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Mathew Figures it out

Matthew Figures It Out – Chapter 22 ‘Back to School’

As Chris walked out the door, Matt went to the window and watched them pull away. His eyes followed the car until it escaped his sight and then he continued to look, well after it was gone. Joanna put her hands on his shoulders from behind. No words were necessary to communicate what she had to say. Joanna couldn’t help but think of what might have been.

The Jordanparents had decided not to tell Mattabout their trip to see Melanie and Peggy the week before. It wasn’t a discussion they could have without hurting Matt, for it would most definitely hurt him even more if he knew all that had been said. They hadn’t expected Peggy to be involved much at all in their talks and they were surprised to find her somewhat coherent. They were more surprised to find her so hateful and they had been downright shocked to hear her vilify Mattthe way she had. Yes, Peggy Briggs had revealed the full force of her ignorance that day. She had shown herself to be a woman wrapped in a tight knot of denial and hate. John’s first comment in the car afterwards had been, “That felt way too familiar.” Memories of his own dad were conjured up, deepening the bond John felt with Chris.

Joanna continued to gently rub Matt’s shoulders and she continued to thin of what might have been, though she had started to think of it as “what should have been.” Mattcontinued to look out the window, enjoying the soft soothing touch of his mother.

By eight o’clockthat night, Melanie’s Honda wagon, loaded with clothes and basic necessities, crossed the North Carolina– Virginiaborder. They were just over halfway to Richmondand still had a good three hours left to go. At a little past eleven, they finally pulled into Melanie’s apartment complex. Chris’s first impression was below his already low expectations. Though parts of the city had been lined with trees, there was nothing but roads and parking lots for as far as he could see. And it apparently never got dark here; even approaching midnight, the city lights still cast a dull glow on everything. Adding insult to injury, there were two basketball goals nearby but both were damaged and had obviously fallen out of use a long time ago.

Melanie’s two bedroom apartment had just that: two beds. Melanie had been rooming with another nurse until a few months earlier when the other girl got married and moved out.

In the middle of everything else, Chris had never stopped to realize that he would be on the short end of this stick as well. It was Melanie’s apartment, and she couldn’t be expected to give up her own bedroom. Living with her mother was bad enough, sharing a room with her was out of the question, so Peggy took the other bedroom.

“Chris, the couch folds out into a sleeper.” Melanie instructed.

“Great. Does one of the closets fold out into another bedroom?” His sarcasm was not delivered with a smile. Was he expected to live on the couch?

“I know it’s not what you’re used to. Let’s just make it work the best we can. There are some three bedroom units here. When mom gets better and gets a job, we should be able to move into one of those.” Melanie had her own frustrations in this, but Chris threw her a “yeah, right” look anyway.

But he wasn’t interested in arguing about it right now. Besides, there was nothing that could be done. He was already emotionally drained and the stress had exhausted him physically as well.

Peggy had become uncomfortable during the long ride and taken a generous dose of her pain medications. There were some lingering physical effects from her car accident, but the pills had mostly become medication for the emotional wreck she had become. Barely taking a first look around the apartment, she headed straight for bed after Melanie redirected her to the correct room.

Melanie brought out a ration of blankets along with a pillow and Chris plopped down on the extended couch. He didn’t find any comfort there and he was unable to shake the realization that his entire life had been stripped down to just this.

Christmas Day had ended as poorly as it had begun. In the middle had been something quite different. Chris thought back to his all-too-short time with Mattand his parents. There, with them, if only in his mind, he found some peace and found some sleep.

The day-after started a long week of new sights and faces. Richmondhad its share of rolling hills and it was adjacent to the James River. While it had its Southern charms, it still wasn’t home. Steeped rich in history, the former confederate capital had moved on to become a thriving center for business, hosting the headquarters for several Fortune 1000 companies. From Chris’s perspective, it was just someplace he didn’t want to be.

In just over a week, he would enter a new school right in the middle of the school year. He wasn’t much concerned about that part at the moment and there were no expectations for what he might find there. There hadn’t been adequate mourning time for what he had left behind and what lay ahead seemed inconsequential by comparison.

For the next week, many adjustments were made as boys in two states tried to cope with their new realities. Knowing that Chris was so far away was hard for Matt, but they talked several nights on the phone. Still, it wasn’t the same; it just couldn’t be.

Tommy did what he could to console Mattinviting him to ride horses together one day. Mattagreed to join him but his mind was elsewhere and Tommy was sad to see him force the smiles to his face.

Everybody put up the same fronts but it would take much more time to heal the wounds underneath. Matthad no intention of letting anything heal. The pain he felt was his only physical connection to Chris and he had no intention of giving it up too.

The Christmas basketball tournament started on December 27th. Mattdidn’t want to play; basketball had lost its interest without Chris there. But Chris had encouraged him to stay with it, so he did. The team suffered greatly in Chris’s absence and they fell quickly from the tournament. There was no rematch with Billy Jacobs but that was still on schedule for later in the winter. Mattkept a low profile between contests, hanging close to his teammates and then riding home with his mom and dad right after the games. He did, in fact, receive more than a few evil eyes as he walked through the crowds. The publicity from Robert Briggs’ death had spread along with it the rumors that could no longer be denied. Whether he liked it or not, he was definitely out. Matthad noticed something else, something that had surprised him. Along with all of the stares of hate, there had been a handful of boys who had looked at him with curious faces.

New Years’ Day fell on a Friday, meaning the return of school was just on the other side of the weekend. By this point, the challenges of school seemed like a blessing compared to the curse of boredom that had set in during the long break. Matthad moped around the house far too much, still unable to accept the separation. School would at least bring with it some needed structure, along with a great deal of uncertainty.

“Matt, how are you doing, son?” John had come into Matt’s room on Sunday night. Joanna was right behind him and she stood at the doorway.

“I’m all right, I guess.” Mattsat quietly on his bed. He had been trying to distract himself with the new book ‘Children Of Amarid’ by Coe, but his mind was still set on another fantasy.

“Listen, your mother and I have been talking.” John’s words brought a suspicious glare from Matt. “Just hear me out. If you want to switch over to private school, you know we can do that. We’re both concerned about you…” Mattinterrupted him.

“No! I don’t want to do that. It’s not so bad. People are looking at me funny and all, but that would happen anywhere. I’m not being picked on or anything. Not really. I’ll be OK. I can’t just run from things.”

“I don’t want you to run away from problems, son. But this isn’t like back home. People here aren’t as open minded.” The Jordanparents had their own recent reminder of this.

“Dad, not everyone was so open minded back home either. It’s not something that just happens here. I’ve heard things all my life; they just haven’t been pointed directly at me before. And most of the private schools around here are Christian. Do you really think that would be better for me? I’ll be OK. Just don’t worry about me.” Mattflashed a serious look to his dad and mom. It seemed as good a time as any to practice Chris’s “Show No Fear” mantra.

“All right. But Matt, let us know if you’re having any problems with anyone. Don’t be afraid to ask us for help.” John replied.

“I’m not going to come running home and tell you about everything. If I look like I’ve been beaten up, then you’ll know I had a bad day. But dad, and mom, I don’t want to be a whiner. I’m fifteen now, after all.” Actually, he wasn’t.

Joanna piped in. “Don’t go getting any older on us just yet.” Mattsmiled, he had taken credit for his new age two days early.

“But you know what I’m saying to both of you. If anything bad happens, I’ll try to deal with it on my own. If I can’t, then I’ll let you know. Just stop worrying, please! You’re making me nervous.” He was already nervous, but it was good to have something to blame it on.

John and Joanna were at least happy to see the determination in his face. They were also pleased that he wanted to stay in public school. The Jordanparents were not overly fond of the private school experience. Both had gone to public schools in northern California, themselves.

Finally, Matthad the room to himself again. It was only eight o’clock, but he turned off the lights, locked his door and lay down on his bed. His eyes were still wide open and he was, in fact, very nervous about tomorrow. His mind had been spinning around and around and he needed a potent distraction. Closing his eyes, he let his hand roam freely down his belly and underneath his briefs. Directing his overactive imagination back in time, he quickly found the mental recreation he needed. He could almost feel Chris’s warm thighs again, Matt’s open palms rubbing up and down against them. He could see the look of eager anticipation in Chris’s eyes, and his guiding hand rustling through Matt’s hair and then the final approach and warm engagement of tongue and arousal. The boy held captive in Matt’s fantasy was happy and that provided the desired escape from the stress.

The new school day brought a full return of the stress. Matthad only a small sampling of scrutiny when at the Christmas basketball tournament. Many of those people didn’t know who he was. Here, everyone seemed to know him now and he could no longer fly under the cover of anonymity. It had been bad enough when the gay rumors had passed around school several weeks earlier. Those rumors never died but they did seem to lose steam.

Stories take own their own lives and their own ‘truths’ when circulating in a small community. This was the first day back at school since the death of Robert Briggs. The gay rumors had been combined with the murder rumors and given a whole new twist to the sorry Robert Briggs saga. In some circles, Briggs had even become the victim. One particularly nasty version of events had Robert Briggs being lured into the woods and shot in cold blood to prevent him from breaking up the triangle of “lover boys.” No one seemed to appreciate the irony that only Robert Briggs’ death had been able to separate Chris and Matt.

Mattwasn’t the only one getting undesired attention. Jay Henson had become the cold dark killer that everyone always suspected he could be. People walked out of their way to avoid crossing paths with him. Jay couldn’t have cared less. He hadn’t needed them before and he didn’t miss them now. Keeping his head pointed to the ground, he made his way from class to class. At least no one seemed willing to bother him.

For Matt, the attention felt suffocating. It didn’t feel like the first day back to school, it felt like the first day at a new school; a school where everyone seemed to make some comment on him, verbally or otherwise, and a school without the benefit of Chris. He stopped to think how Chris’s first day at a real new school was going and he took some comfort in knowing that Chris wasn’t being forced to suffer this with him.

Mattdecided to skip lunch and head to the sanctuary of the library. The lunchroom would be too much of a social zoo.

“Tommy!” He caught him before Tommy entered the cafeteria. “I don’t think I can deal with it today. Just meet me in the courtyard and we’ll go to the library.”

“You don’t want anything to eat?” Tommy asked.

“I don’t have any appetite. Get me a juice though.”

“Sure thing.”

Mattstood in the most inconspicuous place he could find in the courtyard and waited for Tommy. He heard steps coming down the side walkway and turned to catch himself in direct eye contact with Ty Wilson. A very faint smile crept onto Ty’s face and he held Matt’s eyes for several seconds before Mattblinked and looked away.

Thinking to himself, “What the fuck?” Mattfocused on the cement below him and decided not to look up at anyone else passing by.

“Matt, are you OK?” Tommy’s voice made Mattjump before he realized who it was.

“Come on, let’s go.” Mattreplied.

“We can’t take food in the library. Mrs. Hartsell will bust us for that.” Tommy warned, with a sandwich and two juice packs in his hands.

“Tommy, if that’s the worst thing that happens today, it will be a fucking miracle. Come on, just hide it in your jacket. It’s freezing out here.”

Inside the library, they took a desk providing the best natural shielding from the view of the hawkish Mrs. Hartsell. With their book bags on top of the desk, they were able to block off the juice packs from outside view. With the sandwich, Tommy had more to hide and he sat with his back to the librarian’s counter. As he made short work of his sandwich, he saw Matt’s eyes open wide and his jaw gape open. Tommy was sure they’d been found out.

“Holy shit! I don’t believe it.” Mattsaid softly and continued to stare. Tommy could now hear footsteps closing in behind him and he quickly smashed what was left of his sandwich into his mouth. It seemed like the fastest way to dispose of the evidence, plus he was still hungry.

The figure that made his way around to the side of the desk wasn’t a prickly librarian.

“You guys could get in trouble for eating in here you know. It says so right on the front door. That nice round lady up there was sure to tell me so when I brought in my apple earlier. But I told her how it was my first day and all, and she let me slide. I even let her keep the apple.” The boy stopped talking but kept smiling. “Maybe you don’t remember me, but my name is Joshua Taylor.” He reached out and Mattnodded and finally took his hand for a polite shake, and a much quicker one than the last time. The boy turned his attention to Tommy. “Hey, Tommy. I know you remember me. Don’t you? I mean, we just had 3rd period Health class together.”

Tommy laughed and replied, “Yeah, I haven’t forgotten you yet. Hey, Josh.”

Mattremembered too, very well. They were never introduced that day by name, but he definitely remembered the face. Fortunately, that face wasn’t having the same effect on him this time; Matthad enough problems already.

Tommy looked at Matt, confused as to why he wasn’t speaking, and then back to Josh. “This is my best friend, Matthew Jordan. Do you guys know each other?”

Josh had heard the name thrown around school a few times this morning, but he didn’t let his face reveal what he knew.

Finally Mattspoke up. “I do remember you, very well. Tommy, my dad took us to Josh’s church one Sunday a couple months ago. It was a very interesting service.”

Josh withdrew a bit at the mention of his dad. He had come into contact with many people in the community as a result of his dad’s church. The playful eye contact he had made with Matton that Sunday morning a couple of months earlier was something you didn’t want to forget. There had been an understanding between them, an unspoken acknowledgement of a shared trait. Josh had left quite an impression. He was blessed with natural features that were, in fact, very heavenly. Standing there on top of the church steps, he had been the most beautiful boy Matthad ever seen. The added decoration of a perfectly fitted black suit that set off his cropped jet-black hair didn’t hurt the packaging one bit. Matthad thought him an angel at first glance but decided later he was too much of a little devil for that description. Charisma had poured from Josh then, just as it did now. Josh also shared a similar frame with Matt, and his jeans and black sweater fit him very well in all the right places.

Mattwas curious. “Where did you transfer from?”

“Well, from home.” Josh lost a bit of his natural confidence, but the vulnerability only added to his natural appeal.

Matt, “I don’t understand that. What do you mean?”

“I’ve been home-schooled all my life. My mom has always taught me, and she’s a very good teacher. She’s not dumb and I’m not either.” Josh had answered this question a few times already today and the looks he got in response told him that other kids, and at least one teacher, did equate home-schooling with “dumb.”

“I don’t think you’re dumb. I just never heard of anyone being schooled at home. But then, I’m not from around here originally.”

“You’re from San Francisco, right?” Josh asked.

“Close by, Sausalitoto be exact. It’s just across the Golden GateBridge. But it’s a tiny town compared to San Francisco.”

“That’s one place we never lived. California, I mean. Closest we came to the West Coast was Colorado, that’s where we came here from. My dad led a church near Denverfor a little while. I’ve lived in Texas, Kentucky, and Floridafor just a little while. We’ve been here for over two years now.”

Tommy jumped in. “Wow, you’ve been to a lot of places. Which did you like the best?”

Josh’s face lit up. “Colorado. No doubt about it. I really loved it out there. We were so near the mountains and it snowed a lot too. One of our church members had a real ranch with horses and stuff. Man, that was so cool. They taught me how to ride a horse and we went trail riding up in the mountains later on, when I got really comfortable riding.”

Mattwatched Tommy’s face as Josh described Colorado. The natural adventurer in Tommy could barely contain himself and it was the bright spot of the day seeing his best friend so genuinely excited.

Tommy couldn’t wait to reply. “I’ve got horses! Matt’s been over riding with me a few times.”

“But I’m not a very good rider. I’ve seen Tommy kick his horse into gear a few times. He really knows how to ride. I just sit on top and hope I don’t get thrown off on my ass, but it’s still fun. You two should go riding together.”

Tommy and Josh smiled at each other with Matt’s description of kicking a “horse into gear.”

Mattwas still curious. “Josh, why aren’t you still home-schooling?”

Josh frowned and lost eye contact with either boy. “My dad got into some trouble and he’s gone…I don’t really know where. My mom finally told him she was through with him. He’s, uh, been in trouble before. But my mom likes it here. She told me we’re done moving and she got a job working in an office in town so she could support us now. That’s why I’m here. My teacher got a better paying job.” He finished with a reserved smile. It felt good for him to get it out there in the open.

“Shit. I’m sorry. I really wasn’t trying to be nosey. Well, I was, I guess. But I’m still sorry.” Mattfelt bad.

“Ah, don’t worry about it.” Josh knew that Matthad plenty of his own worries already. He figured that if he could hear Mattbeing called a “little cocksucker” behind his back, then Mattcould hear a little about his problems too.

Lunch period was almost over. Mattfelt it was only right to warn Josh about something.

“Listen, you don’t really want to be seen with me right now, maybe not ever. But definitely not right now. If you see me avoiding you, it’s nothing personal. I’m just trying to do you a favor. There’s a lot of shit being said about me around here. Some of it’s even true. You don’t want to start out here with that hanging around your neck. I just wanted you to know.”

Joshua had seen plenty of bullshitters in his short time; his dad had been one of them. It gave him a deeper appreciation for the people who weren’t.

“This is really great. My first day at school and I’ve already made two new friends. I never had that many at my old school.” Josh smiled as he spoke.

Mattgave him a bewildered look. “You didn’t understand what I was saying.”

“Yeah, I did. Again, I’m not dumb. I got it. Do you guys meet here everyday or do you try to have lunch in the real cafeteria sometimes?”

Tommy grinned. Mattjust shook his head. He still wasn’t convinced Josh wasn’t stupid. You’d have to be stupid, or crazy, to get mixed up in this.

“Well guys, I gotta find my next class. See you later, Matt. Same to you, Tom.”

“See you, Josh.” Tommy replied.

Mattjust continued to look at him, bringing a last grin to Josh’s face. “Don’t worry, Matt. I’m praying for you. I really am.”

Tommy turned to Matt. “He’s a cool guy, don’t you think?”

Mattreplied. “He’s different. But yeah, he’s pretty cool… Tom!” He exaggerated the ‘Tom.’

“Hey, I don’t mind being called Tom! It’s fine with me.” Tommy’s words drew a curious look from Mattas they exited the library.

Out of habit, Mattscanned the surrounding herd of teenagers, looking for the face that always seemed to ease him, but Chris wasn’t there anymore and everything looked different without him in the picture. Matthad a sinking feeling in his stomach, one that pulled heavily on his chest and eventually pulled a frown from his face as well. Again, his thoughts went out into the crisp blue skies and headed north into the Virginiahills.

The rest of the day passed without any new surprises and no major offenses. Everyone was commenting on Mattwith their faces and, thankfully, only a few were saying out loud what was going through their minds. “Faggot” seemed to be the preferred jab, almost always thrown at Matt’s back but still within earshot. Not everyone was hostile; most of the basketball team gave him the courtesy of plain old avoidance. Jeff Billups and Mike Rogers had given him polite nods, but nothing more. At least three separate boys had given Mattbrief smiles and then looked away just as quickly; boys Mattdidn’t know by name since they were generally loners and outside even his limited social circles. Sarah Boone, who once tried to get Mattto fix her up with Chris, gave him a look that suggested he had sucked every dick in the county.

None of those bothered Mattas much as the brief eye contact with Ty Wilson. The look in his eyes was familiar; it was the same smug, controlling look he had given Katie just before pushing her head down to service him – a look Mattshould have never seen the first time and definitely wished he hadn’t seen a second.

With the first long day back drawing to a close, Mattpondered how many more just like this lay ahead. Only the support of Tommy made it tolerable, but Mattfelt himself tightening even in his presence. He had become afraid to touch Tommy in public, even if just a pat on the shoulder or a clasp of the hands. Mattwas radioactive and it couldn’t be good for Tommy to be so close. More than worrying for himself, he worried for his best friend and what he was being exposed to. The school community had seen Tommy as merely a social loser – so far – allowing him to wander the grounds without being the brunt of “faggot” jokes and jabs. Mattknew what had to be done, even if Tommy wouldn’t like it in the short run.

Maybe things would have been different if Chris were here. At least, maybe the insults would have been more subtle. The confidence Mattalways felt in his presence had left him. As he approached the buses after the final bell, he realized the full discomfort of what was ahead. The bus was packed today and the sliding door grew less inviting with every step. A quick glance up at the windows introduced him to several sets of hostile eyes, all seemingly saying “don’t EVEN think about sitting here.” He stopped for a moment, wishing he had basketball practice today to save him from this trip.

“Do you want a ride home?” Jay Henson’s voice made him jump, but it didn’t take much to make him jump today.

Mattmade quick eye contact with him and then peered out into the parking lot at the waiting black truck. He looked back at the packed bus again. It was a no-brainer except for one unavoidable fact: Sooner or later, he would have to deal with these things. The sooner he got started, the sooner – maybe – things would return closer to normal. Besides, riding off with Jay would only produce a new wave of rumors the next day.

“I’d really like to, but I guess I better get used to what’s coming. Today has already been shit, so I’m already sort of prepared for it.” Matt’s words sounded tired.

“The offer is open if you ever need to take me up on it. You don’t need to ask, just meet me out at the truck. I guess you’ve heard from Chris?”

“Thanks for offering the ride. I’ve talked with Chris three times this past week. Melanie has a really small apartment and he doesn’t have his own room. He’s sleeping on the couch. And he can’t talk much because his mom is always around. Today was his first day at the new school.”

“Tell him I said I hope things settle down for him and that Maggy is doing fine. Well, I better get going.” Jay’s eyes dropped back to the ground as he marched his way straight through the masses, his presence creating a parting in the waves of kids ahead.

Matt’s first step onto the bus was greeted by a frown from the bus driver. He was in his late fifties and obviously didn’t approve of whatever it was he thought he knew. The stagger down the aisle brought no tripping feet or loud sneers, just lots of tension as everyone stared. Many of the kids in Matt’s neighborhood went to private schools or their mothers, who were housewives, picked them up after school. So, most of the kids on his bus lived along the route to the upscale development. One comment of “rich little queer” made Mattsnap back “I’m not rich, you little asshole!” But this only brought giggles in return, frustrating Matteven more. There were only a few open seats left, all of them requiring that he pair up with an unwilling host.

One half of an open seat near the rear was taken by a boy Matthad paid no attention to before – one of the school loners and a year older than Matt. The boy was so nondescript in appearance, Mattonly remembered him by the fact he had caught the boy staring at him as they approached each other on the walkway earlier in the day. Now, as Mattlooked down the aisle of the bus, the boy flashed Matta fleeting brush of the eyes. It wasn’t an open invitation to sit and chat like buddies but the look at least seemed to say “if you want to sit here, I won’t argue about it.” That was enough for Mattand he took the seat without incident and they sat quietly for the rest of the ride.

The boy’s stop came a few miles before Matt’s and he stumbled a bit as he made his way by, briefly grabbing Matt’s jacket to catch his balance. Finally, Mattwas home too. He stepped outside the bus and the frigid air engulfed him. Sticking his hands in his jacket pockets for warmth, he discovered a small hand-written note that read “I hope you know you’re not the only one. Hang in there.”

In the course of a day, Matthad become the poster boy for those who felt the need to hate anything different from what they were themselves. But he’d also become the unspoken champion of a very small group of nameless loners; disconnected boys who knew his feelings of isolation though they didn’t fully appreciate how the newfound popularity was affecting him. No matter, Mattstill had experienced something that any of these boys would trade places with him for in a second: Love.

Mattwalked in the front door of his house to a roaring round of applause from little Digger, whose face was peering inside through the low kitchen window. Matt’s first day at school had been the furry wonder’s first day home alone and he was long overdue for some quality boy-time. Mattwas finally free to smile for the first time all day and they soaked up each other’s affection. When Joanna arrived home two hours later, she smiled at the warm snoozing heap of boy and puppy curled up on the living room rug.

She sat down quietly in the recliner and watched the relaxed rhythm of Matt’s chest rising and falling in what appeared to be blissful sleep. More was occurring than met the eye and Matt’s inner-fears were at work under the surface, invading his subconscious as they often did.

A sudden convulsion of movement brought boy and dog onto all fours and startled yelps from the latter. Mattlooked around the room in a sleepy daze before catching the shape of his mother who was now sitting up on the edge of her seat with concern draped on her face.

“Are you OK, son?” She made her way down to the floor and kneeled beside him. Mattnodded a foggy and unconvincing “yes.”

“I thought your nightmares had stopped?”

“They did. This was just something random, I think. I don’t really remember.” But he did.

“How did everything go at school?” Joanna wasn’t easing off on the concern.

Mattsat up and tried to find his bearings. The dream had rattled him badly. “OK, I guess.”

“Talk to me, Matthew.” Joanna wiped back a bead of sweat from Matt’s brow.

“I just miss Chris really bad. I’ll be all right, mom.” Mattwilled the tears to stay behind his forbidding lids. He was determined to have cried his last cry as a fourteen year old. If he could only hold out one more night, he’d make it.

“I understand, honey. I’m sure he misses you just as much. I miss him too.”

“There was one surprise at school today.”

“Oh really? What was it?” Joanna held her breath for the answer.

“Remember the preacher’s son? From the church dad made us go to against our will?”

Joanna smiled in relief. “Yes, son. I don’t recall his name, but I remember the boy.”

“Well, he’s going to my school now. He used to be home-schooled but his mom took a job in town because she kicked his dad out.”

“Oh my. I’d like to say I’m surprised but I’m not, really. I didn’t much like that man.”

“I didn’t like what he said, but he didn’t seem like a bad guy otherwise. Joshua Taylor is the son’s name. Josh said that his dad kept getting into ‘trouble.’ Does that mean what I think it means? Like woman trouble?” Mattraised his brow and looked at his mom with curiosity.

“If his mom kicked his dad out, it probably does mean something like that. He did have an overabundance of charm. Maybe he just couldn’t keep it all focused in the right direction. Is Josh a nice boy?”

Mattreflected on the definition of “nice.” “He seems to be cool. I think he hit it off really well with Tommy. They both like horses and nature stuff. I like that stuff too, but just not as much as Tommy does.”

“I’m sure both you and Tommy could use another friend. And it sounds like Josh could use a few friends himself.”

“He wasn’t very shy for a kid who stays home all the time. Plus they’ve moved all over the country with his dad working at different churches and all.” Matthad found this to be the second most curious thing about Josh, second only to his willingness to stand in harm’s way.

“Matt, he’s probably been exposed to a lot of people. I would imagine a pastor’s family interacts with their church family quite a lot. And if he’s moved around, he’s had to get used to new people. He’s had more experience adjusting to change than most kids your age.”

“I wish I didn’t have any experience at it. Mom, sometimes I wish we had stayed in California. Maybe everybody would have been better off. You and dad came out here so I could be happier and look…” Now, he was revealing more than he intended.

“We don’t know what would have happened if we’d stayed. But Matthew, when you think about Chris and Tommy, do you really think THEY wish you’d stayed in California? I know they don’t, Matt. I’ve been around long enough to know and, I promise you, they wouldn’t send you back. I still think we did the right thing but I know it’s been tough on you lately. I’m proud of you, really proud. You’ve grown up so much since we came here. You’re not going to be my little boy much longer. You’ll be fifteen tomorrow and I still can’t believe it.” Motherly pride and love radiated from Joanna’s face. A case of Empty Nest Syndrome was already starting to build its way into her bones even though college was still well over three years away.

Matt wasn’t ready to surrender the title of “little boy” just yet. “I’ve still got plenty of growing up to do. And don’t you and dad get any crazy ideas about making a little brother to replace me.”

Joanna burst into laughter. “Don’t worry. Digger is the closest thing you’re going to get to a little brother in this house.”

Matt turned serious again. “I hope Chris calls soon. I really want to find out how his day went.” And he really just wanted to hear his voice. Joanna gave him an encouraging smile.

“You have basketball practice tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah, until 5:30”

“OK, well, shower at school. Your dad is coming home early and we’re going out together for dinner. We’ll pick you up and go straight into town.”

“Where are we going?”

“Oh, we’ll go out and eat fresh pizza in a restaurant for a change. I know you don’t want to do anything fancy. We’ll keep it very casual.”

“OK, that sounds fine.” Again, he thought of Chris and how he’d looked forward to these special moments together. Matt thought back to the old photos he’d seen on his first trip to the Briggs’ house. He thought back to all the times they had missed apart.

For as many of his previous fourteen birthdays as he could remember, Matt had a cake and just a small gathering with his mom and dad. A few times, his grandma and an occasional cousin from his mom’s side would be present. But there was never anything you’d call a party and he never experienced it with a best friend or a boyfriend. Matt thought of inviting Tommy, but decided it might be better to just go it alone with his folks. If they went somewhere local, there would be someone there to stare at them. But it would be great to have Tommy with him.

“Mom, can we go into Charlotte. I mean, I don’t really like any of the local pizza places that much. I’m tired of them.”

“It’s your birthday, we’ll go wherever you want to go.” But Joanna knew how much Matt loved Pappy’s Pizza. It was a small local joint and Matt hadn’t had pizza from there in several weeks.

“Is it OK if I invite Tommy?” This seemed like a safe plan.

“We’re already picking him up before we come and get you.” Joanna smiled.

“Thanks, mom. You don’t miss much do you?”

“Even less than you realize.” She patted him on the head as she stood up and walked to the kitchen.

Chris called after dinner.

“Hey! How was the first day at the new school?” Matt asked.

“It was OK. It’s a really big city school. At least four times as big as our school was, so it was easy to blend in. How was the first day back?” Matt paused for a second, unsure where to start. “Matt? What happened?”

“I got looked at funny a lot today but it wasn’t so bad.”

“Who looked at you funny?”

“Everybody except Tommy and Josh.”

Chris sighed. “Did anybody give you a hard time? And who is Josh?”

“Oh yeah, Joshua Taylor, he’s the new kid here. He just started today after being home-schooled before.” Matt replied.

“Oh, OK. That name sounds familiar.”

“His father was the preacher at the church my dad made us go to that one time. He seems pretty cool. Tommy thought so, at least.” Matt thought so too.

“You didn’t answer my other question.” Chris reminded.

“Nobody hassled me, really. It was just a long weird day. I heard some stuff but I’m OK.” Matt wished he hadn’t mentioned it.

“Like what kind of stuff?” Chris insisted.

“Faggot and somebody on the bus called me a rich little queer. But I’m all right, really. I can handle it.” Matt didn’t want Chris worrying about him. There was nothing he could do anyway.

“Man, I knew that shit was going to happen! Who said it?”

“Chris, just let it go. I’m not worried about it, OK?”

“I wish I was there to face it with you. I feel like I’ve gone into the witness protection program or something. No one here knows anything about me.”

“Don’t feel guilty about it, Chris. It’s a fresh start. Believe me, I know what it feels like. But I hope yours works out as well as mine. I mean, I don’t want you to meet anyone like I did. Like you. Shit, you know what I’m trying to say, don’t you?”

“Matt, don’t worry about me meeting anyone to replace you. I don’t even want any friends right now, not that I could make any if I did want to. It’s really different here. This school is so big and I just can’t get used to living in the city. I don’t like it. I still can’t believe I’m here. It’s like a nightmare I can’t wake up from.”

“I know. I really missed you today. I looked for you a couple of times, just out of habit I guess.” Matt’s voice trailed off.

The conversation paused as both boys grew quiet.

Chris broke the silence. “My mom is walking around the apartment. It seems like the only time she can get on her feet is when I’m on the freaking phone. I’m gonna let you go.”

“All right. I love you, Chris.”

“I love you, too. And I can’t tell you how bad I miss you already. This just sucks, Matt.”

“I know, Chris. I know.”

“And Matt, one more thing. Happy Birthday tomorrow. I’ll be thinking about you and I’ll call you tomorrow night for sure.”

“Man, you remembered!” Matt was pleased.

“Of course I remembered.” Chris was serious.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be surprised. I just figured you had so much on your mind.”

“Matt, you’re on my mind. You’re the only thing that’s keeping me going right now. The few minutes we get to talk are what I look forward to.”

“Chris, if you were here right now…”

“What? You can tell me.”

“I better not. Some poor old operator might be listening in. I wouldn’t want to get her all hot and bothered.” Matt smiled into the receiver.

“Shit! My mom keeps looking at me like she wants to chew me out. I’ll call you tomorrow night.” Chris cast a glare in her direction.

“We’re going out for pizza. I’ll probably be home by 9:00”

“OK, I’ll catch you later then.”

“Later.” Matt repeated.

No goodbyes.

Matthew Jordan’s fifteenth birthday brought him still more unwanted attention. Everywhere he went, eyes followed. Some of the jabs had gotten more vocal, especially the ones from the juniors and seniors, though the scattering of basketball teammates among the freshmen and sophomores seemed to help lessen the insults from the lower classes.

He had been very quiet in homeroom, leaving Tommy mostly alone and causing him some discomfort in the process. With lunch now at hand, Matt looked on at the gathering in the cafeteria. Tommy was already seated and Matt saw that Josh was sitting with him. Perfect. Tommy wasn’t alone and there was no reason to bring them any extra attention. Eating wasn’t very high on the priority list for Matt right now and he decided to stay away from the common area around the courtyard. There was a place that came to mind; a place that brought back memories, so he decided to pay it a visit.

The baseball field dugout area was several hundred yards from the main gym complex and faced in the other direction. On an earlier day, he and Chris had found privacy here for their first serious talk. The wood bench felt frozen compared to that first visit in late summer. This would make an easy place to get away to for thirty minutes each day and was much preferred to the free-for-all in the cafeteria. Tommy wouldn’t like it, but Matt was determined to shield him as much as he could. Being seen in his company just wasn’t a good thing right now, maybe not ever again. This seemed as safe a refuge as he would find; safe from the disapproving hordes, and safe for those he felt the need to protect from his presence. At least, it seemed safe.

“Who are you hiding from?”

Matt nearly jumped out of his shoes before fumbling is reply. “I’m… not hiding from anyone.”

Ty Wilson coolly looked him over. “OK, whatever.” Matt broke eye contact with him and made a step to leave the dugout. Ty grabbed him by the arm. “Wait a minute, where you going?”

“Let me go!” Matt was definitely showing fear this time.

“No, I don’t think I will just yet.” Matt tried to pull away and the older, stronger boy responded by pushing him against the dugout wall, placing his forearm firmly against Matt’s chest to hold him in place. The rough treatment and close proximity to Ty brought a full panic by Matt. He felt cornered and for good reason.

Ty kept a cool demeanor and kept his eyes focused on Matt’s, only adding to the intimidation. “You see, I’ve got a little score to settle with you. You cost me something that I valued. Something I had put a lot of time and effort into. You know what I’m talking about.” He wasn’t asking.

“Let go of me. I don’t have any fucking idea what you’re talking about.” Matt pushed back hard against the arm in his chest, but Ty just pushed back with force he couldn’t equal, penning him harder against the wall.

“Yeah, you do. You little spy! Katie told me what you saw. She didn’t want to tell me but I didn’t take no for an answer. She actually thought she was just going to break off our arrangement without telling me why.” Ty shook his head from side to side in mock disbelief.

“I wasn’t spying! I didn’t mean to see the two of you.”

“Yeah, I bet. You probably stood there and watched too. It wouldn’t surprise me if you pulled out your little queer dick and played with yourself while you did it. Did you do that too?”

“NO! I was just there to talk to Katie. I had no idea what the two of you were up to. Listen, I’m sorry I saw what I did. But I wasn’t spying on anybody!”

“It doesn’t really matter anymore. You still cost me something. I spent all that time getting her trained just right and you fucked it up for me. But maybe we can work something out.” Ty flashed his signature controlling smile.

Matt made a last wild push to get free causing Ty to slide a forearm up just under Matt’s neck and making it difficult for him to breathe. “Just let me go.” Matt coughed out the futile request.

“You better calm down before I have to hurt you. OK?” Ever calm, he waited for Matt to weakly nod before easing the pressure on his neck. “The way I figure it, you’ve probably already had lots of experience and I bet you’re pretty good at it too.” He brushed his thumb over Matt’s lips.

“What? Do you think I’m some fucking whore?” Matt lunged again and Ty penned him again.

“No, I don’t think you’re a whore. I just think you like dick. And I’m not prejudiced. You can get what you want and I get what I want. It’s a fair trade and I think it’s what you owe me. Nobody will know. I sure won’t tell anyone and you better not either. Not ever!” Ty brushed his thumb harder over Matt’s lips, this time forcing his thumb inside Matt’s mouth, much to Matt’s protest. “You know it’s what you want. Why don’t you drop down and give me a sample?”

Matt heard the familiar sound of a zipper opening and he clamped down hard on Ty’s thumb with his teeth, causing Ty to jerk back in response while trying to save his thumb. Catching the larger boy off balance, Matt pushed him hard and won his freedom. He spun quickly out of Ty’s reach and bounced off the dugout fence, catching his jacket in one of the metal loops and ripping off a pocket in the process. He then ran to the gym and looked behind before entering the building. Ty wasn’t stupid enough to risk being seen chasing him. Matt pulled off the damaged jacket and jogged through the gym area and out to the other side where the classrooms began, practically running over Tommy and Josh, who had been looking for him.

“Matt, what’s wrong?” Tommy saw the fear on Matt’s face.

“I’ll talk to you later.” Matt could barely speak and he kept walking to nowhere in particular.

As Matt kept moving, he could only think of Chris’s words: “Show No Fear.” As the weeks passed, he repeated the words over and over again and may have even convinced his face to play the part, but the fear in his heart was too real to hide. Silently issuing its own call of distress, Matt’s heart only knew one word: “Chris!”