“Hey… Better go take a shower, Jackson.”
Tyler’s voice roused me from what had been a beautiful dream. I opened my eyes and found myself quite safe in my bed, looking into the eyes of my boyfriend and lover. I touched his face. I just loved touching him, feeling his warm being in my hands. He smiled. It was the most beautiful thing about him. He lit up a whole room when he smiled.
“I don’t want to wake up,” I said. “It’s summer. I just want to lay here with you all day.”
Tyler drew closer to me and squeezed me around the middle. I put my arms around him and grabbed his naked butt with both hands and squeezed.
“Can we just stay like this forever?” I asked.
“Happily ever after, huh?” Ty said, holding me close against his body. “That sounds great… Except I’m gross.”
My hands slipped down between his cheeks and sure enough, things were a little sloppy down there. I smiled thinking of the fun we’d had earlier that morning.
“Come on, let’s get cleaned up,” he said. I watched as he jumped out of bed and stretched. I swear, I could just stare at that ass all day long.
“Lindo trasero…” I said.
Tyler laughed. “I know what that means, by the way.”
“D’oh!” I replied.
Tyler shook his ass back and forth and looked over his shoulder back at me. “Come shower with me and you can have it again,” he said. I didn’t need to be asked twice. I hopped out of bed and joined him and we went to the bathroom to get cleaned up. It was nice to have fun in the shower after all the trouble that had happened in the showers at school.
Things had changed a lot in the month since school had ended. I’d been growing taller steadily over the year, and I’d finally hit five feet, eight inches. Tyler was just an inch or two taller now when at the beginning of our tenth grade year he’d towered over me by six inches. I got my learner’s permit and Tyler got his driver’s license. He didn’t have a car, but the idea that we could drive anywhere we wanted to go was exciting! I was still getting around on my bike, but by the end of summer, I’d have my license too. I got my braces off the week after school ended, and mom let me get contact lenses now that I’d turned sixteen. I didn’t feel like such a dork anymore.
We made love in the shower, the water flowing over our bodies only adding to the intensity of our lovemaking. Being with Tyler was intoxicating. I loved that there was so much about him that I knew and yet I still felt like he was a mystery to me. Every day, I discovered something more about him. I could just lie in bed with him with my head resting on his chest, feeling him breathe, listening to his heart beating. I never wanted it to end. I was so in love with him.
“I’m glad your mom lets me come over on the nights she works her double,” Ty said as he looked for something to eat in the refrigerator. We were still naked as we wondered around the house. I would have never left my room naked before Tyler came along.
“She’s just glad I’m not here by myself anymore,” I replied. “I’m glad your parents let you stay here with me.”
“Dad says you’re a good influence on me,” Tyler said, scratching his belly. Even that was sexy to me.
“That’s probably the first time anyone has ever said that about me.”
“It’s true though. Without you, I’d still be a tool hanging out with guys like Colton and...”
“…pretending to be something you’re not, and I’m not talking about being straight. You’d be trying to be some tough guy.”
“Hey, I’m pretty tough,” Tyler replied, flexing a bicep that was almost as pathetic as mine.
“Well, you’re mentally tough,” I encouraged him. I joined him and kissed him on the arm, working my way up to his neck.
“When I’m with you I feel like I can take on the world. If you keep that up we’re not going to get anything else done today…” he sighed.
“I don’t care if this is all we do today,” I replied. I reached down and grabbed hold of his growing manhood.
“I thought you wanted to go to…”
I dropped to my knees and took him into my mouth. Whatever Tyler was going to say was forgotten. This time it was the dining room table that we crossed off the list of places where we’d fucked. Because I was planning to use my bike later though, he finished up in my mouth that time instead of in my ass.
It was a half hour later when we finally picked up where we’d left off in our attempt to leave the house. This time we made sure we were dressed.
“So are you sure you don’t want me to go with you today? I will if you want me to.” Ty said.
“I appreciate that. But no. This is something I have to do on my own.”
I’d been thinking for a while about how things had gone during school. I’d done some stuff I wasn’t very proud of, and I began thinking about going back to Donora one more time, this time to make amends for some of the things I’d done. Yeah, Tyler would have been a great support to me in that process, but I needed to do this by myself.
So after lunch, Tyler headed home and I hopped on my bike and rode down Highway 837 toward Donora. It was the Fourth of July weekend, so traffic wasn’t too bad for a Saturday afternoon. I rode to the park entrance and up that horrendously steep hill until I came into the park itself. There was a baseball game going on at the baseball field. I’d never played baseball myself. I continued through the park and onto Brett Reilly’s street. There was a for sale sign in front of Brett’s house. I knocked on the door anyway, but no one answered. As I walked back to my bike one of the neighbors asked me if I was looking for Brett and told me he’d moved out and was living with the Roberts boy on the other side of the woods. I rode my bike through the woods to the top of the hill. The trail was overgrown with weeds and was about a year away from being erased by the forest forever.
At the top of the hill, I noticed the smell of smoke and saw it was coming from the direction of Dustin’s house. I wasn’t planning on seeing Dustin that day, but curiosity more than anything pulled me to turn right and head down to toward that house where I’d lost my virginity what seemed like ages ago. When I emerged from the woods at the bottom of the woods, I found Dustin in his back yard next to a large pile of burning debris. I dropped my bike at the edge of the woods and walked closer. Dustin was standing next to a box of stuff he was tossing into the fire. He threw a baseball bat into the fire and looked at me.
“Long time, no see, Jackson,” he said. Last time I’d seen him his hair was almost touching his shoulders, but now he was buzzed down almost to the scalp, making him look like a helmet had rusted on his head.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Moving out,” Dustin replied. He grabbed a chess board out of the box and flung it on the fire. The pieces burst into little flames.
He pulled the plaque for having the best batting average in the high school league out of the box. He looked at it for a moment, then he tossed it on the fire.
“I’m going to have to go through the ashes and toss out the metal stuff,” he said.
“Why are you burning that stuff?” I asked.
“What good is any of it?” Dustin asked.
“I don’t know. Memories,” I suggested.
“Bad memories,” Dustin said. He pulled the chess tournament trophy out of the box. “So I guess you know what happened. I screwed Billy out of valedictorian.”
“You didn’t. Hartley used you,” I said.
“Yeah… What a stupid dumbass I am, huh? Poor, stupid Dustin and his big dumb cock fuck up yet another life. I’m so fucking stupid. I actually believed that guy. You believe that? I fell so hard for that guy’s bullshit. Such a stupid dumbass…”
“I saw what you did to his desk.”
Dustin smiled to himself. “Yeah… That sucker got air… Would have been nice to do that to his face instead of his desk. Almost got him with the second one… Billy was over here the other day. I couldn’t even look at him. I asked him to take a break from our friendship. I just… I can’t look into his eyes and not think about how fucking dumb I was and how I screwed him over. He says he doesn’t care, but he must hate me. I hate me. I can’t believe I actually thought Hartley was trying to help me. He was just using me to get to Billy. I don’t think he ever thought I was anything more than a stupid pawn in his game. I just can’t believe a teacher would…” He struggled to keep himself composed. “…that a teacher would do something that terrible to somebody.”
Dustin looked at the trophy in his hands. “I don’t even know if I really earned this. Hartley could have made the other kids lose on purpose. I wouldn’t doubt it. All the time he was patting me on the back he was just looking for a good place to stick the knife. I played chess with Billy right after I won the tournament. He slaughtered me. And the more I played against him the worse he beat me. It was embarrassing. Here I am, representing the school in the state tournament and I can’t even beat my best friend.”
“Well he is a genius,” I offered.
“This should be his then. He should have been the chess champion. Not me. This is just another thing I screwed him out of. So stupid…”
Dustin tossed the trophy into the fire.
“It’s like my whole life, I’ve just been someone else’s bitch. I’m so stupid. My life feels so pointless. All I know how to do is fuck. It’s all so empty, like I’m just a piece of meat. Meaningless… I have no idea who I even am. I thought I’d finally figured it out, and that Mr. Hartley was helping me become who I was meant to be. I could finally be happy…” Dustin looked at me. “But it was all lies, Aiden. My dad raped my body, and Hartley raped my mind. Why is my life so fucked up? Every time I think I can get close to someone, I fuck it all up and I just end up worse than I was before. I loved my dad. I loved that son of a bitch. And I loved Mr. Hartley the same way. I fuckin’ loved them both. But all they did was break me. I’d just like to meet someone who’s as fucked up and broken as I am… Someone who understands the emptiness. I’m tired of being hurt.”
Dustin looked back at the fire. The trophy was melting into a blob of plastic and metal.
“Sorry I punched you in the face,” he said, watching the flames.
“It’s okay. I deserved it after what I said to you.”
“No,” Dustin insisted. “Never say you deserve it when someone hurts you. You don’t. No one has the right to hit you. You hear me? Never let anyone get away with it, or worse, defend them like I’ve done all my life.” He sighed. “I really did like you, you know. We had a good thing going there and like everything else in my life I fucked it all up. I’m sorry I used you.”
“We used each other, really. I wanted it just as much as you did. It wasn’t until the last time that it got weird.”
“Yeah, another bright idea by Dustin Smith. Dougie… Ugh… If I’d have known he was going to go all psycho on you I wouldn’t have brought you along. I just got so lost… I feel like I have this big black nothingness where most people have a soul. I would have fucked Jason too. I’m so glad I didn’t. You guys spooked him good when you caught us. I’m such a fuck up.”
Dustin reached into the box and pulled out what looked like baseball score cards.
“This is from when I hit for the cycle. This was the game I hit four home runs. Billy signed them since he was the statistician.”
He crushed them and tossed them into the fire. They very quickly burst into flames and disintegrated. He reached back into the box. He pulled out a lock of long blond hair and held it for a minute. He inhaled its scent. Then he threw it on the fire. Then he pulled out a Donora Pizzeria Pirates baseball cap and threw it in. It burned more slowly than the other items, but it eventually burned away. Finally, he pulled out a picture of Billy. He still had his long blond hair in the picture. Dustin stared at the picture silently for a long time. He sighed heavily and I could tell he was holding back tears.
“I’m so sorry,” he said to the picture. “I thought I could be satisfied being just friends, but I can’t. I’ve always wanted what I could never have. This last month has proven that all I’ll do is drag you down into the emptiness with me. You deserve so much better than me. It’s time to let you go… Forever.” He kissed the picture and then tossed it on the fire. That’s when he really did start to cry. Not like ugly crying, but tears were definitely streaking down his face. I stood beside him and put my arm around his waist and just stood there with him. He leaned against me and put his arm around my shoulder. We stood there for a while, watching Dustin’s past go up in flames and smoke into the atmosphere.
“So where will you go?” I asked.
“I got an apartment in Charleroi. It’s not much, but it’ll be mine. A fresh start, I guess. I just want to forget I ever went to high school and start over again. Got some nosy old man who lives in the apartment next door. Seems nice enough…”
“That sounds nice,” I said.
“It’s a shit hole,” Dustin replied. “But it’s mine. It’s about all I can afford working at Walmart.” Dustin wiped the tears from his face. “I’m going to need to get a second job just to survive. What about you? Still screwing around with Tyler the Tool?”
“He’s not a tool. He’s my boyfriend and I love him.”
“Hey, the heart wants what it wants,” Dustin said. He offered me his hand and I shook it. “Don’t trust anyone. All they’ll do is let you down – like me. Take care of yourself. I’ve got to shower and get to work.” He started to walk toward the house.
“Hey Dustin!” I called.
“I’m still glad you were the first,” I said.
Dustin grinned and gave me a little nod. “See you later, Jackson.”
I walked back to my bike and walked it back up the hill to where the two paths crossed, and then I turned right and rode down the hill. I emerged from the woods at the bottom of the hill into a little housing development. The houses were decent, not like the glamourous homes at the top of the hill, but nothing like the squalor of Dustin’s house. There were little picket fences and a couple swimming pools in the backyards, but nothing too fancy. It figures that Billy Roberts grew up in the perfect little neighborhood. I left my bike at the edge of the woods and walked to the house in front of me. I saw Brett’s car parked in the driveway, so I knew I was at the right place. I knocked on the back door and Brett came to the door.
“Hey Aiden,” Brett said. It was nice to see him getting around without crutches. He had a walking boot on his leg and brace on his knee. He was limping, but he was getting around pretty well.
“I saw the sign in front of your house. Sorry you had to move out.”
“I was going to move in with Billy anyway, so no big loss. What brings you around here in the middle of summer?”
“I came to see Billy,” I said.
“Really?” Brett said. “Now this I’ve got to see.” Brett called for Billy.
“Actually… I’d really like to see him alone,” I said.
“Oh,” Brett said just as the tall blond young man emerged from the house. He was wearing glasses and a Derek Jeter jersey.
“Hey there, Aiden,” Billy said.
“You’ve got a fan, Billy,” Brett laughed. “Or a stalker. Aiden wants to talk to you alone,” he said as he went back into the house.
“It’s important,” I insisted.
“Well if it’s important…” Billy said. He offered me a seat in one of the patio chairs and he sat in one of the other ones. We sat there awkwardly quiet for a while. Billy ran his tongue over his teeth, back and forth.
“I’ve noticed you do that thing with your tongue a lot,” I said.
“Was I doing that again? Sorry. It’s a stimming thing.”
“Yeah, it’s a comfort thing. It helps me when I’m nervous.”
“Do I make you nervous?” I asked.
“A little, yeah. Everybody does. I’m not good with people. So why’d you come here, Aiden? You said it was important.”
“I… I guess I came here to apologize to you.”
“You guess that’s the reason? You came an awfully long way not to know for sure.”
“Okay, I did come here to apologize.”
“Apology accepted,” Billy said.
“You don’t even know what I came over here to apologize for!”
“Is this when you lay it all out and tell me how you helped Captain Dickface blindside me? Because I’m over it. I’m through with that school and everything about it. So whatever you need to do to ease your guilty conscience, go ahead.”
“It’s more than that. I mean, I misjudged you all year long.”
“Did you think I was an asshole?”
“Yeah,” I replied.
“And how do you reckon that you misjudged that?”
“Well you aren’t, are you?”
“Sure I am. Dude, when school started, I was such a mess, depressed, angry, sick and half dying… If you thought I was an asshole that’s cool. I was an asshole. I remember seeing you around the school. To be honest, I thought you were a little punk myself. Hell, I even called you a creep that time in the locker room. Neither of us really knew the other and we both made assumptions. So we’re even.”
“But what about how I helped Mr. Hartley take valedictorian away from you?”
“Let me guess. You found out from Brett that we were going to Buffalo and then you told Mr. Hartley so he could schedule one of his many surprise quizzes that day. Am I close here?”
“Yeah. Brett and I figured all that out in the last couple weeks. We knew he had someone spying on me, and then Brett remembered you coming to his house before we went to Buffalo. Pretty good trick, using you. I never would have suspected you were in on it. I could have fought it, you know. I’d have won too.”
“But then he’d have shown the video of Dustin,” I said.
Billy raised his eyebrows. “Now that is something I didn’t expect you to say. I guess I should have since you helped to blindside me. Did Dustin tell you? I thought you were on the outs with him.”
“He didn’t tell me. I found out on my own. Mr. Hartley wanted me to be the one to get something on video for him. When I refused that’s when he did what he did on his own. I guess he got desperate.”
Billy sat there thinking. “Thanks for telling me when it could have helped me, by the way,” he said. “Not like I could have used a little bit of warning or anything.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I know you are. I get it, Hartley’s a dick. You were probably terrified of what he’d do to you. I don’t blame you. I don’t know what sick pleasure he gets out of fucking around with kids like that. It’s like he can’t help himself. You know this isn’t the first time he’s tried something like this, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, thinking about my father.
“Yeah, you think he wanted to come back to Mon Valley High? I think that’s half the reason he’s such a jerk – having to slink his way back home after thinking he was going to be Mr. Bigshot. Of course the other reason being that he’s just an asshole. He’s charming enough to always be allowed to “resign” rather than get fired. That’s how he keeps getting hired at all those places. Nothing is ever on the record.”
“Wait, what are you talking about?”
“He plays these stupid games like this every place he goes. Coming back to Mon Valley High had to be a huge blow to his ego. He was this close to being in charge of Brightwood Academy when he resigned to come here. No one leaves Brightwood Academy because they want to work as a history teacher at a crappy school like ours.”
“So he messed with the wrong person and…”
Billy made a throat-slashing gesture. “Resign or be fired,” he said. “Not the first time either. You won’t believe this… One of the guys he tried to screw over to get a job at another school – he was the same guy who beat him in the state chess tournament his sophomore year. The guy is that stinking petty that he would hold a grudge for twenty years. He’s a fucking psycho.”
“How’d you find this stuff out?” I asked.
“The dude screwed me out of valedictorian,” Billy replied. “He fucked with the wrong guy, and I’m not talking about me. I really didn’t care. I didn’t need valedictorian anyway. I was willing to just let it go, but Brett was pissed. He made a couple of phone calls and found all this stuff out. It’s amazing what people will tell that guy. He’s like a Jedi.”
“So he found all of that out, but you didn’t use it.”
“It would have done more harm than good,” Billy said.
“Because it would have hurt Dustin,” I said.
Billy nodded. “He’s been through enough. I would have had to use my best friend to take him down, and Hartley was just not worth it. Dustin didn’t need his name being dragged through the mud. He didn’t need his picture plastered all over the place like that. But most of all he didn’t need to be used by me to get what I wanted. I’ve hurt him enough.”
“So you did it for him, even though he would have deserved what happened to him?”
“’Deserve’ has nothing to do with it. You don’t fuck your best friend.”
“And now he’s up there burning everything from his childhood and moving away.”
“We all have to follow our own heart. Dustin’s been through hell, but he’s always been a survivor. Even when everything seems hopeless, he always makes it through somehow even if it’s just dumb luck. He’s doing what he thinks he needs to do now. I don’t know why he feels like he has to get away from me, but I respect his decision even though it hurts a lot. And to be honest, he’s probably pretty sick of my bullshit. I can’t blame him. He’s put up with me for so long. I’m not the easiest guy to be friends with, you know. I’ve done my share of stuff I’m not proud of. It’s no wonder he’s tired of dealing with my shit.”
“You could have beat him in the chess tournament.”
“Yeah,” Billy said. “He’s too aggressive and reckless. He comes at you with everything he’s got, but he leaves himself open too much. You just have to be patient and he’ll set himself up to get beaten. That’s why he lost so quickly at states.”
“Why didn’t you enter? It’s not just for the chess club kids.”
“Because he needed it more than I did,” Billy replied. “When you love somebody you don’t always get everything you want.”
“I don’t get it. You love him. He obviously loves you. Why are you letting him walk away?”
“I have to do it. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I want to be up there right now, telling him I don’t care about what happened, but he won’t hear it. He needs to find his own way. I never blamed him for what happened. Well, maybe I did want to slap him a little at first… But I know he was being manipulated by Hartley. I don’t hold anything he did this year against him. He thought he was doing the right thing.”
“I wish I could say that. I knew what I was doing was wrong and I did it anyway.”
“I don’t hold what you did against you either. You have to deal with Captain Dickface next year. I don’t. That’s punishment enough. Don’t worry. Give him enough time and he’ll self-destruct just like he’s always done.”
“I don’t know if we’ll survive that long. You dealt with him all year. He obviously thought you were worth the effort to go through all the manipulation to get you out of the way. How are we going to get through two more years with him in charge of everything?”
“Do you think I have some big plan? Dude, I just live my life and love the people who I love. You do that, and it won’t matter what anyone does to you because you’ll have what’s important. Oh, and if your boyfriend’s father is a mystery and you figure it out, tell him right away. That’s what I’d do differently if I had the chance.”
“I don’t see how that will help in this particular situation, but that is good advice. I guess.”
“Yeah, I’m not very good with giving advice. Okay, how about this? Bobby Rush once told me that if I want things to be different I’d have to be the change. So there we go. Be the change.”
We stood up from our chairs and Billy offered me his hand. I shook it.
“Good luck, Aiden,” Billy said. “I hope you make Hartley’s life miserable for the next two years.”
“I’ll do my best,” I replied.
“Go be the change, or some shit like that,” he said as I walked toward my bike.
It was still light outside when I got home, even though it was late in the evening. Mom kissed me and told me she was glad I made it home safely. She was just putting the finishing touches on some enchiladas. She hadn’t made them in years, since dad had told her he didn’t like Mexican food. I liked that we were embracing our Latino side more and more. She packed them into a carrying container and we walked over to the Bowman house. Mom and Ty’s mom greeted each other. We went out to their backyard, where Ty’s brother, Jimmy, was cooking hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill. Tyler, Chris, and their dad were tossing around a football and I joined them. Tyler was very excited about the enchiladas mom brought. We spent the evening on the back porch with Ty’s family and watched the Fourth of July fireworks after the sun went down. As the glow of the fireworks illuminated the sky, Tyler leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, right there in front of his family.
“You can do better than that,” Jimmy, who was sitting right behind us, said.
And so we gave each other a real kiss as the fireworks went off in the sky above us. We were ready to be the change. Mr. Hartley didn’t stand a chance.