Quarry Tales

Episode 5 - Dennis


It was the first day of my sophomore year. I was waiting in front of the school for Eddie. I had made up my mind to defy my parents and talk to him ... to try to make things right, at least to try to get him to understand. I'd wanted to do it for so long .... oh, so long. I wasn't going to be a coward anymore.

If he wanted to kill me I'd understand. If he did kill me it would be the righteous thing for him to do. I had robbed him, and I had it coming. I was a liar and a thief, the worst combination possible. My mother had taught me about that combination. My mother ... the fucking saint. The do-gooder.

Look at me now, Mom! I'm waiting on Eddie - the boy you said I should never look at or speak to again. Well, you had your way for a while, but no more! Eddie was my friend, not yours. You used to like him, too. He fit your snob-nosed image of boys, didn't he? The all-American boy, the perfect little friend for your son.

Then you decided we were too friendly. Too friendly? Where'd you come up with that one? You really thought two kids could be too friendly? Where the fuck's your head, Mom? Eddie and I were cruising until you stepped in with your innuendos about him.

Well, let me innuendo you, mother creep. I'll be subtle about this. It was me! That's right, me! Your fag boy son If anybody was trying to corrupt anybody, it was me. I wanted into Eddie's pants in the worst way, Mom. But I had your ugly words in my head all the time.

Did you ever see Eddie touch me? Not hardly, asshole mother. I had my hands all over him all the time, though. You saw it through your own eyes, but you managed to mirror it to where he was hanging all over me.

Mother, I wish you'd just piss off and leave me alone. You never ask why I don't have any friends anymore. That's not a concern to you?

You know, don't you? You're just like a fucking cat, you know that? You're all cuddles and purrs until something strikes you the wrong way, then the claws come out.

I was expecting Eddie to be alone like he always was, but he was joking with some other kids when he walked into view. I looked at him, trying to make eye contact as he walked past me. He never even noticed me. I stood there for another minute, then turned to walk into the building. My plans were dashed. Now he had friends and I didn't.

It seemed appropriate ... like justice, even. I was the betrayer, Eddie the betrayee. I wondered, though. About the friends, I mean. I hadn't seen a single soul associate with him since I outed him, and I didn't think I ever would again. There he was, though, walking right past me like I didn't exist. I really wasn't prepared to see that, and I didn't know what to think. He was smiling, too. Laughing, even. That's another thing I thought I'd never see again.

Eddie and I had been friends since we were little, but we got pretty close starting around age ten. By the time I was old enough to get horny, I was always horny for Eddie. I never told him anything, but the older we got the more I felt it. I was always happy enough that he was my friend, and that we spent all our free time together.

It worked out pretty well for me, because we were really active. When he was around, we were usually way too busy for me to think about anything but what we were doing. It was when I was alone in my room that my thoughts would focus on Eddie. Oh, boy ... did they ever focus. I got more and more obsessed with him, with his face and his body. I'm not sure when it started to change from a general obsession into a sexual one, but sometime between age twelve and thirteen he started appearing in my fantasies. My friendship started turning to love and there didn't seem to be anything I could do about it.

I tried to stop the thoughts. Believe me, I tried. They wouldn't go away, though, and they just got stronger and stronger. I couldn't just be with him anymore, I had to be close to him. I started touching him all the time, pushing right up beside him when we sat together, touching his arms and legs, his shoulder, his back ... anything that wouldn't look suspicious.

If Eddie noticed, he never said anything. He never once pushed me away or moved away from me. I tried to make myself believe he liked the contact, but reality told me that he was just used to being touched in that way. He was really close with his parents, and everybody in his family was hugging and touching all the time. I just thought he never noticed anything different when it was me.

You noticed didn't you, fucking Witch Hazel? When did Eddie start to change from 'that charming boy' to the one who had his hands all over me? Was it when he fell asleep in the backseat on the way to New Hampshire and I held onto him all the way? He's the one who was asleep, you asshole! He was in La La Land, dear mother. It was I, your perfect little creation, who was holding on, trying to cop a feel off my best friend.

It got to the point where I couldn't stand being apart from Eddie. Nobody thought much about it because we were best friends. We just did more and more things by ourselves, fewer and fewer things with other people, until I had him just about all to myself. He seemed happy with the situation. He never complained when I said I'd rather do something different from what everybody else had planned.

I started to hope, idly at first, that maybe he felt a little about me the way I felt about him. It seemed like too much to even dream about, so I never said a word to anybody about my thoughts. It was private, and I think I did a good job about keeping it that way.

You thought I should spend less time with Eddie, maybe find a nice girl. You craven bitch! First, there isn't a girl on the planet who could hope to meet your expectations. And where the hell did those expectations come from to begin with? Where the hell did you come from, for that matter? Wasn't your own father a builder? A guy who got his hands dirty? When did you get your high-falutin ideas? When you met Dad? He came from money, but what he has he earned on his own. I never saw you helping with that. Not once. Sorry, Mom, but you're nothing but a fraud.

I was in a limbo. I had a mad crush on Eddie, but I was afraid to say anything, afraid to let on in any way that I was gay. That would be the certain kiss of death in our little hick town. It would have been a social death even if it wasn't a physical one. I was afraid of it, which made me a little afraid of Eddie himself. The number of times when I thought I'd gone too far was increasing. I was touching him farther and farther up the thigh, holding on longer than I should whenever I touched him. I was scaring myself, too, becoming afraid that I might just jump his bones at any moment. All it was going to take was a weak moment on my part, and I lived with the fear of it.

The last time I was with him, we stumbled on a beer party down by the river. It was older kids, but we knew who they were. They were having fun and invited us to have some beer with them. We didn't drink a whole lot, but we both got pretty messed up and foolish feeling. We finally sat down on the ground, mostly because we couldn't stand up very well anymore. As usual, I sat right up against Eddie. I put my arm around him.

I told him I loved him.

I couldn't believe I'd said it, but I didn't seem to get a reaction. I looked at him and he was just staring at me, not looking angry at all. Then he started leaning his face closer to mine until our lips met. Eddie was kissing me! I started to kiss back, then noticed an older boy behind Eddie looking at us.

What followed was an act of cowardice on my part that will surely earn me a place of honor in the Coward's Hall of Fame. I jumped away and pushed Eddie flat on his back, screaming that he was a faggot and he kissed me. I ran to get my bike, but I could hear soft thuds and grunts and I knew Eddie was getting beat up. Did I turn around and try to stop them? Not me. Could I show up at home with a sullied reputation? I never tried to find out. I walked my bike up the bank, then jumped on it and rode.

I didn't go far. I just pedaled across the bridge and pulled over onto some grass. I sat down, unable to comprehend what I'd just done to my best friend. I had a knot in my stomach so tight that I thought it was going to choke the life out of me. Eddie was getting an ass-kicking that belonged to me, and I was letting it happen. I couldn't move, though something in my head was trying to convince me that I had to go back there.

The rest of my thoughts were just about self-preservation, the best way to lie my way out of this one. That was my usual first interest ... just make sure none of this looked bad for me. How's that for a fine, upstanding member of the human race? For all I knew they'd killed Eddie, and I was trying to think what I'd say to my mother.

After about a half-hour I saw the kids from the party go roaring off in their cars, hollering out the windows like they'd just won the championship in football or something.

I waited a little while, then went back to where the party had been. Eddie's bike was gone, so I figured he couldn't have been hurt too badly, though I wondered how I'd missed seeing him go by me. I pushed my bike down to the river ... to the last place I'd seen Eddie. There was no evidence of anything, other than some plastic cups and other litter on the ground.

I sat down, trying not to think about what I'd done. I'd gotten so close to what I wanted, so very close. Eddie kissed me, the most important kiss of my life, but instead of going with it and facing the consequences together, I'd chickened out, because somebody saw us - at a beer party. How hard would it have been to explain away a little drunken behavior? Everybody did and said dumb things when they were drunk. I don't even know if the kid I saw even noticed us.

I was there for a while, just watching the black water flow by, drawing pretty blank pictures in my head. I was feeling sorry for myself, for what I was and what I'd become that night. The words traitor, thief and liar were bouncing around in my mind, but the word coward kept booming through my consciousness. I heard a noise behind me, like somebody sliding down the hill. It was quiet for another second, then there was crying.

It was the saddest crying I'd ever heard in my life, and I knew it was coming from Eddie. Wet crying ... snot-laden and choking-on-it crying. I sat there and listened, knowing I was the cause of his sorrow, still unable or unwilling to go to my friend. He was no more than fifty feet away from me, but I just sat there and listened.

Eddie quieted down after a while, but I sensed that he was still there and didn't move a muscle myself. When it had been silent for a long time, I stood up and looked toward where the sounds had been coming from. I could see him laying on the bank, so I ducked back and sat down until I heard him scrambling up the hill. I waited quite a while longer, then finally picked up my bike and pushed it up to the road.

I was almost to Eddie's street when I heard a siren, then saw an ambulance come tearing out of there. When I got to the corner, I looked down toward his house and saw flashing lights and what looked like the whole neighborhood standing out there.

Everything started coming together. Until now it had all seemed like a dream ... no, more like a movie. I knew I'd been a shitty coward, but until that moment it just seemed like something I could fix in the morning. The ambulance speeding toward the hospital contained Eddie, I knew it did, and I'd put him in it.

I got sick. I leaned over and puked, then kicked my bike away and knelt down puking until there was nothing left inside me. I continued to heave long after I was empty, every repetition hurting more than the last. Just when I was certain I would die if I convulsed one more time, I heard a car pull up beside me. It was my father, who had been out looking for me for hours. He helped me into the car, leaving my bike for the morning. He drove home, neither of us saying a word.

When we got there, my mother was furious. It was after three, and they had been looking for hours. My father had been looking, my mother just losing sleep because Dad was so worried. He finally just walked me away from her harangue and led me to the bathroom. He cleaned me up a little with a washcloth and put me to bed, only removing my sneakers. He said he was very angry with me, but that we'd sort it out in the morning. He kissed my forehead before he left the room, but after a minute I could hear my mother screaming at him from downstairs. That's what I fell asleep to.

That's also what I woke up to. My mother stormed into my room and lit into me, saying she'd been warning me about 'that boy' all along. I was usually slow to wake up, but hearing her rants immediately brought back the events of the night before.

So, Mother. That boy is a homosexual, and I'm so lucky to have a mother who recognized it early on! Before I could be influenced by him! Who the fuck do you think you're kidding? When did you figure me out and start laying it on Eddie? It couldn't be me, could it? Heavens no! That is just too outrageous to even consider. Your son? What a preposterous notion, huh Mother?

Did you really have to set out to destroy the whole family? Hadn't I done enough to Eddie? You told me that he got the licking he deserved. That wasn't enough? You had to go after his mother and father just for bringing him into this world? Did you ever once consider asking me what my part in this was - where I had been that night?

Of course not, because you knew didn't you? You've known for a long time, haven't you? Did you ever consider just bringing it up? Talking about it? Did you ever at least consider providing an atmosphere where I might think I could bring it up? Why would you? That might make it true, mightn't it?

I learned all I know about courage and honesty from you. There's a saying - love is never having to say you're sorry. Well, mother dear, the same thing goes for hatred too, doesn't it? As long as somebody else can take the blame for something you did or caused, why should you have to say you're sorry?

I guess the rest of the details aren't that important. My mother forbade me to have any contact whatsoever with Eddie. My father lectured me about drinking, then they both grounded me for the rest of the summer for my behavior.

They didn't have to. There was no where I wanted to go, nothing I wanted to do. By isolating Eddie I had pretty well isolated myself. Nobody called anymore because they just expected to get turned down anyhow. Now I was the friendless person.

The truth is, I wanted friends but I didn't dare. I knew what I'd done to my best friend ... somebody I'd truly loved. I was really afraid of what I might do to a casual friend.

I called Eddie's house a few times when my parents weren't home. I never said anything, just listened to whoever's voice answered the phone, then hung up. The last time I tried, I was greeted by a recording that told me the number was no longer in service.

Going back to school that year was the worst. Eddie and I had been impatient to get to high school. We thought we'd take the place by storm and have a ball. The ski team ... yeah, the ski team. We were both good and figured we could really kick ass. Even if we got outclassed, we could go skiing all the time and get a free ride back and forth. Then there was baseball. I dreamed of learning curve balls, sliders, change-ups. Eddie dreamed of learning how to catch all of those, of picking off runners trying to steal bases. Oh, we had fun talking and dreaming about all these things.

Then reality poked her ugly head into all of it. Eddie started the year as the school queer. He was harassed by some guys, pretty much ignored by everybody else. He was picked on and teased a lot, even got beat up a few times. I was witness to some of this, the cause of all of it.

I turned away from it, turned away from everything except my studies. I had no friends and didn't try to make any, rejecting any efforts by others in that direction.

I made it through the year with nothing but good grades to show for it. Except running. I started running early in the school year. At first it was just in gym class ... laps around the track. Then I started running home instead of taking the bus. Pretty soon I found myself running all the time. It was an addiction, laborious at first, but when that high hit me, I felt like I could go forever. It was the only time when nothing else mattered, because there was nothing else. Nothing but the plop-plop of my feet, the wind in my face, and the air working my lungs.

I don't think I'd call it happy, but runner's euphoria is the next best thing to happy. There's no cost for it either, other than the physical effort you have to put in to get there. It was a lot easier than trying to find happiness through interactions with other people. There wasn't much of a downside beyond the odd sore foot or knee. When you finally stopped running you could just fall into a comfortable nothingness, needing only a shower and a pillow to feel satisfied.

That's what I did for a whole school year: ran I avoided everybody, studied and went to bed. I can't say that I forgot about Eddie, but I had managed to find a safe and secluded shelf in my brain for my memories of him.

I'm not sure that there was any direct cause, but just before school started up again Eddie fell off the shelf and into my consciousness, overwhelming me with guilt and shame for what I'd done. Maybe I was just growing up, maybe all that pavement pounding had rattled my brain into place. Whatever it was, my thoughts were suddenly back on Eddie, my feelings as strong as ever. I had to make contact, face the consequences.

* * * * * * *

I went to my locker and left my gym bag in there, then looked at the scrap of paper I had in my pocket to remind me where home room was. I had mixed feelings, and wondered if Eddie would be in the same one. I kind of hoped he would be, but at the same time thought it might be too tense. Walking there, I ran into one of the kids Eddie had walked in with. His name was Ralph Swanson and he was fairly popular.

I screwed up my courage. "Hey, Ralph. How's things going?"

"Hi, Bax. Not bad. Where you been, anyhow? You never hang out anymore."

"Aah, just around. Did I see you comin' in with Eddie Andrews?"

He took the defensive. "So what if I did? He was walkin' with Richie, so I did too. Don't go gettin' any weird ideas, okay?"

"I didn't mean anything. I just never see him with anyone anymore."

"Yeah, well I guess Richie's his friend now. That makes him kinda my friend, because I always hang with Rich. Eddie seems okay, really. I think it was all a lotta crap about him."

I looked over at him. "You think so?"

"Shit, Bax. Don't ask me. You used to be his best friend, but you dropped him quick enough. Why don't you tell me?"

"I don't know. I really don't."

"Aren't you the guy who said he tried something?"

"Yeah, but we were all drunk. I don't remember much."

Ralph stopped and yanked my arm to stop me. He gave me a disgusted look. "Man, he went through all that shit and you don't remember? Why didn't you say something?"

I looked down to watch the tips of my sneakers playing with each other. I practically whispered, "I don't know."

He gave me a little shove. "Well, don't go startin' any more crap or your ass is gonna be hurtin'. You got that?"

"I got it. I ain't startin' anything."

I stood there. Ralph stared at me for a second longer, then walked away. I had mixed feelings again. I was glad Eddie seemed to have some people who would stick up for him, but I felt awful that I wasn't one of them. I felt even worse for what Ralph had judged to be my intentions.

I trudged toward home room, looking in from outside before entering. I didn't see Eddie and I felt a little relieved. That was premature, because when I walked in he was sitting alone in the back where I couldn't see from outside. He saw me when I looked at where he was, but he didn't change expressions.

I screwed up whatever passed for courage within me, then took the seat beside him.

"Hi," I whispered.

He looked at me for a second and nodded a little. "Dennis." He looked back at his desk as soon as the word escaped his mouth.

No more Bax. Well, I should have expected that. I don't think he'd ever called me Dennis, but there it was. At least he didn't seem angry.

I was looking at my own desk, feeling totally awkward. I had finally made the first move, and I didn't want to waste it. I didn't have a clue as to how to proceed, either. I looked back over at him and whispered, "I'm sorry, Eddie."

He looked back up, but this time he did look angry. He started picking up his things, then jerked his head toward the door as if he wanted me to follow him. He got up and left the room with me following right behind him. He headed straight down the hall, then turned toward one of the side exits. As soon as we got outside he turned and glared at me. He looked overexcited, and I went from nervous to scared in a split second.

"You're sorry? Sorry about what? That I'm still alive?" He poked me hard in the chest. "I'm sorry, too, Dennis!" He poked me again, harder. "Sorry that I ever thought you were my friend. You hung me out to dry, man, and you can be sorry all you want. You can't change what you did to me" Another poke. "So, what the fuck? Now that I have a couple of friends you wanna start fuckin' with me again? Well, guess what, Dennis? It ain't gonna work a second time! I have real friends now, and if you try to mess with it again you're dead. Got me? Dead!" He had emphasized each sentence with a poke to my chest, then he shoved me hard enough sideways that I almost fell into some bushes before he turned and walked back inside.

I started to follow him, then turned around and started to walk away, thinking I'd just start school tomorrow. I thought better of it and hurried back to home room, taking a seat as far away from Eddie as I could find. I sat there feeling like a wounded animal. Eddie had every reason in the world to hate me, but I had somehow hoped that he wouldn't, that we could at least be friends.

I went through the morning classes without seeing him again, then saw him sitting with some other guys at lunch. Most of them were joking around, but Eddie looked pretty sullen. I figured he was still mad at me for invading his space. I did make note of who he was sitting with, thinking I might try talking to them. I knew most of them, actually used to be friends with some of them until I stopped hanging around with other people.

After school I ran toward home as usual. When I got to the bottom of my street I had a thought and stopped. Rich LaFleur lived in the second house up. I'd never really been friends with him, but I knew who he was because we used to take the bus together. He was one of the kids Eddie had been with in the morning, so I decided to wait and try to talk to him. I knew I was there first, because this was the second bus stop in the morning, and the second-to-last in the afternoon.

I sat on a step across the street from where the bus would stop. When it got there, Rich was about the third kid off.

I waited until the bus drove off, then ran across the street.

"Rich?"

He turned around, frowning when he saw who I was. "What?"

"Can I talk to you?"

He held the frown, looking suspiciously at me. "About what?"

"About Eddie Andrews."

"He said you bugged him this morning. Listen, Baxter, if you think you can stir up another rat's nest about Eddie, you can just think again. Nobody cares anymore, you got that? Nobody! Take your dirty little stories and tell them to your Mommy!"

He turned and started walking toward his house. "Please? It's not what you think."

He turned around again, looking exasperated. "What? You didn't do enough? Leave it alone, man, or you're gonna wish you did!"

"I only want him to know I'm sorry. That's all I want." I was whining then, right on the verge of tears.

"He said you already told him. What's with you, man? Can't you just leave him alone?"

I did start crying. "Not 'til he knows." I thought I was having a heart attack or something. I suddenly had a hard time breathing and I started shaking like a leaf, becoming disoriented very quickly. I felt hands on me, then I was on the ground. I could hear Rich's voice telling me to relax. He had my shoulders pinned to the ground.

"Calm down, man! What the fuck?"

I was panting. I felt Rich's palm on my chest, pushing down, then letting go. It seemed to help, and after a minute or so I was breathing again ... breathing hard, but not gasping for air. I opened my eyes to see Rich's frightened face.

"You okay, now?"

I nodded.

"What the hell was that?"

"I ... I don't know."

"You think you can stand up now?"

I nodded again, and he grabbed my hands and helped me to my feet.

"Come inside and lie down for a while." He put one hand on my shoulder and the other on my back and led me to the side door of his house. We went inside and he yelled to see if anybody was home, but there wasn't. He brought me into the living room and sat me on the sofa, then knelt down and pulled my sneakers off. I stretched out on the sofa while he went to get me something to drink.

I was a little scared because I didn't understand what had just happened. I wasn't sure if it was just a giant attack of nerves or if there was something wrong. I was just starting to feel normal again when Rich came in with a big glass of ice water. I sat up and started drinking it. After I took a few big sips I set the glass down, then sat up to put my shoes back on.

"You leaving?"

"I ... I guess. I feel okay now." I looked up at him. "Thanks. I don't know what that was."

Rich was still standing, and he looked away from me a little. "You should wait 'til somebody gets here that can drive you. You said you have something to say?"

I looked at him until he looked back. "You'll listen?"

"Look, Baxter. I don't like you for what you did to Eddie, but he used to love you, so there must be something. Say what's on your mind."

I couldn't. He just said Eddie used to love me, and those were at once the most joyful and painful few words I ever heard. I'd only taken a few glugs of water, but suddenly gallon-jug sized tears were pouring from my eyes. I started sobbing, then lost control entirely. I'm sure I started wailing, then I'd choke, then start wailing again. I'm not sure how long I carried on like that, but when I was finally settling down, Rich sat beside me and put a damp towel to my face. I took it and started cleaning myself off. When I could see again, Rich was sitting there staring at me.

"What the hell brought that on?"

"I ... you ... you said Eddie loved me?"

"Isn't that why you turned on him?"

Another sob wracked my body. I had to gasp some air to speak, then I started crying again. "Is that what he thinks?"

Rich's face got red and he started yelling. "What the fuck do you want him to think? You tell everybody he's a faggot, then kick his ass! Why don't you try that without twenty of your friends and see how far you get? Eddie could mop up the street with your sorry ass!"

I was sobbing. "I .. I ... never ... hit him. I didn't mean it to be like that."

"Bullshit! You want me to think he put himself in the hospital? You hurt him, Baxter. If it was me I'd hurt you back, but Eddie's not like that. He's got new friends now, and I think he's okay, so why don't you just butt the fuck out?"

I thought about that. Why didn't I just butt out? Eddie knew most of the truth - it had happened to him. The only thing he didn't know was how much I loved him. I'm not sure why, but I wanted him to know that. I needed for him to know that.

I had stopped crying. I wiped my face again, then stared at Rich, trying to figure him out. I couldn't give up.

"Rich?"

"Yeah?"

"I never hit Eddie, I just ran away. I got scared and I ran. I could never hit him."

"You didn't call him names?"

I blushed, my face as hot as a fresh-baked potato. "I called him a faggot." I looked up at him. "I know I was to blame, but I was scared."

"Scared of what?"

"What I was ... am."

He was studying my face, looking perplexed. "What are you, Baxter?"

"I'm ... I loved Eddie. I still love Eddie. I'm the one that's ..." I gulped, "queer."

His look softened a little, then he sat back and looked away. "Oh, man." He knotted the fingers of both hands together and leaned his forehead against them, then looked up at nothing in particular. "Shit! This is all I need. What the hell do I do here?"

He seemed to be thinking, so I remained quiet. He finally looked at me. "Who else knows? About you, I mean."

"Just you and me. I think my mother knows, but she won't talk about it."

"How long?"

"How long what?"

"Jesus! How long's your dick, asshole?" He shook his head, then stared at me again. "How long were you in love?"

"A few years, I guess."

"And in all that time you couldn't say something? Do you know ... do you have any idea what it would have meant if Eddie just knew that?" He put his head back in his hands. "Dammit! Now what do I do?"

I whispered, "Eddie really loved me?"

Rich's voice was a croak. "Yeah. Past tense, though. I think a year-and-a-half of being pushed around got him over it."

"Rich?"

He looked up.

"Does Eddie hate me?"

"I don't know. I don't think he ever said it ... not to me, at least. Listen, you should know that Eddie has a new friend ... a, um ..." he blushed, "a special friend."

I knew what he meant, and it hurt. I'd had my big chance and I blew it in the worst way. My mind drew me a picture of what might have been, then I had to X it out. Eddie had somebody, somebody special. I was happy for him in a lonely, morbid sort of way. Eddie was strong, and he had moved on while I just stayed put.

"Rich, I'm gonna go. I'll stay away from Eddie, I promise. I didn't want to make any more trouble." I bent down and started pulling my shoes on.

"I'll walk you. I thought somebody'd be here by now to give you a ride."

"You don't have to."

"I'm gonna anyhow. You ready?"

When I got my shoes tied we headed out the door and turned up the street. I looked at Rich. He had a wistful look on his face.

"Are you gonna tell Eddie?"

"I'll tell him we talked. I'm calling some friends of mine to see what they think." He smiled, apparently to himself. "If you didn't guess yet, I'm not exactly a social worker." He stopped walking and we faced each other. "Look, uh, Bax. Stay away from Eddie for a few days. I'll figure something out, but you leave him alone until I talk to you. Okay?"

"You'll do that?"

"I'll try. You know there's no chance for you guys, don't you? You won't try to mess up what he has goin'?"

"Oh, man. Thanks, Rich! I swear I won't do anything. I just want a chance to apologize and tell him what it was all about."

We started walking again. "Okay, cool." He snuck a little grin at me. "This sucks, you know."

"What does?"

"Suddenly I'm surrounded by gay boys, and I feel like Dear Abby." Then he really grinned. "Shit, that means I get more women for myself!"

There was a small stone on the sidewalk and Rich kicked at it, catching his sole on the concrete so it didn't go very far. I ran up to it and kicked it myself, doing the same thing. Suddenly we were fighting for the next kick, shoving each other and laughing because neither of us could get a good toe on it.

When we were in front of my house I stopped and smiled, and it was a real smile. "Thanks, Rich."

He was looking at the house, kind of wide eyed. "You live here?"

"This is the place."

"Holy shit!" He stared at it for a bit longer, then gave me an evil grin. "Baxter?"

"Rich?"

"Have we discussed my autumn rates?"

When that sunk in I burst out laughing. Rich did too, then we high-fived each other and headed our separate directions.

Why shouldn't I be in a good mood, Mother? Is there a law against it? Does a hopeful smile on the face of your son really call for snide remarks? Yes, you saw me outside with a boy you don't know! That 'gesture' is called a high-five, and it doesn't mean anything except you had a little fun. Yes, I think kicking a rock up the sidewalk qualifies as a little fun.

You're getting yours, lady. Soon, too. I'm right on the edge of something, don't ask me what, but I'm there. I interacted with another person today, Mother ... a good person from what I can tell. How do I know he's a good person? He doesn't even like me, but he still left things on a high note, that's how I know. I messed up one of his friends - your specialty - and he didn't try to make me feel like a dust bunny, didn't try to make me feel disposable.

I'm not missing out on another thing in this life. I'm talking to Dad tonight, and I'm going to tell him everything. Yes, I want you there, but when you try to lie I'm going to prove the truth. That's the difference that you don't understand, Mother. The truth, whether you're proud of it or ashamed of it, will always hold up. Your lies will topple like a house of cards, so it's best that you hold your tongue. No more, mother. No more. Not ever!

When my father got home that night I told him everything. My mother sat there, as mute as the carrot she was starting to resemble. I didn't give him a chance to even ask a question until I'd laid it all out. I told him I was a liar first, then that I was gay, then the whole truth about that last night with Eddie; ample proof that I was also a coward. Every time he tried to interrupt, I talked louder. I looked at him through my whole spiel, seeing every emotion except happiness or pride cross his face.

I can't say that I felt good, but at least I didn't feel stifled. I'd said what I said, and it couldn't be taken back. It was all on the table, and the ball was in his court. I left the room after offering him time to think about it all.

I went to my room and just sat on the side of my bed, wondering what might happen. I knew he'd come and talk to me eventually, but I wasn't at all sure if he'd bring his gun and just do me in. I didn't really care. I could, at least, die an honest person.

It took him over an hour, but when he came in I could see that he was a disappointed man. He was disappointed in me, his son, and that brought more tears to my eyes. I deserved them, though, and listened to his words.

"Dennis, I ... I ..."

"I'm sorry, Dad."

"Please. Don't say anything, just listen."

"Sorry."

"Dennis, I can't believe what you did to Eddie. He was your friend." I felt guilty and started fidgeting, and my father patted my knee.

He gave me a very worried look. "Don't you know what that means? You came home and lied to us about it, made us think he was some kind of weirdo, like he did something you thought was sick, something you didn't want."

My own tears were flowing, but when I looked at my father he was crying too. "How the hell did you live with that? Didn't you trust me to help you? Eddie was like a second son."

My voice sounded as small as I felt. "I know."

"How could you not say anything 'til now? Oh, God!" His voice grew angry. "You let your mother do those things like his family deserved it. I let it happen because I thought you were the injured party. Dammit, Dennis! How could you? How the hell could you?"

"I don't know."

"Dennis, I never thought I'd say this, but I'm ..." he sobbed, "... ashamed of you. Dear God, I'm ashamed of my own son."

I just hung my head.

"Dennis, you have to fix it. You can only do that with the truth. You have to face everybody you've lied to and tell them what really happened. When the truth is out, Eddie's family might sue us. If they do, I won't even contest it. Do you understand? They deserve to pull the rug out from under us. Oh, God."

"Maybe I should just go."

"No! You're staying here and facing this like a man!" I watched his angry face take on a stern, penetrating look. "This is what they call a defining moment, Dennis. You're going to do whatever you have to do to define yourself as a good man. Not a liar, not a cheat, and not a coward." His voice became a loud whisper. "It's the only way, Dennis. If you don't do what you have to do, you'll spend the rest of your life rightfully believing the worst things about yourself."

"How can you think I'll be a man if I'm ..."

"Because men are men, even if ..."

Neither of us had spoken the word. "I'm gay, Dad. Can I still be a man, anyhow?"

He put his arm around my shoulder, looking at the floor for a second. Then he pulled me into a hug and whispered, "Yes." His voice got stronger. "As long as you can hold your head up as an honest, hard-working person, you'll be a man in anybody's opinion. Add faith in there somewhere, Dennis. Faith that most other people do the right thing."

"I'll try."

"Dennis, it's too late for trying. You have to just go out and do it. We'll be with you, at least in the background. We love you, son, and we want the best for you, but we can't just give it to you. You have to figure this out on your own, then go do what you have to do."

"We? Who's we?"

"Your mother and me. Who else?"

"Her? She ... she ..."

"She loves you, Dennis. Aren't you a little surprised to learn that I'm not that all surprised that you're gay. She's been pretty sure for a long time. We talk about you all the time."

"But .. but ..."

"That's why she used to try to get you to keep your hands off Eddie. You were getting a bit too warm there, and your mother tried to tell you to cool it without trying to embarrass you."

My father stood up and looked at me. "I'm sorely disappointed in you, son. You can never make what you did right, but maybe if you try hard enough, you can get some people to have faith in you again. If you want advice, come to me or your mother. Otherwise you're on your own, but I want to see action. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Your mother wants to talk to you."

Oh, God. "Do I have to?"

His reply was almost a bark. "Dennis!"

He walked out the door.

I was petrified. He just said she loved me, but I'd been having horrible thoughts about her for a long time. Had I just been using her as another scapegoat? I wanted time to think about all the things she'd said recently, about how she said them opposed to how I heard them. I didn't get a chance.

Softly, "Dennis?"

"Mom. I'm sorry."

She sat next to me on the edge of the bed. "And well you should be. Your father is so disappointed. I've never seen him like this."

"Does he hate me?"

"Oh, Dennis. Of course not. I don't think he likes you very much right now, but he'll always love you." She put her hand on my shoulder. "Why did you do it Dennis? Why did you lie like that? Such an ugly lie, too ... and about your best friend?"

"I don't know."

"You do know, Dennis. You can't do something that horrible without a reason. We're trying to understand how you could change so much. You can think about your answer, but I want to know why you turned on Eddie like that. You two were always so good together, and you turned it all upside down." She shuddered. "My God, it must have been awful for him. It's terrible for us too, Dennis. You led us on, and we did things to that family that should never have happened. How can we ever explain to them?"

My voice wouldn't go above a whisper. "Just tell 'em your son's queer and he couldn't take it, so he blamed it on Eddie."

She looked at me, then hugged me. "Is that it, Dennis? You're afraid of what you are? Why didn't you talk to us? We tried to give you an opening so many times. Is that why you seem to resent us so much? You're afraid of your own parents?"

"I ... I guess I'm afraid of everybody. I didn't want anyone to know."

"Dennis, that would have been fine. I can understand that you're young and that your sexuality might embarrass you, but I can't understand how you could transfer it to Eddie." She squared off and stared into my lying eyes. "He didn't deserve that, Dennis. Nobody deserves to have their reputation ruined by a lie." She sighed. "Dennis, you have to straighten this out. It's going to cost you to do it, but you have to pay the price. You have to tell everyone you told that lie to the exact truth, just like you did tonight. There is no other way to clear this up."

I hung my head, totally ashamed. "I know. I will."

"I'm going to write a letter to Eddie's parents, begging their forgiveness ... at least their understanding. Dennis?"

I looked at her.

"Do you hate me?"

Every muscle in my face started quivering at once. I burst out in tears and hugged her, squeezing so hard it probably hurt.

She tentatively put her arms around me, giving me my first hug from her in over a year. It wasn't that she hadn't tried, I'd just rejected her attentions.

It worked, though. I calmed down pretty quickly, loosening my death grip but not letting go. I didn't want to let go. I was replaying the words she'd said when I came home earlier, realizing that I had been twisting everything she said for a long time now. She'd seen us from the window and asked if I had a new friend. I said it wasn't a friend. She said it looked like we were having fun, and I made a sarcastic remark that kicking stones up the sidewalk was a whole bunch of fun. She said something about our high-five and I hurried up to my room before she finished.

Shit! I'd been blaming my own mother for what I did, just like I did with Eddie. I didn't just feel like a worm - I felt like what worms eat! I started crying again, this time just weeping. I was exhausted from all the emotions of the day, and I think I started to fall asleep in the comfort of my mother's arms. She finally pulled away and told me to get some rest.

She pushed me gently onto my back, then leaned over and kissed my cheek. "I love you, Dennis. I'm not at all happy with you right now, but your father and I will always love you. You get some rest, and get ready to do the right thing tomorrow."

"Mom?"

"Yes?"

"I love you, too. I'll never lie again."

She smiled. "Good night, honey."

"G'night, Mom."

* * * * * * * * * *

When I got to school the next day I stayed near the front door, scanning faces for somebody who'd been at the beer party that night. It wasn't easy because I didn't really know many of them to begin with, and a lot of them had already graduated. I finally saw somebody ... a black kid named Tyrone. He wasn't alone, and he wasn't headed toward the door I was standing near. I chased after him.

"Tyrone?"

He and the girl he was with stopped and turned around as I ran up to him. I could tell that he didn't recognize me.

"Tyrone, I'm Dennis Baxter. I need to tell you something." I looked at the girl with him and could tell that she was annoyed. "Tyrone, do you remember that beer party by the river a couple of years ago?"

"Beer party? Man, there's a beer party every night. How'm I supposed to know one from the other?"

"It was the one ... the one where Eddie got beat up?"

"What you talkin' about, man? Who's Eddie?" He was staring at me, then recognition showed in his face. "You the boy what got hit on by the faggot, ain't ya? Now I know what you're talkin' about. Man, I thought that kid was daid." He looked pleased by the thought.

I looked down for a second, then right at his face. "It was a lie, Tyrone. Eddie didn't hit on me. It was the other way around. I'm the queer, not him. I lied to you guys."

I learned two things in the next four or five seconds. Tyrone had a very expressive face and a wicked temper. His eyes went wide, then narrowed into slits, then went wide again. His mouth contorted a few ways, then he looked like he was chewing on something. It all ended up in an angry glare, the eyes squinting and the mouth set in pure menace. He grabbed the front of my shirt and pulled my face right to his, raising his free arm to hit me.

The girl grabbed it. "Tyrone! Not here! You'll get your ass booted right out of school."

He held off on the punch, but pulled my face so close to his that our noses almost touched. "You a faggot too?"

I closed my eyes. "Yes. You beat up the wrong guy."

I was looking at pure hatred, and I knew it. I could see my fate in those awful eyes. Suddenly I was flying backwards, landing flat on my back half in a flower garden. Tyrone loomed over me, pointing at my face. I was scared to death. "You listen to me, faggot. You gonna die!"

He turned around and grabbed the girl's, dragging her away. I was stunned and probably dirty, but not hurt. I started to pull myself up, then I was confronted by Tyrone's face right in mine again. He was squatting down right beside me.

"That kid didn't do anything?"

"Nothing. It was me."

He put his hand on his forehead, almost like he was trying to see if he had a fever. "Oh, man. I tried to kill him. I kicked him right in the eye! Why the fuck did you do somethin' like that?"

"I was afraid, so I lied."

"You're a piece of shit!"

"I know I am. I just want the other guys to know it was a lie."

"Man, you askin' for the death sentence. You stay out of my face, you hear? Why you sayin' this shit now? That was a long time ago."

I was scared, but determined. "It was a lie. You should hear the truth ... all of you should. I can't take back the beating, but you can know it happened because of a lie. My lie."

"What are you looking for?"

"I ... I don't know who most of the people were. I want to tell all of them."

"Man, most of those guys gone off to college or in the service. You meet me here at lunchtime, and I'll see if I can find some of the other guys. You better wear some fuckin' armor."

He pushed me back down, then stood up and walked away. I looked around. There were several people looking at me, but I think it was just because I was on the ground. I got up and brushed myself off the best I could, then headed for class. I didn't even look at Eddie in home room.

Morning classes were pretty much a bust for me. I was totally unable to concentrate, only able to think of what was in store for me at lunch. When the time came, I went straight outside and waited. I was a nervous wreck. If the other guys got as angry as Tyrone, I was dead.

I was there about twenty minutes, getting more and more nervous at first, then wondering if anybody was even going to show up. I finally spotted Tyrone walking toward me with a kid named Alan, and another who I didn't know. They all came up to me and stood there. The kid I didn't know crossed his arms and sneered at me.

He spoke up. "Well, well, well. So this is what a real faggot looks like. Tyrone says you lied to us to get your little buddy's ass kicked. Is that what happened?"

"I lied about him. I didn't mean for him to get beat up."

I was getting worried. Alan had walked around and was now standing almost behind me. The kid continued. "Well, he did get beat up, didn't he? We thought we killed him, but he was tougher than he looked."

Tyrone had moved a little to my other side. I was partly surrounded by them. Suddenly Alan grabbed my left arm and twisted it painfully behind my back. Almost simultaneously, the kid who had been talking punched me hard in the stomach, completely knocking the wind out of me. At the same time, Tyrone gave me a wicked punch in the kidney. If Alan hadn't been trying to break my arm I would have gone down from the pain, but he was keeping me on my feet.

In a way it was the perfect little crime. There were plenty of other kids around but nobody noticed a thing. Alan relaxed the position my arm was in, but he didn't let go.

The other kid started talking again, his voice nothing but menace. "That's just the beginning, sperm breath. You're a lyin' little faggot, ya know that? Why don't you just go kill yourself and save us the trouble? Let's go guys, it smells like shit around here."

As soon as Alan let go of my arm I fell to my knees, trying to draw a breath. My arm hurt from the elbow to the shoulder, my wrist hurt where he'd gripped it so hard, and my side hurt like hell from where Tyrone had hit me. I couldn't even lift my head to see if they were still there. It took me several minutes to begin breathing normally, then I got to my feet and walked toward the building. I was rubbing my elbow, but I didn't feel too bad.

It was the first time in my life that anybody had actually punched me with the intent of hurting me. I knew that I'd gotten the absolute minimum from those guys, too. If it hadn't been right in front of the school I'm sure I would have been a bloody mess. What hurt more than the pain was the utter helplessness I'd felt. I was angry with those guys for doing it, but I hated myself twice as much for what I'd done to Eddie.

Just thinking about the horror he must have felt that night put me into a daze. I pretty much stumbled my way through the rest of the school day, then ran home as usual.

I didn't tell my parents that I'd been hit, just that I told three of the people from that night the truth, and it hadn't gone over too well. I had no idea how I was going to find the other people who had been there. My father said I should still try, but it probably didn't matter if I failed. If they'd already moved on in life, there wasn't much I could do about it.

I was still feeling miserable about myself, and I was tired, so I went up to my room after dinner and stared at my homework for a while. I was interrupted by a tap on the door, followed by my mother telling me I had company.

I hurried downstairs praying that it wasn't Tyrone and his goons. I didn't seriously think they'd come to my door. I didn't even think they knew where I lived. When I got to the front room, Rich LaFleur and Ralph Swanson were sitting on the sofa talking to my father. They looked up when I came in.

"Ralph, Rich. Hi." I actually managed to work up a smile. My father excused himself and left the room.

I sat in a chair facing them. "Did you talk to Eddie?"

Rich said, "I talked to Eddie and to some other people. My other friend said you should know how bad things were for Eddie. You didn't know that he was gonna kill himself."

I was shocked. The words sounded as final as they would have if Eddie had killed himself. I couldn't form words. It was all on my shoulders. I would have been a murderer - the killer of my best friend. I put my face in my hands, horrible thoughts running through my mind.

I could hear Rich go on. "Listen, Bax. Me and Ralph were as rotten to Eddie as anybody. We picked on him all last year. We're guilty too, and he's talkin' to us."

I looked up at them. Their faces weren't happy. "Why'd you stop? What made you try to be friends?"

"It's a long story. My best friend from where I used to live is gay. I just found out last summer, and I went nuts. Another kid got me to think about it and ... I guess I decided it wasn't my business. I met a couple of other gay kids, and they were good people. Then Dave ... my friend ... made me promise to try and be good to Eddie."

"You know some other gay kids?"

"Yeah. Let me finish and I'll tell you. I saw Eddie in the park one day and tried to make friends. Man, he was sittin' there trying to decide the best way to kill himself. He wasn't kidding at all. It was gonna happen that week. I was so scared. I ... I was part of his reason why." He looked at me as if to let me know I was the main reason. "I spent the rest of the week with him so he wouldn't get a chance, then I dragged him over to meet my friends. That's where he met Adam."

"Adam?"

"Adam's his, uh, friend. He's a real nice kid, but I guess he has his own baggage."

I was slouched down in my chair. "Oh." I looked at my feet. "I never meant it to happen. I swear it. If I could take it back I would."

I looked at Ralph, then Rich. Ralph looked uncomfortable hearing this, but Rich gave me an unhappy smile. "I know how you feel. I said some awful things to Dave when he told me, but at least I said them to him and not somebody else."

That hurt, but he was right. If I wasn't such a coward I would have taken a chance with Eddie when we were alone somewhere, just told him how I felt and let him decide what was right. I might have lost a friend, but at least he wouldn't have been hurt so much. I had a question, but I was afraid of the answer. "You said you talked to Eddie. What'd he say?"

Rich started breathing deeply, like he was trying to screw up the courage to say something. "It was hard. I told him you loved him, and he cried for like an hour. When he finally could talk again, he was makin' it sound like it was his fault for not telling you what he thought." Rich stared at me. "He's all tore up, Bax. It's gonna take some time, and I don't know where it's gonna go. He's going over to Adam's on Saturday, and he's gonna see Dave while he's there. Dave's good at this stuff, so maybe he'll figure something out."

"There's hope?"

"Hope for what?"

"That he won't always hate me."

"I don't think he hates you now, but he's plenty pissed. That's all I can say right now. You just have to hang on and let him figure things out."

I didn't have a response to that. "Thanks, Rich. Thanks for trying."

He stood up, followed by Ralph. I walked them to the door, then stood outside with them for a minute to say goodbye.

Rich looked really serious. "That was the good news, Baxter."

My voice was a squeak. "Oh, no."

He grinned. "Yeah. It's after six. This is all on time-and-a-half."