When Neil entered the kitchen for breakfast, he held his head down and refused to look at his mother. By now, he was certain that Uncle Jack had told her about their conversation. Usually, when they talked, he had his uncle promise that he wouldn’t tell anyone what they had discussed. Last night, however, he didn’t. In fact, he hoped that he would tell his mother. It would make it easier for him. He wasn’t sure he could stand to see the disappointed look on her face when she realized her oldest son was gay.
“Here, Dear,” she remarked as she placed a bowl of Cheerios and a banana on the table in front of him. Just then, Brett started kidding Emily about a boy she liked. He quickly ate his breakfast and excused himself from the table.
Twenty minutes later, he was nervously waiting for the bus to arrive. After what happened the day before, he was afraid to get on. However, when he turned to look back at his house, his mother was standing on the porch observing him. He couldn’t start on a long walk to school as he had planned.
When the bus arrived, he headed for the back of the bus. As he made his way down the narrow aisle, he saw Lucas with a smirk on his face.
Lucas muttered, “Fag,” as he passed. He put out his foot to trip him, but Neil was able to quickly avoid his attempt. He glanced off to his right and saw Owen and Ned staring at him. He made his way to the back, plopped down in a seat and looked out the window.
He glanced occasionally toward the front as the bus made its slow journey to school. Each time, he noticed Lucas glaring back at him. Fortunately, as more students entered the bus, they were able to block his view. Sammy didn’t get on at her stop. He wondered if she was sick, or if her mother dropped her off on the way to work.
When the bus came to a halt in front of the school, students began to disembark. Neil noticed that Lucas and the others remained in their seats. He hesitated in the aisle and waited for them to stand. He was relieved when the bus driver looked in his rear view mirror and hollered for them to get off the bus. He waited until they were walking up the sidewalk to school before he disembarked.
He walked slowly toward the school. As he approached, he noticed that the boys ahead of him also slowed their pace. He jumped and let out a slight shout when someone put his arm around his shoulder. “Relax,” smiled Alex. “Jesus, why are you so jumpy?”
Neil responded, “You startled me.” Alex laughed and squeezed his shoulder. Neil looked past him and saw the boy who had entered the restroom the day before. The boy quickly looked down at the sidewalk.
“Hey,” said Alex as he put his arm around the smaller boys shoulder and pulled him towards him. “Have you met my little brother, Gerry?”
Neil looked over and their eyes met. “No,” stammered Gerry nervously. Alex pulled him closer to Neil so they were facing each other.
“This is Gerry,” introduced Alex. “He’s a freshman. Yesterday was kind of hard for him. He’s shy and doesn’t make friends easily.” Alex grinned and added, “He doesn’t have my charm.”
Neil started laughing. “He doesn’t have your arrogance, either.” Neil noticed a slight smile appear on Gerry’s lips.
Alex grinned again, threw up his hands and replied, “What can I say?” He pulled Neil and his little brother tightly into his body and said, “Let’s get to class.”
Once inside, Gerry waved goodbye and scurried off down the hall. Neil watched, turned to Alex and asked, “He’s kind of quiet, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, he is,” replied Alex. “At least around strangers. He’s not like that at home.”
Neil grinned and asked, “You sure you guys are brothers?”
Alex laughed and said, “Momma says we are.” He patted Neil on the back and said he had to get to class. After saying goodbye, Neil headed toward his first period class. He considered stopping by the cafeteria to see if Sammy was there, but he was afraid of running into Lucas and the other boys.
He sat down outside his classroom door until Mr. Norris arrived. Norris gave him a puzzled look when he approached. “Everything alright, Neil?”
“Yes, Sir,” replied Neil as he rose from the floor. “I just wanted to get to class early.”
Norris laughed as he opened his door. “I don’t give brownie points for being early.”
“No, Sir,” responded Neil as his face reddened.
Neil walked over to his desk, opened his biology book and began thumbing through it. Norris stood at the board and jotted down some words that Neil assumed he would have them define later. He opened his notebook and copied them. When the bell rang, students began to file into the classroom.
As Lucas passed by Neil’s desk, he brushed up against Neil. He then jumped back and shouted, “Hey, watch it.” Ned and Robbie were behind him and started laughing. Just as the bell rang, Owen came rushing into the room.
After a brief lecture, Mr. Norris told the students to take out a sheet of paper and define the words on the board. Neil grinned to himself because he had already started the assignment earlier.
As he worked, he noticed Lisa, a girl sitting next to him, reach into her pant’s pocket, pull out her cell phone and read a text message. She quickly looked over at him. Soon, he saw several more students hiding their phones and reading a text message so that Mr. Norris wouldn’t catch them. Each time, they would glance quickly over at him. Neil was confused as to what was going on.
Suddenly, he felt his phone vibrate inside his pants. He looked up at Mr. Norris’s desk to make sure he wasn’t looking, and he took out his phone.
It was a text from Owen. He gasped when he read the message he had sent:
Neil Michaels is a fag. He tried to suck my dick.
Neil’s face reddened, and he glanced quickly back at Owen. Lucas was sitting beside him grinning mischievously. The night before he had conceived the plan to use Owen’s phone to send out a message to their classmates. He had planned to do it in Ms. Shelton’s history class, but Mr. Norris had given him the opportunity by assigning a class activity that required little supervision.
Neil’s heart started pounding as more students looked over at him. He knew that by the end of the class, everyone in Owen’s contact list would be aware of the text message. It wouldn’t take long for others to hear the rumors of the phone text.
Neil rushed from the room when the bell rang. “Hey!” shouted Tricia Carter as he brushed by her and knocked her book bag from her shoulder. He hurried down the hall to his second period. Since Lucas, Owen and a couple of the other guys were in Ms. Pressley’s class, he kept looking over his shoulder to see if they were behind him.
He entered the classroom and sat at his desk. As students paraded into the class, they would glance over to where he was sitting. A couple of girls giggled and quickly looked away. When Sammy entered, she sat down, leaned over and asked Neil if he was all right.
He started to respond, but just then, Lucas walked in, followed by Owen, Ned and Mac. Lucas smirked as he strolled past him down the aisle. The bell rang and Ms. Pressley began to take the roll. When she called Neil’s name, Lucas remarked loudly, “Fag Michaels.”
Neil’s body began to tremble. Before he realized what he was doing, he stood, turned toward Lucas, balled his fists and hollered, “Why don’t you shut the fuck up!” He had reached his breaking point. After what happened in the last class, he knew he couldn’t continue to let Lucas, Owen and the others continue to humiliate him. Unfortunately, he decided to take a stand in the middle of Spanish class.
“Neil!” hollered Ms. Pressley. “Sit down!”
Lucas rose from his seat and angrily stormed down the aisle towards him. He shoved Neil backwards and he fell to the ground. As he towered over Neil, he shouted, “What are you going to do about it, Mother Fucker?” He kicked Neil in the side. “I’ll kick your sorry fucking faggot ass.”
Neil raised himself off the floor and hit Lucas in the stomach. Lucas didn’t flinch. Instead, he stepped back and laughed. He turned to his friends and said, “He even hits like a little girl.” Before Neil could react, Lucas turned and hit Neil in his chest. He fell back onto a desk and into the lap of a girl. She screamed and shoved him off her and onto the floor.
“Stop it!” shouted Ms. Pressley as she stepped in front of Lucas before he could hit Neil again. “Stop this fighting. Now!” Lucas took a step back. He still had his fists balled. Suddenly, two male teachers came running into the room. Lucas pointed down at Neil and shouted, “He started it, Mr. Collins. Honestly.” The tall man reached over, grabbed Lucas by the wrist, and started to pull him from the room.
“Let’s go to the office,” he said angrily as he pulled Lucas away.
Lucas continued to plead his innocence. “Honestly, Mr. Collins,” he insisted. “I didn’t do nothing.”
A younger teacher, Mr. Shivers, the tennis coach, knelt down and helped Neil to his feet. He asked Neil if he was all right. He then asked Ms. Pressley if she had been hurt. She appeared shaken as she informed him she hadn’t been hurt. Shivers then put his hand on Neil’s back and began to push him gently toward the door. Neil glanced quickly over at Sammy. She was crying and appeared very upset.
Neil didn’t say anything as Shivers walked beside him to the office. He had never been in Mr. Bowers’s office for any disciplinary problem. He kept his hands in his pockets because they were trembling so badly. He didn’t feel remorse for what he had done, but he did regret that he had disrupted Ms. Pressley’s Spanish class. He knew that eventually he was going to have to confront Lucas. He just picked the wrong time to do it.
Fighting in school was an automatic ten-day suspension. Even though Lucas was the one who started the physical contact, he was the one who had stood up in class and instigated the fight. He wanted to cry, but he knew that would be a victory for Lucas. “Only girls cry,” he had heard him say many times when someone had hurt themselves and had to hold back tears so that they wouldn’ t appear weak. He quickly tried to blink away the tears before he entered the office.
Mr. Bowers was engaged in an animated conversation with Lucas when Neil and Shivers entered. After thanking the young teacher for his assistance, he ordered Neil to go to his office and wait. Lucas had a smug look on his face when he glanced over as walked away.
“Honest, Mr. Bowers,” continued to plead Lucas. “I didn’t do nothing. Neil started the fight.”
Neil sat nervously waiting for Mr. Bowers. It seemed like the wait was eternal. Finally, Bowers entered and sat down at this desk. He looked sternly over at Neil and asked, “Would you like to tell me what happened?”
When Neil hung his head and refused to respond, Bowers asked, “Did you stand up in the middle of Ms. Pressley’s class and tell Lucas Prescott to, “Shut the fuck up, and you also hit him in his stomach?"
Neil managed to squeak out, “I think so.” He continued to look down at the dark brown carpeting on the floor.
“Fine,” replied Bowers. He picked up his phone and asked the school secretary to send Lucas back to his office.
Lucas came strutting in and flopped down in a chair behind Neil. Bowers shuffled papers on his desk, and he would occasion write something onto one of them. Finally, he looked up and stared intently at each boy.
“Fighting in school is a serious matter,” he said angrily. “It will not be tolerated in my school.”
“But I didn’t fight,” protested Lucas. “Neil started it. I had to defend myself.”
Bowers glared at Lucas and responded, “Micheals was no threat to you. He verbally provoked the fight, but he didn’t threaten you physically.”
Lucas jumped to his feet. “He hit me in the stomach,” he hollered as he rubbed his rotund belly.
Mr. Bowers replied, “Only after you knocked him to the floor.” He then glanced over at Neil and added, “Besides, he’s half your size. It wasn’t exactly a fair fight.”
Lucas threateningly approached Bower’s desk, looked down and asked, “So, I’m going to get suspended?”
“Yes,” replied Bowers calmly as he looked up at Lucas and ordered, “Now, sit back down.”
Bowers jumped when Lucas leaned down and swept the papers on top of his desk onto the floor. Bowers reached over and pushed a button on his phone. He then rose and once again ordered Lucas to take his seat.
He hollered, “I ain’t sitting for nobody.” He then pointed down at Neil and threatened, “You fag! I’m going to kick your sorry ass.” Bowers managed to throw his arms around Lucas to prevent him from hitting Neil. Seconds later, a school security officer rushed into the room and was able to help Bowers restrain Lucas. After a brief struggle, they were able to get him out of the room. Neil sat shaking as he heard Lucas hollering threats as they pushed him away.
He could hear Lucas shouting obscenities in the lobby. Many were directed at him, but most threatened violence to Bowers and the school in general. After several minutes, the shouting stopped. He assumed that Lucas had finally settled down. It seemed like an hour passed before Bowers reentered his office.
He appeared angry as he sat down and rearranged the papers on his desk. At one pointed he muttered, “It’s days like this I wish I had listened to my father and become an accountant.”
After several minutes, he looked over at Neil and stated, “I’m suspending you for ten days.” Neil looked down at the carpet and nodded his head. “Your behavior provoked the fight in Ms. Pressley’s classroom.” Neil nodded his head again. “Even though it is apparent that you are the victim of bullying, there are better ways of dealing with it than standing up in a classroom, using gutter language and provoking someone into a fight.”
Neil’s voice squeaked as he responded with a meek, “Yes, Sir.”
Bowers scribbled some notes onto a paper, put his pen down, looked at his watch and stated, “I have contacted your mother at her office. She should be here shortly.” He pointed toward the door. “Go sit in the outer office until she arrives. I will talk to you both when she gets here.”
“Yes, Sir,” replied Neil nervously as he rose and exited the room. When he entered the school office, he looked around for Lucas. However, he didn’t see him. He took a seat and waited for his mother to arrive.
* * * * * * *
As soon as he arrived home, Neil went straight to his closet, curled up into a ball and broke down. He felt he had experienced the worst day of his life, and he could only see it getting worse.
His mother was unusually quiet on the way home. He was expecting a lecture, but she said nothing. Occasionally, she would glance over at him, but he continued to gaze out the car window and pretended he didn’t see her.
She had also remained quiet as Mr. Bowers explained what had happened. It was her nature to question every detail about an event. Neil learned early that trait came as a result of her questioning her clients about their claims. His mother was not someone who could easily be fooled. However, she listened attentively to Mr. Bowers as he explained why he was being suspended for ten days.
Only once did she question him. She had asked after Mr. Bower’s had read the remarks Ms. Pressley had made to him, “Is it true?” Without looking at his mother, Neil nodded as he looked down at the brown carpet.
Now, he sat in the dark closet wrapping and unwrapping the green tie around his hands. He stood and hung it over the wooden bar that held his clothes. When he sat down, he tested to see if it would hold his weight. He thought to himself, “If I can sit halfway up, then drop to the floor, it would probably hold me.” He tied the tie into a loop and placed it around his neck. His hands shook violently as he tightened it.
Just as he had gained the courage to carry out his plan, he heard Brett come running into the room. He quickly removed the noose from his neck and hid it behind him. He listened as Brett toed off his school shoes and threw them under his bed.
“Hurry up,” he heard another young voice speak. It was Brett’s best friend Frankie. Frankie lived three doors away. Frankie was around so much that Neil often considered him as another brother in the house. The only time he objected were the regular weekend sleepovers when the two boys would sit up late at night playing video games.
Brett giggled and said, “Gimme a minute. I gotta change my pants.” Seconds later, Brett handed them to Frankie and asked him to hang them up in the closet. The door opened, and Frankie jumped when he saw Neil curled up in the corner.
Frankie quickly closed the door and hollered out to Brett, “Neil’s hiding in the closet again.”
Brett replied, “Leave him alone. Mommy calls it his sackuary.” Frankie giggled, and Neil heard them scurry from the room.
He hugged his knees and rested his head between them. He muttered to himself, “What did I do to deserve this?” Tears started to flow from his eyes, and they dropped one by one onto his leg. He could feel them slowly run down his leg and into his socks.
Brett and Frankie kept running in and out of the room, so he was afraid to attempt what he desperately wanted to do. “They would be better off without me,” he cried silently. “I don’t have any reason to live anymore.” There was a steady stream of tears flowing down his leg as he fell deeper into despair.
He could see under the crack of the closet door that night was approaching. He thought it was unusual that his mother hadn’t brought him anything to eat. He wasn’t hungry, but he was still accustomed to her coming into the room to make sure he was all right. “She hates me,” he cried silently. He tightened his grip on his legs and rocked. “I hate me, too,” he muttered softly.
Just then, he heard the bedroom door open, and he heard the familiar steps of Uncle Jack as he made his way to the closet door. He didn’t look up when the door opened. He jumped when he heard someone say, “Son?”
He peered up into the darkness and saw his father’s silhouetted body. “Dad?”
His father said nothing as he kicked aside some shoes and sat down beside his son. It had been several weeks since he last saw his children. It was when Brett had turned nine, and he had taken the children to Chuck E. Cheese. Brett had requested it when he asked where he wanted to go to celebrate. He didn’t get to see his children often, but when he did, he enjoyed his role as father.
Even though he and Brenda had divorced, she never denied him the opportunity to spend time with his children. The only thing she asked was that he didn’t come into the house. She also didn’t want Dwight to be around when he was with the children.
Brian was surprised when Brenda had called him at work and asked him to come by to talk to Neil. She had given him some details of what had happened at school, but he still wasn’t sure what led up to the fight. He was curious why she was being evasive, but he didn’t feel like he should push her for information. He knew that something serious had happened, and perhaps Neil could tell him.
When he pulled up in front of the house, he waited in his car, expecting Neil to come out. However, Brenda appeared at the door with Brett. She spoke briefly to Brett, and he came running down to his car. “Hey, Daddy!” he said cheerfully as he got in on the passenger side, leaned over and gave him a hug. “Mommy said you can come in and see Neil.”
Brian instantly became worried. He thought that Neil had been hurt, and that he was lying in bed. He asked worriedly, “Is he alright?”
Brett giggled and responded, “He’s in the closet.”
Brian gave Brett a quizzical look. “In the closet?”
Brett giggled again and climbed out of the car. “You’ll see,” he said as he walked around the car and waited for his father to exit. He held his hand as they walked up onto the porch.
Brenda nodded and stepped aside as he entered the living room. She put her hand gently on Brett’s back and pushed him toward the stairs to the family room. “Honey,” she said, “Why don’t you go watch television with Freddie.”
“Sure,” replied Brett as he dashed away.
Brian looked worriedly at Brenda. “What has happened?”
She started walking toward the kitchen. “I’ll explain,” she said, “Over a cup of coffee.”
After pouring two cups of coffee, she looked over at Brian and asked, “You still like it two sugars and a little cream?”
Brian patted his stomach, smiled and said, “Just cream. I’ve given up sugar.” After pouring the cream into his mug, she placed it in front of him and sat down.
She took a sip from her mug and asked, “How’s Dwight?”
“He’s okay,” replied Brian, “but I don’t think you called me here tonight to talk about Dwight.”
Tears welled up in Brenda’s eyes as she responded sadly, “No, I didn’t.” She then spent the next few minutes filling Brian in on what little details she knew. She knew that something had happened between Lucas and the other boys. However, since Neil refused to talk much about it with her or Jack, she didn’t know what had really happened. The fight at school seemed to be the culmination of a lot of bullying that Neil must have experienced. She also knew that her brother was only a surrogate father to her distraught son. At a time like this, Neil needed his real father.
After listening to Brenda’s unsettling story, he asked worriedly, “What do you think I should do?”
Brenda began to sob as she reached over and gripped Brian’s hand. “I think you should talk to him.”
“Why?” Brenda had never before asked him for his help with their children.
“Neil is gay, Brian.”
She squeezed Brian’s hand tighter. “Neil is gay,” she cried. “It is tearing him up inside. Who better to help him understand than you?”
Tears welled up inside Brian’s eyes. He smiled at Brenda and stated, “You know I’ve never stopped loving you?”
She returned his smile and said tearfully, “I know.” They stood and embraced. She pulled away and wiped the tears from her eyes. “You better go talk to him.”
“Yeah, I better,” replied Brian as he made his way to Neil’s bedroom.