It was the first day of school, and the hallways were filled with the raucous laughter of students greeting each other for the first time since June. Growing up in Farmersville didn’t offer many social activities other than a local theater. Only then, it had one screen that featured the latest top box office hit. Most were for an older audience since science fiction and horror movies didn’t tend to draw much attendance beyond the opening night. When a feature did appeal to the younger generation, the elderly residents would complain about those ‘damn kids’ wandering the streets while waiting for the Victory Theater to open.
A small group of boys had congregated in the middle of the hallway. They were comparing schedules to see if they shared any classes together. Since the school was small, they had been together since kindergarten. They took the same classes and shared the same teachers. However, their periods might vary occasionally.
Lucas Prescott grabbed Ned Peters schedule from his hand. “Let me see if we got English class together. Shit,” he hissed after examining it and handing it back to Ned. “I got Yarber third period. You have her fourth.”
Robbie Kincaid exclaimed excitedly, “I got Yarber third period.”
Lucas cast him an angry glance and exclaimed, “Did anyone ask you, Shithead?”
Robbie took a step back and replied shyly, “No, Lucas.”
Lucas was the largest of the boys. He had been since third grade when he had a growth spurt. He continued to grow, and he was now almost twice the size of the others gathered around him.
Lucas was also the undisputed leader of the group. The others were devoted followers who did whatever Lucas told them to do. Many had spent hours of detention over the past years carrying out Lucas’s pranks. Most were just childish games, but several had been cruel. For example, in the fifth grade, they had stolen Jimmy Ellison’s clothes from his gym locker and hid them from him. He had to wear the only spare shorts Coach Wallace had on hand that day- a pink floral pair of girl’s Bermuda shorts. He was ridiculed so much that day that he didn’t return to school for four days. For the rest of the year, Lucas and the other boys kidded him unmercifully.
Lucas was also the kind of boy who was very protective of his friends. He valued loyalty, and friendship was generously rewarded. Last year as freshmen, it was traditional for the upperclassmen to try to intimidate the underclassmen. Being friends with Lucas prevented the abuse that was generally meted out. Even seniors feared Lucas’s wrath when he became upset. However, if things went his way, he was generally friendly toward others.
Ned looked up at Lucas and asked, “When you got art class?” Ned was the smallest boy in the group. Lucas, at 6’2” and 240 pounds, towered over the 5’4” smaller boy. Many times students would laugh when they saw them together because there was such a contrast in their appearance. Ned was often referred to as Lucas’s puppy because he trailed behind him and readily obeyed any order that Lucas barked at him.
Lucas looked at his schedule. “I got Fitzpatrick fourth?” He looked down at Ned. “What about you?”
Ned grinned and replied. “I got her fourth.”
“Good,” exclaimed Lucas. “You can do my work for me.”
“Yeah, sure thing,” grinned Ned. If Lucas asked him to jump off the roof, he would do it.
Lucas grabbed Ned and Rob around the shoulders and pulled them into a huddle. He looked around to make sure no one could hear him. He asked softly, “Have you guys heard the latest news?” Both boys shook their head.
He looked around again. “Neil is a fag.”
“No way,” responded Ned as he shook his head. “That can’t be.”
Lucas pulled them into a tighter huddle as he looked over Rob’s shoulder. “No shit,” he said excitedly. “Last week, Neil tried to suck Owen’s dick out at the old Cate’s barn.”
Rob asked excitedly, “You mean that old dilapidated barn on the south side of town? What were they doing out there?”
Lucas replied, “Owen said him and Neil rode their bikes out there, and they were playing around in the hayloft.”
Rob nodded his head and asked, “Yeah, what happened?”
“Owen said they got to wrestling, and Neil started grabbing at his dick,” replied Lucas as he looked around the hall to make sure no one had approached.
Ned grabbed the front of his pants and adjusted them. Fortunately, Lucas didn’t notice. He asked, “What happened then?”
“You won’t believe this,” replied Lucas. “Neil tried to reach his hand into Owen’s pants, and asked him if he wanted him to suck his dick.”
Rob asked excitedly, “What did Owen say?”
Lucas pushed Rob against the locker. “What the fuck did you think he said,” he responded angrily as he looked down at the smaller boy. “Of course, he told him to go fuck himself.” He gave the boy another angry look. “Isn’t that what you would have done?”
Rob gulped, looked down at the ground and mumbled, “Yeah, sure.” He looked up at Lucas. “Yeah. I would have kicked him in his nuts.”
“Me, too,” offered Ned. “Right in his nuts.”
“Good,” replied Lucas as he patted the two boys on the back and warned, “But you better stay away from Neil from now on. He’s a fag, and we don’t like his kind around here.” He looked at the boys and asked, “Right?”
“Yeah,” Ned and Rob answered in unison as they nodded their heads.
Rob then added, “No fags around here.”
“Right,” replied Lucas as he patted Rob on the back. “Now we better git to class or we’ll be late.” The three boys started strolling down the hall. Lucas was in the middle as he towered over the two smaller boys.
* * * * * * *
“Everyone get out of bed!” shouted Mrs. Michaels down the narrow hallway. “You don’t want to miss the bus the first day of school.”
Neil threw the covers over his head and let out a low groan. He could hear Brett, his younger brother, giggling as he jumped out of bed on the other side of the room.
“Better get up, Sleepy Head,” warned Brett, “Or Mommy will come in and get you up.”
“Right,” grumbled Neil. His mother was known to enter the room with the broom and lightly swing at anyone who ignored her shouts. He had been whacked several times over the years. Brett learned his lesson after the first time two years ago, and since then he jumps out of bed as soon as he hears his mother’s voice.
Neil sat on the side of the bed and attempted to awaken himself. Brett was already dressed and sitting on the side of his bed lacing up his sneakers. Neil looked over and said, “You’re the only person who is glad to be going back to school.”
Brett stood and giggled. At eight, he still had freckles covering his cheeks. His brown hair was cut in a bowl shape, and Neil couldn’t help but laugh. Brett had protested the night before when their mother insisted on cutting his hair. She used scissors, and she would cut around the edges making a straight line around the back. It did look like she had put a bowl on Brett’s head when she cut his hair.
Neil had been able to avoid the ritual this year. In the past, he always went to school the first day with the same cut. This year, however, he managed to go into the bathroom a week earlier and attempt to trim his own hair. The final result didn’t look too bad. His mother told him he left too much hair flowing down across his face, but he insisted that was the way he wanted to wear it this year. When she went to her knitting bag to get the scissors, he ran out the back door, got on his bike and rode around for two hours. When he returned, she had forgotten about cutting his hair.
He smiled when Brett went over to the mirror and attempted to fluff it out so it wouldn’t look so straight. However, he had straight blonde hair, unlike Neil’s curly brown hair. “It won’t do no good,” laughed Neil. “You’re still going to look like the boy on the paint can.”
Brett frowned and replied, “I know. The other kids are going to tease me.” He ran his hands through his hair for the last time, looked in the mirror, sighed and left the room.
Neil sat on the side of the bed and ran his hands over his face. He mumbled to himself, “I’d rather jump off Gulliver’s Cliff than go to school today.” In fact, just a few days earlier he had gone to Gulliver’s Cliff to jump off. He stood on the side for about fifteen minutes attempting to get up the courage to take a final leap, but he chickened out. Instead, he wiped the tears from his face and rode his bike back home. Since then, he had considered riding his bike there again, but he knew he was too afraid to do what he really wanted to do.
“Oh, God,” he moaned as he put his head in his hands. He knew that he would have to go back to school someday and face his friends. It was either that, or take a leap off Gulliver’s Cliff. As he sat with his face buried in his hands, he decided that going to the cliff might be easier than facing Owen again.
It had been a little over a week when he and Owen rode their bikes out to the old Cate’s farm. It was a lazy Thursday morning, and they were both bored. It was Owen who suggested that they go for a bike ride.
As they headed down Engle Mill Road, they approached the old barn. Neil followed Owen down the narrow path leading to the dilapidated building. The farmhouse had burned down years ago, before either boy was even born. All that remained of the barn was the old, withered sides and a rusty silo. Stacks of musty hay were still stored inside.
Neil got off his bike and followed Owen toward the barn. Owen had turned and said, “I wonder if there is any hoot owls in the rafters?” They entered and walked across the rickety floors as they looked upward to see if they could see or hear any old owls.
They spent about ten minutes looking around the old barn. They made up tales about what stories the dilapidated building might tell if it could talk. They envisioned a time when hogs and cattle resided inside. Owen picked up a handful of hay and tossed it out a door. “Here piggies,” he giggled as he picked up another armload and threw it. “Make yourselves fat so we can eat you for dinner.”
Neil stood back and roared with laughter. He and Owen had been best friends since before they could remember. They had attended school together and had spent many hours working on homework assignments.
They were so used to sleepovers at each other’s homes that their mothers considered them brothers and just another mouth to feed. They hunted mushrooms and wild berries together in the fields outside of town. Their favorite adventure was skinny dipping on a hot summer day in the Possum Creek just about two miles away. It was not uncommon to find a dozen naked boys swimming in the creek and swinging from a rope that was attached to a large elm tree. Lucas had climbed it when they were in the fifth grade and knotted the rope to a large branch over the creek. That rope had endured thousands of squealing boys over the years as they swung out from the bank and dropped into the water.
It was Owen who initiated the actions that were to change Neil’s life forever. He had tossed an armload of hay at Neil, and then he jumped on top of him and pinned him into a mound of hay.
He giggled and demanded, “Squeal like a piggy!” As he did, he ground his lower body against Neil. They squirmed and fidgeted for several moments as both of them grew hard.
Suddenly, Owen jumped up and pulled down his pants. His erection was only inches from Neil’s face. Seeing each other hard wasn’t unusual. All the boys at one time or another walked the banks of the creek swinging an erection. It had become a ritual a few years earlier to note when a boy first grew pubic hairs. Naturally, Lucas was the first to boast of such an accomplishment. However, Neil had bragging rights a few months later. Eventually, all the boys developed a large tuft of hair around their cocks.
Owen swung his hips in front of Neil. As he did, his cock was only inches from Neil’s mouth. “Suck it, you slimy pig,” giggled Owen. “You know you want to.”
Without thinking, Neil opened his mouth and sucked in a few inches. He really wasn’t aware he had done it. To him, it was still a part of the game. Suddenly, Owen jumped back with an astonished look on his face. “Holy shit!” he exclaimed as he pulled up his pants and buckled his belt. “Jesus Christ, Neil! You were gonna do it! You were really going to suck my dick!”
“No!” protested Neil as his face reddened. “I was just playing around!”
Owen stared at his friend in disbelief. “No, you weren’t,” he replied. “You put your mouth on my dick!”
Tears welled up inside Neil’s eyes. He didn’t know what to say. He had started to suck Owen. And if Owen hadn’t jumped away, he probably would have continued. “No, honest,” he cried. “I didn’t mean it. We was just playing.”
Their eyes met, and Owen seemed to be reading his best friend’s mind. He then looked away and headed quickly from the barn. As he was getting on his bike, Neil ran up and tried to stop him.
“Come on, Owen,” pleaded Neil. “It was only a game. Don’t tell the other guys. Please?”
Owen pushed Neil’s hand off his arm. “You’re a homo, Neil. Stay away from me.” He then started to pedal quickly away. He didn’t even look back as he left his dejected friend standing outside the old, dilapidated barn.
Neil grabbed armloads of hay and began tossing them outside. He screamed and shouted each time he hurled a load. After six bales, he fell exhausted to the ground. His chest heaved as he attempted to catch his breath. He didn’t know what had happened. One minute he was playing with his best friend. The next minute, he had gained an angry enemy. Worst of all, he didn’t know why he had done it.
He knew why, but he couldn’t believe he had been so careless. He realized a few years earlier that he wasn’t like Owen, Lucas and the rest of their friends. While they were developing an interest in girls, he wasn’t. He would laugh at their conversations about which girls they thought had the biggest tits at school. He would also join in and playfully act as if he was jerking off when Owen, Lucas or Rob talked about having sex for the first time.
However, none of those things interested him. When they began joking about queers, fags and homos a few years earlier, he knew what he was. However, he was determined to keep it a secret. He could easily live a lie, at least until he graduated from school.
Now, all that had changed. Owen knew his secret, and it wouldn’t be long until the others knew.
And it didn’t take long. He stayed at home for almost a week, refusing to leave his bedroom. None of his friends came by the house to see if anything was the matter. In the past, if he had missed an afternoon baseball game, Owen would be knocking on his door that evening asking where he had been. “James pitched today,” he would say, “and we lost. You should have been there.” It didn’t matter what his excuse was. He had let his friends down.
Now, he had no friends anymore. One week holed up in his room, and not one person had called or stopped by. He knew the reason- Owen had told them what happened. And now Lucas knew. Neil had no idea what he would do with that information.
Lucas hated gays. He said it all the time. Guys never looked at another guy’s dick out at the creek. Once everyone had pubic hair, it was forbidden anymore. If Lucas noticed another boy glance down at someone’s erection, it would set him off on a homophobic rant. “What you looking at his dick for?” he would ask loudly. “You a queer or something? You want to suck a dick?” He would then grab his and say, “Here! Suck this, Queer Boy.” No one dared to laugh. If they did, he would accuse them of being gay themselves.
“Neil, Honey,” his mother hollered from the kitchen. “You had better hurry. You’ll miss breakfast, but you’re not going to miss the bus the first day of school.”
Neil sighed, walked over to the mirror and looked at himself. He hated the boy staring back. His hair was too curly, his nose was too narrow and acne had won the war against ointments. The only person who called him cute was his mother. She was obligated to say that. All mothers are. If everyone looked at people the way a mother looks at her child, then there would be no ugly people in the world.
Neil studied himself in the mirror, sighed and muttered, “I’m ugly.”
His mother hollered again, “Honey, you better hurry! Brett and Emily are heading out the door to catch the bus.”
Neil walked over and picked up the green book bag off the floor beside his bed. It was empty except for a few pencils, an eraser, ruler and calculator. However, by the end of the school day, it would be filled with books, workbooks, class syllabuses and homework assignments. He knew he would be lugging it over his shoulder later in the day when he departed the bus.
When he entered the kitchen, his mother handed him a warm biscuit and pushed him gently out the door. “It’s not my fault you missed breakfast,” she hollered as he shuffled slowly down the lane to where his younger siblings were eagerly awaiting the big yellow monster, as Brett called it.
Mrs. Michaels stood at the door and watched her older son walking slowly away. She knew something was wrong, but she was unable to figure out what was bothering Neil. A week ago, he had been a normal, happy teenager. Owen and other boys would romp playfully through the house, and she would often have to chastise them for their behavior. She really didn’t mind. She knew as a mother it was expected.
However, suddenly, Neil withdrew to his room and seemed to shut the world out. None of his friends visited. When she inquired if something had happened, Neil insisted that nothing was wrong.
She knew that teens have emotional swings. It was only a few years ago that she was a girl. However, she became rebellious. She and her mother would shout at each other for hours over things that now seemed childish. Neil, though, never raised his voice. In fact, in the past week, she had hardly heard him speak.
At first, she feared it was because he had no male role model at home. Boys his age needed someone to look up to and emulate. She and his father, Brian, separated after Brett was born. They divorced two years later. Brian would stop by on the children’s birthdays and at Christmas. However, for reasons that they never shared with others, he didn’t request joint custody. Their relationship was amiable, and he was welcomed when he did visit.
His problems couldn’t be because he missed his father. Besides, her brother, Jack, had become the surrogate father to her children. They adored him, and his frequent visits were always welcomed. He and Neil were very close, and she was confident that Jack was providing the fatherly affection that she was afraid Neil might lack.
They had talked about Neil’s behavior, but they decided to wait and see if he was just experiencing a normal teenage adjustment into adulthood. However, deep inside, she knew it was more than that. Whatever was bothering Neil, was a problem that would need more than just a waiting period. Her motherly instincts told her that.
She stepped out onto the porch and waved as the two younger children turned, waved goodbye and bounded up the bus steps. Neil, however, trudged up the steps and moved slowly to the back. He sat on the opposite side of the bus and pressed his head against the window. His mother raised her apron to her eyes and wiped away the tears falling down her cheek.
* * * * * * *
The bus stopped at the elementary school first to let off the younger children. After they departed, about thirty students still were seated ahead of Neil. He knew them all. At one time, he considered them friends. Now, he wasn’t so sure.
As he got on the bus earlier, he had made no eye contact with anyone. He held his head down and moved quickly to the back of the bus. He then rested his head against the window and closed his eyes. Owen’s home was two stops away. They had ridden side by side to and from school since kindergarten. Today, though, when the bus stopped for Owen and his little brother, Neil felt the bus shake as they made their way to the back. Any other morning, Owen would have plopped into the seat beside Neil and grumbled about it being too early for school to start. Today, however, he took a seat in the middle of the bus beside Maggie Rumsfeld, another member of their class, In the past, Owen complained because he thought Maggie had a crush on him, and he was constantly avoiding her at school. Neil realized as he looked at the back of Owen’s blond head that his resentment must be deep for him to sit with someone he despised rather than his former best friend.
A couple of the girls aboard the bus looked back, giggled and then turned back and began talking animatedly. He wondered if they knew. Since he hadn’t spoken to anyone at school since the incident inside the barn, he didn’t know how vast the rumors had spread. They normally grew quickly, becoming more elaborate each time they were related. By now, he was probably a serial rapist who had taken Owen hostage at gunpoint and raped him repeatedly until he was unconscious. However, Owen seemed as silent as he was. From what he could tell, he had completely ignored Maggie, and he didn’t talk to anyone else. Mac Dorman, another close friend, had attempted to talk to Owen, but it didn’t seem like they said very much.
He was jolted from his reverie when he heard a sweet voice say, “How was your summer, Neil?” He looked over at Sammy Gibson. Her real name was Samantha, but in the fifth grade she started asking everyone to call her Sammy. Teachers, however, refused, and continued to call her Samantha.
He had had his eyes closed when she boarded the bus, and he didn’t realize she had sat down opposite him. He attempted a smile and replied, “It was okay.” He frowned when she rose from her seat and sat down beside him.
“It doesn’t sound like it,” she said as he continued to stare out the window.
He turned and asked defensively, “What is that supposed to mean?” He was convinced she was referring to the rumors spreading around his friends.
She seemed startled at first by his rudeness. It wasn’t in Neil’s nature to become upset so easily. Normally, he was a likeable young man who treated others with respect and courtesy. That was one of the things that attracted her to him.
She had never told anyone, but she had had a secret crush on Neil since the seventh grade. They had sat beside one another in three classes that year, and they were frequent partners in class assignments. Being extremely shy, she could never tell Neil how she felt. She was too afraid of being rejected.
After all, Neil was one of the cutest boys in their class. However, he stood in the background as Lucas and the other boys demanded all the attention. Sammy loved his dark brown eyes and light brown wavy hair that hung down over his forehead. Strands would occasionally fall over his eyes when he would look down to read, and she would smile each time he would flick the troublesome hairs from his head.
He wasn’t muscular or athletic like many of the other boys. However, he wasn’t effeminate like a few that others tormented. He was just Neil Michaels. Cute, shy, polite and charming Neil Michaels.
Today, however, he seemed changed. She smiled nervously and replied, “You just said your summer was okay. It sounded like you didn’t have much fun.”
“Oh,” responded Neil with regret. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
Sammy smiled when Neil reached up and flicked back as stray lock of hair that had fallen across his forehead. She asked, “Are you ready to return to school then?”
Neil wanted to laugh loudly, but refrained. “If only Sammy knew that this was going to be one of the worst days of my life,” he thought to himself. “It’s school,” he responded. “Aren’t we supposed to like hate it or something?”
Sammy giggled and replied, “I think it is located on page five of the Student’s Handbook they gave us last year.”
“You mean you read that stupid book?” Neil joked. For a brief moment, he had forgotten what soon awaited.
“Not really,” she replied. “But it does make a good paper weight.”
“Yeah,” laughed Neil. “I guess it does.”
Sammy glanced quickly at Neil when she saw Owen turn and look angrily at him. She thought it was strange when she got on the bus and noticed that they weren’t seated together. For nine years, she had seen them sitting side by side. Today, eight rows of seats separated them.
She looked over at Neil and asked, “Is something wrong with Owen? You guys aren’t together.”
Neil shrugged his shoulders and replied, “I don’t know.” There was no use to say anything more. By the end of the day, Sammy would know all about the vile thing he had done to Owen in the barn on Engle Mill Road.
The bus stopped in front of the school. He watched as Owen jumped from his seat and hurried off the bus. As he headed toward the building with Sammy walking beside him, he sensed that his safe life would never be the same.