Plan C: Mawg Dilligs

by Driver

Chapter 8

The next morning, Paul Dawson showed up just when I was finishing my breakfast. He was in a good mood, and it was obvious that he wanted to talk about something. I hurried up, and asked if we could pick up Chris on the way, which we did. I got out to let Chris climb in the back, and he got into such a position, caught up in the shoulder belt for a moment, that I took the opportunity to stroke his butt. I knew that Paul couldn't have seen me do it, but it elicited a squeak from Chris, and when he got untangled, he muttered, "Pervert."

Paul glanced at me when I got back in the car and buckled up. He asked, "Do you guys know the Mastracchio kids? I know who they are, but that's about it."

I shrugged, "I know them. We're not buddy-buddy or anything."

Chris added, "Same here."

I offered, "I don't know what's going on with them and Lee. They always seemed okay to me."

Chris said, "Me too. They're good guys."

Paul said, "Do you know them well enough to ask what's going on?"

I nodded, "Yeah. We can talk to them."

Chris said, "You know, it just seems out of character. I mean, those guys will razz you with the best of them if you have a wet spot on your crotch or something. I never saw them get mean about it."

"Me either," I said. "I usually see them somewhere. I'll see what's going on."

Paul was waiting for a light to change. "Do that. I was starting to doubt Lee until Carly said something. This really stinks, so anything you can find out .."

I looked at him, wondering why he was so interested, but I didn't ask. Paul had taken a liking to Lee, and he was looking out for him. I looked over the seat back at Chris and smiled, getting his in return.

When we got to school, Paul ran into a friend as soon as he got out of the car, so I walked in with Chris. The sidewalks outside the school were asphalt and normally black, but they'd used so much salt or ice-melt on them that they looked almost like it had snowed again.

I didn't have any classes with Mike or Ron Mastracchio, but Chris had a few with Mike. He said he'd ask him to sit with us at lunch, though asking wouldn't guarantee anything. We'd have to wait and see.

As it turned out, I did run into Ron in the hall, and had a chance to talk to him. I saw him at his locker and walked up. "Hey, Ron."

He looked over and said, "Hi, Evan. Where ya been?"

"Just around," I said, "How about you?"

He closed the locker door and spun the lock. "Same here. Mostly indoors I guess. Some winter, huh?"

"I'll say," I said. I looked at the hall clock and knew I had to hurry. "Where are you eating? I want to talk to you."

He shrugged, "Main caf, I guess. Meet you at the salad bar?"

Everybody's a wise guy. I grinned, "Sounds good, see you there."

Before lunch, I dropped my things in my locker and went to find Chris at his. He was already with Mike Mastracchio. I said hi to both of them, and we headed to the cafeteria. I mentioned that Ron was going to join us, too.

Ron and Mike had always seemed like nice guys to me. They were good looking too, only in a kind of inverted order. Ron was older, a Junior, and he had dark hair. Mike was my age and a blond, and he wore his hair kind of hippy long. He was bigger than his older brother; much more solid looking. I'd always found the two of them to be friendly, but on the quiet side. The tease they were putting on Lee seemed out of character for either of them.

We didn't talk about anything until we had our lunches and were seated at a table where we'd have some privacy.

We had a nice view to outside, and Chris said, "It's pretty ... having lots of snow like this."

Mike looked up and swallowed his bit of sandwich, "Yeah. Nice having the day off, too."

I looked at the two brothers there. I'd never gotten close to them, and not for any real reason. They didn't live near me, and they were into different sports, and that was it. We knew each other, and there had never been anything bad between us.

When we were all past our hunger and just munching, I came right out with it. "I hear you guys are giving Lee Erasmus some trouble," I said evenly, even though I was nervous.

Ron looked surprised, and he sat back. "So? He's a little nutcase!"

I got my back up and was about to say something, but Chris said calmly, "Explain?"

Ron looked at him and said, "He's queer to start with. And didn't you see his father blow himself up on TV?" He looked at Chris, then me, and added, "I just don't want him around. He's one weird dude."

I looked at Mike, and he nodded.

Chris said, "I don't get it. You're blaming him for the shit that happened? You don't think that maybe you're out of line a little?" He leaned toward Ron, "He got kidnaped! He saw his friends get killed by a loony! Where do you see this being his problem?" Chris shook his head as if to clear it, then leaned almost up to Ron's nose. "You're being rotten, Ron." His voice became taut, "I don't like that."

Ron stared, Mike stared, and Chris went on, "You guys disappoint, you know that? What you're doing is against all the rules, too. How about I go and tell Guidance what you're pulling? You know what? They won't just kick you out, they'll call the police. This isn't just wrong, it's illegal!"

Ron and Mike both laughed nervously, and I had to give Chris credit for unsettling them. It was my turn, and I got close.

"Chris is right. You're taking something you know diddly about, and you're only gonna get in trouble yourselves. I suggest you drop it, because if you won't, neither will we. Lee is my friend ... our friend, and he has lots of friends. If you don't like him, that's fine, but if you don't leave him alone ... just take this as a warning."

Mike looked properly chastised, but Ron sneered at me and said, "It's true then? The great Evan Smiley is queer too?"

Chris grabbed his arm, but I pushed his hand away. I got in Ron's face, "Two things, Ron! Where did you hear that, and what if it was true? What the fuck would you do about it?"

He didn't give, didn't answer. He just stared at me. He was all tense, knowing that I could beat him if things got physical, but he wouldn't give up. He stared at me and said threateningly, "You're a loser, too, Smiley. You'll see. You and your kind are bound to lose."

I glared at Ron, then Chris tugged at my arm and I looked his way. He whispered, "Make a challenge, right now!"

I did. Chris was right, and I stood up, again glaring at Ron. "If you believe that, then meet me outside after school, asshole," I growled. "Then we'll see who's a loser!"

Ron glared back at me, but when I looked at Mike I could see that any resolve he had was shaken. He looked scared.

I probably said more than I should have, but I hissed, "Lee's not gay. He's not. As a matter of fact, I think he's going out with your girlfriend! If you think somehow that him being raped makes him queer, then you're just stupid. Unbelievably stupid." I tossed my fork down on my tray and made to turn away, then I looked back. "You know what? Forget about after school. I'm going to Guidance right now. You're not worth me getting in trouble."

"What are you going to do?" Mike asked, sounding a little panicky.

"What I should have done this morning. You know, they make these rules so we'll know how to get along. If you can't follow them, then you can get zero-toleranced right out on your asses. I don't really care."

Chris stood up with me, and Mike suddenly wanted us to stay longer. "Wait, wait!" He looked at Ron and said, "You better knock it off." He looked back at me, "What do you want?"

"I want you guys to leave Lee alone."

He seemed surprised, "That's it?"

I said evenly, "I'm not a social engineer. You leave Lee alone. Stay the hell away from him."

Mike didn't even look to Ron. He said, "We can do that."

"I'll be checking," I said.

Mike responded sullenly, "I'm sure you will."

I stared at him for a second longer, then turned to go, with Chris right beside me. When we were out of earshot, Chris said, "Good job, Ev. You played that just right."

I thought I did, too. "I hope it works." I snickered, "A little peace around here would be a nice thing."

I left it to Chris to let the others know what had gone on. We had a rehearsal for the play right after school for two hours, so I wouldn't see or talk to anyone until after dinner.

The rehearsal went well for everyone except me. I spent the whole time up in the catwalks trying to get the servo on one of the light arms working. I had to give up on it in the end. I had no idea why it wouldn't engage, and the only tools they gave me to work with were some screwdrivers, a pair of pliers, and a wire cutter. I told Mr. Kennedy that he'd have to put in a service call. That didn't please him, but he said he would.

I left the building with a guy who lived near me, Kevin Hatch. When we were walking, he said, "You should know this, Evan: Ron Mastracchio said you're gay."

I looked at him, "He told you that? When was this?"

"Right after lunch."

I felt exasperated suddenly. I looked at Kevin and asked, "Have I missed something here? Wasn't Ron always this nice, friendly kid, who was on the swim team? Wasn't he always nice to everyone?"

Kevin nodded, "Yeah, you're right. Was is right, too. For the last ... I don't know, probably a year anyhow, he's been getting stranger and stranger."

I cracked, "Something he ate, maybe?"

Kevin chuckled, "Maybe. More like something he smoked, I think."

"You think drugs?"

He shrugged, "I don't know ... drugs, booze ... that's what it usually is."

"Man," I groaned.

We walked along for a while before Kevin asked, "So, is it true?"

"Is what true?"

"You're gay?"

I said, "You could get yourself really hurt asking the wrong guy that, you know. Ron got on my case because I told him to lay off another kid. He's been calling him gay too, and it's definitely not the truth."

Kevin eyed me, "So everybody's gay? Is that Ron's idea?"

"I don't know," I admitted. "I'm surprised he's talking about me after what I told him at lunch."

"What was that?"

"I threatened to pound his head first, then I changed my mind and said I'd just report him to Guidance. That changed his tune."

We continued on our way and Kevin said, "I'm glad somebody stood up to him, Evan. Name calling is such a little kid's game. You never answered me really, but I get so sick about hearing gay this and gay that, and I feel so bad for the kids who are gay having to hear it all day, every day."

We were at my turn, so I stopped and looked at Kevin. "I hear you, but most kids don't mean anything by it. It's just words, and they'll get replaced one of these days." I grinned, "I have a friend in Riverton who calls bad things eggs ... scummy, scuzzy eggs."

Kevin grinned, "Hah! That's so eggy! I love it! I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"

I turned into my neighborhood, and I had to be more careful. We didn't have sidewalks, and there was still ice on the road. It had been sanded, but it was dark and the bare spots didn't show up very well, so every once in awhile I'd slip.

I figured I'd have to talk to Ron Mastracchio again. I wondered if he really was on drugs. I guess it might explain the change in him. He just didn't seem the type. Then again, John Balls did look the type, and he wouldn't take an aspirin if he broke his arm.

I also thought about just coming out. I wanted to anyhow, but having someone like Ron in the picture made it less appealing right then, only because I didn't want him to find satisfaction in thinking he forced me out. That was another little dilemma, and I seriously considered just hurting him the next time he crossed my path. Then I thought maybe I should talk to his brother, Mike again first. He seemed to be either more level-headed, or at least more afraid of consequences than Ron.

Fighting wasn't in my nature, but I'd been in a few. Sometimes you just have to. If it came to that, this would be the first one I ever started. I snickered, thinking, "New is good."

When I got home I had mail. One piece from the DMV and one from the U.S. Treasury. As excited as I was to have an actual appointment for my driver's test, I was more excited by my first tax return check. Harlan was exactly right when he said I'd get most of what I'd paid in back. I had earned a lot in a short time, and been taxed pretty heavily because of that. On an annual basis, though, I'd only earned something shy of seven thousand dollars, including the bonus Harlan gave me when I left. So, I had in my hands a check for over twenty-two hundred bucks, and the state still owed me about four hundred. I was almost back to even, and that car was still out in the driveway looking good.

I put the check down and opened the envelope from DMV. I was a Thursday testee, however they came up with that formula, and I had choices of ... holy ... this week! I hugged the paper to my chest, and I swear I almost cried.

I could register on their web site, so I ran straight up to my room and did just that. I got a one o'clock appointment, which meant I'd have to leave school early, but I didn't care. I figured I'd skip the whole day and get the car registered before I took the exam, and I could just drive myself home in my own car!

I needed insurance! I needed a temp plate to get me there. Oh, Lord!

I ran down to my Dad's office with the papers. "Dad! My driver's test is Thursday! I need to get insurance and a temporary. Who's our insurance, anyhow? Can you give me a ride to the station?"

He stared at me, at the intrusion, and then gave me an insidious smile. "Pardon?"

I glared at him for a second before I remembered and smiled, "Okay, touché! I'll eat that one." I laughed, "Good one, Dad. So can you?"

He grinned, "I've already talked to Allstate. When you get your tags, all you have to do is call and they'll activate your policy." He reached over and picked up a piece of paper, which he held out. "These are temporary insurance cards. You'll need them to get the plates."

I looked at what he handed me and mumbled, "You're all ahead of me here." I looked back at him.

He smiled, folded his arms across his chest while he leaned back, and said, "That's my end of the bargain, Ev. Yours is to be responsible with that car. It's a small car, but it's a powerful machine just the same. All it takes is a moment's foolishness to get where you don't want to be. You can't spare that moment, not ever." He looked up, "Got me?"

I nodded, thinking about what he said, about what happened to Dean. "I understand," I said solemnly, and I did.

Still, "Can you take me to the police station for a temporary plate?"

He said, "Ask your brother. You don't need me for that."

I stared at him and said dumbly, "Alton's not home."

Dad stared back, "He will be. I think the police station is always there. Don't forget that you'll pay sales tax when you register that thing."

"Sales tax," I grumbled. "How could I forget?"

I kept grumbling while I went back to my room. That car had been taxed once already, at new value. Now I bought it, and I had to pay tax again based on what I paid. If it came time for me to sell it, whoever bought it from me would have to pay the tax yet again. If that wasn't a ripoff, I didn't know what one was.

I had barely cracked my French book open when my mother called that dinner was ready, so I went downstairs. We ate some fine stew a-la Mom, and we yakked about things going on. I was going to mention about Lee and the Mastracchio boys, but I decided not to, thinking it was complicated to start with, and not good dinner table stuff anyhow. I did wax on about my upcoming driver's test, and wheedled Al into taking me to the police station to get a paper registration for the car.

It was a favorable time of night when we got there. Nobody was actually at the desk, but the sign said they'd be right back, so I stood there. I was rewarded shortly, by a heavy-set guy who seemed both jolly and eager to help. He took my paperwork and sorted it out, asked me only one question. Once Alton signed a paper, I had a temporary license plate. Dollars changed hands, of course, but only eight of them.

I was good to go. I had a paper registration that I could tape to the window of the car, and it was good for a month. When I got the real plates I'd have to pay again, and also pay the taxes.

When we got back home, I crammed my homework into a half hour, then I called Aaron. We couldn't talk for long because he was reading for an essay he had to turn in. I wanted to call other people, too, so we kept it brief. I told him about our encounter with the Mastracchio boys, and Aaron told me I should mash their potatoes, which I thought was funny.

Afterwards, when I told Chris that Ron had gone ahead and told Kevin Hatch that I was gay right after lunch, he got seriously angry. Chris wasn't good with anger, because it wasn't a normal reaction for him. Some people get pretty funny when they're mad, others can get scary. Poor Chris just got flustered.

"I'm pissed, Evan! That little fucking weasel couldn't hold his tongue for ten minutes, could he? I ... I ... I'm so pissed off I could scream! You wait 'til I see that forked tongue piece of shit!"

"Easy, boy," I said. "I'm a little concerned here. Do you hear anything around? Do a lot of people suddenly know I'm gay?"

"I don't hear that, Ev. I mean, I suppose you let the cat out back when you came home, but I haven't heard it in the halls or anything." He paused, "It's you we're talking about anyhow. You had a hard enough time convincing your friends that you're gay. Who's gonna believe that turd?"

I didn't know what to think about that. "I don't know," I mumbled. "I think people will believe what they want. Ron's got his prep-ball friends, but I honestly don't know about him anymore. Kevin thinks maybe he's on drugs. Have you heard that?"

"Heh, no. Not that either. Maybe I need to listen closer."

"I probably should too," I said. "Are you going to say anything to Ron?"

Chris sighed, "If he was right here a minute ago, he might be dead now. I don't know, do you want me to?"

"Don't get in any trouble, Chris, but let him know I talked to Kevin today, and that he's skating on very thin ice. Trying to out somebody, especially somebody you don't really know, is a real good way to get hurt. It's even a better way to get kicked out of that school. I just can't believe he up and did that right after we talked to him."

Chris said, "I'll see him first thing. You know, Mike seems more reasonable, or at least a little bit human. See if you can catch up with him, and I'll talk to Ronny."

I smiled, "Such a team we are!"

"Yeah, bruddahs undah da skin!"

"Thanks, Chris."

"Bye, Evan."

I made one more call, to Paul, and he was out somewhere. I thought about calling Lee, and I probably should have. I didn't, though, because I was talked out and it was getting late.

I got ready for bed, popped a kiss into my mouth and climbed in. I thought about Aaron as long as the chocolate flavor lingered, then I rolled onto my side and thought about other things.

The tax return, the car, the driver's test; they were all on my mind, but what I wondered about was if I should just come out at school. I wanted to. I'd wanted to since I came back home. Every time I thought there wasn't a downside, I'd get an image of Matt Shepard in my mind. There was actual hatred out there. I knew that first hand. Everyone knows it, and it persists.

Still, it made no sense to me that I could be out in Riverton, where I didn't live, and not at home. Where Aaron lived, I was his boyfriend. Everyone knew it, and nobody questioned it. And for the life of me, I couldn't think of one single time where anyone really cared. It was Aaron and Evan there, and if anyone worried about it, they kept their lips buttoned.

I wanted the same thing at home. I had most of it. My friends knew Aaron, and they knew of our relationship. Nobody else did, though. Aaron and I held hands all over the place in Riverton. We only did that in my house at home. I'm picking nits here. I loved Aaron. It hurt to even think about hiding that love, much less what it was about.

What the hell was gay anyhow? How did me loving Aaron affect another single person on this planet? I loved him! Period! Heh, I get cranky when I think about it, too.

I wanted Aaron to be part of my life where I lived, just as much as I was part of his life where he lived. His town was different, away from the interstate, and they had a university, but it wasn't that much different.

I wondered about what I was thinking while I was still thinking it. I sometimes do that, so it's nothing to worry about, it's just a trait. I wondered about my motivation while I lay there; if I suddenly wanted to come out as an act of defiance against Ron Mastracchio. There may have been an element of that, but I'd wanted to come out before I knew he was a brain-deprived bigot.

I didn't decide anything. I fell asleep instead, but I knew I'd talk to some people about it. The worst reactions I'd had from my friends were some 'eww-eww-eww' things, and those didn't last long anyhow.

Morning eased those thoughts out of my head. I awoke realizing that this was the penultimate day of my young life; the day before our magnanimous State licenced my freedom, took my picture, and said, "Go get 'em, boy!"

Right. Well, that's what it felt like, and even my showery rendition of My Guy sounded pretty damn fine!

There was one thing that Chris and I were opposites about. When he's excited about something, he does it right and forgets everything else, really revels in the enjoyment of things.

Me, on the other hand, I get all focused on it, and therefore everything around it. I don't forget about other things. Nay, I pay even closer attention to them to ensure that they're not forgotten. That way, they won't come around to bite me in the ass and prevent the big thing from taking place.

We're talking lists here; plans. Some of it's simple stuff. To take the test, I'd have to be at the testing place, and I'd need a ride, and a backup in case something happened. See how it works? Plans ... all the details had to be worked out in advance.

I started before breakfast, kept adding to my list while I ate, then put it in my shirt pocket. I put my hat and coat on and headed out, and had to run back in for my books.

I'd managed to wire down by the time I met Chris, and he was steaming again about Ron Mastracchio.

"Don't worry about it, Chris," I said. "Having Ron against me is kind of like going to class without my pet elephant, except I'd probably miss the elephant."

Chris snickered, but said seriously, "I don't think it's funny that he tried to out you."

I agreed, "It's not funny, but who's gonna believe him? I want to be out anyhow, Chris, I really do."

I could tell that Chris was looking at me, but he held his thoughts for quite awhile before he said, "You do, don't you?"

I said, "I wanted to when I came home last fall ... you knew that." I put my hand on his shoulder, "You know, Chris, you told me to go for it a long time ago, and I should have. It's harder now, I think. At least it seems harder."

Chris said calmly, "Ev, if there's one thing you are, it's sure of yourself. When you're ready, you'll know it. What's the deal, anyhow?"

I said, "The deal is that I feel like I'm living two lives, Chris. I'm out in Riverton. I go places with Aaron ... like on dates. It's like ho-hum to the people around us there, and I love that. It's a different story here. A few people know Aaron, but mostly we hide in my house when he's here. I'm afraid of it, Aaron's afraid of it, and we don't know what it is!" I looked Chris in the eye, "It's something we have to get past. I love Aaron. I'm in love with Aaron."

I took a breath and gathered my thoughts, all one of them. "Love is a normal human condition, Chris. You can love your parents, you can love your dog or cat, you can love Avril Lavigne. You can even love me! You can say it, you can shout it out, but if you're in love, except with Avril, then if you say it, you're in trouble. I don't want to throw a tantrum here, but I could. You know what I'm saying, anyhow."

We were almost to school, and Chris thought, then he started disappearing downwards, and he did until I laughed in delight and joined him. We did our Cossack dance, side-by-side, right down the sidewalk until we were in front of the school.

That hurt to do, especially after a lot of time not doing it. It sure pleased the people around us, and when we got vertical again they cheerfully let us through.

Cossacks! I don't know what their lives were like, but I can guarantee that they were the strongest legged people ever!

When we got inside the building, Chris stopped me and made like he was cleaning off my jacket, and he used both hands. He smiled, "You're in now, Evan, but you were just out, and I didn't see a problem." I started laughing, and Chris continued, "Not in the least," he said wheezing. "What's that song? When you're in you're out, and when you're not you're not"

I laughed, "I don't think so, Chris. It doesn't even rhyme."

He was on a roll, "Okay, try this. When you're out you're out, and there ain't no doubt." He grinned, "Sing it with me! When you're out you're out, then there ain't no doubt! This is Evan's song ..."

I was bent over wheezing, and if he didn't stop I'd probably throw up. I couldn't breathe for awhile, and I laughed harder when he tried to finish the last bit. He tried, "This is Evan's song, and he's really hong," to which I tried to add an epithet, but I was long lost. He tried again with, "This is Evan's song, and he wants to fong ... you ... or something. Dammit! Help me here, Ev." He grinned like the morning sun, "I'm not born to a poetical nature, I need help with these lines."

I had to lean against a locker and laugh it out. Chris could get me going. I finally said, "Damn! I mean damn! I haven't laughed like that in a long time!"

Chris played serious, "Oh? I just now heard you laughing. What's a long time in your mind?"

I pushed him away, still laughing, and Chris gave it up and just laughed himself.

We were like that when Mike Mastracchio walked up to us, and he looked worried.

Chris said, "Hi, Mike," before I even noticed him.

Mike hesitated, "Listen ... about Ron."

I already had my back to the wall, so Chris moved beside me, and we waited.

Mike shifted his weight twice, nervously, and looked off just to the right of me. "He's not the same lately. I see what he's doing, and I see that he means it, but I just don't know where it's coming from." He looked right at me briefly, turned to at Chris, then looked away again. His voice lowered, "You guys know him. He was never rotten to people before. Now he's rotten to everybody! He says half the world's gay, and the other half is ugly." He looked at me in earnest, "I just ... don't want you to think he's singling you out. I'm just tired of chasing after him and apologizing to everyone."

I said gently, "I talked to someone yesterday who thinks he's on drugs."

Mike looked at me sharply, then his look softened. "I can see why you'd think that, but he's not. That would be something I could at least understand. If he was on drugs, he couldn't hide it from me." His eyes searched ours, first Chris' then mine. "We've always known each other, so you know what Ron's really like. I think he's sick. I know he pisses you off, I just hope you'll lay off him. So far it's just mouth, and I'm trying to get my parents to see that there's a problem, but that's another problem."

I looked at Chris, then at Mike. "Listen, Mike. If your folks have blinders on, maybe I should talk to the school. They have to do something, it's the law!"

Mike looked shocked, and he looked at the floor briefly before turning his eyes back to me. In them I saw confusion and pain.

"Listen, Mike," I said softly, "We're only talking like this because Ron picked on Lee Erasmus so much. Lee's already had the world on his head, and he's in trouble with the law, too."

Mike looked like he wanted to cry, and Chris jumped in, "Look, man. I know you don't want to bust your own brother, so let me or Evan do it. Something's changed, and if it's not drugs it could be a medical thing. If the school finds a problem, they'll keep it private. I don't see where you can lose here."

Mike stared and nodded sadly. I added, "All he's done so far is maybe break a few school rules, Mike. That's why I mentioned Lee. He still has to go to trial, and he'll actually do better if he's convicted of something."

"Say what?" Chris asked.

"I'm serious. If he just gets off, he'll be on his own. He can see a private shrink, but with the State, he'll get into a program, and it's geared for people with his exact same problems. That kid's been so abused..."

I saw the click in Mike's eyes the moment I heard it in my own head. Mike said quickly, "That's it!" He pointed at me, "You make the complaint! I gotta find Ronny," and he ran off full tilt.

Chris and I looked question marks at each other, then shrugged. "I'll be in the Guidance office," I said.

Chris smiled and patted my shoulder, and said, "Always nice talking to you, Smiley. I thought we'd have a nice, easy day where you just came out over the intercom or something."

I batted his hand away, "Fork you, Chris. If you had the entrepreneurial spirit, you'd go to guidance with me and own up to your own evil ways. Then you, too, could be on the receiving end of all these State benefits."

That earned me a stiffly extended finger just off the nether regions of my nose, and Chris headed to his locker while I walked to the Guidance office.

God, does that sound Biblical or what? The Guidance office, where all school problems are dealt with, supposedly fairly and squarely.

I had only been before for curricular guidance, which was the original purpose of the office. Given educational evolution, now the Guidance office offered lots more.

I had to sign in and give the lady at the desk a clue about why I was there. I said, "I want to make a harassment complaint."

She didn't even look up. "Against staff, or another student?"

"Student," I said.

She pointed with her pencil, "Sit over there. It'll be a few minutes."

I turned around to see some other kids sitting there in varying states of agitation, but nobody I knew.

I sat, and I basically twiddled my thumbs for ten minutes or so, then Mr. Throckmorton, one of the counselors called, "Evan?" and indicated that I should follow him.

I did, and I was soon facing him across his desk. I thought he was a good guy, and he smiled before asking, "What's up, Evan? You have a complaint?"

I thought before I said slowly and clearly, "It's a complaint, but I'm not looking for trouble. I think somebody needs help."

Mr. Throckmorton's gaze tightened up, and he said, "Indeed? That's admirable of you, Evan."

I didn't want to seem admirable. "There's this kid ... everyone always liked him okay, now suddenly he's being really rotten. Some people think he's on drugs, but I know his brother, and he doesn't think so. He does know that something's wrong, and when I said the word abuse about someone else, it just seemed like that was it. I mean, why else except drugs would he go from this easy-going prep jockey, to this hate dude?"

Throckmorton smiled and said, "Nice choice of words, Evan. Would you mind telling me who you're talking about, and giving me the specific offenses?"

I didn't mind because that's why I was there. I told him about what Ron had been doing to Lee, and about what he'd said about me the day before. What I got out of it was what seemed like a stiff thank you, and a promise that it was a school matter for the time being, meaning they wouldn't call the police yet. I also got a late pass to my class, which was already in progress. I felt like I'd been rushed out of there almost as soon as I mentioned Ron's name. Throckmorton didn't really question me, and he seemed to get nervous hearing my thoughts.

After I left, I didn't want to be in school anymore. I was struggling with myself over making a report like that. It was the first time I ever started a problem for another person, at least intentionally, and it bothered me.

I hoped I was doing the right thing, but I wasn't that certain about it.

I made it through lunch, then suddenly the whole school was under lock down!

That had never happened before, but we knew what it was about. We'd practiced it the year before, been locked into our classroom and had a shade pulled down over the window in the door. The blinds had been pulled, then class was supposed to go on much as normal. Right.

Now we had a real one, and the intent was to prevent something like what happened at Columbine from happening in our school.

It was pretty scary. All we heard was an announcement over the intercom that said, "Staff, this is a lock down. Implement lock down procedures immediately," and it repeated over and over.

We could hear sirens outside, too, and every cell phone in the building seemed to be going off.

I was in my Algebra-II class, and ended up sitting under my desk like everyone else, and basically scared to death. Was this it? Were there loonies in the halls with grenade launchers, or was there a jetliner aimed our way? I knew nothing. Every time I looked at the teacher, it was clear that she didn't have a clue either, and that she was as frightened as her students. Then I worried that Ron Mastracchio had lost it when he learned that I ratted him out. Maybe he was roaming the halls trying to get back at me.

Finally, a girl with one of the cell phones said excitedly, "There's been a shooting!" which elicited a collective gasp. She added, "It's a teacher ... maybe a suicide."

Like that made me feel better! Well, if they weren't after me, I could feel a little better.

Still, a teacher? Not one of mine, surely!

Then another kid with a phone said, "Kids are shot too. Oh..."

I don't know if that kid passed out or what. He didn't say anything else. I do know that right there and then I feared for my life, and I felt helpless to protect myself.

I had to pee, too, and I honestly thought about just letting it go in my pants. If I was going to die, I'd let it go anyhow, and getting it out seemed to offer me a better chance of running if I had to. But the loudspeaker said, "Students, your buses are outside. Do NOT linger at your lockers. There is no need for panic. Get on your usual bus and go home. If you're walking or driving, please go directly home. If you need the restroom, use the ones on the way out, do NOT approach the auditorium wing."

Don't you love that? We'd go home and see it on television, told by people we don't know or even care about. Why, why wouldn't our own school administration tell us what was going on? The auditorium wing had the auditorium and the offices, and there was a teacher's lounge down there.

When I was pissing in the boy's room on the way out, a big kid I didn't know said to someone else, "I hear he shot the kid right between the eyes and offed himself! What a fucking asshole!"

"Who?" I felt like asking, but I never put voice to it. I had a feeling, and I hoped against hope that I was wrong.

I stumbled out of the building with everyone else, and I made my way home to watch things on television. My mother left work early so she could be home with me, and she picked me up on the street a few blocks from the house.

"Evan, are you alright?" she asked breathlessly while I got in the car. I'd been walking with Chris, but he split for his own house instead of coming with us.

I said, "I'm okay, just shook up. They won't tell us what's going on."

She looked astounded, "There was a shooting, Evan. A student and a teacher were shot."

"Oh, my God!" I mumbled, wondering who was involved. I still had a bad feeling about Mr. Throckmorton's reaction to my suspicions that Ron Mastracchio was being abused. Could the link be that thin? Could he have known already that something was going on?

I found the remote and turned the television on before I even took my coat off, then we both sat down to watch the news. I had no trouble at all finding the story; it was all over the place, even where you'd normally expect to find soap operas at that time of day.

It was a new story, and in their excitement to get it on the air the reporters had failed to verify anything. It was frustrating, because all the reports seemed to be based on something different; wildly different in several cases.

The one thread that held up was that there had been a shooting at our school. One person was dead, and another was injured, possibly more than one, and they were speculating on who shot who.

There was going to be a news conference later on, and we had to wait until then for anything like an accurate story.

It seemed like forever, but the news conference finally started, and it was on the front steps of the school. There was a line of officials against the doors, and a podium had been set up in front of them. The school principal and the police chief were in the foreground at the podium, and I could see the assistant principals, a few teachers, the mayor and other people behind them. The news person was talking while they waited for the conference to start, then finally the police chief walked up to the microphone. He looked grim.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we responded to a report about shots fired here at Mt. Harman High School at 1:06 PM today. The incident was over when officers arrived on the scene, and the apparent perpetrator had taken his own life.

"Our investigation has just begun and much is still unclear, but I can tell you what we now believe are some facts. The Guidance office, under the direction of Mr. Edgar Throckmorton, summoned a male student to a meeting that was to take place at one PM in Mr. Throckmorton's office. The student who went entered the office, and the door was locked behind them. Our preliminary evidence shows that Mr. Throckmorton shot the student once, then shot himself once. Mr. Throckmorton died of his wound at the scene. The student he shot is expected to survive. I should add that any gunshot wound is a grievous injury."

He looked around, "We are working closely with the State Police, the F.B.I. and with school officials to clarify the facts, and to determine what led up to this tragedy. For now, I've told you everything that I'm comfortable with. Thank you."

There was a loud uproar from the reporters, but he walked away and the principal took his place at the podium. He didn't add anything useful, and he managed to brag about what a wonderful response there was from 'his' staff, and how hard they'd worked to put plans for just such a contingency in place. Ho hum! Then he said there would be school the next day as usual, and that there would be counselors available for any students with issues. With issues! Can you believe that? It was one of his dedicated staff who did the shooting, and this was going to forever bring a new slant to being called to the office in that school. A kid was shot and a teacher was dead, and we might have issues? How about we might be totally freaked out and scared to death? How about when you do learn what happened, you tell us honestly and treat us like the 'young adults' you expect us to behave as. I didn't even hear the rest of what he said, and when the mayor spoke he said things that were even more inane.

My mother noticed my agitation, and said, "Evan, don't let that condescending fool get you worked up." That's really what she said! "You tend to business." She glanced back at the television with real distaste evident on her face. She patted my arm and smiled, "I have some time. I'll make chili and salad for dinner. That should make you feel better."

I smiled at the suggestion and asked, "With guacamole?"

She patted my hair, and said, "Of course with guacamole," as she stood, and I knew my father would be picking up an avocado or two on the way home.

Before long the phone started ringing, and it was friends with news. It was Ron Mastracchio who'd been shot, like I'd suspected. Chris told me he got shot in the throat and was just really lucky to only have a hole in him that didn't touch on anything vital.

I was staring at the television more than watching it while the rest of my family filtered in. I got some attention from everyone, but I was distracted, so they didn't really press me for anything.

Even in my fuzzy state of mind, Mom's chili got my attention, and dinner was really delicious. We sidestepped around the events at school and talked about how good the meal was, about my driver's test the next day, about relatively little things.

After we ate, we all sought our own private place, and I went for the most private one I could think of. I went up to the attic and there, with my head between my knees, I wondered.

'Why me?' came up first, because I seemed to be in the middle of absolutely everything lately, and that was exactly the place I was trying to avoid. It wasn't anger that I felt. I wondered what dead felt like. I wondered if my worry that Ron was being abused somewhere had somehow led to the shooting. I'd been angry with Ron Mastracchio, and now he was in the hospital, the victim of the very person I'd expressed my concern to. I was just looking for some help in a likely place, and it had gone all wrong. I felt lost and alone.

My father found me up there, and I don't know how long he looked at me before he made his presence known. "Evan, what's troubling you about this? Beyond the obvious, I mean." His voice was low and steady.

I looked up and said, "I may have started it." I hugged my sides, "I don't know why, Dad, but lately it seems that everything bad happens around me."

He sat beside me and quietly said, "Explain?"

I did. I told him about what we were all doing with Lee, and that he was becoming a friend. I told him about the verbal abuse and bullying Lee was facing, and who was doing it, and on and on.

I went through my talk with Mike Mastracchio that very morning, and our mutual conclusion that Ron might be being abused. I told him how I talked to Mr. Throckmorton right after that, and his odd reaction.

After that, he knew as much as I did, but I had the opinion that if I'd kept my mouth shut none of it would have happened.

Dad put his hand on my shoulder and whispered, "I'm sorry, Evan. I really am. Don't think for a moment that you did something wrong. You tried to help someone, and you ... I don't know. You know this already." He scratched at the back of his head, "Ev, you reported suspected abuse to the proper authority. There is no way you could have foreseen this outcome, and you can't start blaming yourself ... not at all!"

I looked over at him, feeling more hopeful but still miserable. He saw my expression and pulled me to him. "Evan," he whispered, "Spend your time thinking about your friend who got hurt. Do not blame yourself in any way for what happened. You did the right thing."

I leaned against him for a long time. I don't know if he was right, only that it felt good that he was on my side, and there holding on to me. I never thought I did anything wrong, really, but something had gone grotesquely wrong. I'd tipped the balance at the very least.

I think I nodded off, because the next thing I knew my father was pushing me off so he could stand, and I heard, "Go to bed, son. Come on, stand up."

I did when he helped me, because my leg was asleep, and I was wobbly for a minute when I put weight on it.

I followed Dad down the steps, then he stopped at my door and looked at me.

For all his temper, and his ability to spit out harsh words like a machine gun, my father had really warm eyes. Right then I noticed that, and Dad gave me a quick hug and kissed at my hair. "Don't worry, Evan. Get some sleep and try to find some perspective." He squeezed me and said, "Good night."

Bruce came out of his room just when Dad headed downstairs, and from the other end of the hall he said, "Nothing ever happens at Edison," referring to the magnet school he went to. I think that was supposed to be a joke because he looked at me hopefully. I smiled, and he asked, "You're alright?"

I nodded, "Yeah. Thanks, Bruce."

He looked at me and went back in his room, which is what I did.

I had to call Aaron, and he'd already called a record eleven times. I understood his concern, and he felt my need to be alone with it, so it was a short talk. Those were rare, and we both tried to convey our love, only faster than usual, and he wished me well with my driver's test. His was the next week, and even feeling funky I could still be excited about that.

After we hung up I went to the bathroom, then washed up.

When I climbed into bed, I wondered what I'd learn the next day. Guidance counselors don't normally go around shooting the kids they counsel, but one of ours just had. I had an inkling but I really knew nothing. The inkling was only that I'd suspected possible abuse with Ron. That abuse had no form in my mind, it could have been anything, and I certainly never associated it with the school. Nor with Mr. Throckmorton.

Now Ron had been shot, and only after I voiced my concern about abuse to the guy who shot him.

I was feeling freaky and weird about the whole day. When I got under the covers and comfortable, I turned my thoughts to Aaron. I did that so I could go to sleep feeling better about things.

With a kiss in my mouth, it worked.

... continued

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