was drifting up toward me. Added to that were the words of Dallas which were continually going around inside my mind.
. . . Somebody must have said something . . . I can’t handle all this right now . . . My old man will go ballistic if he even hears a whisper of this . . . I can’t be like you . . . they are all whispering about me behind my back . . . this is all starting to get way too crazy . . . I’m not like you . . . just give me some time to think . . .
As much as I hated to admit it, it was obvious that he wasn’t ready for this . . . or for us! Was it my fault? Had I pushed him too far? Or too fast?
I was really finding it difficult to comprehend why it was so hard for some people to come to terms with who they are. Yes, I could understand the fear of disappointing family and friends . . . I had been there . . . but as far as understanding and accepting your own sexuality as a person, how could they not know? How could they not have some idea?
Maybe it was just me? Maybe I was the one with unrealistic ideas or expectations, simply because I had figured out who I was from a younger age, despite (or perhaps because of) the rejection I had received way back then.
It was all quite confusing, to say the least.
Getting up from the seat I started walking down the alley of trees toward the lookout platform, not really thinking about anything other than just checking out the views and breathing in some fresh air to try and clear my mind of some of the crap that it seemed to be filled with at the moment.
I glanced across at the motorcycle as I passed it, but there was no sign of its rider anywhere. I figured whoever it was might be in the toilets, or off walking on one of the many designated tracks that led away from the lookout. When I reached the lookout platform I climbed the steps up to it and crossed to the far edge, before leaning up against the rail and looking down at the scene below.
From here I could easily make out the features of the town; the church spire, the main shopping centre, the hospital, our high school, all quite large buildings that stood out from those which surrounded them.
It was a nice place and I liked living here, but would I end up staying here? I had no idea what the future would hold or what I would end up doing after school. I guess there were a lot of things in my future that I needed to start thinking about.
I don’t know how long I stood there for, just staring out over the town, but a short time later I was jolted back into the present when I heard the sound of foot steps on the steps behind me and spun around to see a guy, wearing jeans and a black leather jacket, climbing them. At a guess I would have said he appeared to be in his twenties. The mystery motorcyclist, no doubt.
There was nothing remarkable about his features, with his sandy coloured hair and ordinary face, but he did look vaguely familiar. Perhaps I had seen him around town.
‘Hey there,’ he said to me.
‘Nice day for it.’
‘I guess,’ I replied, while already having a pretty fair idea where this conversation was heading.
He came across to the railing and stood beside me, leaning across it and looking down at the scene below.
‘You look kind of familiar,’ he said. ‘I think I’ve seen you around.’
‘You’re from around here then?’
I watched as he started inching closer to me, his hand sliding along the railing until it was almost brushing my sleeve. The dance had started, and while I had no real intention of participating today, I was still amused by his approach.
When he reached out with one finger and touched my arm I knew I was on the money, but even then I didn’t flinch or back away. With Dallas still on my mind I wasn’t sure what I was feeling, other than confusion, although as tempting as it may be to have a bit of fun, I did know that this guy wasn’t who, or what, I wanted. Not today at least.
I picked up my hand and placed it across his, stopping him, then looked directly into his deep blue eyes.
‘Thanks,’ I said to him. ‘On any other day than today I would definitely be interested . . . but not today, sorry.’
His faced clouded over with confusion for just a moment, but then he just smiled at me. ‘You can’t blame a guy for trying,’ he said.
‘No. Definitely not,’ I replied. ‘It’s just that . . .’
‘You don’t have to say anything. It already sounds complicated. I hope you can get things worked out with him.’
We stood there for a few moments, not saying anything, yet somehow fully understanding each other. It was the strangest feeling, but all the same it was a nice feeling, knowing that there was someone else who understood what it was like to be confused and needing a bit of space to figure things out. I’ve known some guys who get all shitty when they receive a rejection, but this guy was totally different.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked him.
‘Todd. What’s yours?’
‘Joel. But people usually just call me JJ.’
‘Well, it’s nice to meet you, JJ,’ he replied, as he offered me his hand.
‘Likewise,’ I replied while shaking it.
‘Hey, I thought you looked familiar. You aren’t one of those guys from the school are you?’
I grinned sheepishly at him. ‘Yeah, that’s me.’
‘Oh, wow! How is your pal doing? I heard that he was still in hospital.’
‘He is, but he’ll be okay.’
‘You can tell me it’s none of my business if you like, but is he the one making things complicated?’
‘You could say that,’ I answered.
‘Well, I hope that things work out for you. Everyone deserves his chance at happiness.’
‘Thank you. I appreciate that.’
We stood there for a few moments more, neither knowing quite what else to say, before the quiet of the afternoon was presently broken by the sound of a vehicle climbing the hill towards the lookout. We both turned to see a car come through the gateway to the car park area and come to a stop on the opposite side to where I had parked. A man got out of the car and propped himself against the door, then lit a cigarette.
Todd and I looked at each other and smiled.
‘Looks like you’re up!’ I said to him.
‘No, not yet I’m not, but it shouldn’t take long. I know that guy.’
I could only laugh.
‘Good luck,’ he said to me, then he hugged me.
‘Thanks,’ I replied. ‘You too!’
Through envious eyes I watched as he headed off toward the newcomer with a spring I his step, before finally turning my attention back out to the distant mountains, in the midst of which was the place where I believe I had finally grown up.
* * * * *
I didn’t visit Dallas again over the remainder of the weekend, which to me seemed strange, leaving me with an emptiness there that I found quite disconcerting. It was a deliberate act on my part, however, as I thought we both needed some space and time to think things through.
My mother simply raised her eyebrows at me when I refused to leave the house on Sunday, while my father just shrugged, but nothing was said. I figured that they must have known why just as well as I did.
I spent the day catching up on Facebook, my emails (of which there were a stack) and a few other sites I visited regularly, trying to get back into my old routines, but with thoughts of Dallas never far from my mind. I chatted online with Merry and Pete a few times and found out that there were indeed now an item, although Pete did say he wanted to have a chat with me in person and in private, which I could only take as meaning one thing.
When Monday came around I was feeling fine and I think I surprised everyone by saying that I intended going back to school that day. My mother insisted that I not walk to school, but take the car instead, so that suited me just fine, as I had hoped to go up to the hospital at lunch time anyhow to see Dallas again, assuming of course that he was still in there. I was interested to see just what sort of a reception I would receive from him.
When I drove through the school gates a little while later no one appeared to notice me, or at least not until I had parked the car and climbed out of it that was. Then all hell seemed to break loose, with people coming from everywhere to stop, stare, say hello or slap me on the back.
Once more it seemed I had become the Monday morning freak show, although this time it was for an entirely different reason.
On the fringe of the crowd of admirers I noticed ‘Hollywood ’ Harris standing there watching the proceedings and when he saw that I had seen him there he gave a jerk of his head, indicating I should follow him to his office. I nodded and started making my way through the crowd toward him.
‘Welcome back,’ he said to me as we started walking toward our building. ‘We didn’t expect to see you back here so soon. Are you all right?’
‘Yeah, I’m fine thanks. I figured I may as well be here rather than moping around at home.’
‘And what about Dallas? How is he doing?’
‘He was fine on Saturday when I last saw him.’
‘Oh? You didn’t go up to the hospital yesterday?’
‘I think we both needed some space to think about things.’
‘That sounds reasonable,’ he remarked.
Once more on a Monday morning the crowds seemed to part before me as I headed for class, only this time it was different. It obviously helped that ‘Hollywood’ was beside me, but it was all smiles from everyone as we made our way down the corridor, with lots of my classmates welcoming me back and saying it was good to see me. I had no doubts that I would be grilled later for all the gory details of our adventure, but so far everyone had been great.
When we reached ‘Hollywood ’s’ office he closed the door behind us and pointed toward the chair, then propped himself against the corner of his desk.
‘It’s good to see you looking well,’ he began, ‘but are you sure you want to do this so soon?’
‘I figured it’s now or never,’ I replied. ‘What’s the old saying; if you fall off the horse you get straight back on!’
‘But not when you’ve been trampled into the dirt, I wouldn’t think!’
I grinned at him. ‘Thanks, but I’m fine. Really. Merry and Pete will be around. Although they’ll both probably smother me to death anyhow.’
‘Okay then. And how about you and Dallas?’
‘As I said earlier, I think we both needed a bit of space and time to think. I want to go up and see him at lunch time though, if I can.’
‘Of course. I’ll give you a pass out. How about Merry and Pete? Will you take them too?’
‘Not this time. I think I’d like to talk to him on my own again first. There’s some stuff I need to say to him alone.’
‘Okay. Well then, it’s good to have you back and in one piece, JJ. Just take care out there, and if there’s anything you need just ask, all right?’
‘Thanks. I will,’ I said as I got to my feet. As I was about to turn and leave I suddenly had a thought, and on impulse I reached out and hugged him.
‘What was that for?’ he asked with a chuckle.
‘I know it may not have been exactly appropriate, but I wanted to say thank you. I’ve never had another teacher who I can say has ever cared like you do. I just wanted you to know that.’
‘Thank you JJ. It’s nice to know that I’m appreciated here by someone at least.’