Neil tried to walk beside Gerry on the way to the auditorium, but Gerry seemed like he was trying to ignore him. When two other freshmen started talking to him, he headed off in another direction with them.
Neil entered the auditorium and looked around. Sammy and Alex would be onstage, so he had no one to sit with him. Since he had arrived late, most seats were taken. He made his way down the aisle looking for an empty seat. About halfway down, he found a seat in an empty row. He sat down and waited for the assembly to begin. Students were still scampering in, and the row he was sitting in was filling quickly. Two empty seats remained beside him.
He looked up at the stage. Mr. Bowers, Mr. Collins and Ms. Shelton were talking to the students who had been selected as Student Ambassadors. He noticed that Sammy and Alex were sitting next to each other. He was also surprised to see Owen sitting next to Sammy.
Two students came rushing down the aisle and stopped beside him. Someone asked, “Are these seats taken?” He looked up to see Ned and Robbie. They seemed as surprised as he was.
“No,” he stammered. He stood and they slid in past him to the two empty seats.
“Thanks,” said Ned as he glanced over at Neil.
“No problem,” responded Neil. He wondered why they had decided to sit beside him rather than finding other seats. Looking around, there were still seats available.
He jumped when Robbie leaned up, looked past Ned and said, “Hi, Neil.”
“Um, hi Robbie,” he responded nervously.
Ned giggled and asked, “Did you like your little vacation from school?”
Neil didn’t know how to respond. Ned and Robbie were acting as if nothing had happened. They were talking to him as they always had.
He smiled slightly at Ned and replied, “It was okay, I guess.”
Robbie leaned forward again and said, “Listen, Neil. We got to talk to you.” He glanced quickly at Ned. “It’s about Lucas.”
Neil could sense fear in Robbie’s voice. He asked, “What about Lucas?”
Just then, Mr. Bowers began to shout and tell the students to settle down. A hush began to grow throughout the auditorium.
Ned whispered to Neil, “We’ll tell you later. Okay?”
“Yeah, sure,” replied Neil. He couldn’t imagine what they wanted to tell him, but he knew it couldn’t be good. Since they were willing to talk to him, that could only mean one thing- they weren’t talking to Lucas. If they had turned their back on Lucas, then he could cause trouble for all of them.
He heard very little of Mr. Bower’s speech about the Student Ambassador Program. He was too worried about Ned and Robbie’s warning about Lucas. Occasionally, he could sense that they were looking at him, but he didn’t look over.
He looked up at the stage when Mr. Collins stepped up to the podium. Neil still couldn’t believe that he was dating his mother. He wondered how long it would take for other students to find out. He had already been the target of their jokes when the rumor spread about what he had done to Owen. Now, he would be targeted again because his mother was dating the assistant principal.
Mr. Collins began by introducing Ms. Shelton. He then introduced the Student Ambassadors. Four students had been selected from each class. The senior class included two football players, a cheerleader and the class vice president. The junior class was represented by the class president, a basketball player, a girls’ soccer player and another cheerleader.
He smiled when Mr. Collins introduced the sophomore ambassadors. They were Sammy, Alex, Owen and Stephanie, a member of the girls’ basketball team. The freshman class was represented by four students that no one was familiar with since they had just started school. The two boys and a girl appeared to be athletes. The fourth was a girl who looked very scholarly. She wore glasses and was dressed rather plainly.
Ned nudged Neil after the introductions were made. “Look at Owen,” he giggled. “Can you believe he volunteered? This is the first thing I think he’s ever done in school besides playing sports.”
Robbie laughed and said, “I think he only joined so he could have a reason to talk to Stephanie. He’s had the hots for her since the seventh grade.”
“Yeah,” laughed Ned. “He’s asked her to three dances, and she’s turned him down every time.”
Neil looked over at his friends. They were actually talking as they had always done in the past. It was as if what happened weeks ago hadn’t even occurred. He wondered if Owen would talk to him as Ned and Robbie were now doing.
Mr. Bowers made a few closing remarks before dismissing the students. He said the same thing to them that he had said when he and his father had attended the meeting in his office.
He warned them that if they were involved in a situation, and they didn’t comply, then they could be suspended. He assured them that what they were attempting could succeed with their cooperation. He ended by again thanking Ms. Shelton for all the hard work she had put into the project.
As they were standing to leave, Ned laughed and said, “Owen looked like a dork up there.”
Robbie agreed. They again laughed about how he was doing it only to attract Stephanie’s attention. He giggled and said, “She’ll probably report him for stalking her.”
On the way out, Neil walked slowly behind Ned and Robbie. They sat beside him in the auditorium, but he wasn’t sure they would want to be seen with him as they walked to the bus.
Ned turned and motioned for Neil to hurry. “Come on,” he shouted above the noise of students leaving the building. “We’re going to be late for the bus.” When they picked up their pace, Neil hurried to catch up with them.
He still wasn’t sure what was happening. They hadn’t said a word to him about what had happened in the old barn. It was as if they had forgotten all about it. As he approached the bus, however, he wasn’t sure Owen would feel the same way.
When he got on, he walked down the aisle toward the seat that he and Sammy usually shared. She hadn’t arrived yet, so he sat down and placed his book bag in the seat beside him. He looked toward the front. Ned and Robbie were looking back at him.
They stood, walked toward him and sat in the seats in front of him. Robbie turned and looked at the empty seat beside him. He asked Neil, “You saving a seat for Sammy?”
“Yeah,” he replied.
Ned tossed his book bag in the seat across the aisle and said, “Better save Owen a seat or he’ll be pissed.”
Neil wanted to ask what was going on, but he was too afraid. If his friends were willing to act as if nothing had happened, then he wasn’t going to mention it.
Just then, he saw Sammy and Owen board the bus. Owen gave them a puzzled look when he saw Robbie and Ned sitting with Neil in the back. He followed Sammy down the aisle. When she sat beside Neil, he sat in the seat Ned had reserved for him.
He looked at Ned and Robbie, and then he glanced quickly at Neil. He threw up his hand and said, “Hi, Guys.” Neil reluctantly said hello and waved back.
Sammy said excitedly, “Wasn’t that a wonderful assembly? I think this bullying project is really going to work. I’ve already had one girl talk briefly to me about some things that are happening in her gym class.”
She looked over at Owen and asked, “What about you? Anyone said anything?”
He shook his head and replied, “Not yet.”
Robbie started laughing and told Sammy, “The only reason he volunteered is because he likes Stephanie.”
Owen glared at him and insisted, “I did not!”
“Did too,” giggled Ned.
“It doesn’t matter,” interrupted Sammy. “He’s one of our class Student Ambassadors, and I think he’ll do a wonderful job.” She looked at Owen and smiled.
The bus started to pull away, but then it came to an abrupt stop. The driver opened the door, and the bus shook as Lucas climbed the steps. He stopped when he saw the five in the back.
Neil’s heart started pounding as Lucas stood and glared at him. He was sure that Lucas would come to the back and start trouble. However, it surprised everyone when Lucas sat down beside a redheaded girl in the junior class.
“Jesus,” muttered Ned nervously. “I didn’t think he would be riding the bus home.”
Robbie voice trembled when he said, “He ain’t going to like all of us sitting together.”
“Fuck him,” replied Owen defiantly. “I’m tired of doing what he orders us to do all the time.”
“But you know what he said,” responded Ned. He glanced quickly back at Neil.
“Listen, Guys,” said Neil. “I don’t want no trouble. Maybe you should move closer to the front.”
“You will do no such thing,” hissed Sammy. “You little boys have got to grow a few and be men someday. Might as well start today.”
Ned looked worriedly at her, and then he looked at the back of Lucas’s head. “We won’t grow up to be men if Lucas kills us.”
“Come on, Guys,” said Owen. “We talked about this. We have to just stick together. He can’t take us all on. Besides, if he does anything on school time, Mr. Bowers will expel him.”
Ned said worriedly, “That won’t stop him from hurting us when we go home.”
Shivers went up Neil’s spine when Lucas looked back at them. It was if he could hear what they were saying. His eyes were filled with hate as he glared at them.
Ned looked at the others and asked, “What are we going to do when we get off? What if he gets off with one of us and follows us home?”
Robbie muttered, “Shit. I never thought about that.”
“Come on, Guys,” responded Owen. “Lucas is our friend. He’s not going to hurt us.”
“But you know what he said about us talking to Neil,” replied Ned as he quickly grabbed his mouth.
Neil asked, “What did he say about me?”
“Nothing,” insisted Owen. “Ned is just making shit up.” He glared at Ned and asked, “Right?” Ned reluctantly nodded his head.
“I have an idea,” volunteered Sammy. “My mom is home. We’ll all get off at my stop, and she can drive you guys home.”
Ned let out a sigh of relief. “Okay,” he replied as he looked toward the front to see Lucas still staring back at them.
When the bus stopped to let Ned off, the driver looked in his mirror and hollered, “Ain’t you getting off?” When Ned shook his head, the driver pulled away. A few minutes later, the same thing happened when the bus stopped to let Owen off. Each time, Lucas would look back at them. It was obvious he was puzzled why none of them was getting off at their stop.
When the bus stopped in front of Sammy’s home, the five of them grabbed their book bags and hurried down the aisle toward the door. Lucas watched them, but he didn’t move from his seat. They hurried down the steps and let out a sigh of relief when the bus pulled away with Lucas staring out the window at them.
They went inside Sammy’s house. She shouted out to her mother, but no one answered. “I guess she’s not home,” she said. “What are we going to do now?”
Owen opened his phone and said, “I’ll call my mother.” After several rings, he placed his phone back into this pocket. “I guess she’s not home, either.”
Robbie and Ned said it would do no good to call their homes because they knew no one was there.
Neil called his mother, but she was out of the office. So was his Uncle Jack. “I don’t know what to do,” he sighed as he looked at the others. “I guess we’ll have to walk home.”
Ned nervously responded, “What if Lucas is waiting for us. You saw the look on his face when the bus pulled off.” Sammy suggested that they could wait until one of her parents got home, but Owen insisted he had to get home.
He announced, “I have to mow the yard before my dad gets home.”
Neil looked at him and asked, “You want me to go with you?” He wasn’t sure how Owen would respond. Up until then, things had seemed like they always had. It was as if the last couple of weeks didn’t happen. He waited anxiously for Owen to reply.
“Yeah,” he said. “Two is better than one in case we meet up with Lucas.”
“Three,” responded Ned.
Robbie looked nervous as he muttered, “Four.”
Sammy had a worried look when she asked the four boys, “Are you sure you’ll be all right?”
Robbie laughed nervously and asked Sammy, “Does your father have a gun in the house?”
Sammy gave him an angry looked and responded, “If he did, I wouldn’t give it to you. You can’t just shoot someone because you’re afraid of them.”
“But Lucas is crazy,” insisted Robbie.
“Well, you’re not getting a gun,” huffed Sammy.
She looked at Neil and told him to call her when he arrived home. “Let me know you guys made it home safely.” Neil nodded and followed the others out the front door.
They walked silently toward Ned’s home. He lived about a quarter of a mile away from Sammy. As they walked, they kept a close eye on the road behind them. If Lucas got off at the next stop, he would be trailing them.
“Bye, Guys,” Ned said nervously as he looked to make sure Lucas wasn’t approaching. He asked Owen to call him when he got home. Robbie’s home was next. Again, they hurried down the street to his home that was three blocks from Ned’s home.
“I guess it’s just us,” remarked Owen nervously as he and Neil started toward Neil’s home. He lived two blocks away from Robbie. It only took them a couple of minutes to arrive. When they got to Neil’s porch, he turned to Owen.
“You can’t go home by yourself,” he said worriedly. Even though Owen lived two blocks away, it would still be dangerous for him to be by himself if Lucas was following them. “Why don’t you come inside, and I’ll have my mom take you home when she gets here.”
“I don’t know,” responded Owen. He still felt nervous being with Neil after what had happened. He knew Neil wouldn’t do anything, but he still felt uncomfortable being alone with him.
“Don’t worry,” said Neil when he saw the look of apprehension on Owen’s face. “Brett and Emily will be home in a few minutes.”
Owen relented, and he agreed to come inside Neil’s home. They removed their book bags from their shoulders, and Owen followed Neil into the kitchen. He sat on a bar stool while Neil went to the refrigerator and took out two Mountain Dews. He then went to the cupboard and removed a box of Fig Newtons. He sat down opposite Owen and put the soda and cookies in front of him.
Owen asked, “How long will it be before your Mom gets home?”
Neil looked at the clock and replied, “Maybe about another hour.” Owen nodded his head and took a swig of his soda.
Just then, Neil’s phone rang. It was Sammy. He explained that Owen was staying with him until his mother got home. He also assured her that Robbie and Ned were safe.
When he hung up, Owen said angrily, “This is so stupid. We shouldn’t be afraid of Lucas. He is our friend.”
Neil looked at Neil and replied, “But you guys said he’s really changed.”
“He has,” responded Owen. “After what happened...” His face reddened and he stopped talking.
Neil hung his head and apologized, “I’m sorry about that,” he said. He looked into Owen’s eyes. “If I could take back that day, I would.”
Owen shook his head. “No,” he insisted. “We were just playing around. I shouldn’t have said anything to the other guys. I’m the one who fucked up.”
Neil’s voice shook as he started to confess, “Look, Owen. There’s something you should know.”
Owen jumped from the stool and started pacing around the room. “It don’t matter, Neil,” he said as he stopped and looked at Neil. “What’s done is done.”
“But...” started Neil.
Owen stared at Neil and said angrily, “I said it don’t matter none. What’s done is done. Okay?”
Neil nodded his head. He understood. Owen was telling him it was okay if he was gay. But like most boys their age, he didn’t want to talk about it. There would be a day when they might be able to sit down and discuss it, but then wasn’t the time.
“Okay,” he replied.
Just then, Owen’s cell phone rang. It was Robbie. Owen assured him that he and Neil were safe. He also told him he would be staying with Neil until his mother arrived. Neil watched as Owen’s face reddened, and he then told Robbie to “Fuck off.” Neil assumed that Robbie had said something jokingly about the two of them being together alone in Neil’s house.
“Little shit,” muttered Owen as he placed his phone back into his pocket.
Neil finished his soda and then went to the refrigerator to get another. When he held one up to Owen, he nodded and said he would take another. Neil returned to the counter, sat down and handed Owen the beverage.
“Thanks,” he said as he smiled at Neil and asked, “So, how have things been? What did you do while you were suspended?”
Neil started to tell him about the nice time he spent with his father. He didn’t tell him that his father was gay, and that he was married to Dwight. Perhaps someday, he would introduce him to them as he had Sammy. Owen seemed like he would accept them as Sammy had done.
Neil jumped when his cell phone rang. He took it out of his pocket to see who was calling. It was a private call. He looked skeptically at Owen and answered it.
“Fuck you, you little morons!” It was Lucas’s booming voice. Owen’s eyes widened when he heard Lucas’s threat coming from Neil’s phone.
He leaned toward Neil so he could hear what Lucas was saying. Neil held the phone between their heads.
He continued, “Thought you were being cute by getting off at Ned’s stop.” They could hear him breathing heavily as he talked. “You ain’t seen the last of me, you Mother Fuckers. I’m going to fuck all of you up,” he spat. The hair on Neil’s neck bristled when he added, “And I’m going to start with you, you Mother Fucking Cock Sucker!”
Suddenly, the phone went dead. Owen gave Neil a worried look. Neil’s hands shook as he placed the phone on the counter. He asked Neil, “What are we going to do? I just know he’s going to hurt one of us.”
Neil’s voice trembled as he responded, “I don’t know.” He got up, walked over to the back door and bolted the lock.
Owen stood and started to pace around the kitchen again. He stopped and said, “We have got to tell an adult.” He picked Neil’s phone off the counter. “Do you think we should call the police?”
Neil shook his head. “That won’t do any good,” he replied. “Kids make threats all the time. They won’t care.”
“But Lucas means it!” shouted Owen. They jumped when the doorbell rang. They hurried to the front door. Neil peeked through the peephole. “It’s Brett and Emily,” he announced as he unlatched the lock.
“Be careful,” warned Owen. “Lucas could be out there with them.”
Neil cracked the door open and looked out. Brett started shouting to let them in. After they entered, Neil bolted the door behind them.
Brett looked at Owen and smiled, “Hi, Owen,” he said cheerfully. “You haven’t been over in a while.”
Owen glanced at Neil and replied to Brett, “Yeah, well, I’ve been kind of busy.”
“Cool,” quipped Brett as he tossed off his book bag and headed into the kitchen with Emily trailing him. “What’s for a snack?”
Neil sighed and shouted, “Milk and Fig Newtons.”
Owen laughed when Brett hollered out, “Cool!”
* * * * * *
Alex and Gerry were in their room completing homework assignments. Alex was reading a short story for Mrs. Yarber, and Gerry was struggling with algebra problems.
“I can’t understand this,” moaned Gerry as he tossed his assignment paper on the floor.
Alex rose from his bed, crossed the room and sat down beside his little brother. “Let me see,” he said as he picked up the paper. He studied it a minute before handing the paper to Gerry.
“They look easy to me,” he replied.
“That’s cause you’re smart,” grumbled Gerry.
“Okay,” replied Alex. “Let me help you.” For the next half hour, Alex helped Gerry with the problems. Actually, Alex completed the assignment while his brother listened to music on his headphones.
When he finished, Alex lay back on the bed and looked at Gerry. “Other than algebra,” he laughed, “How are things going? Any more problems with that big goober?”
“No,” he replied
“Come get me if he messes with you again,” insisted Alex. “Okay?”
“Yeah, sure,” replied Gerry. “I’ll be all right. Paul walks me to most of my classes.”
Alex gave his brother a puzzled look. “Paul? Who’s he?”
Gerry grinned and said, “He’s really cute. He plays on the soccer team. I think he likes me.”
“Likes you?” asked a stunned Alex. “What about Neil?”
Gerry replied, “What about him?”
“I thought you liked him?”
“No,” responded Gerry. “You like him. I never told you I like Neil.”
“But I thought you guys were good for each other.”
Gerry shook his head. “You’re doing it again,” he said angrily. “Look, Alex. I can find my own boyfriends. Okay? I don’t need you to hook me up with other guys.”
Alex stared disappointedly at his brother as he rose from the bed and left the bedroom.