When they entered the building, Sammy told Neil she had to go meet a friend in the library. She invited him to go with her, but he told her he had to go to the counselor’s office to get his schedule.
“Didn’t you receive yours in the mail last week?” she asked. “I thought everyone did.”
“Um,” stammered Neil. He had gotten his schedule, but he was trying to find an excuse not to go to the cafeteria. He knew that Owen, Lucas and the rest of his friends would be there. “I got my schedule,” he said nervously. “I just have to see Mr. Martindale about getting a period changed.”
Sammy gave him a puzzled look and asked, “What period?”
“Um, art class,” he replied. “I want to see if I can take something else.”
“Um,” he tried to think quickly. “Woodshop. Yeah, that’s it. Woodshop.”
Sammy laughed and replied, “You’ll cut your fingers off with a saw.” She then turned and headed down the hall toward the cafeteria.
Neil headed in the opposite direction. He had no idea where to go. He could hear loud noise coming from the cafeteria. It was always that way the first day of school. Everyone was catching up on what had happened during the summer. By now, he thought, students were beginning to find out what he had done to Owen in the old barn.
“Why?” he asked himself as he took out his schedule to see what class he had first period. It was biology with Mr. Norris. He liked Mr. Norris. He had been in his general science class as a freshman. He was an older man, but the students considered him cool. He didn’t criticize them for the clothes they wore or the music they listened to as most of the other teachers did.
As he headed down the corridor, a female teacher stepped out of her room and almost knocked him down. “I’m sorry,” she apologized as Neil steadied himself. He had never seen her before.
“She must be new,” he thought to himself. He smiled and replied, “It’s okay.”
She looked down the empty hallway. “Are you supposed to be in the halls right now? Shouldn’t you be in the cafeteria?”
Neil shrugged his shoulders and responded, “Probably.”
The young teacher looked at him with concern. She could hear laughter coming from down the hall, and she wondered why the boy before her wasn’t joining in on the excitement of returning to school. She held out her hand to Neil. “I’m Ms. Shelton,” she said with a smile as Neil extended his hand to shake hers. “I’m new to Farmersville High School.”
“I’m Neil Michaels,” he mumbled softly as he looked down at the floor. “You’ll like it here,” he said before adding, “I guess.”
Ms. Shelton laughed and replied, “Well, Neil, that didn’t sound very reassuring.” He looked up into her face and smiled. She was pretty, but in a plain sort of way. She didn’t cover her face with makeup like many of the female teachers did. Her long brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She also wasn’t dressed as many teachers did the first day of school. Many of the female teachers usually wore their finest Sunday clothes to make an impression on the students the first day. Ms. Shelton was dressed more casually. She had on a brown pants suit that looked more like something Sammy would wear, not a teacher.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. “Farmersville isn’t that bad of a school.”
“Well, I hope not,” Ms. Shelton laughed. “This is my first teaching job, and I wouldn’t want to fail at it.”
Neil smiled and replied, “You won’t.” For some reason, Ms. Shelton made him feel comfortable. Any other teacher by now would have been yelling at him and telling him he should be in the cafeteria. They might even be warning him that they would assign him detention for not obeying the school rules. He wondered how long it would take Ms. Shelton before she was forced to change.
She touched Neil’s arm and asked, “Would you like to help me do something?”
He asked, “Like what?”
Ms. Shelton started laughing. “I thought when a teacher asks a young man if he would help her, he would naturally agree.”
Neil’s face started to redden. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Sure. I’ll help you.” He followed her inside the classroom to a closet in the back of the room. She took out a key and opened it.
“Would you help me set out the history books?” She grabbed several, carried them out, and placed them on a table. Neil grabbed several more and followed her.
As they were returning for another load, Ms. Shelton asked Neil, “What grade are you in?”
He smiled and replied, “I’m a sophomore.”
“Really,” responded Ms. Shelton. “You must be in one of my classes.” She walked over to her desk and scanned a student roster. “You are,” she smiled. “You’ll be in my sixth period.”
Neil asked, “I will be?”
“This is wonderful,” Ms. Shelton replied as she went to get another stack of textbooks. “The first student I meet, and he’s such a gentleman.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” replied Neil. He felt happy that he was making a good impression on his new teacher. He struggled in geography last year, and he hadn’t been looking forward to taking American History this year. Now, things were looking better.
Ms. Shelton smiled and said, “Please, Neil. Don’t call me Ma’am.” She laughed and added, “It makes me sound so old. I just graduated from college in June.” She stood and looked around the room. “I can’t believe I’m actually going to teach.”
Neil giggled at her enthusiasm. “I’m sure you’ll be very good.”
As they continued to carry books from the closet and place them on the table, Ms. Shelton asked Neil, “What are the students like? Is everyone as nice and sweet as you are?”
Neil blushed and replied, “I guess.”
Ms. Shelton laughed when she noticed the embarrassed look on Neil’s face. She walked over and sat in a student desk. “Have a seat, Neil,” she said as she pointed to a desk beside her. Neil hesitated before sitting down.
“Okay,” she said as she smiled at him. “You want to tell me why you were alone this morning?” Neil looked down at the etchings on the desk. Someone years earlier had carved into the wood that they liked a girl named Rachel. He looked up when she asked, “Well?”
Neil shrugged his shoulders and replied, “No particular reason, I guess.” There was no way he could tell her why he hadn’t gone to the cafeteria like everyone else.
His head popped up and he stared at Ms. Shelton when she asked, “Are you afraid?”
She smiled and replied, “When I saw you outside my room, you looked like you were afraid of something. This isn’t your first day here at Farmersville, is it?”
“No, Ma’am,” he replied before catching himself. “I mean, Ms. Shelton. I’ve grown up here all my life.” When Neil began to fidget in his seat, she began to suspect that her suspicions were right.
When she had stepped into the hallway to see if she could get a few boys to help her carry books, she was surprised to see Neil walking dejectedly toward her. She became a teacher because she wanted to help young people. Her first thought when she saw Neil was that he might become her first challenge. The expression on his face appeared to be someone who was deeply hurting. In college, she had volunteered in a halfway house for runaways and delinquents. She knew the look of a child who was on the edge of despair. Neil had that look.
She knew she was taking a risk by delving so quickly, but she wanted Neil to know that she could trust him, if he did indeed need an adult’s assistance. “Is everything okay at home?”
Neil was taken aback by her questioning. He sensed she was concerned, but there was no way he was going to talk to a complete stranger about what was bothering him. He rose from his seat, stood before Ms. Shelton and said, “I’m okay.” He looked at the stack of books. “Do you need me to help you anymore?”
She stood and approached him. She could tell by the look on his face, she had crossed the line too soon. “No,” she smiled. “I think I have enough books to pass out for my morning classes.”
Neil headed towards the door, “I guess I’ll see you sixth period then.”
“Yes,” replied the young teacher. “Thank you for helping me this morning.” When Neil left the room, she walked out into the hall and watched as he walked away.
She shook her head and thought, “He’s such a sad young man.”
* * * * * *
Lucas was sitting at a cafeteria table facing the double doors. He was waiting for Neil to appear. Robbie, Ned and Mac Dorman were seated with him. Owen had joined them a few minutes earlier. They had been going over their schedules, comparing them to see which classes they shared together.
Lucas, however, wasn’t interested in his classes. He was more interesting in waiting for Neil to walk through the doors. When Owen sat down earlier, he had him tell the other boys what had happened in the barn.
Owen had insisted that he rather not, but Lucas quickly became upset. “Why?” he questioned him daringly. “You like what he did to you?” He scowled angrily and added, “Maybe you’re also a fag. Did you suck Neil’s dick, huh?”
“No!” Owen replied nervously as he looked at the other boys. “You guys already know what happened. Why should I have to go over it again?”
Lucas replied angrily, “Maybe they need to know what a perverted little creep Neil is.” He sat back and ordered Owen, “Now, tell us how that queer tried to suck your dick.”
Owen felt trapped. He regretted he had said anything to Lucas about the incident. At the time, he was frightened and embarrassed. He never suspected his best friend would do something that weird. After all, he was just as guilty. He had dared Neil to suck him. Never did he expect that he would do it.
He still wasn’t convinced Neil was gay. Maybe he did just get caught up in the moment of their playfulness. He wondered, also, if he might have done the same thing if Neil had stuck his dick in his face. Maybe it was just a game. It didn’t mean that his best friend was gay. They had spent years sleeping over at each other’s houses, and never had Neil indicated he wanted to do anything sexual. Sure, they had masturbated together when they were younger, but he had done the same thing with Robbie, Ned and Mac. They never told Lucas because he would have called them homos, just as he was doing now to Neil.
“Come on, Owen,” hissed Lucas. “Tell us how that homo tried to suck your dick in the barn.”
Owen stammered nervously, “Nothing much to tell. Neil probably didn’t mean to do it, anyway.”
The other boys jumped when Lucas slammed his hand down on the table. “Bullshit!” he spat angrily. “Neil Michaels is a goddamned faggot. If he had done that to me, he wouldn’t be walking into school today. Fucking queers like him don’t belong in this school.” He looked defiantly at the other and asked, “Right? Who is with me?”
When none of the others spoke up, he asked angrily, “Well? Who is with me? Or are you all a bunch of fucking queers?”
The other boys hung their heads and mumbled that they agreed with Lucas. All were too afraid to challenge Lucas. It was better to agree than have Lucas ostracize them from the group, just as he had done Neil.
He pointed his finger in each of the other boy’s faces. “If I see any of you talking to that perverted homo, I’m going to kick your ass.” He stared at each of them and added, “Got it?”
They nodded their heads. “Yeah, sure, Lucas,” replied Ned. “You don’t want us hanging with Neil anymore.”
He sat back and smiled. “That’s right,” he said victoriously. “You let the rest of the guys know too. Get the word out. From now on, Neil Michaels is dead meat.”
Owen asked nervously, “What are you going to do? Neil didn’t hurt nobody.”
Lucas slammed his hand down on the table and leaned forward so he was staring directly into Owen’s face. “Didn’t hurt nobody?” Owen scooted his chair away and hung his head. “We’ve been swimming naked with that fag all these years out at the creek. He’s probably been eyeballing our junk all this time. Sick mother fucking pervert.” He hit his right fist into his left palm. “Let him look at me. I’ll fuck his face up so bad even his Momma won’t recognize him.”
Owen wanted to protest, but he was too afraid. He had seen Lucas like this in the past, but not with such violent hatred. Before, it hadn’t been serious. Most had been things like tormenting a teacher when Lucas became upset with them. However, he had never directed his anger at one of their own. Until last week, Neil had been one of them. Now Lucas wanted them to shut Neil out of their lives. As he looked at the faces of the other boys, he knew they were as confused as he was.
When the bell rang, Lucas stood and looked down at the others. “Remember what I said,” he spat angrily. “Neil Michaels is dead meat. We got ways to deal with him.”
As Lucas led the rest out of the cafeteria, Owen whispered to Mac, “What do you think Lucas is going to do?”
Mac whispered back, “I don’t know, but I’m glad I’m not Neil.”
“Right,” agreed Owen as he nodded his head.
* * * * * *
Neil slowly made his way to his first period class. He was scared. He had passed Ned and Mac in the hallway. When they saw him, they looked away and walked to the other side of the hall to avoid him. Neil looked over his shoulder after they had passed. Mac had looked back too, but he quickly looked away. Neil knew something was wrong, and he figured Lucas was responsible.
It didn’t take him long to find out. When he entered Mr. Norris’s biology class, he heard Lucas cough and mutter ‘fag’ as he did. Several students laughed. When Neil took a seat in the front row, Lucas did it several more times. Each time, students would laugh at Lucas’s antics.
Mr. Norris stood before the class and gave his first-day lecture on class rules and expectations. Most of the students paid little attention. The girl next to Neil was drawing hearts in her binder and writing the name Matt in the center. She would then pierce the heart with an arrow.
Neil wondered why teachers had to spend half the class the first day going over the same repetitive speech each year. Students were well aware of the rules. They had been drummed into them since the first grade. The only new addition was that teachers now had to include the use of cell phones and video games into their warnings.
After passing out a class syllabus for the first semester, Mr. Norris began to assign books. He looked around the room and asked, “I need a volunteer to help me distribute the books.”
Neil shrunk into his seat when Lucas hollered out from the back of the room, “Why don’t you ask Neil Michaels?” Students started laughing when he added, “He loves to volunteer to do things for people.”
Mr. Norris walked over and stood before Neil. “Would you like to help me?” Neil felt trapped. If he refused, then Mr. Norris might hold it against him the remainder of the year. However, if he agreed, then he might be further tormented by Lucas. It was already obvious that Lucas had targeted him for ridicule him in front of his classmates.
Neil wasn’t given an option. Mr. Norris walked over, took a stack of books and handed them to him. “Make sure everyone gets a book, Neil.” Neil rose from his seat and began handing out the books as Mr. Norris followed him and recorded the book number. He also instructed each student to print his or her name clearly into the book.
Neil cautiously approached Lucas. Lucas sat with a smug look on his face. Neil placed a book on the desk in front of him. Lucas picked it up and examined it. He then thrust it back at Neil. “I don’t want this book,” he snapped. He pretended to examine the front cover. “It looks like there is something gross on the front.” He then whispered low enough so that only the boys sitting around him could hear. “What did you do, jerk all over it?”
Neil’s face reddened as the back row of boys burst out laughing. He nervously picked up the book and gave Lucas another. Each time he placed a book down in front of one of the boys, the response was the same. He glanced quickly at Mr. Norris, but he didn’t seem to be aware of what was going on. He was still recording book numbers.
When he finished distributing the last book, he returned to his desk and slumped down into it. His day had hardly begun, and he was already embarrassed and humiliated. He had no idea what would await him the rest of the day.
When the bell rang, Neil leaned over to place his biology book into his book bag. When he did, his head slightly extended out into the aisle. Suddenly, someone crashed into his head, almost knocking him out of his desk.
“Hey,” shouted Lucas as he looked down with a snide grin on his face. He grabbed his crotch and looked at the guys behind him. He then looked back at Neil. Gripping his crotch, he said with a smirk, “Keep your face outa my junk. I don’t play that homo shit.” The boys behind him laughed as they passed Neil.
Neil trudged alone to his next class, Spanish II. Unfortunately, Lucas was standing outside the door with Owen, Mac and Ned. It appeared they would all be sharing the same class.
As he neared, he heard Lucas announce very loudly as he covered his crotch with his hands. “Better watch it, Guys. Neil tried to feel me up in biology today.” Neil hung his head and entered the classroom.
He looked around for a place to sit. He knew that Lucas always liked to sit in the back of the room. That way he could observe what was going on in class. Neil saw Sammy sitting against the wall. She was sitting in the front row, and the seat behind her was empty. He walked over and sat down.
Sammy immediately turned and looked at Neil. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” replied Neil sarcastically. “Wonderful.” Sammy studied Neil’s face. She had heard rumors in her first period. Mac and Owen had sat beside her. She didn’t pay much attention to them until she heard Mac mention Neil’s name.
“Man,” she heard him say worriedly. “I don’t know what Lucas’s problem is with Neil. It’s almost like he’s obsessed.”
She then heard Owen say regretfully, “I should never have told him what happened.” Sammy attempted to listen carefully to hear what had happened, but Ms. Shelton entered the room and they stopped talking.
Sammy watched as Neil’s eyes followed Lucas, Owen and Mac as they walked to the back of the room and sat down. When Lucas looked angrily at Neil, Neil turned and slumped down in his seat.
Sammy whispered, “What’s going on? Is something wrong with Lucas?”
Neil looked at her and shook his head. Tears welled up in his eyes, but he said nothing, Just then, Mrs. Pressley entered and Sammy turned to face the front. Again, the students had to endure another twenty minutes of rules and class expectations. Luckily for Neil, Ms. Pressley handed out the books herself and didn’t ask for a volunteer. Neil was sure Lucas would gladly volunteer him again.
When the bell rang, Neil waited until Lucas and the other boys had left the room. Sammy waited until Neil rose, and she asked him what class he had next.
Neil looked at his schedule and replied, “English II.”
Sammy smiled and locked her arm around his. “Good,” she exclaimed happily. “We have the same class.”
Neil felt embarrassed walking down the hall with Sammy clutching his arm. For two years, other students had openly wondered when the two of them would start dating. Everyone knew that Sammy had had a crush on Neil for years. Now that they had passed the immature and awkward stage of adolescence, it was just a matter of time before they would take their friendship to a new level.
Sammy knew something was wrong- seriously wrong. After watching Neil since the fifth grade when she first became attracted to him, she knew him almost as well as she knew herself. She had never seen him cry, but he appeared to almost break into tears in their second period class when she asked him what was wrong. Also, from the conversation that she heard between Owen and Mac in first period, she realized that something had happened over the summer. She hadn’t yet pieced together what had happened, but if Lucas was involved, then trouble was sure to be brewing.
As they walked down the hall, two girls approached from behind. Maggie Rumsfield took Sammy by the arm. “Hi, Sammy,” she smiled as she quickly glanced over at Neil. “How was your summer?”
Jessie Thompson spoke to Sammy, but she didn’t look at Neil. She tried to pull Sammy away from Neil. “Girl,” she quipped excitedly, “We need to have a talk.”
Sammy refused to let go of Neil’s arm. She looked at her two friends and asked, “What is with you two?”
Jessie glanced over at Neil and tugged at Sammy’s arm. “We need to talk,” she insisted again.
Sammy looked over at Neil. “You go on to class,” she said. “Save me a seat beside you. Okay?”
“Yeah, sure,” he replied as he began to walk away. He knew what Jessie and Maggie were about to tell Sammy. He could tell that they couldn’t wait to surprise her with the big announcement- the boy she admired so much and wanted as a boyfriend- was gay.
The two giddy girls pulled Sammy to the side. They looked around the hall to make sure no one could hear them. Jessie asked Sammy excitedly, “Haven’t you heard about Neil?”
Maggie playfully pushed her shoulder and said, “Girl. You are going to die when you find out.”
Sammy rolled her eyes and asked, “What are you talking about?”
Jessie leaned toward Sammy’s left ear and whispered, “Neil is gay.”
Sammy shook her head and refused to believe what she was hearing. “No, he’s not,” she insisted defiantly.
Maggie gripped her arm and said, “Yes, he is. He tried to have sex with Owen. All the guys know about it.” She squeezed Sammy’s arm tighter. “If you don’t believe us, just ask Owen. He’ll tell you.”
Sammy stood stunned as she looked into they eyes of her friends. They seem happy to be informing her about someone she cared deeply about. They seemed to delight in watching her emotions as they attempted to break her heart.
She stepped away and muttered angrily, “You bitches.”
Jessie’s eyes widened as she asked surprisingly. “What did you say? We try to help you, and you call us bitches.”
“You’re not helping me,” she hissed as she stared angrily at the girls. “We’ve all known Neil since the first grade.” Tears began to appear in her eyes. “Now, you want to stand here and stab him in the back because of some rumor started by Owen?”
Maggie insisted again, “But Neil is gay!”
Sammy wiped tears away from her cheek. “So what if he is?” she responded. “He’s still our friend.” She started to turn, but Jessie grabbed her arm.
“We know how you feel about Neil,” she said. “We’re just trying to help you.”
“Well then,” replied Sammy as she pulled Jessie’s hand from her arm. “You can help me by just leaving me alone.”
Sammy started to hurry down the hall. Jessie turned to Maggie and asked, “What’s her problem?”