What a weekend Ty and I had together!No, I’m being serious.It’s amazing what fun two guys who have decided they have nothing to lose and don’t give a fuck can have with a cell phone camera.We rode our bikes to some awesome places, took some amazing pictures, and had a generally fun time.We stayed at my place and let me tell you, the sex was amazing!We were getting better at figuring out what turned each other on and having fun exploring each other.
We weren’t laughing on Monday however, as we prepared to face Mr. Hartley together.He seemed happy when I told him I needed to see him during his free period.I gave my note to my English teacher for what seemed like the hundredth time and told the teacher Tyler needed to come with me.Then we both went to meet up with Mr. Hartley together.If Mr. Hartley was surprised to see us together, he didn’t let on.
“Well, the Rook and the Bishop have decided to work together,” Mr. Hartley said.
“The game’s over, Mr. Hartley,” Tyler said.“We’re not playing anymore.”
“What a shame you’ve decided to expose your boyfriend to unmerciful ridicule, and yourself to the possibly of expulsion,” Mr. Hartley said.
“We know you’ve been playing us against each other,” I said.“We’re on to you.”
“Is that so?”
“Yeah.Publicize whatever picture of me you want.We’ll both will testify that it was you who put it out there.”
“That’s right!” Tyler insisted.“Then you’ll be the one in trouble for distributing child pornography!”
“And will you also be testifying that it was you who brought the information that led to the arrest of your brother?” Mr. Hartley asked.“You’re also willing to have a suspension for fighting on your permanent record?”
“Yes,” Tyler insisted.“I’m not afraid of you.All this time you’ve been playing on our fears, but no more.Do what you want to us, but we’re not going to play along anymore.”
“Here’s your cell phone back,” I said.“You’ll find pictures of our lovely weekend together.Sorry, there’s no sex photos.Feel free to use whatever you like.”
Mr. Hartley sighed.“A united front, eh?Do you really think you can defeat me with love?Disgusting.I thought you boys were made of sterner stuff.You’re willing to go along with him even after the things he did to you, Bishop?After all, I wouldn’t have anything to threaten you with if it wasn’t for him.I never told him to stick your head in the toilet.I never told him to strip you naked and hang you upside down.Those were his ideas.He took the good advice I gave him and twisted it into an excuse to abuse you.Is that the kind of young man you want to be in a relationship with?”
“Was your childhood so miserable that all you can do is hurt people?” I asked.
Mr. Hartley laughed.“My childhood was wonderful, Mr. Jackson.My parents were beautiful people who loved me completely, and my high school experience was pleasant and uneventful.I was even voted most popular student.”
“So you weren’t a little gay chess-playing nerd?” I asked.
“The only thing accurate about that description was that I played chess.Three-time regional champion and two-time state champion, to be precise.”
“So you weren’t gay in high school?” I asked.
“Of course I was gay in high school!But I didn’t come out until college.And that was also a wonderful experience in case you were wondering.So much support unlike what I would have found here…Maybe I should have told you I also excelled in drama, as well as history?I was without question the greatest student to walk through these halls in school history.Two-time state champion in chess, captain of the football team, student body president, prom king, homecoming king, valedictorian, and soon to be principal.And after that, maybe superintendent.All before the age of forty.I’m the king of this school, boys, and I always will be.”
“Then why the game?” Tyler asked.“If you’re so good, why all the manipulation?They would just give you the principal job if you’re as good as you say you are.Why fuck with us?”
“Honestly, Mr. Bowman?Because I enjoy watching the whole school dance for me.Sure, my body of work more than qualifies me for the job, but it’s very boring.It’s more fun to play the game.Besides, just because you deserve something doesn’t mean you’ll actually get it, as our friend Billy will soon learn.You boys were useful, but I guess if you want to have something done right you just have to do it yourself.Always have a contingency plan, boys.”
I sighed.“Things really aren’t going to change with you in charge, are they?It’s just going to be the same old system.”
Mr. Hartley laughed.“Why would I want the system to change?It’s done nothing but benefit me in every way.The system has made me who I am today!And now, I am the system.The only thing I want to change about the old order is who’s in charge of it!And if you were thinking of taking me on together, you’d be wise to remember that a rook and a bishop can’t checkmate a king on their own.As you can see, I’ve thought of everything.”He handed me the cell phone back.“Here.Consider it a consolation prize.Thanks for playing, and kindly get out of my room.Game over, boys.”
Dejected, we left Mr. Hartley’s room.We went back to the balcony of the auditorium, and were surprised to see someone was already in there sitting in the front row.I recognized the red mane that had been increasingly growing out since the new year started.Tyler nudged me in the ribs.
“It’s Dustin,” he whispered.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
“No,” Tyler replied.“We have to warn him about Mr. Hartley.”
Tyler walked down to the front of the balcony near the edge toward Dustin, with me following behind him.
“Dustin,” Tyler said.
Dustin jumped with a start.One of the kids I recognized from the Alliance quickly jumped up from Dustin’s crotch and ran out the door of the auditorium before I could even remember his name.Dustin quickly zipped up his pants and stood up.
“What the fuck?!?” he cried.
“Was that Jason Miller?” Tyler asked.
“That’s none of your business, Bowman,” Dustin snapped.
“What the fuck’s wrong with you?” Ty said. “He’s a freshman!”
“What the fuck are you doing sneaking up on someone like that?”
“We wanted to warn you about Mr. Hartley,” I said.
“Not this shit again!” Dustin said.“Look, I know all about how you guys have been working against me.Mr. Hartley warned me to watch out for you guys.”
“What?” I replied.
“Yeah, he told me how you were trying to get me and Billy to turn against each other.It won’t happen.Billy’s my best friend!”
“Dustin, everything that Mr. Hartley has said to us this whole year has been nothing but lies!He’s been manipulating all of us from the beginning,” Tyler said.
“Like I’m going to believe someone like you, Bowman.Mr. Hartley told me how you betrayed your own brother.Now you want to put a wedge between me and Mr. Hartley.I would trust Mr. Hartley with my life!”
“Dude, he wanted me to get evidence against you,” I explained.
“I don’t know!You know how Mr. Hartley only tells you to do something and doesn’t tell you the reason!”
“That’s not true!Mr. Hartley tells me everything!”
“Has he told you he’s planning to take Billy down so he can make Sarah valedictorian?” I asked.
“More lies!Mr. Hartley can’t stand Sarah!He’s going to get her out of the way so Billy can be valedictorian!You boys are so dumb!We’ve got it all planned out!After the prom, Sarah will be out of the way and Billy will cruise to victory!”
“Look, whatever Mr. Hartley has planned with you, it’s all lies and manipulation!He’ll use it to betray you.Please, just listen to reason!” Tyler pleaded.
“How about I listen to you scream when you hit the floor this time, Bowman?Time to finish what we started.” Dustin moved closer to Tyler. I grabbed Ty and pushed him behind me.
“If you want to get to him, you’ll have to go through me,” I said.
“Okay,” Dustin said.He grabbed hold of me.I don’t know what he planned to do, but he never got the chance.As soon as Dustin grabbed me Tyler jumped on his back and put Dustin in a chokehold.Dustin struggled to get Ty off of his back.He reached up and grabbed hold of Ty’s shirt and flipped Ty all the way over from off his back and body-slammed him hard on the floor in front of him.Tyler groaned on the floor and I threw myself over him to stop Dustin from hurting him any further.Dustin just laughed.
“You two are pathetic,” he said.“You deserve each other.”
“Go fuck yourself,” I replied.
“I think I’ll fuck Jason instead.That is, if you two idiots haven’t scared him off for good.See you later, punks.”
Dustin stormed off and I helped Tyler get up to his feet.
“Shit…” Tyler huffed and puffed.“He knocked the wind out of me…Just…let me catch… my breath…”
“You saved me,” I said. “He was going to hurt me and you wouldn’t let him!”
“I… could say the same… about you…”
I pulled him close against me and I kissed him.When we pulled away we smiled at each other.
“I love you, Tyler Michael Bowman.”
“I love you, Aiden Nicholas Jackson.” Tyler replied.“Why the formality?”
“I just don’t want there to be any mistaking that you know I love you.”
“It’s okay.I’ve always known you love me,” Ty said.
The bell rang signaling the end of the school day.
“Still want to help Dustin?” I asked.
Tyler thought about it.“Yeah.I know he just tried to destroy us, but he’s only doing it because he can’t see Mr. Hartley’s manipulating him.”
“What do you think Mr. Hartley’s going to do?”
“At this point, who knows?He’s told so many lies to so many people I’m surprised he can remember what he’s told to who.”
“You know what wasn’t a lie though?He said he was defeated by love.And that’s how we’re going to win, no matter how bad it gets.As long as we still love each other we’ll win.But it would be helpful to know exactly who we’re up against.Part of why Mr. Hartley was able to take advantage of us was because he knew so much about us.”
“So what should we do, go look him up in the library?” Tyler joked.
I thought about it.“That’s exactly what we should do!” I said.
The next day we went to the library and I asked the librarian if we could look through the old yearbooks.We looked through all of them and discovered that the 1985 yearbook was missing.
“I’m sorry boys, that one’s been checked out by a teacher,” the librarian told us.
“Here he is in the 1984 yearbook though,” Tyler said.“Winner of the state championship for chess – Jeremy Hartley – Junior year.”
“Let me see,” I said, grabbing the book from him.Mr. Hartley the eleventh grader smiled from the page.
“Here’s his tenth grade picture for winning regionals,” Tyler said, flipping through the 1983 yearbook.I took a peek at the handsome boy smiling in the picture.
“He really did have braces…” I remarked.
“Doing a little history, boys?” the librarian asked.“Mr. Hartley was something of a prodigy back when he went here.”
“You remember him?” I asked.
“Oh yes!Hard to forget someone like that.He was a real tour de force back in the day.Always involved in everything.”
“Hey, my mom and dad graduated in the class of ’85,” I said.
“So you think she still has her yearbook?” Ty asked.
“One way to find out!”
Mom was quite happy to lend us her old yearbook when we asked to see it.Of course we had to have her show off her page first.
“Anna Rodríguez.Pep Club, Cheerleader, Prettiest eyes?” I read.
“They are nice,” Tyler said.
“Thank you, Tyler,” mom smiled.“My little boy has my eyes, you know.”
“Oh, I know,” Tyler said.“Like two nice cups of hot cocoa with cinnamon on top…”Tyler looked at the two of us looking at him.“Uh… Not that I’ve noticed or anything,” he said, blushing.
“Well, I’ll leave you boys to it,” mom said as she wondered off to the kitchen.
“Rodríguez…” Tyler said.“How did a Mexican guy who doesn’t speak English and a Canadian woman who doesn’t speak Spanish end up together?”
“From what grandma says, he spoke French, and so did she, so that’s how talked to each other at first.”
“Cool,” Tyler said. “You unite the whole continent, don’t you?”
“Yeah, and my father’s side were all yinzers from Pittsburgh.Can we just get back to business?” I said.
“Si!” Tyler replied.
“Don’t make me drop you off a balcony,” I warned.
“Okay, back to work,” Tyler said, grinning.A quick review of Mr. Hartley’s page revealed that at least something he had said was true.
“Dude, he was in everything,” Tyler said.
“Senior class president, most popular, school newspaper editor, photography club, state chess champion twice over, homecoming king, prom king, valedictorian, football captain…Jesus, he was even the star of the high school musical.”
“You must be talking about Jeremy Hartley,” mom said, returning from the kitchen to check on us.
“We don’t have Mexican food around here,” I explained.“Dad didn’t like it.It gave him gas.”
“Wait, you’re telling me your grandfather was from Mexico and because some butt hurt goon told you he doesn’t like it you don’t make Mexican food?”
Mom sighed.“I used to love making my grandmother’s enchiladas…”
“Hungry teenage boys, right here,” Ty said.“I would love whatever you made.”
Mom blushed.“Why thank you, Tyler!”
“Anyway…” I said, trying to get back on subject. “Hartley’s our history teacher now,”
“Wow, you boys are lucky.Jeremy was a real genius.”
“We’ve noticed,” I said.
“I’m surprised he’s teaching high school history.I always thought he’d be a Congressman,” mom said.“Everybody liked him.He was very charismatic.”
“He’s trying to become principal,” I said.
“Now that makes more sense.He was always ambitious.I wonder what brought him back to the Valley.”
“I don’t get it,” Ty said after mom left us to do our homework.“How does a guy who was so perfect end up so evil?”
“Yeah, speaking of evil…”I flipped through the pages of the yearbook to the senior class pages.I stopped at Robert Jackson’s page.There he was, with his dark brown eyes and his hair in a big curly mess.“Football team, basketball team captain, wrestling team, baseball section all-star, photography club president…”
“Is that your dad?” Ty asked.He looked at the page.“Wow, nice 80’s fro.”
“Don’t remind me,” I sighed.“If I let my hair grow out it would look like that shit.”
“You think they knew each other?” Ty asked.
“They were both on the football team,” I replied.“And the photography club?I never knew my dad did anything creative.”
“You think he’d know anything that would be helpful?”
“You’re not seriously suggesting I talk to my dad!” I said.
“I’m just saying…Look, they were both kids once, like us.Something happened in their lives that turned them into what they became.You look at this guy in the picture and tell me he wanted to become an abusive asshole when he grew up.”
I looked at the smiling picture of my father in the yearbook.It was one of the few times I’d ever seen him smiling.
“What went wrong with you?” I said aloud to the picture.I turned to Ty.“But no.I haven’t seen him in almost a year.I wouldn’t even know how to get in touch with him.I wouldn’t want to talk to him even if my life depended on it.”
“Your birthday is coming up, isn’t it?” Tyler said.
“What are you suggesting?”
“Look, I’m not saying you should have a big family reunion.But it’s a perfect excuse to talk to him, and while you’re at it, maybe find out a little about Mr. Hartley.His life couldn’t have been as perfect as everyone claims.”
“Last time I saw him he beat the shit out of me.”
“Yeah, but last time you were alone.This time I’ll be with you.”
“And you’re going to defend me?”
“Yep,” Ty replied.“He tries anything, I’ll kick his ass.”
“Well that’s comforting,” I replied. “Should I tell my mom I want to see him?”
“Haven’t we had enough lies and backstabbing?” Ty asked.
“So that’s a yes,” I sighed.“That might be the hardest part of this whole thing.”
Sure enough, mom cried when I told her I wanted to see my dad on my birthday.She wasn’t upset that I wanted to see him.She was worried about what seeing him would do to me.
“Are you sure about this?” she asked.
“He’s still my father,” I said.“He owes me after what he did.”
“Well…I can call him.But I don’t like this.”
“How about we meet someplace public?Tell him I want to meet him at Janet’s Diner over in Donora Friday night.”
“But if you do this on Friday, then I’ll be at work and I won’t be able to come with you.”
“You’re not coming with me.Tyler is,” I explained.
“I’m not having Tyler drive you to Donora, he only has a learner’s permit.”
“My brother’s going to drive us,” Ty explained.
“Sounds like you have got this all planned out,” mom said.
“Always have a contingency plan,” I replied.“You know I’m going to see him anyway, so you might as well help us.”
Mom didn’t like it, but she did agree to make the arrangements with my father.We agreed to meet him Friday night just as we’d planned.I was never so nervous as I was as I walked into that diner once again.Janet herself met me at the door and brought Ty and me to where my dad was already sitting.Chris sat at a table not far from us.
“You’ve grown…” dad said, looking me up and down.He was balder than the last time I’d seen him.“And you’re the Bowman boy.”
“Tyler,” Ty said, offering dad his hand, which dad shook and invited us both to sit down.
“I was very happy your mom called,” dad said.“I thought after the way things ended, I’d lost you forever.”
“Don’t worry.The scars on my back are there to remind me of you every day,” I said.
Tears formed in dad’s eyes.“I would take back every second of that day if I could.I don’t know what came over me.I just… lost it.I’m so sorry, Aidey.”
“Don’t call me that,” I replied.“You don’t get to call me that anymore.You should be sorry for what you did.I didn’t come here for apologies.I don’t want you back in my life.As you can see, I’m a lot better off without you.”
“Aiden,” Tyler said.“Let’s try to keep to the subject…”
“I’m seeking help for my anger issues,” dad said.“I’ve been in therapy ever since that night.I’m not the same man I was back then.”
“I really don’t care, Bob!” I replied.“If you’re getting help for stuff then that’s great.But if you’re hoping I’ll congratulate you or something for getting help long after it’s too late then I’m sorry.You were a terrible husband and a worse father!No excuse…No therapy in the world will ever make that better!You fucked up!You threw away your right to make anything better the night you beat the shit out of me like I was a dog!”I lifted the back of my shirt and turned in my seat so my dad could see the scars that were still on my back.“You did this to me,” I said.“Take a real good look.Who does something like this to their own son?I hate you and I’m glad you’re no longer in my life!”
I went to stand up but Tyler grabbed my arm and sat me back down.
“Now that the pleasantries are out of the way,” Tyler said calmly.“We came here because we need your help.”
“With what?” dad asked.
Tyler pulled out the yearbook and turned it to the page with Mr. Hartley’s information and picture on it.“We need to know what you know about this guy,” Tyler said.
“Jeremy Hartley?” dad replied.“Why would you want to know anything about that psychopath?”
“That psychopath is our history teacher,” Tyler replied.
“What?Jesus Christ!I knew that school was bad, but I never thought they’d stoop to hiring that guy!”
“He’s about to become principal next year,” I said.
“Whoa…Listen to me, I know I’m not the world’s greatest judge of character, but you have to believe me.Stay away from this guy.He’s a pure sociopath.”
“Everybody else says otherwise,” Tyler replied.
“Well not everyone got to know Jeremy like I did.Look at those accomplishments.See how he was always in charge of whatever group he was in?All except one.See how he was only a member of the photography club?Guess who was president?”
“We already know it was you.Big deal!” I replied.
“Oh, but it was a big deal to Jeremy.He always wanted to be in charge of everything, even something little and unimportant like the photography club.He didn’t take too kindly to losing to me.I started getting pictures in my locker.I could never prove it, but I know it was him.”
“Pictures of what?” I asked.
“Dead animals.Gay porn.A picture of your mother with her head cut off.Really sick stuff.Like I said, I couldn’t prove it was him.He always had lackeys who were willing to help him.But I called him out on it.He denied everything, of course.And I couldn’t take it to the principal.He had that whole school convinced he was perfect.That fake smile of his…I don’t think that boy had a genuine human emotion in his whole life, but he could put on the charm.Everyone was convinced he was their best friend.Well, wouldn’t you know it that by the end of the year everyone seemed to think I was the bad guy.And then pictures of me started going around.I don’t even know how he did it.But by the end of the year my reputation was trash and he was the most popular student.”
“What kind of pictures?” I asked.
“What does it matter?” dad asked.
“Trust me, it matters,” I replied.
Dad sighed.“I haven’t talked about this in twenty years…The pictures were… of me and a friend of mine doing something we never should have done.I’m half convinced Jeremy was the one who talked him into doing it.”
“What were you doing?” I asked.
Dad looked around at the people in the cafeteria to make sure no one could hear him.Then he spoke in a very quiet voice.“It was a blowjob…” he mumbled.“Look, we were drunk and I thought it was just the two of us and that it was just a stupid one time thing.I barely even remembered it happened until the pictures came out.”
I sat there and tears rolled down my face even though I hadn’t even realized I was beginning to cry.“You son of a bitch…” I said.
“You son of a bitch!You beat the fucking shit out of me for just thinking about being gay when all along…”
“You don’t understand!Those pictures ruined my life!”
“You got married!You had a family!So a couple of stupid assholes in high school called you a faggot?You could have had a great life in spite of all of that!You got called a queer once and you think that gave you the right to beat me with a fucking belt?!?!”
“I just snapped!When I found out you were…It just brought all of this back and I just lost it!I’m so sorry, Aiden!”Tears rolled down my father’s face.I’d never seen that before in my entire life.“I’m so sorry, son!”
“You said ‘no son of mine is going to be some faggot,’” I said.“Well guess what?If I have to choose one, I’d rather be a faggot than be your son.You let this man ruin your life.You permanently scarred me.You threw your family away.Over what?A couple of pictures from twenty years ago?You called me soft and weak.I guess you’d know what it’s like to look in the mirror and see nothing but weakness.If I were your son, I’d feel sorry for you.But I’m not, so I don’t.”
I stood up from the table.
“Come on, Ty,” I said.“We’ve learned enough.”
Ty scooped up the yearbook and we left my father to wallow in his miserable existence.Chris drove us home in silence.Tyler held me in his arms as I sobbed.We found out one thing, Mr. Hartley had been ruining my existence since before I was even born.He was a monster in every sense of the word.There was no goodness in him, there never had been.We were screwed, and he was going to win.