Episode 6 - Dennis
I went back inside feeling a little more hopeful about things. I knew Rich didn't like me for what I'd done to Eddie, but he was still trying to help bring things to some kind of resolution. Ralph hadn't said anything at all, so I guessed he was just there as Rich's friend.
I was still in shock from hearing that Eddie had been planning to kill himself. Just thinking about it gave me an ugly, hollow feeling in my gut. I had the feeling that my cowardly lie would haunt me for the rest of my life. If Eddie had gone through with it I probably would have had to do the same thing. It was hard enough living with myself because of the things I'd already done. I owed Rich an unpayable debt for intervening when he did.
I walked inside and my father called me into the dining room, where he had the newspaper spread on the table in front of him. I pulled up a chair.
"Is there anything new, Dennis? Where'd you meet those boys?"
I knew he was wondering if they were friend or foe. "I used to hang around with Ralph. Rich lives at the bottom of the hill, but he was always in the science club and stuff. We just rode the bus together."
He looked surprised. "Now I remember Ralph! He was on your ball team, right? Shortstop?"
His words caught me off guard. My ball team. He didn't mean anything by the possessive, but it evoked something in me. Thoughts of happier times. No ... perfect times. We weren't world class athletes by any means, but I think we had more fun than anybody. Our coach, Mr. Pastore, loved the game of baseball with a passion, and he loved playing and watching it way more than keeping score.
His son, Warren, started with us in T-ball when we were around five years old and he was our coach then. He stayed with us right up until we were in the pony league. By the time we were nine or ten, he'd pretty well sorted out who could do what. I could throw, but not hit very well. Eddie was pretty fearless and he could hit, but he couldn't throw much past second base. That landed him the catcher position in most games.
That's where Eddie and I learned we were good together. When I pitched and Eddie caught we won a lot of games. Even when we didn't win, we were still a threat, and our losses were never blowouts ... just a run or two, usually. It was little league, after all. Even a good throw to first base was wasted if the first baseman wasn't there, if he was over by the fence sipping soda through a straw from a can held by his mother or, worse yet, listening to how his father thought he should be playing the game.
It didn't matter. Eddie and I connected and became fast friends. We had an absolute blast for four years and never expected it to end. My memories of those years were fond, but becoming bittersweet. Eddie would have been much better off if he'd never met me.
Blink! Boy, had I spaced out. "Um ... yeah?"
"I was asking what Rich and Ralph were doing here. They're trying to help you?"
I had gotten up, but sat down at the end of the table scratching my ear. "They're helpin' Eddie, not me. They both used to pick on him and they feel bad about it. They're really mad at me, but they think they can help Eddie by bein' his friends. I guess that helps me in the long run."
My father nodded. I didn't want to tell him about Eddie thinking about suicide, but it was too important not to. "Dad?"
He raised his eyebrows in a question.
"Eddie was gonna kill himself. Rich stopped him just in time."
His jaw dropped a little, and his gaze intensified. Then he put his elbows on the table and held his head between his hands. His voice was a hoarse whisper at first. "Oh, my God." He got louder. "Oh, my God! That poor kid! I had no idea things had gone that far." He was quiet for a long time. "Oh, my God!"
He lifted his head to look at me. His expression was one of pure horror and he had tears pouring from his eyes. "Dennis ... just go to bed or something. I can't ... please, just get out of here. NOW!"
I stood up and looked at him for a second, feeling helpless. He looked at me like he was going to repeat himself, so I turned and left the room. Seeing my father like that made the true horror of what had almost happened suddenly very real. I stumbled blindly up the stairs to my room and fell face first onto the bed, visions of a dead Eddie flooding my mind. I didn't cry, but I couldn't think of anything else. Funerals, tombstones ... all my fault. My fault!
My mind wouldn't leave me alone. I flipped on my back and covered my eyes, but the visions continued with relentless ferocity. I tried to open my eyes and focus on things in the room, but no matter where I looked I pictured Eddie dead. Killed by his own hand, but murdered by ... me. Me! I killed my best friend, and for no good reason on earth other than I was a pathetic coward.
I don't know how long the visions continued. It felt like forever, but at some point I fell asleep. The next thing I heard was the alarm going off to signal the start of another school day. I still had my clothes on, including my shoes. That meant that neither of my parents had looked in on me the night before, which was a first. It occurred to me that they must hate me now, too, but I didn't have any feelings about it. I kind of expected it and felt that I didn't deserve their love anymore.
I went into the bathroom and did my usual morning thing, dreading what awaited me at school but determined to face it. I hadn't done my homework, but figured I wouldn't live out the day anyhow so it wouldn't matter. I got dressed and picked up my books, then walked down to the kitchen. My parents weren't there, but I could tell they had been. The coffee pot was on and there were some crumbs next to the toaster. The thought crossed my mind that they'd probably gone to the Greyhound station to buy me a one-way ticket to somewhere far, far away from their lives.
I made two pieces of toast and had them with a glass of orange juice, thinking it was an appropriate last meal for a traitor. I wiped up my crumbs, then grabbed my things and headed out the door. I started running as soon as it closed behind me, despite thinking I should just walk or take the bus for once. I knew the news about me would be all over school by now, that it was my turn to be the pariah. It didn't seem to make much sense to be running to it, but run I did, and at my normal pace. The distance was just under two miles and it usually took me about twelve minutes. I found myself mentally counting them off, knowing the timing by heart.
Approaching the schoolyard, I could see that I was there right at my regular time, just after the first bus and with only a handful of kids hanging around outside. I slowed to a walk to get my breath, then did a few stretches outside the front door. I expected the taunting to begin right there, but nobody appeared to even notice me. I went inside and into the boys room to wash my face, then headed to my locker. There were more kids in the hallways, but again nobody paid any particular attention to me.
I still had several minutes, but I hurried to homeroom hoping to use the time to do at least a little of my homework. I was the first one there, so I sat at a desk up front and opened my history book. I was aware when other kids started coming in and taking their places, but I didn't lift my head. I stayed like that until the usual announcements came over the P.A. system, then started packing up my books for the walk to first period.
It became obvious fairly quickly that Tyrone and his pals hadn't spread the word yet. Everyone was behaving normally towards me, nodding and saying hello if that's what they usually did. I was embarrassed by not being prepared in each of my first three classes, and Mr. Quinn in history held me back for a few minutes to give me a scolding. I had him last year and had been his best student, so he was concerned that something might be wrong. I convinced him that it was just a bad night and that it would never happen again. It still took a bit of time, and by the time he let me go I had to hurry through the nearly empty halls to my locker to get my gym bag.
I had just gotten it out and was spinning the dial on my combination lock when my face was suddenly slammed into the door. I received a tremendous punch to the kidney at the same time. I think I blacked out for a second. When I came to, I was on my knees facing my locker, my gym bag covered in vomit. I hurt, so I didn't move. After about a minute I felt a hand tugging on my shoulder.
"You okay, kid?"
I didn't budge. "No. I'm sick."
He was tugging on me. "Come on. Stand up and I'll get you to the nurse." As soon as I started to move, he saw my bag and said, "Oh, boy. I'll say you're sick."
He helped me to my feet, but I was pretty wobbly. It was one of the custodians. "Jesus, you hit your head on the way down. Here, lean forward so you don't bleed all over your clothes."
I wasn't sure what he was talking about, but soon figured out I had a nose bleed, and a good one at that. I was dripping big splotches on the floor. I said, "What about my bag?"
He turned me around to look at it. There was wet vomit all over the handle. I guessed it was safe the way it sat, and followed him when he pulled me gently to head towards the nurse's office. When he led me in, the nurse immediately jumped up and pushed me towards a cot. As soon as I laid down she started wiping my face with a cloth and asking questions faster than I could answer. I did manage to convince her that I'd suddenly become sick to my stomach, and that I must have hit my face on the locker while I was puking.
She had me lay down with my head back until my nose stopped bleeding, then asked if I wanted to go home. The blood was leaking backwards a little and I could taste it in my mouth. It wasn't pleasant, but I didn't want her calling my parents. I asked to just let me lay there for the rest of the period, then I'd go back to class. She filled out a slip for my Gym teacher, then just before the bell rang she sent me into her little private bathroom to clean up.
I had a little puke on the knee of my pants and I wiped it up the best I could, then washed my face and combed my hair. There was a bottle of Scope there, so I rinsed my mouth. That made me feel better than anything else had, so I collected up my excuse and headed to the cafeteria. I was actually hungry, despite everything.
I walked with my head down, not wanting to see anybody. I was pretty sure that it was Tyrone or his friends who had roughed me up. I was trying to figure out why the word hadn't spread that I was queer, but it seemed like they couldn't have told anybody. When I did look up, nobody was paying attention to me.
I got a tray and stood in line, getting two sloppy joes, a jello and a milk. After I paid, I found a table with a couple of kids at one end, then sat by myself at the other end and started to eat. I looked around, but didn't find anyone looking at me. I had started the day feeling certain that I'd be the center of attention, but I wasn't. That made me start to worry that Tyrone and company had special plans for me: deadly plans. It was the only thing that made sense. If they were going to kill me, they couldn't precede it by bragging. Everybody would be able to guess, at least after the fact.
I mentally gave them points for using their heads, but I was really afraid of what was going to happen to me. What? Where? How? Especially when, and how painful would it be? It seemed inevitable, but I wondered about the humiliation of it all.
I had images dancing through my head about what they might do to a 'real' faggot, picturing my severed dick stuck in my mouth after I was kicked to death. They'd probably put a sign on me and leave me in a public place so everybody could see.
Funnily enough, I didn't care. I ate my lunch like any other hungry boy, then sat for a few minutes until I could burp. I knew those guys were going to end it, probably that day. I stopped worrying about it. It was a done deal and I deserved it. Eddie would be vindicated and everything could return to normal. I'd spent the last night picturing Eddie dead. That picture hurt because he didn't deserve it. It was odd, but picturing myself just dead and gone didn't frighten me at all. It was actually kind of appealing, in a final sort of way anyhow. It was the thoughts about how it might happen that frightened me.
I got up and dumped the stuff off my tray, then put it on the conveyor. I wasn't looking at the floor anymore, just around at the general bustle of the cafeteria. Nobody was looking at me unless I was just in their field of view. I knew some people were after me and wondered if it was still just Tyrone and the other two. If it was, at least I'd know where it was coming from. I didn't know if they'd told others, but felt that if they had I'd be getting some kind of signals.
I looked around the room one more time, and I spotted Eddie sitting at a table with Rich, Ralph and some others. From what I could see, it seemed like they were just eating and engaged in sporadic conversation. I turned and walked out into the hall. I'd barely cleared the doors when I got a punch to the gut that knocked me silly. I dropped to my knees, once again gasping for breath. The wind had been knocked out of me and it hurt, but this time I didn't throw up. I stayed on my knees until I could catch my breath, then sat back. I was still holding my stomach when somebody sat beside me and put a hand on my knee.
I looked up, and it was a black girl who I sort-of knew from a few classes last year. I couldn't quite come up with her name, but it was something like Delia. She was staring into my face. "Are you sick? What's the matter?"
I was still grimacing and couldn't really look up, much less smile, but I felt that a joke was the best way to get her attention off of me. I managed to groan out, "I had two sloppy joes."
That stopped her for a second. She barked out a laugh, then slapped my back pretty hard. "Bullshit! Somebody hit you! I know the signs. I know all the signs. You don't hurt like that from no sloppy joe. They was good today, anyhow. You tell Dania who hit you and I'll get him daid before lunch is over." She put an arm on my shoulder, then took my hand and helped me to my feet. She was a big girl and I actually had to look up to see her face. Her expression was a mix of concern and amusement.
"You'll be okay, Baxter. Who hit you?"
"I didn't see. It was a sucker punch."
She still had her arm around me. "Keep your eyes open, Baxter. I saw Mr. Clean helpin' you to the nurse before. Somebody got it in for you, so just keep them eyes open wide. I know damn sure I always got mine open!"
She was talking like a thug, but her smile seemed genuine. I liked her immediately and felt pretty well protected with her beside me.
I looked up. "Dania? I thought it was Delia."
"Nope, it's Dania. At least that's what my Momma says."
She was talking 'street', but she never did that in class.
"Sorry ... um, Dania. Why are you bein' nice? I never did anythin' for you."
"You never did anythin' to me, either. That's a big plus in my book. You're always quiet and respectful in class, and I like that. You're smart, too, and I really like that."
Hearing nice things about myself was actually making me feel bad, but I didn't want to say too much. We were walking down the hall when Tyrone approached from the other direction. When he spotted us he ran right up to Dania. "What're you doin' walkin' with this piece of shit, girl?"
She faced right up to him. "I walk with whoever I damn please, Tyrone! This boy's got more brains in his little finger than you got in your whole haid! Don't you go callin' him no piece of shit."
She glanced at me to wink her eye, but she must have seen panic on my face. She looked at Tyrone, then at me, then back at Tyrone. She looked furious, and poked him so hard in the chest that it made him take a step backwards. "Tyrone Potter! If you and your hoodlum friends be the people tryin' to hurt this boy, you better stop right now! If he gets hurt, you get hurt! Do you hear me?"
Tyrone leaned forward and whispered in her ear, then they both looked at me. Dania's eyes regarded me from head to toe. She gave Tyrone a shove and told him to get lost, then turned back to me. Her smile was gone.
"Is it true what he says? You're a queer boy?"
I looked at the floor. "It's true."
"Well, I for one don't care. I can't stop those boys from protectin' themselves, though. You just be careful and leave them alone, then you won't get hurt."
I didn't get a chance to answer. She turned on her heel and marched off down the hallway, leaving me alone again.
I walked quickly after her ... not trying to catch up, just feeling safer when I was moving fast. I found myself paying attention to everyone around me, but nobody seemed to be behaving any differently than they ever did. I had to go to my locker to get my books.
There was a note taped to it, but it just said my gym bag was in the custodian's office. I worked my combination lock one turn at a time, looking around between numbers. I felt like a helpless loser, but I didn't think I could handle another sucker punch. I didn't even try to select the book I needed when I got the door opened. I reached in quickly and grabbed them all, then slammed the door and hooked up the lock as fast as I could.
I had a study hall that period, and I decided to take it in the library. The time there passed quickly and quietly. My last class was general science. After that I went to the custodian's office to get my gym bag, which he had kindly washed off. I thanked him and hurried to my locker. There were still a lot of other kids around and I didn't notice anyone who seemed to pose a threat. I put my things away, only keeping the books I needed for homework over the weekend. Then I went outside and started my run home.
I was nervous, but I didn't try to run too fast. I'd just get winded and have to stop if I did, so I held to my usual pace. I didn't time myself, but I can guarantee that I made it home within thirty seconds of either side of twelve minutes.
I'd never consciously thought of it before, but suddenly home seemed like a very safe place. I knew my parents were angry and disappointed in me, but I also knew I didn't have to worry about a rabbit punch every time I turned my back. I called out, expecting my mother to answer me, but she wasn't home. That wasn't unusual for a Friday, so I just brought my things up to my room and changed into shorts and sneakers.
My side hurt from where I'd taken the punch earlier, so I walked down the hall to my parents bedroom and tried to look at myself in their full-length mirror. It was hard to twist enough to see it all, but I had a huge and ugly bruise there. It wasn't just purple, it looked partly brown and yellow too. I thought about showing it to my father, but figured I'd have to explain it if I did. He was upset enough as it was and I didn't want to make things worse. I went to my room and read my English assignment until I heard sounds from downstairs. I started to get up, but quickly sat back down. I wasn't ready for any more disappointed or anguished looks. I just laid my face on my book, wondering what the hell the rest of my life was going to be like.
It wasn't long before I heard a tap on my door just before it opened. My father's voice, "Dennis?"
I turned around to look. He had an almost pleading look on his face. "Dennis ... come to me?" He spread his arms a little, as if he wanted to hug me. I hadn't expected that, but I sure wasn't turning it down. I knocked over my chair getting up, then ran to him. He pulled me into a real bear hug, squeezing me to him with his arms around my shoulders, then letting loose a little, then squeezing hard again.
I had never had a hug like that from him and I wondered what it was about. "Dennis ... I'm so sorry about last night. I thought all day about how I must have sounded." He let me go, then pulled me to sit on the bed beside him. "What you said about Eddie was every father's worst nightmare. I ... I just couldn't process it and look at you at the same time. I don't want you to ever think that you have to resort to ... hurting yourself because of the mess you're in." He hugged me again. "Oh, God. I love you son. This is so hard! Listen, I want you to face the consequences for what you did, but please ... please never think you have to punish yourself."
I didn't say anything. I couldn't say anything. I was at a complete loss for words. My father still loved me. Maybe I'd find the strength to get through this after all.
"Just please don't ever think you're alone. This is something you have to take care of by yourself the best you can, but we'll always be here for you. Do you understand that?"
I nodded numbly, then looked at his face. His gaze was fixed on me with a particular little expression that I only saw when I did something special, like when I made it through my first big mogul field on skis. I couldn't figure how I rated it right then, but I fell into his arms again. "Thanks, Dad."
He put his hands on my back and started patting me gently. Right on my bruise! I gasped and jumped at the sudden pain.
"What? Oh my God!" He let me go. "Let me see."
I stood up and turned around. I could feel his hands gently lifting my shirt, then I heard his own gasp. He dropped the shirt and I turned around. "Who did that, Dennis? Was it Eddie?"
"Eddie? Eddie never hit me!"
"Well, who then?"
"I'm not sure. It was a sucker punch."
"Both of them?"
"Dennis, you have bruises on both sides. Don't tell me you don't know where they came from."
"I only knew about one. I guess I got hit yesterday, too."
"Is that all of it? Take off your shirt."
I unbuttoned it and took it off, then pulled my undershirt up over my head. My father sucked in his breath again. I looked down and the area just below my rib cage was also all black and blue.
"Don't tell me you don't know where that came from. Cripes, you could take finger prints off it!" He looked angry. "Tell me who did it, Dennis. I thought you might have to get into a few fights, but this looks more like torture."
"I can't tell you, Dad. If I was sure I would, but I can't get somebody else in trouble. What if I'm wrong?"
He looked thoughtful for a moment. "How many people have you told?"
I thought about it for a second. "Four, but I guess they told some other people. I don't think it's all over the place yet."
"Oh, man. Who were the four?"
"Rich, and three of the guys that were at the party that night. I guess Rich told Ralph and Eddie. I'm not sure about the other guys."
"What did you tell these people?"
"What happened. That I lied about Eddie."
"And what? Everybody's pissed off at me. That's all I know." I decided to come clean. "I don't know what's goin' on. I thought it would be all over school, but it's not. Nobody's sayin' anything and I'm scared. They didn't blab to anybody, at least as far as I can tell."
"Why does that scare you?"
"I don't know. Maybe I'm nuts, but if they really want to do somethin' to me they'd be crazy to let the whole school know. The way it is nobody even thinks they know me. If they tell everybody, then do somethin', people will know. I think they have bad plans for me."
My father looked very serious. He put his hand on his chin. "You might be right. Who were the guys from the party?"
"I only know one whole name and one first name. The other kid I don't know at all."
"What's the full name you know?"
"Dennis! Tell me! This is too serious to play around with."
"I shouldn't say. What if I'm wrong?"
"What if you're right, Dennis? I want that name."
"Please Dad? I'd rather get my ass kicked than be wrong again. Tell you what. I'll write his name down and put it in my desk. If somethin' ever does happen you can check him out."
I could see that little scenario wasn't going to fly. "Why are you protecting him, Dennis? If that something happens it'll be too late. I have some connections. I can get some pressure put on the kid to leave you alone. Is that so bad?"
"I guess not, but what about his friends? Why don't we wait to see what happens next week. They can't do much at school, can they?"
He shook his head. "You tell me. You're all black and blue after two days. Don't you have any friends anymore?"
"Not really. I don't hang around anymore since ... since it happened." I looked up at his unhappy face. "I'm sorry Dad, I just can't right now. Can't we just wait to see how things go?"
He looked at me, then patted my knee. His voice was hoarse again. "Fine. You're being brave here, you know. We'll wait. If things get hard you just let me know."
He walked out of the room after he told me to get cleaned up for supper.
* * * * * * * *
I spent Saturday between the back yard and the garage, helping my father put summer things away and preparing for the fall and winter. We were both tense and didn't say a lot, but we got things done. My folks usually went out on Saturday nights, but they stayed home that evening. We had a quiet dinner of spaghetti and meatballs, then watched a movie on television. I went to bed right after it was over at eleven.
I was jolted out of my sleep in the middle of the night by my mother's scream, then my father crashed into my room and dragged me out of bed. "The house is on fire! Get outside NOW! Use the back door."
I had heard what he said, but didn't really comprehend it. I grabbed my pants off the floor and ran anyhow. I could smell the smoke now, and it woke me up fast. My mother was waiting anxiously at the bottom of the stairs. As soon as I got there, she grabbed my hand and yanked me into the kitchen, then out the door that led to the breezeway between the house and the garage. My father was right behind us, but he went back inside to grab important papers from the desk in the hall. We could hear sirens getting louder and louder. I stepped into my pants, but otherwise I was barefoot and wearing just an undershirt.
I had never been so scared in my life. I was trembling all over and I felt like I was freezing even though it was a warm night. When my father came back out with the drawer from the desk, we hurried through the garage to the front. The fire engines were already setting up, and there were police cars and an ambulance there with them. Lights were flashing everywhere, and we could hear two-way radios barking from the vehicles as a crowd from the neighborhood gathered. A cop came over to us and established the fact that we lived there, then had us sit in his cruiser. I could see the fire from there, and it looked like it was only in the living room. Flames were coming out from the picture window.
It didn't take the firemen long to get it under control. All but one engine departed not more than twenty minutes after they had arrived. The ones who stayed behind came to get my father. They wanted the doors opened so they could set up fans to suck out the smoke. My mother and I sat in the police cruiser for a while longer, then climbed out to survey the damage that we could see from outside. We couldn't get very close, but we could see into the living room when somebody turned on a light. It was a mess, but I could tell that it wasn't totaled.
My father called over to us from near the garage that it was alright to come inside. We walked to where he was, then went into the kitchen. A police officer and a fireman were waiting to talk to us. They said we had been firebombed, and asked a million questions about who hated us enough to do something like that.
My father kept looking at me. I know he thought it was the guys from school, though I didn't think they'd go that far. He made me give them Tyrone's name so they could check him out. I had to do it, but I felt like I was signing my own death warrant, whether Tyrone was involved or not. My father skirted the issue of why those guys hated me, saying I had told a lie that got somebody into big trouble.
It was already getting light out by the time everybody was gone. My father called his brother and asked if I could spend the day at his house, then had to explain the fire. Then he called his insurance agent at home and got the claim started.
Within an hour, the place was a madhouse. My uncle came for me, then helped my father lug soggy, burnt furniture out into the front yard. Neighbors were stopping over with plates of food and offering their help. An insurance adjuster came, then the fire inspector returned.
It was after ten by the time my uncle and I got out of there. My parents made me bring all my school things plus clothes for a few days. They wanted me to stay away until the house was closed back up and the smell was gone. They were going to stay in a motel for at least a few nights.
The police had promised to keep an eye on the house while we were gone, and I had at least ten admonishments in my head about how to behave, who to call if there was trouble, and how much to say to people who might ask.
The ride to my uncle's house didn't take long. I had to tell my aunt and my cousin Andrea about the fire, then I just kicked back and fell asleep on the sofa until mid afternoon. I only woke up because I had to pee, but I didn't try to go back to sleep. My uncle and I watched TV until dinner time, then after we ate, everyone watched until my aunt sent me and Andrea to bed.
I slept pretty well, but I was confused when I woke up. I couldn't for the life of me think of where I was or why I was there. When I finally remembered everything, my fear of the day ahead started building. I had to work hard not to just cry at the thought of what was likely to happen. I had given the police Tyrone's name and, guilty or not about the fire, he was sure to come after me with the intent of doing serious harm.
My confusion lingered, and I was very slow getting ready. When I finally arrived downstairs in the kitchen, my aunt handed me the paper. The headline read, Rockland Road Home Firebombed. I read the article quickly. It told about the fire and the cause, and about the active police investigation. It basically said that a lot of people had been interviewed, yet there were no firm suspects.
I sat down to eat what my aunt had cooked, wondering what everything was about. The enormity of the fire hadn't hit me until that moment. I think I was too caught up in the excitement over it to think about what had really happened. If my mother hadn't heard the window break and gone to investigate, my whole family might well have been killed. All because of me. I started almost choking on my food, then finally pushed the plate away. I couldn't eat. I couldn't think straight. I just sat there until my aunt offered to drive me to school.
She dropped me off at the corner of the one-way street the school was on. She didn't want to go that way because she still had to drop Andrea off in the other direction. I got out and started walking. There were a few houses, then the school grounds started. The first part was just extra land. It started about a hundred yards before you got to the entrance itself. A lot of the kids who walked just cut through that way, and that's what I did.
It was a mistake. I hadn't gone very far when Alan appeared in front of me, blocking my way. I was a half-step from breaking into a run when I suddenly got shoved forward, right into Alan. He punched me on the jaw, then whoever was behind me reached around with a leg and pulled my feet right out from under me. I landed face down and got kicked hard in the side, then in the head. I tried my best to cover my head with my arms, but I was getting kicked everywhere. I heard Tyrone's voice.
"What's the matter, White Boy? Can't take the heat?" I got kicked in the elbow. "You call the cops?" Kick. "You dead, motherfucker! You dyin' right now!" Kick.
"KNOCK IT OFF!" Eddie's voice. Eddie?
"Who's gonna make me? You just another faggot!"
The kicking had stopped. I rolled over to see what was happening. Eddie was standing there with Rich and Ralph, looking determined.
"Tyrone, you kicked the shit out of me like that. Let's see how you like it!"
With that, he took a step forward and smashed Tyrone flat on the nose, then in the stomach with his other hand. I could hear the breath escaping from Tyrone, but Eddie landed his foot in his crotch before Tyrone could even start to bend over, then smashed him again on the face. Tyrone dropped like a rock. I hadn't noticed, but Rich had Alan looking like he was out cold on the grass. The other kid with them was crouching like a karate guy, threatening Eddie.
Eddie looked at him. "You, too?" The kid took a run at Eddie, but Ed sidestepped him and caught him with the side of his hand right on the throat, then grabbed his arm and spun him around. He pounded the kid's face twice in a row, knocking his lights out. The guy just crumpled to the ground.
Eddie started walking away, but he just sat down after a few steps. Ralph came over to me and knelt down. "You okay, Bax? Man, you're a mess! Does it hurt?"
It must have hurt, but I was too overwhelmed to think about pain. My mind was trying to put together what had just happened, and it wasn't doing a very good job of it. I had been on my way to being maimed or killed, but I'd been rescued by Eddie. Eddie had every reason to hate me .. to enjoy watching me get what he'd gotten that night. But he'd saved my butt instead. How, though? He'd dropped two tough guys like they were paperweights.
I looked around, though I found it hard to see clearly. My eyes didn't want to focus.
The kids on the ground were stirring, making angry sounds. Rich was over next to Eddie, and they looked like they were talking. When I lifted my eyes, there was a crowd around us. They were just looking, not threatening. Ralph had his hand behind my shoulder, holding me up.
I was in a daze. I was seeing things, but not registering them. I looked around again. Tyrone was bleeding from his mouth and his nose and had his hands on his nuts. Alan just had a nosebleed, but he looked like he was crying. The third kid was proclaiming that his nose was broken.
I think I passed out, but just for a second. When I came back, Ralph was holding on to me.
"Come on, Bax. Say you're okay, huh? Are you really hurt? Do we need to find help?
I tried to drag my consciousness back into the present scene. Doing that made me realize how much my body hurt. I hurt in so many places that just sitting there had me in agony. I watched as Rich and Eddie stood and walked closer to the guys on the ground.
Eddie crossed his arms and glared at the three of them in turn. "Guys, you got a choice. You can leave Baxter alone from now on, or you can see what Rich and me are like when we're mad. This was three against two. If you got friends, so do we, and they're better than us." He was tapping his foot impatiently. "What's it gonna be, guys? If anything happens to Baxter, or anybody around him, you guys are goin' down!"
Alan had scrambled to his feet. "Fuck you! You think a sucker punch makes you a fuckin' hero?" He ran at Eddie, but Ed sidestepped again and punched his ear as he went by. Alan went down on his face, but Eddie grabbed him by the collar and pulled him to his feet.
He put his face right up to Alan's. "Sucker this, Alan!" He smashed him right in the mouth, making a noise that was both a crack and a splat at the same time. Alan's legs buckled and he fell backwards with his feet still bent beneath him. I was startled to hear some cheering from the onlookers.
Eddie went and knelt near Tyrone and the other kid. "What's it gonna be, guys? Is this the end of it?" They looked at each other, then nodded sadly to Eddie. "Promise?" Another nod.
Eddie stood up, still looking at them. "Good." He looked at Rich, then grinned. "Awesome, man! Did you really sucker punch him?"
Rich smiled back. "Me? Hell, no! He was goin' after your back, then he suddenly got unconscious. I didn't even get a full swing."
They both looked down at Alan, who was slowly stretching out and touching his smashed face. Two girls were bending down beside him.
The crowd had pretty much dispersed, and I was a little surprised that no teachers had seen what happened there. Ralph had helped me to my feet and was still holding me up, but I needed to sit. I hurt and I didn't have any strength. I don't know if the pain was causing the confusion or if I was just naturally confused, but I still hadn't quite put things in order. I did know that I was alive, my body was sending very clear signals, but I still couldn't figure out how or why. I watched Tyrone and the other kid get up and walk away from the school. They were probably going home to take care of themselves. The two girls who'd been helping Alan crossed my field of view. They were practically carrying him.
Ralph was sitting with me, and Eddie and Rich were standing. Rich came over to where I was. He winced when he looked at me. "Do you need a doctor? Is anythin' broken?"
"I ... I don't think so. I'll be okay."
"You can't go inside like that. Want me to go call your folks?"
"I ... they're at a motel somewhere. We got burned out the other night."
"I heard." He reached in his pocket and pulled out some money, then counted it. "You have any money? I can call a cab, and you can come to my house 'til we find your parents. I only have two bucks."
"I have some money. You don't hafta miss school for me."
"It's no problem. Come on, Ralph. Let's get a ride and take the day off!"
Ralph took one more look at me, then stood and walked toward the school with Rich. That left Eddie there, standing and looking away from me. I stared at his back.
We were both silent for quite a while. Just when I was about to say something I heard his voice, all small and quivering. "Bax?"
I looked at the back of his head, then he turned around. He looked like he was forcing a thin smile. "This queer shit hurts, huh? Are you okay?"
I tried to smile back, but my face hurt. "It sure hurts, but I think I'm okay. Eddie, I ... I don't even know what to say. I'm sooo sorry ...."
He put his finger to his lips as he sat down to face me. "Shhh! It's old news, Bax. Rich told me. We were both being stupid."
"Yeah, but ..."
He put his finger back to his lips. "Shhh." His voice was very soft. "Either one of us could have said something and made it all different. You didn't and I didn't, so now it's history." He looked into my eyes. "We were always special friends, Bax, and I want that part back."
"I thought you'd hate me by now."
He looked for a long time, then gave me a smile that seemed more sad than happy. "I guess I tried to. I saw some friends this weekend, and they helped me think about it. I hate what you did, but ... I could never hate you. This is the way I'm lookin' at it. We were best friends for a long time, and we can't make believe that didn't happen." He drew a deep breath. "You were my first love, Bax. I can't make that go away either. Richie told you about Adam, didn't he?"
"He said you have a ... a ..."
"Boyfriend, Bax. I loved you before, and I guess I still do, but I'm in love with Adam." His smile brightened. "Oh, God! He's so perfect!" He was grinning now, but looking like he was somewhere else. "Soooo perfect! You're gonna love him!"
That smile ... that Eddie smile. I couldn't help but smile back, even though my face hurt doing it. I knew I'd lost what I could have had with Eddie, but seeing him all the way back and happy made my heart feel good. I swore right then that I'd like Adam even if I didn't, and that I'd never do anything to come between him and Eddie. I started to cry a little, just tears really.
Eddie looked concerned. "What's wrong?"
I sniffed. "Nothing. Not really. I just feel real stupid right now, but I'm ready to bust seein' you so happy. You really want to be friends again? I missed you, man."
"I missed you, too. You still ski'?"
"I only went once last year. It's not the same when you're not there." I could see Rich and Ralph in the distance, walking our way.
"I didn't go at all. Richie skis too, ya know. Wanna go out for the team?"
"All of us?"
"Why not? Your folks still go up to Vermont?"
"Yeah." I grinned. "I'll tell them to rent a bigger house! Adam can come, too."
He was beaming. "That won't bother you?"
"Not if you're happy. Maybe he can fix me up with somebody!" We both started laughing. "How about baseball? You goin' out for the team this year? 'Cause if you do, I will."
"No bout adout it!" Eddie said with a grin. I laughed. That was an expression he'd picked up from my father.
Eddie looked over his shoulder. Ralph and Rich were still a few hundred feet away. "Bax?"
"There's one thing still between us."
Uh Oh. "What's that?"
"You kissed me back, didn't you? I mean ... that night."
"I ... I started to," I said nervously.
He leaned closer and whispered, "Wanna finish it?"