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About LittleBuddhaTW

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    Itinerant Monk

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    Chinese homoerotic literature, writing stories, martial arts, Buddhism, my cats, cute guys

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  1. Happy Birthday Guy, I hope you had another SUPER day :)

  2. Happy Birthday my Friend, I hope you have a FANTASTIC day and a GREAT year :)

  3. Happy Birthday ~!!~

  4. Happy Birthday Guy,

    I hope you have a GREAT day.

  5. Accepting that you might be gay and making that life-altering decision to "come out" is never an easy one, although it is much easier now than it was ten years ago when I was still in high school. Looking back now, it was probably in middle school that I first noticed a physical attraction to boys, although, at the time, I didn't associate that with being "gay." I knew what that word meant, though, and that it was something you didn't want to be. Starting in 7th grade, I started noticing boys while changing in the locker rooms for P.E. class. We didn't have to take showers then (damn!), but we had to change into our gym clothes. I would always look at the other boys wearing only their underwear, paying particularly close attention to their chests, the way their briefs hugged their tight little butts and slender hips, and whether or not they had started growing any hair under their arms. I also remember having a huge crush on a boy name Mike who was in my band class in middle school. He was really hot, but a total asshole (although not to me). We were friends, but not really close friends. I remember always wanting to see him with his shirt off, but since we didn't have P.E. together, I never got the chance. One day in eighth grade, we took a school trip to a public swimming pool and I finally got to see him shirtless. He didn't have a particularly great body or anything, and still had a little bit of baby fat, but to me, he was the most attractive boy I had ever seen. Even through high school I had a crush on him, but after middle school I didn't dwell on it because I knew that my feelings wouldn't be reciprocated. I harbor no illusions of having "loved" him. Like I said, he was a total prick. But I definitely lusted after him. In high school, I continued to check out the boys in the locker room when changing for P.E. (again, no showers, unfortunately), and even though I was aware of the fact that I was consciously checking out other boys, for some reason, I didn't make the connection with being "gay." Thinking back on it now, it seems pretty stupid. As high school continued on, I started to very, very gradually develop the inkling that I might be "gay" or "bi," although I did not like the thought of it and tried to fight it as much as possible, even dating a couple of girls along the way. But, it was always the boys who really drew my attention, and over time, it became harder and harder to ignore, consequently making my internal conflict more and more intense. I think psychologists might call that "cognitive dissonance," which is the discomfort felt at a discrepancy between what you already know or believe, and new information or interpretation, which results in the mind having to come to grips with accomodating these new ideas. Pretty heavy stuff, right? By my junior year, a couple of my best friends (both girls, by the way, and one of which I had had a fairly long relationship with), I think, both pretty much figured I was gay, or at least bi, because I couldn't help myself from pointing out really hot guys when I was around them. For some reason, doing that didn't make me feel uncomfortable or anything, and I even admitted having "crushes" on certain boys. I guess we were close enough that I knew they wouldn't judge me, but even through all of that, the word "gay" never came up between us. They never asked me if I was gay or told me I was gay. I kind of wish now that one of them would have sat me down in a chair, tied me up, and said, "Dude, you're, like, totally gay! Accept it and deal with it!" But they didn't, which probably delayed my final acceptance and coming out for a few more years. But hey, we were only like 16 years old at the time, and they weren't exactly professional therapists (although one of them now, ironically, has an M.A. in psychology). My junior year in high school was also probably one of the most defining times in my life. That was when I met Eric, the first boy I ever truly fell in love with. He was fourteen years old, a freshman, and the younger brother of one of my classmates. When I first saw him during band auditions the previous spring, it was literally one of those "love at first sight" moments (for me, at least). He was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my entire life, and still is to this day. He had short, curly blond hair (we used to call him "brillo head"), bright blue eyes, a very cute and innocent face, braces, medium height (although he grew quite tall later), and a thin but pretty well-defined swimmer's build. I couldn't get him out of my mind all summer, and knew that I had to get to know him when school started in the fall, no matter what it took. He was an extremely shy and introverted kid, and also a genius (literally!) and a brilliant musician. He only had one real friend that I knew of (who was butt ugly, too!), and always sat by himself during lunch, never really speaking with anyone (us band kids always ate lunch in the band room because our cafeteria was always too noisy and crowded). I was always pretty outgoing, so one day I just walked over to him while he was eating lunch by himself and literally dragged him over to where my friends and I were sitting (which consisted of the two aforementioned girls and a few other good friends). They were also very outgoing (and strong-willed), so we basically told him that he was going to be our friend and he didn't have any choice in the matter. At first, he looked absolutely petrified, but eventually seemed to be really flattered that we would want to be friends with him. After that first day, all of us would hang out and talk during breaks, lunch, band practice, and after-school rehearsals and stuff. He didn't actually talk much, but the more time he spent with us, he did start to open up a little more. Of course, every day that went by, I fell more and more in love with him. At this point, my closest group of friends had to know I was gay because all I talked about was Eric, mostly about how hot and sweet he was. Anyway, one day I got the idea that I would make him a "mix tape" of my favorite Elton John songs, because I'm a total Elton John freak, and thought that it was my mission in life to convert the entire world into Elton John fans. He was very surprised when I gave him the tape. I don't think he understood why anyone would want to give a gift to him. Despite the fact that he was hot, brilliant, and totally sweet, he didn't have much self-esteem. I knew he pretty much only listened to classical music, so I figured he probably wouldn't listen to the tape, until about a week later when his older brother (who was the same age as me, but not cute at all, and a real prick) came up to me one morning and started bitching at me because Eric kept playing that Elton John tape over and over and over again in their room (by the way, they slept on bunk beds ... how cute!). By the time the following spring rolled around, I was no longer content with the "group" thing, and wanted Eric all to myself. Selfish, I know. So, I called him one day and asked if he'd like to go to a movie with me. I think he was pretty shocked that I wanted to hang out with him outside of school. We had a really good time together, and just the two of us hanging out was a lot of fun. He opened up a lot more when we were alone, and he had a really goofy personality, completely different from his public persona. A few weeks later, I decided to take the next step and invite him over for a sleepover (no, those are not just found in cheesy internet stories -- GASP!). He agreed, after he checked with his parents, and I nearly went apeshit from excitement. We hung out in my basement, which my parents had converted into a kind of rec room (very nice, actually), watching videos and talking. I then got the brilliant idea to play a two-person game of "Truth or Dare." To make a long story short, obviously the dares I gave him involved getting him to take his clothes off. Yes, I know, I was evil. What shocked the hell out of me was that he didn't even protest one little bit. As soon as I dared him, the clothes came right off and he stood there as naked as the day he was born, his 5 1/4" cut cock pointing straight out (well, actually it was kind of curved ... and the measurement is exact, since I helped him to measure it). As time went on, and spring turned into summer, our time spent together increased. He spent the night at my house nearly every weekend, and I always ended up getting him naked at some point. We also started cuddling, holding hands (both at my house and when we went out to the movies), and fooling around a little. For whatever reason, we never jacked each other off or had sex of any kind, just a lot of groping, cuddling, and kissing on the cheek. I think we were both terrified of the implications of what doing more would mean. I definitely wanted to do more, and there were a few opportunities, but I never took them. He offered to let me suck his dick once and a couple of times he stuck his bare butt out at me and told me I could "stick it in" (and he had a REALLY cute ass, the kind of perfect, cute, pert little bubble butt that you read about in gay stories online). But I wasn't sure if he was just joking around or serious, so I chickened out. Perhaps if I had a computer and access to a place like Nifty back then, I would have been a little more daring. But I was satisfied with what we had going. There were also some really intense emotions involved, sometimes too intense for either of us to handle. There was a three year difference in our ages (I was 17 and he was 14), and he could be really immature sometimes. But he was also one of the sweetest guys I've ever met. He was always extremely concerned about my feelings. He was also very sensitive. If he thought I was upset or frustrated with him, he would break down crying ... he did that a lot, and I always ended up holding him, rubbing his back, and kissing him on the top of the head. The way he would just melt into my body when I held him like that was incredible. I knew I was in love with him, and I told him I loved him. He said he loved me too, but I'm not sure he really understood what that was. Afterall, he was only fourteen. To this day, I don't even know if he was really "gay" or just experimenting. I have a strong suspicion that he really was (everyone at school thought he was). But his parents were ultra-religious nuts and extremely controlling and over-protective of their kids. So even if he is gay, I think he'll probably end up staying in the closet for his whole life. One of the best memories I have of that summer was when my parents took Eric and I to the beach for a long weekend. We had our own room at the hotel and, of course, slept in the same bed. We usually wore boxers and a t-shirt to bed, but somehow he usually ended up naked in the morning, which I can't say that I minded. It felt great to cuddle naked with him. His skin was so soft and our bodies fit together so perfectly. He was the epitome of innocence at that time, and the way he seemed to look up to me so much made me feel really good. Maybe that's one of the reasons I never went any further with him ... I really did love him and didn't want to mess him up. At that point in my life, everything in my universe revolved around Eric. He may have looked up to me, but I totally worshipped him. During our time at the beach, we did lots of "romantic" things (at least that's the way I interpreted them). We played miniature golf several times a day, went to an amusement park (where he nearly threw up), rode a two-seater bicycle together down the boardwalk, went swimming (of course), and even took walks together along the beach at night. It was perfect. That summer, I also got him a job with me working for a husband and wife who were renovating an old Victorian house. I didn't like doing grunt work and getting filthy, but it meant I got to spend even more time with Eric, and he would come over to my house almost every day before or after work while my parents were out at their own jobs, which invariably led to many more opportunities for cuddling and fooling around. And he loved being naked. When we were home alone, he would run around the house naked all the time. I think he must have been a "closet nudist" or something. Unfortunately, towards the end of the summer, his ultra-religious parents obviously suspected something was up, thinking that we were becoming "too close" (this is what I heard from the girlfriend of his older brother), so they told him that we couldn't hang out together anymore. They even made him quit his job. Needless to say, I was absolutely devastated, but there was nothing I could do. His brother watched him like a hawk, and we never got the chance to talk alone, and of course, his parents never let us hang out or have sleepovers again. I could hardly eat or sleep for weeks and weeks. Eventually, my parents made me go see a psychiatrist, but he didn't do much good. The way I talked about Eric, he should have realized I was gay ... thinking back on it, it really wasn't hard to figure out ... and he should have made me face it and deal with it ... to this day, I really resent that he didn't. So the "therapy" didn't help at all. It was actually my best friend/ex-girlfriend's dad, Barry, who helped me to get over it. He was one of those really spiritual, hippie-type guys, and he spent long hours talking to me about love, relationships, and feelings in general, and gave me a long list of books to read about finding balance in my life, not letting my emotions go into extremes, not becoming co-dependant, etc. That was what helped me to move on with my life. He taught me so much about myself and about life, and there was no way I could possibly repay him for how much he helped me during that time. Unfortunately, Barry passed away about two years ago. I still keep in touch with his daughter (my best friend/ex-girlfriend from high school). She's probably the one person in the world who understands me completely. I've sometimes wished that I could be straight just so I could marry her. She helped me just as much as her dad, and even though I thank her almost every time we talk, it just never seems like enough. So, Brooke, if you ever read this, THANK YOU so much for everything you did for me. I love you! Flash forward to college ... I continued to hide my sexuality at the beginning, but eventually it got to the point where I couldn't take it anymore. I knew I was gay by then. I was certain of it. But I was just too scared to try to meet other gay people, let alone come out. I was firmly entrenched in the proverbial closet. I had pretty much decided that even though I was gay, I didn't have to lead a gay life and would just try to suppress my feelings. Obviously, that wasn't going to work, and I have no idea how other people do it. Things eventually came to a breaking point, and I couldn't go on like that any more. Unfortunately, I didn't know who to talk to. Sure, I had my best friend from high school and her dad, but they weren't gay, so they couldn't completely understand, even though they were extremely supportive (and told me they knew long before I did). Anyway, that year Elton John was planning to come to play a solo piano concert at my university (in February 1999), and I bought a ticket to go see him. I figured if anyone could possibly understand what I was going through, it would be him. So, I wrote him a long letter, telling him everything that I was feeling. I never expected to actually have the chance to give my letter to him (my seat was located in the nosebleed section), but just putting my thoughts down on paper were somewhat of a cathartic experience for me. I got to the concert venue very early, as I have done each of the seven times I've gone to see him in concert. I went and sat down in my seat, and hardly anyone was there yet. As I was sitting there by myself, glancing through the tour program, a guy with an "Elton John Tour" badge walked up to me and asked me if I was there by myself and if I was a really big fan. I had heard about this guy before on some of the Elton John newsgroups online, and knew that Elton sent him around before each show to pick out some "cute younger guys" to sit in the front row. Anyway, he asked me if I "would mind" sitting up in the front row. I was so excited, I nearly pissed my pants. Deciding to press my luck, though, I said that I wanted to sit right in front of Elton, and he said "no problem." Needless to say, I was practically shitting my pants sitting up there in the front row waiting for the concert to start, literally only five feet away from where Elton would be sitting at his piano. When he walked out on stage, I was screaming and hollering, I couldn't contain my excitement. He was (and still is) my idol, not just because of his music, which has always touched me like no other musician has, but also because of who he is as a person, how he cleaned up his life, and decided to give something positive back to society, taking on gay rights issues, and of course, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which is the largest privately-run AIDS organization in the world. After he performed the first few songs, I remembered my letter, so I held it up in the air. He walked over and took it from me, and then continued on with the show, frequently looking at me and smiling or winking (the warm, compassionate kind ... no sexual innuendos, so get your minds out of the gutter! hehe) When he went off to the side of the stage before his first encore, he read my note. He came back on stage to sign a few autographs before doing his encore, then walked right over to me, knelt down, took my hand, and said, "Thank you, David, I read your note," and gave me a big smile. I nearly fainted at that point. Elton John held my hand and actually spoke to me ... he even said my name! Everyone around me was freaking out, too, like I was some kind of celebrity. A few people later told me that the whole scene had been shown up on the big screen that was above the stage, which was a little embarrassing, because I know that during the whole time I was jumping up and down and screaming like a total fag! I couldn't believe what an amazing night that was. Not just the nearly three hour concert, just him and the piano, but everything else that happened, too. It was a dream come true. For the next few days, I was on cloud-nine. That was certainly one of the highlights of my life. What I didn't expect, though, was that a few days later when I went to check my mail, I found a hand-written letter from Elton, giving me all kinds of advice on how to accept being gay, how to go about starting to meet other gay guys, and coming out. He also said that I was "handsome!" He even gave me his home address in Atlanta and told me I could write to him anytime I needed to. I was totally blown away by that. That experience, plus the letter, finally gave me the courage (or whatever it was) to finally and completely accept my sexuality and come out. Within a span of about only two weeks, I had told all of my friends, some of my professors that I was pretty close with, and my parents. Everyone was totally accepting and supportive, including my parents. I even had a few straight guy friends who were beyond cool with my sexuality, and very hot, too! When I was feeling down or lonely, they would come over and hold me or spend the night. Nothing sexual ever happened, because I didn't want to violate the trust in our relationships and I respected them too much. So the moral is, not all coming out stories turn out bad. I've never had a bad experience coming out to someone in my entire life. I've had quite a few friends who have had very, very bad experiences, getting beaten up or thrown out by their parents, ostracized from their friends, etc. I was one of the fortunate ones. I just wish I had had the balls to do it sooner. I realized that all of the fear and anxiety that I had was just in my head. After that, I started going to the gay student club at my university, made tons of new friends, started going to gay clubs and all of that fun stuff. As many young gay guys do when they first come out, I made some poor choices, and did a lot of pretty crazy stuff during my last two years of college. However, I don't regret any of it, because it was those experiences, and the people that I met with during that time, that helped me to become the person that I am today. When I graduated in May 2001, I made the choice to re-locate to Taiwan in order to further my education, and have been living there ever since. The gay culture in Taiwan is very different than in America, and Taiwanese gays have many more obstacles and societal pressures to face than we have in America. However, that is another story entirely.
  6. Saturday morning was eerily quiet, unlike most mornings before games, when the whole dorm was bustling with activity. While the teams that had been eliminated were allowed to stay for the duration of the World Series, a few kids had opted to go home, and most of the others were either off sightseeing, or taking part in pick-up games on the unused practice fields before the day's "big" games started -- the U.S. Championship and the International Championship. The winners of those two games would meet on Sunday in the final game -- the World Series. I sat with Brennan, Tom and Rory, going over strategy. The rest of the team was eating quietly, and Mr. Bellinger was off scoping things out in preparation for the game. Ever since my fight with Dalton, he'd steered clear of me, and now that Rory had been hanging out with the rest of us, Dalton pretty much only hung out with Josh. Much to my chagrin, David was nowhere to be seen. I'd been hoping that his teammates had been nicer to him, but considering they knew that he and I were friends -- and they pretty much hated me for striking them all out -- I somehow doubted that. In fact, I didn't make many friends with the guys on the teams that I'd pitched against. That didn't really bother me, though. I'd made plenty of new friends already. The day before, the ESPN crew had been in The Grove, filming all of the kids goofing off, playing video games, and swimming. Surprisingly, I wasn't even nervous with all the cameras being around, although I might have been if they'd decided to try to interview me. Brennan was the star of the show, though. He'd had the balls to challenge Orestes Destrade to a game of ping pong, and ended up beating him on national television! Needless to say, I was pretty impressed, since "The Big O" was just that -- a big, strong guy, and having been a Major Leaguer and superstar in Japan as well, he had lightning-quick reflexes. But, he was a good sport about it, and really seemed to have a good time hanging out with us kids. Our game was scheduled to begin at four o'clock, and Mr. Bellinger didn't want to work us too hard before the game, especially since the temperature was hovering close to 100 degrees. So, most of us ended up lounging around the pool, chatting with some of the players from the other teams that were still around, and mainly just doing our own thing for most of the morning. After the difficulties Brennan and I had just been through -- the bruise on my cheek still serving as a stark reminder -- I wanted to stay as close to him as possible, even if that meant not joining Tom in the pool. Sure, I would've liked to have spent some more time with Tom, especially now that we seemed to be developing some kind of friendship. But, unlike with David, I knew I would still have plenty of chances to see Tom after the World Series -- like when we started our Fall baseball league -- so not hanging all over him didn't bother me too much. Plus, I still had a great view of him messing around in the pool from where I sat. "You know, if we win today, that means you'll be pitching in the World Series game tomorrow," Brennan said, interrupting my not-so-innocent thoughts of Tom. "Yeah, probably," I sighed, turning over on my deck chair to look at him. Yeah, I'd noticed that Tom looked really good ... but so did Brennan. Spending so much time at the pool the past few days, Brennan had developed a really nice tan, and he was very clearly well on his way to becoming a full-fledged teenager. I had to force myself not to start having these thoughts about Brennan. It was one thing to look at David or Tom that way ... but Brennan was like my brother. I felt guilty and dirty when I found myself admiring his developing teenage body and handsome face. It was enough to make me sick to my stomach. "You nervous?" he asked. "Nah," I replied, shaking my head. "You'll be there, so I'll be fine." It was hard to miss the large smile that quickly broke out across Brennan's face. Around noon, several of us made our way over to Lamade Stadium to watch the International Championship game, which involved the teams from Chinese Taipei and Japan. Japan was heavily favored to win because of their power-hitting lineup, but I was rooting for my buddies from Chinese Taipei. One interesting twist from the Japan team, though, was that one of their players was a little blond-haired, blue-eyed boy. He looked out of place amongst the black-haired, almond-shaped eyes of the Japanese boys. Apparently, his dad worked as a businessman in Japan, and he'd gotten to join the local Little League team. Before the game, I made it a point to pay a visit to my buddies from Chinese Taipei as they were putting their uniforms on and gathering their equipment. They certainly were a rambunctious bunch of little kids, and their enthusiasm was infectious. I'd noticed before that they all wore their pants hiked up way too high, so I showed Jacky how he was supposed to wear them, at least in my opinion, and he spread the word to his teammates. Their little butts were so tiny, though; I was surprised their pants didn't fall right off. The game was a real nail-biter, and Chinese Taipei was leading by a score of 2-0 in the top of the sixth and final inning. Their defense and pitching were solid, and the Japanese team didn't seem to be able to get anything done. However, the coach made a critical mistake when he pulled his starting pitcher, who had only thrown 65 pitches, and replaced him with a second-string reliever. With the potent hitting skills that the Japanese team had shown throughout the tournament, it was not surprising when they were able to get to him quickly, and after four straight hits, had tied the game. Another pitching change was ordered by the coach, and he pulled my little buddy, Jacky, from second base to go to the mound. Jacky looked terrified, and I was a little surprised by the move, since Jacky wasn't really much of a pitcher. He was a great infielder, with lightning-quick reflexes and blazing speed. But, he was just a little guy, and I didn't expect him to have much of an arm. Unfortunately, I was right. His first pitch was thrown right down the middle, clocked at only 50 mph on the stadium's radar gun, and the heavyset first baseman from Curacao drove a line drive right over the center field fence, grazing the bust of Howard J. Lamade, for whom the stadium was named. The final score was 5-2. My little Chinese friends all broke down crying right where they stood on the field. I couldn't blame them; it had been a very emotional game, and they had worked so hard, traveling thousands of miles to be here. I wanted to run out there and hug them, tell them that they had nothing to be ashamed of. But, unfortunately, just at that moment, Coach Penney, Josh's portly father, came to round us up and get us ready for our own game. We went back to The Grove to change into our uniforms and gather up our gear. We were running a little late because of the game we had just been watching, so I was trying to hurry as I pulled on my pants, buttoned my shirt, and adjusted my jock strap and cup. "Looks like your kit is getting a little small there," chirped Tom from behind me. I quickly turned around and glared at him. "What the hell are you talking about?" Tom blushed and quickly looked away. "I mean your uniform ... it looks like it's getting a little small." I immediately felt bad that I'd snapped at him. I thought "kit" was some sort of British slang for my dick! "I'm sorry, Tom," I apologized. "I thought you were talking about something else." Tom looked puzzled for a brief moment, and then his frown quickly turned into a mischievous grin. "Ahhh, I get it!" It was now my turn to blush. I realized, though, that my uniform had, in fact, gotten a little tighter. My new Little League World Series uniform was the same size I'd always worn, but I guess I started a growth spurt. It's about damn time! I thought to myself. I'd always loved wearing my baseball uniform. I also realized how much I liked looking at other boys wearing their uniforms, the way they fit their bodies like a snug glove, tightly hugging their slender hips and round butts. To me, it was even nicer to look at than a boy wearing a Speedo ... or nothing. It left just enough to the imagination ... As I was thinking all of this, I realized that I was staring at Tom ... and then realized that he was watching me staring at him. Shit! I thought to myself, and quickly looked away. I was too scared to look back at him to try to gauge his reaction. Getting caught staring the day before by Brennan, and now by Tom, I really needed to keep myself in check. Fortunately, I already had my cup on, so no one would be able to see my little pricklet sticking out. ************************************************** By the time we got to the field, the clouds had moved in, and rain was on the horizon. Everyone was worried about the game getting rained out. As we headed out to the field to dance with "Dugout," the mascot of the Little League World Series, before the game, I searched the stands for David, but couldn't spot him. Even though I wasn't pitching this game, I was still hoping he'd be there. Rory's nerves had seemed much better that morning, and he pitched really well for the first two innings. The team from Hawaii that we were playing for the U.S. Championship hadn't been favored to win coming into the tournament, but had ended up with a surprising 3-0 record during pool play. Their offense, which had been almost non-existent during their regional tournament, had come alive, and they had outscored their opponents 24-4. Their pitching was also formidable, led by their ace, Kenny Tokugawa, a tall and wiry boy of Japanese ancestry who threw a decent fastball, slider, and a knee-buckling curve ball. We were ahead 2-0 at the top of the third inning, until Rory's control started to falter. After walking three straight batters to load the bases, and then giving up a double to the opposing team's pitcher, the game was tied. As Rory stormed back into the dugout, tossing his glove against the wall, it was like a bad case of déjà vu. This time, though, it was Brennan who plopped down on the bench next to him, draped an arm across his shoulders, and tried to settle him down. I was glad, because it really wasn't my place. Today, Brennan was his catcher, and he needed to be his friend, too. Brennan had always been cold to Rory because of how nasty he'd been to me, but I'd gotten over it, and I was glad Brennan seemed to be cool with him as well. We had to work together as a team if we were going to win, and I thought this was at least a good start. In the next inning, we managed to move into the lead again after Josh hit a triple, and then scored on a wild pitch. In the next half of the inning, Rory returned to the mound, hopefully reinvigorated by Brennan's and Coach's pep talks. All seemed to be going well, as their first batter struck out, and the next one hit a grounder to me at first, which I carried over myself to tag the bag and make the out. The next at-bat didn't go so smoothly, though. Our catcher set up on the outside of the plate, but Rory ended up throwing the ball right down the middle, about six inches off the target, and the ball was driven into the gap in left-center field. Conner made a great throw to Dalton, which kept the runner from making a run for third. That didn't really matter, though, when the next batter drove the ball over the right-field fence for a two-run homer, putting Hawaii into the lead for the first time. Apparently, that was more than Rory could handle, and he broke down crying right there on the mound. As if on cue, Coach ran out from the dugout, along with Brennan and the entire infield. Rory complained that his elbow was sore and he couldn't continue pitching. I think we all knew he wasn't telling the truth -- he was giving up. Coach wasn't about to argue with him, though, and told Tom to start warming up. After a shaky start, walking his first batter and then hitting the next one flush on the ass, Tom settled down and got a strike out for the third and final out of the inning, fooling the hitter entirely with an awesome palm ball that barely hit 50 mph. It was now our last chance to win this game. We had one more at-bat, and if we managed to pull into the lead, we would still have to face the Hawaii team's hitters one last time. Conner led off the inning with a walk, and made it to second base on a wild pitch (something which seemed to happen quite often in Little League baseball). Tom then hit a soft grounder to first, and while he got thrown out, it moved Conner over to third, and we were now just sixty feet away from tying the game. Our luck continued when Brennan hit a line drive into the gap in right-center field, scoring Conner, and making it to second base. Dalton was our next hitter, but he struck out swinging, leaving it all up to Josh, our pudgy second baseman. With the game now tied, even if we didn't manage to score again in this inning, if we could keep Hawaii from scoring again in the bottom half of the inning, we'd at least make it to extra innings and still have a chance to win the game. Josh, though, apparently had other ideas, and wasn't satisfied with a tie game. He hit the first pitch down the first base line, with authority, scoring Brennan from second base, only to be tagged out at second while trying to stretch his hit into a double. If it had been any other player, it would have been an easy double, but Josh wasn't the fastest runner on our team, and he should have known it. It didn't really matter, though, since we were now in the lead once again. Now, in the bottom half of the sixth and final inning, it all came down to Tom and his pitching abilities. We were all still hopeful, though. Next to me, Tom was our best shot at staying in this. Unfortunately, that hopefulness was quickly dashed when Tom's first pitch was driven deep into center field, hitting the top of the wall, and barely staying in the park. By the time Conner got to it and threw it in to Rory, who was now playing third base in place of Tom, the runner was safe. Hawaii was now back within striking range. I don't think anyone dared to take a breath during the next two at-bats, but Tom was quickly back to form, getting back-to-back strikeouts. It now all came down to Hawaii's pitcher, who had shown himself to be quite the formidable hitter as well. Tom threw him everything but the proverbial kitchen sink, and the lanky Hawaiian managed to foul off every pitch. It was a nail-biter of mammoth proportions. With each foul ball, a collective groan broke out from the crowds in the stands. As I scanned the field in between each pitch, I could see the tension and intensity written across the faces of my teammates. We all wanted this so badly. As Tom picked up the rosin bag and tossed it around in his hand, I quickly ran out to the mound. "Hey there," Tom sighed. He looked as nervous as I'd ever seen him. "Have you ever tried a knuckleball?" I whispered, holding my glove in front of my face, lest the opposing team be able to read my lips. "Well, no," he replied, eyeing me curiously. "Can't say that I have." Even now, the game of our lives on the line, my stomach was still doing somersaults, hearing his cute little British accent. Hiding the ball with my glove, I quickly showed him how to grip a knuckleball. I'd only thrown one a few times before, and it was probably the most difficult pitch to throw, but since Tom had pretty much already shown the hitter everything he had, we didn't have much of a choice. We had to keep him off-balance. Tom nodded his understanding and I trotted quickly back to a spot between first and second base. If the ball was hit toward right field, I'd have a chance to stop a base hit. But, if it was hit down the baseline, we'd be shit out of luck. Mr. Bellinger signaled that any ground ball would need to be thrown home to prevent the tying run from scoring, and we all crouched down in preparation. I could feel droplets of sweat dribbling down my face, and my palms were damp with perspiration. It seemed like time was moving in slow motion as Tom kicked at the dirt around the pitching rubber. The silence in the stadium was deafening. Tom went into his windup and hurled the ball. His follow-through was clumsy, no doubt from being uncomfortable with the different grip he was using. The ball lumbered toward the plate, zigzagging in an awkward motion, the mark of a well-thrown knuckleball. The batter shifted his weight onto his rear leg and prepared to take a mighty swing. Considering the low velocity of the pitch, I was sure now that he was going to smack it out of the park. I was surprised, though, when the bottom suddenly dropped out of the ball, and he barely hit the top of it, sending a weak groundball up the third base line, not much harder than a poorly hit bunt. Immediately, Brennan ripped off his mask and charged toward the ball as the runner on third bounded down the baseline toward home plate, with Tom running in from the mound to cover. I was frozen where I stood, holding my breath as the nerve-wracking scene played out in front of my eyes, with nothing I could do to help this time. I heard a gasp from the crowd as Brennan bare-handed the ball and chucked it awkwardly to home plate. Tom made a fantastic catch and hurled himself in front of the runner, blocking his path. As the runner barreled into Tom at full speed, he went flying back. I was silently praying to myself that he would somehow manage to hold on to the ball. As he slammed into the ground, he managed to hold up his glove to show the umpire that he still had control of the ball. Pausing for a brief two seconds, the umpire made his call. "You're out!!!" he bellowed. Immediately, everyone started running in from the field, whooping and cheering. We did it, we'd won! We were going to be playing in the World Championship game! My excitement was short-lived, though, when I realized that Tom wasn't getting up. He was still laying there by home plate, curled up into a little ball. The rest of the team seemed oblivious, too happy at the outcome of the most intense game of our season. I rushed over to Tom and was on my knees beside him as Mr. Bellinger and our team trainer ran out from the dugout. The good news was that Tom was crying, which meant it couldn't have been all that bad. But, the bad news was that ... well, Tom was crying. Mr. Bellinger and the trainer managed to get Tom up to his feet. He was clutching his arm tightly, but was at least able to walk away under his own power. I wanted to stay with him to make sure he was alright, but we were lining up to shake the hands of the other team in a show of good sportsmanship, which was a hallmark of the Little League World Series. I was very worried about Tom, but at the same time, I couldn't help but feel ecstatic about our win, and the knowledge that I would be pitching in the final game. ************************************************** Back at The Grove, we were treated to a luau, hosted by the Hawaii team. They'd roasted a whole pig, had racks of ribs, burgers, hot dogs ... the works. They also treated us to some traditional Hawaiian dancing, and I had to admit that the way some of those boys were prancing around, shaking their slender hips and pert little butts, some of them still wearing their tight baseball pants ... well, it was quite the sight. All in all, we had a fantastic time, and it was a great show of sportsmanship on the part of the team we had just beaten to clinch the U.S. championship. It didn't go unnoticed, though, that Tom wasn't with us. He'd been driven to the local hospital in Williamsport to have his arm looked at, and I was really worried about him. The next day would probably be the toughest game of our young lives, playing the highly-praised Japanese team, but at that moment, that was the furthest thing from our minds as we partied the rest of the day away in the pool and the game room with the other teams that had been cheering for us -- even the ones we had beaten. I think that was one of the great things about the Little League World Series. For the most part, within thirty minutes of every game, everyone was back at The Grove, hanging out together and having a good time, even with the teams that had lost. We were rambunctious, twelve-year-old boys, and we had short attention spans. I did get the cold shoulder from a few players who I had pitched against, but for the most part, everyone was friends. A couple of hours later, Mr. Bellinger and Tom returned. The wind quickly went out of my sails when I saw that Tom was wearing a cast. "Dude, are you okay?" I asked, running up to him. "Yeah, but I'm done," he sighed. "I can't play tomorrow, and I have to wear this thing for the next six weeks, at least." "Tom's got a pretty badly broken arm," Mr. Bellinger piped in. "But, he's lucky it wasn't worse. That was a really nasty hit he took out there." "Man, that really sucks. But, I'm glad you're okay ... I was really worried about you," I said, blushing at my own admission. Tom smiled back and gave me a fist bump with his good arm. Mr. Bellinger was right, though -- it could have been a lot worse. By that time, the rest of the team had gathered around, and were already lining up to sign Tom's cast. Like me, though, I could tell that he wasn't really fond of all the attention. Within a few minutes, everyone's attention had turned back to the ongoing games of ping pong, foosball, and a very heated game of Guitar Hero, which Tom seemed to really enjoy, despite his broken arm. As I watched everyone hanging out and having a good time, I realized that I hadn't seen David all day. He wasn't at breakfast, he didn't show up at the game, and he wasn't down here hanging out with everyone else. In fact, I didn't notice anyone else from his team, either. I noticed the Alabama team's "Uncle," flirting with one of the "Aunts" over by the soda machines, so I tentatively made my way over, clearing my throat to get their attention. They both looked mildly annoyed at my intrusion. "Can we help you, son?" "Uh, yeah, I ummm ... I uhhh," I stammered. I was sweating profusely, and momentarily thought about just walking away. But, I needed to find out where David was. I needed his encouragement before my big game. And, maybe a hug or three, I thought to myself. "Come on now, out with it," barked the "Uncle". His prospective "date" just rolled her eyes, which made me feel even more nervous. "Sorry, sir, but I was wondering where the Alabama team was," I finally managed to blurt out. "I haven't seen them all day." "Sorry, son," he said, his voice softening slightly. "They left to go back home early this morning." I was stunned. How could they already be gone? David hadn't even come to say good-bye to me! I managed to mumble a quick 'thank you' to the creepy old "Uncle," and immediately headed toward the door. I needed to get some air, and I didn't really feel like being around all of the other kids at the moment. I felt sick to my stomach as I walked along the paved pathway that led toward the stadium area. It was a beautiful night, the sound of crickets the only sound in the cool night air. But, I didn't pause to enjoy it. I was devastated. I couldn't understand how they could leave so quickly, and without even saying good-bye to me. David had my cell phone number, so he could have called. It didn't make any sense. I was so looking forward to him cheering for me at our biggest game, and now he wouldn't be there. What was I going to do now? Would I choke like I did at the other game where I thought David hadn't come to see me? How would I be able to face my teammates if I spoiled the biggest game of our lives because I was a pathetic, emotional wreck? With each step, I felt worse and worse. Part of me wanted to just leave, try to hitchhike my way back home to Michigan. I couldn't let my team down, though. I had to at least get out there and try. Suddenly, though, I didn't have much confidence in myself anymore. So, I decided to head on over to the spot where I had first met David. Maybe sitting there, looking out over the amazing baseball field here in Williamsport would help me to gather my thoughts. Just as I rounded the bend that led past the concession stands and the trailers where the ESPN crew had set up shop, I saw a solitary figure walking briskly through the shadows. It only took me a moment to recognize him -- I'd seen him hundreds of times on ESPN and on baseball cards. It was Orel Hershiser, one of the best pitchers of the 1980s and 1990s, who pitched a record 59 scoreless innings in 1988 with the Dodgers, and also won a Cy Young Award and was named the World Series MVP in that same year. Known for his fierce and competitive spirit, his manager, the great Tommy Lasorda, had given him the nickname "The Bulldog." Seeing such an amazing opportunity to get a much-needed boost before my big game, I decided to momentarily push my depression aside and approach the baseball legend. Even though I'd met him briefly right before the tournament started, I doubted he'd remember me. After all, I was just one kid amongst hundreds. "Uhhh, Mr. Hershiser ... ummm, hi ... my name's Grady Davis, I pitch for the Michigan team," I blurted out as I approached him. He stopped and looked over at me. "Yes, I know who you are. You're quite the pitcher, young man." He stuck his hand out for me to shake, and the sincerity I saw in his smile helped to settle my frazzled nerves. "Do you have any tips for the game tomorrow?" I asked. I was afraid I might be pushing my luck at this point, but I'd never forgive myself if I chickened out. "The Bulldog" crossed his arms over his chest and studied me closely for a few moments, appearing as if he was thinking something over. I figured he was probably trying to think of a way to brush me off without being rude. I just stood there shaking like a leaf, waiting for the inevitable "I'm really busy right now," or even worse, something patronizing like, "I'm sure you'll do just fine, kid." Needless to say, his response surprised the hell out of me. "Tell you what, kid. Meet me down at the field down there," he said, pointing down the hill to the closest practice field, which happened to still be lit. "Go grab your glove and your catcher, and we'll go over a few things." I yelped for joy, and was ready to bound off back to The Grove to grab my glove -- and Brennan, of course -- when he stopped me. "Do me a favor, though, bud? Don't tell anyone about this, except for your catcher. Don't even tell your coach. I really shouldn't be doing this. I don't want it to seem like anyone is getting some kind of advantage or special attention. Just keep it between us, okay?" "Sure thing, Mr. Bull ... errr, Mr. Hershiser," I agreed. "I'll see ya in a few!" I ran at top speed back to The Grove, and found Brennan immersed in a heated foosball game with Jacky, my buddy from the Chinese Taipei team. I'd meant to talk to Jacky, maybe even give him a hug or two to console him after their tough loss, but there was no time for that now. "Brennan, ya gotta come with me, man!" I said, tugging at his arm in a near state of panic. I was terrified that Orel Hershiser would give up and leave if we took too long to get back there. "What's wrong with you, Grady? I'm in the middle of a game, dude," he said, looking over his shoulder, obviously annoyed with me for interrupting him. "Please don't ask any questions. I'll tell you in a minute," I replied, exasperated. "What the fuck is up with you, man?" he asked, looking more and more aggravated by the minute. By this time, several other guys had started to gather around, including Mr. Bellinger. "What's going on here, Grady?" Coach jumped in. "Is something wrong?" I sighed. "I just wanna go out with Brennan and toss a few balls around, work on a few pitches before the game tomorrow." It wasn't exactly a lie, but it wasn't the total truth either. I kind of left out the part about a famous Major League pitcher coaching me! "I don't want you tiring out your arm, son," he continued. "I need to have you at 100% tomorrow." "I'll be fine, I promise," I assured him. "Okay, go on then, but be back by curfew, boys." Brennan still looked irritated as I grabbed him by the hand and practically dragged him out the door. Right before he unleashed a stream of profanities at me, though, I cut him off. "Brennan, you're my best friend in the whole world, and I love you more than anything else. Please, just trust me," I begged. We'd already been through so much over the past few days. I couldn't afford to have him angry at me again. Brennan just shrugged his shoulders and continued following me down to the practice field. As soon as we arrived, and Brennan saw who was standing there by the mound, holding his glove and appearing somewhat impatient, I was sure that he was about ready to shit all over his little tighty-whiteys. "Oh my fucking God!" he practically shouted. "He's going to play with us?!" Orel Hershiser arched an eyebrow as Brennan just stood there gawking. "Uhhh, sorry, sir ... I didn't mean to curse," Brennan said, blushing fiercely as he realized his faux pas. "No sweat, kid," Orel responded with a grin. "Just get back there behind the plate and let's see what your friend's got." I didn't waste any time, and ran right out to the mound. Brennan took up his position behind the plate, and I started hurling a combination of fastballs, change-ups and curveballs. After a good twenty or so pitches, Orel walked out to the mound. "Your delivery is pretty good," he began. "You've definitely got a good heater, and your curve ball breaks nicely. There are a couple of small things you can work on mechanically, though." I nodded as Orel Hershiser continued with his tutorial session. He showed me how to dig a small ditch in front of the pitching rubber, plant my foot inside, and then use the rubber to push off from to give my pitches more power. He also showed me how to synchronize the torque of my hips, torso and shoulder, likewise providing more power, and to kick my leg a bit higher during my windup, which he explained would be a bit more deceptive to the hitters. Finally, he warned me that eventually, as I moved along in my baseball "career," the batters would start to catch up to my fastball, so I had to learn to mix up my pitching strategy a little more and not rely entirely on my 80 mph heater. Personally, I thought I already had a good change-up and curve ball, although I figured it probably wouldn't hurt my future prospects to work in a decent slider as well. By the time he was done explaining everything to me, and demonstrating a few things himself -- Brennan couldn't believe he was catching pitches thrown by the great Orel Hershiser! -- I was worn out, perhaps more emotionally than physically. By the time we said our good-byes and made our way back to the dorm, Brennan was bubbling over with excitement. He insisted that the only thing cooler would have been to hang out with Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, perhaps the best catcher of all time. It took a lot of convincing on my part, but I explained to him the importance of keeping quiet about our little workout. Back in our room, everyone was getting ready for bed. I gathered up my toiletries and headed for the shower room. As soon as I walked in, I stopped dead in my tracks -- Tom was standing under the shower head furthest from the door, facing away from me, and obviously having a tough time washing himself with only one arm. Obviously, I'd been fantasizing about seeing Tom like this for days now, but now, faced with my fantasy in real life, I suddenly felt like I was going to faint. It was the most beautiful vision I had ever seen in my entire life. I was dumbstruck, watching the water trickle down his muscular back, all the way down his small, firm butt cheeks, that seemed just as tanned as the rest of his body. As he struggled with the soap, I noticed his muscles flexing, and my own pricklet -- which by this time was raging hard -- seemed to pulse in time with the rippling of his taut teenage muscles. I knew I had to get out of there. I could save my own shower for the morning when there would be less of a ..... err, distraction. I started to leave, but it was too late. "Hey, you!" I heard him call, his voice as chipper as usual. I turned back around and saw him looking at me over his shoulder, his familiar smile appearing as though he was glad to see me. I was a little amazed at how quickly our friendship had been developing. It wasn't like I didn't know him before -- after all, we were teammates. But, we were probably the two shyest guys on the team, and we'd never really seemed to hit it off. Not to mention, even though we lived in the same town, he went to a private Episcopalian school, not the public school like most of us. Also, I'd always been too wrapped up in my friendship with Brennan to really notice Tom. Now, I was glad that I had, but a little scared as well. What he said to me next didn't help that at all, either. "Could you do me a favor?" he asked. I just stood there looking at him dumbly, thanking God that he hadn't turned around completely, or I probably really would have fainted. As it was, I was already trembling, and I could literally feel those "raging hormones" that I'd heard so much about, surging throughout my body. I was willing myself not to throw up right then and there. He furrowed his eyebrows as he looked at me through the stream of water. "Grady? Are you okay?" "Uhhh, yeah ... sure, I'm fine," I stammered. "Need me to get you a towel or something?" "Errr, no," he replied, now blushing. "Do you think maybe you could help me wash me back? It's a little hard to do with only one arm." Immediately, flashes of stories I'd read online burst into my already confused mind. This was how it always started, I thought to myself. One boy asks another to help him wash in the shower, and then BAM! It would all be downhill from there ... things could happen! I really had to get out of there! "Please, Grady?" Shit, he was practically begging now! "I ... I can't ... I'm sorry!" I shouted, surprising myself with the forcefulness of my response. Without waiting for a response, I ran out of the shower room and back to our dorm. I was sure Tom was confused by my reaction, but I didn't care. I was terrified. I hated the way I'd been looking at Tom, the way he was making me feel. I'd been dealing with these feelings ever since we got here, and I was sick and fucking tired of it! Part of me wished we'd never come to this damn tournament at all. "Grady?" I heard Tom's small voice behind me. Then I felt his hand rest softly on my shoulder. "Don't touch me, you perv!" I shouted, turning around and violently swatting his hand away. "Just leave me the fuck alone!" I could already feel the tears in my eyes, and saw the confusion -- and fear -- in Tom's. I headed immediately for Coach's room. It was the only place I could think of to get away at this time of night. I knocked on the door, and thankfully he answered. He was still wet from his own shower. "What's wrong, Grady?" he asked, a look of concern coming over his face. "You look like you've seen a ghost." "Can I sleep in here tonight, Coach?" I asked feebly. "I'm not gonna be able to sleep in there tonight. I need some peace and quiet." I was hoping that my pathetic excuse would work and that he wouldn't ask any questions. I didn't know how I would be able to answer them. My brain was already too fried to be able to put together anything coherent. "Uhhh, yeah, I guess," he replied, looking even more bewildered now. "I suppose I can sleep on your bed in the other room." I breathed a sigh of relief. "Thanks, Coach." "No sweat, bud," he said, patting me gently on the shoulder. "Try to get a good night's sleep, and don't get yourself too worked up. Everything will be fine tomorrow." I was so relieved as I got myself tucked into bed. I had at least one more night that I could avoid things. If I could just make it one more night without exploding ... Just as I turned off the light, I heard a soft knock at the door, shuddering at the thought that it was probably Tom, coming to tempt me some more. What the fuck did he want from me?! I thought. My hands were shaking as I opened the door, but fortunately, it was just Brennan. I breathed a sigh of relief and nearly collapsed into his arms. "What's wrong, man?" he asked, looking as worried and bewildered as his dad had looked just a few minutes before. "Did something happen with Tom? He's all upset now, and he won't talk to me." Shit! I thought to myself. Upsetting Tom was the last thing I'd wanted. He hadn't really done anything wrong. It was all me ... I was the fucked up pervert! "No, nothing's wrong," I mumbled. "I'm just a little worked up about tomorrow, that's all." "Dude, we just had the best day of our lives! You were all excited just a few minutes ago, and now you're all freaking out on me. What's going on with you lately? You've been acting weird ever since we got here." I felt completely embarrassed as Brennan chastised me. All I could do was stare at my feet and listen. I had been acting like a freak. I went totally nutso over David, I'd intentionally beaned Dalton with a baseball, and alienated Brennan with my fucked up behavior. Now, I'd fucked up yet again. Brennan's voice softened, and he placed a hand on my shoulder. "I know this is a lot of pressure, and I know I haven't been as good a friend as I should have been ... but something else is going on, man. You've gotta talk to me." I knew I needed to talk to someone, and if I was going to, Brennan would be that person, especially now that David was gone. For some reason, I thought he would understand. I wanted so badly to get all of this off my chest ... but now wasn't the right time. "I'll tell you, Brennan," I whispered. "Just not now." "Let me help you, Grady," he said, his voice sounding more tender and gentle than I'd ever heard. "Whatever it is, we'll figure it out. It kills me to see you like this." "Stay with me tonight, Brennan," I asked, forcing myself to look him in the eyes. The love and concern I saw there was enough to melt even the coldest of hearts. Brennan just nodded, took my hand, and led me over to the bed, crawling in behind me and wrapping his arms tightly around me. I felt safe again ... for at least one more night. "Promise you'll never let go of me," I whispered. "You know I won't," he answered, placing a soft kiss on the back of my head. ************************************************** A good night's sleep had been what I needed. I woke up feeling refreshed, and although thoughts of the previous night's drama were still lingering, I felt better prepared to brush it off for now, at least until we finished our game. This was, of course, if I could hold myself together enough to pitch. It would have been nice to have a day off between the U.S. Championship and World Championship games, but as the old saying goes, there's no rest for the wicked. That morning at breakfast, everyone was pumped up ... except for Tom. He sat by himself in the dining hall, picking at the toast on his plate. I winced as I thought about what I was doing to him, and at how much of a hypocrite I was -- even if I didn't know what that word meant yet. I didn't have much time to dwell on that, though, as my teammates were all trying to get me psyched up for the game, as well as a few players from the other teams that were still hanging around, encouraging me to strike out every player on the Japanese team and win the championship for the U.S. Breakfast was a quick affair, since Coach wanted us to go out to the batting cages to take a few practice swings and get warmed up. As I walked into our room to get changed into my uniform, I heard my cell phone ringing. I wasn't sure who it could be, as the only person who ever really called me was Brennan, or occasionally one of the other guys from our team. But, they were all here with me now. "Hello?" I answered, hesitantly. "Hey, Grady!" I heard the familiar voice on the other end. "Oh my God, David!" I practically shouted. "Where are you?!" "I'm so sorry for not saying good-bye to you, Grady. Things were so crazy, and a couple of my teammates got into a fight, so Coach was trying to get out of there as soon as possible." I walked out of the room into the hallway, hoping to get a little privacy. "I've really missed you," I whispered, fighting to hold back my tears. "Things have been sooo fucked up since you left." "What's wrong?" he asked. I still wasn't ready to tell him everything, but I had to at least get some of it off my chest. So, I told him what had happened with Tom the night before. I didn't elaborate much on what I was feeling, but I think I gave him the gist of it. And it did feel good to tell someone. "Do you like Tom?" he asked, suddenly. "Uhhh, yeah ... sure I do," I answered. "He's my friend, and he's a great ball player." "That's not what I meant, Grady," he said. Yeah, I know, I thought to myself. I liked Tom. I knew that now. But, I couldn't say it ... not to David, not to Brennan, not to Tom, and certainly not to myself! "Look," he continued. "Don't worry about that right now. Just go out there and pitch. I'll be watching on TV, I promise. But you need to work things out after the game." I sighed. "I know ... I just can't do it yet. I don't know what to say to him ... or Brennan. And I hate keeping stuff from him. He's my best friend in the whole world." David didn't say anything for a few moments, and I didn't know what else I could say. "You know, Grady," he said, breaking the silence. "I'm your friend, too. You can talk to me any time you need to." "Thanks, David." "And ... even if it doesn't work out ... with Tom and all ... well, you know I like you, right?" "I like you, too, David," I admitted. "A lot." That was the closest I'd gotten yet to really admitting what I was feeling to someone. Somehow, it felt like such a huge relief, and I was a little surprised that the sky didn't come crashing down with my confession. Unfortunately, it wouldn't do me much good, what with him living hundreds and hundreds of miles away in bum-fuck Alabama. He hesitated a moment before continuing. "And if we didn't live so far apart, things would be ... different between us, right?" "Yeah, they would," I whispered. "I really like you." "Now, go out there and mow 'em down, Grady. I'll be watching." And with that, we said our good-byes and hung up. I was upset that he wouldn't be there to see me play, but knowing that he would still be watching made me feel better. And now I knew how he felt, and how I felt. And, even though it was too late to do anything about that, it still somehow felt good. ************************************************** "Don't try to get fancy or anything," Brennan instructed me, as we stood on the mound before the game. "Just blow it by 'em." That was certainly my plan -- a combination of high-octane fastballs, with a few change-ups and breaking balls thrown in to keep the Japanese team off balance. If I could get my rhythm quickly, I was sure that we would make short work of them. I'd felt good as I was throwing my warm-up pitches. It had been an exciting morning, with lots of media, the stands filled with throngs of people, many who had come over from our home state to watch, cheering as we filed out onto the field for the national anthem and to do the requisite pre-game "dance" with the Little League World Series mascot. I'd felt kind of funny shaking my little booty in front of the cameras, but even I had to admit, it was pretty fun. There was also a group of boys in our cheering section, the older brothers of some of my teammates, and they had all painted M-I-C-H-I-G-A-N across their bare chests in black and gold paint, matching the colors of our Great Lakes Region uniforms. They were loud, obnoxious, and oftentimes vulgar, but I think we all appreciated their enthusiasm ... and, I had to admit, they weren't bad to look at, either. As we prepared to get the game underway, Tom looked forlorn, sitting by himself in the dugout. I wasn't sure if he was more depressed about not being able to play, or about what had transpired the night before. Despite David's advice that I talk to Tom, I still hadn't done it. I hadn't spoken to him at all that morning, and each time I caught him looking at me, I chickened out and turned away. I really did feel horrible doing this to him, because I knew how it would make me feel if the roles had been reversed. But, I couldn't let myself get distracted. I had to get the game out of the way before I could deal with that drama. By the time the umpire shouted "play ball," I was ready to go, mentally and physically. My first two pitches were blazing fastballs that went right by the Japanese batter. I followed my fastballs up with a curve ball that was at least 20 mph slower than my fastball, which caused the batter's knees to buckle as it went by him for strike three. I was off to a good start, and ready for more. In the bottom half of the inning, as we prepared to go to bat, we rubbed our bats down with raw garlic for good luck. I wasn't sure who's idea that was, but I thought it was pretty silly ... and gross. But, a lot of the kids here had weird superstitions, so I guess it wasn't too bad. And, it certainly wasn't as bad as the New England team that decided that they weren't going to wash their underwear the entire time they were here. Unfortunately, the garlic didn't seem to help much, and our bats were quickly quieted by the opposing pitcher, who introduced us, for the first time, to a "gyro ball." It was not a pleasant experience. The next several innings went much like the first, with me shutting down the Japanese hitters, and their pitcher likewise shutting down ours. It was a classic pitching duel, and everyone seemed to be waiting with baited breath for one of us to make a mistake so they could capitalize on it. I made my first mistake in the top of the fifth inning, hitting a batter with two outs, then allowing a blooper single into center field, allowing the runner on first to get to third base, and putting him in scoring position. Normally, the prospect of one run scoring wouldn't have been a big deal. But, in a game where our bats had been completely silenced so far, it could spell disaster for us. I took my time walking around the mound, tossing the rosin bag around in my hand, and looking toward our dugout for any guidance Mr. Bellinger might have. However, he didn't usually like to call our pitches for us; he preferred that Brennan and I did that on our own. So, I stepped onto the mound, dug my left foot against the rubber, and peered in toward home plate to see what pitch Brennan was recommending. He quickly flashed the signal for a curve ball, but I shook him off. I knew what I wanted to throw, and when he flashed a single finger, I quickly nodded and prepared to go into my windup. As soon as I'd thrown the ball, though, I knew that my velocity wasn't as high as I wanted it, and I instantly got a bad feeling in my gut. The crack of the bat against the ball just confirmed my fears, as I watched the ball rocket down the third base line. I was about to toss my glove down in frustration, when Drew, one of our bench players who was replacing Tom at third base, made the most incredible diving catch I'd ever seen, and racking up the third out of the inning. I practically skipped back to the dugout, and everyone was hugging Drew and slapping his butt. I settled for a quick fist bump as I made my way over to the bench to sit down and wait for my next turn at bat. After Drew's dazzling play, I figured we'd have the momentum going into the bottom of the fifth inning to finally get some hits and score a run. The baseball gods apparently weren't on our side, though. The first batter struck out, and although Conner then got on base with a walk, Dalton's grounding into a double play ended our inning abruptly. Now in the top of the sixth inning, it was now 'do or die.' I'd already thrown seventy-five pitches, which gave me ten left to work with before Little League's maximum pitch count rule would pull me out of the game. As the batter took a few practice swings, Brennan trotted out to the mound for a quick strategy session. "Grady, if you can get us out of this inning," he said. "I promise you I'll hit a homerun to win this for us." My first reaction was to laugh at him for making such a brazen statement, but the look in his eyes told me he was dead serious about hitting that homerun. Could he do it? It wasn't very likely, but the sentiment and his confidence certainly helped with my faltering mental state. Yes, I was now officially nervous. It wasn't often that I got nervous while I was pitching (although when I wasn't, that was a totally different story). I just nodded my head and sent Brennan back behind the plate. You can do this, Grady! I said to myself. My first pitch was rocketed to left field for a single. If it hadn't been for our left fielder cutting off the ball, it would have made it to the wall, and probably turned into a double. The next batter hit a rocket to shortstop, and Rory's throw to first base wasn't fast enough. With two runners on, we were now in trouble again. Brennan looked like he wanted to come to the mound, but I waved him off. I took a deep breath and tried to collect myself. I only had a few pitches left to work with before I had to be pulled, so I needed to be efficient. Brennan signaled a combination of fastballs and changeups -- no curve balls. The drastic change in speeds worked, and after forcing the next hitter to pop out to Drew at third base, the last two both struck out. I breathed a sigh of relief after working myself out of a major jam. But, we were in major trouble if we couldn't score a run in the bottom of the sixth inning, because that would force us to go into extra innings, and our bullpen depth was questionable, what with Rory having pitched already the day before and now unavailable, and Tom sitting in the dugout, injured. Drew was a great player, as he'd shown with his dazzling play at third base, and he had pitched once in the regional tournament, but I wasn't counting on that. Brennan must have noticed my nervousness. "I told you I'd hit it out, dude. Don't sweat it," he reassured me, popping me lightly on the butt as he went to pick out a bat. I noticed that he didn't rub it down with garlic this time. In only a matter of moments, it was time for Brennan to put up, or shut up. Both Rory and Josh had struck out, and our final out was down to Brennan. Brennan took a few practice swings before stepping into the batter's box, wiggling his bat back and forth as he stared down the opposing pitcher, who likewise was giving his best 'death stare.' I was beside myself with nervousness, and somehow, Conner and I had ended up clutching onto each others' hands. Several other players were hanging onto the fence in front of the dugout, some completely still, others shifting back and forth. I glanced quickly down to the other side of the bench and saw Tom, his eyes fixed on my hand joined with Conner's. I turned my attention back to the game just as the Japanese pitcher went into his herky-jerky windup motion, delivering a seething fastball down the middle of the plate, right past Brennan for the first strike. The next pitch was a nasty looking "gyro ball" that Brennan swung at and missed. He was visibly frustrated as he stepped out of the batter's box to take a few more practice swings. By this time, I'd about ripped poor Conner's hand off of his arm. As Brennan stepped back into the batter's box, I was tempted to close my eyes. I had a very bad feeling, and I couldn't bear to watch. One thing Brennan did have on his side, though, was that he was a very good clutch hitter. He always handled himself very well in high-pressure situations, and this was definitely one of those. The Japanese pitcher went into his windup, and I held my breath. CRACK! The ball hit the sweet spot of the bat and started carrying down the right field line. It was definitely hit far enough to be out of the park, so it was only a matter of whether or not it stayed in play. I squeezed down even harder on Conner's hand as I will the ball to stay fair, eliciting a sharp yelp of pain from my cute little teammate. "Fair ball, homerun!" shouted the right field umpire. It took a moment for what had just happened to register before the whole team started screaming hysterically, running onto the field to greet Brennan at home plate after he finished rounding the bases. We won! We really did it! It was pure pandemonium on the field as everyone piled on top of Brennan. And, like the conclusion of our final game at the Great Lakes regional tournament, I saw several of the opposing team's players collapsing on the field in tears. I didn't have time to feel bad, though, as Brennan and I were showered with hugs, high-fives, and fist bumps. Camera lights were flashing everywhere and the roar of the crowd was so loud that I couldn't even hear myself think. I went through the next thirty minutes or so in a haze. After shaking hands with the Japanese players -- as well as a few emotional hugs -- we were quickly rounded up to take a group picture with the Little League World Series championship banner, did a victory lap around the whole field, then pulled aside for numerous interviews with the media. This time, I was too excited to even care about my fear of being on camera, and answered their questions as best as I could, although I tried my best to defer to Brennan, who I felt was the real star of the game. For his part, Brennan was acting like a little looney, jumping up and down and screaming like a little girl the whole time. It was quite a sight. Finally, we were all rounded up and ferreted to the top of the hill to the make-shift Baseball Tonight set to all be interviewed again on ESPN. Fortunately, Mr. Bellinger and Brennan did all of the talking, and I just stood there soaking it all up. Brennan seemed to relish all of the attention -- and the spotlight -- and no one deserved it more than him. Unfortunately, the celebration couldn't go on forever, and within the hour, we were sent back to The Grove to gather our things and get our bus packed to start the long ride back home that same evening. After all, school would be starting very soon. Normally, that would have been the source of much grumbling, but I was pretty excited about starting 8th grade, and we would be heroes when we got back to our hometown. That was a pretty good feeling. And, I'd even heard rumors that the winners of the Little League World Series, if it was the American team, always got to meet the President. Now, that would be cool! ************************************************** "Dude, I can't believe it," Brennan shouted at the top of his lungs as we lugged our things toward the buses. "We won the fucking Little League World Series!" "Brennan, language," we heard Mr. Bellinger warn from somewhere behind us. Brennan's only response was to look at me and roll his eyes, the huge grin never leaving his face. He hadn't calmed down one bit, and I was starting to wonder if I'd have to knock him over the head with a baseball bat to get him to go to sleep on the bus. After packing up our things, we'd barely had time to say good-bye to everyone at The Grove. We all exchanged e-mail addresses and phone numbers with the new friends we'd made, and received plenty of congratulations, even from the teams we'd defeated. I also managed to get a good-bye hug (and a kiss on the cheek!) from my buddy, Jacky. I was really going to miss that cute little guy, and despite the language barrier, I hoped we'd be able to stay in touch. Making our way to the parking lot, we were swarmed by tons of kids, all wanting to get our autographs. It was kind of a surreal experience; I'd never seen anything like it. After I got past the initial shock of why anyone would want my autograph (I was just a twelve-year-old kid, for chrissakes!), I did my best to sign everyone's programs and baseballs, and probably bumped fists with more kids in those ten or fifteen minutes than I had all year. As we finally got ready to board the bus, Brennan pulled me aside. He looked very serious -- a stark contrast from just a few minutes before. "Grady, I was thinkin'," he began, looking slightly hesitant. "Maybe it would be a good idea if you sat with Tom for a while, at least for part of the ride back." Tom. I hadn't thought about him at all during our rushed celebrations. In fact, I hadn't even noticed him until I looked up into the bus and saw him putting his things down on one of the seats toward the middle of the bus. Everyone else was packing themselves into the last few rows as we always had, trying to put as much distance between us and the chaperones. "Why, man? I wanna sit with the rest of the guys!" I argued. Well, not really, I thought. I'd never been a big fan of hanging out in the back of the bus with the rest of the guys, being all loud and obnoxious, with their farting contests and endless talk about girls' tits. Plus, the last time I'd been in the back of the bus with them ... well, the "truth or dare" game from the trip down here was still fresh in my mind. But, that was still better than being forced to confront Tom. It wasn't that I didn't like Tom; obviously, the problem was that I did like Tom, and after my conversation with David, I was now starting to understand what that actually meant. "C'mon, dude," Brennan insisted. "The whole time we were celebrating, he was just sorta standing there, moping around. I know it's because of the fight you two had, and it'd really suck if the whole thing got ruined for him. You two need to kiss and make up." I didn't exactly like the way Brennan had phrased that, but he did have a point. I hadn't noticed that Tom looked upset, but Brennan wouldn't lie to me about something like that. It certainly wasn't fair that this whole experience be ruined for him because of something I did. Yes, I could admit it ... I was completely at fault for what had happened. Mr. Bellinger had always told us how we were now becoming young men and we needed to act like it ... I needed to act like it and apologize to Tom for being such an ass and freaking out. I was the one who had wanted to be friends with him, and just as we were really starting to become good friends, I had to go and ruin it. I sighed and gave Brennan a quick fist bump. "Sure, I'll do it." I tried to sound confident, but I sure wasn't feeling that way. As I walked up the steps of the bus and started down the aisle, carrying my pillow, blanket and overnight bag, I saw Tom sitting by himself, staring out the window at the now nearly empty parking lot. The bus was dark, but the lights from outside cast a pale glow on the inside of the bus and illuminated Tom's face just enough to see the unmistakable sign of tear stains on his cheeks. "Tom, can I sit here?" I asked, my voice barely a whisper. He jerked his head to look at me, and I was afraid he was going to bite my head off for being such a dick to him. But, instead, he just smiled wanly. "Yeah, if you want." I shoved my bag under the seat and plopped down beside him. We sat there in silence for a few minutes as the rest of the team filed past us and got situated, and Mr. Bellinger gave us one more congratulatory speech. Soon enough, though, the bus quieted down. It had been a very long and exciting day and it was well past our bedtime. However, I was still wide awake, and I saw that Tom was, too. "Hey," I said, finally turning to look at him. "Hey." "You okay?" I asked. He nodded, never taking his eyes off of me. His steady stare was unnerving, but as uncomfortable as I felt right then, as much as I wanted to look away, I couldn't. "Tom, I .....," I began. But, I couldn't get the words out. I wasn't even sure what I was trying to say. That I was sorry? That I was feeling something for him, but wasn't quite sure what? "We'd probably better get to sleep," he finally said, breaking the awkward silence. I sighed and nodded, frustrated at myself. Maybe a good night's sleep would help ... well, as much as sleeping on a bumpy bus ride could be called a "good night's sleep." I leaned my chair back, propped up my pillow, and offered some of my blanket to Tom, which he pulled up around himself. My eyes had only been closed for a few moments when I heard his small voice. "Can we maybe have a little cuddle?" I felt the same wave of fear that I'd felt the day before in the shower room course through me, but I quickly forced it down. I wasn't going to run away this time, not if it meant hurting Tom again. "Sure," I said, as I shifted around in my seat so we could both lie down on the seats. I spooned up behind him and wrapped my arm around his small frame, nuzzling my face into the nape of his neck. As I began to drift off to sleep to the rhythm of Tom's gentle breathing, I couldn't remember ever feeling so comfortable before. End of Part 1
  7. I knew I shouldn't have told Ben about what Ryan told me, about how much he missed me. I should have known there would be some drama. My life seemed like a never-ending soap opera. "Ben, you're over-reacting!" I pleaded with him. "Connor, calm down," he said, stroking my arm gently as we sat on the sofa in his living room. It was just the two of us, for once, and I'd been hoping for some "quality time" together ... namely, some making out, some naked cuddling, and maybe a little bit more. But no, I had to open my big mouth and tell him what had happened that night when I cancelled my date with him. "I don't want to break up with you!" I practically shouted. "I didn't cheat on you! We didn't do anything, I swear!" I was definitely worked up. "I know that, Connor," Ben replied. "And I'm not 'dumping' you or anything. This was just a trial run, remember?" No, no, no! This couldn't be happening again! I'd been so happy with Ben, with my life ... everything. And now I was getting dumped for the second time in less than a year. What in the hell was wrong with me?! "But I thought everything was so good between us," I whimpered. I was prepared to start begging. "It was ... and it is, Connor," Ben said, pulling me into a hug. "You've been the best boyfriend anyone could ask for. You're sweet, cute, and fun to be around. But your heart has always been with Ryan, and his with you. Ever since that first time he brought you over to our table at lunch, it's been obvious that the two of you have something special. It's hard to explain, and I've never really believed in soul mates, but if ever there were two people who were meant to be together, it's you two." I pulled back from Ben's embrace. "If you thought that, then why did you agree to date me in the first place?" He sighed and leaned back into the sofa, running his fingers through his hair. "Because I like you, Connor. I did, and I still do. Maybe it was a little selfish of me. Shit, I didn't even think things would go this far. I didn't think you'd be interested. But that's why I didn't want to get too serious or be 'official' boyfriends or whatever. A part of me always knew that you were meant to be with Ryan in the long run, once you'd both had time to cool down and think about things." In a way, his explanation did make sense ... sort of. But that didn't make me feel any better. He was making a decision for me, and I didn't like that. Shouldn't that have been a choice for me to make? And if it was, I would have chosen to be with Ben. But, apparently, he wasn't giving me that choice, and it crushed me. Once again, I wasn't in control of my own life. "I hope we can still be best friends, Connor," he said, looking at me hopefully. "I wouldn't count on it," I muttered, then got up from the sofa and walked right out the door, without waiting to hear if he had a response. I'd had just about enough of having my heart broken. I didn't tell anyone about my break up with Ben. If Ben wanted to tell people, then that was his business. There wasn't much of a chance for me to tell anyone, anyway, since I started pulling away from my friends. My excuse was that I wanted to work more hours before school started up again, but it was really because I didn't want to deal with all the questions, nor did I want anyone telling me what I should or shouldn't do, or trying to console me. I started hanging out with Cody more, which worked out well for him, since Toby had recently started back to swim practice. But I kept my distance from Ryan and Ben. I wasn't upset with Ryan or anything, but I was afraid of being tempted to go running back to him, and that wasn't something I was ready to do. I knew he was sorry for what had happened, but he still hadn't given me any kind of explanation. I wasn't about to take the chance of getting hurt again, especially after having had my ass dumped twice in one summer. That wasn't an easy thing to deal with, especially with my already fragile self-esteem. Ryan had started up lacrosse practice in preparation for the fall season, so it wasn't too difficult to avoid him. Ben, on the other hand, was proving to be more difficult. He kept calling me, practically begging me to hang out with him, but I rebuffed him every time. Sure, it was easy to say that you wanted to remain friends when you broke up with someone, but reality wasn't always that simple. And despite how much I cared for Ben and loved being with him, I couldn't handle it. Not yet, anyway. The only time I was actually forced to be around the two of them was for Ryan's seventeenth birthday party. I'd momentarily entertained the thought of not going, but I figured that would probably be pretty shitty of me, so I forced myself to suck it up and make an appearance. I even made sure to buy him a present -- a silver necklace, which cost me about two hundred dollars. Apparently Ryan thought it was a nice gift, and he surprised me by pulling me into a tight hug. I wasn't prepared for that and didn't know how to respond. Sure, the obvious thing would have been to hug him back, but I was afraid of how any little gesture would be interpreted. I ended up just patting him on the back, but while he was hugging me, I caught a glimpse of Ben, scowling. Wasn't he the one who had wanted to break up with me? The party itself was on a much smaller scale than my sixteenth birthday party, and I felt a little guilty about that. It was also raining that day, which meant that while Delcondris was huddled up under an umbrella at the grill outside, the rest of us were in the basement, watching movies, chatting, and playing darts. Eventually, Toby persuaded me to sit down at my digital piano and play something. I went through two of my favorite ballads, Elton John's "Blues for Baby and Me" and Kenny Loggins' "Danny's Song." But I was still a little pissed at Ben's attitude when Ryan hugged me, so against my better judgment, I decided to make a veiled swipe at him and play something with a bit of a message. The song I chose was a country-flavored Elton John piece called "So Sad the Renegade," the lyrics expressing almost exactly how I was feeling about Ben. You say I can't understandThe highway's hold on a troubled manYou want me but you don't know howTo quit the chase and settle downI don't know but I can tellYou fill that saddle pretty wellBut God knows I need something tooI've hung in all these years for youSo go ahead and chase the windAnd if someday you fold your wingsI'll be the nest you never madeIf not, so sad the renegadeSo sad that you lost meWhen all you ever had to beWas balanced in the games you playedYou'll lose so sad the renegade ... As soon as I finished, I knew I'd made a mistake, because it wasn't Ben who was scowling this time, but Ryan. That hadn't been my intention at all. The song wasn't directed at him, but since no one actually knew that Ben and I had broken up (except for probably Derek), there was nothing I could do about it at the time. From the looks on everyone else's faces and the lack of applause, I figured they must have gotten the wrong "hidden" message as well. I quickly recovered, though, and led everyone in singing "Happy Birthday" to Ryan. Unfortunately, I was afraid that the damage had already been done, and I'd ruined Ryan's birthday party. That night, after everyone had left, I had the strange urge to sit outside in the rain. So, I got a couple of large rain ponchos and a humongous umbrella, and went out to the backyard. I set one of the ponchos on the ground to sit on, and then made a small, make-shift tent out of the other poncho and the umbrella. My little fort was a bit cramped, but it was cozy. Something about sitting out there, with no sound but the raindrops pelting off the umbrella, was so tranquil. Even though it was still August, the evenings were beginning to get chilly, but it didn't bother me. In fact, the only thing that was bothering me was how I was feeling about Ryan. How did I feel about him? How long would it be before everyone found out that Ben and I had broken up? Well, it probably wouldn't be too long, I figured. But why was I insisting on keeping it a secret? What was I afraid of? ****************************************************** As the days went by, I began to realize how silly it was to think that I could keep my breakup with Ben a secret. It wasn't like it wouldn't be obvious to everyone that I used to hang out with Ben constantly, and now I suddenly wasn't. So, I decided to tell someone -- Cody. Of course, I made sure to swear him to secrecy. I was still concerned about the news getting back to Ryan. I just hoped Cody could keep his mouth shut around Toby. And hopefully Toby would be so worked up seeing all those Speedo-clad boys in the pool every day that there wouldn't be much talking going on between the two of them when they did have time to hang out. The whole "secretive" thing was really bothering me, though. I'd made so much progress in learning to relate to other people and not hide things anymore, but now I felt like I'd taken several big steps back. I was clamming up like I used to do. It was probably those feelings of guilt that urged me to tell someone, not to mention the hope that maybe Cody would be able to tell me what the hell my problem was, because I sure didn't know. "I don't get what's wrong with me," I complained to Cody one Saturday afternoon, right before the new school year was getting ready to begin. "Why do I keep getting dumped?" "There's nothing wrong with you," Cody said, pulling me into a hug. "The problem is with them." Cody's hug felt so warm and safe. For a moment, I wondered why things hadn't gone anywhere between the two of us. He was the only one I was confident would never hurt me. But he was Toby's, so I forced myself to push that thought away. I'd rather be single for the rest of my life than be the cause of two people in love breaking up, especially when those two people were Toby and Cody. "I've heard that one before," I sighed. "It's not you, it's me. And it's such bullshit." "No, it's not, Connor," Cody said gently. "I learned it myself when Toby and I broke up before. At first, I thought it was my fault. I kept racking my brains and driving myself nuts trying to figure out what I did to make him stop liking me. And I finally realized that it really wasn't anything about me. When I figured that out, everything became so much easier." I couldn't think of anything to say in reply. All I could do was sigh. "You'll find someone, Connor. Trust me," he said. That remark got my attention, though, and I pulled away from the hug. "I don't get why people say that," I began, starting to get worked up all over again. "How can you, or anyone else, possibly know if I'll ever meet someone who's gonna make me happy? I really hate it when people say shit like that, 'cause they're just trying to make you feel better, but hearing that just makes me feel worse." "I'm sorry," Cody said, barely above a whisper, and shifting his gaze from me to the ground. Fuck! Why do I always say crap like that and hurt people's feelings? Me and my big fucking mouth! "No, I'm sorry, Cody," I sighed. "I know you were just trying to help." "Have you thought any more about what you want to do about Ryan?" Cody asked. "I don't know," I replied, rubbing my fingers against my temples, trying to get myself to think straight. "I don't think I'm ready to go through that again." "Have you ever considered that maybe Ben was right?" he asked. "Right about dumping me and making me feel like shit?" I offered. Cody rolled his eyes. "No, right about your feelings for Ryan, silly boy." As much as I hated to admit it, I knew he was right. I just didn't want to admit it to myself, and especially not to anyone else. I'd feel like even more of a wuss if I went crawling back to Ryan. Like I was some helpless little kid who couldn't survive on his own. But I had survived. I'd survived my mother's abuse, getting raped, Toby's illness, Mikey's death, and Ryan's shitty behavior. I'd made a life for myself, and I was going to show everyone that I didn't need someone else to make me feel complete. "I don't need Ryan, or any other guy, to survive," I asserted. "I'm doing just fine by myself." "I didn't say you did, Connor," Cody replied. "I don't think anyone needs another person to make themselves whole, but sometimes it's nice to have someone to walk with you as you make your way through life." "Thank you, Zen Master Cody," I said, looking at him and rolling my eyes. Cody stuck out his tongue at me in reply, and we both started cracking up. It felt really good to laugh. Everything in my life had become so serious, and I was beginning to wonder if the "second childhood" I had been briefly granted had come to an end before it really got started. "Do you love him?" Cody asked suddenly. "What are you talking about?" I questioned him, with a raised eyebrow. Actually, I knew what he was talking about, but I was trying to avoid answering such pointed questions. "Do you love him?" he repeated. "Yeah, I do," I sighed. There wasn't much use trying to hide it from Cody. He could read me like a book. What I was most surprised about, though, was that I could even admit it to myself now. Nevertheless, that didn't mean that I was prepared to actually do something about it. "You know, Connor, I don't think your little idea about keeping this a secret is going to work," Cody pointed out. "People aren't stupid, and they're gonna figure out that you and Ben aren't together anymore, if they haven't already." "Are people talking or something?" I asked, starting to feel panicky. "No one's said anything to me," Cody reassured me, "but just because we haven't heard anything doesn't mean they don't know. You haven't said anything, so they probably figure you have your reasons. You still haven't told me exactly why you think you need to keep it a secret, though." "I don't know," I sighed. "I guess I just don't want to deal with it right now." "Deal with what?" "I don't know that, either," I replied. "Well, you're gonna have to deal with it sooner or later," Cody said. "And probably sooner rather than later." I knew that, of course, but it didn't mean I had to like it. ***************************************************** The start of the new school year was fairly lackluster. It was amazing to think, though, how much had changed over the past year. When I'd started my sophomore year in school, I'd been a wreck. In some ways, maybe I still was. But at least I wasn't getting the crap beaten out of me several times a week, and I had a nice home, the best friends in the world (even though they had a tendency to break my heart), a job, and a hell of a lot more confidence in myself than I ever had before. And how did I get all of that? Ryan. The name I'd been avoiding and hoping to keep out of my thoughts. It had been several weeks now since my breakup with Ben, but I still hadn't mentioned it to Ryan. He hadn't said anything yet, so I was hopeful that Ben hadn't brought it up, either. Of course, it was possible that everyone did know, as Cody had suggested, and just chose not to say anything. Either way, I was glad. Avoidance was working well for me ... so far. Initially, being friends with Ryan again had turned out to be easier than I'd thought. Once I'd made up my mind that I needed to forgive him, things just went from there. I knew that I still loved him and cared about him, but was that really enough to overcome the problems and trauma of the previous few months? I fell in love with the boy who picked me up and took me home with him that day on the lacrosse field, the one who saved me from the nightmare that I'd been living for years. But Ryan had changed. I had changed. Could we ever go back to the way things were before? I didn't have a whole lot of time to dwell on that, as I was thrown back into the daily grind of sitting through incredibly boring and uninspiring classes and homework. We also started back to our GSA meetings. Our first GSA meeting of the new school year began with a moment of silence in remembrance of Mikey, and then we moved on to the business of electing the student leaders. I was a little surprised when Toby nominated himself to serve as president of the group, but then again, with his outgoing personality and charisma, he was a perfect choice. I was really surprised, though, when Dominic volunteered to be secretary. He'd never struck me as the leadership type, or one who would be interested in being active in any kind of school organization, but I was glad that he was getting more involved. Although he was pretty quiet, he'd made a great addition to our group of friends. One day as I was surfing around on the Internet, I came across a picture of a seventeen-year-old kid, Nick Simmons, the son of Gene Simmons, better known as "The Tongue" from the famous rock band KISS. The resemblance between the two was uncanny. I was also relieved to see that Trent Lomax seemed to be leaving me alone. I supposed it would have been great if he'd suddenly turned into Mr. Nice Guy, but considering I'd beaten the hell out of him and probably destroyed his ego, I figured that probably wasn't going to happen. He just ignored me completely, and I was fine with that. One thing I did notice, though, was that his group of friends seemed to have shrunk considerably, and the cocky, arrogant smirk he usually wore was gone. Lunch was another possible complication, and one that I thought would be best to avoid for the time being. It would have been weird sitting there with everyone, and questions were bound to come up. So, once again, I retreated to the school's auditorium, and spent the forty-five minute lunch break tinkering away at the Yamaha grand piano. This time, though, no one came looking for me. I think a part of me was hoping that someone would. One afternoon shortly after school began; I came home expecting to have the house to myself, since Ryan and Toby were both at practice. I was a little surprised to find Maggie there, since she hadn't been home in the afternoon for a long time. I tried to slip past her so I could lock myself up in my room, but I didn't quite make it. "Hi, sweetie. How're you doing?" she asked. "I haven't seen you in a while." "Fine, thanks," I muttered, looking around nervously and shuffling my feet. I was hoping for a quick escape and to avoid any kind of inquisition. "You haven't been hanging out with Ben lately. Is everything okay with you two?" she continued to prod. I was tempted to tell her to mind her own business, but I was growing tired of whatever conflict I'd been having with Maggie. She'd pretty much left me alone, just like she'd promised, and I'd just continued being stand-offish. I think what really got me to start taking a look at my behavior and my relationship with my whole "family" was Ryan's birthday party. He'd gotten some pretty nice gifts, but it was nothing like the birthday party Maggie had given me, not to mention Thanksgiving and Christmas from the year before, or everything she'd done to give me a new home. Whatever my issues were with her, they were pretty childish and petty. Sure, I thought she wasn't a very good mother to Ryan and Toby, but other than a few minor incidents, she'd done a hell of a lot for me. So, the least I could do was try my best to be civil and polite. "We broke up a while ago," I answered, my gaze now fixated on the floor, and I could feel my face flushing. "Oh, I'm so sorry, honey," Maggie said, stepping toward me and pulling me into a hug. My first reaction was to pull away, but if I was going to try to be nicer, I figured that maybe I should just let her hug me. "It's okay," I replied, politely breaking the hug. "I guess it just wasn't meant to be." "Are you and Ryan getting along okay?" she asked. "Yeah, I guess so," I shrugged. "You still love him, don't you, sweetie?" Jesus, am I like an open book or something? I thought to myself. It's not like I had photographs of Ryan pasted up all over my walls and sat around all day drawing pictures of him or tracing his name on my school notebooks! I just nodded meekly in response. "Have you talked to him about how you feel, Connor?" Maggie continued prodding me. "No, ma'am. And please don't tell him, either," I pleaded with her. "I won't, hon. But I hope you'll at least talk to him. That doesn't mean you have to get back together with him. That's something only you can decide, if that's what both of you want. But keeping the lines of communication open is always important. I don't think you've been doing a very good job of that lately. Ryan seems a little hurt by that." "Yes, ma'am," I answered. "I'll talk to him ... soon." And that was that. Maggie went on with whatever she had been doing, and I went up to my room to do my homework. I didn't talk to Ryan that night, though. I knew I had to, just not right then. Maggie didn't bring it up again, either, which was a relief to me. The next day at school, it was announced that this year's talent contest would be held the same weekend as homecoming, which was about a month and a half earlier than it had been the previous year. They wanted to make it one of the week's festivities. I didn't need any prodding to participate this time, though. Right after school, I went to Mr. Tillworth's office, adjacent to the drama room, and signed up. With the talent contest moved up to the weekend of homecoming, I would only have a short time to prepare, and I wanted to do some songs I had never performed on stage before. I spent every moment I could practicing, in the auditorium during lunch, while I was working at the piano store, and I even went to a few small clubs by myself to try out some of the new songs. I wanted to be prepared, because I wanted to win. It also gave me another excuse to avoid the inevitable ... talking to Ryan. ***************************************************** It was a strange feeling to be getting ready, once again, for the school's talent contest. Just like the year before, this year's show seemed to be somehow inextricably linked with Ryan and my relationship with him. I'd been avoiding him for weeks now, and as Cody and Maggie had said, the time had come to have a talk with him. Even though I wasn't necessarily desperate for him to come running back into my arms, his mere presence was enough to throw me a bit off balance. But for this evening, I had to try to keep my mind on the show, and not on Ryan or Ben. I would have plenty of time to do battle with those demons later. I would have waited backstage as usual until it was my turn to go on, but since Natalie was going to be performing, I decided to go out and sit in the audience with my friends to watch. I hadn't gotten dressed in my stage clothes yet, and was just wearing a plain black track suit and Detroit Tigers ball cap. As soon as Mr. Tillworth announced Natalie and the band she had put together for the performance, the stage lights went down and the keyboard player started playing a gentle and familiar melody, the guitar player coming in moments later with the opening chords of Fleetwood Mac's classic "Rhiannon." Natalie then made quite a grand entrance, walking on stage in a flowing black gossamer dress, looking very much like a young version of the original rock and roll goddess, Stevie Nicks. She walked up to the microphone stand, which was covered in black lace scarves, and began to sing, her voice sounding raw and powerful, as the band picked up the tempo and intensity. As the song began to reach the climax, Natalie's wailing became even more intense, and she was dancing around the stage like some kind of whirling dervish, her whole body shaking and her eyes rolling back in her head as she shredded the vocals and unleashed one of the most incredible vibratos I'd ever heard. She was absolutely amazing, and so was her band. Very tight and professional. As soon as the song ended, Natalie and her band dove right into Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll." The colored stage lights were dancing frenetically across the stage as the band tore up the song and Natalie screamed out the vocals like a banshee in heat. There was a Kasbah being rocked up there on that stage, and she was the one rocking the fuck out of it. Natalie was all over the stage, wailing like a madwoman, dancing, twirling, and flirting with the guitar player and bassist. She was naturally charismatic and had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand. It would be a tough act to follow, and I hadn't been prepared for it. I could rock out, too, but I didn't have a band to back me up. All I had was the piano and my voice, and there was no way I could match the intensity of Natalie's performance. I was going to be upstaged, and I didn't like it. But, being the fierce competitor I was when it came to music, I wasn't going down without a fight. Even though I wasn't feeling as confident as I had before Natalie's performance, I still had a show to do, so I walked quickly backstage to change into my performing clothes. I put on a pair of baggy, bright yellow trousers, a purple jacket, high-heeled leather boots, a black trilby hat, and a pair of plain black sunglasses, all of which I had bought at a thrift store for only twenty dollars. Once I was dressed, I made my way over to the set of double doors that led to the backstage area and waited for the act before me to finish. I was terribly nervous and felt like I was going to puke. I couldn't outdo the intensity of Natalie's performance, so I was going to have to rely solely on my musicianship. Sure, my piano playing skills had improved as a result of my stint of playing classical music, and Thom had helped me a lot with my vocals. I was confident that I was a better musician than the year before, but would it be enough? It had to be. I needed to beat the panties off of Natalie. Yeah, she was my friend and all, but this was war! As I mentally prepared for the impending performance, the door that led from the hallway to the backstage area opened, and none other than Trent Lomax came walking out -- wearing a frilly pink dress and thick make-up. I would have sworn he had had a sex change when I saw the enormous titties he had, until he reached inside his bra and started pulling out wads of Kleenex. My jaw was hanging open in shock, and I was speechless. "What the fuck are you looking at?" he snarled at me, and before I had the time to come up with a smart-alecky reply, he brushed past me and walked at a brisk pace down the hallway. What the fuck?! I didn't have much of a chance to ponder the absurdity of what I'd just witnessed, as I heard Mr. Tillworth announce my name. I walked quickly out onto the stage to a nice round of applause, without any introductory music this time. I'd been playing mostly digital pianos for months, but I had decided that it was time to get back to basics for this performance, so I sat down in front of my old friend, the shiny black Yamaha concert grand piano, and adjusted the microphone, as I had done many times before. With no hesitation or fanfare, I immediately started pounding out the rapid-fire, staccato introduction to Billy Joel's "Angry Young Man." When I started singing, I closed my eyes and wailed out the vocals with as much intensity as I had ever put into a song before, with all the angst, uncertainty, and pain I had been feeling pouring out of me like an uncontrollable flood. As soon as I was finished, and before the audience's applause had died down, my left hand started hammering out a steady bass rhythm, which was then joined by my right hand, tapping out the familiar opening melody of yet another Billy Joel classic, "My Life," which got the crowd roaring. The colored lights were dancing across the stage, in time with the up-tempo beat of the song. This was the largest crowd I'd performed in front of since the previous year's talent contest, and it felt great. I could feel the energy of the audience feeding me, urging me on, and up there on the stage, I was in a trance-like state, with nothing in my mind except for the chords and notes of the music. I didn't even care about winning anymore. I just wanted to put on the best show I possibly could. And it was an extremely cathartic experience. When I finished my second number, I chose to slow down the pace, and played a slow, moving rendition of Emmy Lou Harris' country-flavored ballad "A Love That Will Never Grow Old," the lyrics for which had been written by Bernie Taupin, Elton John's long-time lyricist. It was a sharp contrast to the two angst-filled songs I had just performed. For my final number, I chose an Elton John piece. It wasn't my favorite Elton song, but it was catchy, and most importantly, it expressed what I was feeling. "This is for you, Ryan," I said softly into the microphone, right before I jumped into the song, putting as much emotion, passion, and longing into my piano playing and vocals as I could muster. This wasn't just a song -- it was me talking directly to Ryan. All I could do was hope he got the message and then see where things went from there, if anywhere. Someday out of the blueIn a crowded street or a deserted squareI'll turn and I'll see youAs if our love were newSomeday we can start again, someday soonHere comes the nightHere come the memoriesLost in your armsDown in the foreign fieldsNot so long agoSeems like eternityThose sweet afternoonsStill capture meSomeday out of the blueMaybe years from nowOr tomorrow nightI'll turn and I'll see youAs if we always knewSomeday we would live again, someday soonI still believeI still put faith in us ... As I finished, I looked out into the audience, but was disappointed that the lights were so bright, I couldn't see the expression on Ryan's face. That mattered to me more than the loud round of applause I was receiving. Perhaps part of me was hoping that as soon as I'd finished, he would jump up on stage and plead with me to take him back. But he didn't. And I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. Maybe I had waited too long, and now it really was too late. I was more nervous about Ryan than I was about the stupid talent contest. I said a quick "thank you" into the microphone, then got up and walked off-stage. I headed back to the band room so I could change into my regular clothes and prepare for the final judging. The band room was empty when I got there, and I was heading for my bag to get my track suit, when I heard someone calling my name. My heart practically leaped up into my throat, and I turned around, momentarily hopeful that it was Ryan who had come looking for me. But it wasn't Ryan. It was Ben. "What do you want?" I asked, feeling both irritated and slightly defensive. "You were really great out there," he said. "Even after hearing you play so many times, I still don't know how you do it. You're really incredible." "Thanks," I muttered, as I went back to pulling the track suit out of my bag and started peeling off my stage costume. "Do you hate me, Connor?" he asked suddenly. As soon as the words came out of his mouth, I wanted to tell him that I did hate him, that I wished I'd never met him, and then punch him in the throat. But I couldn't bring myself to do it. I was getting tired of being angry and bitter. And I missed hanging out with my friends ... our friends. "No, I don't hate you, Ben," I sighed. "Do you think we can ever be friends again?" he asked. "We can try," I said, shrugging my shoulders. "Let's head on back," he said, putting an arm around my shoulder. "The judging should be about finished by now." With that, we made our way back into the auditorium and sat down with the rest of our friends, although Ryan seemed to have disappeared. I was disappointed, although I tried my best not to let it show. I was also incredibly nervous about the outcome of the contest. The previous year's competition hadn't been that challenging, but with Natalie entering the fray this year, there was a real chance that I wouldn't win. I tried to act like it didn't matter to me, and I even told Natalie that I was pulling for her. But like I've said before, I had a fierce competitive streak, and I wanted to win badly. So, for the next few minutes, Ryan was actually the furthest thing from my mind. As Mr. Tillworth walked up onto the stage, the audience grew quiet, and the butterflies in my stomach started working overtime. "We had some wonderful performances here tonight," Mr. Tillworth began. "In fact, this is the best show that I can recall we've ever had." Just like the year before, Mr. Tillworth seemed to be dragging this out. I didn't want to hear about how "everyone was a winner" or crap like that. I wanted to hear the results! "And the winner of this year's talent contest is ..." The moment of truth had arrived. "... Natalie Kiehl!" The audience erupted in applause, and I was floored. I knew that I wasn't guaranteed to win, but I suppose I thought I still would. Even though I was upset, I shook it off and stood up to join the rest of the audience in applauding for Natalie. After all, she was one of my friends, and I was supposed to be happy for her. I didn't feel very happy, though. I'd put everything I had into my performance. Why didn't I win? Had I been too distracted by my feelings for Ryan? My thoughts were interrupted as Natalie walked up to the microphone on stage along with her band to accept her prize. "Thank you guys so much," she said cheerfully. "I had doubts about performing tonight, because I knew that the competition would be tough, from one person in particular. He also happens to be a good friend of mine, so I want to invite him to come up here and play one more song with us." She looked right at me, smiling, and started motioning for me to come up on stage. I was embarrassed and didn't want to go, but I apparently didn't have much choice in the matter, as Toby, Cody, the twins, Tuwanda, and Delcondris were all pushing me towards the stage. As I walked up the steps, the audience's applause was nearly deafening. Natalie walked over to me and winked at me, then whispered, "Do you think you can handle 'Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)'?" I just nodded dumbly in response, and walked over to sit at the piano. Almost immediately, the guitar and rhythm section started in on a long, hard-rocking introduction, as the stage lights started flashing and dancing frenetically around the stage, and Natalie began jumping up and down and clapping her hands to get the audience going. As Natalie tore into the first verse of the song and I started pounding on the piano, everyone in the crowd was on their feet, dancing to the music. I joined in at the chorus, and then did the second verse myself, screaming out the vocals as powerfully as I could. Natalie joined in again at the next chorus, and after a good five minutes of rocking out, we brought the song to an intense finale. It was tiring, but I felt great. The disappointment of losing the contest was washed away by the rush I got from the audience's reaction and energy, and the feeling of being up there with a great band and playing together. ***************************************************** I don't know what possessed me to go sit in the dark in the bleachers at the school's football field. It was a really nice night, the autumn wind blowing gently through the trees, the full moon casting an eerie glow over everything. It would have been nicer if it was raining, but this would have to do. I was still pumped up from my performance -- even though I'd lost -- and didn't feel like going back home yet. I also wanted to be alone so I could think about some stuff, mainly about how I was going to talk to Ryan, and I figured no one would think to look for me there. I was wrong. "Connor, what are you doing out here all by yourself?" I heard Ryan's voice coming from a few feet away. Shit! I thought to myself. I was really hoping to avoid this for a little while longer. I knew what I wanted, and I knew that I wanted to be with him. But now that I was faced with him, I didn't know what I wanted to say. "Just thinking," I muttered, afraid to make eye contact with him. "Why didn't you tell me you and Ben broke up?" Ryan asked, moving up the bleachers and walking toward me, his feet clanking against the aluminum steps the only sound cutting through the stillness of the night. "I don't know," I sighed, trying to avoid looking at him. The way the moonlight reflected on him made him look like an angel, and my will was steadily crumbling. Despite all of the trauma he'd put me through, at that moment, I saw the boy I'd fallen in love with only a year ago. "That song you sang was for me, wasn't it?" he asked, sitting down beside me. "Yeah," I replied, barely above a whisper. "I'm sorry, Connor," he said. "I never meant to hurt you." Yeah, that's what they all say, I thought to myself. And this is where he's supposed to pull out the infamous "It's not you, it's me" line. "Why did you do it?" I asked, looking down at the ground and refusing to meet his gaze. I hadn't pushed him to explain himself before, but I needed answers now. Even if we weren't going to get back together again, I had to know. If for nothing else than just to convince myself that there wasn't anything wrong with me. But even though I wanted an explanation, something that could make some sort of sense out of the craziness and heartache that I'd experienced over the past few months, I was scared of what the answer might be. Ryan sighed, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw him run his fingers through his red hair. "I was scared," came his reply. "Scared of what?" I asked, my curiosity piqued. "Scared of you getting hurt," he replied. "Uh ... Ryan ... I still did get hurt," I pointed out. "I know it probably doesn't make much sense," he said. "Try me," I suggested, really needing to hear what he had to say. "That first day we met, you totally blew me away," he began. "When I saw you lying on the grass, and saw how cute and sweet you looked, my heart skipped a few beats. I'd never felt that way before. You were acting so shy and withdrawn when I was taking you home with me, and for some reason, it just made me want to get to know you even more. Then, as I got to know you, I realized that I was falling in love with you. It wasn't that hard to accept -- it didn't bother me that I was falling in love with another boy. But then when I found out how bad things were for you, I felt like I had to protect you, to make you safe. When that asshole attacked you, I felt like I'd failed you." "You didn't fail me, Ryan," I interrupted. "There's no way you could have known something like that would happen." "Well, that's what I felt like," he replied. "But the amazing thing was that after all of that, after all the shit you'd been through, you started to change and turn into this incredible person. You came out of your shell, got along with everyone, and you were so focused and determined to move on with your life. I really envied that. And then Toby got sick, and I couldn't handle it. The last time it happened, my dad was there, but this time I felt like it was all up to me to hold our family together. But I'd already failed you, and I was afraid that I was going to fail Toby and my mom, too. So, I just tried to ignore it. After that, everything with Mikey started, and it just got to be too much." By this time, Ryan was sobbing, so I reached out to hold his hand and felt him squeeze back tightly. I was on the verge of tears, too, but I held them back. "When Mikey died," he continued, after pausing for a few moments to settle down, "it was like the last straw. It was all just too much. I felt like it was my fault for everything that had happened -- Mikey dying, Toby almost dying, and everything else. I figured that I just hurt everyone I loved. And I guess I thought that if I let you go, maybe you wouldn't get hurt anymore." For the next several minutes, we just sat there in silence. I didn't know what to say to Ryan. Yeah, he'd been an asshole and broken my heart, but after hearing what he had to say, all I could do was feel bad for what he'd had to go through. "You could have told me this sooner," I said, turning my head to look directly at Ryan. "I know," he replied, his voice barely above a whisper. "I'm sorry, Connor." "I'm glad you finally told me, though," I said, putting my arm around his shoulder. "But as Cody would probably say, a relationship is about two people, and we both have a responsibility to be there for each other. You thought it was your job to take care of me and help me, but you should have let me do the same for you. You shouldn't have just walked away. You really crushed me when you did that. I kept think there was something wrong with me." "Did you really love me, Connor?" Ryan suddenly asked. "I still do love you, Ry," I replied cautiously. "I mean, you weren't just with me because I happened to be there? You really did love me?" "Of course," I said, feeling a little surprised that he would ask me something like that. Whether I'd been able to admit that or not, I did love him, even after he'd broken up with me. I'd always loved him. "What about Ben?" he asked. "I don't know," I sighed. "I guess it just wasn't meant to be." "I was really upset when I found out you two were together," he said. "I felt like I'd lost a ten million dollar lottery ticket." "I'm sorry, Ry," I said, pulling him in tighter. "No, don't apologize," he interrupted. "You had every right to go out with someone else. And Ben's a good guy." "Yeah, well, he hurt me, too," I said, still feeling a little bitter. "I don't think he meant to hurt you," Ryan said. "I've known Ben for a long time, and he's not that kind of person." "I know," I sighed. I didn't know if I'd ever be good friends with Ben again, though. But it wasn't worth it to feel bitter and angry with him for the rest of my life. I needed to move on. We all needed to move on. If I had to do that alone, then I was ready ... sort of. We fell into another bout of silence, but it wasn't an awkward silence. So, we just sat there, listening to the sound of the crickets chirping in the night, my arm still wrapped around Ryan's shoulder. Eventually, he laid his head on my shoulder, and I instinctively pulled him in even closer. It was a feeling I had missed, perhaps more than I ever realized. And now that I felt it again, I didn't want to let go. "Connor," Ryan said softly, breaking the silence. "Do you think ... I dunno ... maybe sometime you'd let me take you out to a movie or something? I mean ... I dunno ... I don't want to push you or anything, or go too fast ... I know you probably still haven't gotten over Ben yet ...." "You mean, like a date?" I asked, cutting him off. "Yeah, I guess ... like a date," he said. "I think I'd like that," I replied, giving him a tight squeeze. "Just as long as I don't have to get hit in the head with a lacrosse ball first." A huge smile spread across Ryan's face, and for the first time in a long time, I saw that familiar sparkle in his eyes. For now, there was nothing else that needed to be said, so we just sat there in the cool evening air, holding hands. I couldn't predict the future, but I knew for sure that this was where I wanted to be, where I belonged. I loved Ryan, and he loved me. Nothing else mattered. THE END
  8. As June turned into July, the oppressive summer heat was becoming almost too much to bear. I was extremely thankful that I was working in the air-conditioned piano store. I wondered how Ryan could handle all of the outdoor sports activities that he had been participating in, when the most I could deal with was the occasional trip to the swimming pool with the twins, or our combination football-wrestling matches played in their backyard, with the sprinklers turned on full-force. Ryan was also supposed to be going away for a three-week baseball camp later in the month, and I was getting worried that all that time spent out in the hot sun wouldn't be good for him. I continued to surprise myself at how much concern I felt for Ryan, even after he so cruelly dumped me. My despair during the first few weeks after our separation had eventually turned into a feeling of anger at the way he'd been acting, refusing to communicate with me at all. But I still loved him, and probably always would. I still worried about him all the time, but I had also realized that it was time to start moving on with my life, despite the fact that I couldn't extricate myself from the situation entirely, being that we continued to live under the same roof. I had no plans to date again for a long while, but it wasn't going to do me any good to sit around and mope like Ryan had been doing. And I had to credit the amazing support of my friends for helping me to get through it so quickly -- if you could call a month "quick." Having been practically friendless for so long, I couldn't imagine my life anymore without them. They were there when I needed comforting, or to nudge me when I needed nudging. And, I must admit, my shrink was a big help, too. Ironically, since I'd been skeptical of the idea of seeing a therapist at first, my weekly appointments with Dr. Frazier had become a part of my routine. It was helpful to have an outside, objective person to help me look at things. Despite my being without a boyfriend, Toby and Cody seemed to be moving in that direction again. I was glad, because I thought they both deserved to have someone to love, and to be loved. At the same time, I was still worried that something would happen and Cody would end up getting hurt again. I'd discussed the issue with Toby, and he'd promised me that he would take things slow with Cody and wouldn't hurt him again. But I figured I should discuss things with Cody as well. One evening in early July, Cody and I were pigging out at an Ethiopian restaurant that had recently opened. I had been a little wary of Ethiopian food at first, and actually had no idea that they were famous for their cuisine. All I'd ever heard about were people starving in Ethiopia. The food was incredible, though. I'd never eaten much "foreign" food before, but after we'd made a mess of ourselves, eating the large slab of bread covered with all different kinds of curry with our hands (apparently, Ethiopians don't use utensils), I decided that I definitely wouldn't mind trying out some more exotic restaurants in the future. "So, what's going on with you and Toby?" I asked, swallowing a large mouthful of spicy curry. "What do you mean?" Cody replied, arching an eyebrow. "We're friends." "Are you sure you're just friends?" I asked. "You two were sitting awfully close together the other night." "We're both touchy-feely kinda guys," he said. "You know that." That was true. All of our friends were touchy-feely people. But considering Toby's and Cody's history, I figured something else had to be up. "So is that all you want to be? Just friends?" I prodded. "You're worried that I'm gonna get hurt, aren't you?" Cody retorted, with a wry grin. Yep, Cody could always read me like a book. "Yeah, so what? You know I care about you." "We've talked about things, and I know why he did what he did. We're not together again, at least not right now. But I think if we do get back together, things will be different. He knows how much I care about him, sick or not," he said. I really hoped it would work out between the two of them. But it wasn't in my hands, nor should it have been. It wasn't my place to get involved in their love lives, and I figured that they could decide things for themselves. Work was still going well, although I'd discovered after a month of working at the piano store that the hours were a bit much. I was working about thirty-five hours a week. Since I'd been enjoying my time with my friends so much, I didn't want to waste the whole summer sitting inside, even though I loved being there and having the opportunity to play all the time. So, the manager let me cut my hours down to twenty-five per week, and that gave me more time to spend with the twins, Cody, and Toby. Because I was working on commission, the hours didn't really matter, anyway. So, all in all, the summer was turning out to be better than I would have thought only a month before. I was enjoying my job and having a great time with my friends. The only drawback, of course, was the awkwardness at home. But I continued to manage that by avoiding home as much as possible. I doubted that Maggie even noticed that I was hardly ever there. At least, she didn't say anything about it. Ever since my conversation with her after Ryan broke up with me, I'd made an effort to avoid Maggie as much as possible. Between both of our busy schedules, that was pretty easy to do. The only real interaction I had to endure was getting the money that Social Services sent her for my care. I was back to being almost as independent as I had been before, and I liked it that way. Derek and Ben were both on the swim team at the pool they belonged to. I'd asked them why they weren't on the swim team at school with Toby, and they both said it was too much of a time commitment. They just liked to do it for fun during the summer. I'd had to miss their first couple of swim meets because of work, but after I had my hours cut back, I was finally able to make it to one. I clearly remembered how hot Toby had looked in his little Speedo when I'd gone to see him at one of his swim meets, but the way the Speedos tightly hugged the twins' hips and butts, and the highly visible bulges in the front ... well, it was almost downright obscene! Of course, I loved it. In fact, it was even better than watching Ryan and his teammates running around in their baseball uniforms. I figured I must be some kind of pervert or something, because I started thinking of ways I could get to spend more time around the pool, just so I could watch all of the hot guys running around, barely dressed. I thought about asking the coach if they needed a timekeeper or something at practices, but was too chicken shit to actually go ask. Ben and Derek both did really well that day, and as I had been doing for the past month, I was going to be staying the weekend at their house. Apparently, though, they hadn't gotten enough water for one day and decided that we would go to a water park that afternoon. I thought it would be nice to invite Toby and Cody to go along, although I wasn't sure that being out in the hot sun would be very good for Toby's health. But Toby loved being in the water, and because of the leukemia, hadn't been in a pool for a while. And he insisted that he would be fine, and would go sit in the shade if he started to feel tired, so I figured it would be ok. The five of us crammed into my car and headed over to the water park. It was just a local place, and certainly not as nice as some of the bigger theme parks, but it was still a lot of fun. I'd never even been to one of the bigger places, and wouldn't have known there was a difference if Toby hadn't mentioned it. I realized that there were a lot of fun summertime activities that I'd missed out on growing up. Since it was summertime, and a Saturday afternoon to boot, the place was packed. The sun was shining and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. It was definitely a perfect day for being in the water. The screaming of little kids running around and playing, as well as their parents yelling at them to slow down and be careful, was practically deafening. At some point, I seemed to have gotten over my fear of crowds. While it was a little annoying when little kids kept bumping into me, I wasn't as terrified by the large number of people as I would have been before. It was definitely a new feeling for me. I almost fainted when I saw Cody come out of the changing rooms wearing a Speedo. I was a little surprised, because the twins had changed into board shorts, which was what Toby and I were wearing as well. If Cody had looked hot in a loincloth, he looked about a hundred times hotter in a Speedo. It was almost too much for my hormone-crazed sixteen-year-old mind to handle. I even noticed Ben sneaking a few glances at Cody -- although, I must admit, Cody's "bulge" wasn't quite as big as the twins' ... not that that mattered or anything ... just something I noticed. I was glad that Cody asked Toby to put the sunscreen on him, though, or else I might have made a mess in my shorts right then and there! My favorite part of the water park was definitely the slides. Even though the lines were long, I kept going back for more. I couldn't get enough of the adrenaline rush that came with sliding down the slick plastic at breakneck speeds and plowing into the pool of water at the bottom. Eventually, though, Ben managed to coax me away from the water slides, and we got onto a two-person inflatable inner-tube that traveled lazily around the park in a man-made moat. It was very relaxing, and I enjoyed taking in all of the sights and sounds around me. Lying there in the hot sun, I also realized that I'd probably end up with a nice tan, provided I didn't burn instead. It was a nice surprise when Ben took my hand in his. I wasn't expecting that, considering Ben wasn't "out" or anything. Heck, he'd never even said he was gay. But then again, the way we were positioned, it wouldn't have been obvious that we were holding hands. It was getting more and more difficult to ignore that things were going somewhere with Ben ... I just didn't know exactly where, or if I was ready for that. I wanted to be, though. Ben made me happy. Very happy. I must have been daydreaming or something as we were floating around the park, because I suddenly heard Ben's voice, and when I looked over at him, he had a strange expression on his face. "Are you okay, Connor?" he asked. "Yeah, I'm great. Why?" "I don't know. You just seemed like you were somewhere else for a minute there," he said. "What're you thinking about?" "Just stuff, I guess," I replied, with a shrug. "Good stuff?" he asked, with a cheeky grin. "Yeah," I said. "Really good stuff." The rest of the afternoon was great, and I did end up getting a pretty decent tan. However, I should have known that the day couldn't have possibly gone perfectly. I insisted on one more trip down the largest water slide before we left, as the sun was beginning to set. But this time, as I plunged into the water face first, my swimming trunks decided that they weren't going to stay on. When I came up, sputtering water, and realized that I was standing there in the middle of the pool buck naked, I almost had a total panic attack. Then I noticed Toby standing about five feet away from me, holding my swimming trunks up like a trophy. "You lose something?" he asked, chuckling. "Gimme those!" I practically shouted at him, trying to cover my crotch with one hand and going after my swim suit with the other. Unfortunately for me, Toby was in one of his more immature moods, and decided that it would be funny for me to chase him around the pool. I was absolutely mortified. The only good thing was that the water came up to my hips, so it managed to hide my "equipment." Unless one were to happen to look down into the water ... then "Little Connor" would be as plain as day for anyone to see. "Goddammit, Toby!" I shouted, as I finally caught him and managed to grab my trunks. "You're such an asshole!" "You know you love me," he said cheekily, sticking his tongue out at me and slapping my bare butt. "You're lucky I do," I retorted. "Or you'd be dead right now." "Oooooh, I'm shaking," he said in a mocking tone. Little punk. I was gonna have to think of some way to get him back for that! I was in for yet another round of embarrassment while we were walking back to the car after we'd gotten changed. "Now I know why my brother likes you so much," I heard Derek say as he walked up beside me. "You've got a cute ass." And with that, he giggled like a little kid and ran on ahead. Dammit! Now I had to get them all back! *************************************************** "May I speak with Connor Matthews, please?" I heard a strangely familiar voice on the other end of the phone."This is Connor," I replied hesitantly."Hi, Connor. This is Detective Franz. How've you been doing?" the detective asked, in his slightly gruff yet friendly voice."Oh, hi, sir. I've been doing alright, I guess. Things have been a little tough, though, since Mikey's death," I sighed. "Is that what you're calling about? Do you have some new information or something?" "Actually, no, Connor," he replied. "We believe we've got the man who raped you." As soon as I heard those words, I almost dropped the phone. After everything that had been going on, and despite the brief chat we'd had at the hospital, I'd let that entire subject slip to the very back of my mind. I didn't need anything else to get upset about. And, I guess, a part of me figured they might never actually find the guy. But I didn't know if I should feel relieved, scared, angry, or what. "Uhhh ... that's great ... I think," I managed to stammer out. "So now what?" I hadn't thought about what would actually happen if they did catch him. The only thing I had thought about was whether or not they would catch him. "Well, we have him in custody right now. We just had him extradited from Wisconsin. We'd like you to come down to the police station with your guardian to see if you can make an identification, and then you'll need to sit down and talk with the assistant district attorney," he replied. I would have to identify him? Did that mean I'd actually have to come face to face with that man again? I didn't think I could deal with that right then. It was a terrifying thought, actually. I'd never really considered the possibility that I would have to see him again, probably sit in a courtroom, and even get up in front of all of those people to talk about what he'd done to me. That was not something I wanted to do. I had to find some way to get out of it. And then it came to me. "Ummm ... Detective Franz ... Maggie ... errr ... my foster mom ... she's working all week, including a few double shifts. I'm not sure if she'd be able to bring me down to the police station," I stuttered. I hoped that would at least buy me some time. Maggie was always busy. There was no telling when she'd have the time to go down to the police station with me and sit around while I identified that creep and was interviewed. "That's not a problem, Connor," the detective said, dashing my hopes of avoiding this for a while. "I'll give your social worker a call and have him meet you down at the station. He can stand in place of your legal guardian." "Uhhh ... ok," I replied, my mind beginning to shift into overdrive, wondering how I was going to react to all of this. It had all been so sudden. "Can you meet us down here in, say, two hours?" the detective asked. "Yeah ... uhhh ... sure," I replied. "I'll be there." I didn't want to be there, though. Not until I had all of this sorted out in my head, at least. What would I do when I saw that man? Would I want to attack him or kill him? Would I start screaming and crying like a little baby? Two hours was definitely not going to be enough time to prepare myself. This was one of the times I really wished Ryan was with me to calm me down. I wished he could go down there with me and hold my hand the whole time. I felt so incredibly alone ... and scared. Ryan wasn't even home, though. He was at some sports activity. Toby wasn't home, either. He was spending the day over at Cody's house. So, I really was all alone. Completely and utterly alone, and about to come face to face with the man who had changed my life, stolen my innocence, and nearly killed me. And the only person I'd have there for support would be Dwayne Jackson. It's not like I didn't like him. Dwayne was a really nice guy. But I didn't know him that well, and if I needed someone to cling to, he wouldn't be the one I would choose. Unfortunately, the two hours I had to wait went by in a flash, and it seemed like no time at all before I was pulling up in front of the local police precinct. My hands were trembling so badly that I had trouble getting the key out of the ignition of the car. When I walked in through the front door, I saw Dwayne Jackson sitting on a wooden bench next to the sergeant's station. He quickly stood up and walked over to greet me, sticking out his hand for me to shake. "Hi, Connor, it's good to see you again," he said, a little too cheerfully. "Hi, Mr. Jackson," I replied sullenly, giving his hand a weak shake. Knowing what was coming, I was thinking that I'd probably rather be locked up in a room with Nurse Gertrude and a hundred enema bags than be there at the police station. "You ready, big guy?" Dwayne asked, placing a hand on my shoulder. I just nodded in response, suddenly unable to speak. Dwayne led me down a long hallway, the bright lights accentuating the puke green color of the linoleum floor and the peeling paint on the walls. I guessed they really didn't pay the police very much nowadays, considering the shitty condition of their police station. Eventually, we stopped in front of a metal door, which Dwayne opened, and he gently nudged me inside. Sitting at a bare wooden table were Detective Franz -- not surprisingly, drinking from a Styrofoam coffee cup -- and a woman I had never seen before. She was quite petite, and had dark brown hair, tied tightly into a bun on the top of her head. She was wearing bifocals on the edge of her pointy nose, but her face was kind, albeit somewhat tired-looking. "Good afternoon, Connor," Detective Franz said, standing up and pointing to one of the wooden chairs at the table. I quickly took my seat and started nervously bouncing my right leg and biting my fingernails. I'd never bitten my fingernails before. Dwayne sat down in the chair next to me and put on his glasses. He seemed a lot more relaxed than I was, but then again, he wasn't about to come face to face with a man who had raped him. "Connor, this is Vivian Bolero," Detective Franz said, gesturing toward the woman, who just smiled at me and nodded. "She is an assistant district attorney. Do you know what that is?" I didn't like being patronized. I was sixteen years old, for chrissakes! And I'd watched enough legal dramas on television to know what the hell an assistant district attorney was. I really hated it when people assumed that teenagers were stupid. "Yeah," I replied, somewhat curtly. "She's a representative of the district attorney, who is an elected official, and prosecutes cases on behalf of the state." "Smart young man," the bespectacled woman remarked, giving me a smile and a wink. At least someone didn't think I was an idiot! Thank you very much! "Anyway, Connor," the detective continued, "we brought you down here to see if you could identify the man who attacked you." Now I was starting to get really worried. The moment of truth. And I had a million questions and fears racing around in my head. "Uhhh ... is he gonna be able to see me? Is he gonna be behind one of those two-way mirrors or something? Am I gonna have to testify in court?" I asked, the questions just spilling out of my mouth. "Slow down there, son," Detective Franz chuckled. "All we want you to do is look at some photographs, and tell us if you recognize any of the men." I let out an audible sigh of relief. I wasn't going to have to face him ... yet. I could handle photographs. With that, Detective Franz pulled out a manila folder, and placed a number of mug shots in front of me. I didn't even know how many, because as soon as I saw that beady-eyed, sleazy looking face and nasty smirk, I knew it was him. "That's him," I said excitedly, pointing to the second to last photograph. "That's the man who ... who attacked me." The detective and Ms. Bolero glanced at each other, seeming to communicate with their eyes, and nodded. "This is the man whom we just extradited and are now holding in custody," Ms. Bolero spoke up. "He is wanted here for a number of serious drug-related offenses, kidnapping, as well as at least ten other rapes of underage boys, that we know of." As soon as I heard that there were at least ten other boys who had been violated by that man, my stomach dropped. It killed me to think that he had done that to so many other kids, and what personal hells they must be living through. I felt sick, and I was angry that the police hadn't caught him sooner, letting him do so much damage. "What's his name?" I asked, gritting my teeth. "Lenny Sclafani," Ms. Bolero replied. "So what now?" I asked. "Do I have to give a statement or something? Testify in court? Do I have to see him? Is he gonna see me? I don't know if I can handle this ..." The stress of the situation was beginning to consume me, and nearly my entire body was trembling. I had switched from biting on my fingernails to chewing on my lower lip, and my stomach was doing somersaults. "Calm down, sweetie," Ms. Bolero said, reaching across the table and putting her hand on mine. "We have plenty against him to put him away for a long, long time, without having to try him for what he did to you. Most likely for the rest of his life. It doesn't make you weak or a coward if you don't want to testify against him. God only knows you've been through enough, and I would understand completely if you never wanted to see him or be in the same room with him. It looks like we'll be able to spare you going through that." Her words, matched with the kind and sincere expression on her face, were incredibly comforting. I really didn't want to have to face him, or show up in court to talk about what had happened to me. But I did want him put in jail to rot forever. I was afraid of being weak, felt that maybe I needed to stand up to him and play a part in putting him away ... but I couldn't do it. I couldn't take any more stress. I just wanted to close that chapter in my life, once and for all. "I'm sorry, ma'am," I said. "If you absolutely needed me to put him in jail, I'd do it. But if I don't have to, I'd just as soon put it behind me ... if that's ok." "Of course, that's ok, sweetie," she said, giving my hand another squeeze. "We'll keep you up-to-date on what's going on, if you'd like, but I'm sure you'll be able to read about it in the papers and see it on television. It's going to be a pretty big story." Hearing that made me even more happy that I wasn't going to be involved in the trial. I'd feel too embarrassed to go into work or school if it got out that I was involved in all of this, and what that man ... Lenny Sclafani ... had done to me. "Thank you, ma'am," I replied, managing a weak smile. "You're more than welcome, hon," she said, giving me another wink. I looked over at Dwayne, who hadn't said anything the entire time, and he gave me a smile and an approving nod. What a relief! "Oh, by the way," Ms. Bolero said. "I think you go to school with my daughter, Sally Bolero. And I believe it was your foster brother who took her out on a date last weekend. Ryan McCormack, right?" WHAT THE FUCK?!?! The assistant district attorney was Sally "Big Ass" Bolero's mother? The archnemesis of the twins? And, excuse me, but did she just say she went on a date with Ryan? The same Ryan I was living with? The same Ryan who I had shared a bed with for almost a year? The same Ryan who was GAY?!?! I just managed to gulp and nod. I didn't know of any other Ryan McCormacks at our school. And he had gone out last weekend, although he hadn't said to where. I had just assumed that he'd gone out with Delcondris, the only one of our friends who was on speaking terms with him at all. My mind went into a tailspin. I wasn't sure what to think, but I had to get out of there ... and fast! "Uhhh ... are we ... ummm ... done now?" I stuttered. "Can we go now, Dwayne?" All three of them looked at me with slightly confused expressions, but then nodded and said I could go, but that they'd be in touch. I got out of there as fast as I could and headed to my car. As I was driving home, I tried to figure out exactly what I was feeling. It didn't take me long, though. Yes, I felt sad. Yes, I felt hurt. But most of all, I felt betrayed ... and pissed! How in the fuck could he do that? It had only been a month since we'd broken up, and he was already dating ... and with a girl, for pete's sake! As soon as I parked my car in front of the house, I stormed inside and ran upstairs. I heard music coming from Ryan's bedroom, so he had obviously gotten home while I had been gone. I tried the door, but it was locked. And I wasn't in the mood to knock. I wasn't exactly feeling too polite right then. So, I kicked the door as hard as I could, and it busted wide open, breaking one of the hinges. It was actually a little funny to see the door just sort of hanging there, and I realized that I would probably get in big trouble for busting it. But before I could ponder what my punishment would be, or how much it would cost to repair the door, my eyes fixed on Ryan, who was sitting on his bed, looking quite shocked, to say the least. "Connor ... what the fuck?" he asked, sounding more surprised and confused than angry. "You goddamn, fucking sonofabitch! I fucking hate you! I wish I'd never fucking met you, you no good piece of ass lint! If I believed in God, then I'd wish you would go straight to fucking hell and burn, you bastard prick! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! GOD, I FUCKING HATE YOOOUUU!" I screamed at the top of my lungs, startling even myself at my outrage. Anger issues, Connor. I heard Dr. Frazier's voice chiding me gently in my head. But fuck that! If Dr. Frazier had been standing right there, I would have knocked the glasses off of his fucking head! Fuck that shit! "What in the hell is going on, Connor?" Ryan asked, getting up from the bed and walking towards me, looking even more confused. "Sally Bolero, that's what, you asshole!" I shouted. I could feel how flushed my face was. I'd never been so angry in my entire life. I felt like all that time we had spent together had meant nothing to him, that there I was, loving and idolizing him, and that didn't make a damn bit of difference to him. Ryan stopped dead in his tracks. "Yeah, buddy," I said sarcastically. "I ran into her mom today when I went to the fucking police station alone, to identify the asshole that fucking raped me. Your girlfriend's mom is the assistant district attorney, and my ex-boyfriend is dating her daughter. How funny is that?" "Connor ...," he started, stepping toward me and reaching out his hand to touch my arm. But I slapped it away as hard as I could and stepped back, pointing my finger at him. I think I was trying to be menacing, and was hoping that this time, at least, I could pull it off. "Don't you ever fucking touch me again, Ryan!" I shouted at him. "You lost the right to do that a month ago when you fucking left me. I told you, I hate you! So just stay the fuck away from me!" "Connor, please, I ...," Ryan tried once again, stepping toward me, but I stepped back before he could reach out to touch me. "I told you to back the fuck off, Ryan," I said, this time my voice much lower. "What part of 'back the fuck off' don't you understand? Are you retarded, too, besides the ADD?" As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted it. Despite how angry I felt toward Ryan, that was too cruel. I think I was expecting him to get angry, but his face just fell, and he looked ... defeated. But that's what I wanted, right? I wanted to hurt him as much as he had hurt me. At least, that's what I thought. Fuck! Why couldn't it be easier to hate someone? I couldn't face the torrent of emotions that were welling up inside of me, so I turned on my heels and stormed out of the room. I would have slammed the door behind me, but it was just sort of hanging there on the door frame, looking all pitiful. And it wasn't the door's fault, anyway. I did slam my door, though, when I got to my room. I then proceeded to quickly stuff some clothes, deodorant, and toothbrush into my back pack, then darted back out and ran downstairs, not sparing a glance at Ryan's room. I was going to go be with someone who did give a fuck about me. ***************************************************** The twins. They were my sanctuary. Cody would have been an option, too, but Toby was over there, and I wasn't ready to explain things to him yet. I was still too emotional. And if Toby and Cody were moving in the direction of getting back together again, I didn't want to spoil that with me showing up over at Cody's house in the state I was in. Plus, I just really wanted to be near Ben. I still wasn't sure what I wanted, or what was going on with him -- or me and him -- but I knew that I wanted to be with him, in some way or another. "Hey, Connor," Derek said cheerily as he answered the door. I just stood there shaking. "Are you okay?" he asked, his tone suddenly worried, as he grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into the house. "Where's Ben?" I managed to squeak out. "He's upstairs. What's going on?" Without answering Derek, I bolted up the stairs, practically knocking the twins' mother as she was coming down the stairs with a basket full of laundry. "Hi, sweetie," she said. "Ben's in his ..." I didn't stick around to hear her finish what she was saying. I ran straight to the twins' room, and immediately flung myself at a rather surprised-looking Ben, who was lying on his bed, listening to his iPod. Oddly enough, I wasn't crying. I hadn't felt like crying since I exploded at Ryan. I was shaking like a leaf, though, and my stomach was doing somersaults. "Connor, what's wrong?" Ben asked, as I held on to him tightly. I didn't want to talk, though. I just wanted someone to hold me ... no, I wanted Ben to hold me. And never to let go. "Guys, what the hell is going on here?" I heard Derek ask, as he came into the room. "I don't know," Ben replied, cradling me in his arms. "Boys, is everything alright?" I heard their mom's voice coming from downstairs. Shit! Their mom was nice and all, but she was a parent, and I didn't want any more parents meddling in my life. "Everything's fine, ma," Derek shouted back. Fortunately, the twins were well enough aware of my issues with parental figures. Within moments, Derek joined Ben and me on the bed, and I felt his hand rubbing the back of my neck. "Connor, what's wrong?" Derek gently prodded me. Somehow, I managed to find my voice again and told them everything -- from my attacker being caught, to running into Sally Bolero's mom, and, finally, my confrontation with Ryan. Ben held onto me, and Derek gently rubbed my back and neck the whole time I was talking, never interrupting me as the words came spilling out. I could feel Ben cringe, though, when I mentioned Sally Bolero's name, and I figured the twins would probably enjoy having an excuse to do something vile and cruel to her. It wasn't her fault, but I found some sense of satisfaction in imagining the horrible things that they were probably thinking of doing. "You know, you can stay here as long as you want to, Connor," Ben said, as soon as I finished talking. "Thanks," I mumbled, my face buried in his shoulder. "I think I'll stay tonight, but Ryan's leaving for baseball camp tomorrow, and I need to talk to Toby, too." The rest of the evening, the three of us lay curled up together on Ben's bed, with me in the middle, watching DVDs. It was a strangely familiar sensation, and I enjoyed every minute of it, able to push all of the day's events out of my mind, even if for just a little while. Ben and Derek were absolute angels, and I enjoyed being babied by them. Between Derek bringing dinner up to me -- his mother having made the most delicious prime rib I had ever tasted, with garlic and cheese mashed potatoes, green beans, cole slaw, and garlic bread -- and Ben giving me a back rub and foot massage, I felt as though I was being treated like a king. Other than the sound of the television, and the occasional moan of pleasure as Ben massaged and cuddled me, there was no talking, and I liked it that way. After finishing off a large bowl of cheese popcorn and watching our fifth movie of the evening, we eventually called it a night. After I took a shower and brushed my teeth, I crawled into bed with Ben, as I had done quite a few times over the past month. But something felt different tonight. Something inside of me. Things between Ben and me had been moving toward "something" for a while. Finding out about Ryan and Sally Bolero had been the catalyst to make me realize that he just wasn't worth it anymore, especially not when there was someone like Ben around. However, since I had put up boundaries in our relationship that night Ben and I had kissed, I didn't expect him to take the next step ... at least not beyond flirting. So instead of waiting for Ben to put his arms around me, I took the initiative and snuggled up to him, wrapping my arms around him, our bare chests pressed tightly together. That was a new position for us, as usually it was Ben spooned up behind me. For whatever reason, I didn't feel nervous, uncomfortable, or awkward at all ... and I wanted Ben to notice. Burying my face in his neck and gently sucking on the soft flesh there probably did the trick. "Geez, Connor," Ben giggled, as I nibbled at his neck. "What's up with you?" "Do you like me?" I asked softly, pulling my mouth off of his neck so I could look him in the eyes. "Of course I do," he whispered, no doubt because he didn't want Derek to hear us. I didn't really care about that, though. "No, I mean, do you ... like me?" I asked again, this time pressing myself even more tightly into him. "Connor, what's gotten into you?" he asked, giggling again as I squeezed his butt. "Ben, you've been flirting with me for the past month, whether you realize it or not. I'm not stupid ... so, do you like me?" I asked for the third time, starting to feel a little irritated at his evasiveness. "I know I've been flirting, and you know as well as I do that I feel something ... uhhh ... different for you," he answered. We were pressed so closely together that I could feel his heart beating faster, as well as a bulge growing in his crotch. "Well, I like you, too ... a lot," I said, resuming my nibbling on his neck. His whole body was shuddering as I flicked my tongue against his skin, my fingertips caressing his back softly, working their way ever so slowly toward the waistband of his boxers. I had never been so forward in my whole life, but I didn't want to be the same shy, awkward, nervous kid that I'd always been. I just hoped I hadn't gone too far in the other direction and come off as slutty. "So what do you want?" I asked, finally ceasing my assault on Ben's neck and resting my head comfortably against his chest. "You mean sex?!" Ben asked, his voice cracking sharply. "No, silly," I laughed. "I mean, between you and me." Ben let out a long, slow breath, and I suddenly started to feel nervous again. Was this a mistake? Were things going to get really awkward now? Had I just fucked up one of the best friendships I'd ever had in my life? Way to go, Connor! "Connor, I ...," he began. "No, forget it," I said quickly. "I don't know what I was thinking. I'm sorry." I tried to turn around, but Ben stopped me, bringing his hand up to hold my face and forcing me to look at him. I tried to wriggle free, but his grip was too strong. "Connor, stop it," he chastised me. "I want to be with you. I really do. I just don't know if I'm ready to be in a 'gay relationship' yet. I mean, as soon as I say those words, it's like there's no going back. I mean, what if I want to get married and have kids some day? And what about Ryan? I don't want you to be with me just because you're upset with him. I'm really confused here, Connor. I don't know what to do." I was stunned by his words. He sounded so ... desperate. I wasn't used to people asking me what they should do. And I didn't have the answers to give him. "I don't know what to do, either, Ben," I sighed. "But I do like you, and I do want to be with you." Ben let go of my face and pulled me into a tight hug. I was so tired and confused, and I could tell he was, too. The whole day -- no, the past few months -- had just been so fucked up. "Connor, I know I want to be more than just friends," Ben said softly, running his fingers through my hair. "How about we try it out, but no serious commitments? Would that be okay?" "Yeah," I replied. "I think that would be a good idea." *************************************************** "Where have you been?" Toby asked, as I walked into the kitchen the following afternoon."I was at the twins' house," I replied. I didn't think there was any need to tell him yet what had happened between me and Ben. "What the hell happened here yesterday?" he asked. "When I got home this morning to say goodbye to Ryan before he left for baseball camp, he was a mess." Surprisingly, I was glad to hear that ... that Ryan actually felt something, for a change. Or at least acted like it. "Hmmm, let's see," I started, making a dramatic pause and scratching my chin. Then I continued. "Oh, yeah ... the police called, and they caught the guy who attacked me, so I had to go down there by myself to identify his picture and talk with the assistant D.A. The assistant D.A. turns out to be Sally Bolero's mother, who informed me that your wonderful brother, my ex-boyfriend, is now dating her daughter. Then, I came home, trashed Ryan's door, screamed at him, and then went over to see Ben and Derek. I think that about covers it." I didn't mean to come off sounding so sarcastic, but it was a long and complicated story, and I wasn't exactly eager to go through it all again. Especially not right after I got in the door from having a pretty darn good night, despite all of the shit that I'd had to deal with the previous day. "Shit," Toby muttered. "Yeah, well, shit does tend to happen," I replied. "I mean ... Sally Bolero," Toby said, turning red and looking slightly uncomfortable. "What about her?" I asked, arching an eyebrow. "It wasn't what you're thinking, Connor," Toby blurted out. "What?!" I practically shouted. "You mean, you knew about that? And you didn't even tell me? Jesus Christ, Toby!" Hell, I could deal with Ryan keeping things from me. He hadn't talked to me for a whole month. But Toby? That was like getting yet another knife driven into my back. "Connor, please, just listen to me," Toby pleaded. "Well, whatever you have to say, Toby, you'd better say it fast," I said. "I think I'll be on my way back to the twins' house pretty soon." "Sally Bolero asked him to go hang out, so he said yes. He said he didn't think it was a 'date' until she tried to kiss him, and he told her he wasn't interested. He told me about it that night, and I thought it would be better not to tell you because you'd been upset enough as it is, and nothing really happened. It was just all a big misunderstanding." "Well, whatever," I sighed. "It doesn't matter anyway. Ryan can do whatever he wants. I've moved on." "What did you say to him yesterday?" Toby asked. "I haven't seen him so upset in a really long time." "I think I made some sort of remark about his ADD and being retarded or something," I replied, starting to feel guilty all over again for having crossed that line. "Why in the hell did you do that?" Toby asked, raising his voice again. "You know how sensitive he is about that." "So now you're defending him?" I shouted back. "I'm not defending anyone, Connor!" Toby retorted. "He's my brother, and I love him. I don't like seeing him get hurt. I love you, too, and what he did to you was beyond wrong, but as my mom always loves to tell me, 'two wrongs don't make a right.'" "Yeah, well, I said it, and I regret it, ok?" I said, shrugging my shoulders. "I'll apologize to him when he gets back. I know it was wrong. But I was pissed, and wasn't exactly in the mood to hear his little explanation about Sally Bolero." "There is definitely way too much drama in this house," Toby sighed. "Tell me about it," I agreed. "Wait a minute," Toby said, perking up again. "What exactly did you mean when you said you've already 'moved on'?" Might as well get this over with now, Connor, I thought to myself. "Ben and I," I answered. "Holy shit!" Toby gasped, appearing scandalized. "You turned Ben gay? And you're together now?" "We're not exactly 'together' together ... yet," I replied. "And I don't think I turned Ben anything. He's been flirting with me for a while now, and I just decided to flirt back. We're gonna take things slow and see what happens." "Good God almighty," Toby sighed, shaking his head. "This is really getting interesting."
  9. As April turned into May, and the weather grew warmer, I felt an uneasy sense of trepidation. Toby was still continuing his chemotherapy and drug treatment, and the doctors were hoping that they could get him into a state of remission, and then continue managing his condition with lower dosages of medication to destroy any remaining cancer cells. The typical length of time for someone to be on the highest doses of chemo was about four weeks, and he still had a couple more weeks to go. With each treatment, Toby's condition seemed to deteriorate -- I could see him growing physically weaker and weaker. During several of the times we spent cuddling and chatting together, he would tell me how scared he was, and how he was close to just giving up on the treatment and letting nature take its course. Of course, I wouldn't stand for that. I could not lose Toby! Fortunately, it was pretty easy for me to convince him to keep going, although I felt a little bad that I was, in a way, using his feelings for me to keep him sticking with his treatments. But I figured that it was for his own good, so it didn't matter what method I used to persuade him to endure the suffering just a little bit longer. Too many people would be devastated if he were to die, and I couldn't let that happen. I had to do everything I could to keep him in good spirits. Ryan was so busy with baseball practice that it only seemed natural, and just a matter of time, that the bond between Toby and me would grow stronger. But it never exceeded the boundaries of close friendship or brotherly love. I was careful not to make the same mistakes as before. Even though it was obvious that some things had been changing in Ryan's personality, I was still not going to betray him. And despite my concerns about how he had been reacting to his brother's sickness and Mikey's personal problems, he still treated me like he always had. I wasn't a psychologist or anything, but it didn't take an idiot to figure out that he was scared, and perhaps this was his way of coping with it. In the extended time we spent together, Toby and I talked about things that most fifteen and sixteen year old boys should never have to talk about, like life and death ... and we also talked about love. I had come to the disappointing conclusion that a small part of why he was pushing Cody away still had to do with his feelings toward me. But I wasn't ready to give up on him and Cody yet. I thought they were good for each other, providing balance in each other's lives. Cody opened up Toby to another way of thinking about the world and himself, and Toby taught Cody to lighten up and be more of a typical teenager. I also fulfilled my promise to myself and started spending more time with Cody. He was well aware of what was happening between him and Toby, but he was taking it pretty well, all things considered. I think both of us were hoping that Toby would come to his senses once he got through the hardest phase of the treatment, and that he'd realize that he was stupid for ever pushing Cody away. They hadn't "officially" broken up yet, and still hung out together at school as friends, even sharing a few brief kisses, but it was impossible not to see the changes in their relationship. And that bothered me. But what could I do that I hadn't already done? I'd talked to both of them, but with few positive results, other than getting Toby to promise that he would think things over before making any rash decisions. As for Mikey, things weren't going so hot, either. Maggie had convinced his parents to take him back, but he had become increasingly sullen and withdrawn. He'd almost completely cut himself off from his friends, barely saying a word during lunch, and didn't hang out with any of us after school anymore. I'd tried talking to him a few times, but he always just brushed me off, either telling me he had things to do, or that he didn't feel like talking. His not being willing to talk to me about whatever was going on with him hurt, especially since he had opened up to me so much that night he had been kicked out of his house. I'd thought we'd really bonded, and that he would come to me if there were any more problems. I told him that I would be there for him, and I'd meant it. And he knew that he could come back to our house for a while if things weren't going well with his parents. What had happened? It made me start to feel like maybe he didn't value our friendship as much as I did. Even Dominic was worried about him. I got a phone call from him one evening, asking if I knew what was up with Mikey. It was the first time I'd ever spoken one-on-one with the enigmatic Dominic, but based on his concern for Mikey, he seemed like a really sweet guy, and it was easy to tell that he did have feelings for our blond-haired friend. Unfortunately, there wasn't anything I could tell him. I didn't think it was my business to go into what happened that night when Mikey showed up on our doorstep, and as to what his problem was, I frankly didn't have a clue. "So you really have no idea about what's going on with him?" Dominic asked me for the fifth time that night. "I wish I did. Things went badly with the 'rents, so I think he's just trying to keep everyone away. That's not going to do him any good, but I can't figure out how to convince him to let us help," I answered with a sigh. "If he was ignoring me because he didn't like me, I could deal with that," Dominic continued. "But you said he likes me, and I like him ... so, if two people really like each other, doesn't it make sense that they should try being together?" "I think so," I replied. "But I don't think Mikey's acting all that rationally right now." I should know a few things about not acting rationally. I was the king of being a twat and pushing people away when they were trying to help me. I just wished my experience with those feelings would give me some sort of insight as to how to go about helping Mikey. But I kept drawing a blank. "So, do your parents know you're gay?" I asked him. "Yeah, they found out right after the incident with the psycho bitch. But they said they'd suspected it for a while, and everyone's cool with it. After seeing how bad things have been going for Mikey, I feel so lucky. You and Ryan are really lucky, too," he said. "Yeah, we are," I agreed. I felt bad for Dominic. I really did. He liked Mikey, and he knew that Mikey liked him, too. But Mikey just wouldn't let himself get involved with Dominic because of his own issues and fears ever since he'd been outed. It seemed to me that if I was in a similar situation, having someone there to go through it with me would make things a lot easier, and apparently Dominic was willing to do that. Heck, all of Mikey's friends, especially me, were willing to do that, too. If Ryan had been his "normal" self, perhaps he could have helped me out with Mikey. Instead, he just chalked it up to Mikey going through some rough times and said that he'd eventually get over it and come to us when he was ready. Maybe he was right. At least, I hoped he was. ****************************************************** May also meant that it was time to start preparing for the following school year, at least as far as making class selections and stuff like that. I knew that my junior year would be important, because I would have to start seriously thinking about college and my future, taking the SATs or ACTs, Advanced Placement exams, and all of that fun stuff -- right!!! I still hadn't even decided if I wanted to go to college. I certainly didn't have the money for it, and I couldn't think of any scholarships I could qualify for. I knew I was smart, but probably not smart enough for one of those academic scholarships. I couldn't play any sports, so obviously an athletic scholarship was out of the question. And, of course, if I did decide to go to college, I was insistent that I would be going wherever Ryan went. With his sports abilities, I was sure he wouldn't have much trouble getting an athletic scholarship to a decent university. I knew that Maggie would be willing to foot the bill for me to go to college, but I wouldn't feel right about taking her money. During one of my weekly sessions with Dr. Frazier, he had suggested that I start looking for a summer job. Part of me thought that maybe I should stay at home with Toby and take care of him, but on the other hand, staying at home bored all summer would probably drive me nuts. If things continued to remain as stressful as they had been, and without the outlet I'd previously had with playing at the pub, a job sounded like it could be a good thing. Not to mention, the money would certainly help as well. One evening, as Ryan and I were strolling through the mall, I noticed that a new retail piano store had opened up, and they were looking for salespeople. There couldn't have been a more perfect job for me, except for maybe a full-time performing gig. The manager seemed slightly skeptical of a sixteen-year-old being able to sell pianos, but when I graced him with my vast knowledge of all the different kinds of pianos, what they could do, how they differed in sound and performance, as well as demonstrating a little of my own piano-playing ability, he seemed to be sold on the idea. I guessed that I probably knew more about the merchandise than the manager did himself. The piano store itself was quite nice. Its most expensive pieces of merchandise were two baby grand pianos, one of which was a Steinway, and the other, a Yamaha. Besides those, there were also a number of upright pianos, and many different kinds of keyboards, synthesizers, and digital pianos. They carried all of the top brands, such as Korg, Casio, Yamaha, Kurzweil, and Roland. The manager told me to come in right before school let out to fill out an application, and I'd be all set. I also finally got a chance to talk to Cody alone. It had been a while since I'd hung out with him, so I had made plans to go over to his house one afternoon after school and have a little jam session with him. By the time we got through Amanda Marshall's "I'll Be Okay," a beautiful song about love loss and finding oneself again, and a half-hearted attempt at playing the Eagles' "Hotel California," we both realized we weren't really in the mood for music that day. "Do you know what's been going on with Toby?" Cody asked me, as we sat on his sofa, sipping hot tea and listening to Enya on his CD player. "He's just been feeling really out of it because of his chemo treatments," I replied. Even though I wanted to be honest with Cody about what Toby had talked to me about, I knew that I couldn't say anything, otherwise I would be betraying Toby's trust. But at the same time, by not being totally truthful with Cody, I felt like I was betraying his trust as well. What was a boy to do? "I feel like he's been pushing me away lately," he continued. "I know he's embarrassed about the shape he's in, but he should know that I don't care about that. I want to be able to help take care of him, and just be there for him." "Do you love him, Cody?" I asked. As soon as that question slipped out of my mouth, though, I regretted it. That whole "love" thing could open up a big can of worms, or Pandora's Box, or something like that. And to be totally honest, I didn't really want to hear Cody's answer, because if he did admit that he loved Toby, and I knew that Toby wasn't in love with Cody (or, at least, that's what he'd said), I'd feel even worse. "I love a lot of people, Connor," he said. "You know that." I raised an eyebrow at him. "I love you, my mom, all of my friends ... so, of course, I love Toby, too," he explained. "If everyone tried to love everyone else, even the people we didn't like, I think maybe this world would be a much better place." "You know what I meant," I said, rolling my eyes. "Yeah, I do," he admitted. "And yes, I do think I probably love Toby in the kind of way you're thinking about. I think our different personalities and interests complement each other very well. I know we didn't hit it off very well at the beginning, but I feel really lucky to be boyfriends with him." UGH! This was not sounding good. If Toby did decide to break up with Cody, it would absolutely break his heart! "Has he talked to you about any of this?" Cody asked. "No, not really," I lied. What was I supposed to say? Tell him that Toby was thinking of breaking up with him and didn't love him the same way, and that one of the reasons might be that Toby still had some feelings for me? I didn't think that would be a very good idea. And I still couldn't be totally sure of that last part ... but I had my suspicions. "So what do you think I should do?" he asked. Huh? Was Cody actually asking me for advice on something? That was definitely odd. "I don't know, Cody. It seems like so many things are just so out of whack right now. I mean, Toby's sick and all, Mikey's totally shut himself off from the rest of the world, and Ryan's been acting weird. I think I'm just as confused as you. I don't know what to do," I sighed. "I think the only thing we can do is wait, and be willing to be there for them when they're ready," he said. He was probably right, but I didn't like it. I hated not knowing what was going on. I felt so helpless. But then again, I'd felt helpless for a good portion of my life. And now that I'd started getting used to all of the changes that had happened since I'd moved in with the McCormacks, I didn't like feeling that way again. I'd begun to get accustomed to having some degree of control over my life and what went on around me, but that was quickly fading away. Unfortunately, the rest of the month went on pretty much the same way. I worried incessantly about Toby and Mikey, and about what was going on in my boyfriend's head. I continued spending lots of time with Toby, especially when he was feeling ill right after his chemo treatments. It was difficult to understand how this stuff that was supposed to be curing him could make it seem like he was just getting worse and worse. He was happy that he still hadn't lost his hair -- and I had to admit that I was, too, since it was hard to picture a bald Toby -- but he kept losing weight, was constantly exhausted (he practically collapsed as soon as he got home from school every afternoon), and it seemed like he grew paler and weaker with each passing day. I forced myself not to let that get to me, because I knew I had to be strong for Toby. And when we were alone, I even tried flirting with him some -- although nothing too serious, since I didn't want to give him the wrong idea -- hoping to boost his spirits a bit. When he was up to it, we played video games together, but that was about all he ever felt like doing. One good thing, though, was that I hadn't seen him have a cigarette ever since his diagnosis. And since Maggie was working long hours (and Ryan seemed less than concerned), I was the one who got up during the night when I heard him throwing up or stumbling around to get to the bathroom. There were even a few times that he'd had nightmares, and I had to go to his room to comfort him when his crying woke me up. Other than that one time at Christmas, I'd never seen Toby cry before. I couldn't even begin to imagine how miserable he must have been feeling. Toby still hadn't had "that" talk with Cody, either, which I was hoping was a good thing. Cody still came around to see Toby a few times after school, and they even spent some "alone time" watching movies up in Toby's room, but that wasn't a frequent occurrence. I still held out hope, though. That's about all I could do when it came to the two of them. On the Mikey front, I'd been holding out hope since the beginning of the month that his reluctance to talk would eventually pass, but as the days went by, he remained as withdrawn as ever. I'd tried everything I could think of to get him to talk to me, but nothing worked. Each time I invited him to go out for a snack after school, or just to hang out and talk, he turned me down. He'd also stopped going to GSA meetings entirely. That was probably what worried me the most, since that was his only real support group besides his friends, most of whom were also in GSA. I was so worried, in fact, that I actually hoped that he would show up late one night, crying on our doorstep again, just so I'd know what was going on. Some people would say that no news was good news, but in the case of Mikey, with the fact that he seemed to be emotionally deteriorating, I didn't see much of a silver lining. Toby was lucky, in one sense, because he had people taking care of him. But Mikey had no one. So I decided that I was going to figure out a way to rectify that. I just needed to find someone to give me a hand. I finally ended up spilling my concerns about Mikey to the twins. We decided that if Mikey hadn't started getting back to his old self again within the next couple of weeks, we would kidnap him and force him to spill his guts about whatever was bothering him. Of course, it wasn't a very well thought out plan, but it was all we could come up with. Now, I just needed to wait a couple weeks to implement it, and hopefully in the meantime, come up with something a little more concrete. At least I had the support of the twins now, and I was glad that they shared my concerns. The one bright spot during this time of turmoil was that Ryan was doing really well in baseball, and that kept him in a good mood most of the time. Even though he'd been acting somewhat indifferent toward Toby and Mikey, he still treated me the same as he always had, and when we were alone together, it was my one respite from all of the bad stuff that had been going on. I'd been to every one of his home games so far, and was, without a doubt, his biggest fan. And surprisingly, it didn't embarrass me all that much that I was screaming for him about ten times louder than everyone else. I got a few funny looks from some other people in the stands, but I didn't really give a rat's ass about that. I was happy for my boyfriend, dammit! And not only were things going well on the baseball diamond, but they were going great in the sack, too. It wasn't that our first time wasn't good, because it was, but I soon learned that the old adage "practice makes perfect" really did ring true. Each time left me feeling all tingly and quivery, and even though the physical part of it was mind-boggling, I enjoyed snuggling with Ryan afterwards the most, lying in his arms and feeling him gently kiss my forehead, ears, cheeks, and neck, all the while telling me how much he loved me. It was during those moments that he seemed like the "old" Ryan again, the one who had helped me off the sports field that day and taught me how to feel something other than pain, and the one I was still hopelessly in love with. Shortly after we'd gotten back from Las Vegas, Ryan had asked me if I wanted to try switching roles. I figured there were probably a lot of gay guys that did both, but for some reason, the thought of it just didn't appeal to me. I'd told that to Ryan even before the first time we'd had sex, but I guess he didn't totally get it. Even if he'd really wanted for me to fuck him, I wasn't sure I could do it. Maybe it was performance anxiety or something, but when I thought about doing it, I couldn't stay hard. Fortunately, though, Ryan didn't seem that disappointed, although I'm sure he might have liked to try it at least once. Maybe some day, but for now, I had pretty much come to terms with the fact that I was a total bottom, and I liked it that way. ****************************************************** The evening of my performance at Senior Night in mid-May was warm, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. I could see all of the stars in the night sky, shining brightly, and it really was a beautiful sight. It had been over a month since my last performance, at the school's Spring Fair, and I was looking forward to performing again. I had met with the "techies" who would be taking care of the lights and sounds, and made sure that everything was just the way I wanted it. I'd also taken the money they'd given me to rent a tuxedo, and instead spent it on an expensive metallic black vinyl suit, complete with a pair of black-framed Versace glasses with pink lenses, and a dangly silver earring. I was very proud of my ensemble. I just hoped the principal didn't have a bitch fit when he saw that I wasn't wearing the tuxedo. However, I firmly believed that the music should speak for itself. Whenever or wherever I performed, it was always on my terms. It had always been that way. I arrived early at the country club where the event was being hosted, wearing a Detroit Pistons warm-up jacket and a pair of white Nike shorts, with my stage clothes tucked away in a garment bag. The banquet hall where the event was being held was decorated very elegantly, with dozens of large, circular tables, each covered with a linen table cloth, expensive-looking silverware, and a vase of flowers at the center. There were black balloons hung up all around the room that said, "Congratulations Seniors!" as well as a podium up front, near the stage, and a table where the DJ had his equipment set up. Between the stage and the tables, there was also a modest-sized dance floor. I was trying to be more professional about my performances now, so I wanted to personally check the sound and light arrangements, and have enough time to make any corrections. The Kurzweil digital piano was set up on a small stage, and the lighting effects that one of the "techies" discussed with me met with my satisfaction. With no one in the large reception room yet, except for me and a couple of the "techies," I decided to do a sound check to make sure everything was perfect. I sat down at the piano and adjusted the microphone as the lights were dimmed and a single purple spotlight shone down on me and the piano. I ran through Billy Joel's "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out On Broadway)," which I wasn't planning on playing that night, but which was a song I had always liked. I then switched to something more fast-paced -- in case I got the urge to really rock out that night, despite the "formality" of the occasion -- playing Tom Petty's classic "I Need To Know," which was accompanied by a more exciting light display, matching the up-tempo rock beat of the song. I was definitely satisfied with everything and was confident that it would be a good show. Once the sound check was completed, and I was positive that everything was set up properly, I left to go home for a little while, since I really had no desire to sit through hours of dinner, awards, and dancing. There wasn't much going on at home, though. Ryan was downstairs watching a baseball game on TV, and Toby was up in his room, feeling sick as usual. I decided to spend the couple hours of free time I had with him. We just lay next to each other on the bed and chatted about whatever random thoughts popped into our minds. I was hoping that someone would have a camcorder to record my performance at Senior Night, because Toby had really enjoyed the video of me performing at the Spring Fair. I arrived back at the country club at around nine o'clock and had about a half hour to get ready. So I found an empty room where I could get changed, and waited for my introduction from the principal, which was to be followed by the pre-recorded orchestral introduction from the Broadway musical Aida that I had used the previous fall at the talent show. As I peered into the large banquet room, I could see that everyone seemed pretty worn out from the evening and would probably enjoy a few slow songs to dance to, a nice relaxing way to wind down. I hoped I wouldn't disappoint them. "Let me have your attention, everyone!" the principal announced at around ten o'clock. "We are very pleased and honored to have a brilliant musician to perform for us, and I think it will be the perfect ending to a wonderful evening." As soon as he stepped off the stage, the lights dimmed, and the wonderful light crew put on a show of stars revolving slowly around the stage, as the opening bars of the orchestral introduction began. The gentle, flowing string arrangement seemed to get the audience into a much more relaxed mood, as the sounds of their chatting and laughing began to die down. After about five minutes, the strings began their final, powerful crescendo, and then slowly began to fade away, cuing me to walk onto the stage and take my place at the digital piano. I glanced over at the principal, and it was obvious that he wasn't pleased with my outfit -- but he'd have to just get over it. At least I hadn't come out dressed like Donald Duck or something. Personally, I thought my wardrobe was quite understated. After adjusting the microphone and waiting for the final chords of the orchestral piece to die away, I began to sing an a capella version of Leon Russell's "Song For You," then immediately segued into a perfectly crafted medley of two of Elton John's classic love songs, "Blue Eyes" and "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues." Feeling energized, I continued on with an extremely powerful and impassioned rendition of Ella Fitzgerald's "At Last," followed by my favorite, Jim Reeves' "He'll Have To Go," Bob Dylan's "Forever Young," and Leonard Cohen's "Light As the Breeze." I even threw in a newer song for good measure, Robbie Williams' "Better Man." There were no fancy light displays during this portion of my set, just a lone purple spot light that shone on me and the piano, and a number of lit candles placed around the stage. The ambience was perfect. I then took a short break to say a few words to the audience of graduating seniors. "Thank you all for being such a great audience, and it's a real pleasure to have been invited here to play for you. This is the beginning of your new lives, and I wish you all the best of luck," I said a bit shyly into the microphone, and was met with a loud round of applause. Sometimes, I surprised myself at how articulately I spoke when I was up on stage, even when I wasn't singing. It was a room full of strangers, one of which I knew was most certainly Trent Lomax, since he would be graduating this year, but it didn't bother me at all. After all of the drama that had been going on recently, this evening was a much needed break for me, and I was feeling great. As soon as the applause from the audience died down, I started in on The Beatles' "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds," accompanied by a psychedelic light display, and which got everyone singing along with the chorus. I followed that up with Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'," and then finished up with the classic Billy Joel song "This Night," which I dedicated to all of the graduating seniors. The applause was nice, although not nearly as deafening as it had been for some of my performances at the club or during the talent show. But it was still enough to inspire me to do a couple more songs to end the evening on a more upbeat note, after I had changed back into more comfortable clothes. So, for my encores, I chose Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" and Elton John's raucous rocker, "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)," which really got the crowd going wild. After having shifted from slow-tempo ballads to upbeat rockers, carefully manipulating the audience's emotions, I brought them down one last time with my finale, Billy Joel's "This Is the Time," which had become a standard for high school graduations. Sure, it may have been a little clichéd, but it was kind of expected. I felt pleased with myself as I finally exited the stage and went to get changed back into my regular clothes. That performance was just what I needed to get me feeling a little more balanced and relaxed. When Dr. Sandler approached me with my two hundred dollars, that was just icing on the cake. And I didn't even bump into Trent Lomax, either. ***************************************************** The weekend after Senior Night, the twins, Natalie, Tuwanda, Delcondris and I decided to put our little "intervention" plan into effect, and deal with the whole Mikey thing once and for all. Ryan, however, said he had too much homework to do and then needed to get to bed early because of his baseball game the following day. Maggie was working late again, so I figured it would be good that someone would be home for Toby anyway. He'd just had his chemo treatment that afternoon, and was undoubtedly not feeling too hot. I even managed to convince Dominic to come along, because even though Mikey swore up and down that he wasn't interested in a relationship right now, he needed all the friends he could get. I didn't plan on trying to force the two of them to get together, but I was going to try to prod Mikey to at least be upfront with Dominic about what was going on. It wasn't fair to leave him in the dark like that. Heck, he'd been leaving all of us in the dark! But after enough nagging, pestering, and begging, Mikey finally agreed to go out with us for the evening. Now, the only thing we needed to do was to get him to start talking. We had all agreed to go out to a movie that Friday evening, and then a late dinner at one of the local 24-hour diners. None of us really liked the big-name chain restaurants, like TGI Friday's or Chili's, and there was nothing that could beat a bacon cheeseburger, greasy French fries, and a big chocolate milkshake from one of the local establishments. Unfortunately, those types of "mom and pop" restaurants were becoming less and less common. As we pulled up in front of Mikey's house, all crowded into Delcondris' father's Suburban, I immediately sensed that something was wrong when I got out of the car and heard the sounds of screaming and yelling coming from the house. Before I had made it halfway up the driveway, the door to Mikey's house burst open, and he came barreling outside with his backpack slung over his shoulder and a very distraught expression on his face. "What's going on?" I asked him, remembering all too well the day that Ryan heard the sounds of fighting coming from my mom's trailer. "Nothing, let's just go," Mikey mumbled, noticeably trying to hold back his tears. We crammed into the Suburban, and according to plan, Mikey got crammed in right next to Dominic. Dominic turned his head and blushed. Although Mikey looked like he was about to protest for a moment, he just sighed and slouched back in his seat, with tear streaks clearly visible on his bright red cheeks. Unfortunately, this was about as far ahead as I had planned for our "Mikey Intervention." Now that someone actually had to start talking -- and it was doubtful that Mikey would just open his mouth and start spewing out his troubles -- I had absolutely no idea what to say. I was starting to wonder if this was a good idea, after all. Luckily, I didn't have to say anything, because as soon as Delcondris began backing the behemoth Suburban out of Mikey's driveway, barely missing the mail box on the way, Tuwanda jumped right in. "Mikey, sweetie, what the hell is going on with you?" she asked, turning around from her position in the passenger's seat next to Delcondris, and looking Mikey squarely in the eye. "I said it's nothing," he muttered angrily under his breath, refusing to make eye contact with anyone. I would have said he looked adorable like that, kind of like a little kid who'd just been scolded, but that obviously wouldn't have been appropriate under the circumstances. "Don't back talk me, boy," Tuwanda chastised him. "You tell us what the hell has been going on with you, or we ain't leavin' this car!" "Fine!" Mikey retorted. "My parents can't stand the fact that I'm a faggot, so I've been grounded. That means no car, no friends, no telephone, no computer, and no going out ... anything to keep me from having contact with anything 'gay'." "Then how did you get out of the house tonight?" Ben asked. "That's what all the screaming was about when you pulled up," he replied. "My parents told me I couldn't go out, and I told them where they could shove their stupid ass rules." "Rock the fuck on! You go, Mikey!" Derek cheered. Mikey glanced over at him and rolled his eyes. "So what're you gonna do now?" I asked, finally figuring out something to say. "I don't know. There's not much I can do. They've never hit me or anything like that. They just scream and yell a lot, and have basically grounded me until I'm eighteen," he sighed. "It's been like this ever since they found out about me, and I don't know how much longer I can take it. Things were better for about a day after Dr. McCormack came over and talked to them, but then they went right back to the way they were acting before. I really wish I didn't have to go back there, but I can't run away." "You know you can stay with us as long as you want, Mikey," I said, squeezing his hand. "I know, and I appreciate it. But my parents would come get me eventually. They like to keep up the image that they have the perfect family with a perfect son. If I suddenly disappeared, it would make them look bad. So, I'm stuck where I am," he said. "Well, why don't you at least come and stay with us tonight?" Derek chimed in. "We'll have our mom drive you home tomorrow morning, and she can try talking to your parents again. Maybe she can say something that will get them to lay off you for a while." "So your parents are cool with the whole gay thing?" I asked Derek. He chuckled. "Yeah, they're totally cool with it. They know about you, Ryan, and Toby. They've actually been trying to get Ben to admit that he's at least bisexual for the longest time, but he refuses to admit it." That comment earned Derek a glare and a flick to his ear from his twin. "Shut the fuck up, Derek," Ben said, sounding extremely annoyed. I'd never seen them bicker like that before. "Dude, just get over it. No one's gonna hate you," Derek retorted. "Mom and Dad practically want you to be gay or bi. Just get over yourself." "But I'm really straight," Ben protested. "I dated Sandy Macpherson last year. And I even banged her ... twice!" "Keep telling yourself that long enough, and one day maybe you'll actually start to believe it," Mikey mumbled. "Hey, now!" Ben protested. "This was supposed to be about helping Mikey, and now everyone's ganging up on me all of a sudden. What the fuck is this?" "Boys, just hush it for a while," Tuwanda jumped in. Thank God for her timely intervention. "Mikey's going to Ben and Derek's tonight, then their mom is gonna talk with Mikey's mom tomorrow. After we know how that goes, we'll decide how to go from there. So, for tonight, the case is closed. And lay off poor Ben, too!" I don't think anyone was really in the mood to argue with Tuwanda, so we all just shut up. Mikey seemed visibly relieved that he didn't have to go home that night. I just hoped the twins' parents could do a better job of talking with Mikey's parents than Maggie had done. Throughout this whole ordeal, though, I noticed that Dominic hadn't said a word. He'd just kept staring out of the window. We finally got to the movie theater, and it seemed like everyone was in a much better mood. We lined up and got our tickets, and although I was in the mood for some popcorn and yogurt-covered raisins, I decided to hold off, so I could gorge myself on bacon cheeseburgers and fries at the diner later. The movie turned out to be an excruciatingly awful teen slasher flick. I spent most of my time trying to see if anything was progressing between Mikey and Dominic, since we'd managed to get them to sit next to each other again. Unfortunately, they didn't seem to notice each other's existence, which was a major disappointment for me. I really wanted to see Mikey happy, and from the little I knew about Dominic, I could tell that he wanted to try. Mikey was turning out to be a tough nut to crack, though. Dinner went pretty well, too, and I managed to wolf down two whole bacon cheeseburgers, a large order of super greasy fries, and a strawberry milkshake. Everyone was chatting and joking around with each other, and the atmosphere was totally different from earlier in the car. I was starting to feel optimistic that things would work out. I was also kind of glad that Ben and Derek were going to be taking over from here, because I had enough stress as it was with things at home -- although if Mikey continued to need my help, I would gladly give it. Despite the whole "Mikey drama," the evening turned out to be pretty nice. I didn't even feel bad that Ryan hadn't joined us. It was kind of fun to hang out with everyone else, and it again confirmed for me that these were my friends, too -- and not just Ryan's. Knowing that made it a lot easier for me to open up and join in on all of their conversations and jokes. It was a really good feeling. But in the back of my mind, I was still very worried about Mikey, Toby, and Ryan. I knew that the rough times we'd been going through for the past month were far from being over. But at least I had my friends to help out, and I didn't have to face things alone anymore. After Delcondris dropped me off at home, I found Ryan watching the late night talk shows in the living room. I was a little surprised that it was after midnight and he was still awake, especially since he'd said that he wanted to get to bed early because of his baseball game the next day. "Hey, what's up?" I asked, walking into the living room. "Nothin'. Just waiting for you to get back," he said, glancing over at me. "Did you have a good time?" "Yeah, I did," I said with a smile. "The twins are gonna take care of Mikey tonight, and then their mom is gonna go talk to Mikey's parents again tomorrow. Hopefully things will work out." "Cool," he said, turning back to watch Letterman's "Top 10 List." "How's Toby doing?" I asked. "I dunno," he said absently. "Didn't you go check in on him at all?" I asked, a bit incredulously. "He didn't call for help, so I'm sure he's fine," Ryan said, his eyes still glued to the television. Of course Toby wouldn't call for help, even if he really needed it! I thought to myself. And Ryan knew that. I wanted to wring his neck for not at least having gone in to check on his brother. But I kept my angry thoughts to myself, and instead headed upstairs to check on Toby myself. When I got to Toby's room, I found him hovering over the pail next to his bed, practically puking his guts out. It was not a pretty sight. I sat down next to him on the bed and patted his back while he finished vomiting, then helped him wipe off his mouth. I gave him some mouthwash to get rid of the taste, which he then spit back into the pail. After flushing the contents of the pail down the toilet, I got a bottle of Gatorade and a straw for Toby. I knew that he could become dehydrated from puking so much, and that would not be good. He didn't want it at first, but I coaxed him into drinking about a third of the bottle, then wiped him down with a cool washcloth. He just kept looking worse and worse, and I couldn't do anything about it. I felt totally helpless. We waited a few minutes to make sure the Gatorade would stay in his stomach, then lay down together on his bed. I wrapped my arm around him and stroked his sweat-covered hair with my other hand. His breathing was uneven, and he was clearly in a great deal of discomfort. "How're you doing, bud?" I asked gently. "Not so hot. But I'm sure you already knew that," he said, managing a slight smile. "Do you want me to stay with you tonight?" I asked. "I wouldn't want Ryan to get upset. He's your boyfriend. You should stay with him," Toby replied. "Well, you're my brother now, and I love you. He's not doing anything to take care of you, so he's just gonna have to deal with it," I said. "After everything you've been through, how have you managed to stay such a sweet guy?" he asked. I blushed. "I don't think I'm all that sweet." "No, you really are, Connor," he said, giving me a quick kiss on the cheek. "Thank you for taking such good care of me. It really hurts that Ryan's been acting like such an ass. Sometimes I wish he'd come and hold me like he did back when I was little. But at least you're here now, and I'm really grateful for that." "You're very welcome, Toby," I said, giving him a soft kiss on the forehead. "Now try to get some sleep."
  10. "Well, look at who we have here," I heard Trent Lomax's voice say as I walked into the bathroom during third period on Monday. It had been over a month since Delcondris had his little "talk" with Trent, and he hadn't bothered me since. Unfortunately, it appeared that my luck had run out again. On the bright side, his usual group of cronies wasn't with him, and it seemed like I just showed up in the wrong place at the wrong time. And for some reason, it always seemed to be in the bathroom. I was just hoping it wouldn't be a repeat of the last time, when I'd had my head unceremoniously dunked in the toilet. "What do you want, Trent?" I asked, feeling both scared and a bit annoyed. I was starting to get tired of this. "You put on quite a performance on Saturday, Matthews," he said. "Where did you learn how to play piano?" Was Trent Lomax actually trying to have a normal conversation with me?! "Uhhh ... my grandmother taught me when I was little," I replied. "Ahhh ... so was she trailer trash like you, too?" he sneered. So much for a "nice" conversation with Trent. I should've known. "I just want to use the bathroom, so please leave me alone," I pleaded. "What's wrong? Get plowed up the ass too many times by your boyfriend and can't hold it in anymore?" he asked with a sickening laugh. Now I was starting to get pissed. First, he insulted my grandmother, then he insulted me and my boyfriend. After spending the weekend worrying about Toby and trying to figure out what the hell was going on with Ryan, I really wasn't in the mood to deal with Trent Lomax right now. Maybe I should have tried to come up with some kind of witty or sarcastic remark, but I wasn't too keen on getting the crap beaten out of me -- I'd actually kind of gotten used to not getting beaten up over the past few months, and it was a pleasant change. Plus, I really had to pee. So I just tried to ignore him, hoping he'd get bored, and made my way over to the urinals to do my business. Unfortunately for me, Trent Lomax apparently didn't get bored that easily, because the next thing I knew, he had grabbed me by the shirt and thrown me up against the wall, pinning me against the cold, puke green tiles. "I asked you a question, Matthews," he snarled. "So you'd better answer me before I bitch slap your faggot ass!" His face was just inches from mine. I could see every bead of sweat on his forehead, a small scar above his right eyebrow, the tiny pimples on his nose, and each little vein in his piercing, angry eyes. I couldn't decide if I should pretend to faint or piss my pants in the hopes that he'd leave me alone. But before I could make my decision, my body reacted somewhat differently from how I had been planning. I kneed him square in the crotch. "OH FUCK!!!" he screamed, as he let me go and doubled over, grabbing his groin in pain. I should have taken the opportunity to run as fast as I could -- and find another bathroom (I still had to pee!) -- but I didn't. Instead, I saw my archnemesis bent over in front of me, moaning in pain ... the punk who had tormented me since my first week at school ... and I was pissed! So instead of running, I started pummeling him. I wasn't exactly sure how to go about beating someone up, since I'd never done it before. But I'd seen enough movies and had the snot beaten out of me enough times to get the general idea that fists, feet, and knees were all viable weapons. So I just started pounding on him with all three, surprising myself with the sound of my own screaming as each blow landed. Trent eventually landed on the floor, and I was on him like a flash of lightning, whaling on his face with my fists and shouting every profanity I could think of. I didn't even realize anyone had come into the bathroom until I felt the strong arms of the vice-principal, Mr. Wakowski, pulling me off of Trent and trying to hold me back. I almost would have gotten free from his grip and gone back to beating on the now pathetic-looking lump on the floor if it hadn't been for Officer Karen coming into the bathroom, the walkie-talkie on her belt crackling with noise, and forcing me face first against the wall. It was not a pleasant experience. After she held me pressed tightly against the wall for a couple minutes, with her surprisingly gentle voice telling me to calm down, my ragged breathing started to return to normal. As I glanced over my shoulder and saw the vice-principal tending to Trent, and the school nurse coming in the door only a few moments later, I suddenly wished that I had just blacked out. Then I could say that the whole thing was just a bout of temporary insanity, and that I'd had no idea what I was doing. But I had. I felt every punch as it landed against Trent's face, heard the horrible cracking sound of what must have been his nose breaking, and each moan as my fists made impact, and I both saw and felt the blood spurting up from his face. And it sickened me. Not because I was squeamish when it came to blood, but because I had actually done this to someone else. No matter how much he had tortured me, I felt incredibly guilty and full of regret. I was actually more worried about Trent's condition than I was about my own fate. The school had a zero-tolerance policy against fighting on school grounds, and I was sure they wouldn't be very lenient with me. And I also knew that my placement at the McCormacks' was based on my behaving well at school and maintaining good grades, as well as seeing a therapist. I'd been doing all of those things, except for now -- the first time I'd ever gotten in trouble at school. I should have felt some sense of pride that I had stood up to the school bully and given him a good 'ol fashioned beat-down, but I didn't. I just felt miserable. This wasn't the type of person I wanted to become. But the whirlwind of thoughts racing around in my head was interrupted by Officer Karen telling me that she was going to take me to the office, and that they would be calling Maggie in to have a discussion with the principal. I was too tired to protest or disagree ... I didn't really have anything to protest about, actually. So I just let her lead me out of the bathroom, down the halls, and into her office. I was grateful, and a little surprised, that she didn't slap the cuffs on me. I figured I'd wind up getting charged with all kinds of horrible stuff for beating the crap out of Trent like that. And I was scared about what would happen to me now. But for some reason, I was even more concerned that Trent would be okay. Despite everything he'd done to me, and how much of an asshole he was, I figured there had to be a reason for it, just like there was a reason for me being so closed off to everyone. And thinking about what might have caused Trent to become the type of person he was just made me feel more sad for him. Officer Karen sat down at her desk and asked me what happened, and I related the events as best as I could. I told her that Trent had cornered me in the bathroom, and that I had lashed out at him. I also told her I knew that I could have just walked away after the first shot to the groin, but I didn't, and instead kept pounding on him like some crazed beast. She surprised me again when she asked if I'd been bullied by Trent before, so I told her the truth. I told her about all the times I'd gotten shoved in the hallways, had my head flushed down the toilet, and the continual taunts and threats. It all just kept pouring out of me like word vomit. I was amazed that I didn't get yelled at, as she just sat there, carefully writing down everything I had to say. When Officer Karen was done with her "interrogation," she told me to wait there until she came back to get me. So I just sat there, lost in my own thoughts and misery, hoping that I wouldn't get sent to some home for delinquent boys -- which is what I figured I must be -- or worse yet, sent to jail. ***************************************************** Needless to say, Maggie was not looking too pleased when Officer Karen led me into the principal's office. This was looking bad for me already, as Dwayne Jackson was sitting right next to her. The principal, Dr. Spangler, motioned for me to sit down in one of the leather chairs in front of his desk. "Well, Connor," the principal began. "Officer Karen filled us in on the statement she took from you. We've also questioned Mr. Lomax, and some of your friends even showed up to speak up on your behalf." "I'm really sorry about what happened," I cut in. "I don't know what got into me. I'll understand if you need to punish me." "Connor, I'm sure you realize that the school has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to fighting. So I have no choice but to suspend you for three days. However, it's also been brought to my attention that you have been putting up with bullying and harassment from Mr. Lomax since the beginning of the school year. I just wish you would have come to me sooner, so I could have done something about that." "I'm sorry, sir," I said softly. "I thought I could just live with it." "Well, you shouldn't have to 'just live with it,' Connor," he continued. "You're here to get an education, not to put up with bullying. With that said, though, you did quite a number on Mr. Lomax. His parents were intent on filing a lawsuit, until Officer Karen informed them that charges could be filed against them because of the documented history of abuse that he has inflicted on you over the past year. That changed their minds pretty quickly. So, as far as the school is concerned, once your three-day suspension is over, that's it. You've never caused any trouble before, and that certainly works in your favor. However, I don't want to see this kind of behavior from you ever again, because next time you will not get off so easily. Do I make myself clear, young man?" "Yes, sir," I answered. "Good," he said, with a nod and a smile. "Uhhh ... sir ... is ... uhhh ... is Trent gonna be okay?" I stuttered. The principal smiled. "He'll be fine. He's got a broken nose and will have a couple black eyes, but that's about it." That was definitely a relief. I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if Trent had been seriously injured. "So am I gonna be taken somewhere else now?" I asked, turning to Dwayne and Maggie. "Connor, while we don't excuse your behavior, we also know that you're still dealing with a lot of issues. But you're already in therapy and working on that, and according to Dr. Frazier, you've been quite cooperative," Dwayne replied. "If this kind of violent and aggressive behavior continues, then we might have to look into other options to deal with it. That wouldn't be to punish you, and we're not trying to scare you. We just want to get you the help you need, and make sure you're in the best place possible to get that kind of help. But, for now, I think the best place is right where you are." "Thank you," I said meekly. I didn't really think I deserved to get off that easily. Especially given how badly I'd hurt Trent. I still couldn't believe that I had done that, or that I was even capable of doing it. But I had. And in my mind, that made me no better than Trent. "Your suspension is not a vacation," Maggie quickly jumped in. "While you're at home for the next three days, you're going to be doing all of the chores yourself, which means cleaning the house from top to bottom, doing the laundry, mowing the lawn, and weeding the garden. Ryan will get all of your homework assignments for you, too. You're not to fall behind on your school work at all." I just nodded. Considering the circumstances, I figured I'd just gotten a light slap on the hand. That's not to say that I was happy about having to do all of the chores, but it was certainly better than the worst-case scenarios that I had already thought up, such as being taken away from the McCormacks', locked up in jail, or worse yet, locked away with Eleanor Van Epps in the nut house. I could deal with a little house cleaning and gardening. Becoming the personal bitch of some large, tattooed biker dude named "Bruiser," or playing endless games of "Chutes & Ladders" or "Hungry, Hungry Hippo" with Eleanor while being watched over by large men in white coats, was not something I imagined would be a positive experience. Ironically, right after our meeting in the principal's office, it was time to go for my weekly appointment with Dr. Frazier. I wasn't looking forward to it, since he'd most likely want to explore my feelings about the incident at school, and I wasn't really in the mood to talk about it. Plus, I was worried that he would want to increase my medication, and I didn't want to feel all doped up again. Fortunately, he didn't do that, but he did insist on prodding me with questions about how I felt as I was hitting Trent, and talking to me about "anger." He said that I needed to learn how to channel my feelings better and not keep things bottled up inside, otherwise I'd risk having episodes like that again in the future. I thought I'd been doing pretty good, though. I'd told him everything, and had accepted most, if not all, of his suggestions for dealing with my past. And I'd never thought of myself as an angry person before. I'd never lashed out like I had with Trent Lomax, and perhaps that's what scared me the most. As usual, Dr. Frazier said there was no "quick fix" to the problem, and the only way to work through what he called my "latent anger" was to keep meeting with him and talking about stuff. He also made me promise that I would report any bullying at school to the principal rather than letting it build up inside of me. I didn't like the idea of being a tattle-tale. I didn't want to be a wuss and go running to a teacher or the principal every time someone was mean to me. But I also didn't want to end up in the habit of getting into fights and risk being suspended again, or worse, taken away from my new home. Fortunately, no one besides Trent Lomax had been bothering me, and I had a feeling he would probably keep away from me for a while, so I should be okay, at least until I could work through these "anger issues" that Dr. Frazier insisted I had. On Tuesday morning, the first day of my suspension, I got to work early, starting with the lawn. I'd never actually mowed a lawn before. Fortunately, Ryan had enough time before he left for school to show me how to get the lawn mower started and what to do. It only took me about forty-five minutes to do the whole lawn, but after coming inside and getting one whiff of myself, I decided that this was one chore I was glad that Ryan usually had to do. I worked hard each day so that I could be finished by the time Toby got home from school. I wanted to be able to spend some more quality time with him, and since Ryan was busy with baseball practice in the afternoons, that worked out perfectly. Although Toby was well enough to go to school during the week, he still didn't look good. So far, he had been one of the lucky few who hadn't lost his hair, although he hadn't had that many treatments yet, and it could still happen. He had also lost some weight and just looked exhausted all the time. Toby's condition worried me a lot, although both he and Maggie insisted that his physical symptoms were mainly a result of the chemotherapy treatments and didn't mean that he was dying. I wasn't that easily convinced, though. One afternoon, while Toby was taking a nap, I got on the Internet and looked up the particular type of leukemia Toby had. I found out that it was one of the most aggressive, and fatal, forms, and was most common in younger people. Fortunately, it was treatable, and the prognosis was relatively good if it was caught early. And I assumed that since it had only been about a month between the time I first noticed that Toby wasn't feeling well until he was diagnosed, his treatment had started fairly quickly. And the fact that he had been through it before, and Maggie knew what to look out for, was probably a very good thing. But despite that little reassurance, it was still possible that Toby could die. I had no idea how I, or Ryan and Maggie, would react to something so horrible. Despite my growing fears, however, it was nice to have those few quiet afternoons alone with Toby. Mostly, we just chatted and did our homework together, but we also watched some television and snuggled. I wondered why Toby wasn't spending more time with Cody, so on Thursday, the last day of my suspension, I asked him about that. "I don't want him to see me like this," he sighed. "Like what?" I asked. "All sick and miserable and stuff. And I definitely don't want him to see me if I end up losing my hair," he replied. "But he's your boyfriend, Toby," I retorted. "Maybe that's not such a good idea anymore," he said, looking away uncomfortably. WHAT?!?! Was he thinking of breaking up with Cody? "Toby, don't say that. I thought you and Cody were doing good together. You know he's crazy about you, and I thought you felt the same way," I said, worry creeping into my voice. "Yeah, I care about him a lot. That's why I don't think I want him to see me like this. I don't want to worry him," he insisted. "You can't just push him away like that if you love him," I retorted. Ryan had done that to me, so I knew from first-hand experience how badly that could hurt. And I didn't want to see Cody get hurt. But I suppose there was also a bit of a selfish motivation for my not wanting Toby to break up with Cody. It would make it very awkward for me to be around the two of them together, and I didn't want to be made to feel like I was stuck in the middle. Besides that, I was worried that if Toby and Cody were both single again, maybe Ryan would start to mind me being so close with Toby, thinking there was something going on. If Toby was with Cody, then that wasn't really an issue, right? "I never said anything about 'love,'" he said suddenly. "What?" I asked. Toby sighed. "I like Cody a lot, and I like being his boyfriend, but I don't think I 'love' him." Oh, God! Please don't let this be because he still thinks he's in love with me! I thought. But I was too chicken to ask if that was the reason. "Just please think about it before you do anything, Toby," I pleaded with him. "Don't push him away for something stupid like being embarrassed. You know Cody doesn't care if you're sick or not." Toby promised that he would think about it, and I was really hoping that he wouldn't break up with Cody. Not just for my own selfish reasons; I really did want them to be happy, and I didn't see anything wrong with their relationship at all. I'd never seen them argue, only tease each other playfully, and they always seemed happy to be around each other. And despite his being so mature and grounded for his age, I knew that it would devastate Cody if Toby broke up with him. I was actually glad to be back at school on Friday ... that is, until I got called up to the principal's office during first period. What did I do now? I thought. Didn't I already serve my sentence, both from the school and Maggie? When I got to Dr. Spangler's office, he motioned for me to sit down. The butterflies in my stomach were working overtime, and I felt like I was going to puke. Had they changed their minds and were going to expel me now? Had Trent Lomax's parents decided to sue after all? Had Eleanor Van Epps escaped from the insane asylum and was now going on a killing rampage all over town? "How are you doing this morning, Mr. Matthews?" the principal asked. "Uhhh ... I'm fine, sir," I replied hesitantly. "Excellent," he said, leaning back in his chair and clasping his hands together. His smile was a little disarming, and I was not feeling at all comfortable. "I have a little favor to ask of you, Connor," he continued. "Senior Night is coming up at the end of May. I'm not sure if you know what that is, but it's basically a fancy, black tie dinner we put on for the seniors before graduation. There's also a short awards ceremony, some speeches, and a little bit of music and dancing. We do this especially for the senior class, since the prom involves the juniors as well, and there's already so much going on with that." Okay, it was nice that he was sharing this little tidbit of information with me, but why, exactly? I wasn't a senior, so Senior Night didn't really have anything to do with me. He must have sensed my confusion from the puzzled expression on my face. "Anyway, we had booked a live band to play, but they just cancelled. And I recalled how wonderful you were at the talent contest last fall, and of course, your performance at the recent Spring Fair. So, I was wondering if you'd be interested in helping us out and playing for us," he said, looking at me expectantly. "Uhhh ... what would be involved if I did this, sir?" I asked. "Well, you would only have to play a few songs at the end of the evening. The music for dancing will be taken care of by a DJ, but we were hoping you could play a few slow songs, and maybe something to sort of sum up the last four years for our graduating class. And I've discussed it with the student government, and they can afford to pay you two hundred dollars for performing, plus money to rent a tuxedo." It actually sounded like a good idea. I'd get yet another opportunity to perform, and I'd get paid for it, too. I couldn't see any reason at all not to do it, and by agreeing to this, hopefully I'd get back in the principal's good graces. I didn't really like the idea of having to wear a tuxedo, but I supposed I could deal with that. So, I agreed to do the performance, only asking that they set up the school's Kurzweil digital piano for me, and have the same kids doing the sound and lights who had done so for my last two school performances. Of course, that wasn't a problem, so everything was set for my next gig ... and did I mention that it was a paying one? As far as the school's reaction to my beating up Trent Lomax went, I was a little surprised that people didn't make a huge deal out of it. I chalked that up to people being more interested in the end of the school year and the impending summer vacation. However, I did get a few pats on the back from people who didn't like Trent very much, as well as glares from some of his friends. All of our friends had obviously thought it was really cool that I beat the crap out of Trent, but each time someone congratulated me, I cringed. I knew I was right to defend myself when he had me backed up against the wall, but then I took it too far. And that wasn't right. All I could do was hope that everything was over and done with, and that Trent wouldn't bother me anymore. ***************************************************** By Saturday night, I had decided to try to put the entire incident with Trent Lomax and my subsequent suspension behind me. I was also trying to look forward to performing at Senior Night. I had gone to Ryan's baseball game that afternoon, and it took all the will power I had not to cream my shorts, watching him running around in his tight uniform. Honestly, I had no idea how he did in the game, since I was so busy ogling his cute butt -- and, I had to admit, ogling the cute butts of a few of his teammates -- but he seemed happy when we got home. And, of course, the combination of seeing him in his uniform and his sweaty, musky scent after the game had made me deliriously horny. I practically tackled him as soon as we got home, and was treated to spending the remainder of the afternoon in bed with him. Despite the afternoon's fun, not all was cheerful around the house, though. Toby had received his latest chemo treatment on Friday afternoon and was as sick as a dog, which kept me in a state of worry. I wanted to stay with him so I could make sure he was okay, but Ryan insisted on us spending some more "quality time" together. Since Maggie was working a double-shift at the hospital and wouldn't be home until the following day at around noon, that meant that we could snuggle up on the sofa in the living room and watch DVDs on their large screen, plasma TV -- which was a lot more fun than watching the much smaller TVs in Ryan's or Toby's rooms. I insisted on giving Toby a bell so that he could ring us if he needed anything, but I knew that he wouldn't use it. He didn't like to be waited on, even if he really needed something. And I knew that regardless of whether he wanted help getting to the bathroom or getting some water, or having someone pat him on the back as he threw up in his pail, what he really needed was someone to just be with him. I'd suggested having Cody come over to stay the night with him, but Toby insisted that he didn't want Cody to see him in that condition. I knew that it wouldn't bother Cody that his boyfriend was throwing up, and that he would love to be able to help take care of him, but Toby kept refusing. After talking with Toby on Thursday, I was well aware of what was going on in his head, and it was still worrying me. I just hoped Cody had the patience to wait out Toby's issues, or that Toby would get over it. I guess I could see where Toby was coming from. I mean, I'd always let my pride get in the way of allowing other people to help me. Fortunately, I had gotten past that to some degree, and it actually felt good to let people be there for me. But, unfortunately, Toby wasn't at that stage yet. I also realized that I hadn't talked to Cody in a while and made a mental note to spend some time with him the following week. But if he brought up the thing with Toby, I wasn't so sure how to deal with it. Should I tell him what Toby and I had talked about? Anyway, that could wait for next week. At Ryan's and Toby's insistence, Ryan and I got to have our quiet evening together, snuggled up on the sofa under a comfy blanket, watching some really terrifying horror films. After viewing the remakes of the classic Japanese horror flicks, The Ring and The Grudge, as well as the original Thai version of The Eye (thank God for English subtitles!), I was sure that I wouldn't be sleeping well for a few nights. Just as the last movie was ending, I looked up at the clock to see that it was around ten-thirty. I almost jumped out of my skin when I heard a loud banging on the front door. It had been raining and thundering outside all evening, which made the movies just that much more creepy, and I couldn't have imagined who would be out in this kind of weather. So, of course, my overactive imagination got the best of me. Fortunately, Ryan was a little braver than I was, and as he headed to the front door, I followed closely behind him, trying to decide which part of the "fight or flight response" I was going to choose. Before the incident earlier in the week with Trent Lomax, I would have said that I'd have run away, screaming like a little sissy girl. Now that I was having trouble dealing with my anger -- at least that's what Dr. Frazier had told me -- all bets were off. As we reached the front door, and Ryan reached out to grab ahold of the door knob, another flash of lightning illuminated the dark hallway, followed only seconds later by a deep rumble of thunder, nearly causing me to go running in the opposite direction. As we collected ourselves and Ryan finally managed to open the door, it would be an understatement to say that we were both a little bit shocked to see a soaking wet, shivering, and very scared-looking Mikey standing on the front porch. He was tightly clutching an overnight bag, his wet hair hanging down over his puppy-dog eyes. "Mikey, what're you doing here?" Ryan asked. "My ... my parents ... they found out ...," Mikey stuttered, breaking down into tears. "How? What happened?" Ryan continued to prod. I, on the other hand, couldn't believe Ryan was playing "twenty questions" with Mikey while he was standing outside, crying and getting rained on. So I reached past Ryan, grabbed Mikey by the arm, and yanked him into the house. "Ryan," I said, looking at my boyfriend pointedly. "Don't you think we should invite Mikey inside and let him dry off?" "Oh shit, sorry," he mumbled, looking embarrassed. Maggie, no doubt, would have a fit if Mikey tracked water all through the house, so I told Ryan I was going upstairs to get a towel. In the meantime, I figured he'd help Mikey get out of some of his wet things. Well, I'd been wrong. When I came back downstairs a few moments later, they were both still standing there, Ryan looking very awkward, and Mikey sniffling and sobbing quietly. What had happened to my sensitive and caring boyfriend? Did I have to do everything around here? "C'mon, Mikey. Let's get your wet clothes off and get you warmed up," I said. He just nodded dumbly and let me help him pull off his soaked sweatshirt, jeans, and socks, leaving him standing there in his tighty-whities. I'd always figured Mikey for a boxers kind of guy, but I guess I was wrong. It was cute, though. It was also the first time I'd seen Mikey in any state of undress, and despite the gravity of the situation, I couldn't help but take a moment to admire his nicely toned body. The fact that his briefs were soaked didn't leave anything to the imagination, either, so to speak. Nevertheless, now wasn't exactly the time to be perving on my boyfriend's best friend, especially with said boyfriend standing right there. Nor did the state in which Mikey showed up at our house suggest that he would be in the mood to be perved on, either. So I quickly helped him start drying off, then took him by the hand and led him upstairs to my room, where I found a pair of clean boxers and pajamas for him to wear. I figured that would be best, since Ryan's clothes would be too big for him, and Toby was most likely asleep. After I stepped out of the room for a few moments to let Mikey finished drying off and get changed, Ryan and I both went in to find out what the deal was. So far, all Mikey had said was that his parents had "found out." I was assuming that he meant that they had discovered he was gay. I couldn't think of anything else they could find out that would cause him to show up unannounced and crying on our doorstep at nearly eleven o'clock at night. "So what happened, Mikey?" I asked, as the three of us sat down together on my twin bed. "My dad was using my computer to do the online tax thing, and he came across some gay web sites I'd visited," he said quietly, looking down at the floor and still sniffling. "Then what?" I continued to prod gently. "He asked me if I was a 'fucking faggot,' and I couldn't really deny it, so I said yes, and he freaked out," he said, beginning to shake. "He told me he wasn't going to have some 'diseased queer' living in his house, and gave me ten minutes to get my stuff and get out. I couldn't think of anywhere else to go, so I came here. I'm really sorry for doing this to you." "It's okay, bud. You can stay here as long as you need to," Ryan said, patting him softly on the back. Thank God! Ryan finally said something helpful! I was beginning to wonder what the hell his problem was. "Thanks," Mikey mumbled. "What about your mom?" I asked him. "She just stood there watching as I left. She didn't seem to care," he replied. I then realized that I had no idea what to say to Mikey, just like the time I had talked with him at my birthday party. I really wished Maggie was home at that moment. She'd know what to do. Ryan didn't seem to have any more helpful comments or advice, either. "Well, why don't you try to get some sleep, and we can talk more in the morning, if you want," I said. Mikey just nodded, and I helped him pull down the blankets and get settled in before heading off to bed with Ryan. As Ryan and I lay in bed together, I couldn't help but think how much of a dumbass I was for not being able to come up with anything better to say to Mikey. I was equally unimpressed that Ryan didn't have much to say either. He was always so sweet and sensitive when it came to me, so why couldn't he be that way for his best friend? Maybe it was the same problem I was having, simply not knowing how to react to this kind of situation because he hadn't been there himself, either. But at least I was trying. And why did he seem so unconcerned with Toby? I saw how sensitive and caring he had been at Christmas when Toby got upset because he missed their dad. But now his own brother had leukemia, and Ryan just seemed to be blocking it out. This was all very confusing to me. It wasn't like he was ignoring Toby or anything, though. He'd still ask how he was feeling and talk to him the same way he did when Toby was feeling okay. But when Toby was sick from his chemo treatments, Ryan didn't sit with him like I did, or cuddle with him, or dote on him. He just kind of acted like nothing was out of the ordinary. Ever since our little "fight" before going to Las Vegas, however, I'd decided I wasn't going to bring it up with him again. I hated confrontation, and I didn't want to end up getting into an argument with Ryan, especially since things between us were going so well. I was probably just thinking too much, as usual. I eventually fell asleep, but woke up a short time later because I had to pee. After I did my business, flushed the toilet, turned off the bathroom light, and stepped quietly into the hallway, I heard the unmistakable sounds of whimpering and sniffling coming from my room. I was exhausted and just wanted to go back to bed and cuddle up with Ryan; but I couldn't stand the thought of Mikey being in there all by himself, suffering alone, feeling like no one understood or cared. I'd felt that way too many times before in my own life. So without giving it any more thought, I quietly opened the door and walked into my room. I could barely make out the form of Mikey curled up into a little ball on my bed. "Mikey, are you okay?" I whispered. There was no reply, just more sniffling and whimpering. So I walked over and sat down next to him on the bed. "Mikey, please tell me what's wrong," I said. "You wouldn't understand," he whimpered. The tone in his voice scared me. He sounded so ... defeated. That was another feeling I knew all too well, and I wasn't about to let Mikey suffer through the same thing I had for so long. "Try me, Mikey. I do know a thing or two about crappy families," I said, nudging him over gently so I could lie down beside him. "I just don't know what to do. I hate not knowing what's gonna happen. I'm really scared. I'm only sixteen years old. I'm not ready to be on my own yet. I have no idea where I'm gonna go, what I'm gonna do, or how I'm gonna survive," he sighed. "We're gonna wait until Maggie gets home tomorrow and talk to her. She'll know what to do. And you should know that she wouldn't let you just wander the streets homeless or anything. It may make things a little crowded around here, but you know she'll let you stay here as long as you need to," I said. "I know that," he said. "But I don't want to be a burden on everyone. Maybe I'd just be better off killing myself and getting it over with." "Don't you dare say that, Mikey," I retorted. "Even after all the shit I went through, I knew that killing myself wouldn't solve anything. And it's a good thing I didn't, because look where I am now. And as for being a burden, I used to think the same exact thing. But you know what? That's not true. Everyone in this house cares about you, and we're best friends now. I may not have much experience with what you're going through, or know the right things to say to you, but I'm gonna stick by you no matter what. Do you understand?" "Thank you, Connor," Mikey said. "You've really changed so much since that day in the auditorium when I first talked to you. It's like you're an entirely different person." I wasn't totally sure about that. I mean, yeah, I'd become a little more outgoing and open, but I had the same feelings of self-doubt as before, and my anxiety about a lot of things still plagued me from time to time, more often than I would have liked. But yeah, I guess a few things had changed for the better. I basically felt like I was the same person I'd always been, though. "Just promise me you won't do anything stupid, like killing yourself," I said. He sighed. "I won't. I promise." "Thank you, Mikey," I said, squeezing his shoulder. "Connor, how does it feel to be in love?" he asked shyly. I was a little surprised at the question at first, because I'd always thought of Mikey as being a lot more experienced than me. But then I realized that he'd never mentioned being in love before. "It's incredible," I replied. "Things have been kinda rough around here lately, with Toby and all. But everything seems like it's gonna be alright when Ryan's holding me at night." As soon as I said that, I realized that I'd probably said too much. I didn't want to rub it in that I had a boyfriend and Mikey didn't. The last thing I wanted was for Mikey to feel more alone than he already did. "I wish I knew what that felt like," he said softly. "You will, Mikey," I said. "Maybe you should try giving Dominic a chance." He just shrugged. After a few moments of silence, I started to get up to go back to Ryan's room, but Mikey reached out and grabbed my arm. "Will you stay with me tonight, Connor?" he asked, sounding very much like a small, scared child. "Of course I will. Let me just go tell Ryan, so he doesn't worry, and I'll be right back," I replied. I didn't want Ryan to wake up in the morning and find Mikey and me in the same bed together and get the wrong idea. I'd definitely learned my lesson when it came to that kind of thing. It took me about five minutes to rouse Ryan out of his slumber, and he said he didn't care if I stayed with Mikey, although he didn't see what the big deal was. He said Mikey was a big boy and could take care of himself. I didn't really agree with that assessment, though. Mikey needed someone to be there for him right now. That much was pretty obvious. But I wasn't about to get into an argument with Ryan over that, so I just said "thank you" and gave him a soft kiss on the forehead before heading back over to my room. I squeezed into the twin-size bed next to Mikey and wrapped my arms around him. It was the first time I'd ever snuggled with him, and it felt really nice. He practically melted right into my body and made what could best be described as a soft purring sound. I was proud of myself for not even having any sexual thoughts. It just felt like I was snuggling with my good friend. And it made me feel even better when his breathing slowed down and he finally fell asleep. I just hoped my being there with him would give him at least a little peace, even if only for a few hours. As I lay there holding Mikey, seeing the moonlight streaming in from the window and shining on his soft, golden hair, I couldn't help but think about how my heart had managed to go from being so closed off to the rest of the world, not willing to let anyone inside, to opening up and finding so much room to love. Not just my boyfriend, but my new family and friends, too. As I silently prayed that Mikey was dreaming of somewhere much happier than where he was now, I couldn't help but sing softly to him, hoping that I could help him find that place. Goodnight, my angelTime to close your eyesAnd save these questions for another dayI think I know what you've been asking meI think you know what I've been trying to sayI promised I would never leave youAnd you should always knowWherever you may goNo matter where you areI never will be far away ... ******************************************************* The following morning, when Maggie got home from work, she was visibly upset when we told her what had happened with Mikey the night before. She said she was going to call Mikey's parents and talk to them. Mikey insisted that it wouldn't do any good, but he should have known that when Maggie had her mind set on something, there wasn't much that anyone could do to stop her. So I told him to just relax and wait and see what happened. It seemed like Maggie was on the phone with Mikey's parents for quite a while, and since she had locked herself up in her room, we had no idea how it was going. When she finally came out, though, she said that she was going to take Mikey back home, and the four of them would sit down and discuss some things. I wasn't too sure that sending Mikey home right away was the best thing for him. Could one phone call and a little chat with Maggie really change their minds so easily? It didn't seem very likely to me. Then again, I had been learning to trust Maggie more and more over the past several months, so I didn't argue with her. Personally, I wouldn't have minded if Mikey stayed with us for a while longer. Since Cody and Toby had started dating, Mikey had pretty much become my best friend, next to Ryan, of course. After Maggie and Mikey left, I went to Toby's room to see how he was doing. He seemed a little better than the day before, but he was still obviously feeling really shitty from his treatments. I emptied the "puke bucket" that was next to his bed and cleaned it out for him, then spent the rest of the afternoon just sitting and talking with him. I cuddled up with him and took a nap for a while as well. Ryan was in his room doing his own thing, although I was pleased when he poked his head in the door briefly to ask how we were doing. I knew I could take care of Toby. I was starting to feel more concerned with what I was going to do about Ryan, though. And then there was Mikey to worry about, too.
  11. "Boys, we need to talk," Maggie said, as she placed her fork down next to her plate after finishing off the meat loaf I had made for dinner. Yes, I could cook. Aren't all good little gay boys supposed to be able to do that? But the tone in Maggie's voice was not a positive one, and a million terrible thoughts started racing through my mind. Ryan and I were supposed to be leaving for Las Vegas in a week. Had she suddenly changed her mind about letting two sixteen year olds go to Las Vegas on their own? Was there a problem with Social Services? Was I going to be sent somewhere else now? Were Ryan's grades falling and he hadn't told me, and now I was going to have to sleep in my own bed? I had made a lot of progress with some of my issues over the past month, but my tendency to worry about everything and always dwell on worst case scenarios was one that I had yet to get over. "What is it, Ma?" Ryan asked, shoveling another bite of mashed potatoes into his mouth. "Toby's leukemia has come back," she said. Ryan's fork stopped dead cold, halfway between his plate and his mouth, as he looked back and forth between Maggie and a pale-looking Toby. Needless to say, I had lost my appetite as soon as she said, "Boys, we need to talk." But this was definitely not good. In fact, this was worse than all of the worst case scenarios I had quickly dreamed up. My mind suddenly raced back to that day at the Christmas tree lot, when Maggie had told me that Toby had leukemia as a child. But she'd said he'd gotten over it, so I'd never thought of it again. "When did you find out?" Ryan asked, his voice surprisingly calm. I had about a million questions I wanted to ask, but I suddenly felt like my heart had sunk down into the pit of my stomach and there was something wedged in my throat, preventing anything from coming out. How could Ryan -- and Maggie, for that matter -- stay so calm at a time like this?! Hello?!?! Toby ... leukemia ... BAD!!! "I'm sure you boys have noticed that Toby hasn't been feeling well for the past few weeks. On the day he stayed home from school last week, I took him to the hospital to have some tests, just to be sure, and we got the results back today," Maggie replied. She was obviously trying to sound calm, but I could still sense the concern in her voice. "Is he gonna be okay?" I asked, finally finding my voice again. "You know, you all don't have to talk about me like I'm not even here," Toby jumped in, not sounding too amused. There you go again with your big mouth, Connor! "I'm sorry, Toby," I said sheepishly. "It's alright," he sighed. "But it's not like I'm only eight years old this time. I'm a big boy now, and I can handle it." "He beat it last time, boys," Maggie interjected. "So he has a good chance of beating it again. And he'll have the best medical care available. His oncologist, Dr. Myers, is excellent." "Yeah, don't worry about it, babe," Ryan said, putting his arm around my shoulder. "Toby's a tough kid. He'll just be grouchy when he's on the chemo. But since he's a pain in the ass anyway, I guess nothing will really change." Toby gave Ryan the finger after that remark, and Ryan responded by blowing him a kiss. I didn't see how they could be joking around at a time like this, though. I seemed to be the most upset out of all of us, and I wasn't even the one with leukemia! I didn't know what I would do if we lost Toby. I would probably be just as traumatized as if I'd lost Ryan. That's how much I loved Toby. They had both become inseparable parts of my life. "What exactly is leukemia?" I asked. "I mean, I know it's a kind of cancer, but I don't really know what it's like." "There are different kinds of leukemia. I've got what is called Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia," Toby explained, sounding very clinical. "It's a cancer of the bone marrow and blood, and depending on the type, it can progress either rapidly or slowly. It causes immature cells to build up, which prevents the marrow from producing enough red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets. The lack of white blood cells makes it harder for the body to fight infections, and the decreased platelets causes bruising and easy bleeding." "Jesus," I sighed. That sounded serious. "How serious is the kind that you have?" "Since it's 'acute,' it means it progresses very rapidly," Maggie interrupted. "Which means that we have to start treating it soon, and aggressively. It's more common in children and young adults. Chemotherapy is the most effective treatment, and although it works well, the treatment can be just as hard, or harder, on the patient than the disease itself." "What do you mean?" I asked, getting more and more worried by the second. "It means that Toby may be very sick after his treatments. We'll try to schedule them for Fridays or the weekends, so hopefully after having a couple of days to recover, he won't have to miss too much school. It's hard to say how the body will react to the treatment, though. Each patient is different. He'll start his treatment on the Saturday of the Spring Fair." "He'll probably go bald, too," Ryan chuckled. I didn't find that very funny, though, and apparently neither did Toby, who just glared at his brother. As mature as Ryan was, I was getting a little miffed at his attitude. Toby was his younger brother, so he should at least be as worried as I was. But then again, they'd all been through this before, and I hadn't. I honestly didn't know what to think. "Hair loss is a possibility," Maggie explained. "But it doesn't happen in all patients. So we'll just have to wait and see." "You're gonna be okay, right?" I asked Toby. "Probably," he said, shrugging. "Don't worry about it, Connor." I couldn't help worrying about it, though. Toby was my new brother, and I loved him more than life itself. I couldn't stand the thought of him getting sick like that, and the thought of him possibly dying was even worse. Like most people, as soon as I heard the word "cancer," I immediately thought that it was basically a death sentence. After our little family meeting, Ryan went to his room to work on his homework, and I followed Toby to his room. If he was going to be sick, I wanted to spend as much time with him as possible. I had been starting to get over my clinginess with him that began after the dream, but now I felt that over-protective feeling coming back. "Do you mind if I hang out with you for a while?" I asked him, once we got to his room. "You know you don't have to ask that, Connor," he said, rolling his eyes. "I always love it when you spend time with me." "Are you really gonna be okay?" I asked. Toby walked over and wrapped his arms around me. "Connor, I just got a new older brother, and I'm not ready to leave him just yet," he said, rubbing my back. I felt a little better after that, but I knew that I would be worrying about this for a long time to come. After our little bonding moment, Toby sat me down and finally convinced me to try out his Playstation 2. Needless to say, even with his expert instruction, I sucked. Video games were definitely not for me. But I didn't care that I actually hated playing them. At that moment, I would have done anything just to be with Toby right now. Eventually, I went back to Ryan's room to go to bed, but I had a difficult time falling asleep. I wasn't in the mood for sex, either. I was too worried about Toby and about what would happen if he was suddenly gone from our lives. Not only how it would affect me, but how it would affect the whole family. The boys had lost their father only two years ago, so what would happen to Ryan and Maggie if they lost Toby now? It was a terrifying thought. Apparently, Ryan could sense my anxiety. "He's really gonna be okay, babe," he said softly, as we lay there on the bed, with me tossing and turning. "How do you know that?" I asked. "You heard what your mom said about how serious it is. How can you seem so ... I dunno ... fine with everything?" "We've been through this with him before, Connor," he said. "And he was fine. He'll be fine this time, too. These things can come back. Just act like everything's normal. Treat him the same way you always have. It's really not a big deal. Toby's not going to die." I wanted to believe him, but it still bothered me that he seemed so calm about all of this. Even Maggie seemed to get a bit emotional as she announced the news to us. But Ryan's reaction made it seem like Toby's leukemia was just some kind of ordinary, everyday occurrence. I knew how much he loved and doted on Toby. How could he act like this when his brother had a potentially fatal disease? I really didn't get it, and it bothered me ... a lot. I thought I knew Ryan pretty well, but his response to all of this was the opposite of what I would have expected. And to be honest, it made me feel a little uncomfortable. It wasn't right. The next morning at breakfast, I had an announcement to make. I'd thought it over long and hard the night before when I wasn't able to sleep, and I felt it was a good decision. "I don't think Ryan and I should go to Las Vegas next week," I said, trying my best to hide my disappointment at giving up on seeing my hero live in concert. "Why on earth would you think that?" Maggie asked, not sounding too happy. That threw me off-guard. "Ummm ... I ... uhhh ... I just think we should be here for Toby," I stammered. "Toby doesn't even start his treatment until after you guys get back. He'll be perfectly fine, and there's nothing you can do for him sitting around here," Maggie said. "You boys have been through a lot. Especially you, Connor. You need a little time away, and you're going. No arguments." I still didn't like the idea of going off and having fun in Las Vegas while Toby was stuck at home all alone, having to face this whole cancer thing all by himself. But I knew that Maggie wasn't going to budge. Personally, I surprised myself, being willing to give up going to see Elton John to support Toby, but that's how much he meant to me. Apparently, Ryan wasn't too happy with my little announcement that morning, either, because he approached me later that afternoon. "Connor, what has gotten into you?" he asked, sounding annoyed. "What're you talking about?" I retorted. I had a feeling that this was on its way to becoming our first fight, and I didn't like the thought of that. "You seem like you're more concerned about Toby right now than our own relationship. You've been hanging all over him ever since the beginning of February, and you're freaking out about this when I already told you there is absolutely nothing to worry about," he said, sounding exasperated. "I just want to be there for him," I reasoned. "Well, I'm his brother. I'll take care of him, so just drop it, or you're going to ruin our vacation," he said, sounding more and more perturbed. That didn't sound like the Ryan I knew, and it was unsettling, to say the least. I really didn't want this little disagreement to escalate any further, though. I hated confrontation. So I reluctantly agreed that I'd try to forget about it and enjoy our trip. And I was sure that once I got to Las Vegas and was sitting up in the front row, watching Elton John tear up the piano, I'd be in a much better mood. I just hoped I hadn't already damaged things too much with Ryan. Fortunately, by that night, he seemed to be back to normal, and we resumed our usual snuggling in bed. He was right, though. There wasn't anything I could do about Toby now, anyway. I honestly wouldn't have minded skipping the concert to be there for him, but I didn't want to disappoint Ryan, either. He was my boyfriend, and even though I loved Toby, too, I had to remember not to ignore Ryan's feelings. Right? I didn't want him to feel like I cared more about Toby than him. There had always been a bit of tension there, lying beneath the surface, ever since that night when Ryan walked in on Toby and me kissing. Maybe this was somehow a part of that. ******************************************************* "Passengers, please fasten your seat belts and return your tray tables to their upright and locked positions ..."I had actually been looking forward to my first-ever trip on an airplane. The take-off was really exciting, but unfortunately, that's about all I got to experience, having fallen asleep shortly after we'd gotten in the air. That was probably due to the fact that I had woken up at five in the morning so we could be at the airport on time to catch the plane. I didn't see why we had to take such an early flight to Las Vegas. But then again, the earlier we arrived, the more time we'd have to do stuff. After a short cab ride from the airport, we arrived at our hotel, a Holiday Inn. I guess most people would think of the Holiday Inn as a pretty crappy hotel, especially compared with all of the luxury hotels in Vegas. But the Las Vegas Holiday Inn was pretty nice. Ryan had wanted to stay in one of the nice casino hotels, but I didn't really see the point, since we couldn't go into the casinos anyway. He seemed to think the Holiday Inn wasn't good enough for our "special trip," but he hadn't been forced to stay in some of the shitty motels I had over the years with my mother. So, to me, the Holiday Inn was like paradise. It really threw me off balance to see him acting so cranky about something so insignificant. It wasn't like we'd be spending much time in the hotel, anyway. Once we'd checked in (fortunately, Maggie had reserved the room ahead of time with her credit card, so we didn't run into any problems with being only sixteen years old), we decided to get a late breakfast at a little diner we had spotted down the street, and then go out to do some sightseeing and shopping. Our first stop was the Liberace Museum, which I just had to see, with its collection of Liberace's garish, over-the-top stage outfits, his unique collection of pianos, and other artifacts. I'm not sure Ryan was that interested, but I was fascinated by all of it. There were a bunch of other places to go as well, but since the show was that night, we didn't want to get too tired out. So after a quick lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe -- where I got to see more rock & roll memorabilia than I had ever dreamed possible in one place -- we just decided to walk around downtown Las Vegas and check out all of the beautiful hotels and casinos and do some shopping. I could have spent a fortune on clothes and useless souvenirs, but Ryan made sure my wallet stayed firmly planted in my pocket, which was probably a good thing. I wasn't used to having money, and now that I had some, I wanted to spend it. But I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn't really all that much money, and I needed to save. Plus, gas prices had been going up, and I had to have emergency funds in case anything happened to my car. At about six-thirty, we headed over to Caesar's Palace, and I was thrilled to find that they had an entire shop filled with Elton John merchandise. They had almost every kind of Elton John memorabilia you could possibly think of, and I felt like a little kid in a candy store. I could have hung out there for hours on end, just running my fingers over everything. But after I'd bought a few cool things to put in my bedroom, Ryan had to drag me out of there so we could get to our seats on time. Did I mention already that we were sitting in the front row?!?! The show itself was even more incredible, more over-the-top than I could have possibly imagined, and far different from his typical concerts. It was done in true Las Vegas style. Elton John was filling in at the 4,100 seat venue at Caesar's Palace when Celine Dion (whom I detested with a passion) wasn't performing there. Long gone were the days of Elton John's garish and gaudy costumes, from impersonations of Mozart, Tina Turner, and Donald Duck, to South American generalissimo uniforms and tuxedos with Boater hats. Instead, he opted for a plain black Versace suit, trimmed with multi-colored sashes, plain black sunglasses, and a simple diamond stud in his right ear (which I was more than positive was real). Apparently, he didn't want his outfit to distract from the incredible props covering the stage, which included enormous inflatable bananas, cherries, cigarette butts, ice cream cones, hot dogs, and even a giant pair of inflated female breasts, mammaries which easily outsized any of the other stage props. And right smack in the middle of this bonanza of lights, sounds, and sights that overwhelmed all of the senses, was Elton John himself, seated at his striking red Yamaha concert grand piano. "The Red Piano" show was a wild pop-art spectacle, designed by the famous photographer David LaChapelle, filling the stage with neon dollar signs and X-rated marquees. The massive LED screen at the back of the stage flashed with images of Las Vegas, seventies porn in full-action, and images spanning the course of Elton's long career. Elton began his hour and a half setlist with a bang, pounding out the classic "Bennie and the Jets," then greeted the fans by saying, "Welcome to the Colosseum ... the home of Celine Dion ... but not tonight!" He then tore through a string of his greatest hits, including the soulful "Philadelphia Freedom," "Believe," "Daniel," "Rocket Man," "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," "Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word," "Tiny Dancer," "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," and "Candle in the Wind" (complete with a video extravaganza of Marilyn Monroe images). Each of the songs were accompanied by their own video shows on the large LED screen. Some were raunchy and risqué, while others were poignant and touching. But overall, the effect was quite campy. As soon as he finished "Candle in the Wind," a large pinball dropped from the ceiling, along with hundreds and hundreds of balloons and tons of confetti, and a pre-recorded electronic-rock intro began, leading into the classic "Pinball Wizard." That was immediately followed by a hard-rocking rendition of "The Bitch is Back" (featuring a video of a naked Pamela Anderson doing a sultry pole dance), the up-beat "I'm Still Standing," and then on to the raucous rocker "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)." The excitement in the air that night as Elton totally rocked out on stage was palpable. And feeling the electricity that filled the arena, seeing how he had the entire audience eating out of his hand, made me realize how much of an amateur I really was compared to him. The crowd was on their feet the whole time, screaming their heads off, and Ryan and I were lucky enough to manage to get a handshake from the Man himself as he made his rounds of the front row, signing autographs, shaking hands, and accepting gifts. He stopped long enough in front of Ryan and me to see that we were holding hands, and gave us a big smile and a wink! He was so close that I could smell the Versace cologne that he was wearing. That moment right there was the highlight of the whole show for me. As Elton exited the stage, the stagehands removed many of the props that were strewn everywhere and replaced them with large, red inflatable letters spread out across the stage that spelled "L-O-V-E." At the same time, clips were playing of some of Elton's greatest performances over the years, including his famous 1973 show at the Hollywood Bowl; the Elton John Week in L.A. in 1975, capped off by his incredible show at Dodger's Stadium; as well as his amazing free concert in Central Park in 1980 when he dressed up as Donald Duck. Elton then returned to the stage in a new outfit and thanked everyone for coming and supporting him for all these years. He then dedicated his final song to everyone in the room that night who was in love, and I couldn't miss his unmistakable wink toward Ryan and me as he started in on his trademark ballad, "Your Song." As soon as he finished the last chords of "Your Song," Elton said a final "thank you" to the audience and was off the stage in a flash. Ryan and I just sat there in stunned silence, trying to come down from the spectacular journey we had been taken on. Ryan may have thought I was good, but I was glad that he had the chance to see what a true rock and roll legend could do. Elton had a charisma about him that could just leave an audience absolutely spellbound. And that was the effect he had on us that night. There were literally no words to describe how incredible it had been. One of my dreams had been fulfilled. But there was still one more dream that I hoped to have fulfilled that night when we got back to our hotel, and since Ryan seemed to be in a much better mood after the concert, I figured tonight would be the perfect time. But as we walked into the hotel and passed the bar, I heard the unmistakable sounds of a piano being played, and the noises of a packed room. Being so wired after just coming back from the concert, I couldn't resist. So I asked Ryan to come in with me for a minute, and I walked right over to the guy playing the piano and asked if I could cut in for a couple minutes. He seemed happy to have a break, and I was giddy at the thought of actually "performing" in Las Vegas ... even if it was just at the bar in the lobby of a Holiday Inn. Most people would probably be terrified of sitting down in a room full of complete strangers and performing. It didn't bother me at all. In fact, it was one of the few things that actually made me calm. It was rather odd, because the thought of having to interact with people I didn't know, much less actually talk to them, was frightening. And I didn't like people to notice me, either. I had always preferred to melt into the background. But there was something different about sitting behind a piano that cast away all of the fears and doubt. As I sat down at the black Steinway baby grand piano -- the first time in a long time that I hadn't played on a digital piano -- and adjusted the microphone, I took a quick glance around the crowded bar, noticing the slightly perplexed faces of the customers, who were no doubt wondering what some random teenager was doing there. But I was going to show them, and I had the perfect song to play -- Elton John's "Holiday Inn," an upbeat, folksy number about life on the road. It was a relatively short song, with a really great chorus. Slow down Joe, I'm a rock and roll manI've twiddled my thumbs in a dozen odd bandsAnd you ain't seen nothing till you've beenIn a motel, baby, like the Holiday Inn ... The applause from the audience was also mixed with a tinge of laughter at the reference to the hotel where we were all staying. It was a good feeling, but I hadn't come here to put on a concert, just to fool around on the piano for a few minutes. So after thanking the house piano player, I made my way back out of the bar, with Ryan in tow. There was more important business to attend to this evening. Despite the bottle of sparkling grape juice that Ryan had ordered from room service, and the romantic atmosphere cast by the candles and incense that he had lit around the room, nervousness was what I was feeling when I found myself lying naked on the bed next to Ryan, with him holding a tube of K-Y Jelly that we had bought at a drugstore we found while we were out shopping that day. "Are you sure you're ready for this, babe?" he asked. "Yeah, I'm sure," I replied, hoping I sounded more confident than I actually felt. But I needed to do this. I wasn't going to let what happened to me keep me from being able to love my boyfriend. I had mentioned my plan to Dr. Frazier shortly before the trip, and although he thought that it still might be a little too soon, I was determined to go through with it. It was my body, after all. As I lay on my back, with my legs spread apart and knees pulled up to my chest, I prepared myself for the inevitable. But instead of jumping right into the main event, Ryan started off by gently lapping at my nearly hairless balls, while his hands rubbed my chest and his fingers teased my erect nipples. He then moved down to my hole and proceeded to feast hungrily, driving me into an absolute frenzy as his tongue probed deeper and deeper. After a good fifteen minutes of giving me perhaps the best ass-licking of my life, Ryan sat up again, and I watched intently as he carefully unscrewed the cap of the lubricant and squeezed a generous amount into the palm of his hand. He then smeared it all over his already hard dick, before squeezing some more onto his index finger and rubbing it around my hole. I winced slightly as his finger slowly entered me, but as soon as he touched that magical spot inside of me, the pain and fear were quickly replaced by pleasure. He worked his finger in my ass slowly for several minutes, and I focused on controlling my breathing, something that I'd learned when Cody had taught me about meditation. If only Cody could see how I was applying his lesson now! I thought to myself. He then worked a second finger into my hole and continued his ministrations for a while longer. When I felt like I was ready, I nodded to Ryan, and watched with anticipation as he kneeled between my legs and aimed his thick cock at my hole. His expression was focused, with his tongue sticking slightly out of his mouth, just like when he was doing his homework. It was definitely cute. I winced slightly again as I felt the large head of his cock make contact with my hole and begin pressing against me, but I kept focusing on my breathing, waiting for the inevitable. He pushed again harder ... but nothing happened. He tried one more time, wincing a little himself, but still nothing. It wouldn't go in. "It won't go in, babe," he said gently. "You're too tight." Shit! This definitely wasn't working like I had seen in the porn we had watched together on Ryan's computer. I'd seen guys with much bigger dicks than Ryan fucking guys smaller than me. How could it not go in? "Try again, and push harder," I urged him. "I don't wanna hurt you, babe," he said. "Well, it's gonna hurt no matter what," I retorted. "Just try again, and I'll try pushing out at the same time, like it said on that website." With that, I felt the head of his cock pressing against my hole once again, and I pushed out like I was trying to take a dump. After about thirty seconds of straining on both our parts, the head finally popped in, and I yelped in pain. "Babe, are you okay?" Ryan asked. "Yeah, just don't move for a second," I told him, trying my best to hold back the tears. I was going to go through with this, but it hurt, dammit! After several moments, I nodded at Ryan to continue, and he began to press in again slowly. I felt a searing pain shooting through my entire ass as he inched deeper and deeper. I thought my whole body was going to split in half, and was starting to wonder if I could really do this. "It's about halfway in, babe," he said, looking at me worriedly. "Just hold it for a minute," I said through gritted teeth. Goddamn motherfucking sonofabitch, it hurt! Finally, the pain began to subside, and I told Ryan to move in further. I eventually felt his pubic hair brushing against my balls and knew he was all the way in. I did it! I really did it! The pain was getting less and less, and I urged him to go on. As he pulled out slowly and then pushed back in, I felt the most intense sensation of pleasure shoot up the length of my spine, and a loud moan escaped my lips. What I had expected to be a slightly uncomfortable experience at best was beginning to feel incredible. I wrapped my legs around Ryan's waist and put my hands on the back of his neck, pulling him down to kiss me, as he continued moving slowly in and out of me. As our tongues danced together, I moved my right hand down to cup his ass, urging him to thrust faster and harder. As he began to quicken the pace, I found that my hips were involuntarily bucking upwards to meet his thrusts, as I tried to shove my tongue as far into his mouth as possible. Fortunately, the kissing helped to stifle my loud moans, otherwise the people staying next door would undoubtedly have heard me. Needless to say, being sixteen-year-old boys, our stamina wasn't very good. Within minutes, I felt Ryan's body began to tense up, and I knew from the way he was furrowing his eyebrows that he was close to cumming. I reached down and started rapidly jacking off. I then felt his entire body convulse and could feel his hot cum shooting against the walls of my ass, deep inside. The thought of that alone was enough to drive me over the edge, and I soon felt my ass clamping down involuntarily on his cock, eliciting a deep moan from Ryan, and shot my own load all over my chest. Totally spent, Ryan collapsed on top of me, and we just lay there, trying to catch our breath, his cock still buried deep inside of me. I had never imagined that making love could feel that incredible. Not just the physical sensations, but the emotional ones as well. It felt like he was showing me he loved me with every inch of his body. It was more meaningful than words could ever convey. My whole body was trembling in the aftermath, and I just felt ... quivery. I felt like I wanted to cry, the emotions were just so intense. But I thought that might be a little too wussy, so I forced myself to hold it back. The thing that surprised me the most, though, was that I hadn't freaked out at all! Sure, it hurt like hell at first, and was a bit awkward, but I didn't have a panic attack or anything. Eventually, as our breathing returned to normal, Ryan pulled out of me, and I suddenly felt empty. I would have preferred him to stay inside of me, but I supposed all good things must come to an end. After kissing me softly on the forehead, he went into the bathroom to clean up, and I just lay there, basking in the afterglow. If I'd had a cigarette then, I probably would have smoked it. I just felt so ... WOW! And the thought that there were millions of little Ryans swimming around inside of me right then made my heart flutter. It was like he was a permanent part of me now. I was probably overanalyzing things, or maybe just being overly sentimental, but I didn't care at that moment. I was in heaven. After returning from the bathroom with some tissues to wipe the excess lubricant off my ass for me, Ryan climbed into bed and we snuggled up closely. My whole body was still trembling. "Are you okay, babe?" he asked. "Yeah ... I mean ... I'm better than okay ... that was so ... wow ...," I stuttered like an idiot. "No bad feelings or anything?" he prodded gently. "No, I felt fine. My shrink said it might be too soon, but it felt perfect," I cooed, wrapping my arms even more tightly around him. "You can be on top next time," he said. "Not unless you really want to," I replied, running my fingers across his smooth chest. "I mean, I really liked it that way. I liked feeling you inside of me. I guess that makes me a bottom." He chuckled. "Whatever you want, babe. It felt really nice being inside of you. I never imagined it could be that way. I'm really glad that you're the one I lost my virginity to." His comment about "virginity" suddenly brought a not-too-pleasant thought into my mind. I wasn't exactly a virgin ... although not by choice. "Ryan, do you think we should have used a condom?" I asked, feeling rather awkward. "I mean, you may have been a virgin, but ... you know ... I'm not." Surprisingly, I wasn't so much ashamed that I wasn't a virgin ... I just didn't want Ryan to catch something from me, even though Maggie said that man had worn a condom when I was raped, and they'd given me an HIV test. But I knew from health class that there was something called a window period where HIV wouldn't be detectable in the body. "I don't think we have to worry about HIV or anything, babe," Ryan said, brushing the hair away from my eyes. "I talked about it with my mom, and she told me that she'd also ordered something called a 'viral load test' while you were in the hospital. She said that it's much more accurate than the regular HIV tests. You'll still have to get a regular test in a few months to make sure, but it just didn't sound like there's going to be a problem. I'm not worried." He paused, looking a little embarrassed. "I guess we should have mentioned it to you, but my mom didn't want you to be worrying about it, with everything else going on." I hadn't really been worried about HIV or anything until tonight. I guess it had slipped my mind. But now that I was thinking about it, I really wished we'd talked about it before. However, it was over and done with, and the important thing was that it seemed like I was safe, and so was Ryan. And we'd just had sex together for the first time, and I didn't freak out. That was enough to put me totally at ease. I ended up slept like a baby that night, melting completely into my lover's arms. The next two days were pretty jam-packed with activities, such as a trip to the "Adventuredome" amusement park, which took up nearly half of our second day in Las Vegas, riding the roller coasters and other rides, eating over-priced food, and just walking around and enjoying the sights and sounds. I'd never been to an amusement park before, so it was quite an experience for me. Ryan told me that Cedar Rapids was a lot more fun, and promised to take me there over the summer. On our third and final day, we hit the "Elvis-A-Rama Museum," where they had all kinds of cool Elvis Presley memorabilia, such as three of his cars, tons of jewelry he'd worn, clothing from movies he'd been in, and other personal artifacts. We also went to the "Shark Reef" and the "Guinness World Records Museum." By the time we got back to the hotel that evening, I was beat. Ryan and I hadn't made love since that first night, since I was feeling a little sore the day afterward, and tonight we were both dead tired. So after ordering a couple club sandwiches from room service for a late-night snack, we went right to bed, since we had a flight to catch the next morning to go back home. I'd had an amazing time on the trip, and it really was nice to get away for a few days. I'd never had a proper vacation before, and as relaxed as I felt after those three days, I could tell that I'd definitely needed it. Ryan seemed to be in a good mood, too, so I hoped we wouldn't end up having any more disagreements like we'd had before the trip. The flight back home was much like the flight to Las Vegas -- meaning I slept the whole way again. When we finally landed at the airport and got off the plane, I was ecstatic to see Maggie and Toby waiting for us. Toby looked very tired, but other than that, he seemed okay. Maggie also had a big smile on her face. As soon as I spotted them, I ran as fast as I could and practically jumped into Toby's arms. I'd missed him so much. Ryan took his time walking over to us, but he also gave Toby and his mom hugs, and put his arm around my shoulder as we walked out of the airport to go home. ******************************************************* It was a beautiful, clear, and slightly cool Saturday afternoon in April, but I was on edge, and the throngs of people at the school's Spring Fair did nothing to calm my nerves. It wasn't bad enough that I still couldn't deal with large groups of people, especially other teenagers. What made it even harder for me to get in the mood to perform was that Toby couldn't be there. Ryan had brought his camcorder so Toby could see my performance later (and this would actually be the first time I'd ever be able to see myself on tape), but I would rather have Toby be there himself ... and not sick. But I loved to perform. I lived for being up on that stage. So I would take it any way I could get it. Today was Toby's first day of chemotherapy. And while I guessed that was good, since it was meant to help him, I knew it would also make him really sick. I was worried about how I would handle that. How was I supposed to take care of him? Would he even want me to? Would it upset me or gross me out if he was puking all the time and lost his hair? Worrying about that kind of stuff made me feel even worse about it, too, because I knew how insensitive that was. He was my "brother," after all, and I needed to love and support him, no matter what. Right? But regardless of my mood and anxieties, I still had a show to do. And despite my dislike of getting involved in school activities, even I had to admit that this was for a good cause. The fear I saw in Mikey about his own coming out made me realize that our school having a GSA was important, so I would do my best to put on a great show. Mikey was there that day with his parents, and I'd noticed how uncomfortable he looked. He didn't come anywhere near the GSA booth or any of his friends from the club. It pissed me off that he had to live like that, and that just encouraged me to do an even better job. I would do this show for him. Our GSA advisor, Miss Oh, had warned us of the possibility of some small protests from some parents and kids who had been opposed to the school's formation of the GSA. The most vocal had been the school's Young Christian Club, which had their own booth at the fair, where they were passing out booklets about the impending "Second Coming" and "family values" or some crap like that. Fortunately, however, none of that had materialized, perhaps because Officer Karen, the school's police liaison officer, had set herself up right by our booth. Even the most ardent of Christian fundamentalists would have been stupid to go up against her. All of the various school clubs had set up their own booths with games and food for the fair. The GSA booth was handing out pamphlets on what GSA was all about, as well as information on other groups, such as PFLAG, for the parents of gay kids. They had also erected a wooden stage near the booth, and the "techie" kids, who usually did the lights and sound for the school musicals, had already set up the Kurzweil digital piano and hooked up the amplifiers and microphone. I wasn't going to be putting on a full concert, though, just playing a few songs of my choosing. I had wanted to buy a new outfit for the performance, but Ryan had talked me out of it, saying that I couldn't buy new clothes for every performance I did, or I'd end up wasting all of my money. But ever since I'd been able to actually start wearing nicer things, I almost couldn't help myself when it came to clothes shopping. Fortunately, I had Ryan to keep me in check, and I ended up choosing to wear my black suit, silk magena shirt, a black Nehru hat, and pink tinted glasses with thick black frames. I had managed to buy a new earring, though -- a dangly, garish gold crucifix. I was kind of hoping that would piss off the Christian fundamentalists. Promptly at three o'clock, Natalie, the president of the GSA, got up on stage to talk briefly about the GSA and introduce the performance. When she was finished with her little speech, I took my cue and walked up onto the stage to a reasonably loud round of applause, although nothing like what I had received at the talent show or my weekly performances at the pub. But people from all over the fair had gathered around, making for a pretty large audience, and it felt great to be on stage again. Ryan, Cody, the twins, Natalie, Tuwanda, and Delcondris were all right up front, and they were definitely the loudest members of the audience, hooting and whistling so much that I was feeling quite embarrassed. I bowed briefly to the audience before sitting down at the digital piano and adjusting the microphone. I then dove right in to two classic rockers to get the audience riled up, "Mercury Blues" and Warren Zevon's "Lawyers, Guns and Money," followed by T. Rex's "Children of the Revolution," which allowed me to test out the upper limits of my vocal range. What I had originally envisioned as just a short performance was now turning into a full-fledged concert, with people singing along and clapping to the rhythm. I also got to make good use of the Kurzweil's excellent synthesizer and MIDI effects. I had fallen in love with digital pianos for just that reason, being able to add a lot more to my solo performances, something I couldn't get out of a regular piano. To keep the crowd going, I then immediately started in on Billy Joel's "Stiletto," which I introduced by saying, "We still love you, Eleanor!" into the microphone, and making goofy faces at the crowd during the entire song. That earned a few chuckles from everyone. After a polite round of applause from the audience, I moved on to some songs that were a bit more fitting for the occasion. I started with Melissa Etheridge's powerful and moving song, "Silent Legacy," which dealt with the fear, pain, and confusion of coming to terms with one's sexuality in a less than accepting society. It was my first time performing that song, and I had never even heard it before until about a week earlier, when Cody mentioned it to me. I had decided immediately that it would be perfect for the GSA performance. The angst-filled melody and lyrics captured what I imagined so many young gay people probably had to go through every day. And it was Mikey I was thinking about as I sang my heart out. Your body is aliveBut no one told you what you’d feelThe empty aching hoursTrying to concealThe natural progressionIs the coming of your ageBut they cover it with shameAnd turn it into rageAnd as you pray in your darknessFor wings to set you freeYou are bound to your silent legacyYou are digging for the answersUntil your fingers bleedTo satisfy the hungerTo satiate the needThey feed you on the guiltTo keep you humble, keep you lowSome man and myth they made upA thousand years agoAnd as you pray in your darknessFor wings to set you freeYou are bound to your silent legacy ... I then moved on to Elton John's "American Triangle," a haunting tribute to Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who had been beaten to death in Wyoming, and then another Elton song, "The Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes," a moving song about AIDS in the early eighties, when the Reagan administration had failed to take the disease seriously, leading to an untold number of unnecessary deaths and creating a social stigma against HIV/AIDS that has existed until the present day. All three songs were very emotional, and I put everything I had into my piano playing and vocals, almost moving myself to tears a couple of times. After another polite round of applause and a quick "thanks" to the audience, I started on my final two songs, Bob Dylan's gentle yet stirring "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" and John Lennon's "Imagine." Was the loving and peaceful Utopia that John Lennon sang about possible? I certainly hoped so. But as soon as I was finished with my performance, I quickly got my things together and headed home. I didn't want to hang around there any more, plus I wanted to see if Toby was home yet and find out how he was doing. I was going to learn how to do this whole "supportive" thing, with Mikey and Toby. When I arrived back home, Maggie was in the kitchen fixing dinner, and told me that Toby was upstairs in his bedroom. I immediately headed upstairs to see him, and was a little stunned when I got to his room and saw how horrible he looked. He was covered in sweat, his complexion was very pale, he looked more exhausted than I'd ever seen him, and he'd obviously been throwing up, based on the pail that was placed next to his bed and the faint odor of vomit in the air. "How are you feeling, Toby?" I asked, as I walked into his room. "Not so hot," he replied hoarsely. "Actually, I feel like shit." "Is there anything I can do for you?" I asked him. "Just stay with me for a while," he replied. "I'm kinda lonely." "Sure, bud. No problem," I said, walking over to the bed and sitting down next to him. For the next couple hours, we just sat there and watched some DVDs, and I had to smack him on the back a few times as he puked into the pail, so that he wouldn't choke. He really was a mess, and I didn't know what to do to make him feel better. I also got him a cool washcloth to wipe him down with since he was sweating so much. It was kind of hard to imagine that the medicine that was supposed to cure him could actually make him even sicker. Ryan stopped in briefly to say hi when he got home from the fair, but didn't stay long to chat. Cody came by that evening as well to see how Toby was feeling, but he didn't stay long either. I wondered if it was because it was difficult for him to see Toby that way, or because Toby wasn't really up to having visitors. But after Cody left, Toby asked me to come back and sit with him, which I gladly did. That was pretty much all I could do, though ... just sit there. He didn't feel like talking much, and I didn't know what to say anyway. I knew telling him something like "You'll be fine" would just sound empty and meaningless, because he obviously had a hard road ahead of him if he had to go through this every week for who knew how long. Sunday was more of the same, with me spending most of the day in Toby's room, watching DVDs and just lying next to him on his bed, occasionally helping him out when he needed to throw up or wiping him down with a cool wash cloth. Maggie had to work, so I kind of felt like it was my responsibility to look out for him, and Ryan pretty much stayed in his room doing his homework and playing video games. I was a little disturbed that Ryan didn't think it was necessary to help out with his brother. It's not like I minded doing it. I loved spending time with Toby and was happy to help in any way I could. But I couldn't understand how Ryan, who had always been so protective of Toby, suddenly seemed so withdrawn and distant at a time when his brother needed him the most. I didn't think it was right, but we'd gotten into an argument the last time I tried to bring it up, so I just decided to leave it alone. When it came to how he acted toward me, though, nothing had changed. He was just as sweet and caring as ever, which made me even more confused. Was he jealous of Toby or something? Ryan knew that I loved him, and that Toby was just like a younger brother to me. We'd been through this before. But if he was upset about my doting over Toby while he was sick, I would have expected that he would act weird around me or something, but he didn't. It was all just really strange. Fortunately, by Sunday evening, Toby seemed to be doing a bit better. Although Maggie suggested that he stay home from school on Monday, Toby insisted on going, since he said he had to learn to get used to it. I wished he would have stayed home, too, but it was his body, after all. Nevertheless, I promised Maggie that if he was having a tough time at school, I'd bring him right home. I didn't want him to get any sicker than he already was. "Thanks for staying with me this weekend," Toby said that night before I headed off to bed. "You don't have to thank me, Toby," I insisted. "You know I'd do anything for you. I love you, bud." "I love you, too, Connor," he said with a smile. Unfortunately, I wasn't so sure that love would be enough to cure Toby of the cancer that was eating away at his body. It was going to be a hard several months, and I was hoping that not only Toby would make it through all right, but that I would as well. But even though Ryan hadn't been very helpful or supportive so far -- which still completely baffled me -- at least I knew that Cody would be around, and I was certain that he would also be able to give Toby lots of tender loving care.
  12. I was definitely thankful for the two extra days off from school. When Ryan and Toby came home on Monday afternoon, they informed me that while pretty much everyone had heard that I had been beaten up and hospitalized, no one had known about the rape. That would save me from a great deal of shame and embarrassment. I don't think anyone would have gone so low as to tease me about it or anything (except for maybe Trent Lomax), but just knowing that they knew would drive me crazy. So that was one worry I could scratch off my list! I also got to get caught up on all of my homework, too. By Monday night, I was back to sleeping with Ryan in his room, and I could tell he was relieved. At least that's the way it seemed when he practically devoured me with a passionate lip-lock as soon as we slipped into bed together. Other than him jerking me off a couple times in the shower, that had been our first real intimate contact since the attack. Although we just ended up making out, due to my still somewhat fragile condition, it felt great to be in his arms like that again, able to feel his soft skin pressed up against mine, and feel him love me, rather than just hear him say it. Being at the McCormacks' house permanently now, not having to wonder if I might end up in some boys' home or foster home, and no longer having to worry about supporting myself and my mom or about when I might get beaten on next, definitely brought some big changes to my mental state. It was like the weight of the world had been lifted off of my shoulders, and I had never felt so relaxed or at peace before. Even though I had agreed to go see a therapist, I didn't really think it was necessary. I was feeling good. I was truly happy for the first time in a long time. What was the point? But I had promised Maggie, and more importantly, it was one of the conditions of continuing to stay with them, so I would go through with it. Plus, deep down inside, I knew I still had issues, and maybe the therapist really could help. When Wednesday morning rolled around, I felt like I was starting my first day of school. It was kind of a strange feeling, really. I mean, I'd been there for a whole semester already, but now I had a new "family," and I felt almost like an entirely different person. I was dressed nicely -- in my own clothes, and not Toby's anymore -- and I felt more confident. Of course, not everything had changed about me. I was still shy and introverted, and didn't feel very comfortable around new people. But I had now made a good group of friends, having gotten to really know them during my convalescence that previous week; I had a boyfriend who loved me, and thanks to the anti-depressants and anxiety medication I had been taking, I hadn't felt like having a panic attack in a while. Yep, things were definitely looking up for me! Of course, I was still me, and there was still that part of me that was convinced that something bad was bound to happen, but I tried my hardest to put that in the back of my mind and enjoy my new life for as long as possible. As I walked into school on my first morning back, somewhat reminiscent of the first day back after the talent show the previous fall, people who'd never really spoken to me were suddenly acting very friendly, asking me if I was okay and if it was true that I was Ryan's and Toby's new "brother." That last part made me feel pretty good. It might have been difficult to consider Ryan my brother -- I wasn't really into the whole incest thing -- but I loved the thought of Toby being my younger brother. That would make me one of the luckiest older brothers on the face of the earth. During our morning break after second period, as I was changing books at my locker, Cody walked up to me, wearing his usual bright and cheerful smile. Ryan had to go see his math teacher about a quiz he hadn't done very well on, and being the clingy boyfriend that I was, I was already missing him. "Hey, Connor, what's up?" Cody asked. "Nothing much. How was the rest of your weekend?" "It was nice," he replied, shrugging his shoulders. "I spent some time with Toby on Sunday, but you probably already knew that." The cute grin and blush that he was obviously trying to conceal were slowly spreading their way across his face. I couldn't contain my own smile. "So, it sounds like things are going well between you and Toby. At least it seemed that way when he kissed you on Saturday." "Yeah, I guess you could say that," he said, his blush growing an even darker shade of crimson. "So, has the word 'boyfriend' come up yet between you two?" I asked quietly, not wanting to accidentally "out" the two of them, since the halls were still pretty crowded. Even if I did, I didn't think Toby and Cody would really care that much. But it wasn't my place to do it for them, anyway. "Maybe," he said enigmatically, the grin never leaving his face. "And you're the one who kept insisting you weren't gay," I said, rolling my eyes at him. "I'm not!" he said in mock exasperation. "I'm Cody!" "Well, since I've known you, you've made out with two guys and zero girls. So it kinda makes me wonder," I said, grinning. "So what? Guys taste better," he exclaimed. He then gave me a quick wink, stuck out his tongue at me, and walked away. Did he mean what I think he meant?!?! Despite the fact that I now considered Cody to be my best friend, I didn't think I would ever figure that boy out. But I was definitely glad he and Toby were getting along so well. Now I just had to figure out what to do with Mikey. As I walked into the cafeteria, I noticed that despite it being as crowded as usual, the room was extremely quiet. All that could be heard were people talking to each other in hushed whispers. So naturally, I figured they had somehow found out about what had really happened to me, and all of the shame that I felt came roaring back. I was tempted to walk right out of the cafeteria and go to the sanctuary of the auditorium, but I also found myself slightly curious. Something was definitely up, and I wanted to find out for sure. So I made my way through the lunch line as I would any other day, and was relieved that no one seemed to be looking at me like I was a leper -- either they didn't know, or they were just trying to be polite. As I got to the cashier with my pita sandwich, salad, and chocolate milk, I suddenly realized that today was the first time that I didn't have to have my name checked off the list for the "poor kids" who got the free lunch. I could finally pay for my food like a "normal" kid. I was practically beaming as I handed my cash over to the cashier, who must've thought I was nuts from the goofy expression on my face. I made a quick scan around the immediate vicinity with my eyes to make sure Trent Lomax wasn't around to humiliate me again -- a habit which I had acquired since that fateful day back in the fall. Once I realized the coast was clear, I made my way over to our table, and noticed that everyone there, too, was talking to each other in hushed tones. The only one who wasn't was Mikey ... but that would probably be because he wasn't there. That was strange, though, since I couldn't remember a day when he'd missed school, and he'd told me beforehand that he'd be there for my first day back. Another surprise was that Toby was sitting at our table. He usually sat with his freshmen friends from the swim team, but I figured that Cody was the reason he had changed seats, and that made me feel really good. "Did you hear about the major drama that went down this morning?" Ben asked excitedly, as I sat down at my usual spot next to Ryan. "Huh?" I responded dumbly. I had no clue what he was talking about. But then again, I wasn't exactly tuned in to the rumor mill. "It was totally insane, babe," Ryan said, taking hold of my hand, right in front of everyone. I was a little surprised by that, because anyone could have seen it, and it wasn't something that could easily be explained away. I didn't really give a crap, but I always worried about Ryan's reputation. "Well, what happened?" I asked, now finding myself extremely curious. The way they were acting, I was pretty sure at this point that it wasn't about me, which was a relief. "That psycho ho Eleanor Van Epps happened," Tuwanda jumped in. "I always knew that girl was wrong." "Huh?" I was still lost. I knew about her sudden "transformation" from geeky bookworm to ultra-militant goth girl, and that she was now dating that hot goth boy, Dominic. I couldn't say that I understood the whole "goth thing," but as hot as Dominic was, he could be whatever he wanted, as far as I was concerned. Plus, he only qualified as "light goth," anyway. But I still didn't get it. I thought that was last week's news. Well, apparently, it wasn't. As Tuwanda explained, someone found Dominic and none other than our very own Mikey making out in the janitor's closet. Tuwanda said they were just kissing, but Derek insisted that they both had their shirts off and there was some serious groping going on as well. Anyway, word quickly spread, as it tended to do in any typical high school environment, and when word got to Eleanor Van Epps, it seems as though she lost it ... big time. Although Tuwanda, Derek, Ben, Natalie, and Ryan argued over certain small details, the gist of what happened was that as soon as she heard in second period that her boyfriend had been caught making out with another boy, Eleanor very calmly got out of her seat, pulled a stiletto knife out of her back pack, stripped off all of her clothes (except for her spiked dog collar), and walked right out of the room with a crazed look in her eyes, babbling incoherently, twitching slightly, and smacking herself in the head repeatedly. When I heard that, I was stunned, and I had no doubt that the other students and the teacher in the class were likewise too stunned to even know how to react to something so ... insane. No one could be sure where she was headed exactly. Some thought she was looking for Dominic, while others insisted she was looking for Mikey. It didn't really matter, though, because as she was roaming the halls, someone obviously contacted the front office, which sent Officer Karen, our school's police liaison officer, to go nab her. Obviously, it probably wouldn't be too difficult to figure out which student needed nabbing. Officer Karen had been a graduate of our high school, and after joining the police force, she was sent right back to her alma mater to work. It was county policy that each school had a police liaison officer assigned to it, both to take care of any trouble, provide security, and occasionally give talks to the students about the dangers of drugs and such. And Officer Karen was a big girl -- not fat, but solid, with long blond hair, and she had a personality like a drill sergeant. She was not someone to be fucked with, and not the kind of person I would want to meet in a dark alley, especially considering that she was armed. Not that I thought she would even need the gun if she got into a brawl with anyone. Anyway, Officer Karen quickly caught up with Eleanor, tackled her to the ground, and while Eleanor screamed, kicked, and shouted a number of profanities, unceremoniously handcuffed her and led her to the office, still naked, to await a police car. Mikey and Dominic were also both sent home for security reasons, since they were obviously the target of her little psycho bitch fit. And that would explain why Mikey was absent from the lunch table. I was stunned by the absurdity of the entire event, but I was even more curious about what in the hell had been going on between Mikey and Dominic? Wasn't Dominic dating Eleanor? Then why was he kissing Mikey in the janitor's closet? And besides that, making out in the janitor's closet just seemed so ... trashy. Ryan and I always kept our more intimate affection to ourselves, in the privacy of our own home (our home -- I loved the sound of that!) ... but I wasn't going to judge. "So what do you think, Connor?" Ryan asked me. "Uhhh ... I dunno," I replied. "Is Mikey okay?" "I'm not sure," Ryan said with a sigh. "We're gonna go check on him after school and see what the deal is." "Yeah, I think that would be a good idea," I agreed. Mikey and ... Dominic? Who claimed to be straight? I never would have thought of that one. **************************************************** My curiosity was piqued even more as Ryan pulled up in front of Mikey's house that afternoon to find him shooting hoops in his driveway, missing nearly every shot, cursing like a drunken sailor, and with eyes obviously red from crying. I realized then that it was probably a good idea that Ryan and I had come alone. We'd all figured that the entire group going over there right after school might freak Mikey out, and since Ryan was his best friend, and I was pretty much attached to Ryan at the hip, we volunteered to be the delegation sent to go check on him. "Hey, Mikey," Ryan said cheerfully, as we got out of the car. Mikey just stood there staring at us. "So ... uhhh ... what's up, Mikey?" I asked, a little uncomfortably. Actually, that was probably a really stupid thing to ask. I'm sure he realized that everyone at school knew what was up with him ... and Dominic. "You mean the whole school doesn't know that I'm a fag by now?" he asked bitterly. This was definitely not a situation I knew how to deal with. I figured it'd be better to leave it up to Ryan. It's not like he'd ever been through it before, but his people skills were obviously much better than mine. "People are talking, bud," Ryan said gently. "But I think it's a little too early to tell what their reaction is gonna be." "My life is so fucked right now," Mikey groaned. "My parents are going to have a fit if they find out. And as if that's not bad enough, I'll probably get the shit kicked out of me every day at school." "Mikey, you know all of your friends are gonna back you up. Everyone in our group already knows, and you know they're gonna support you. If you want, Connor and I will come out, too. And Toby's just been dying for a reason to come out. If that's what it takes to show you you're not alone, we'll do it," Ryan declared. That little speech got me more than a little concerned. I'd never really cared one way or another whether I was "out." I got shit on plenty and I wasn't openly gay, so I figured it couldn't possibly get any worse. I wouldn't mind coming out to support Mikey. After all, we'd made promises and stuff about being friends, and I was gonna start being a real friend to him. But Ryan? I was definitely afraid of Ryan telling everyone he was gay. He actually had a great life at school, was somewhat popular, and I didn't want to see him risk losing all of that by coming out. "Are you sure you want to do that, Ryan? I mean, I don't mind doing it myself, but I mean ... you've got like a reputation and all," I said. I actually probably shouldn't have even said that, because I knew what Ryan's reaction would be as soon as those words left my mouth. "Do you really think I'm that shallow, Connor?" he asked. "I don't mind coming out if it's for one of my friends. It was wrong of me to say you'll do it, too. That's your decision, not mine, so I'm sorry I said that. But if Mikey needs me to come out to support him, then I'll do it." I was really proud of my boyfriend at that moment. "I'll do it, too. You know I've never cared about whether or not I'm out," I said. The tone of confidence in my own voice surprised me a bit. "Hold on," Mikey jumped in. "Just wait and see what the reaction is like at school first. You guys don't need to come out if there's no reason to." Wait a minute ... wasn't Mikey the one who was just insisting that he was going to get the crap beaten out of him every day at school, and now he's telling us to wait and see what happens? The teenage mind can be a baffling thing. "Fine, we'll wait and see," Ryan agreed. "But no matter what, we've all got your back, bro." Mikey actually smiled at that, and that made me feel good. "So, what's up with that Dominic kid?" Ryan asked with a wry grin. Mikey blushed a deep shade of red. "I was hoping you wouldn't go there." "Well, it's kinda surprising. I mean, he was going out with that Eleanor Van Epps girl, and the next thing we hear, you're making out with him," Ryan said. "It just kinda happened," Mikey mumbled, looking quite uncomfortable. "And they weren't exactly 'going out.' That was all in her head. He's just as gay as the rest of us. Apparently, he likes to write, and has posted some stories on the Internet, and even though they were 'gay' stories, she thought they were destined for each other or some crap like that. Dominic wanted to set the record straight, but you saw how she reacted. He was terrified of her. All he could do was go along with it." "Yeah, well, it makes me feel like I'm not so crazy after what she did," I added. Ryan smacked me lightly upside the head and gave me a scowl. "You're not crazy at all, babe. Don't say shit like that anymore." "Sorry," I muttered. "So are you two, like, an item now?" Ryan asked. "I dunno," Mikey replied. "He's cute, and I guess I kinda like him. I don't know how he's gonna react to this whole being 'out' thing, though. I guess we'll have to wait and see." "Next time you see him, as long as you're not too busy trying to suck his tonsils out of his throat, tell him he's welcome to hang out with us. If anything happens, he shouldn't have to go it alone either," Ryan said. Mikey smiled again. "Thanks, bro." ******************************************************* I was feeling a lot of mixed emotions on Saturday night. I was excited about my show at the pub, my first time back on stage since my beating, just a mere two weeks prior. I still wasn't feeling one-hundred percent, but I was feeling good enough to go out there and do it. I needed to do it. But I was also sad that it was going to be my last show. Performing at the pub had pretty much been the only stable thing in my life until I met Ryan, and Mr. Bill was one of the only people to actually treat me well. Now, I felt like I was letting him down by not performing anymore. He insisted that it was fine and he understood Maggie's position, and when I suggested that I could sneak out and still do it without Maggie's knowledge, Mr. Bill immediately nixed that idea. Hey, it was worth a shot! Maggie finally gave in and let Toby come to the show, since it was my last one and all. Maggie said she would have loved to go, too, but she had to work that night. So, Ryan drove us, as well as Cody, and the twins showed up in their own car. The place was already pretty packed, and Mr. Bill said that it would probably be nearly as crowded as on New Year's Eve. I asked him why, and he said that a lot of people were going to miss me. I didn't believe him, of course, but didn't see the sense in debating it with him. While Ryan and the others went to sit at the table up front that I had made sure Mr. Bill reserved for them, I went back to my small changing room for the last time. I pulled out my new pink and yellow polka-dot suit and chuckled to myself, thinking that maybe this wasn't exactly the most appropriate outfit to wear in a bar full of rednecks. Wearing something so garish might also make it seem like I was going to put on a rock and roll show, which was actually not going to be the case tonight, at least for most of the show. I had my heart set on doing more of a "folk rock" and country set, since that's really what kind of bar this was. I'd spent a lot of time thinking about my set list, and I thought it would be a pretty good performance for my last hoorah. At the appointed time, I took my place, as usual, by the side of the stage. However, rather than taking my cue from Mr. Bill's introduction like I usually did, I had given him a cassette of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to play as an introduction. It was one of my favorite classical pieces, and I also wanted to toy with the audience a bit. I waited as the sounds of the orchestra filled the room and the audience grew quiet. I wasn't sure if it was in anticipation or out of shock that they were being forced to listen to classical music. I was betting on the latter. As soon as the last sounds of the beautiful orchestral piece faded away, I walked onto the stage, dressed to kill (hopefully not literally), and received one of the loudest ovations I had ever heard. I immediately began to feel a little self-conscious, so I made my way over to the piano as quickly as possible ... the only problem was, the piano was gone. The old upright piano that I had played on so many times had been replaced by a Roland RD-1000 digital piano. I looked over at Mr. Bill, who was standing in the wings, and he gave me a big grin and a wink. He finally got what I wanted, and now I'd only get one chance to use it. Bastard! The piano wasn't as nice as the school's Kurzweil, being a late eighties model, but it would still work well. I wouldn't need any of the synthesized effects for tonight's show, so I just checked to make sure that it was set on the 'regular piano' mode as I took my seat on the piano bench and adjusted the microphone. Before, I had always sat facing sideways to the audience, but now the piano was set up so I was actually facing them. It was like a totally different perspective and actually made me feel more self-conscious ... a little like I was naked or something. I quickly shrugged off those feelings, though, and immediately started in on my opening number, Elton John's folksy, gospel-tinged ballad, "Border Song," which began slow and soulful, and by the second verse, switched into a more up-tempo pace. Based on the audience's reaction, it was a big success. It was the first time I'd ever performed that song at the pub. I then followed that up with Ryan Adams' "Oh My Sweet Carolina," which was one of my absolute favorite songs, then Joni Mitchell's "A Case Of You," Billy Joel's "The Ballad of Billy the Kid," a soulful rendition of Tina Turner's classic "Proud Mary," and finally back to Elton John once again with "My Father's Gun," one of his older, country- flavored songs, which would be featuring in the upcoming Cameron Crowe film, Elizabethtown. Having barely stopped to breathe between songs, I decided to pause for a few moments to address the audience before diving into the final portion of my set. "I just wanted to say a big 'thank you' to everyone who's come out to listen to me so many times," I began, starting to feel a little more emotional than I had expected. "It's been a great ride, and this place has been more important to me than you can probably imagine. Mr. Bill is a great guy, and has done so much for me. It's time for me to move on, though, so this is gonna be the last show. But I'll try to make it a good one for you." The applause from the audience was practically deafening, and I had to wait a couple minutes before I could even start up again. As soon as the noise began to die down, I tore right into Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," and then just started ripping through some of the greatest classic rock & roll songs I could think of, including Elvis Presley's "The Promised Land," The Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women," The Beatles' "Get Back" and "Come Together," Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly," "Johnny B. Goode," "Twist & Shout," "Great Balls of Fire," and finally, "Pinball Wizard." I pounded on the keyboard like a madman, alternating between standing up and sitting down, playing from my knees, and even swinging a leg over the piano as I played. Unfortunately, it was hard to look as "cool" playing the piano as it was playing the guitar, but I gave it everything I had, using not just my fingers and voice, but putting my whole body into the music. I sang my heart out, pouring all of the energy and emotion I had bottled up inside of me into the vocals, and added extra long improvisations to the piano solos, giving each song my own personal touch. As soon as I finished the last notes, having already kicked away the piano bench about halfway through the song, I darted off stage to splash some water on my face and get changed into my black track suit so I could go back and do my encore. I could still hear the applause from all the way back in the changing room, and I had to admit, it was very moving. And despite the numerous ovations I had received before, I was still a bit overwhelmed by it all. I knew they were clapping for me ... I mean, who else could they be clapping for? But some part of me still found it a little difficult to accept. When I got back on stage, dressed down in my "street clothes," I made my way back to the piano and said another quick "thank you" to the audience for being so supportive. I then dove right into the classic Marvin Gaye song "Can I Get A Witness," doing my best imitation of his unique Motown style in my piano playing and vocals, and then dedicated my final number, Billy Joel's beautiful ballad, "This Night," to "a couple of cute redheads up in the front." When I finished, I was ready to go home. I was totally exhausted from giving a hundred and ten percent. I was even more tired out than after my epic performance at the school's talent show. In fact, this was probably the hardest and longest I'd ever played in my entire life. Despite the adrenaline rush, I wanted nothing more than to just cuddle up with my snuggly boyfriend and go to sleep. That would be the perfect end to a perfect night. As I made my way off the stage, Mr. Bill met me by the steps, as usual, with an envelope that felt a little thicker than usual as he placed it in my sore, red, and blistered hands. "Thanks so much for everything, Connor," Mr. Bill said. "You did a great job tonight, and I'm glad things are going so well for you now. I hope I'll see you back here again when you're a little bit older, but I have a feeling you'll be moving on to much bigger and better things by then." I was quite stunned by his words and didn't really know what to say. So I just muttered a quick "thanks," shook his hand, and then took off to meet my friends. When I opened the envelope Mr. Bill had given me, I noticed that he gave me three hundred dollars, six times the amount I normally would make in one night! That night, when we finally got home and got into bed, I was more than ready for a little loving from Ryan. It had been over two weeks, after all! But when I started sucking on his earlobe and rubbing his nipples with my thumb, he stopped me. "Connor, are you sure you're ready for this already?" he asked. "What do you mean?" I replied, feeling a little nonplussed. "I mean ... I just don't want you to feel like we have to do anything yet. Not until you're really ready. You've been through a lot, and I figured it might take some time to get over it," he said. To be honest, I'd never really considered that. I'd been more worried that Ryan wouldn't want to touch me again after what happened, but as soon as he had said that wouldn't change the way he felt about me, I had just forgotten about it. I couldn't think of any place that I felt more safe and loved than in Ryan's arms, being close to him in that way. Why wouldn't I be ready for it? I was fine, dammit! I was ready to go on leading my life! "I'm really fine, Ryan," I said, although his little interruption had caused my erection to begin deflating. "Okay," he sighed. "Well, if you don't want to ...," I began to protest, starting to feel like maybe he really didn't want to touch me like that anymore. But he quickly shut me up by wrapping me in his arms and practically shoving his tongue down my throat. That was all it took to get me back in the mood again. And it was a good thing we'd gotten into the habit of sleeping naked, otherwise I probably would have torn his clothes to shreds trying to get them off of him. As Ryan's familiar scent of Irish Spring soap and strawberries filled my nostrils and his pubic hair brushed against my nose, I dove down on him, relishing the feeling of his thick cock buried deep in my throat as he worked my own aching erection with his mouth. It also seemed as though my hands just couldn't get enough of feeling him, touching, massaging, and stroking every inch of his smooth body as we both tried to force each other's cocks deeper and deeper into our mouths. I was in a hormonal frenzy as Ryan lapped at my balls and kneaded my ass. I just held on to him harder and harder, trying to pull our bodies even closer together. I couldn't get enough of him. I wanted to devour every last inch of my beautiful boyfriend's body and suck every last drop of cum out of him. The copious amounts of pre-cum that were already leaking into my mouth were just an appetizer, and I couldn't wait for the main course. As I felt my own orgasm building deep inside my balls, I squeezed his beautiful, soft ass hard, shooting my load into his mouth, followed only moments later by his own salty-flavored cum running down my throat. I had missed that feeling (and taste) so much, I didn't want to let him go. So I didn't, and we ended up falling asleep in our sixty-nine position, our faces still buried in each other's crotches. Obviously it really had been too long, as we woke up again later to do it two more times. ******************************************************* Things at school hadn't gone nearly as bad as Mikey had feared. Sure, there were occasional snickers and rude comments from some of the more bigoted members of the student body, and Mikey even got pushed around a little, but all of our friends stuck close to him, and nothing serious happened. Everyone was a little surprised, though, when on the Monday following the "incident," the principal called an assembly to talk about bullying, diversity, and acceptance at our school. It was a nice little speech and all, but I was mostly just glad to be out of class. I wasn't so sure a few words from the principal would really sway anyone's minds as to whether or not they would hate someone because they had a different skin color, or were gay, poor, just didn't fit in with everyone else or whatnot. I was a little surprised, though, when the principal announced that he intended to form a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at our school. I'd heard about those groups forming at other high schools, but our school didn't have one yet. Miss Oh, the Korean language teacher (yes, we had Korean language classes at our school -- go figure!) would be serving as the faculty advisor for the club. Students interested in participating were told to meet in Miss Oh's classroom after school the next day. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Ryan would want to go, and would be taking me along with him. The first GSA meeting was ... interesting. About thirty people or so showed up, and me having absolutely no "gay-dar," I couldn't tell who was gay and who was straight. Of course, I knew Mikey, Toby, and Dominic (who had begun joining us at lunch, but never said much) were gay. Since Ryan and I slept naked together in the same bed, I could safely assume that we probably were as well. And Cody ... well, Cody was Cody. As for the straight ones, Natalie, Tuwanda, and the twins were the only ones I was sure of ... even though I still had nagging suspicions about Ben. Delcondris hadn't been able to make it. The meeting began with Miss Oh going over what the purpose of the club was, the rules about privacy, and something about "safety zones," which I wasn't quite sure about since I was busy plucking a few stray hairs from the back of my boyfriend's neck. Then came the business of selecting officers for the club. I was terrified that Ryan would try to volunteer me for something. I had no problem joining the club and maybe going to a meeting or two, but I was not into the whole "school activity" thing. I also managed to talk Ryan out of volunteering by throwing a momentary selfish hissy fit, afraid that his taking on that kind of responsibility would eat into our time together -- not that we didn't already have tons of that, considering that we lived in the same house now. But like I said, I was being selfish, and I figured I was entitled to at least a little bit of selfishness every once in a while. Natalie volunteered to be the president of the club, which I wasn't too surprised about, since she was into the whole "school spirit" thing. The rest of the positions were filled by people I didn't know, and really had no desire to know, either. I thought I'd gotten off scot-free until Miss Oh announced that our group's big "coming out" (I'm sure the pun was intended) would be at the school's Spring Fair, held right after Spring break. The GSA would set up a booth with information, games, and food. And when someone suggested that we have some other sort of entertainment, like skits or something, Toby (the little bastard) suggested that I give a performance. Unfortunately, my reputation preceded me because of that damn talent contest that I'd won, so everyone immediately thought it would be a great idea. I didn't, but since I'd pretty much forced Ryan not to take on one of the club's leadership positions, he was able to hold that over my head ... and he did. The only thing I could hope for was that it would rain that day, since the event was going to be held outside. Nevertheless, barring any unforeseen acts of God, I would most likely be up on a stage again, which in and of itself was actually a good thing, except that I'd end up being the unofficial face of the gay club at our school. And yes, I was aware of the "straight" part of Gay-Straight Alliance. But to most people, it was still the "gay club," and although I didn't care about being out, I didn't want to become some kind of gay spokesman or symbol. The whole "gay rights" movement was fine and dandy for those people who were into that kind of thing, but I just wanted to live my nice, new, quiet life with Ryan, Toby, and Maggie. There was no need for more drama in my life, thank you very much. Besides, I would rather people think of me for my musical abilities, and not just as being "that gay kid." Being gay was only a small part of who I was. I also managed to make Ryan promise me that other than the Spring Fair performance and coming to a meeting once in a while, he wouldn't push me into getting too involved with the new club. I was willing to do my small part, and would support Mikey as much as I could at school, but I certainly wasn't as excited about all of this as some of the others seemed to be. But aside from my being roped into performing, the meeting was actually pretty harmless, and Mikey seemed to be happy to have some kind of official support group. Well, I wouldn't exactly say "happy," since he was still paranoid about his parents finding out about him or that he'd get cornered somewhere and have the crap beaten out of him, but at least he looked a little better than that day we found him attempting to shoot baskets in his driveway. As for him and Dominic, they sat next to each other at the meeting, but I didn't notice them interacting in any kind of way, so I had no idea what was going on with them. To be honest, if I was Mikey, and single, I'd be all up in that! "Well, look, if it isn't the fairy squad." I heard the familiar voice of Trent Lomax as we were all walking to the parking lot after the meeting. "What do you want, Trent?" Ryan asked in an obviously annoyed voice. "I was just wondering when you were all going to start wearing rainbow dresses and dyeing your hair pink," Trent said. "Fuck you, Trent!" I shouted back at him. WHAT?! Did I just talk back to Trent Lomax? Where in the hell did that come from? "What did you say, you little fucker?" he snarled at me. "Just back off, Trent, and quit being an asshole," Ryan jumped in, this time more angrily. "I'm gonna beat the shit out of your little boyfriend, McCormack. You little shits can't be around to protect him all the time," Trent shot back at Ryan. "Oh no you won't, bitch." I heard Delcondris' voice coming from behind. I hadn't even noticed him approaching, and by the time Trent had turned around to see Delcondris glaring at him, the big football player had grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and started dragging him back toward to the school. "Get your hands off of me!" Trent protested. "Not yet, little man," Delcondris said calmly. "You and me need to have a little talk about some things. And if you don't keep your mouth shut, I just may end up making you my own personal little bitch." I couldn't help but chuckle when I heard that, and apparently, neither could the rest of the guys. I was really glad Delcondris showed up when he did, even though I was pretty sure that Ryan, Toby, and the twins could have taken Trent easily. But I didn't want to see any of them get hurt in the process. I couldn't imagine Trent possibly doing any damage to Delcondris, with the big black football player being nearly twice his size. I hoped that that was the last time we'd have to deal with Trent Lomax, but it probably wasn't. He was just like Toby described him as we walked toward the car, a bad case of the crabs that kept coming back. As Ryan, Toby and I got in the car, and the twins headed off toward their car with Cody, the only other issue I could think of that we had to deal with was Ryan's promise that we would all "come out" in support of Mikey. Toby had already told his friends on the swim team, and apparently they had all taken it well. I couldn't imagine anyone giving Toby a hard time about anything, and he wouldn't take any crap from anyone anyway. Even though Toby wasn't in the least bit effeminate, I had the feeling that he was going to be one of those "out and proud" gay boys. He just loved to stir things up and push the envelope. It would definitely be fun to see how that all played out. I honestly didn't mind coming out, and apparently Ryan didn't either, but I just didn't know how we were going to do it. I mean, I wasn't about to get on the intercom during the morning announcements and declare my sexual orientation to the school, and I sure as hell wasn't going to just start walking up to people at random and say, "Hi, I'm Connor, and I'm queer," with a big goofy grin plastered on my face. If I still couldn't introduce myself to new people at all, how likely was it going to be that I would do that? Nuh-uh. Eventually, Ryan decided that we would just start holding hands around school and that word would eventually get around, which was probably the best course of action. I suppose we could have made out by the flag pole right before school started, but I wasn't exactly into public displays of affection, nor did I really want to become the center of attention like that. That would be a sure fire way to set off one of my dreaded panic attacks. Toby then had the brilliant idea that I get my ear pierced -- the right earlobe, just like Elton John. I didn't really like the idea until he tossed in the "just like Elton John" part, and then I was all for it. Ryan didn't want to get his ear pierced, but that afternoon, he took me right over to the mall to get it done. As we stood in line waiting for my turn, I got to watch several middle school-aged girls go through the whole procedure of getting their ears shot with the piercing gun. I'd never seen anyone cause such a fuss about getting a little prick in the ear, and they obviously wanted it done. So what was up with that? Hell, I'd taken a lot more pain than that in my life. So when my turn came around, I didn't even flinch (so I guess I wasn't a complete wuss), and walked away with a shiny, fake diamond stud in my right ear. It made me feel kind of "cool," actually. Maggie wasn't thrilled with the idea when she saw it that night, but eventually she just sighed and gave me the same speech as the dumb blonde girl with the nasal voice at the ear-piercing stand did, about keeping it clean, turning it occasionally, and all that stuff. I was more interested, though, in what kind of cool earrings I could start to wear once I was allowed to change the stud in a couple weeks. As for the fate of a certain Eleanor Van Epps, we got a phone call later that evening from a very relieved sounding Mikey, who had apparently just heard from Dominic that she had been sent to a mental institution. As I took my medication that night, I prayed that I wouldn't ever end up like her. ******************************************************** I had no idea how I ended up there, standing in front of my old trailer, looking at the darkened doorway. It was a pitch black night, not a star in the sky, and the only thing that let me know where I was was the faint glimmer of the decrepit old porch light. I should have been terrified, or in the middle of a panic attack, or something. But for some reason, I felt myself compelled to move forward, making my way slowly up the rickety wooden steps. As I got to the door and my hand tentatively reached out to grab ahold of the door knob, the door swung violently open. And standing there in the doorway was ... my mother. My mother?!?! Hello?!?! Wasn't she supposed to be dead? While she stood there leering at me, and the shock of seeing the woman who I had thought was out of my life forever began to wear off slightly, I took in her familiar appearance. She still looked like she always had, haggard, mean, and aged beyond her years, except that her eyes had more fire in them than I had ever remembered, and she was completely naked. As I looked closer, I realized that something had changed ... she had a penis! It wasn't just a normal-looking penis either. It was massive, hanging loosely between her legs, covered in hair and open sores, and crawling with what appeared to be hundreds of maggots. The smell of rotting flesh almost made me lose my dinner right there on the porch. WHAT IN HOLY HELL WAS GOING ON HERE?!?! "I've been waiting for you to come back, Connor," she sneered at me. "Now I see you've finally come home to mommy." As I finally regained my wits, I started to turn and run, but she quickly grabbed me by the wrist and yanked me inside, practically dragging me through the living room and toward the hallway. I took in all of the once familiar sights and smells of my old home. Everything was just like it had been the last time I was there ... that night. The old, tattered couch, the coffee table piled high with liquor bottles and cigarette butts, the musty, smoke-filled air stinging my nostrils. It was as if I'd never left. She dragged me through the hallway, past my old room, and finally, into her own bedroom. As my eyes adjusted to the dark room, illuminated only by the faint light coming through the doorway from the hall, I froze in terror. Lying on the bed, gagged and bound, with a bloodied face and shirt, was Toby. "What did you do to him?" I screamed at my mother, my fear quickly being replaced by anger. I watched her reach down to the floor and pick up a shotgun, and all thoughts of trying to fight her and escape quickly diminished. "Nothing too bad yet," she sneered, cradling the gun in her arms. "He's still alive and ... intact ... if that's what you're wondering." "Let him go," I yelled. "You've got me, so just let him go. He didn't do anything to you!" I could see Toby on the bed, weakly struggling against his bonds, faint cries coming through his gagged mouth. I was thankful that he was still alive and since he was still fully clothed, apparently nothing else had been done to him. But what was I going to do? "I think your little friend has something to say to you, sweetheart," she said, as she moved over to the bed and pulled the gag away from Toby's mouth. As soon as that gag was off, I could hear him gasping for air and sobbing. "Tell him, boy!" my mother shouted at him, while poking at him hard with the butt of the shotgun. "I ... I love you ... Connor," he blubbered. "And would you be willing to die for him?" she asked Toby in a sickeningly sweet voice. "Y-yes ... I would," he said. Despite having been bound, gagged, and beaten, I could hear the determination in his voice and see it in his eyes. And it terrified me. I couldn't let anything happen to Toby. He hadn't done anything. Neither had I, for that matter! "No!" I shouted. "Take me and let him go!" "I'm afraid it's too late for that now, Connor," she said. "Then what do you want?" I asked, the anger once again being overcome by fear. "I'm going to fuck him until he's barely breathing, then blow his brains out. And then, I'm going to do the same to you," she sneered.
  13. "So what do you think your dream meant? What was your subconscious trying to tell you?" the doctor asked, leaning back in his chair and eyeing me thoughtfully. "I really don't know," I sighed, already having answered this same question at least half a dozen times. "Don't you want to figure that out?" he prodded. "Yes, I need to know," I answered firmly. I just wished I could figure it out. That was the problem. If I had any clue what it had meant, I would have told him. "Dreams can be a tricky thing," he continued. "Some people think they don't mean much of anything, while others think they unlock the door to our deepest fears and the feelings we can't acknowledge during ordinary waking hours. We can analyze what the symbols in your dream may have meant, but you'll have to decide on your own how you want to use that information to help in your healing process." I just nodded absently. My healing process ... It had been nearly a month after that dream, in which my dead mother had come back to life, kidnapped Toby, and tried to kill both of us. And here I was, sitting in my shrink's office. I had been to several therapists over the course of the month but hadn't liked any of them. We finally found Dr. Frazier, and for some reason I felt more comfortable opening up to him. I told him about my life with my mother, the beatings, meeting Ryan, the rape ... everything. It was the first time I had told my life story in its entirety to anyone, and just doing that felt like an enormous burden was lifted off my shoulders. Dr. Frazier's office wasn't at all what I expected a psychiatrist's office to look like. For one, it was brightly lit, and there were no antique mahogany furniture, no walls lined with massive tomes on various psychological disorders, and no leather couch. Instead, I sat on a comfy, upholstered sofa, and Dr. Frazier -- who actually did look like the stereotypical psychiatrist, with long, unruly salt and pepper hair and a large beard -- sat in a chair opposite me, holding a legal pad which he used occasionally to take notes. That night when I had woken up from the nightmare about my mother, screaming, crying, and shaking, I had ended up waking everyone in the house. It took some anxiety medication from Maggie, and both Ryan and Toby holding me tightly, to get me to calm down. But I wouldn't tell them what the dream was about. It was then that Maggie decided that getting me into therapy was a top priority. It was now the end of February, and during the past month, I hadn't experienced the dream again, although what meaning it held continued to haunt me, and I found myself becoming more and more protective of Toby and clingy with him. I always insisted that he invite Cody to stay at our house rather than going to Cody's place (using the excuse that I wanted to hang out with my friend, too, which wasn't entirely untrue). I also spent a lot more time cuddling with Toby. Ryan never questioned me about it, and I hoped he just thought I was trying to be a good "brother." Something else that I had recently noticed, but perhaps should have picked up on sooner, was that while I had been making a valiant effort to get to know Ryan's friends better, he seemed to be neglecting them a bit. Sure, he talked with everyone at lunch and hung out with them when it was all of us together, but it felt to me like he wasn't as close with his friends as before. I thought that was especially evident with Mikey, who before I came around had been Ryan's best friend. Other than when we'd gone to see Mikey after the "Van Epps Incident," Ryan and Mikey hardly ever talked or hung out together anymore. I was a little surprised that I was worried about Ryan not spending enough time with his friends, because normally I would have been ecstatic that Ryan wanted to spend all of his time with just me. But for some reason, it didn't seem right that the rest of his friends had sort of been relegated to the back burner. I brought it up with Ryan once, but he brushed it aside, and no one else had complained, so I just decided to drop it. On the bright side, Ryan had decided that he wanted to go out for the school's baseball team in the spring. That meant that I wouldn't see him after school when he had practice, but I was glad that he wasn't neglecting his other interests completely. Plus, I thought he'd look really hot in a baseball uniform, especially that cute butt of his. He'd tried to get Toby to try out for the team, too, but Toby scoffed at that idea, declaring that baseball was for "fags." Go figure. Other than the dream thing, life had settled into a pretty nice routine at home. I'd never really had a routine before. Getting up and eating breakfast every day before school, having to work out the logistics of sharing the bathroom with Ryan and Toby to get ready for school, coming home and doing homework, having dinner as a family (although Maggie often worked late and couldn't join us for dinner), doing chores, and spending quality time together every evening and on the weekends. It was a strange feeling, but a good one. I finally felt like I belonged and that I was wanted. Being able to sleep with my incredibly sexy boyfriend every night was also an added bonus. Toby and Cody were also getting along great. Each weekend when Cody spent the night, I could hear the unmistakable sounds of them fooling around, but Ryan and I didn't make the same mistake as before and kept quiet about it. There was one time, however, when Ryan walked into the bathroom, thinking that it was just Toby in the shower, but when he flung open the shower curtain to scare his brother, he found Cody on his knees with Toby's dick in his mouth. That incident definitely couldn't go by without a little teasing, but, surprisingly, Ryan seemed more embarrassed about it than either Toby or Cody. As for Mikey and Dominic, that was a big mystery. Dominic continued to sit with us at lunch, and I saw them walking together in the halls at school, but Dominic still wasn't talking much, and Mikey didn't have anything to say about it either, even when Ryan and I attempted to interrogate him. I figured it wasn't any of our business, though, and maybe this time we should just keep our noses out of it. The other thing that the end of February meant was that my birthday was right around the corner, at the beginning of March. I was going to be sixteen, and I was pretty sure that my family and friends had something special planned. I felt a little bad about that, because I'd found out shortly after I'd "officially" moved in with them that Toby had celebrated his fifteenth birthday while I was at their house recovering, and they hadn't even told me. "Connor, are you still with me?" Dr. Frazier asked, breaking me away from my reminiscing. "Oh ... uhhh ... yeah ... just thinking ... where were we?" I stuttered, a little embarrassed to be caught daydreaming again. "What does Toby mean to you?" he asked. "Ummm ... I love him," I replied, not sure how else to describe what I felt for Toby. "But what does that have to do with my dream?" "Well, don't you think it's interesting that it was Toby who was kidnapped by your mother and not Ryan?" he continued. "I never thought about that, I guess," I answered. "In one word, how would you describe Toby?" he asked. "What one trait of his sticks out the most in your mind when you think about him?" I had to think about that one for a minute. Sweet? Cute? Sexy? Cheeky? "Innocent," I replied. "Why would you choose that word? You led me to believe that Toby was much more experienced sexually than you," the doctor said, raising an eyebrow. "Well, he's not innocent in that way. But, I mean, I still see him as a kid, I guess. He's never been exposed to the kind of life I had to live. He's always had people around who loved him and took care of him," I replied. I didn't see why the doctor was harping on my choice of the word "innocent" to describe Toby. Wasn't the point why Toby was in the dream and not Ryan? "And how did you feel when you saw him tied up and beaten in your dream?" he asked. "I wanted to protect him. I wanted to save him," I answered. "So Toby represents 'innocence,' and you were trying to protect that. How does that sound?" he suggested. "Huh?" "Just think about that for a while," he said. I wasn't totally sure what he was getting at ... or maybe I was. But there was something else specific about the dream that had been bothering me. It seemed so ridiculous and out of place that it had to hold some kind of meaning. "Why did my mom have a penis in my dream?" I asked. "Well, that's not too difficult if you think about it, Connor," the doctor said, pushing his glasses back up on his nose with his index finger. "What happened that night ... actually, not just that night, but the past six years ... who was it that was 'raping' you? The physical act was done by that man, but it was your mother who basically gave you to him, and she was the one who abused you all those years. The penis is a classical symbol of power, and that represented the power she held over you. What do you think about that?" "Yeah, that makes sense, I guess." It did kind of make sense. This whole dream analysis thing was kinda creepy. "So, how are things going with Ryan?" he asked. "Great," I answered. "He's the best boyfriend in the world." "And how about your sex life? Any problems there?" Hmmm ... this is starting to get a little personal, isn't it? "It's awes ... errr ... it's fine," I replied, blushing. "How far have you two gone sexually?" He continued prodding, much to my chagrin. "Uhhh ... like ... ummm ... kissing, cuddling ... and ... uhhh ... oral sex," I stammered, blushing an even deeper shade of red and fidgeting in my seat. "What about anal intercourse?" the doctor asked. I couldn't believe he could talk about that kind of stuff so matter-of-factly, and with a straight face. "We ... ummm ... haven't done that yet," I answered, feeling the sudden urge to jump up from the sofa and get the hell out of there. I guess I hadn't been expecting this particular line of questioning ... although maybe I should have. "And how do you feel about anal sex?" "I ... uhhh ... guess I'd like to try it," I answered quietly, glancing up barely long enough to see that the doctor's expression was completely neutral. "Do you think you could handle that, Connor? I would expect that to be a sensitive issue, considering your rape and what you described to me about what happened with Toby that day back in January." "I want to. I mean, he's my boyfriend ... and I trust him. I think I'm ready for it," I replied, trying to sound more confident. "Just because you've physically healed down there doesn't mean you're emotionally ready for it," the doctor began. "If you decide to take that step, make sure you are ready for it, and not just because you think Ryan wants to or you feel some sort of obligation." It wasn't really about Ryan at all. He'd never once asked me about doing that. But I was curious. I wanted to do it. I needed to do it. I wanted to show him that I trusted him and loved him. Ryan wasn't that man, so I didn't see how he could possibly make me feel uncomfortable. I also needed to prove something to myself. I think that was the most important thing. I'd tried touching myself "down there" in the time since the incident with Toby, and it hadn't made me feel uncomfortable at all. I had even eventually let Ryan apply my "ass cream," without getting that strange feeling I got when Toby did it. So I figured I was ready for it. I just had to think of a way to bring it up with Ryan. I mean, I didn't quite feel comfortable just blurting out, "Hey, Ryan, stick your cock up my ass!" "I know," I replied. "I'll think about it." I didn't actually plan on thinking about it too much, though. I was afraid that if I did, I'd either have second thoughts or it would lead me to start thinking about other things that I'd been trying to push out of my mind. I just needed to do it and move on with my life. It was as simple as that. "Good," the doctor said, making a few final notes on his notepad. "I also want to slightly decrease the dosages on your medications. I'd like you to be able to think and feel a little more clearly and see how it goes. If it doesn't work out, then we can increase the dosage again. If it does work, we can continue to gradually decrease the dosages as you progress, although not too quickly." I nodded my consent. That sounded good to me. I wanted to know what I was really feeling, too, without all of that medication getting in the way. But at the same time, I was worried that I would suddenly freak out and go crazy. I was afraid that over the past couple of months, it had been only the medication that kept me from going insane like Eleanor Van Epps. And I didn't think it would be too cute if I went running around the school naked, talking in tongues and drooling or something. Definitely not a great way to win friends and influence people. ****************************************************** My birthday just so happened to fall on a Saturday, and I wasn't exactly looking forward to it. Supposedly, Ryan was taking me out to lunch at a nice restaurant and then to a movie, which would be followed by a quiet family dinner at home. I wasn't as stupid as I may have seemed, though, and I could tell that something was up. It was just little things, like how Toby looked nervous when I asked if he wanted to go out with Ryan and me, or when I specifically asked if we could have a couple of friends come over, and Maggie seemed to take a few extra moments to stutter out something about it being my first birthday with them and wanting it to be just for "family." But I decided to play along, not wanting to ruin their fun. Plus, if I announced that I had figured out their little plot to throw me a surprise party, and I was wrong, then I'd really look like an ass. I also had to admit that it was very sweet of them to go to all that trouble. But not having celebrated my birthday since my grandmother died, I really had no desire to do so, other than to humor my boyfriend and new family. To me, it was just another day. It was shortly after three o'clock Saturday afternoon when Ryan and I pulled up in front of the house, and I was a little surprised that there weren't any other cars out front. Maybe they hadn't planned anything for me after all. There was no one inside the house, either. No one jumping out from behind the sofas or popping out of the closet and yelling "Surprise!" I found myself feeling a little disappointed. Maybe I really did want the extra attention. But when we got to the kitchen and I looked out through the sliding glass door, I noticed a fairly large number of people out in the backyard having a barbecue, and there were balloons, a cake, and a bunch of presents laid out on a picnic table. "Happy birthday, Connor," Ryan said from behind me, wrapping his arms around me. "I love you, baby." "Wow ... a surprise party ... for me!" I exclaimed, trying to sound surprised. Ryan spun me around to look at me, giving me a sharp glare. "You knew, didn't you?" he asked. I just blushed. "Damn you, Connor," he chuckled. "At least act like you're surprised when you go out there, okay?" "I'll try," I giggled. As we walked out through the sliding glass door, everyone shouted, "Happy Birthday, Connor!" as expected. I was surprised to find a lump in my throat as I looked around and saw what they had done for me. I mean, I knew they cared about me, even loved me, but it was still hard to get used to, a little overwhelming. And there was still a small part of me that thought maybe I didn't deserve everything they'd given me. They had set up a couple of large picnic tables that were covered with all kinds of food, from big bowls of chips and pretzels to several different salads. There were also balloons and streamers tied down to anything that could keep them from flying away in the slight breeze, and a nice-sized pile of presents. All of our friends were there, as well as some kids I recognized from Toby's swim team and Ryan's lacrosse team. I was even a little surprised to see that Mikey had come, knowing that both Toby and Cody would be there. But Dominic was noticeably absent, which was a little disappointing. It would have been cute to see him and Mikey flirting with each other. I got big hugs from all of our friends (and kisses on the cheek from Toby, Cody, Maggie, and the girls), and hand slaps or pats on the back from the guys I didn't know too well. Normally, I would have felt uncomfortable around a bunch of people I hardly knew, but today I actually felt pretty relaxed. Even after the doctor had decreased the dose of my medication, I still felt better than I ever had, for the most part. It was a new feeling for me. But I kept wondering if it was really me feeling that way, or if it was just the drugs. Not feeling so nervous or self-conscious was a very foreign feeling, and it was a little hard getting used to. It wasn't like I was suddenly out-going and completely laid back like Toby or Cody, but I felt a lot different from the way I had just a month or so ago. It hadn't happened overnight, but was a gradual, subtle change. Maybe I really was going to be all right after all. Even though it was early March and the weather was a little cool, it was still a nice, sunny day. Most of the boys, including myself, played football for a while, and when I took a break from the game, Delcondris decided to become my personal nutritionist. Even though I'd already eaten lunch with Ryan, I managed to eat a couple hamburgers and a hot dog, which Delcondris practically had to force feed me since he said I needed to "bulk up." He had been trying to convince me to work out with him in the mornings, and I had told him I would think about it, but I just wasn't interested in waking up that early to run myself ragged. I totally didn't get people like that who were workout freaks. Once I managed to break away from Delcondris' speech about "reps" and "feeling the burn," I walked over to Mikey, who was sitting by himself under a tree in the corner of the fenced-in yard. "What's up, Mikey?" I asked, as I approached him. "Not much. Just chillin'," he replied. "Happy birthday, again." "Thanks," I said with a smile. "So why are you over here all by yourself? You're starting to act like me now." "I don't really feel like getting tackled by the jocks, and I've already had enough to eat. Nothing else to do, really," he answered, shrugging his shoulders. "I'm sorry about that. You want some company?" I asked, nodding toward the spot on the grass next to him. "Sure, why not?" he answered, although he didn't sound very enthusiastic. "So, why isn't Dominic here?" I asked, plopping down next to Mikey. "I dunno," he answered. "Aren't you two like dating or something?" I asked. I was curious to find out what the deal between the two of them was. I mean, they were obviously interested enough in each other to be found making out in the janitor's closet, so you'd think there had to be something there. "No," he replied curtly. "We're just friends." "Aren't you interested in him?" I continued prodding. "He's very cute and sweet, I guess," he said, shrugging. "I mean, he drove me home from school that day that Eleanor Van Epps flipped out, and before I went inside, he told me that I could call him if I wanted to talk about anything. He even wrote his phone number in the dirt beside the driveway. I thought that was really adorable. But I just don't feel ready to date anyone seriously right now, and I wouldn't want to hurt him." I was about to ask if Toby had anything to do with that, but I realized that might be pushing things a bit too far, so I came up with the next best response I could think of. "Oh." We sat there in a slightly awkward silence for a few minutes, watching the other boys jumping around and having fun playing ultimate frisbee. I was a little surprised to see that even Cody was playing. He didn't seem like the type to enjoy sports that much, but he appeared to be having a good time. The only one who I noticed wasn't playing was Toby, which was definitely a shocker. He loved any kind of physical activity. But instead, he was sitting by himself at one of the picnic tables, and he didn't look so good. He looked really tired and pale -- well, redheads tend to be kind of on the pale side anyway, but he looked paler than usual. I figured it must be cold season or something. After watching Ben trip over something and fall flat on his ass, I turned back to Mikey, who didn't seem interested in the game, or much of anything at all. "Is there something else bothering you, Mikey?" I asked gently. He sighed deeply. "Kind of." "What is it?" I asked. "I've told you everything about me. It's my turn to listen now." "I guess I'm just still really freaked out about this 'coming out' thing," he said quietly. "I'm scared my parents are gonna find out, or that I'm just gonna snap and say something sometime when they're making some nasty comment about gays, or something. My parents are so homophobic, it's not even funny. I can't even imagine what they'd do if they found out their son was gay." I wasn't sure how to respond to that. I mean, I'd never worried about coming out, so I didn't know what was going on in his head right then. I hadn't met his parents, either. I didn't exactly know what they were like, or what he was worried they might do. So I did the only thing I could think of. I put my arm around his shoulder and pulled him in close to me. It surprised me a bit when he rested his head on my shoulder, but it was definitely a nice surprise. It made me hope that he realized that I really was his friend now, and that I'd do my best to be there for him. It kind of sucked that he didn't talk to Ryan about what was going on with him, though. As the sun finally began to set, and the blue afternoon sky gave way to a beautiful deep orange, Maggie called all of us back over to the picnic tables for cake and opening my presents. As Ryan stood by my side, Maggie came back out of the house with the cake, topped with sixteen candles. I had to blink a few times to make sure my eyes weren't playing tricks on me -- but the cake was shaped like a big penis, with pubic hair made out of chocolate shavings, and abnormally large testicles! I instinctively looked over at Toby who, despite not looking his usual, boisterous self that day, was wearing his trademark shit-eating grin. Cody then pulled out his guitar and led everyone in the traditional "Happy Birthday" song, causing me to blush and bury my face in Ryan's shoulder. After that, everyone urged me to make a wish and blow out the candles -- although I could have sworn Toby said, "Blow the penis!" But as for my wish ... what should I wish for? Didn't I already have everything I'd always wanted? The only thing I could come up with was that everyone who I loved and cared about could be as happy as I was at that moment. Once I'd made my wish and blown out the candles, we all dug into the cake. I was totally amused when Ryan helped me cut the cake to find that it was cream-filled. Even the straight boys didn't seem to mind eating a penis-shaped cake. After we'd all had some cake, and Maggie had turned on the outside flood lights, it was time to open the presents. Most of them were things like gift certificates for CDs -- which I planned on using to replace all of my old cassette tapes -- and clothes. I was very thankful that nobody had gotten me anything "kinky," since Maggie was standing right there the whole time. To say I was grateful for the presents would have been the understatement of the century. It was one thing to get something from Ryan, Toby, or Maggie, because they were my family now, and families were kind of obligated to do that kind of thing. But for everyone else, some of whom I barely knew, to get me a present, even it was just a ten dollar gift certificate for a CD, was just ... mind-numbing. I was starting to feel that it was all a bit too much. Even though my grandmother had always celebrated my birthday and other holidays with me when I was a little kid, this was entirely different. All of these people were here to celebrate something for me. It wasn't like at school when I could tell myself they were just talking to me because Ryan or Toby was hanging around -- they'd all come here for my birthday party. Perhaps the oddest gift was from Cody and his mom. It was an old black and white photograph in a nice wooden frame. Cody explained that it was a picture of Tsar Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, and his family. He said that they had all been made saints by the Russian Orthodox church, and that they would look out for me if I hung the picture on my wall. Cody and his mom never ceased to keep me confused ... Buddhism, Native American spirituality, Christianity? What did they actually believe in? As for me, I didn't really believe in anything at all. But then I realized what Cody's answer would most likely be -- why should it matter? I also got a Nokia cell phone from Toby, which he said was more for him than for me, so he could "keep track" of me. Funny ... wasn't it me who'd been trying to keep track of him? Needless to say, not being very savvy with technical stuff, and having never owned a cell phone before, I had no idea how to use it. So Toby just took it from me and passed it around to all of our friends so they could program their phone numbers into the address book. When they asked me what kind of "ring tone" I wanted, I just gave them all a blank look, causing them to chuckle. Eventually, Ryan explained it to me and said that he would download a cool Elton John ring tone from the Internet for me and teach me how to use the phone. When all of the presents had been opened, Maggie asked us to follow her to the garage, which seemed a little odd to me. When she opened the garage door and turned on the light, I saw an unusually familiar sight -- one I hadn't seen since January. It was my mother's old car, which I had totally forgotten about since that day Maggie told me I had inherited it. But my mother's crappy old 1992 Dodge Spirit looked very different now. It had a shiny new beige paint job, and looked almost new. Delcondris explained that he had a cousin who had an automotive shop, so they were able to get all of the repairs done at cost, and the bill for that had been footed by Maggie, Ryan, and Toby. He said that it had needed a new transmission, new brake pads, and the air-conditioning had to be repaired. But other than that, and the cosmetic stuff, it wasn't in that bad of a condition, and the mileage was pretty low. As I inspected the freshly cleaned interior, I also noticed that they had installed a CD player. I was in almost total shock. As usual, I didn't know what to say, so I just hugged all of them, including Delcondris. Maggie told me that she would take me to get my driver's license and insurance the next time she had a day off. I was immediately thankful that she had put me through the two weeks of driver's ed at the beginning of February, even though I had complained then that I didn't have the need for a driver's license. I probably looked like an idiot, gawking over the new used car I got, when most kids my age would have been pissed off that they hadn't gotten a new BMW or SUV; but I never would have thought I'd be able to have my own car. As I was staring at my new toy in awe, Ryan pulled an envelope out of his jacket pocket and handed it to me. "What's this?" I asked. "It's your final birthday present. Just open it," he said with a grin. I had no idea what it could possibly be. I mean, could anything top getting a car on your sixteenth birthday? After looking at Ryan questioningly for a moment, I carefully opened the envelope and found two plane tickets inside -- to Las Vegas. Las Vegas? Why would we be going to Las Vegas? You had to be eighteen years old to gamble, and I wasn't sure what else there was to do in Las Vegas besides gambling, unless Ryan wanted to elope with me or something. But as far as I knew, gay marriages still weren't legal in Nevada. Plus, I thought we were a little too young for that. "Ummm ... that's really sweet, Ryan. But ... uhhh ... what're we gonna do in Las Vegas? We can't gamble," I said. "There's more in the envelope, Connor," Maggie jumped in. I looked again and pulled out two smaller tickets. When I saw what they were, I almost fainted. They were two front-row tickets to see Elton John's show at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas -- "The Red Piano." I was stunned. This was all just ... too much. The party, the car, and tickets to see my idol, Elton John, live in concert. In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would be able to get to see Elton John in concert, and we were going to fly all the way across the country to do it ... in Las Vegas! My mouth kept opening and closing, but nothing was coming out. I was utterly and absolutely speechless. This couldn't really be happening to me. It had to be a dream. There was no other explanation for it. And what a cruel dream it was, because I would be totally devastated when I woke up, maybe more so than when I woke up from that nightmare with my mom. "We're going during Spring Break, which is only about a month away," Ryan said as he rubbed my back, his touch reassuring me that I was really awake. "And I hope you can get your voice back by then, because I think you're supposed to scream a lot at concerts, especially if you're sitting in the front row." I just stood there holding the tickets, staring at them, my hands trembling. "Are you okay, sweetie?" Maggie asked, concern evident in her voice. "I ... I ... I ...," I stammered. "I think he's just really happy," Ryan said with a grin. "Right, Connor?" I nodded my head vigorously, while Ryan pulled me into a big hug and kissed me on the forehead. "Well, that's good. Those tickets weren't cheap, so I hope you like them," Maggie chuckled. I nodded again, still unable to find my voice. I couldn't think of anything else in the world I could possibly want. I was the luckiest teenager on the face of the earth. "Maggie ... isn't this ... uhhh ... a bit much?" I finally managed to stutter out. Between the Christmas gifts they'd given me, taking me in, and now all of this, it bothered me a little that they had spent so much on me. I mean, this was definitely way beyond anything any "normal" teenager would get as gifts. "Connor, honey, let's just consider this making up for all of the birthdays you've missed over the past several years," she said with a warm smile. "You definitely deserve it, and the money isn't an issue. I'm sure you've already noticed that Ryan and Toby are practically spoiled rotten, and you deserve to share in that, too." Ryan and Toby both rolled their eyes at Maggie's "spoiled rotten" comment, but I was too giddy to even care. If she really wanted to spoil me a little bit, I wasn't going to complain! Once I managed to pull myself out of my stupor, Maggie went inside to start washing dishes. While most of the kids started heading home, our close group of friends went to the backyard to sit around and chat some more, and polish off the rest of the penis-shaped cake. My only real contribution to the conversation, however, was to go into a lengthy discourse on the Yamaha "red piano" that was the namesake of Elton's series of shows in Vegas -- how unique it was, combining the look and sound of a real concert grand piano with all kinds of digitalized functions provided by computers installed on the inside of the piano, all of which could be controlled right from the keyboard. I'm sure no one else was interested, or had any idea what I was talking about, but I didn't care. I was going to see Elton John! Toby was the first one to take his leave, announcing that he wasn't feeling well, which was pretty obvious. Cody asked if he wanted him to stay, but Toby insisted that he didn't want Cody to catch anything. So Ryan ended up driving Cody home, and the rest of the gang asked me to play something for them on my electric piano, which at that moment I was more than happy to do. So, we all headed up to my room, and I ended up playing a long, gospel-soul rendition of "Philadelphia Freedom" and a song called "I Want To Be As Heavy As Jesus" from the little-known Broadway show More Than You Deserve; and then I did a duet with Natalie on Elton's classic "Don't Go Breaking My Heart." She really had an incredible voice, and I thought it would be fun to perform with her sometime. And even though she was a girl, I was still able to have fun and flirt with her during the song. Although it was starting to get late, I wasn't feeling tired at all. But I was anxious for Ryan to hurry up and get back (and get everyone else to go home!) so I could properly thank him for the incredible birthday I'd just had ... the best one of my life! ********************************************************* Once the last of the guests were finally gone and we'd done a reasonably good job of cleaning up, Ryan and I made a beeline for the bedroom. Sure, I'd been horny before ... hell, I was sixteen years old, so I was supposed to be horny. It was my job as a teenager. But I'd never been that horny before! All I could think about was my face buried in Ryan's crotch, and sucking him until I turned blue in the face. Ryan had barely gotten the door closed before I was tugging at his clothes in a frenzy, trying to get them off. We somehow managed to make it to the bed, leaving a trail of clothes along the way, but not without nearly tripping over each other a few times and me almost biting poor Ryan's tongue off, as we tried to walk, strip, and kiss all at the same time. So much for multi-tasking! As soon as we were on the bed and I'd managed to yank down his boxer-briefs, leaving them tangled around his ankles, I immediately dove down onto his hard cock. The way he started writhing and moaning loudly let me know that my skill had improved over the past few months. Before I knew it, Ryan had lifted me up and shifted me into a sixty-nine position, which was our favorite, and began returning the favor. I gasped when I felt his warm mouth close around my erection, as he started bobbing up and down furiously, running his tongue along the shaft as he sucked. The way he was working on my cock like a pro made it a toss up as to whether I preferred sucking him or getting sucked more. I could tell Ryan was getting close as he started grunting more loudly and his hands began fiercely kneading my ass cheeks. However, before my mind had time to process what was happening, I suddenly felt a finger slip in between my cheeks and start rubbing at my hole. The next thing I realized, I'd jumped off of Ryan as though he'd just stuck me with a cattle prod, and I found myself on the floor gasping for air and shaking uncontrollably. Funnily enough, I didn't even consider what had just happened or why. I was more concerned that Ryan wouldn't go get Maggie, because I really didn't want her to see me sitting buck naked on the floor and wonder what had just been going on. The next sensation I felt was Ryan's strong arms holding me tightly against his body, rocking me gently back and forth, and I just started bawling like a little baby. I was terrified, and at that moment, I didn't know why ... which scared me even more. I don't know how long we sat there on the floor with me crying my eyes out, but I eventually got myself under control and we got back into bed, where Ryan continued to hold me tightly. He kept trying to get me to tell him what was wrong, but I wasn't so sure myself. I was starting to worry that he was going to think I was some kind of nutcase and decide to ditch me for someone a little more stable. He had to think it was rather odd that I could go from being so elated to being a sobbing wreck, lying on the floor, in a matter of seconds. I wasn't able to sleep that night, even wrapped up in the warm embrace of my boyfriend. My mind was racing at a million miles a minute. The only thing I finally managed to figure out, after tossing and turning for what seemed like hours, was that I freaked out when Ryan touched me "back there." And there was really only one reason why that would freak me out. I'd really thought I was fine, but it took me by surprise, and I didn't like that at all. Needless to say, I was very depressed on Sunday. I spent most of the day shut up alone in my room, trying to figure out what was going on in my head, and why I couldn't control my emotions or the way my own body reacted. I didn't want to spend the rest of my life living like that, in constant fear of having a breakdown, not knowing what little thing might trigger some kind of emotional reaction. What pissed me off even more was that that man still had so much control over my life. I couldn't be with the boy I loved the way I wanted to be. Even though in my mind I thought I was ready, my body couldn't trust him the way it should. I always felt the safest when I was with Ryan, so I never imagined that him touching me could possibly make me freak out like that. He should be the last person on earth who could make me react that way. It wasn't right, and it wasn't fair. I had everything I wanted now, but he still had a hold over me, and even after two months, he wasn't letting go. I ended up sitting at my electric piano, tinkering away at the keys, which I normally did when I was upset or deep in thought. I was determined that I wasn't going to let him control me like that anymore. I was going to fight back. It was my life and my body, not his. Without even realizing what I was doing, I had started to play the opening bars of Elton John's "I'm Still Standing." I was going to re-take control of my life, dammit, or die trying! On Monday afternoon, right after school, I marched into Dr. Frazier's office with a newfound determination. "I want my boyfriend to be able to fuck me," I declared as soon as I opened the door to his office. Seeing the shocked look on the doctor's face, as opposed to the neutral expression he usually wore, told me that perhaps I might have been a bit too abrupt. But I wasn't in the mood to beat around the proverbial bush. I told him what happened and informed him in no uncertain terms that I wanted to be "fixed" as soon as possible. Needless to say, I was disappointed when he told me that there was no quick fix to my little "problem," although he did suggest something that he called "progressive desensitization." The doctor said that part of the problem was that I hadn't been expecting what happened, and it took me by surprise. So, Ryan and I should start practicing, beginning with him just touching me gently back there and seeing how that went, and very slowly progressing further and further. He didn't go into great detail as to what we were to progress to, but I think I got the picture. I was also supposed to remain conscious of exactly what was going on and what I was feeling, and to stop Ryan if I started to feel uncomfortable. And then the doctor and I would discuss my feelings during our appointments. I was definitely willing to give it a shot, even though I was afraid that this kind of "practice" would make love-making with my boyfriend feel more like a science experiment. The first few nights of practice were difficult, with me instinctively jerking away as soon as Ryan touched me, even though he was exceedingly gentle and patient. Eventually, I got comfortable with him just touching me lightly, and we were able to move on to him gently rubbing around my hole. Once I got over my initial hesitation, it actually started to feel good. After another week or so, when I was comfortable enough with that, Ryan then surprised me by replacing his finger with his tongue, gently lapping around my hole and tracing up and down my crack. The feeling I got from that was more about self-consciousness than fear, because I was afraid of not being clean enough and grossing him out or something. But I soon got over that when I realized how damn good it felt. That was also the first time since we had started our little "experiment" that it didn't feel like a school science project. We both really got into it, ending up lying on the bed next to each other, panting, and each of us with the other's cum dribbling down our chins. One night toward the end of the month, Ryan brought a jar of Vaseline to bed with us. I started to get a little panicky, thinking he was all ready to "go for the gold," and I didn't think I was quite ready for that yet. "Ummm ... Ryan ... I ... uhhh ... don't think I wanna do that yet," I stuttered. The past few weeks had been wonderful, but I hadn't expected him to want to go all the way quite so soon. "Babe, that's not what I had in mind," he said gently, sitting down naked on the bed beside me and tenderly touching my face. "Just trust me, Connor. Do you think you're ready to do that yet?" I just nodded dumbly, lost in the entrancing stare of his deep green eyes. I watched him as he removed the cap from the jar of Vaseline and put a generous dollop on his index finger. He then leaned over and gave me a soft kiss on the tip of my nose, whispering, "I love you." That in itself was enough to make my heart flutter and me more than willing to go along with whatever he had planned. All the while looking me in the eyes, he gently spread my legs apart. I then felt a cool, sticky finger press softly at my hole and begin to circle around slowly. It felt so much better with the lubricant than it had before when his finger was dry -- although I still preferred his tongue to anything else. After Ryan had massaged the Vaseline tenderly around my hole for several minutes, I felt a slight pressure as his finger begin to gently press into my ass. I immediately tensed up, but then forced myself to calm down, focusing on his intense gaze and the feelings of love I had for him. As soon as I got myself under control, he pushed in a little further, and I suddenly felt the most indescribable sense of pleasure surge through my body. After a few minutes of that, I had to beg Ryan to suck me off, because I felt like my balls were about to explode. Once we had gotten past that little hurdle, we added "the finger" to our love-making each night, and it made my orgasms that much more intense. I didn't know if I was ready yet for Ryan's cock, but I was getting there. However, our "anal exploration" wasn't the only thing going on in March. Ryan tried out for the school's baseball team, and of course made it, getting a starting position at third base on the junior varsity team. Apparently, that was considered impressive, since it was his first time trying out for the team. As expected, his afternoon practices cut into the amount of time we could spend together, but I was glad to see him involved in something again. I also didn't mind it when he came home from practice in his baseball uniform, all nice and sweaty. Mikey seemed to be doing better as well, and went to every GSA meeting. I was more lax in that department, and only ended up going once, although I still planned on fulfilling my commitment to perform at the Spring Fair. Other than that, life went on, occupied mostly with school and spending time with my friends, which I was doing more and more of, especially since Ryan was busy with baseball practice. Having my own car also helped, as I could go hang out with Cody, Mikey, or the twins whenever I wanted. Toby came down with a couple more short bouts of the flu, though, and for the first time that I could remember, he actually had to miss a few days of school. He did get better after the day of my party, but a week later, ended up with another cold. In general, he just didn't really seem to be his usual cheerful self. On the bright side, though, he and Cody were still doing great together. I'd finally gotten over my "clingy" fear of letting Toby spend the night at Cody's house, and I could imagine that they were enjoying the privacy. And, of course, with each passing day, I was getting more and more excited about our three-day trip to Las Vegas to see Elton John during Spring Break! Woo-hoo!
  14. Going back to school the week after Christmas vacation was hell. Not because I really disliked school, but because I wasn't sure where things stood with Ryan. It was like nothing had changed, but everything had changed, at least to me. What the hell does "take a break" or "cool things down" mean, anyway? Ryan told me I needed to take some time to think about what I really wanted. To me, that was a no-brainer. I knew I wanted to be with Ryan. Cody was just ... well ... curiosity, I guess. Sure, he would make a great boyfriend. He was cute, sweet, intelligent, and wise beyond his years. But it had always been Ryan that I wanted. I didn't need time to think. I knew I wanted Ryan, and I told him so. But apparently that wasn't good enough for him. He told me that I needed more time to think. How was he supposed to know how much time I needed? At this point, I wasn't really sure how I should feel anymore. I was depressed, but I was also angry. The problem was, I wasn't sure who I should be angry with. I was, of course, angry at myself for being stupid enough to kiss Cody, not once, but multiple times. I was angry that Cody wanted to kiss me, even though he knew I had a boyfriend. The problem with that, though, was that I could have refused, and I didn't. But I still blamed him, and decided to make it a point to stay away from him. Plus, if Ryan saw me hanging out with Cody or talking with him, it might make things worse. I was also angry at Ryan, because he wouldn't believe me when I told him that I was sure of who I wanted to be with. The problem with that, however, was that at the same time, I knew that I didn't really have a right to be angry at Ryan, because he wasn't the one who messed up. So I was basically just a big mess of confused emotions, and I didn't know how to handle it. Nothing new there, right? It seemed like my whole life over the past several months had been turned into a rollercoaster of drama. Everything had been so simple before. Sure, I got beat up all the time, had no friends, and was miserable. But at least my life was predictable. I was only fifteen years old. Why did things have to be so complicated? What made things worse was that on the surface, things between Ryan and me seemed to be almost "normal." He still talked to me, still put his arm around my shoulder, still wanted me to sit with him at lunch, and didn't really treat me any differently than before. Since we were at school, though, I couldn't really tell how affectionate he would be with me on the weekends, and I had to wait a whole week to find out, if he even really meant that I could still hang out with him then. He said I could still stay over at his house, just like before, but if things were going to be awkward between us, like no more cuddling or kissing, just acting like "buddies," I didn't know if I could handle that. I felt like I was in a state of limbo, and it was awful. Breaking up would have been easier, because at least I'd know where things stood, and I could start trying to get over it. But instead, I was left waiting and wondering. And I didn't have a clue how long I had to wait. Days? Weeks? A month? It wasn't fair. But then again, nothing in my life ever seemed fair. It was like God or whoever was just sitting up there in heaven thinking about ways to make my life more miserable. Hadn't I suffered enough?! Part of me wished Ryan would at least yell at me or something. I had no clue what was going on inside his mind. Was he angry? Was he hurt? What was he feeling? Was his telling me that we needed to "cool down" or "take a break" his way of saying that he wanted to do that? Was he having second thoughts about us being together? Maybe he finally realized how pathetic I was, that I was poor white trash who he had no future with, and he was just trying to figure out a way to get out of it. Considering everything he'd done for me and said between Thanksgiving and Christmas, that little theory didn't exactly seem very rational, but I wasn't thinking very rationally right now anyway. If I wanted to have a "pity party" for myself and come up with all kinds of irrational explanations as to what was going on in Ryan's mind, then I would damn well do as I pleased! AARRGH!!! These questions were killing me! I wanted to talk to someone. I needed for someone to tell me what to do. But who could I talk to? I couldn't talk to Toby, and I didn't want to talk to Cody. All of Ryan's other friends were out of the question, too. I suppose that I could have tried talking to Mikey, but I still felt guilty about the last time he'd come over to Ryan's to see Toby. I hadn't even tried to salvage things between them. I just immediately went and tried to push Toby and Cody together without giving a second thought to Mikey. I was a jerk, so I couldn't face him now either. So, as usual, I was left alone to deal with this myself. Getting through the school day was absolute torture, made worse because Ryan was still actually with me, for the most part acting like everything was normal. At lunch, everyone was talking about what they had done over Christmas vacation and what they got from their parents. I wasn't very interested in the conversation, though. I just wanted to run out of there and head for the auditorium and the sanctuary of the piano. I knew I couldn't do that, though. Not without raising a few too many eyebrows, and it was apparent that no one else knew that Ryan and I were currently "taking a break." After school, Ryan drove me home as usual. I didn't bring up our relationship again. I figured that he'd let me know when he'd decided that I'd had enough time to think. I just had to suffer while waiting, only able to imagine the worst. I knew Ryan well enough that I was pretty sure he wouldn't completely kick me out of his life, even if he decided we couldn't be "together" anymore. He was good to his word, and he'd said that we would always be friends, no matter what I decided (although it seemed like it was more his decision now than mine). But the thought of being "just friends" was just as bad as being out of his life altogether. Knowing that we'd once had something special, where I could hug him or kiss him whenever I wanted, where he would hold me and comfort me, feeling his warmth at night when I slept, and then suddenly having that taken away, yet still having him to be around him, pretending that everything was fine, but not being able to be the way we had been ... that was a devastating thought. It would be too awkward. No, not just awkward ... heart-wrenchingly unbearable. I imagined it was like being addicted to a drug, then suddenly not being able to have it anymore -- still having it shoved in your face every day, yet never able to touch it. It was enough to make any person go insane, and that's exactly how I was feeling. "Are you okay, Connor?" Ryan asked, turning to look at me as we neared the trailer park. "Yeah, I'm fine. I'm just bummed out that we're back in school is all," I lied. He gave me a measured look, but didn't say anything more. Why was he even still being nice to me? I wondered. When we pulled up in front of the trailer, Ryan gave me a hug before I got out of the car. An aching, empty feeling consumed my heart as I watched him pull away. I didn't know how long my fragile heart and mind could take this. After one day, I was about to lose it completely. As I walked inside, shutting the door behind me, I immediately saw my mother lying on the couch, her tattered green robe hanging open, revealing her naked body underneath. I was surprised to find that she was also smirking at me. She hardly ever paid attention to me at all, unless it was to beat me, but that hadn't happened much lately, ever since Krull had been around. I wished he'd been there then, to keep my mother's attention away from me. "I saw you outside hugging that boy in the car," she spat. "I should've realized you were a dirty little faggot." I just stood there frozen in place. I didn't know how to react. There was a bottle of whiskey on the coffee table, so it was apparent she'd been drinking, but she obviously wasn't drunk enough to pass out and thus not be able to give me a beating, if that's what she had in mind. I'd never thought about my mother finding out. I guess I figured that she wouldn't really care, being preoccupied with getting her next fix, whether it was drugs or a man. Maybe I was wrong. "I was hoping you'd be able to take care of me now that Krull is gone," she continued, with a nasty leer on her face. "Your puny little cock isn't enough to satisfy me, but you could at least eat me out. But since you're just a diseased little faggot now, I guess that won't work. I'll have to find something else useful for you to do." My mind was suddenly racing with a million thoughts. Krull was gone?! Shit! That was the only thing that had seemingly kept my mother out of my hair for the past month. And my own mother wanted me to have sex with her? I couldn't believe it. That was the nastiest, raunchiest thought imaginable. I shuddered at the thought. Ewwwww! Just ... yeah ... ewwww! I think I'd rather have sex with a fifty-year-old fat French prostitute with hairy armpits and a pock-marked face. "Get out of my sight!" she barked at me, before I had time to process everything that was going on in my brain. Not needing to be told again, self-preservation being the only thing on my mind at that moment, I immediately made my way to my small bedroom and closed the door. I collapsed on my old, hard mattress, cursing a God I wasn't even sure existed for giving me this life. What did I do to deserve this? Bemoaning my miserable life, I put on my headphones and popped my cassette of Elton John's Blue Moves into my old Sony Walkman. If you were looking to wallow in self-pity, which I certainly was, then Blue Moves was the album to listen to. It was Elton John's most depressing and disturbing work, written and recorded in 1976, when Elton's long-time lyricist, Bernie Taupin, was going through his own personal crisis. How ironic that the song that came on was "If There's a God In Heaven (What's He Waiting For?)." The pleading vocals and depressing lyrics only added to the depths of my despair. If there's a God in heavenWhat's He waiting for?If He can't hear the childrenThen He must see the warBut it seems to meThat He leads His lambsTo the slaughter houseAnd not the promised land ... Now that Krull was gone, there was no telling what kind of trash my mother would bring home next to beat up on me. And when the beatings started again, which I was sure was coming, how would I hide the evidence from Ryan and Maggie? And what did my mother mean about "finding something useful" for me? I cringed at the thought. She had done some horrible things to me over the years, but something about the look in her eyes when she said that made me fear that this time would be different. I didn't know what she had in mind, but I knew it wouldn't be pleasant. I just hoped I could survive it. But maybe this time I didn't want to survive it. What would be the point anyway? What did I have to go on living for? To just get beaten on yet another day, either at home or school? Once my cassette of Blue Moves was finished, I fished out my copy of Elton's classic Tumbleweed Connection, and lo and behold, the song that just happened to come on when I hit 'play' was "Where To Now, St. Peter?" This whole "religious theme" just seemed to keep resonating over and over again. Was this some kind of message or something? It just made me hate Him even more. So where to now, St. Peter? If it's true I'm in your hands I may not be a Christian But I've done all one man can I understand I'm on the road Where all that was is gone So where to now, St. Peter? Show me which road I'm on Which road I'm on ... That song seemed to echo my sentiments exactly. I had no idea where I was going. But wherever it was, I was pretty sure now that I would be going there alone. Sleep would be a long time coming tonight, I sighed to myself ... and it was. ***************************************************** Since I had decided not to continue participating in the jazz band after the Christmas break, I didn't have to see Cody on Monday night. I was glad about that, because I didn't really want to see him. During the day on Monday and Tuesday, he saw me in the halls and waved to me, even tried talking with me a couple of times, but each time I either pretended I didn't see him or brushed him off. On Wednesday morning, however, he caught me in the hall during our break. I was definitely not in the mood for his usual cheerfulness. "Hey, Connor! What's been going on?" he asked as he walked up beside me. "Nothing," I answered curtly. "Is something wrong?" he asked, his expression suddenly turning to one of concern. I still blamed him for "seducing" me, and it pissed me off that he could be so upbeat and optimistic all the time, while because of what he did, I was now miserable. "Yeah, something's wrong," I spat at him. "Ryan and I had a fight because of you wanting to kiss me every time we hung out. Now I don't know if we're even together or not anymore. So just stay away from me and stay out of my fucking life!" I didn't think before I spoke. I just blurted it out. But dammit, I was mad. I'd already beat myself up over this whole mess, and I needed to spread around the blame a little bit. And Cody just happened to be a good target. "Oh ...," he said quietly. I was expecting some kind of comeback or for him to say something in defense of himself. I was prepared to argue. But he didn't say anything. He just got a sad look on his face, looked down at the ground, and walked away. Not even a fucking apology! But as soon as he walked away, I started feeling guilty. Yeah, maybe it wasn't right for him to kiss me when he knew I had a boyfriend, but I could have said no. Plus he just didn't seem like the type of person who would do something to knowingly hurt someone. I should have just talked to him when I had the chance, but I blew it ... again. I hurt him, just like I'd hurt everyone else who meant anything to me in my life. With my future with Ryan being uncertain, Cody was really the only other friend I had. If I lost him too, then I really would be completely and utterly alone. Maybe that's what I deserved. I wasn't sure if Ryan was planning on coming to my show at the pub on Wednesday evening, but before I had the chance to find out, I told him not to because I wasn't feeling well and wouldn't be going. It wasn't true, of course, but I figured if he was going to be there, it would throw me off too much, and I'd end up giving a crappy performance. And if he didn't show up and I was hoping to see him, it would likewise upset me and probably affect the show as well. So, for once, I took the initiative in my life, and felt like I had at least a little control over something. I was a little surprised, though, that he seemed disappointed as well as concerned when I told him I wasn't feeling well. He asked me to go home with him so Maggie could check me out, but I assured him that it was just a small cold, unlike last time. I'm not sure whether he believed me or not (I didn't really look sick), but he didn't argue. Despite my depression, anger, and confusion over the past several days, I was still really looking forward to performing. It would give me the opportunity to vent all of the emotions that had been bottling up inside of me. It was hard for me to put what I was feeling into words, not that I had anyone I could talk to about it anyway, but I could express everything I needed to get out through my music. That was the only way I knew how to deal with it. And they do say that heartache can be the catalyst for great music. I got to the pub a little early that night, and even managed to get Andy, the twenty-two year old bartender, to sneak me a couple of strong drinks. He was a student at the university, and worked at the pub to help put himself through school. He was a really nice guy, and to top it all off, he was quite attractive, too, with spiky brown hair, dark eyes, and a boyish face. He also had that "frat boy" look about him. I bet Mikey would like him! Andy brought two Jim and cokes back to my changing room, and I managed to down both of them in the forty-five minutes I had before the show. Considering my body size, and the fact that I'd never really drunk much alcohol before, one probably would have been enough to get me buzzed. After two, I was pretty well drunk, though fortunately not to the point of feeling sick. Puking my guts out on stage would not have been cute ... not cute at all. I hadn't even thought about a set list for the evening's show, but considering my mood at the time (and the effects of the alcohol), I decided to play the most depressing songs I could think of, all about relationships that had gone bad and love loss. It would definitely be a change of pace from the show I did on New Year's Eve. Part of me was regretting telling Ryan that I wouldn't be performing tonight, because perhaps he would have noticed how miserable I really was. At school, I had tried to put on a brave face. Whether or not he could see through that was another issue, though. I didn't even bother changing into my stage clothes. I just put on a black track suit and a pair of plainblack sunglasses, then walked to the side of the stage to wait for Mr. Bill to give me my cue. The audience was larger than usual for a Wednesday night, but not nearly as packed as it was on Friday evenings. Although part of me had always dreamed about being a rock and roll star -- which, to me, was next to impossible, since I didn't really have the "look" or charismatic personality for it -- I liked the intimate feel of playing in small pubs. Taking my cue from Mr. Bill, I walked over to the piano, sat down, and adjusted my microphone. This time, rather than going into one of my typical, up-tempo show starters, I just played the piano, a slow-tempo, melancholy piano improvisation, letting my fingers slide gracefully across the keys, eyes closed, my body swaying gently, pouring out my sadness into the melody. I couldn't write lyrics to save my life, which is why I never tried writing my own songs, but I could come up with melodies easily. I didn't even need to think about it. The music just flowed out of me like an uncontrollable current of raw emotion. After teasing the audience for about five minutes with my long piano intro, I segued into a very old, rare Elton John song from 1969, called "It's Me That You Need," a beautiful, intricate melody with an impassioned vocal, pleading with a nameless lover to return. My eyes were closed, my body hunched closely over the piano, and my mouth pressed right up against the microphone as I sang. I could still smell the faint odor of beer and cigarettes from the evening's previous performer. Without stopping to acknowledge the audience's reaction after the first song, I continued right on with Elton's "Where To Know, St. Peter," "I Feel Like A Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)" from Rock of the Westies, "Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word," a bluesy interpretation of "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," the haunting ballad "Sacrifice," from Sleeping With the Past, and my only up-tempo number of the evening, "Sad Songs (Say So Much)." I finally switched to something other than Elton John songs, and finished up with Annie Lennox's poignant ballad "Why," Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," and Billy Joel's "Honesty." Each song expressed what I had been feeling over the past several days, and my vocals were more impassioned than usual. As I was sitting there, I pictured that it was Ryan I was singing to, pouring out my heart to him. After briefly going backstage to splash some water on my face and noticing the reflection of my tired and haggard face in the mirror, my eyes devoid of their soul, I returned to the stage for my encore. For my last song, I chose Jim Reeves' classic "He'll Have To Go," and as I was singing the heart-wrenching lyrics, I could imagine that it was Ryan who was now singing those words to me. Whisper to me, tell me do you love me trueOr is he holding you the way I doThough love is blind, make up your mind, I've got to knowShould I hang up, or will you tell him he'll have to go?You can't say the words I wanna hearWhen you're with another manDo you want me, yes or noDarling, I will understandPut your sweet lips a little closer to the phoneAnd let's pretend that we're together all aloneI'll tell the man to turn the jukebox way down lowAnd you can tell your friend there with you he'll have to go. It took everything I had not to break down and cry during that song, praying silently to myself that Ryan wasn't feeling the same kind of pain that I was. As I sang those words, the little bit of anger and resentment that I had previously felt completely melted away, and all I felt was regret and remorse for what I had done. Ryan meant everything to me, and I couldn't bear the thought of hurting him after everything he had given me. I knew right then that what I felt for him was "love." It couldn't be anything else. I loved Ryan. I was in love with Ryan. But could I tell him that? Would that make him take me back, or would it just freak him out? Despite the circumstances, that show was probably one of the best performances I had ever given, because it wasn't my "alter ego" up there singing. It was the "real" me, baring my soul completely. The stunned silence of the audience also let me know how emotionally moving it must have been. And I decided that it was now time to bear my soul completely to Ryan, too. It was like an epiphany. I couldn't go on living my life the way I had been, not only being tortured by my own emotions, but also by my mother. No more secrets. No more hiding. I would tell Ryan and Maggie everything. She'd told me to trust her. And it was time to put that trust to the test. But first and foremost, I was going to tell Ryan I loved him, that he was the center of my universe. If he could take me back and love me too, then I would find a way to deal with whatever my fate would be after spilling my guts to Maggie. I now had a sense of purpose and a newfound faith. I felt like I was now finally starting to have some control over my life, and it felt ... liberating. ***************************************************** When I came home after the show, I immediately wanted to call Ryan, but found that our phone had been disconnected. Money had been especially tight lately, and the phone was one luxury we couldn't afford. I was just disappointed that it had happened so soon. Now I'd have to wait until the next day at school to talk to Ryan. I figured it would be better, anyway, to tell him in person rather than on the phone. That way, he could see in my eyes that I really meant it. Every time I admitted it to myself, that I loved Ryan, I felt a tingly sensation all throughout my body. It felt great. I just had to hope that he would accept what I needed to tell him, and that he would feel the same way. We had shared a lot together, so I needed to have a little faith, and I was trying to be confident, despite the negative turn things had taken at home. What else could I do? I had practically given up before, and I wouldn't do that this time. Because I loved him! As I was reading the next lesson in my World Religions text book, trying to distract myself, the door to my bedroom was flung open, and I looked up to see my mother and a man I had never seen before standing there. My mother looked even more strung out than usual, and the man gave me the creeps. He was tall and lanky, with dark hair and a receding hairline that was combed slickly back. He was holding a tattered leather briefcase and wearing gray slacks that looked like they hadn't been washed in a while, and a white dress shirt with frayed cuffs that was only buttoned up halfway, revealing a bony looking chest. He was sweating profusely and breathing in short, ragged breaths. I could smell his pungent body odor from across the room, and it immediately made sick to my stomach, not to mention the way he was looking at me, as if he was appraising me. I was suddenly very frightened as they just stood there staring at me, the man frequently licking his lips and wiping the sweat from his brow. "So this is the boy?" he asked, apparently addressing my mother, although his eyes never left me. His high-pitched, trembling voice and piercing stare left me feeling very unsettled. "Yeah, and it turns out that he's a fag. He'll probably love this," she said with a nasty smirk. I didn't like where this seemed to be headed. I wanted to run, but there was no way out. "The stuff you wanted is in the brown paper bag on the kitchen counter," he said, again addressing my mother. "If he's good, then we'll call it even." "Fine," my mother said. "I don't care what you do to him. Just try not to kill him. He might come in handy again later." There was no emotion in her voice, and as soon as she finished speaking, she left the room, closing the door behind her, and leaving me alone in my bedroom with the crazed-looking man. "What do you want?" I asked, trying to keep my voice steady. Actually, I was pretty sure what he wanted, and the thought was both revolting and terrifying. I couldn't believe that my own mother would do this to me. She was trading her son for her drug fix. She'd been cruel to me ever since I'd moved in with her, but I never could have imagined she would go this far. "We're going to have a little fun tonight, sweet thing," he said, with a sickening laugh. "Stay away from me! Leave me alone!" I shouted at him. I'd never stood up for myself before, never fought back when my mother or one of her boyfriends beat on me. But not any more. What he wanted from me, I was not about to give up without a fight. I was determined that that was for the one I loved, Ryan, and the thought of this disgusting man defiling me, taking away the last of my innocence, and stealing something that should be between my boyfriend and me was enough to make me want to kill him, or die trying. Before I could react, though, he had darted across the room and pounced on me, pinning me down on the mattress, holding my arms above my head. I could feel his sweat dripping onto my face as he eyed me hungrily, his putrid odor filling my nostrils. "You can be a good little boy and give it up easy, or we can make this difficult," he said, sneering at me. "Although personally, I'd rather you put up a fight and scream. I like to play rough. And once I'm done toying with you, you'll be begging me to fuck you over and over again. Yeah, that's right, I'm gonna make you beg me for it, you little boy-whore." There was suddenly the sound of a loud crash from the other room, which distracted him long enough to give me the chance to bring my knee up into his groin, causing him to roll off of me, clutching his groin in pain. I took the opportunity to bolt towards the door, but he was too fast for me, grabbing me by the ankle and dragging me down to the floor with him. "You little shit!" he screamed. "You're just going to make it a lot worse for yourself!" Unfortunately for me, since this was the first time I'd ever decided to fight back, I wasn't really sure what to do. I was operating on pure instinct by that point. He obviously wasn't new to the whole rape thing, though, and before I had the chance to recover from being tackled, he was on top of me again, grabbing me roughly by the hair and slamming my head into the floor several times. Still holding onto my hair, he pulled me up to my feet, then grabbed me by the throat and slammed me up against the wall, pinning me there. He was smarter this time, and turned his hip toward me so that my knee wouldn't have access to his groin. He then reached into his pocket with his free hand and pulled out a vial of liquid. With the hand that was strangling my throat, he managed to pry my mouth open and with the other poured in the liquid. He then forced my mouth shut, using his free hand to pinch my nostrils closed and force my head backwards, causing me to swallow the vile, bitter tasting liquid. "That was GHB," he said, continuing to hold me pressed up against the wall. "It'll make you a lot more cooperative. You might even like it." I was still struggling, but his grip on my throat was firm. Before I realized what was happening, he pressed his mouth against mine, forcing his tongue inside. He tasted like alcohol and stale cigarettes. I took the opportunity to bite down on his tongue, causing him to let go of me and give me another chance to make a mad dash for the door. Again, though, he was too fast for me, and managed to tackle me to the ground. Once he got me down, he sat on my chest and began punching me repeatedly in the face. I lost count of how many times he hit me, but before long could feel a warm liquid running down my face that I could only assume was blood. I certainly wasn't crying yet. I wouldn't let this son of a bitch see me cry, no matter how badly he hurt me. By that point, whatever he'd drugged me with was taking effect, and it dulled the pain somewhat. It also made my body feel like a dead weight, and waves of both euphoria and extreme lethargy began to pulse through my body. My mind was telling me to keep struggling, but my body wasn't cooperating, and as my vision became more and more blurry, and the sensations stronger and stronger, I knew I wouldn't be able to resist much longer. Much to my horror, I was also starting to feel really horny. Not horny for him, but just in general. And that sickened me. As he began pulling me toward the mattress, my mind was in turmoil. Visions of Ryan kept flashing before my eyes, telling me that I couldn't give up without a fight. I couldn't let myself be raped by this scumbag. But at the same time, the chemicals flowing through my blood stream were breaking down my willpower, telling me that it wouldn't be that bad. I was starting to feel very relaxed, but I didn't want to be. Part of me kept telling me to fight. Before I completely succumbed to the effects of the drug, I managed to let loose one last wild flurry of kicks and punches as I lay there on the bed, with him standing above me. But they were totally ineffective and off the mark. My arms and legs were completely uncoordinated. My attempt at fighting back, however, caused my attacker to start kicking me fiercely in the ribs and head. It seemed like hours that he was savagely pummeling me. It was growing difficult to breathe with each kick to my ribs. After a few more kicks to my head and face, I could hardly see through all the blood. At that point, I couldn't stand it anymore. I just wanted him to get it over with. I was barely conscious and prayed that I would either pass out or die. I would have probably preferred death at that point, because if I survived, I would be forever tainted. I wouldn't be able to face Ryan, and he would probably never want to touch my filthy body again. As I lay there moaning, barely aware of my surroundings anymore, I noticed him kneel down on the floor and open his briefcase, pulling out a number of items and arranging them neatly on the floor by the mattress. There were handcuffs, some rubbery objects that were shaped like massive penises, and a long strand of large beads. I had no clue what he could possibly use those for, and by that point, I didn't really care anymore. The next thing I felt was being rolled over on to my stomach, and my shirt and pants being savagely ripped off. I then heard the faint sound of a zipper being undone, and moments later a heavy weight pressed on top of me, and something large and hard began probing at my butt hole. "You're about to get the ride of your life, little boy," I heard a disembodied sounding voice crooning in my ear. I couldn't scream, I couldn't move, I couldn't fight back. I was sure that I was going to die. The last thing I saw in my mind was Ryan's face, the one thing that was worth living for. But he couldn't help me now. No one could. Not even God. Because He couldn't exist. He couldn't let something so cruel and evil happen to one of His own children. No, God never came here. God passed me by. And then, as I felt something wet and slimy slurping at my neck, and the searing pain of my butt hole being violently forced open, everything went completely dark.
  15. "Try to keep the tempo driving," I instructed Cody, who was playing rhythm guitar, right before going into the opening verse of the song we were currently working on. Cody grinned at me and nodded in reply, immediately picking up the tempo. It was the first Sunday afternoon of our Christmas vacation. The day before, Mr. Bill had called me at Ryan's -- I had given him the number earlier, telling him he could reach me there on the weekends -- and told me that if I performed a show on New Year's Eve at the club, he'd not only give me the rest of the winter vacation off, but he'd also pay me a hundred and fifty dollars for a sixty minute set with the house band. I thought that was a pretty good deal. We would have three afternoon rehearsals before the show, and I would get Cody to practice with me as well. I gave Mr. Bill the set list I had come up with, and that was it. So on Sunday at around noontime, Ryan dropped me off at Cody's so we could start practicing, and go over some of the songs I was going to play with the band. Playing with Cody was a lot of fun, and he was a quick learner. I thought that sometime it would be fun to perform in public with just him, an acoustic guitar and piano. I even fantasized a bit about going on a pub tour with him when we were older. I'd always thought that life on the road would be fun, driving from place to place in an old van, crammed full of amplifiers and other equipment, staying in run-down motels, and playing the great oldies to a group of new faces every night. It certainly wasn't a way to make a good living, but it was the kind of life that would make me content. Or at least so I thought. If that meant being away from Ryan, though, assuming our relationship lasted that long, I didn't think I could handle it. Besides the music, I was also enjoying Cody's company more and more. I felt very relaxed around him, and since he seemed to be able to figure me out so well, I didn't see the sense in trying so hard to hide myself from him. But at the same time, he never pressed me for many details about my life. When we finished running through Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road," we decided to take a break. No sooner had we sat down on the futon in Cody's room, than his mom came walking down the stairs with a tray, on which was arranged an authentic Japanese tea set -- a beautiful ceramic tea pot with four small tea cups arranged neatly around it. That in itself wasn't odd, but the fact that she was wearing only a long, flower patterned skirt (with no top!) was. Plus she had painted what looked like Japanese calligraphy on her (fortunately not too large) breasts, making me do a double take. It didn't seem to faze Cody at all, though. Weird family! I thought. "Thanks, mom," he said. "Cody," she said in a very serious tone, "I told you already that my new name is 'Coral.' We mustn't forget the damage that is being done to the coral reefs in Australia." "Sorry, Coral," he said with a slightly patronizing smile. After nodding and giving Cody a measured look, she turned and headed back upstairs. I think I was too stunned to even comment on what had just happened. But I had already known that his mom was "different," so I just shrugged it off. As Cody poured the tea, I asked him what the Japanese characters on the tea cups meant. "This one," he said, pointing to the cup that he was currently pointing tea into, "means 'forbearance'." I just nodded, not really sure if I knew what "forbearance" meant. "The others," he continued, pointing to the other three cups in turn, "mean 'peace,' 'love,' and 'filial piety.' They are all important virtues." "What does 'filial piety' mean?" I asked, feeling a little stupid. "It means respect and reverence for your parents," he explained. "What if your parent treats you like shit and would prefer it if you were just dead?" I muttered, not really meaning to say that out loud. "Well, in the Chinese Book of Rites, Confucius said that filial piety is a two-way street. The parents have the responsibility to respect their children and carry out their duties as parents. Only then are the children obligated to be filial to their parents," he said. "Confucius said?" I asked, chuckling. "You sound like a fortune cookie." Cody just shrugged and blushed slightly. Feeling like I might have insulted him, I decided to quickly change the subject. "So what are you doing for Christmas this year?" I asked him. "We don't celebrate Christmas," he replied matter-of-factly. "You don't celebrate Christmas?!" I asked incredulously. Being so excited about celebrating Christmas this year, I couldn't imagine him not doing so, and not even seeming to care. I knew he wasn't Jewish or Muslim or anything, so I didn't get it. I wasn't a religious person. I wasn't even sure if I believed in God. But I still wanted to celebrate the holiday, not because of its religious connotations, but because it meant sharing a special time of the year with people I cared about. I figured that kind of thing was pretty universal. "Nope. My mom's against the whole commercialization of religious holidays thing," he answered. "It's just like any other day around here." "Won't that get boring, just sitting around here for two weeks?" "Nah, I have lots of books to read and I'll play my guitar and stuff. I've also been slacking off on my meditation." I raised an eyebrow at him. "What?" he asked, looking slightly perplexed. "I dunno ... I just know I'm really excited about Christmas this year. I haven't had a real Christmas since my grandmother died. I just think it's weird that you don't seem to care," I said. "It's not that I don't care. It's just the way things are," he explained, shrugging his shoulders. "Well, do you think you'd at least like to hang out with me, Ryan, and Ryan's brother during the break?" I asked. "Sure, that'd be cool. I just don't wanna impose or anything," he said. I chuckled to myself. "You sound a lot like me." Cody just gave me a toothy grin in reply. "Do you wanna come over today and maybe spend the night?" I asked. "Yeah, I guess so ... if it's alright," he replied. "I bet you'd really like Ryan's younger brother, Toby. He's really sweet ... and cute," I said, trying to imitate one of Ryan's patented winks. Cody giggled. "What makes you think I care if he's cute?" I shrugged my shoulders. "I dunno. Just a hunch, I guess." Cody rolled his eyes. "Well, let me go call Ryan and make sure it's alright," I said, walking over to pick up the portable phone that was sitting on the floor next to Cody's bed. I dialed Ryan's number, and he picked up on the third ring. "Hello?" "Hey, Ry, it's me." "Hey, Connor. You ready for me to go pick you up?" he asked. "Well, I was wondering if it'd be okay if Cody came back with us and stayed the night tonight. You know, we talked about there being someone he should meet ..." Ryan chuckled. "Yeah, that'd be good. I'll come pick you guys up at around three o'clock. Cody can have dinner here with us. Mom's working late tonight at the hospital, so we'll probably just order take-out or something." "Cool beans," I said. "We'll see you then." "Bye, babe." "Bye, Ry." Everything was set, and I was really hoping it would work out. I at least wanted Cody and Toby to get along and be friends. If anything else happened, that would be great too, but I figured I shouldn't press my luck. I still felt a little jealous about Toby being 'together' with someone, but I knew that was selfish of me, and I didn't think someone as great as him should be single. I wanted him to be happy, just as much as I wanted Ryan to be happy. And I knew that Cody was a really good guy. "Okay, it's all set, Cody. Why don't you get your stuff together? Ryan will be here at around three to pick us up," I said. "Okey-dokey," he replied, bounding up the stairs to go get his things together. As we were sitting on the floor in the living room waiting for Ryan, Cody inched closer to me. He was wearing a pair of tattered jeans, his usual tie-dyed t-shirt, and Native American charm necklace. The light coming through the window from the bright afternoon sun reflected off his light blond hair, making him appear as though he was shrouded in a halo. He was stunningly beautiful. "Another kiss?" he asked, his wry grin belying his cherubic face. I blushed and nodded my head, not giving it a single thought, suddenly wanting nothing more than to taste this beautiful yet mysterious boy's lips again. With that, Cody gently cupped the back of my head with his hand and leaned in, placing his soft lips against mine. This time, however, I felt his lips part and his tongue slip into my mouth. Rather than pulling back after this new development, as usual, my hormones got the best of me, and I kissed back, our tongues feverishly exploring the inside of each other's mouths. Cody was definitely a good kisser. After we separated, Cody gave me a cheeky grin, but I suddenly felt guilty again. I tried to rationalize it, though, telling myself that it was "just a kiss," as Cody himself had said before. Just an expression of affection between friends. And Ryan had said that he didn't mind, right? Promptly at three o'clock, Ryan pulled up in front of Cody's house, where Cody and I were waiting on the curb. Cody climbed in the back of the Camry with his overnight bag, and I got in the passenger side next to Ryan. After exchanging pleasantries, we were off. As we pulled up to the McCormacks' house, I was excited to show off my boyfriend's family to Cody. I was disappointed, however, that Cody didn't appear to be nearly as thrilled as I was. When we got in the door and had taken off our shoes as per Maggie's rule (Toby constantly got yelled at for forgetting and tracking dirt all over Maggie's clean floors), Ryan directed us upstairs to his room, where Toby was already sitting on the floor in front of the television playing a video game, dressed in his usual wife-beater and white briefs. Apparently, he didn't seem to think it was necessary to put more appropriate clothes on for meeting company. "Hey, Toby," I said, trying to get his attention. "This is my friend from jazz band at school, Cody." Toby just grunted in reply, without breaking his eyes away from the television screen. That certainly wasn't the response I was hoping for. I'd told him all about Cody, making sure to emphasize how cute he was, even mentioning that he was a good kisser. I didn't really know what I should say next. Fortunately, Ryan jumped in, as usual, to save the day. "Cody, why don't you play a game with Toby?" he suggested, gently nudging Cody forward. "Ummm ... I've never really played video games before," Cody mumbled. In stark contrast to the bright and cheerful Cody I'd come to know, this Cody seemed pensive and unsure of himself. I wasn't quite sure what was happening, but I didn't like it. Not one bit. "It's okay, Cody," I said, trying to reassure him. "I totally suck at video games, too. But Toby's a good teacher. It'll be fun." Still not looking away from his game, Toby tossed the other controller in the general direction of Cody. Ryan continued nudging him forward, and eventually Cody just shrugged his shoulders, sat down on the floor next to Toby, and picked up the controller. With a sigh that let us know that he was not thrilled with the idea, Toby reset the game for two players, and Ryan proceeded to give Cody brief instructions as to how to play the game. With that, Ryan said he was going downstairs to look through the various take-out menus they had to pick out something for dinner, and I plopped down on the bed to watch Toby and Cody go at it. Unfortunately, that's what they did ... and not with the video game. It was obvious that Cody really never had played before. Saying he totally sucked would have been putting it nicely. Instead of trying to help him, which I was hoping he would do, though, Toby began to mock Cody, and not in the friendly way that he did with me and Ryan. It sounded a lot more like the way the bullies at school picked on other kids. The names Toby was calling him, like "dork" and "loser," were ones that I had become all too familiar with (although "hippie boy" was a new one -- I hadn't heard that one before), and it upset me to hear Toby, who I had always known to be one of the sweetest people I'd ever met, treating Cody that way. To his credit, Cody continued playing, not reacting outwardly to Toby's non-stop insults and jabs, other than occasionally furrowing his eyebrows. I was not liking this at all. And especially not at Christmas time! This was not how my plan was supposed to work! They were supposed to get all giggly around each other, gradually inch closer together, "accidentally" brush up against each other, exchange shy grins, and then live happily ever after. Unfortunately, it wasn't happening, and I had no idea what to do about it. Eventually, I'd had enough. Being the wimp that I was, though, instead of trying to talk to Toby, I left the room to go find Ryan. When we came back, Toby's verbal abuse had turned more physical, his insults now coupled with smacks to the back of Cody's head and flicking his ear. Cody was visibly becoming more and more upset, and it was killing me to watch this scene playing out in front of my eyes. Apart, Toby and Cody were two of the most wonderful boys I'd met, but when put together, they were both like different people -- Toby had become a bully, and Cody became sullen and withdrawn. Ryan was obviously not pleased either, as he grabbed Toby by the scruff of the neck and dragged him out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Then I could hear the muffled sounds of arguing coming from the next room, although I couldn't make out the words. Cody just looked up at me with an expression of defeat. I was crushed. "I'm sorry," I muttered, unable to think of anything else I could say. It was hard to even look him in the eyes. If it was me in his position, I probably would have high-tailed it out of there, but he just sat there, looking kind of lost, the shimmer gone from his eyes. I nervously bit my nails, waiting for Ryan to return, hopefully having sorted things out with Toby, who by now I was totally pissed at. Finally breaking the awkward moment, Ryan came back into the room and asked me to go with him for a minute. I looked at Cody and attempted to give him a reassuring smile before going with Ryan to Toby's room, where I found Toby sitting on his bed, hugging his knees to his chest. From the expression on his face, I could tell that he was upset, although I wasn't sure if it was anger or sadness. "I'm sorry, Connor," he muttered, without looking up at me. "I think it's Cody you should be apologizing to," I snapped at him, surprising myself with the forcefulness of my own voice. "I'm not apologizing to him," he snapped back. "Well, you'd better, Toby, because you're gonna have to share your room with him tonight," Ryan jumped in, surprising me with his high-handedness. "He's spending the night, you know." "That's what we have the guest room for, idiot," Toby said, glaring at his brother. "Yeah, right," Ryan said sarcastically. "And with all of mom's junk in there, just how are we supposed to fold out the sofa bed?" This wasn't looking good, but I figured that since I was the one who brought Cody here, and I was the one who wanted them to get along so badly, then this was my responsibility. I turned to Ryan and said, "Ry, go play a game with Cody or something. I need a few minutes alone with Toby." Ryan nodded and walked out the door, closing it softly behind him. As soon as he was gone, I walked over to the bed and sat down next to Toby, putting my arm around him. To my surprise, as soon as I did, he melted right into me. "What's going on, Toby?" I asked gently, the anger I had been feeling before suddenly replaced with concern. "This really isn't like you. I don't even know what to say." "It's stupid," he mumbled. "What about that whole 'being friends' thing you lectured me about before? Aren't we supposed to tell each other what's bothering us?" I asked. "Fine," he said, letting out a deep sigh. "I thought that it would just be us during the break, and we'd get to spend a lot of time together. I guess I just got jealous. I don't want you fixing me up with anyone. I still like you. I don't want any other boyfriend right now." WHAT?! That certainly wasn't the response I was expecting, but then again, it did make sense. I just didn't understand why he would feel jealous of Cody ... and then I remembered the jealous feeling I myself had felt at the thought of Toby and Cody hooking up, and how I used to feel about Mikey. "Toby, you don't have to be boyfriends with him. I just want you to try to be friends. Cody doesn't have a lot of friends, and his mom is kinda weird. I just want him to know what it's like to have friends and hang out like normal kids do, the way you and Ryan have done with me. He really is a sweet guy," I said, hoping I could convince him. "All right," he said, although not sounding very enthusiastic. "I guess I should go apologize to him then." "Yeah, that would be a good idea," I said, giving him a gentle squeeze. "Will you hold me for a few minutes first?" he asked, looking up at me with his lost puppy dog expression. I smiled. "Sure, Toby. Whatever you want." With that, we lay down together on his bed and I spooned up behind him, wrapping my arms around him tightly. Just a couple of weeks ago, doing this with Toby would have certainly elicited a physical response from me, but surprisingly, it felt different this time. I felt like I wanted to protect him, make him feel safe. Maybe that's how Ryan felt about Toby. I'd never had a sibling before, so I wasn't sure. But at that moment, I knew that I loved Toby. After snuggling for a few more minutes, Toby and I got up and went back into Ryan's room, where we found Ryan patiently teaching Cody how to play Tekken 5 on the Playstation. And Cody actually looked like he was having fun ... until he noticed me and Toby standing in the doorway. Then his expression became unreadable as he looked up at us. "I'm sorry, Cody," Toby muttered. Cody just stared at him blankly, while Toby was fidgeting nervously. After a few awkward moments, Cody got up, walked over to Toby, and wrapped his arms around him. At first, Toby looked to be a bit taken aback, but soon returned the hug. It was very sweet. After that, things seemed relatively "normal." Ryan ordered Thai food for dinner (which I almost gagged on because it was too spicy), and then we all crowded onto Ryan's bed to watch DVDs. I snuggled up with Ryan, and was hoping that Toby and Cody would do the same. Unfortunately, they didn't, although they were lying very close together ... much closer than they needed to be if they didn't like each other at all. At around eleven-thirty, we all began taking turns in the shower (well, actually, Ryan and I showered together, since four people taking turns would have taken up too much time and hot water -- and no, there was no "funny business!"). When we were all finished, I was a little worried that there would be another problem regarding the sleeping arrangements, but without a word from either Ryan or myself, Toby took Cody by the arm and led him to his bedroom. Being nosey as we were, Ryan and I pressed our ears up against the wall to see if we could hear anything coming from Toby's room, but there were no sounds. I wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not. Perhaps Cody was sleeping on the floor, although I hoped he wasn't. Even if they were going to be "just friends," I thought they could at least enjoy snuggling together. I knew from experience that it felt wonderful to snuggle with Toby. The next morning, after freeing myself from Ryan's grip and placing a soft kiss on his forehead, I made my way down to the kitchen to pour myself a cup of coffee. I was pleasantly surprised when I looked out through the sliding glass door and saw Cody teaching Toby how to do T'ai Chi in the backyard ... and they were both smiling and giggling the whole time. Mission accomplished? I could only hope. Later that afternoon, as Ryan drove Cody home, I took the opportunity to interrogate Toby about what had happened. "So what happened last night?" I asked bluntly, sitting down on the sofa next to Toby, where he was watching Oprah on TV. "You were right. He's nice," he replied vaguely, not moving his eyes from the television, and absentmindedly scratching his balls. "I mean ... did anything ... you know ...?" I continued prodding him. Finally he broke his eyes away from Oprah and looked at me with a sly grin. "Actually," he said, pausing for dramatic effect. "Not that it's really any of your business, but we talked for a while ... and that's about it." "No cuddling?" I asked, disappointment evident in my voice. Toby giggled. "Maybe, sort of ..." "Maybe, sort of?" I asked, arching an eyebrow as I continued staring at him. "He slept with his head on my shoulder and his hand on my chest. Is that specific enough for you, Mr. Nosey?" "Yeah, that'll do," I replied, grinning wryly at him. Because I was normally so shy with people, sometimes it surprised me how much like an entirely different person I felt when I was with Ryan and Toby. A little like the way I felt when I was up on stage. I could have conversations with them and not stutter, I could joke with them, and basically, just act like a "normal" teenage boy. Even I wasn't so dense that I couldn't notice that this was definitely a positive change. It had even rubbed off onto how I acted around other people -- well, just Cody, actually -- but it was a start. "So are you gonna see him again?" I asked. "If you invite him over again," Toby replied, his attention having turned back to Oprah, who was currently chewing out some weasely-looking guy with a terrible looking beard, saying something about how he had lied to a bunch of people about some book. I wasn't really sure what that was all about, but she seemed pissed, and he looked like a deer caught in headlights. "You mean you're not gonna call him or anything to hang out together?" I asked. "We'll see," he replied cryptically, the faintest of grins appearing on his face. I figured I wasn't going to get much more information out of him, so I decided to leave it at that. ******************************************************* Christmas Eve was even better than I could have imagined. After breakfast, I stayed in the kitchen with Maggie, helping her make cookies, while Ryan and Toby were tossing the football out in the backyard. Seeing as there was already at least an inch of snow on the ground, and more coming down, I couldn't understand why they would want to be out there like that, but they seemed to be having a blast. I was having fun too, though, rolling the dough into little balls, placing them on the cookie sheet (well greased, of course), then flattening them down with my thumb, leaving a small indentation in the middle, and finally, putting a small dollop of jelly in the middle. This was something new for me. My grandmother had never made cookies like this before. When the boys eventually came back in, they were both winded, covered with snow, and shivering. As they were stripping off their snow suits, I looked sympathetically at Ryan, wanting to rush over and warm my boy up. Maggie must have noticed. "Go warm up your boy, Connor," she said with a wink. "I'll make some hot chocolate." That was all the encouragement I needed, as I grabbed Ryan by the arm and practically dragged him upstairs to his room. After I helped him finish pulling off his wet clothes, I nudged him towards the bed and got under the covers with him, snuggling up close and rubbing my hands all over his body to warm him up, just like he had done for me that day he'd found me standing at the bus stop, shivering in the rain. Needless to say, the rubbing became more intense, and before I knew it, Ryan had succeeded in removing my clothes as well. Feeling him lying on top of me, our warm bodies pressed tightly together, and not a stitch of clothing separating us, was enough in itself to drive me to the brink of cumming. The only thing I could do to hold myself back was to imagine the grossest thing I could think of -- which at that moment happened to be Mrs. Grashmal, the seventy-year-old school librarian, sitting astride her desk, dress pulled up over her legs, no panties on, and feverishly fingering herself with one hand, and stamping books with the other. It worked. Not only was I back from the brink of orgasm, but my erection started to deflate as well. Fortunately, Ryan knew the cure for that, and before I knew it, he had engulfed me in his warm, wet mouth, working his tongue expertly over my cock. With a bit of awkward maneuvering (and with me accidentally nailing Ryan in the jaw with my elbow), we managed to switch ourselves into a sixty-nine position. As I was exploring his balls with my tongue, I suddenly got the strangest urge, and without hesitation, I pushed gently down on his hips to bring his beautiful butt right in front of my face. I buried my face in his crack, enjoying the boyish, musky smell. Rather than being repulsed, which I would have thought I'd be, I was getting even more turned on (if that was possible). Ryan apparently knew what I was up to, and wasn't opposed to the idea, as he began working even more diligently on pleasuring me. I then gently spread his cheeks apart, giving me the perfect view of his tight butt hole. For the first time, I hesitated slightly, before slowly sticking my tongue out to taste it. When I did, I not only found that it wasn't disgusting at all, but Ryan certainly liked it, which was made clear by the loud groan that escaped from his throat and the shudder that I felt go through his entire body. With newfound confidence, I proceeded to lick at his hole with reckless abandon, while jacking on his cock with my free hand. The excitement of this newly discovered pleasure was too much for the both of us, and within just minutes, we both deposited our loads, mine in Ryan's mouth, and his all over my stomach and chest. WOW! Talk about intense! I was sure that wasn't what Maggie had in mind when she told me to go warm Ryan up, but what she didn't know would hurt her! The rest of the day was spent lying around the house, watching cheesy Christmas movies on television (by the way, Jim Carrey was horrid as "The Grinch"), gorging ourselves on Christmas cookies, and chatting with each other. It couldn't have been more perfect. Christmas Eve dinner was big. The McCormacks had their big meal on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day, instead having a large breakfast after opening presents on Christmas morning. Dinner that night consisted of a huge Virginia baked ham, scalloped potatoes (with oodles of cheese -- yummy!), pasta salad, asparagus, candied yams, and apple pie for dessert. I ate so much, it took me a while after eating before I could stand up from the table. From all the food that we'd eaten over the Christmas break so far (and the fact that my pants seemed a lot tighter than usual), I would have guessed that I'd put on at least several pounds. But for scrawny little 'ol me, that was probably a good thing. Later that evening, Ryan, Toby and I all snuggled up together on Ryan's bed to watch the classic black-and-white version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, which I always used to watch with my grandmother on Christmas. Apparently it was a tradition in the McCormack house as well. At eleven-thirty, Maggie came in and announced that we had to go to bed "so Santa could come." Toby and Ryan both rolled their eyes in mock indignation, but I thought it was sweet. After taking our showers, Ryan and I snuggled up, and still being stuffed from dinner, I fell right asleep in the warm embrace of my lover. Something woke me up in the middle of the night. As I opened my eyes and looked at the digital clock next to Ryan's bed, I noticed that it was only two in the morning. Being in that place halfway between sleep and consciousness, my first thought was that it really was Santa Claus. But then I heard an unmistakable whimpering sound. Immediately, I thought Ryan was having a bad dream, but when I leaned over to check him, his breathing was normal and he was sleeping peacefully. Then I heard it again. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I noticed a shadowy figure curled up in a ball at the foot of the bed ... and it was Toby. I'd never seen Toby cry before. He was a tough kid. I had no idea what could possibly be wrong with him, nor did I know the first thing about comforting someone who was crying. So, of course, I immediately nudged Ryan awake. "What's wrong, babe?" he asked, only half-awake. "Something's wrong with Toby. He's lying at the foot of the bed crying," I whispered. Ryan sat up immediately and crawled over to Toby, wrapping him up in his arms. As soon as Ryan was holding him, Toby's whimpering turned into all out sobbing. Ryan held on to him tightly, rocking him gently back and forth and shushing him. I knew how close the two brothers were, but the tenderness and affection that Ryan was showing to his younger brother was deeply moving, and I felt myself coming close to tears. It made me wish that all these years I had had a big brother to look out for me and hold me when I was hurting. When Toby had calmed down somewhat, Ryan guided him over to where we were sleeping and laid him down between us, where he immediately buried his face in the pillow. "What's wrong with him?" I asked softly, touching my forehead to Ryan's as Toby lay curled up beneath us. "He misses our dad. Last year was really hard on us, and I was kind of surprised that this year has been so much better, but I guess it just suddenly got to him. He and Dad were really close." I could relate to that. I certainly missed my grandmother, especially at Christmas. However, I'd had six years to get over it, and they'd only had two. Things had been so happy the last few days, and then this came up all of a sudden. Both Maggie and Ryan seemed to be fine, though. But now I felt a little like I was intruding on a time when maybe they should be alone together as a family. "Is there anything I can do?" I asked, feeling bad about not really knowing how to comfort Toby, or anyone else for that matter. How would I react if my own boyfriend suddenly broke down? Would I be able to handle that? "Just hold him. He'll be fine in the morning when he sees what Santa brought him," Ryan said with a wink. So with that, we both lay back down, wrapping our arms around Toby and cuddling close to him. Part of me felt like maybe I should go sleep in Toby's room, that this was a moment when Toby and Ryan should be alone together. That thought was banished from my mind, however, when Toby turned toward me and wrapped his arms around me, burying his face in my neck. I looked over at Ryan, who gave me a reassuring smile and then spooned up behind Toby and draped his arm over both of us. I kissed Toby softly on the top of the head and once again let sleep overtake me. ****************************************************** "Open mine first, Connor," Toby said excitedly.I was already having the time of my life just being with the McCormacks for Christmas. I didn't really expect to be getting any gifts, except from maybe Ryan. When I opened my eyes on Christmas morning, seeing that the sun had barely appeared over the horizon, I'd figured that I was the first one awake, until I realized that both Toby and Ryan were gone from the bed. The house was a little cold, so I slipped on a pair of Ryan's flannel pajamas and walked downstairs to find both Ryan and Toby already sitting in front of the Christmas tree, looking very much like six year olds, holding the various presents up to their ears and shaking them, trying to guess what was inside. Unfortunately for them, Maggie's rule for Christmas morning was that they weren't allowed to wake her up until eight o'clock, and it was only six-thirty. So they paced around excitedly for an hour and a half, Toby having drunk at least three cups of coffee and stepped outside for several cigarette breaks. Ryan was a little less hyperactive, but I noticed him frequently glancing up at the clock on the kitchen wall while trying to occupy himself with the morning paper. As soon as they heard the toilet upstairs flush, however, they both bolted up the stairs and practically dragged their mother down to the living room so they could start opening gifts. Fortunately, I had the good sense to bring the poor woman a cup of coffee, which she thanked me profusely for, before giving the two red-headed "holiday hooligans" the go ahead to start opening the gifts. I, of course, gratefully accepted the present from Toby, noting that he did indeed appear much happier than the night before. When I opened it, I found the 4-DVD boxed set, Dream Ticket, a collection of three live Elton John concerts, as well as a fourth bonus DVD with interviews and other miscellaneous footage clips of Elton over the years. It really was a very thoughtful gift, and I loved it, but I just didn't have the heart to tell Toby that I didn't have a DVD player. The only place I'd be able to watch it would be at their house, and I didn't think they'd want to be subjected to hours upon hours of Elton John concerts. "Thank you, Toby," I said, giving him a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. "Open mine now," Ryan said, looking every bit as giddy as Toby, and giving me a big, toothy smile. The look on his face was so adorable, I just wanted to pounce on him and kiss him until we both passed out. Nevertheless, I restrained myself and took the box from him. After carefully unwrapping the package, I found a Panasonic DVDL S-50 portable DVD player. Those things cost almost four hundred dollars! "So do you like it?" Ryan asked, looking at me expectantly. "Ryan ... I ... uhhh ... I don't know what to say," I managed to stutter out. I couldn't believe that he had spent that much money on me. "Well, I wanted to get you something more ... uhhh ... romantic," he said, blushing fiercely, "but when Toby told me what he wanted to get you, I figured this would be a little more practical." To hell with being embarrassed in front of Maggie and Toby! I thought. I leaned forward and planted a huge kiss on his mouth, stunning both him and his mom a bit. Toby just grinned at us like a Cheshire cat. After receiving two really great gifts, I was looking forward to watching Ryan, Toby, and Maggie open their presents. That was until Maggie placed a small stack of boxes wrapped in shiny paper next to me and told me that they were from "Santa." I really couldn't believe my eyes. I'd only known them since the beginning of the school year, and Ryan and I had only been "boyfriends" for about a month. I knew they were pretty well-off financially, but this was just a bit too much. I felt like I was being treated like royalty or something, and they seemed just as happy, or more so, than I was. I didn't get it. I started to protest, but Maggie just gave me a look and told me to open the presents. Ryan and Toby both had excited looks on their faces. I felt really embarrassed, but at the same time, I was afraid of disappointing them. What's a guy to do? I opened up the boxes and found several brand new outfits. Really nice outfits, too, from American Eagle and Old Navy. There was a pair of khaki cargo pants, a couple pair of jeans, several button-up shirts, a nice sweater, and a pair of pajamas (not that I really wore them when I was spending the night with Ryan -- but Maggie didn't need to know that). I knew a lot of kids hated getting clothes for Christmas, but I wasn't one of them. Clothes were something I really needed. I hated having to walk around school in the tattered old rags that were usually a size or two too small for me. I was overwhelmed. My mouth just kept opening and closing, but words wouldn't come out. I looked at all three of them, and they all had huge matching grins on their faces. The only thing I could think of to do was give them all really big hugs. Ryan and Toby both made out like bandits, too, which made me feel better. They both got really nice gifts from Maggie and "Santa." Toby got a brand new stereo system, a new mountain bike, and, of course, some new clothes as well. Ryan got a brand new Compaq Presario 2100 laptop computer, a lacrosse net to set up in the backyard ... and clothes. They both also got a number of DVDs, CDs, and Playstation games, and a pile of gift certificates from various relatives. I understood why they looked so happy when I was opening my gifts, because when I saw the excited expressions on their faces as they were opening theirs, it made me happy, too. I felt bad that the only things I could afford to give them were a couple of CDs -- the Tupac single "Ghetto Gospel" for Toby (which mixed in the classic Elton John song "Indian Sunset"), and Fleetwood Mac's Say You Will for Ryan. But when they opened them, they acted like it was the best gift they had gotten all morning. I just felt embarrassed. When it appeared that all of the presents had been opened, wrapping paper scattered all over the floor, and the space under the Christmas tree looking depressingly bare, Maggie walked over to me with a small, wrapped box. "There's one more present for you, Connor," she said smiling. "This one's from all three of us." I opened up the box and inside found a plain key. I looked up at Maggie questioningly. "It's a key to our house, honey," she said. "This is your home now, too, and I want you to always feel that you're welcome to come here whenever you want to ... or need to." The meaning behind her last comment was not missed. As I looked around at all of them, seeing the smiles on their faces, thinking back over the past month, and all the time that I had known them, I didn't feel like Ryan's guest anymore. Now, this was becoming ... a home. ****************************************************** The rest of the winter vacation seemed to go by quickly. I spent the next few days after Christmas getting ready for my New Year's Eve performance at the pub, alternating between rehearsals with the band in the afternoon, and practicing with Cody a couple more times. I didn't bring up the topic of Toby, and he didn't mention it either. I decided to just wait and see what happened, although I figured if one of them didn't call the other within the next week or so, I was probably going to have to get involved. As with the previous two times I had hung out with Cody at his house, he asked to kiss me. And each time I couldn't bring myself to refuse. I did feel bad about kissing Cody while I was with Ryan, and especially because Toby was the one I was hoping Cody would be kissing. But when I felt his tongue swirling around in my mouth, it was hard to stop. Fortunately, he never went any further than that, or I might have been in trouble. Both Ryan and Cody accompanied me to the pub on New Year's Eve. Maggie still wouldn't let Toby go, but fortunately the show started at ten o'clock, and would only last an hour, so we had plenty of time to get back home and welcome the New Year together. Ryan was uncharacteristically quiet during the car ride and as we walked into the pub, although he still managed to give me a few smiles. I figured he was probably missing his father a bit, like Toby, and didn't think anything else of it. I never really got nervous before a show, but this night I was feeling a few stray butterflies flapping around in my stomach, most likely because I hadn't played with a full band in quite a long time. However, rehearsals had gone well, and I was sure that it was going to be a good show. The place was packed, far more than usual, and quite rowdy as well. I got changed into my all-black suit, and put on a black Fedora and plain black sunglasses that I had picked up at the mall a few days earlier. When I looked in the mirror, I thought I looked a little like a cross between a jazz musician and a gangster, or maybe the "Blues Brothers." It was kind of cool. As I waited on the side of the stage, the drummer began beating out a slow rhythm, with the bass player joining in a few moments later, gradually picking up the tempo. Shortly after that, the guitarist and synthesizer player joined in with some powerful rock 'n' roll riffs, settling into a mid-tempo instrumental improvisation. After about five minutes, they sleekly segued into the opening of Elton John's classic rocker "The Bitch is Back," and I made my entrance, acknowledging the cheers from the crowd with a wave and a slight bow, then walking over to the piano, adjusting the microphone, and immediately tearing into the song. It felt exciting and energizing to have a band backing me up, fueling the intensity of my playing. Towards the end of the song, we smoothly segued into the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar," without missing a beat. By the time we were finished with our opening medley, the crowd was cheering loudly, and I was happy to see the smiling faces of Ryan and Cody right up in the front row. After thanking the audience for coming, we started right in on the Beatles' "Come Together," and continued on with T. Rex's "Children of the Revolution," Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll," and Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop." The band then took a break while I did a short solo set, consisting of my favorite country song, "He'll Have To Go," Billy Joel's "An Innocent Man," and a tongue-in-cheek version of Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" (during which I managed to throw Ryan a few goofy grins). The band then rejoined me for one final rock and roll blow out, with The Rolling Stones' classic rocker "Start Me Up," Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)," The Beatles' "Hard Day's Night," and finally, "Great Balls of Fire," complete with me kicking away the piano stool toward the end and playing from my knees. After I hit the last notes, the crowd went wild, and although I was physically tired from the hour-long performance, I still felt emotionally charged. It was a fantastic show, and I felt great about myself. I knew that Mr. Bill would expect me to do an encore, so I quickly went back to the back room to change into my track suit and Detroit Lions ball cap, then made my way back out on stage to find the audience still clapping and whistling loudly. I noticed that Ryan and Cody were both beaming, and they were probably the two loudest "fans" in the whole place. I sat down at the piano by myself, the band having retreated from the stage, and readjusted my microphone before addressing the audience. "Thank you very much for coming tonight, everyone. I hope you all have a happy and safe New Year. This one is from all of us to all of you ... and especially a certain someone in the front row ... you know who you are," I said, giving Ryan a wink. I then began playing the familiar opening bars of Elton John's "Your Song," putting all of my energy, passion, and emotions into my piano playing and vocals, and smiling at Ryan several times. I hoped he got the message of what I was trying to say through the music. I finally closed out the show with a soaring, powerful rendition of Billy Joel's "2000 Years," from his Millennium Concert, the perfect song for what I was hoping would be a perfect New Year. As soon as I was finished, I gave a quick bow to the audience, and darted off stage, ready to get home and spend the rest of New Year's Eve with the McCormacks. I was definitely wired by the time we got to the car, but although I got a warm hug from Ryan, he was still unusually quiet and pensive, although Cody was practically gushing about the performance. As Cody and I were talking excitedly about the show, I noticed Ryan giving me a few furtive glances out of the corner of my eye, but I decided to just let it go. I was too excited to let myself get bummed out. I figured if there was something on Ryan's mind, he would tell me. We dropped Cody off first, then headed home to ring in the New Year together. Fortunately, Ryan seemed to be in better spirits when the clock struck midnight, and we shared a nice kiss. I even got a big kiss (on the lips!) from Toby, and a kiss on the cheek from Maggie. We then shot off a bunch of party poppers, each had a glass of champagne -- with Maggie warning me never to drink alcohol if I was taking the anti-anxiety medicine -- and then we all plodded off to bed. When we got in bed, I was kind of in the mood for a little love-making with my boyfriend, but Ryan said he was too tired. It had been a pretty long and tiring day, so I didn't complain. We just cuddled up together and went right to sleep, no doubt assisted by the champagne. ****************************************************** The last day of winter vacation was pretty boring. We spent most of the time hanging out, watching television, and I even managed to join Ryan and Toby in the backyard for a little football in the snow. Maggie had to go back to work that day, so it was just the three of us left to fend for ourselves. It was nice to have a quiet, relaxing day to wind down from all of the excitement of the previous two weeks. The only thing that started nagging at me was the way Ryan still seemed to be unusually quiet. He still joked around with us, and I got plenty of hugs and kisses, but something just didn't feel right. I was worried about him and had no idea what could be bothering him. But, again, I figured he would tell me when he was ready, and if he needed me to comfort him, I would try my best. As I lay awake in bed with Ryan that night, the night before going back to school, although I was disappointed that our vacation was over, I couldn't help but feel elated after the wonderful time I had spent with everyone. Christmas had been so perfect. Everything I'd ever dreamed of. In some sense, I felt like I had found a new "family." I had never been so happy in my entire life. It made me feel a little guilty that this was probably my best Christmas ever, even better than with my grandmother. Despite the fact that I would still have to go "home" next week and face my mother, and deal with Trent Lomax in the hallways at school, it seemed like nothing could go wrong or spoil my good mood now. I had spent a wonderful two weeks with my boyfriend and his family, had fun hanging out with Cody, put on a great show at the pub (which earned me two hundred dollars!), and finally, felt a sense of belonging at the McCormack household. Everything was wonderful. "Connor, have you and Cody kissed since that first time you went over to his house?" Ryan suddenly asked, breaking me out of my peaceful reverie. SHIT!!! There went my good mood. How am I supposed to answer that? Should I be honest? Should I lie? Is Ryan going to hate me? Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit! I knew I shouldn't have done that! Why couldn't I just say no?! Maybe I should just lie ... "Yes," I whispered. "When?" he asked, sounding curious, but not angry. "When I was at his house practicing for the New Year's Eve show," I answered hesitantly. "Every time?" he continued to prod. "Yes," I answered, barely above a whisper. "Did you like it?" he asked, his voice starting to quiver slightly. I should just tell him "no," tell him that I didn't like it ... "Yes, I did," I replied sheepishly. "Oh ..." "Ryan, I ...," I started to say. But he cut me off. "Connor, I've been thinking," he said, turning on his side to face me. I could see his face in the faint moonlight coming in from the window, but I couldn't read his expression. Once again, I felt the dreaded anxiety starting to flood over me. I wanted to just jump out of bed and go run and hide ... but first stop and get some of that anxiety medicine from Maggie. Yeah, that's what I would do. Then I wouldn't have to hear what he was going to say, just like it never happened, and everything would still be perfect. Good plan! But I couldn't move. I was trapped by his gaze. And his eyes revealed nothing of what he was thinking. "Connor," he continued, "I realize that all of this is really new to you. It's new to me, too. And, if you think about it, things between us have been moving really fast." "Ryan, I ..." "Just let me finish," he cut me off again. "I guess it's natural for you to be curious. I don't think there's anything really wrong with that. And Cody's not only cute, but he's a really great guy, too. What I mean is ... well ... maybe we should cool it off for a little bit, and take some time for you to think about what you really want before we get any more serious." Oh no! Oh no! No! No! No! "Ryan, no, I'm so sorry! I swear to God, I'm so sorry! I won't ever talk to Cody again. I don't want to break up with you, please!" I pleaded with him. "Connor, I'm not angry with you. I just think it would be better if you took some time to make sure what it is you really want. I don't want you to regret it later, and I also don't want to end up getting hurt," he said. "Ryan, please! I was so stupid! I'm really sorry! I swear! I don't need time to think. I don't want Cody, I want you! Please, believe me!" I continued to beg, barely able to hold back the tears at this point. "Please don't leave me again. I couldn't take it. I don't know what I'd do if you stopped speaking to me again, or if I couldn't see you. Please, Ryan, I need you! I swear, you're the only one I want. I was just stupid! God, please forgive me!" "Connor, this won't be like before. I'm not gonna stop talking to you. I'm not gonna stop being around. I'm not breaking up with you. We just need to take a little break so we can figure things out. We can still hang out at school like before, and you can still come over here on the weekends. Nothing has to change ... we'll always be friends, no matter what. I just want you to really think about what you want before we get any more serious in our relationship." He was saying that we weren't "breaking up," but that wasn't registering in my mind. To me, it felt like we were breaking up. He was leaving me. I was going to be all alone again, and it was all because I fucked up ... AGAIN!!! No! No! No! Please, God, no! I can't possibly go through this again! My breathing was becoming ragged. I could feel the panic washing over me like a tidal wave. My whole body was trembling. I felt like I was going to throw up. It had been so long since I'd had a panic attack, and it was happening again. God, I just wanted to die. Why did I have to kiss Cody and screw it all up? Yeah, Cody was cute, and sweet, and intelligent. I loved talking with him, and I felt comfortable around him. Why couldn't I just leave it at that? I wanted to be with Ryan, not Cody ... but like before, my realization had come too late. There was no way Ryan could forgive me a second time. I felt myself breaking apart. I needed Ryan to hold me. I needed him to tell me how much he cared about me. I NEEDED RYAN!!! But then, I felt him get out of bed, and heard the door open as he left the room. Oh my God! He really is leaving me! Just as I was wondering whether or not jumping out of the second-story window would be enough to kill me and put me out of my misery, Ryan came back into the room, carrying a glass of water and a couple of pills. "Here, take these," he said gently, handing me the pills and holding the glass up to my mouth. "My mom gave them to me to give you. I told her you were having another anxiety attack." I gratefully swallowed the pills and emptied the glass of water in one gulp. Then he lay down again and held me, not saying a word until the panic finally began to subside, my breathing returning to normal. The anxiety was going away, but the fear was still there. The fear of being lonely and alone. I couldn't handle that again. Ryan was the only good thing I had in my life. He was the only thing that made me feel safe and ... and loved. Love? "Please, Ryan, don't leave me," I whimpered. "I'm not leaving you," he said, brushing the hair out of my eyes. "We're just gonna cool things off for a while. And I want you to think, that's all." His attempt at consoling me was not working. He was leaving me. I didn't understand what "take a break" or "cool off" meant. For me, it was just another way of saying that we were over. And if we were over, then my life was over. Tears were running down my face, although he most likely couldn't see in the darkness. I didn't want him to see how much of a wimp I was. How needy and pathetic I was. But I couldn't help it. Ryan was leaving me because I couldn't control my stupid teenage hormones. Why did I have to be such a fuck up and mess up the only thing good in my life? As those thoughts were running around in my mind, eventually the effects of the pills Ryan had given me took over, and I fell asleep, knowing that tomorrow when I went back to school, everything was going to be different again. The new life I thought I had would be gone ... again.
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