This chapter corresponds with WAR 6.13 - The Kids Aren't Alright in Commencement.
I avoided Dustin as much as I could the rest of the week after the balcony incident.It wasn’t that I was afraid of him or anything, I just wasn’t sure what to think of him.Was he a lunatic with anger issues?Who threatens to drop a guy off a balcony?While I could avoid Dustin, Mr. Hartley was more difficult to avoid.
“Dustin told me there was an incident,” he said as we sat together during his free period.
“Yeah, he only tried to kill Tyler,” I said.
“That’s not the way he tells it.I’m guessing the truth is somewhere in the middle.Tyler strung you up naked in the shower room, so Dustin gave him a taste of his own medicine.”
“Tyler didn’t dangle me off a balcony though!” I insisted.
“Bishop, none of us wants things to get violent.I don’t think we will solve our problems by resorting to violent methods.I think there are far more effective ways to get accomplished what we need to do.Dustin is a different kind of character.There’s a lot of wrath stored up in that young man.If it’s channeled in the right direction, he can be very useful.”
“Do you think it was useful to try to throw Tyler off the balcony?” I asked.
“Now you’re exaggerating what happened,” Mr. Hartley chided me.“Dustin’s an ‘eye for an eye’ kind of guy.You got hung upside down, so Dustin hung Tyler upside down, only in a more precarious situation.”
“Did he tell you what happened before the Tyler incident?” I asked.
“He told me he had a good talk with you and that he thought you’d understand why he did what he did.”
“Oh… okay,” I said.I thought for sure Dustin would have told Mr. Hartley about the blow job.
“What are your thoughts about our knight, Bishop?Do you think he’s worth the risk?”
“I don’t know.He can be a nice guy, but when he’s angry he’s scary.”
“I guess we’ll just have to keep from angering him, won’t we?”
I decided I couldn’t make Dustin angry with me if I avoided him.So that’s what I did.It was easy to avoid him most of the time since he was in a different grade than me, but if I saw a hint of red hair coming down the hall I would turn tail and run.
Tyler was harder to avoid since he was in several classes with me.I almost felt sorry for him the first time I saw him after the incident.The bruising was clearing up, but there was a mixture of fear and anger in his usually bright blue eyes that had never been there before.It was as if he was holding me responsible for what happened to him, even though it had all been Dustin’s idea.I wished I could get him alone so I could explain my side of things to him, but he was going out of his way to avoid talking to me, or even looking at me.He looked like he had a lot on his mind, like he was really worried about something.I felt bad for him.I didn’t hate Tyler – not really.He could be a jerk, but so could I.I kind of missed him coming over.I didn’t miss the swirlies though.
I managed to get Brett Reilly’s cell phone number from Dustin’s…I don’t know what I’d call her…Not his girlfriend, but kind of his best girl friend, Emily.I knew he was still in the hospital, but I wanted to reach out to him and find out how he was doing.He was glad for the call.He explained how he lost control of Dustin’s dirt bike and crashed into a tree.He was hoping to be able to come home soon, but he wouldn’t be back in school for at least another month. I didn’t tell him about the locker room incident, or about the balcony.Hearing about his accident just reminded me all the more of the danger I was playing with by being close to Dustin Smith.People around him just seemed to end up getting hurt, even if he wasn’t responsible for what happened to them.It was like playing with fire.
On Thursday we heard an announcement from the principal that everyone had to stay in their classrooms for an inspection.Turned out the school board had brought in the police and their drug-sniffing dogs to go through the school. A couple of low-level guys got in trouble, one of them was Tyler’s brother Chris Bowman.But the big story was that Joey McKenzie, one of the contenders for valedictorian and son of a very powerful lawyer in the community, got caught as well.There were rumors of expulsions going around, but Joey’s dad was very well connected, so Joey being kicked out of school would have been a huge scandal.
Later that day after school Dustin cruised to victory in the school’s chess tournament.I wanted so much to be there to support him, but I was still a bit worried about being around him.I didn’t want to distract him during the tournament.
Then Friday came, and everything blew up!
It started with a small announcement printed on the bulletin board:
The student activity known as the LGBTQ Alliance is hereby disbanded due to lack of sponsor.
-John Taylor, MVSD President
I could hardly believe it!I mean, I knew we were in a bad situation without a sponsor, but to have the club disbanded by the school baord?It made me angry.It wasn’t fair.John Taylor was the father of the girl whose grade Miss Winston had refused to change.Was this his way of getting revenge since Miss Winston had been our sponsor?She wasn’t around, so he had decided to punish us?The first person I went to was Mr. Hartley, of course.It wasn’t his free period until later, but I needed to talk to him immediately so I caught him in between classes.
“I assume you’re here because of the club,” he said.
“It’s bullshit!” I snapped.“Where do they get off?”
“School clubs need a sponsor, Mr. Jackson,” Mr. Hartley replied calmly as freshmen students streamed into the room.
“You could have…”
“Maybe you didn’t notice I was quite busy with the chess club?Now I’ll have to prepare Dustin for the regional tournament, and then possibly the states.I don’t have time, nor do I have the inclination to play get-along-gang with Pat Winston’s little project.By the time I’m done, there won’t be any need for groups like that anymore.”
“It’s not fair!” I protested.
With a classroom full of students, Mr. Hartley pulled me closer so he could talk without others being able to hear.I think it might have been the first time I was yelled at in a whisper.“No Mr. Jackson, what’s not fair is that all of this could have been avoided if Pat Winston had had the courage to stand for her convictions rather than running away like a coward and abandoning you kids.I don’t make promises I can’t keep, Mr. Jackson.You should remember that.Some people talk a big game but when the chips are down they reveal their true selves.Now get to your class.”
I knew Mr. Hartley was telling me the truth.He always did.I just didn’t understand why he had such disdain for Miss Winston.She’d tried to help, hadn’t she?Maybe she hadn’t done it very effectively, but at least she tried to do something.
At lunchtime, I caught Doug Sanders in the cafeteria and he told me the club would be meeting at a place near Donora called Janet’s Diner if I was interested.
“I’d need a ride,” I said.“It’s six miles from my house to Donora.”
“I’ll take you,” Doug said.
“Cool,” I replied.
As I sat there at my table alone, I looked across the cafeteria at Billy and Dustin sitting in their usual spot.From the looks of things, they weren’t even aware of what had gone down yet.They were just sitting there having a good time, smiling and laughing at stupid jokes and being totally unaffected by any problems in life.Billy Roberts…God, I hated that guy.There he was just skating though life without a care in the world, almost oblivious that so many of us had to deal with real problems.I wondered if he’d ever struggled with anything a day in his life.And Dustin…How could someone so beautiful be hiding such a vicious side?He barely looked fifteen, let alone seventeen.That angelic face was hiding some real demons underneath.It was almost like he was two different people in the same body, the kind and sweet guy who had comforted me when I’d been humiliated, and the sadistic guy who punched a defenseless Tyler in the face twice and slung him off the balcony.I wondered if I’d ever even met the real Dustin Smith, or if all I’d ever seen of him was a mask.
After school, I rode with Doug to the diner he had told me about.It was run by Bobby Rush’s mom.Bobby Rush was the star athlete of the school, destined for the NFL who had helped Dustin get me down from being hung upside-down.He was huge, even when he was a kid, but he was also the nicest guy in school.Meeting his mother, I saw where he got it from.Doug spent much of his time on his cell phone talking to Brett Reilly.Doug was very nervous about the whole thing.Would the school board retaliate against him?Would anybody show up to this meeting?
Doug was so nervous he had to leave for a few minutes. He told us to wait and that he’d be back.I think he went to the bathroom to throw up.
As I waited, I was pleasantly surprised that a number of kids arrived for the meeting, even some kids who had never been a part of the alliance before.I saw Jason Miller, a freshman who had only just started coming to the meetings before they’d been cancelled.A few other kids whose faces I recognized but whose names I’d never learned came too.I was very excited about it until I saw two people get out of a car in the parking lot and make their way into the diner.
“Is that Billy Roberts and Dustin Smith?” Jason asked.
“Yes,” I sighed.“What are they doing here?”
The two of them came to where we were meeting and looked around at us.I made eye contact with Dustin for the first time in a week.He didn’t quite know how to act.Billy sat there running his tongue along the front of his teeth.God, what a douchebag.I could tell just by looking at him that he was regretting coming to this little meeting – like he thought we were all beneath him.
Doug returned and greeted his fellow seniors.
“Are you guys ready to start?” he asked us.The ten or so kids that had come for the meeting sat around a big table in the back room of Janet’s diner.Doug filled everyone in on the situation, how Miss Winston’s leaving left a vacancy for our sponsor and that since no one had filled her spot the alliance was over at the school.
“It looks like we’re just going to have to meet in places like this without the school’s permission.”
Finally, I was unable to hold back what I wanted to say any longer.“That’s bullshit!” I protested.“We all know the reason Miss Winston left was because of what Sarah Taylor’s father did!Why don’t you just tank a test so the board will leave the rest of us alone, Roberts?”
The kids around the table murmured in agreement with me.It had been Roberts’ fault, hadn’t it?
“Guys,” Doug protested.“It’s not Billy’s fault the school board is doing this.He’s one of us.”
“It took him long enough to show it!” I replied.“All he’s done is hide like a little bitch while the rest of us put our necks on the line.”
Dustin stood up and approached me and I stood up to meet him.“Why don’t you watch your mouth, Aiden?” he threatened.He towered over me.
“Or what?You going to beat me up, Smith?” I snapped.Dustin flinched.
Suddenly Billy Roberts jumped between us and pushed us apart.“Guys, stop!Don’t you see?This is exactly what they want!They want us fighting each other and tearing each other apart.If we can’t stand together they’ve already got us beat.You understand what I’m telling you?Look, what was your name again?Aiden?I understand why you’re pissed off at me.You’re right.I’ve spent my whole life in the closet.I’ve lived in fear of these people.And what did it get me?Nothing.I’m tired of being afraid.I’m tired of letting everyone else tell me who I should be and who I can love.I’m done with that.I am gay, and that’s not something I should have to be ashamed of.I won’t go back to the way I was before.I’m proud to be gay, and I’m proud to stand beside you guys and fight for something that’s more important than us.We can’t let them win.We can’t.”
God, he was so fucking condescending.Who the fuck did he think he was dealing with here?I just wanted to punch him in the face.I had to reply to him, to let him know I knew he was full of bullshit.
“You talk tough now,” I sneered.“But when the pressure’s on and we need you, you’ll bail on us just like Miss Winston did.You’re all talk and no balls, Roberts.First sign of a real fight you’ll run and hide just like she did.”
Billy turned to stand face to face with me.I could tell he was trying to use every inch of his six foot frame to intimidate me.He wanted me to back down, but I wasn’t going to give him the pleasure.I stood my ground, all five feet, six inches of me against a six-foot senior.Then he spoke, softly yet forcefully.“You can call me a coward, but don’t you dare talk about Miss Winston like that.Miss Winston was willing to put her ass on the line for her principles.She sacrificed herself to stand up to these people.She didn’t owe us anything, and yet she gave up her career to stand up for what was right.You may be right about me, but if you ever talk about Miss Winston like that again I’ll slap you so hard I’ll knock the braces right out of your stupid little mouth.”
I’ve got to say, I’ve never been threatened like that before except by my dad.In that moment, every cruel threat he’d every laid on me came rushing back, that I was no good, that I was an embarrassment to him, that I was a dirty no-good faggot.I gulped hard, trying to produce some kind of moisture in my mouth so I could give that asshole every bit of venom I could muster to throw at him.
“Let’s see if you can back up your big mouth with your actions, Roberts.I don’t think you will.We’ll see if you have the balls to stand with us when it really matters,” I said, trying to draw courage from the belief Mr. Hartley had in me.
Billy backed down.I couldn’t believe it!It was unreal.I’d actually defended myself against him!He and Dustin returned to their seats.I was so numb it took me a minute to realize the argument was over and I should sit down.The rest of the meeting went by without incident, though afterward several of my classmates affirmed my words and willingness to stand up to the seniors.
“I can’t believe little Aiden Jackson stood up to Dustin Smith and Billy Roberts!” I heard someone say as they were leaving the diner.
As Billy was talking to Doug, Dustin walked over to where I was and sat next to me.
“That took a lot of guts, Aiden,” he said.
“Not really,” I replied.“What were you going to do, throw me off a balcony?”
Dustin sighed.“Look, I’m sorry I took things too far.Okay?After what Tyler did to you, I was just really angry.You didn’t deserve to be treated that way.I overreacted, but it was only because I really like…”
“Dustin, let’s go,” Billy interrupted.
Dustin rose to his feet and smiled at me.“Got to go.”
Billy walked over to us and looked down at me.“You’ve got a lot of guts, kid,” he said.“You gave me a lot to think about.I guess it would look like I’ve been hiding like a coward to someone who doesn’t know what I’ve been through.Maybe you should consider that you don’t know everything about me.And also that you don’t know the whole story with Miss Winston either.”
“I know enough to know you’re both bitches,” I replied.
Billy shook his head.“And people say I’m an asshole…”
Billy and Dustin left, leaving just me and Doug.He thanked Mrs. Rush for letting us use the place.Then he joined me at the table where I was sitting.
“I thought that went well,” I said.
“Yeah, except for you throwing a fit,” Doug replied.
“I don’t think that’s what I did,” I replied.“Roberts was the one who…”
“Dude, you provoked that whole situation!That’s not what the club is supposed to be about!We’re supposed to support each other, not yell at each other.”
“He’s the one who threatened to slap me!” I said.
“Which you deserved!” Doug replied, exasperated.
“Whatever, dude,” I said.“All I said was the truth.If you don’t like it then that’s too bad.”
“No, it’s not too bad.I don’t think you should come to any more meetings if that’s the way you’re going to behave.”
“You’re kicking me out?” I exclaimed.
“No, I’m suspending you until you learn how to act.”
I laughed.“You’re suspending me from a club that doesn’t even exist anymore!Screw you!And screw giving me a ride home too, I’ll call my mom to come pick me up.”
“No, I’m not going to abandon you…”
“You already did, Doug!I wouldn’t ride home with you if you were the last person on earth.Beat it and leave me alone!”I stood up and walked to the pay phone to call my mom.Doug didn’t leave until my mom showed up to pick me up, even though we sat at different tables and didn’t talk to each other.