Excerpt from Bleeding Hearts

There is a delicate-looking plant native to North America called bleeding heart. When it blooms, its long, arching branches are covered with tiny heart-shaped flowers, each one with what looks like a drop of blood coming out the bottom — hence the name. It likes shade and doesn’t much care for wind. 

Unfortunately, we were getting a lot of wind that day. From the window overlooking the garden, I watched it blow furiously through the brightly colored flowers. Many of them had already lost their petals, but so far, the bleeding hearts were holding their own. I couldn’t say the same for myself. I was feeling more and more lost by the second.

Suddenly, I was possessed with an irresistible urge to go out into the yard. I didn’t know why. Maybe I hoped the storm’s fury would blow me away — or at least blow away the storm raging inside me. I opened the back door and walked outside. The wind buffeted my body. The driving rain instantly soaked through my clothes. It poured down my face, the raindrops mixing with my tears. I didn’t care. I just wanted to stop hurting. 

I fell to my knees in the middle of the yard. I had never felt so alone. In the course of the last two weeks I had lost everyone important to me. There was no one I could turn to, no one left to talk to. I wanted to die. 

 

Chapter 1

 

“This may be a ‘play class,’ but don’t expect any playing.” Mr. Tatum cast an imperious eye over the room. 

After two previous years in the class, I’d heard it all before. The drama teacher never changed a single word of his first day speech. I could practically mouth it along with him, but I didn’t. I never did anything that was disrespectful or might get me in trouble. I was a “good kid.”  

“This is a serious drama class,” he continued. “We’ll be doing serious work, and I will expect great things from you. If anyone took this class hoping for an easy ‘A,’ then raise your hand now. I’ll have you transferred to another class.” 

As usual, no hands went up. All of us who took Mr. Tatum’s drama class knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into. His reputation preceded him. Those who were serious about acting admired him for it. Everyone else thought he was a tyrant. 

Personally, I adored him. Drama was my one escape. I did well enough in my other classes. In fact, I usually managed straight A’s. Despite that — or maybe because of it — I didn’t fit in. The group I hung out with was pretty popular, but somehow their popularity never rubbed off on me. I was just the hanger-on. No one ever noticed me. It wasn’t like that in Drama, though. In that room, or on stage, I shone. I could break away from my humdrum life and become someone else. I could lose myself in a part and, for a while at least, forget who I really was. The drama crowd actually respected me. Not that I was friends with any of them or anything, but they respected me. That was enough.  

“Excellent,” Mr. Tatum said, preparing to go on with his rehearsed spiel. Just then, the door opened, and a head popped in.  

“Yes?” Mr. Tatum snapped, somewhat annoyed at being interrupted.  

The rest of the body came into view — and a nice body it was, I couldn’t help but notice. I’d never seen him before so he must have been new. He was taller than I was, maybe close to six feet, and willowy thin. He had red-gold hair that seemed to stick up in every direction and elfin features. In fact, he looked amazingly like an elf — even to his incredibly green eyes. I wondered if they were colored contacts. Then I wondered why I cared. Why was I so intrigued by this guy?  

“My name is Seth,” he announced. “Seth Connelly. I’m transferring into this class. Here’s the paperwork.”  

He handed the teacher a file and looked around the room. He carried himself with an air of confidence. Not arrogance exactly, but not far from it. His eyes met mine and lingered. I looked away first. 

After Mr. Tatum had mulled over the file’s contents, he grudgingly admitted, “It appears this is all in order. Why don’t you find a seat, Mr. Connelly, and we can continue with the class.” 

The new boy scanned the room and caught me staring at him again. I quickly glanced away, but it was too late. The next thing I knew, he was sitting down at the desk next to me. There were empty desks all over the room, but he had to choose the one beside me. Mr. Tatum picked up where he’d left off. I could feel Seth’s eyes on me, but I refused to look over at him. 

“Hi,” he said after a few seconds. He extended his hand. “I’m Seth.”  

I gaped at him a moment before sliding my hand into his. “Killian.”  

He held on a bit longer than seemed necessary, then smiled at me before turning back toward Mr. Tatum.  

My head was swimming, and I suddenly felt warm all over. I wondered if I were coming down with something. I couldn’t be attracted to Seth. He was a guy! I had to admit, though, I’d never felt like that before.  

I tore my eyes away from him and focused them on Mr. Tatum, but they seemed to have developed a mind of their own. They kept finding their way back to Seth. I hoped like crazy that no one in the class noticed my sudden obsession.  

Finally, the bell rang. I scooped up my books and headed for the door with my head down.  

“Killian! Wait!” I heard Seth call.  

I waited just outside the door for him to catch up, but I didn’t turn around.  

“Hey.” He came alongside me.  

“Hey.” What can I say? I’m a brilliant conversationalist. I started walking again. 

“So look, I’m new here, and I’m still getting lost. Think you could show me how to find my locker?”  

“Yeah, sure,” I mumbled, still not looking at him. “Where is it?”  

He gave me his locker number, and I led the way, neither of us speaking a word. I felt Seth studying me as we went. I thought I should say something to break the silence, but my brain seemed to have stopped functioning. I couldn’t come up with anything that didn’t sound stupid or dorky. The tension grew until finally he spoke up again.  

“Killian. That’s a different name. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before.”  

“It’s Irish. My grandfather was from Ireland. He named me.”  

“Are you close to your grandfather?” Something in his voice made me look up at him for the first time since we’d left the classroom. He had a sense of sadness and loss about him that made me wonder where the question came from.  

“No. He died when I was four. I don’t really remember him.”  

I saw disappointment in his eyes. They were so expressive, every emotion laid bare as if you were looking directly into his soul.  

“Why did you ask if we were close?” 

“No reason. Just wondering.” He glanced away, then looked back at me again. “I’m not close to my grandfather. I’m not close to most of my family these days.”  

I regarded him curiously. I’d been brought up with Southern manners, however, and it would have been a breech of etiquette to ask him to explain further.  

He read the question in my eyes anyway. “Killian, I’m gay.” 

I stopped dead in my tracks. 

“I think I can find it from here. Thanks, man. See ya around.” 

I watched him walk away, his shoulder slumped and head down. I’m not sure how long I stood rooted to the spot, maybe just a few seconds, maybe minutes. I was lost in thought and didn’t care. The stream of people flowed around me, but I didn’t notice any of them.  

Suddenly someone grabbed me around the neck and put me in a headlock. “What are you doing, Space Boy? Waiting for your people to come back and get you?”  

Asher Davis was one of my so-called friends. We’d grown up next door to each other and had been hanging out together forever, along with a couple of other guys from the neighborhood. Even so, living in close proximity was about all we had in common. When we were younger that wasn’t as obvious, but as we got older and the other guys all became interested in sports, I was drawn more to books and drama. Although it would have made sense for me to find a new group of friends, that prospect terrified me. 

“Get off me, Asher,” I snapped. 

“Whoa, dude!” He let go and stepped back. I didn’t usually stick up for myself. “What’s wrong?”  

“Nothing. I gotta get home.”  

“Well, if you’re in such a rush, why were you just standing there?”  

“It’s nothing. I’ve got to go.” I started off down the hall.  

Asher hurried to keep up with me. “Dude! Kill! Man, what’s up?” When I didn’t answer he added, “The gang’s getting together tonight to hang out, maybe catch a movie. You wanna go?”  

“No thanks.”  

By then we’d reached the door to the student parking lot. My dad had given me one of the new Volkswagen Bugs for my sixteenth birthday. Perhaps he thought it would make me popular. If so, he was destined to be disappointed yet again.  

I headed for my car, Asher still on my heels. Just then, Zachary Phillips intercepted us. Zack was another of the guys in our circle of friends. He was closer to my height, but in much better shape. He wasn’t my favorite person in the world, even though we hung out a lot. He had a bit of a mean streak, something I definitely wasn’t in the mood for at the moment. 

“Hey, Zack,” Asher called out. 

“Hey, Asher. Hey, Killian.” Zack watched me with narrowed eyes as I started to unlock my car. “Didn’t I see you with that new kid right after the bell?”  

I looked up, dropping my keys in the process. As I bent down to pick them up, I answered, “Yeah, his name’s Seth.”  

“I know,” Zack sneered. “He’s in my second-period class. We all had to share five things about ourselves. You know what his were?”  

I had the door open by then but didn’t get in. I was frozen where I stood.  

“What?” Asher asked.  

“The first few were just stupid stuff — something about being from Baltimore and his parents being split up — but number five...” Zack paused dramatically. “...number five was a doozy. He’s a faggot.”  

“What?” Asher gasped. “He actually said that?” 

“Yeah, man. A real live fairy,” Zack laughed. “Well, he said gay, but you know.” 

“Who’s a fairy? Killian?” another voice cut in. I looked up to see Jesse O’Donnell walking toward us.  

The other guys laughed. Jesse was the fourth member of our little group. He wasn’t the brightest bulb on the tree. He was also something of a bully, which probably explained why he and Zack were practically joined at the hip. You rarely found one without the other being somewhere nearby. Jesse towered over the rest of us, all gangly arms and legs. Most of the time he was a huge klutz, but on the basketball court, he was a genius.  

Zack answered him. “No, at least I don’t think so. But hey, you’re being awful quiet there, man.” He eyed me again. 

I shrugged and started getting in my car. 

“So who’s a fairy?” Jesse asked again.  

“This new kid who just transferred here. His name’s Seth,” Zack told him.  

“No way! How do you know? Did he hit on you?”  

“No! He better not, unless he wants to end up a dead fairy,” Zack quipped, and they all laughed again.  

“He seemed nice to me,” I said before I had time to think.  

As one, they all turned to stare at me.  

“Don’t tell us you’re a fag, too, Killian.” Zack got a nasty gleam in his eye. It seemed as if Zack was always looking for a target. Being one of his so-called friends didn’t necessarily ensure you wouldn’t become his latest mark. 

“I didn’t say that. I just said I thought he seemed nice. Why does that make me gay?”  

“Because he is, Killian.” Zack sounded as if he were speaking to a particularly slow child. “You don’t hang out with fags unless you’re a fag, too.”  

“Bullshit! Hanging out with you idiots doesn’t make me a moron.” I slammed the door angrily, started the car, and drove off, leaving them staring after me with their mouths gaping. I had no clue where my reaction had come from. I never did things like that.  

I pondered my response all the way home. Thoughts were flying through my mind like bullets and they seemed just as hard to grasp. When I arrived, I decided at the last minute not to stop. I wasn’t ready to face my parents. I was still tense and confused from the strange scene in the parking lot. Driving around sometimes helped me think.  

Eventually, I found myself on the bridge into Ocean City, so I decided to walk on the beach. Since we were having unseasonably cool weather for September in Maryland, I didn’t expect too many people to be there. I was right. There were only a few cars in the lot, and those were bunched up close to the boardwalk. I parked by the beach, fed the meter, slipped off my shoes, and stepped out onto the sand.  

I walked along the edge of the ocean, the waves lapping at my feet. I’d gone pretty far up the beach when I was surprised to hear someone call my name. I turned and caught my breath. Seth was jogging toward me. He had changed out of the jeans and polo shirt he’d worn to school and was now dressed in running shorts and a T-shirt emblazoned with a popular children’s cartoon character.  

“Hi, Killian,” he greeted me, only slightly out of breath.  

“Hi,” I said, looking at my feet.  

“What are you doing here?”  

“I just needed to get out so I thought I’d take a walk. The beach always calms me.”  

“I live here,” he told me as if I’d asked. “Well, up the beach a ways. My dad has a house here. I like to jog by the ocean. It calms me, too.” When I didn’t say anything he continued, “Look, if you don’t want to talk to me, I’ll understand. I mean I know I probably freaked you out when I said I was gay, but I hate lying. I did that long enough. It’s better to get things out in the open right away. That’s why I told you.”  

I still didn’t say anything. 

He seemed to have a real need to fill in the silence so he went on. “I mean, I’m used to everybody hating me. My own mother hates me so why shouldn’t you —”  

“I don’t hate you,” I interrupted.  

He stared at me in surprise for a few seconds. “You don’t?”  

“No. I don’t even know you. Why would I hate you?”  

“Because I’m gay.”  

“That’s not a reason to hate somebody.”  

“Everyone else seems to think so.”  

“I’ve never been one to go with the crowd,” I said a little bitterly.  

“I sensed that about you. That’s why I sat next to you.”  

We stood there for a minute without speaking, then he asked, “Want to go grab a bite to eat and we can talk?”  

I thought for a few seconds, then shrugged. “Sure, why not?”  

We headed up to the boardwalk and found a pizza joint. After placing our order, we sat down at a table to wait for someone to call our number.  

“So,” he began after an awkward silence. “Did you grow up here?” 

“Yeah. I guess you could say I’m a native. My dad is State attorney for the county.” 

Seth’s eyes grew wide. “Really? Wow. What’s that like?” 

I made a face. “Not that great.” 

“How come?” 

“It’s a lot of expectation. My dad always says that everything I do reflects on him, so I have to be perfect.” 

“Nobody’s perfect.” 

I snorted. “Tell him that. I’m just one big disappointment to him. He was like this god in high school. He was the president of his class, the star of his football team, perfect grades, perfect looks, and apparently he had every girl in school drooling over him. Me? I couldn’t catch a ball if you held a gun to my head, I look like a geek, and girls don’t even know I exist.” 

“You look like a geek?” 

I flicked the lens of my glasses. “I’m five foot seven, and I barely weigh a hundred and twenty pounds. I’m not exactly a Greek god.” 

“No, you said you were Irish, remember?” 

I blinked a moment before he broke into a grin. I realized he was joking and chuckled. 

“What about your mom?” he asked. 

“What about her?” 

“What does she think?” 

I shrugged. “She thinks whatever Dad tells her to think. He’s kind of old-fashioned, like the man is the head of the house and all that. I guess I got my shyness from her. She has a way of melting into the background, almost like a chameleon. No one ever remembers meeting her. The only time she seems at all animated is when my father is around. It’s almost as if she worships the ground he walks on.”  

He shrugged. “At least she doesn’t hate you.” 

I frowned, remembering his comment earlier on the beach when he’d said his mom hated him. I wanted to ask him why, but once again, my Southern upbringing stopped me. 

“Go ahead and ask,” he said. 

“Ask what?” 

“You want to know why my mom hates me. It’s okay. You can ask.” 

“Um. Okay. Why does she hate you?” 

“Because I’m gay.” 

I didn’t know what to say to that, so we sat in silence again until the girl behind the counter called our number. I leapt from the booth to pick up the pizza. 

We made small talk while we ate. I filled him in on his teachers at school and what was good in the cafeteria — not much. After we had finished, I took a deep breath and asked the question that had been plaguing me from the beginning. “So when did you know you were gay, and how did you know it?”  

He paused for a moment, looking me in the eyes so intently I had to drop my gaze. “It’s kind of a long story, but I guess I knew for quite a while before I admitted it to myself. I figured it out for sure when I was twelve, but for the next few years I tried really hard to be straight. See, my dad left when I was twelve, and I always thought it was because he realized I was gay. Then, a few months ago, one of my friends told me he was gay and that he wanted to date me. I liked him so I said yes and we started going out. When my mom found out, she freaked. That's when I discovered that my dad is gay, too, and that's the real reason he left my mom. So she threw me out. I didn’t have anywhere to go. If my dad hadn’t taken me in, I’d be homeless.”  

I sat staring at him, my chin, I’m sure, hanging somewhere around my ankles. I’d never realized how sheltered I was in my little Eastern Shore town.  

“So, anyway,” he went on. “How did I know? Hmm. I just knew. I can’t explain it really. I mean, beyond the obvious, my attraction to guys over girls. I can tell with other people, too, you know.” A big grin started spreading across his face. “It’s called gaydar.”  

“Oh, really?” I suddenly felt a little nervous. I wasn’t sure why. I mean, I wasn’t gay, so what did I have to worry about? Sure, I’d never dated girls, never even been interested in them if I was honest with myself, but I’d never been interested in guys, either. Had I? Doesn’t everybody take peeks in the locker room? All I felt toward Asher, Jesse, and Zack was friendship. Right? 

Thoughts of wrestling with Asher flashed through my mind, of enjoying the closeness of his body, of trying to hide my erection. I shook my head to clear the images and hoped I wasn’t blushing.  

He was still smiling.  

“Why are you smiling?” I asked testily.  

Seth laughed. “I dunno. It’s better than crying.”  

I glanced down at my watch and gasped. “Whoa, I’m late. I gotta go or I’m gonna get my ass kicked.” I pulled out my wallet and threw some money on the table, enough to cover my part of the bill. I jumped up, then paused. “Bye, Seth. See you in school tomorrow. I...I had fun.”  

“Me too. See ya, Killer!”  

I started walking away but stopped in the doorway and smiled back at him. Killer...I liked it! 

 

Chapter 2

 

I drove home as fast as I dared without risking a speeding ticket. That was the last thing I needed at this point.  

Dad was waiting as I walked through the door. “Thanks for the call. It’s always nice to know where my only son is.”  

“I’m sorry, Dad,” I replied hurriedly. “It was stupid of me. I had a fight with Asher, Jesse, and Zack. I needed some time by myself so I went to the beach. I lost track of time.”  

“Your mother was worried.” His tone was eerily controlled. My father almost never raised his voice, a skill that had served him well over the years in convincing juries and intimidating me.  

I glanced over at her. She didn’t look all that concerned.  

“Well, don’t just stand there. Hurry and wash up for dinner. It’s going to get cold,” he snapped.  

I rushed upstairs and threw my backpack on the bed, then hastily washed my hands before rushing back down. My parents were already at the table. Dinner conversation was strained, as it was more often than not. But if I thought it was bad before, it was about to get worse.  

“Buck Phillips called me this afternoon,” Dad remarked. Buck was Zack’s father. That caught my attention. “He said there’s a homosexual at your school now.” He pronounced it carefully, overenunciating each syllable — ho-mo-sex-you-al.  

Mom’s eyes flickered over to me for a second before fixing back on her object of worship. I wondered if that meant anything or if I was just being paranoid.  

“You know anything about it, son?” he continued.  

“I met him, if that’s what you’re asking.” 

“You met it?” He seemed almost incredulous, as if I had said I’d eaten lunch with the Pope.  

“No, I met him. He’s a human being. He’s in one of my classes, and his name is Seth.” I was fighting hard to keep my cool. Losing my temper at the dinner table would not be good. Then again, it was never good to lose my temper with my father.  

“He’s not a human being. It’s unnatural.” 

I frowned, a fact my father didn’t miss. 

“Don’t tell me you’re some kind of fairy lover, boy. I didn’t raise some bleeding-heart liberal. You stay away from him. Do you hear me?”  

I stared hard at my suddenly unappetizing chicken. “Yes, sir.”  

I managed to gag down the rest of my dinner somehow, although I was so angry it was almost more than I could manage to even sit at the same table with him. He continued to expound his theory that gays and lesbians were the downfall of every society from Greece and Rome on and how the queers would be the ruin of the United States of America if “we” didn’t take “our” country back. I could only assume “we” were the narrow-minded bigots.  

As soon as I had eaten enough to be excused politely, I headed straight for my room. I picked up the phone and dialed Asher on my private line. I hoped he hadn’t left yet to meet Zack and Jesse. Even though I wasn’t all that close to any of the guys, I was closest to Asher and I needed to talk to someone.  

“Hello?” he answered on the third ring.  

“Hey, Asher. It’s me. I’m sorry about today in the parking lot.”  

“Man, what happened?”  

“I don’t know. I just get so tired of hearing that kind of crap from my dad...I didn’t want to hear it from you guys, too, I guess.”  

“But he’s gay.”  

“So what? Why does that make him a lesser human being?” I was starting to get angry again.  

“Whoa, man, calm down. I dunno. I’m not saying he’s a lesser human being or anything. I just don’t want him to make any moves on me, you know? Or you, either. I gotta protect my buds.” 

“I spent all afternoon with him, and he didn’t make any moves on me.” I surprised myself. I hadn’t planned to tell him.  

“You what?” Asher yelped. 

“Shhh,” I hissed. “I said I spent all afternoon with him.”  

“Is that why you didn’t want to go with the guys?”  

“No, I didn’t plan it. I was upset after that whole scene in the parking lot and needed some time alone, so I went to the beach. I ran into Seth there. We started talking, and we ended up getting some pizza.”  

“Whoa. You went on a date with him?”  

“I did not go on a date with him!” I screeched.  

“Shh.” It was his turn to warn me. “Sorry. I was only kidding. So what’s he like? Is he, like, all feminine?”  

“No, not at all. He doesn’t really seem any different from you or me. Actually, he’s really nice. I kinda had fun.”  

“Man, I wouldn’t talk about this in front of Zack or Jesse. You know how they are.”  

“Yeah,” I mumbled. “I wasn’t even gonna tell you. It just kinda slipped out.”  

“Well, make sure it doesn’t slip out in front of the wrong people.”  

“Yeah, I know.”  

“So did he say why he decided to be gay?”  

“It’s not like that, Ash. You don’t decide to be gay. Either you are or you aren’t. Trust me, after hearing all he’s been through I definitely don’t think he chose it.”  

“What do you mean?”  

I hesitated. I’d already said more than I should have. “Well, I don’t want to talk about stuff he told me, you know?”  

“Oh, yeah, that’s cool.”  

“It was just some really bad stuff that happened to him because he came out.”  

“Came out? Now you’re starting to sound like one of them.” He chuckled, and I forced a laugh, too. “Look, I’m still not comfortable with this — not by a long shot — but whatever you do, don’t hang out with him at school too much. I know you like to be different and challenge the status quo, but this could get you hurt.”  

“What do you mean?”  

“Hey, Zack just pulled up so I gotta go. We’ll talk about this later, okay?”  

“Yeah, okay.”  

“Great, see ya later.” And he was gone.  

I flopped back on the bed, more confused than ever. Everyone seemed to believe I should avoid Seth. I knew how it felt to be the outsider, though, always getting left out, always being ignored. That was bad enough. How would it feel to be actively discriminated against? I didn’t even want to think about it. I made up my mind to be friendly toward Seth — but not too friendly. Asher’s vague warning was still ringing in my mind. 

 

 

 

The rest of the week was pretty much an average first week back to school — assessing the new teachers to see how much we could get away with, figuring out homework loads, and so on. I talked to Seth in class even though almost nobody else did. By then, the word was all over school that he was gay. People gave me funny looks, but for the most part no one mentioned it. In other words, things were pretty much normal for me. I didn’t go out of my way to talk to Seth outside of class, but I didn’t avoid him either.  

If things were normal for me, they must have been a lot worse for him. With each day that went by, it seemed as though he lost a little more sparkle, became a little less animated. It was painful to watch, but I didn’t know what to do about it.  

The weekend passed by listlessly — or maybe I should say it passed away. It was such a slow, boring death that I was actually glad to see Monday roll around. I wondered if Zack, Jesse, and Asher were avoiding me. They hadn’t called me the whole weekend, and I didn’t see them on Monday, which was unusual. 

It was raining hard when school let out on Tuesday. I stood by the door for a while until it became obvious the downpour wasn’t going to let up, then made a mad dash across the parking lot, splashing through puddles and getting wet to my knees. I jumped into my car and turned on the defroster. While I waited for the condensation to evaporate, I dried off my glasses and looked around the almost empty lot. I’d had to stay after class to talk to one of my teachers about a project that was due Friday — the second week of the term and I had projects due already — and most of the other students had left by the time I finished. Even the sports teams were gone since they’d canceled practice on account of the rain. 

I was following another car out of the lot when it suddenly veered toward someone walking on the side of the road. I yelled — as if the other driver could hear me — but the car swerved away, splashing the person in the process. That, I realized belatedly, was probably the goal all along. As I drove past the now thoroughly soaked person, I recognized Seth.  

I don’t know why, but something made me pull over onto the shoulder. Maybe it was because my dad had told me to stay away from Seth, or maybe it was because I felt sorry for him. Or maybe it was just because I genuinely liked him. Whatever the reason, I tried not to think too much about it.  

A few seconds later he walked by me, his head down and his eyes averted. He probably thought I was going to make fun of him or something. 

I quickly rolled down the window, and a cold spray of rain spattered my face and glasses. “Seth, are you okay?”  

He turned toward my car with a surprised expression. “Hey, Killian. Yeah I guess so. A little wet, but I’m okay.”  

“A little wet?” I laughed. “You look drenched! Why are you walking?”  

“My dad forgot to pick me up.” 

“Well, hop in. I’ll drive you home.”  

He grinned at me, then ran around to the other door and jumped in.  

“You’ll have to tell me how to get there,” I reminded him once he was settled and we’d started up again. “All I know is that you live near the beach.”  

He gave me directions, and we talked while I drove. The conversation was once again carefully general, mostly about classes and teachers. We both seemed to be purposefully avoiding anything more personal. 

I glanced over and saw he was shivering, so I turned the heater up high and directed the vents toward him. 

“Thanks. I can’t wait to get home and change out of these wet clothes.” 

Home turned out to be an attractive two-story beach house with cedar-shingle siding. As we pulled into his driveway, a concerned expression crossed his face. “My dad isn’t home. His car’s gone. You wanna come up for a few minutes?”  

I hesitated. Was he coming on to me? 

“Just until I find out what’s going on. Please? If something’s wrong I don’t want to be stuck here alone.” 

I thought for a minute, then turned the car off. I looked over at him and smiled. “Sure.”  

We made a dash for the house through the torrential rain, which was still coming down as though it would never stop. Seth held the door open while I ran inside. He jumped in behind me, slammed the door, and slumped against it. I looked back at him and couldn’t help but laugh. He was completely waterlogged from head to toe. Water dripped off him, forming a puddle around his feet. His hair was slicked down, and his clothing drooped, soggy with rain.  

“What’s so funny?” 

“You look like a drowned rat!”  

He made a face, and I laughed.  

“What exactly does a drowned rat look like anyway?”  

“Go look in the mirror.”  

“Very funny.” He rolled his eyes, but he was smiling, too. “I wonder where my dad is?”  

He went off down the hall, leaving a trail of water on the hardwood floor for me to follow, which I did, feeling a bit like Hansel and Gretel. We went into the kitchen where he picked up a note. He read it while dripping all over the table and floor.  

“He got an emergency call from Steve — that’s his friend. He says he’ll call later tonight, but he probably won’t get home till tomorrow.” He dropped the note on the table and shrugged. “Oh, well. You want to hang out for a while?” 

“Uh, I don’t know.” 

“If you don’t want to, I’ll understand.” 

He was obviously lonely. It wouldn’t kill me to stay for a little while. “Okay,” I agreed and his face lit up. “But not for long. I don’t want to get in trouble with my dad.” 

“That’s cool. I understand.” He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a couple bottles of root beer. “You like root beer?”  

“I love it.”  

“Well, here ya go.” He handed me a bottle as he started for the door. “I’ve got to go dry off and change. The den is down the hall. Make yourself at home. I’ll be right back.”  

I wandered into the den sipping my root beer. The room was furnished with worn but comfortable-looking furniture, a nice entertainment system, and pictures of Seth everywhere. Books were strewn about liberally and a computer desk was set up against one wall. It had a very inviting atmosphere.  

I walked around looking at the pictures, and Seth seemed to grow up before my eyes. There was a woman in some of them — I assumed his mother — and a man in others — his father? A younger boy appeared in a few, and I made a mental note to ask Seth who he was. I went over to the entertainment center and checked out their video collection. I recognized many of the titles, some of which were among my favorites.  

“See anything you like?” Seth’s sudden voice made me jump. He started laughing.  

“Holy crap! Sneak up on me, why don’t you?”  

He had changed into silky black running shorts and a plain white T-shirt. He’d dried his hair but apparently hadn’t brushed it. It was standing up in every direction, as it usually did.  

“Sorry, I didn’t put my wet shoes back on, so I guess you didn’t hear me coming in nothing but my socks.”  

“Obviously. I don’t usually jump and gasp just because you enter the room,” I joked.  

“My loss.” He gave me a shy grin.  

I blinked in surprise, not sure what to say. He was definitely hitting on me. An awkward silence stretched between us. 

“Killian, I was kidding.”  

“Oh. Sorry,” I mumbled. “Um, maybe I’d better go.”  

“No! I mean...please stay for a while. We can play a game or something. I have a new game system. Do you like Zelda?”  

“Yeah...” I thought for a few seconds while Seth stood there looking miserable.  

“Okay,” I replied at last, “but let me call my parents so they won’t freak out.”  

I crossed my fingers and dialed, then waited while holding my breath. Thankfully, Mom answered. Without any questions, she accepted the fact that I would be home late. The interrogation would come later from Dad, but I would think of something before then.  

“It’s cool,” I told Seth after hanging up.  

“Yes! Killer’s the man!”  

We played Zelda and talked about nothing for a while. Then suddenly Seth announced he was hungry so we ended up back in the kitchen. He made us both lunchmeat sandwiches.  

“Well, I don’t seem to have made many friends in my first week of school,” he commented as I took a huge bite.  

We sat in silence while I chewed, which gave me a chance to think of what to say.  

“No, not many — but you made one at least. Me.”  

He smiled and, for a few seconds, almost looked as if he were going to cry. I hoped like crazy he wouldn’t. Whenever someone else cried, it inevitably made me tear up as well. My dad always yelled at me for being a sissy and crying too much, but I couldn’t seem to help it.  

“Thanks, Killian.” His voice was slightly husky. “That means a lot to me. Probably more than you know.”  

“I think I have an idea.”  

We ate the rest of our sandwiches in silence.  

“I don’t get it,” he said suddenly.  

“Get what?”  

“I don’t get why you grew up in the same town as all these other kids but you’re the only one who doesn’t treat me like some kind of pariah.”  

I shrugged. I didn’t understand it myself. I was risking a lot by being Seth’s friend. For some reason, the risk seemed worth it.  

“Do you know what your name means?”  

I blinked in confusion. Where had that come from? “No, I think it’s the name of a beer, but I don’t know what it means. Why?”  

“’Cuz I do.”  

“Huh? Okay, I’ll bite. What does it mean? And how do you know?” This was taking a very weird turn.  

“I looked it up. There’s a site on the Internet where you can look up names and find out what they mean. Killian means ‘blind’.”  

I frowned. “Blind? What kind of a name is that?”  

“What’s your middle name?”  

“Travers,” I replied distractedly. I was still stuck on the whole blind thing. What kind of name means blind, and who would name their kid that?  

“Maybe it’s symbolic.” 

“Symbolic of what? My glasses?” I scoffed.  

“No, of your inability to see yourself.”  

Whoa, now we had gone from mildly weird to just plain freaky. If I wasn’t careful, before long he’d be calling me Grasshopper and telling me I needed to have patience.  

“You’re weirding me out, dude.” My words came out a little sharper than I intended. “I can see myself just fine, thank you.”  

“Not really.” His voice was so soft now I could barely hear him. “Not the way I see you.”  

“What is that supposed to mean?” I was getting a bit defensive now.  

“I guess I see you differently than you see yourself. Look, I haven’t known you for that long, but I can tell you don’t think very much of yourself. Yet you’re smart, funny, and kind...not to mention drop-dead gorgeous. But you hide behind those glasses and your friends, and no one ever gets to know you. And besides all that, you don’t even let yourself see the real you. You’ve buried it beneath so many layers you’ve forgotten it’s even there.”  

My head was reeling. I think I was on overload. I’d heard everything he’d said, but certain phrases kept echoing through my brain. Drop-dead gorgeous? Me? Ha! Hide behind my friends? How did I do that? And what the hell was that part about seeing the real me supposed to mean? I latched onto the last one.  

“What the hell do you mean by I don’t let myself see the real me?” I demanded. “If I don’t see the real me, then who does? You?”  

“Maybe.”  

“Then why don’t you introduce me? I’d like to meet myself.”  

“Okay, I will.” His voice was strange — kind of sad, but almost as if he had known what would happen. “Killian Travers Kendall,” he announced formally, “I’d like you to meet yourself.”  

He stood up and came around the table, leaned over me, and quickly pressed his lips against mine. For a second I was so shocked I didn’t move, then suddenly my reflexes kicked in and I shoved him away so violently that my chair flipped over backwards and I sprawled across the floor.  

“What the hell was that?” I yelled.  

Seth looked like he was about to cry again, but I didn’t care anymore.  

“I thought you were gay, Killian.” He spoke so quietly that I barely heard him. In fact, maybe I didn’t hear him right.  

“What did you say?” My voice was deadly calm, a trick I’d learned from my father.  

“I said, I thought maybe you were gay.” Tears started rolling down his cheeks. “I’m sorry, Killian. I guess I was wrong. I’m so sorry. Please don’t hate me. You’re my only friend.” With that he sank down to the floor and buried his face in his hands.  

I sat across the kitchen from him and watched him cry. I felt as though I should do something, but I had no clue as to what. My brain had shut down. Everything just went blank. I couldn’t even think clearly enough to leave, so I simply sat there. Occasionally, Seth would choke out another “I’m sorry” in between sobs. After a few minutes, I reached up to rub my face and was surprised to find it was wet. I had been crying, too.  

Slowly, I began to wake up. The first question that went through my mind was, am I gay? I wasn’t so sure anymore. The kiss hadn’t been that bad, really. I’d reacted more to the shock than to the kiss itself. Even in my addled state I knew that much. I thought about the way I had been almost obsessed with Seth from day one. An image of Asher suddenly intruded into my thoughts. What was that supposed to mean? I needed to get out of there. I needed to think.  

I struggled to my feet and started out of the kitchen. I paused at the door long enough to mumble, “I don’t hate you. I...I just need to think.” And then I was gone, leaving him in a crumpled heap on the kitchen floor. 

Luckily, Dad was at a late meeting when I got home, and I was able to go right to my room, calling out to Mom that I needed to do my homework and that I’d already eaten.  

I fell backwards onto my bed and began to cry all over again. I was so confused. Had I been blind to the real me all this time? Was that why I always felt so empty, so incomplete?  

I sat up and stared at myself in the mirror. My face was a little blotchy from all the crying and my eyes were red, but I tried to look past that. What did Seth see in me? My wavy blonde hair was a little on the shaggy side. I had to admit my eyes were really blue, but they were hidden behind my glasses. I was blessed with fairly smooth skin, with the exception of the occasional zit. I supposed if I were being completely impartial, I wasn’t unattractive — but drop-dead gorgeous? No way. True, there had been a few girls who had asked me out over the years, some quite persistently, but I’d never been interested.  

Why was that?  

Every time I wrestled with Asher, I got aroused.  

Why?  

The one and only erotic dream I’d ever had — that I could remember anyway — had featured none other than Asher.  

The clues were pretty obvious all of a sudden.  

I had been blind.

 

Chapter 3

 

I am gay.  

The realization was almost overwhelming.  

I am gay.  

I kept repeating it over and over to myself. It didn’t seem real — couldn’t be real. I couldn’t be gay. And yet, once I’d faced it, once I’d said it to myself, I knew I was.  

I am gay.  

I didn’t want to be gay. My parents would hate me. My friends would hate me. I’d seen how everyone treated Seth. Oh my God! What would Zack, Jesse, and Asher say? Or more importantly, what would they do?  

I am gay.  

Would my church kick me out? Just my mom and I attended. Dad said religion was only for people who needed a crutch, but Mom ignored him and went nearly every Sunday. That was half the reason I continued to go week after week — it was one of the few things Mom did without Dad’s approval. For some reason, I always felt a sense of peace there, even though I wasn’t particularly religious. I believed in God and tried to be a good person. Did God hate me? I was fuzzy on the whole religion thing. Apparently, I hadn’t paid enough attention.  

I am —  

The phone rang, startling me out of my thoughts.  

“Hey, Killian.” It was Asher. “I called you earlier, and you weren’t there? Where were you?”  

“I was...at Seth’s house.” My voice was somewhat shaky.  

“You were where? Are you okay? You sound funny.”  

“I was at Seth’s house and I’m...” My voice trailed off. I was going to say I was fine but suddenly it seemed pointless to lie.  

“You’re what, dude?” I didn’t respond. “You want me to come over?”  

“I don’t think so, Ash.” I wasn’t sure I could face him right then. I looked like a mess and didn’t know if I would be able to bluff my way through it. Why was Asher showing such an interest in me anyway, especially at that moment? He’d never really paid much attention to me before the last few days. I was there if he was bored, and that was about it. 

“No, man, you’re upset, I can tell. I’ll be right over.”  

I opened my mouth to argue, but I heard the phone hang up. He was on his way. 

Great, just what I needed. Since when did Asher become a nurturer? I rubbed my cheeks, trying to get rid of the tear tracks. There wasn’t much I could do about the red eyes. I flipped off the overhead lights and turned on my computer. Maybe if the light were dim he wouldn’t notice. Plus, the computer would give me something to do so I wouldn’t have to look him in the face.  

Asher lived right next door so he was at my place in no time. My mom let him in, and he was at my bedroom door before I had even signed on to the Internet. I hated dialup.  

He knocked, and for a moment I thought about not answering it. Knowing Asher, however, I figured he’d barge in anyway, so I reluctantly let him enter.  

“Hey, Killian. Why’s it so dark in here?” He flipped on the light.  

So much for my dim-lighting plan.  

I sighed. “Hey, Ash.” I was glad I had control of my voice again at least. “You didn’t have to come over. As you can see I’m fine.” I was hoping he’d take the hint and leave.  

Not Asher. “I know I didn’t have to. I wanted to. You’re my bud.” He came closer and peered intently into my face.  

I looked away but not quickly enough.  

“You’ve been crying,” he accused me.  

“No, I haven’t,” I lied. “I think I have allergies.”  

“I’ve known you forever, Kill. You don’t have any allergies.”  

I’m very bad at lying.  

“Look, Asher, I’m fine.”  

“What did he do to you?” Asher’s voice now held a hard edge.  

“Who?” I stalled. He was making me even more nervous than I already was.  

“Kermit the Frog. Who do you think? What did Seth do to you?” His voice kept climbing louder. 

“Seth didn’t do anything to me.” My eyes shifted away. I hated lying, mainly because I was so bad at it. I was definitely out of practice. My dad had always seemed to be able to see through my lame attempts when I was younger, so eventually I just gave up trying. Having a prosecutor for a father is not all it’s cracked up to be. 

“Did he hurt you?” Asher growled, taking a step closer to me. His voice was as hard as steel now and dangerously quiet.  

I could feel the tension radiating from his body like heat. Surprised by his reaction, I looked into his eyes and saw an intensity I hadn’t known my laid-back friend was capable of.  

“If he hurt you, I’ll kill him.”  

At that moment I believed him.  

I couldn’t stand any more confusion. I felt my chest constrict, squeezing all the air out of my lungs. I was having a panic attack. I greedily gulped in a deep breath, then another, slowly calming myself until I was ready to speak. I made my voice go steely to match his. “First of all, Seth did not hurt me. Second, why would it matter to you if he did? You’ve never paid any attention to me before. Why start now?”  

Asher blinked in surprise, and the intensity drained away, leaving something I would describe as hurt. “You’re my friend, Killian. You’ve always been there. Whenever I’ve needed to talk, I always knew I could come to you. I could never talk to Zack and Jesse like I do you. I know I haven’t been the best friend in the world. I guess I kinda took you for granted. You were just always there. But now, Seth comes along, and you’re suddenly hanging out with him. And he’s gay. I don’t get it. I...I guess I’m kinda jealous.”  

Now it was my turn to stare at him in shock. “Jealous? Of what?”  

“I don’t want to lose you as a friend. Especially not to a —” 

“Don’t say it,” I cut him off, an unspoken warning clear in my voice.  

We stood there staring at each other for a minute. We both jumped when a loud, deep voice shattered the silence. “Welcome.” I had made it online. 

Almost immediately the Instant Messenger chime sounded. I glanced at the screen. The message was from SethCon123 and it read,  

 

this is seth...please talk to me 

 

I quickly positioned myself between Asher and the computer, trying to shield the screen from his view. “Look, you’re not losing me as a friend. Why can’t I just be friends with both of you? Why does it have to be one or the other?” Then before he could answer I rushed on. “Ash, I need some time alone right now. I’ll call you later, okay?”  

Asher nodded jerkily and left without saying anything else. I quickly turned back to the computer. I typed, 

  

how did u find me? 

 

membership directory search. look, i’m really sorry...i can’t believe I was that stupid 

 

I hesitated a second, then decided to go out on a limb.  

 

you weren’t stupid...you were right 

 

WHAT? 

 

you were right...i think maybe I am gay 

 

There was no response for several seconds, so I typed some more.  

 

i’m still trying to figure everything out...i’m very confused 

 

can i help? 

 

i don’t think so...this is the kind of thing I have to figure out for myself 

 

can we get together to talk later this week? it’ll give u some time to think first...how about friday? 

 

i dunno 

 

look killian, u need to talk to somebody...if not me then find someone else 

 

ok, i’ll think about it...i’m gonna go now 

 

ok...bye Killer 

 

I signed off and shut down the computer, but stayed in front of the blank screen for several minutes just staring at my reflection.  

I, Killian Travers Kendall, am gay. I am a homosexual. I am attracted to my own sex.  

The more I said it, the more right it sounded. How long had I known on some level, but refused to admit it even to myself? There was still something strange about applying that word to myself, but I knew it was true. I was gay. I liked boys.  

I couldn’t tell anyone. I would just go on the same way I had. No one else had to know. True, Seth knew, but I was pretty sure my secret was safe with him. He understood what it was like to be out, and I was confident he wouldn’t do that to me. Besides, who would he tell? I was his only friend. Even if he did say something, no one would take his word over mine. He was new to the town, while I’d lived there all my life. He was an outcast, I was a local. My secret was safe. I was starting to feel a little calmer about the whole thing.  

I heard Dad come in downstairs, and all the fear from earlier came flooding back. What if he took one look at me and knew? Seth had known. Could other people tell? Did only gay people have that gaydar he’d spoken of? 

I scrambled for my book bag and dumped the contents all over the bed. I grabbed a book at random (I think it was my history book) and opened it, pretending to read. I’d barely settled back on the pillow when there was a knock at my door. It swung open before I could even answer. It was Dad. The knock was simply a formality, and we both knew it.  

“Doing your homework?” 

“Yup,” I answered, looking up from my book.  

“Good. Get it finished before you go to sleep.” He left, shutting the door behind him.  

He hadn’t noticed. He hadn’t suddenly screamed at me and ordered me out of the house. I let out a shaky breath I didn’t even realize I’d been holding. What was I going to do? I had narrowly escaped this time, but what about next time? What about my friends? What was I going to do about Seth? A feeling of despair and confusion suddenly overwhelmed me. I realized how emotionally drained I was. Pushing everything off the bed and onto the floor, I crawled under the covers without even taking my clothes off. I was asleep in minutes. 

 

 

 

Surprisingly enough, I slept very well. The next day, however, was a blur. I couldn’t tell you one thing that happened in school, except that I spent most of the day dodging Seth and Asher in the halls. I didn’t have any classes with Asher, so he wasn’t too hard. I had drama with Seth, however, and we bumbled through the whole period trying our best not to look at each other. It was positively torturous. 

I took off as soon as the last bell rang and drove straight to our church. There was one car in the parking lot. I pulled in next to it and climbed out, hoping it belonged to the person I wanted to see. I knocked on the office door and, much to my relief, Pastor Mike opened it. Mike, as he liked to be called, was the associate pastor, but more importantly, he was also the youth pastor. I’d been hoping he’d be the one there since he was pretty young — only in his mid-twenties — and I felt more comfortable talking to him. He had curly brown hair, dark eyes, and was even shorter than I. He always reminded me of an overgrown kid. He looked at me for a minute as if trying to remember my name.  

“Killian? Right?” I nodded, and he continued, “What can I do for you?”  

“May I talk to you?” I asked him somewhat timidly. I don’t think I had ever spoken to him before. I was surprised he even knew my name. I wasn’t active in the church youth group.  

“Sure,” he replied warmly. “Come on in.”  

I followed him into his office, and he pointed me to a couch. He took the chair next to it.  

“So, what’s up?” he asked me once we were seated.  

“I need to talk to you about some stuff.” He nodded as if to say ‘go on.’ “But if I do, will you promise not to tell anybody? I mean, can I trust you?”  

“Well, look, Killian, it’s like this. If you trust me enough to tell me, then you have to trust me enough to do what’s best with that information. What I mean is, if you tell me you are really depressed and you’re going to kill yourself, then I’ll have to tell someone to protect you. But if you just need some advice or clarification on something, then I think we should be able to keep it confidential.”  

I looked at him for a minute, weighing my options. If I talked to him, he might go to my parents. I really needed to talk to someone, though, and I felt I could trust him. He sat across from me, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, waiting to see what I decided.  

Finally, I made up my mind. “Well, maybe you can answer some questions first.” 

“I don’t pretend to know all the answers, but I’ll do the best I can.” He was very sincere.  

I nodded. “Does God hate gay people?”  

Mike sat back in his chair and let out a little breath — not a gasp, more like a hiss. “Yowzers. You sure like to start with the hard questions, don’t you?”  

I tried to smile but couldn’t quite pull it off. He saw this and quickly moved on.  

“Actually, some people like to make that a hard question, but the answer is quite easy. No. God loves gay people just as much as He loves the pastor or Mother Teresa or anybody else. But I have a feeling that’s not really what you’re here to ask.”  

“What if...what if someone in the church were gay? Would they be kicked out?”  

“No, I don’t know of anyone ever getting kicked out of our church. You come fairly often, Killian. Think about what you see when you’re here on Sunday mornings. We have a very open church. Everyone is welcome. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is or what color your hair is or what you’re wearing.”  

He was right. We had interracial couples, people with enough metal pierced through their skin to piece together a Volvo, people with bright fire-engine-red hair — and they were all accepted.  

He continued, “We believe that God’s love is for everyone, not just a select few. And you don’t have to be ‘good enough’ to meet His standards. He meets you where you are. Am I making any sense here?”  

“I think so,” I replied. “So does that mean it’s okay to be gay? Doesn’t the Bible say it’s wrong?”  

“Killian, that’s a question I don’t think I can answer for you. I’ve not studied it enough. Some people would say yes, the Bible lists it as a sin. Jesus himself never actually mentioned it, though Paul does a couple times. Then again, Paul also said women shouldn’t speak in church and should never cut their hair and never wear jewelry.” He shrugged. “We seem to have decided that those don’t count. Who gets to decide? I don’t know. I do know some people believe that the passages from the Bible often used to condemn gay people have been misinterpreted. I’m not speaking for the church as a whole at this point, but personally, I don’t think it really matters. I think we need to focus more on sharing God’s love than on condemning people. You talk to God about that one, see what He tells you.”  

I sat for a minute thinking about all he’d said.  

“Killian?” Mike interrupted my thoughts. “Do you think you might be gay?”  

For a minute, I froze, panic rising in the back of my throat. I didn’t see any condemnation or judgment in his eyes, though, and I slowly relaxed. I nodded my head, my eyes never leaving his face. I didn’t want to miss his reaction. His expression never changed, never wavered as he looked back at me. He nodded once, then reached out and patted my knee.  

“If you ever need to talk to someone, you can come to me. And you don’t have to worry; I’ll keep this confidential until you are ready to tell people yourself.”  

I felt my whole body relax. He didn’t hate me. He wasn’t going to tell my parents. He wasn’t going to announce it to the whole church and have me kicked out. I fought the urge to sigh with relief. I hadn’t realized how tense I had been until it was all over.  

Mike stood up and ruffled my hair. “Do you have any other questions for me? I don’t know, something easy maybe, like why do bad things happen to good people?” He grinned to let me know he was kidding.  

I grinned back and shook my head. “I guess I have enough to think about for now, but if something else comes up, is it okay if I come back?”  

“Of course it’s okay. In fact, I really hope you do. You’re a good kid, Killian. I’m glad you felt you could talk to me.”  

We stood up, walked to the door, and shook hands. He stayed in the doorway waving as I pulled out of the parking lot.  

That was one set of questions settled in my mind. Now I only had a million more to answer.  

 

 

 

I e-mailed Seth later that night, telling him I did want to talk to him in private on Friday. He was the only person I knew who was gay, and I was sure he’d be able to answer a lot of my questions. Mike had been a big help on the religious issue, but he wouldn’t be able to shed much light on what it was actually like to be a gay teenager.  

Seth had answered when I checked my account in the morning. He suggested we meet Friday evening at the park by the pond around 7:00. I replied, saying that was fine with me, and I would see him there. Now I only had to make it till Friday. 

The week seemed to drag by. I was constantly distracted, lost in my own thoughts. I knew my grades were probably plummeting, but I wasn’t too concerned. It was still only the second week. I would catch up.  

Friday finally arrived, but by the time the day was over, I wished it had never started. It got off to a bad beginning when my alarm clock failed to wake me, and I had to run around like a chicken with its head cut off to avoid being late. Then all the teachers seemed to be in a bad mood, and I got yelled at several times for not paying attention. Were they just then noticing? I hadn’t been paying attention all week. Why was Friday so important?  

Gilly Sheridan, a girl who’d been after me for a while and had proven to be quite persistent, cornered me in the hall and demanded to know why I wouldn’t go out with her. Always before, I’d either turned her down politely or managed to avoid the question altogether. This time, however, she wanted a reason. I came close to telling her it was because I was gay, but I thought better of it at the last minute. Instead, I bit my tongue and managed to sneak away when a friend running down the hall calling her name distracted her.  

That had been a narrow escape. I might not be able to give her the slip so easily next time. I needed a plan. Unfortunately, I didn’t have one. 

Then, as if my day weren’t already crappy enough, I got into a huge fight with Zack, Asher, and Jesse once again in the parking lot. This time they were waiting by my car when I came out. I eyed them suspiciously as I approached. I was beginning to dread getting my car from the lot. Maybe I would start riding the bus.  

“What’s with the welcome wagon?” I growled when I got close enough. “Did our dear old school elect you guys to the parking-lot hospitality committee?”  

“Funny, Killian,” Zack snapped. “We need to talk to you.”  

“About what?” 

“About Seth.” Zack again. It seemed he’d been chosen as the spokesperson for this little meeting. My eyes immediately went to Asher, but he looked away, obviously uncomfortable.  

“What about Seth?”  

“We think you are spending too much time with him.”  

“Too much time? I haven’t spent any time with him.”  

“Asher told us about the other day,” Jesse threw in smugly, as if that proved my guilt of some gross crime.  

“Oh, did he?” I once again looked at Asher. He still wasn’t looking at me. He seemed to have suddenly found his shoes quite fascinating.  

“Yeah, he did,” Zack confirmed. “And we’re worried that Seth is messing with your mind, turning you against us. You’ve not done anything with the group since school started, ever since you met this fag.”  

“Seth is turning me against you?” I could feel my blood pressure rising. “I don’t need Seth to turn me against you. You guys are doing a damn fine job for yourselves!”  

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Asher spoke up for the first time.  

“It’s supposed to mean that I’m always the tag-along. Nobody ever calls me unless nobody else is available. It means that I’m not really part of your little group, and I’m constantly being reminded of the fact. It means that nobody ever cared what I was doing or how I was doing until it started looking as if I might have a mind of my own. It means that if I don’t do exactly as you say and perform exactly as you expect me to perform I get check-ups and lectures. I’m not your friend. I’m your mascot. At least Seth treats me like a person.”  

“You’re a fag, too, aren’t you?” Zack accused in the sudden silence that followed my heated outburst.  

“Go to hell, Zack! And get away from my car while you’re at it, or I’ll run over you!”  

“You’re gonna be sorry, Killian,” Zack warned as he, Asher, and Jesse started backing away. “You and your boyfriend.”  

I stood there seething as they turned and walked away. Asher cast a baleful glance back at me over his shoulder, but I turned deliberately and climbed into my car. 

 

 

 

“You’re gonna be sorry.” That threat echoed through my head all the way home. What did it mean? How much did they know? I sure hoped Seth would be a good friend, because I had a feeling I’d just burned my bridges with the only three other friends I had. Not that they were a big loss.  

Except for Asher, a voice whispered inside my head. I tried desperately to ignore it. 

I drove home and did all my homework for the weekend, and it was still only four-thirty in the afternoon. I had over two hours to wait before I went to meet Seth at the park. Calling Asher was out of the question. I never called Zack or Jesse anyway. I didn’t have any other friends.  

I looked around my room and spotted my shelf of old books that had belonged to my mother when she was my age. They were mostly Nancy Drew mysteries with a few others thrown in for good measure. I was a little embarrassed to have them sitting in plain view, but none of my so-called friends ever hung out in my room, so I kept the books around for sentimental reasons. I smiled as I remembered how much I’d loved them a few years before. I used to imagine that I was in the stories with Nancy and the gang, helping them solve crimes by following the clues. In my fantasies, I was Killian Kendall, boy detective.  

I thought about reading one then to distract myself. I’d read them all at least twice, though, and I wasn’t really in the mood to read anyway. So I did what I always did when I had nothing better to do. I signed onto the Net.  

None of my cyber-friends were on. I usually talked to them later at night. I played an online game for a while but quickly grew bored. It didn’t take long until the subject that seemed to be perpetually on my mind lately resurfaced. I decided to look up some articles on being gay. I went to my favorite search engine and typed in “gay.” I was shocked when it came back with thousands and thousands of hits. Then I realized that the vast majority of them were porno sites. I had to admit I was very curious, but thought it would be better if I didn’t check them out. Well, maybe just one. I clicked on a link and waited. 

I almost fell off my chair as the site began to load. I had never seen anything remotely like it. There were dozens of pictures of hard-bodied, naked men. I’d never even seen another naked guy before except in gym, where I was too preoccupied trying not to stare to really notice anything. Besides, none of the guys at school were aroused like these men, and they certainly weren’t doing the things going on in these pictures. My eyes were almost popping out of my head, and this was just the title page. After I caught my breath, I tried clicking on the enter button. A form came up asking me to join, so I exited the whole site. No way were they getting my name, and anyway, I didn’t have a credit card. 

I sat in front of my computer, trying to decide if I should visit another site. I finally opted against it. I wasn’t sure I was ready for that. It also made me a feel a little dirty.  

I signed off and stood up — and was immediately aware of the tent in my pants. Well, I guess this settles the whole gay thing once and for all, I snickered to myself. Just then, Mom called me to dinner. I pushed all thoughts of being gay from my mind before leaving my room. I didn’t want to give anything away with my expression or behavior. I hadn’t forgotten the images I’d seen, however. I suspected I’d be seeing them again in my fantasies later that night. 

When I got downstairs, I was surprised to find a vase of fresh flowers in the center of the table and an Etta James album playing on the stereo. I’d grown up on a steady diet of the classics sung by vocal legends like James, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and of course, Billie Holiday. What made tonight different was that we never listened to music while we ate. Dad had a strange thing about it and didn’t even like it when restaurants played background music. 

“What’s the special occasion?” I asked, sliding into my place at the table. 

She shrugged. “There is no special occasion. Why?” 

I gestured toward the flowers and sang a line along with Etta. 

Mom laughed. “I just felt like doing things a little differently for a change. Is that a problem?” 

“No, it’s just unexpected. Where’s Dad?”  

“He called and said he had a meeting, so it’s just us.” She tucked a strand of shoulder-length blonde hair behind her ear and smiled. 

I looked at her closely as if seeing her for the first time. My mom was very pretty in a held-back kind of way. She’d had me when she was only eighteen, so that made her thirty-four now. Her soft blue eyes were seldom enhanced by makeup, but they were pretty without any. In fact, she hardly ever wore makeup at all. Suddenly, I wondered why. Dad was always asking her to. Given the way she did everything else he wanted, the fact that she didn’t do this small thing suddenly seemed out of character. Then I thought about the whole church business. That was another place she stood up to my father. Maybe I had been underestimating her all this time.  

“Why don’t you wear makeup?” I asked her.  

She looked at me in surprise. “What an odd question!”  

“Not really. Dad is always asking you to.”  

She smiled a funny little smile. “Then maybe that’s why.”  

“Huh?” I was suddenly very confused. Could the chief priestess at the shrine of my father really not be as devoted as she seemed?  

Her smile broadened. “You’ve never expressed much interest in my personal appearance before. What brought this on?”  

I shook my head silently, and she laughed. She blessed the food, and we made small talk while we ate, but my mind was busy trying to find other instances of my mother’s rebellion. They were there. I’d just never noticed them before. In fact, I realized I actually hadn’t paid much attention to her at all. As I thought about the various things she did to annoy my father — I think they call it passive-aggressive behavior — I suddenly had a new respect for my mother.  

“You don’t like him very much, do you,” I interrupted her in mid-sentence. I hadn’t been paying attention, but I think she was talking about church.  

“Pastor Mason?” she asked in a shocked voice.  

“No, Dad.”  

“Oh.” She sat there for a few seconds, fork still suspended halfway between her plate and her mouth. When she spoke again, her voice was so soft I almost had to strain to hear her. “Your father is a very difficult man, Killian. So was his father. I’ve never told you this, but I think you are old enough to handle it. We weren’t married when I became pregnant with you. I wouldn’t even consider an abortion, so his father, your grandfather, practically forced us to get married. Your Grandfather Kendall was a very religious man, very strict. Your father hated him back then. It’s funny how, except for the religious part, he’s turned out exactly like his father.”  

She let the fork slowly drop to her plate and folded her hands in her lap before continuing. “You’re right. I don’t like him very much. My mother told me I’d grow to love him...but it hasn’t happened yet.” She looked up at me, and I could see the pain in her eyes. “Please understand what I’m saying here, Killian. I don’t regret having you. You’re the only bright spot in all of this, the best thing in my life. I see the way he treats you, and it makes my heart ache. I’ve always tried to make sure you’ve had everything you needed, everything you wanted: the car, the computer...” She shook her head as if to say it wasn’t enough.  

“Then why don’t you leave him?” I asked equally quietly.  

“It doesn’t work that way, Killian baby. Your father’s a very powerful man in this area. He’d take you away, and I’d never be able to get a job. It’s a good-old-boys’ network around here. Everybody knows everybody, and most of them are in your father’s debt. I never finished college because I was pregnant, and your father never let me go back, so I have no marketable skills. I’m stuck. And I’m afraid that means you are, too, at least for a few more years. Maybe once you’re in college, I’ll have the nerve to make a break for it. I just don’t want you to get caught in the crossfire. It would be ugly, trust me.”  

“I do,” I told her sincerely. I knew how much Dad hated to be crossed. He was in a foul mood for days every time he lost a case. I shuddered to think how he’d react if Mom tried to leave him. 

She nodded, and we went back to eating. The rest of the meal was somewhat solemn. I had a new image of my mother now, and my respect for her had risen considerably. All those years she’d stayed in an unhappy marriage because she didn’t want to lose me. The full impact of that hit me, and I had to choke back tears. When she stood up to clear the table, I jumped up, gave her a hug, and insisted she let me do it. 

Once I’d finished the dishes, it was almost time to meet Seth at the park. I figured that if I walked there, it would be just about right. I could have driven, but I didn’t want to get there too early and have to sit around waiting. It was nearly dusk, and it was a little creepy by the pond at night.  

I told Mom I was going for a walk and left. I had plenty of time on the fifteen-minute stroll to think about things — and I had a lot to think about. So much had happened in the last two weeks. I’d realized I was gay and admitted it to myself. I’d come out to one of the pastors at my church and to a new friend who was also gay. Then I’d alienated all my old friends, maybe for good. I had been kissed for the first time, and it was by a guy. I wondered briefly if it counted if you hit them afterward but decided it did. Then to top it all off, I’d found out that my mother was a real person after all — and I liked her. Who would have thought? 

I wondered what Seth would add to my list that night. Would he kiss me again? Did I want him to? I wasn’t sure. Part of me did, but part of me was scared, too. I finally decided that if he did, I wouldn’t stop him this time.  

I was so lost in thought that I almost walked past the trail to the manmade fishpond sitting back in a copse. The forest was small but thick with lots of undergrowth and high weeds on either side of the narrow trail circling the tiny body of water. The pond itself was a murky green, fed by drainage ditches and rainfall. We’d had plenty of the latter so the water level was quite high. Although the town had built cutesy little arched bridges over the ditches, everything still looked rather seedy and creepy, even in the middle of the day. At night, it was downright frightening.  

It was just at the edge of dusk, the time when it’s hardest to see because the whole world looks like an old black-and-white movie with bad contrast. I didn’t notice anybody near the pond, but I couldn’t be sure, so I started to walk around it. Maybe I’d arrived before Seth.  

As I began to cross the first bridge, I thought I saw something move on the far side of the pond. I paused and strained my eyes, but I couldn’t tell if I’d really seen anything or if it was just a trick of the shadows. I picked up my pace as I got closer to the area where I thought I’d seen movement. When I neared the spot, I called out in a hushed voice, “Seth?” If it is Seth, I thought, he’ll never recognize my voice. I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t louder, but a sudden feeling of terror had crept over me. Goose bumps covered my arms, and the hair was standing up on the back of my neck. I almost turned and ran. Then I told myself I was being stupid and kept walking. “Seth?” I called again in my new raspy voice.  

Still no one answered me, so I thought maybe I’d imagined the whole thing. Just then, I saw a shape lying on the ground. I froze in my tracks. It looked disturbingly like a person. Could someone have had a heart attack? I wanted get out of there, but that seemed wrong if somebody was in need of help, so I reluctantly kept walking forward. I still wasn’t close enough to see what it was when a sudden crashing sound came from the undergrowth. I spun around in time to see a figure explode out of the trees and toward me with a feral snarl.  

The figure slammed into me, cutting off my scream before it left my mouth. The impact sent the two of us rolling across the ground. It was human. I was sure of that much while we grappled. Fear gave me strength I didn’t know I possessed as I tried desperately to get away, but my attacker seemed to have an equal source of inspiration. At first, I thought maybe it was Seth playing a sick joke. The ferocity of the grip quickly made that seem unlikely. I couldn’t turn around to see, since my attacker now had me from behind in a tight hold.  

One hand abruptly let go, and the weight on top of me shifted. Before I could take advantage of that, the person raised an arm and quickly brought it down. I saw a metallic flash in the moonlight. It was a knife! Everything seemed to go in slow motion. I felt the impact of the knife in my side, and the air rushed out of me with an audible “oof.” Almost instantly, a searing, paralyzing pain spread through my entire body, and I sensed my own warm blood gushing out.  

I’ve been stabbed.  

My brain registered what had happened in a kind of detached manner. It was difficult to accept. I wondered idly if this was what they called shock. 

The fight had gone out of me, and my attacker knew it. He let go of me with his other arm and yanked the knife out. I collapsed to the ground as he sat up over me, roughly flipping me onto my back. Though I tried to get a look at my assailant, the pain must have blinded me. I couldn’t make out any facial features. The arm rose again, then stopped. I lay there staring helplessly up at the faceless monster above me, waiting for the knife to fall once more and finish me off. I could do nothing but whimper.  

“Shit!” the person hissed. He lurched up and took off running.  

What just happened?  

I didn’t move for a few seconds.  

I’m still alive.  

The thought was abstract. The pain was all I was really aware of. I was having difficulty breathing. With each breath, the knife pierced me again. When I struggled to sit up, agony flashed through my body, and I felt myself blacking out.  

I don’t want to die.  

Darkness surrounded me, but I fought back. Somehow, I managed to roll onto my side. With a little more effort, I got to my hands and knees. I pressed one hand tightly against the wound and tried to stand up. I almost collapsed again. My head was spinning too much. I could feel the blood pulsing between my fingers with every beat of my heart.  

I wanted to scream, yet I couldn’t get enough air to cry, let alone call for help. I was also afraid my attacker would come back. Maybe he’d left me there to die, and he’d come back to check. I looked around for help but couldn’t see over the weeds. Although I could glimpse the lights of nearby houses shining faintly among the trees, I knew my chances of getting through the underbrush in my condition were next to none. I was more likely to be found if I stayed on the trail. Sometimes people walked their dogs in the park.  

The figure lying on the ground once again caught my attention. I could see that it was definitely a person. It looked like a man — at least he had short hair. He hadn’t moved since I’d first noticed him. Maybe I had interrupted a mugging, and the victim was just unconscious. Maybe I could wake the person up to get help.  

I began to crawl toward the still figure. My progress was excruciatingly slow. Every movement brought a wave of intense agony. Nausea rolled over me in palpable waves, and sweat ran down my face. My vision swam in and out. It was all I could do to stay conscious. Some detached part of my mind noted that my shirt was soaked with my own blood. I knew I was losing a lot, which probably explained why I was so lightheaded.  

After what felt like an eternity, I reached the figure. He was lying on his side facing away from me. I grabbed his shoulder and rolled him toward me. As soon as the body fell flat on its back, I knew I wouldn’t be waking him up. His throat had been slashed open, the gash angry and raw. It’s amazing the little things you notice in a moment like that. I saw leaves and small pebbles stuck in the drying blood around the wound, and I wanted to brush them off. They looked unspeakably obscene, as if the gaping slit weren’t obscene enough.  

I felt the blackness swirling around me again and decided not to fight it this time. In the last second before I allowed it to overwhelm me, I looked at the face.  

My last thought before succumbing to the void was, Oh, God, not Seth.