“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“I heard what happened after school,” Chris said. “I had to call and make sure you weren’t hurt.”
“No, I’m all right,” I assured him. “How did you find out?”
“Jason called me,” he answered. “How’s your side?”
“I’ve felt better.” I lifted my shirt and looked at the deep bruises. The doctor had told me I was lucky that there hadn’t been any internal injuries.
“Listen, Chris,” I said. “I’m sorry if I hurt you this morning. I looked for you today, but I didn’t see you.”
“Yeah, well,” he stammered. “I was just hanging around the library, mostly. So, are you really going to leave Easton?” There was a sadness in his voice.
“I don’t know,” I responded. “Everything is just so screwed up right now. I don’t really know what to do.”
“I don’t think running away is the answer,” he responded.
“I’m not running away,” I insisted. “I just don’t know if I’ll be safe at school.”
“It’s going to get better,” he assured me. “Just give it some time. I’ll be with you, if you want.”
“Then they’ll just hurt you too,” I warned.
“Get off the goddamned phone, Christopher!” I heard a man’s voice shouting in the background. “I told you that you were grounded. That means no phone!”
“Listen,” Chris said hurriedly. “I got to go.”
“If you’re talking to your damned boyfriend, I’m going to pitch your fucking phone out the window!” The man shouted angrily.
I was stunned. I assumed the man who was shouting was Mr. Brewster, Chris’s father. He sounded very angry. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Boyfriend! Was Chris gay? Was Mr. Brewster talking about me? Whoever he was referring to, it didn’t sound like he was happy about it. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable for Chris.
“I have to.. Stop! Daddy, I’m sorry!” Suddenly, the phone went dead. I redialed his number, but I got a busy signal. I sat trembling, fearing that Chris’s father had hurt him. I had never met Mr. Brewster, but my father talked about him frequently. He played golf with him every week, and they seemed to be very good friends.
I sat on my bed looking at my cell phone. I tried one more time, but again I got a busy signal. I walked downstairs and found my father and mother sitting on the couch watching television. He had his head in her lap, and she was gently stroking his hair.
“You two need to get a room,” I joked.
“Then don’t watch,” my mother shot back. My father raised his hand and gave my mother an imaginary point.
“Dad,” I said. “Can we talk?”
“Sure, Champ,” he responded. “What’s on your mind?”
I looked at my mother. “Alone?” I asked.
“Well, I know when I’m not wanted,” she said as she threw my father off her lap and into the floor. Everyone started laughing. She got off the sofa and said, “I’m going to bed. Don‘t keep me waiting too long.” She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively at my father. He licked his lips seductively.
“Oh, God!” I shouted. “I think I’m going to puke. Where’s the barf bag?” I then leaned over and acted like I was throwing up on the floor. Again, we laughed.
“All right, shoot,” he said after my mother left the room.
“How well do you know Mr. Brewster?” He gave me a questioning look.
“John?” he asked. “We’ve known each other for years. We pledged to the same fraternity in college. Why do you ask?”
“Do you think he’d hurt Chris?” I blurted out. I didn’t know any sensitive way of discussing the fear I was feeling.
“Why would you ask something like that?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I just got off the phone with Chris, and his father was yelling at him. I got a feeling it was something he does all the time.”
“Just because he yells at him, doesn’t mean he’d hurt him,” my father assured me. “I yell at you, but have I ever hit you?”
“Well, no,” I said. I was beginning to feel stupid for bringing up the subject. Just because Chris’s dad got angry on the phone didn’t mean he was hurting him.
“What brought all this up?” I then related the things I had heard Mr. Brewster yell at Chris. My father agreed that he could see why I had assumed that perhaps Chris was in danger, but he assured me that he had never seen his father act violently in the years he had known him.
“If it helps, I’ll say something to him tomorrow on the golf course,” he said. “It is rather strange, his comment about talking to a boyfriend.”
“Thanks, Dad.” I walked over and gave him a kiss on the cheek. He pulled me down into his lap and started tickling me. I screamed out in pain. He quickly let me up and apologized. He lifted my shirt and looked at the bruises.
“If I ever see Shays out of his uniform,” he said angrily, “I’m going to kick his ass. He knows what those hooligans, he calls sons, did to you. He just sits back and encourages them.”
“I think you should let Bernie handle it,” I said. “I don’t want to see your face smashed in.”
“You don’t think I can fight?” My father jumped around the room punching at an imaginary figure. I was laughing uproariously. He stopped, bent over and started wheezing.
“Maybe you’re right,” he laughed. “Let me go to bed with your mother before I run out of energy.” He gave me an evil grin.
“Oh, no!” I shouted. “Barf bag! Where’s the barf bag?” He walked upstairs, laughing all the way.
As my father drove me to school the next morning, I kept worrying about what would happen. The day before, I had my locker painted pink, catsup poured into it, ridiculed and laughed at, assaulted and my car vandalized. I didn’t think it could get much worse.
I got out of the truck and went into the building. A few students looked at me and snickered, but I wasn’t getting the attention I had the day before. Cynthia, as usual, was waiting beside my locker.
“Where’s your books?” she asked. “I opened your locker and it was empty.”
“They’re in Mrs. Mason’s room,” I told her. “She said I could keep them in a file cabinet for a while.” I put my arm around her and led her down the hall. I only heard one student call me a fag.
Mrs. Mason was at her desk grading papers when we entered. “Good morning,” she said cheerfully. “How are you two today?”
“Pretty good, actually,” I said smilingly. After getting my books, we walked out into the hall. Ernest and Sly were again standing by the water fountain. Sly was gently rubbing his bandaged hand.
I tried to lead Cynthia in the other direction, but they quickly stepped in front of me, blocking our path.
“Hey, Fag!” Ernest said loudly. He looked around to make sure he had been heard by everyone in the hall. Sly walked over and stood before me. I could see the hatred in his eyes as he stared at me.
“You’re mine,” he said angrily.
Just then I felt a large presence by my side. I looked over and saw Leon standing defensively beside me. He started to stare Sly down. Soon, two more members of the football team stepped behind me and Cynthia. Ernest backed away a few steps.
“We got a problem here, Taylor?” Leon asked angrily. “Smells like someone shit in the hallway.” Several students started to laugh.
“Naw, Leon,” spoke Jeffrey Carter, a defensive linesman. He outweighed Leon by about fifty pounds. “Sly forgot to wipe his ass again.” There was a loud roar of laughter from the students standing around us. They were enjoying seeing the Shays brothers being humiliated. To my recollection, it was the first time anyone had ever challenged them.
“You’re dead meat,” Sly pointed his finger at me and started to step away. Leon grabbed his finger and began to pull it backwards. Sly winced in pain.
“Touch him and you’ll be sorry for the day your momma ever brought you into this world.” Sly balled up his fist and was getting ready to swing on Leon, when Jeff and two other members of the football team stepped forward.
“That goes for you, too.” He looked over at a very scared Ernest. Maybe Sly was stupid enough to try and fight Leon, but it was obvious Ernest wasn’t prepared to get his ass kicked in front of the entire school.
“What’s going on here?” I could hear Mrs. Cox trying to make her way through the crowd of students. By the time she got to the center, Sly and Ernest had vanished. Leon picked me up and lifted me over his head as if I were a barbell. I started laughing hysterically.
“Twenty-four, twenty-five,” Leon counted loudly. He then put me down gently on the ground. “Hello, Mrs. Cox,” he said innocently.
“What on earth are you doing, Leon?” She looked around at the large number of students who were standing nearby laughing.
“Jeff bet me I couldn’t lift Taylor over my head twenty-five times.” He was grinning into Mrs. Cox’s face. She looked over at me. I knew she didn’t believe him, but I think she was relieved that he had handled the situation with the Shays brothers.
“Next time do it in the gym,” she said sternly. She then reached out and patted Leon’s thick arm. “Show’s over!” she shouted loudly. “Everyone get to class.”
She walked away as the students quickly dispersed. I looked at Leon. “Thanks,” I said.
“No problem,” he replied. “If those fuckers mess with you again, let me or one of the guys on the team know about it.” I nodded as he walked away. I took Cynthia to her class and then hurried to my first period. As I entered the door, I turned and saw Jeff following me to class.
As I left first period, I noticed another member of the football team follow me to my next class. Later, on the way to third period, another member followed me down the hall. I guess they were taking turns following me around for the day. I felt a little safer knowing I had a bodyguard at all times. I also noticed that any member of the team who happened to be in my class would sit somewhere in my vicinity. All of them I had tutored during my freshman year. I guess it was their way of repaying me.
Stephanie stared angrily at me when I walked into third period. “Fucking faggot,” she spat when I walked by. “My brothers are going to kick your ass.”
“Let them try.” I heard an angry voice behind me. I turned and saw Charles, the center of the team. He grabbed his knuckles and cracked them. Chills ran down my spine from the loud cracking of his joints.
I looked at her and smiled. She rolled her eyes and looked away. When I sat down, Charles sat in front of me and blocked me from Stephanie. At least she wouldn’t be giving me deadly stares.
Actually, the class turned out to be fun. The teacher gave us an assignment and told us to work quietly with another student. I pulled my seat up beside Charles, and we worked together. Soon, two other players joined us. They were very appreciative of my help. If they only knew how glad I was that they were protecting me from the Shays brothers.
At lunch, I walked into the cafeteria and looked around. I was trying to find Chris. I saw Jason sitting at a table with Cynthia. I think he was waiting for me to walk over, but I turned and walked out.
I headed to the library. I got nervous when I sensed someone behind me, but it was only Jamie, another member of the football team. I guess it was his turn to tail me.
When I walked into the library, I saw Chris with his head buried in a book. I walked over and sat down across from him. When he looked up, I noticed that his left eye seemed a little swollen. It wasn’t black, but it did appear that he had been hit.
“What are you doing here?” he asked angrily.
“I was worried about you.”
“Well, you can see I’m all right.” He picked the book up and held it in front of his face, shielding himself from me. I reached out and pulled the book down.
“Did he hit you last night?” I asked softly. I watched as tears welled up in his eyes.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” When he pulled the book up, I pulled it back down.
“Chris. Talk to me, please,” I begged. “How long has this been going on?”
“Just stay out of this,” he cried. “He has his reasons.”
“What are you talking about?” When I raised my voice, the librarian asked me to get quiet.
“No father has a reason to hit his son,” I whispered. “Let me look at your eye.” I reached up and gently touched his face. He grabbed my hand and held it as I gently wiped away a tear.
“We can’t talk about this here,” he pleaded. “Just drop it for now.”
“Will you talk to me about it then?” I begged. He nodded his head.
“Can you come home with me after school?” I asked.
“I’ll have to come up with some good excuse,” he said. “Otherwise, he won’t let me.”
“Hold on.” I pulled out my cell phone and called my dad. He was on the fourteenth hole with Chris’s father. I asked him to ask Mr. Brewster if Chris could come home with me tonight and stay for dinner. I could hear my dad arguing with Mr. Brewster. A minute later, he told me it would be all right.
“It’s set,” I smiled. “My dad talked him into it.”
“Good.” He attempted a smile, but I could tell he was worried. I hoped that when we got home after school, he’d confide in me what was actually going on.
“Have you eaten?” I asked
“No, I’m not very hungry,” he replied.
“I am.” I rubbed my stomach. I had forgotten to get a sandwich before coming to the library. “Come with me to the cafeteria.”
He didn’t want to, but I was persistent. He finally agreed to go with me. On the way, he noticed Jamie following us.
“What’s he doing?” he whispered as he looked cautiously behind us.
“He’s my bodyguard,” I laughed. I then explained what had happened in the hall before school. I told him I was being followed ever since then by a member of the football team.
“Good,” he replied with a slight smile. “I don’t have to worry about you getting hurt.”
“I wish I could say the same thing about you,” I said before thinking. Chris looked over and frowned.
We went into the cafeteria and walked up to the salad bar. Since it was half way through the lunch period, there were no other students in line. Once we paid for our meal, I started to head over to a table in the corner. Chris noticed Jason and Cynthia, so he walked over and sat down. I wasn’t sure what to do. I could go to a table and eat alone, or I could go sit down with Chris. I decided to sit with Chris.
“Hey,” I said meekly to Jason when I sat down. I opened my salad and began eating. I didn’t want to look over at him.
I sat quietly eating while Chris and Jason talked. Most of it was about school. We had a big football game coming up on Saturday, and they were discussing how well our team would perform.
“Taylor has them following him around,” Chris said excitedly. “They’re acting like his bodyguards.” I could feel my face turn red.
“Good,” said Jason. I looked up and he was smiling at me. I returned a weak smile, then looked down and continued eating. Cynthia said nothing as she watched the strained conversation between us.
I looked up when I saw a large figure stop at our table. It was Sly. He was staring down at us. “Isn’t this cute. This must be the fag table.”
Jason started to get up, but Jamie walked up and put his hand on his shoulders, pushing him back down.
“You got a problem, Shays?” he asked angrily. “If you have any ounce of sense, you’ll move on.”
“Yeah, says who?” He was trying to stare Jamie down.
“They do,” said Jamie, pointing out into the cafeteria. Just then about eight members of the football team stood up. Leon was one of them.
“Fags,” muttered Sly before he stormed off. Jamie returned to his table without saying another word.
“Damn,” responded Jason in awe. “You weren’t kidding.” I looked out and saw students looking at our table. I knew they were wondering why I was sitting at the same table with Jason. Ironically, I too was wondering the same thing.
The bell rang and we got up to go to class. I said goodbye to Chris and Cynthia, then followed Jason down the hall to chemistry. When I entered, he was talking to Fred and pointing to the table where Marilyn was sitting. Fred walked over and sat down, leaving me without a partner. I looked around, and the only available seat was the one beside Jason.
I walked over and cautiously sat down. I knew he had intentionally made Fred move so I would sit beside him again. I pulled out my chemistry book and listened as the teacher began the lesson. I kept glancing at Jason out of the corner of my eye. He was doing the same.
After twenty minutes of taking notes, the teacher gave us an assignment out of the book. I began working on it, trying not to notice Jason.
“Psst.” I looked over and Jason was staring at me. “I don’t understand problem five. Can you help me with it?”
I looked down and read the problem. It was probably the easiest one we were assigned. I couldn’t figure out why he needed my help. Besides, Jason was probably smarter than me when it came to science.
“Yeah,” I said. I moved closer to him and looked to see how much he had done. He hadn’t even started on the problem. I then pushed my paper over so that he could see what I had done. He copied it down and pushed it back to me.
“Thanks,” he said. He sat nervously for a few minutes. He acted like he was having trouble figuring out the next problem of the assignment. I tried to hold back a grin. I knew he was just trying to find a reason to speak to me again.
“Psst,” he said again. “Can you help me with the next problem?” He looked over at me innocently. I saw a smile begin to form on his face.
“Yeah,” I replied, returning his smile. I scooted closer to him and began working on the problem while he watched on. He moved his leg so that it was rubbing against mine. My first instinct was to move it away, but Jason and I had sat so many times with our bodies in close contact. It was reassuring that he still felt comfortable being close to me.
We worked quietly for the next few minutes. I would keep glancing over at his paper to see if he was having trouble with any more problems. I knew he wasn’t, but it gave me a chance to stay close to him. I was slowly feeling that my best friend was returning to me.
I looked over at him and our eyes met. We stared at each other, neither of us willing to break the gaze. He began to smile and held out his hand to mine. “Friends?” he asked.
I returned the smile, reached out, took his hand and shook it. “Friends.” I replied.
He reached out and gave my shoulder a playful push. “Asswipe,” he said cheerfully. I shoved his shoulder. “Up yours,” I giggled. The teacher walked up to the table and looked over our shoulder to see how much work we had completed. He patted us both on the back before walking away.
Before the bell rang, we put our books and papers away and sat quietly looking at each other. I knew that things between us would be different, but it felt good to be starting over. This time there would be no secrets between us.
“I’ll see you sixth period,” he said as we walked out of class.
“I’ll be there,” I responded. I looked across the hall and saw Leon waiting to walk me to our fifth period class.
“There’s your body guard,” laughed Jason. “See you.” I watched as he walked down the hall.
“It’s good to see you guys talking again,” remarked Leon as he walked up beside me.
“Yeah, it is,” I replied.
I couldn’t believe it was that easy; but then, that is what friendship is all about. Years had bonded us so tightly that it could survive a serious challenge. I knew we still had a few hurdles to jump over. However, the hardest part was over, and we had survived without damaging the feelings we had for each other.