Nick Clements woke that morning eager to start his junior year at a new school, in a new town, with a brand new start. His family had severed all ties to their old home near Styxwater, Minnesota and relocated over 50 miles away to Tranquility; a small upscale town in the northern most suburbs of Minneapolis nestled on the shore of Lake Tranquility.
It had cost them a lot; not just the financial burden of a house in this neighborhood, but his dad’s business and his mom’s job as well. They’d moved away from family and friends, left their church and community, basically given up everything for him, but the burden of their expectations weighed on him lightly today. He was too excited to think about anything except presenting to the world a brand new Nick.
He’d bought stylin’ new clothes with the help of a poured over FUBU catalog, an understanding clerk in the Mall Of America Macy’s and his father’s now over extended credit card. Shoes, socks, underwear, everything he’d ever worn in Styxwater was systematically replaced and then burned in a symbolic fire suggested by his mother.
It helped, he thought, it definitely helped to watch the old things burn. He ran his fingers through his hair one more time. I’m a phoenix rising from the ashes, and this time everything will be different.
After hours of staring at himself in a mirror and comparing his image to the magazine model, Nicholas knew he was looking good. He tossed his carefully arranged hair and adjusted the new backpack slung over one shoulder as he strolled up the sidewalk to the high school. The books he’d read over the summer told him confidence was what he wanted to project to draw new friends. He kept his head held high and his back straight as a board as he turned up the walkway. He was ready to look anyone in the eye.
September weather teased his senses. Hope was in every bright leaf turning on the top of the maple trees and opportunity scented the brisk air. Boys and girls bordering on the brink of adulthood, most dressed just as carefully as he, walked or stood talking all around him. They greeted each other as if they hadn’t met in years rather than the ten weeks of summer vacation.
That’ll be me next fall. By senior year I’ll have friends of my own to greet.
It wouldn’t be like last year, or the years before. This was a new school, a new start, and best of all, no Julian Cain. The bully was 50 miles away in their old working class neighborhood, along with the other low class jerks that’d made his life sheer hell. Here in Tranquility he was now part of a country club community that boasted three golf courses. Not that his family could afford to join one, but he was rubbing elbows with the right sort of people, his mother said, and that was what mattered.
Nicholas, studiously casual, approached the three-story building that would be his school for the next two years. It was from the last century, bricks and mortar with trees and shrubs far older than he was. All it lacked was ivy climbing the wall to match his mental picture of a brand new start.
So far, so good.
He joined the line of students waiting before huge double doors. Only one was open, and students entered single file, removing bags from shoulders. They disappeared out of view as they crossed the threshold. The line advanced slowly, but steadily.
“A whole summer without bullshit and now this,” said a boy standing in front of him.
“Yeah, I almost managed to forget about this. What a pain in the ass,” answered another in front of the first.
“What are we waiting for?” Nicholas asked the closest, a tall boy wearing a Vikings jersey.
“The weapons check, uh duh. You new here, or what?”
“Yeah,” Nicholas said casually, trying to look as disinterested as Vikings Boy. “Just moved last week. Name’s Nick.”
Vikings boy stared at Nick as if he’d never seen a new kid before. “Uh, okay then,” he muttered before turning back to his friend. Nick heard him snicker and nearly slumped.
You knew being a new kid wasn’t going to be easy. It’s not the same. His chin came up, his shoulders straightened, and he carefully looked neither right nor left as he moved up the line.
Passing through the open door he copied the students before him, removing his hoodie and backpack, and placing them in a small plastic bin. He passed through a gate that buzzed loudly. Everyone still in line groaned, as the guard motioned Nick forward and started waving a wand over and around him.
“Boots,” announced the guard in an unnecessarily loud voice. “Ya got steel toed boots, boy?” He and Nick both looked down at his brand new, barely scuffed Red Wing heritage boots. “Take ‘em off, and try again.” So Nick removed his brand new shoes, aware that a million waiting eyes watched his every move.
“That’s so gay,” he heard someone mutter. His back stiffened.
He handed his boots to the guard who sniffed disdainfully, sealing their fate to the fire, or at least weekends. Nick went through the gateway again, chin still up. The alarm went off again.
“Now what?” asked the irritated guard. He ran the wand over Nick again. “What’s that around your neck?” he asked. “What kind of necklace do you have on?”
“Necklace?” he heard a girl say somewhere behind him. He was in full on blush mode when he took off the steel cross and chain he wore inside his shirt and handed it over. Nick had been counting on that cross, and it let him down. This time as he passed through, the gateway stayed silent and a small cheer sounded behind him.
He stood to the side, putting the cross back on then retying the boots. “Find some other shoes and leave the necklace at home, okay kid?” said the guard, already turning to the next student.
“Jerk,” someone hissed as they passed along beside him. Nick felt a streak of familiar paranoia race up his spine.
No. This is where it ends, right here and right now. I am not a jerk. I am a good person who deserves to be treated well.
Armed with those thoughts and remembering to stand tall, off Nick went to his first day at Tranquility High School. This had been a small glitch in what was otherwise going to be a perfect day. He wouldn’t let it bother him.
Lewis Kincaid heard the first bell, downed the best part of a steaming mug of coffee, grabbed his briefcase, and lit off down the hallway. It wouldn’t do to start the school year late to class. It would set a bad example. He bustled his somewhat portly self down the hall.
Reaching room 222, he swung through the door just as the last bell sounded, treating his new homeroom class to a big sigh of relief. “Welcome, one and all,” he announced as he threw his briefcase down and perched on the corner of his bare desk. “I’m Mr. Kincaid, and I’ll be your homeroom, and also your world history teacher. Together we’re going to discover what happened in this world before you were born and what you’d like to see happen when you are in charge.”
He paused and grinned at the fresh faces, liberally dotted with acne, staring back at him. As in every year, there was the usual mix of excitement and boredom, nervous eagerness, and squeamish timidity. Everyone goes to high school and sooner or later they come through my classroom, Lewis thought.
“Your junior year marks the beginning of the end of childhood. This year and next are our last opportunities to turn you into productive, healthy, thinking adults ready to take on college or jobs. This year, more than any year before, you’ll be asked to take on more responsibility as a first step to attaining adulthood.”
Lewis looked around at his new group of kids and smiled. “With all that being said, I hope we’ll enjoy each other’s company throughout the year, and maybe learn a little from each other as well.” He cleared his throat meaningfully at one boy whose foot was lolling across the aisle. The kid straightened up slightly, and pulled his lanky leg back under his desk. Lewis grinned at him, and nodded.
“This, as you all know, is homeroom, where we meet for ten minutes at the beginning of each day. This is where you get the school news and I take the official roll call, so let’s get started, shall we?”
As he called the roll it became clear he had two more bodies than names on his list. The two new kids both watched him warily.
One was a lusciously plump girl whose figure reminded him of Marilyn Monroe and whose pretty face was scarlet with embarrassment. She kept her long blond hair tucked neatly behind her ears, but sucked nervously on one strand while self consciously tugging at her sweater.
The other new one was a slender boy, still beardless and uncomfortable in his changing body. His thick chestnut brown hair had been carefully arranged and he sat painfully erect, wearing designer clothes whose sale tags must have just been removed. A brand spanking new backpack sat on the desk in front of him. Lewis called it a draw as to who looked more uncomfortable.
“And who are you?” he asked the girl gently.
“Angela O’Shea,” she whispered. She glanced around nervously while the curtains of her hair escaped to hide her blushing face.
“What a pretty name,” said Mr. Kincaid. “Where did you go to school before coming to Tranquility High?”
“Minneapolis,” whispered the girl, refusing to meet his eye, unwilling to be more specific. Something told Lewis it was time to leave her alone.
“Margaret Henderson, will you help Angela get to her next class on time please?” He acknowledged Margaret’s nod, smiling inwardly as her too youthful braids flopped over her shoulders and heavy glasses were pushed up her nose. Lewis focused on the other new student. He spoke in a stronger tone, to encourage him. “And who are you?”
“Nick Clements, sir,” answered the boy promptly, so tightly strung his changing voice squeaked.
Young Nick Clements shot a horrified look at Lewis. Stan Smith, a big boy wearing a Vikings jersey, sniggered.
At the disdainful sound, his old teacher’s back straightened imperceptibly. “Nice to meet you, Nick,” he said, smoothly. Nick grimaced with gratitude, and easily answered his questions about Styxwater. The boy was lying, he saw, but let it go.
There’s always a reason, he mused as the passing bell rang.
“Five minutes until your next class, students,” he reminded them among the sounds of rising movement. “Penny Papadopoulos, will you show Nick to his first class?”
A small pert girl with flashing black eyes grinned at him, then Nick, and back again. Lewis smiled at the young woman whose mother had once also been his student, long years before.
A generation ago, a whole lifetime ago.
“Sure Mr. Kincaid, we’ll find them together,” Penny assured him as she stood waiting for Nick to gather his backpack and rise to stand beside her. “See you in fourth period,” she called over her shoulder as she led Nick out the door. Lewis smiled as they passed and turned to his neglected coffee.
Standing in the hallway, they compared class lists. Although Nick was in math during first period, and Penny was in English, the room numbers were only three apart: 306 and 309. Together they headed for the stairs. He looked at her shyly out of the side of his eye, and found her doing the same to him. They both laughed and he knew he liked her already.
Jostling kids going up and down the echoing staircase made conversation difficult with so many different voices speaking at once. “Did you see the new boy yet?” he heard Angela O’Shea ask someone while walking ahead of them.
“What a good looking stud he is, huh?” answered Margaret, tossing her braids and pushing up her glasses. The two girls were a few steps above him, completely unaware he was following. Nick blushed deeply, having never received a compliment like that in his life; he owed it all to the clothes. He ran a hand through his hair, tousling it a little.
Nick was trying to think of something to say to Penny when she beat him to it. “Want to have lunch together? All juniors have fifth period lunch. We both have fourth period world history with Mr. K. again, so we could walk to the cafeteria together from there.”
“Sure!” said Nick, grateful and pleased. He smiled and relaxed slightly. Things were going better than he’d hoped. Three girls were all paying attention to him before he’d even gotten to first period; it was a new world and a new day. A real smile claimed his face, his first in months.
I can do this. I can make friends and fit in. Maybe even have a girlfriend.
He and Penny started down the hall checking room numbers until she found 306. The two stood together talking before she went in.
“What other classes do we have in common?” Nick was asking, looking down at his class list when he was suddenly pushed from behind, throwing him upon a very startled Penny. She shoved him back, away from her.
Time slowed down to a crawl. Nick watched Penny’s dark hair swing as she moved to the side, her eyes growing wide at what she saw behind him. Moving as if underwater, he turned to see who had pushed him. He came face to face with Julian Cain whose arm was pulled back, fist closed, grinning horribly and prepared to punch his lights out.
Impossible! He had left Julian and all his barbaric pals behind in Styxwater. This wasn’t happening. He must be hallucinating. It just could not happen!
But it did. Julian’s fist connected with Nick’s gut, knocking all the air out of him in a rush and leaving him gasping for breath. Julian laughed and sent a swiping kick to Nick’s knee, knocking him to the ground. “What the hell do you think you’re doing here, faggot?” he shouted as students gathered quickly, gesturing at Nick clutching his knee on the floor. “He’s a God damned cocksucker.”
This isn’t happening to me. He couldn’t have found me, why would he want to? This must be a nightmare, it just can’t be real. I’ll wake up any minute.
Nick tasted vomit rising. He felt faint and worried he’d just wet himself. He wished a big hole would open in the floor and swallow him up, but he knew from past experience it wouldn’t. He rose quickly to his good knee, watching for another kick.
Brent Howard heard a familiar voice right behind him shout “faggot” and “cocksucker”. He cringed, afraid to turn around.
It’s finally happened, someone’s figured it out.
It was his deepest, darkest fear coming true. Every muscle in his body locked rigidly in place and his thoughts slowed to a crawl. Only his breathing sped up.
As the laughter began he stared at the locker in front of him, paralyzed. Sweat beaded his brow while he listened to jeers growing louder and louder. He wanted to cover his ears to block out the sound, but he didn’t dare. The laughter grew even stronger, and now he felt the jostling of other students as they jockeyed to get a glimpse of the faggot cocksucker.
They aren’t looking at me. No one’s staring at me. They’re looking at someone else, laughing at someone else. A half second later his frozen muscles melted and he finally turned around. Relief flooded him as he saw over the heads and shoulders of the gathering crowd a skinny little guy, the ‘faggot cocksucker’, rising from the floor, brushing at new jeans.
He didn’t recognize him, but Brent knew his attacker; it was his younger cousin, Julian, who had moved in with his family to play hockey at Tranquility High. He’d been sharing Brent’s bedroom all summer, getting in early practices with Coach Morgensen’s yearly hockey camp. One day Julian was going to play for the U of M, and later with the Wild. It was all but a done deal.
Brent laughed uproariously along with everyone else at the homo his cousin had chosen to pick on. Look at him kneeling there, his face all red and trying desperately not to cry, the little wimp. Stupid pervert had it coming, they all did, those damned queers.
He wasn’t one of them. He wasn’t gay. Brent felt his heartbeat slow and his breathing ease. He had to get control of himself; there was nothing for anyone to find out because he simply was not, once and for all, never had been and never would be, gay. He might think about good looking guys once in awhile and imagine what it might be like, but he’d certainly never done it. Thinking about doing something isn’t the same as actually doing it, right?
What a relief. What a close call.
Still on one knee, Nick’s vision swam as he gulped in air. This is not happening. I’m in a new town, a new school, on my way to my first class. Julian Cain cannot be here. He glanced over his shoulder at Penny and saw her shocked face staring back at him. He stood up and found his own fists clenched, never a good sign.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded of Julian. “You’re not supposed to be here!”
“Oh and why’s that?” Julian Cain sneered at Nick. “Did you think this was a school just for fags and dykes? Who is that girl you’re talking to, anyway? Couldn’t be your girlfriend, ‘cause you only go for guys.”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” screamed Nick quickly losing control, his fists clenching in rhythm with his shouts. Then without warning, he launched himself at the bully.
Julian grinned triumphantly and held him at arm’s length as Nick started flailing in rage, his reach two inches shorter. “What’s the matter, queer boy? Thought you could hide the truth here, start over with your secret still intact? Not going to happen, fag. You’re a perv and these good people deserve to know about you.”
“You can’t be here. This isn’t happening. Go back to Styxwater, go home.” Tears washed down his cheeks. “You won, God damn it!” shouted Nick. “Leave me alone!” His fists struck only air, or glancing blows on the arm holding him at bay.
“Fuck you,” answered Julian. “Tranquility has a ranked hockey team, and they want me to play. I need a scholarship to U of M so here I am and there’s nothing you can do about it, fag.” He laughed as Nick’s swinging fists missed time after time. “You should have known you’ll never get away from me.”
Who is he? Brent wondered briefly, watching the scene. Some new kid was all he cared: a fairy to play with this year, a target to aim for, and a convenient way of deflecting all suspicion from him. What a nice present to start off my senior year.
He shot a supportive grin in the direction of Julian baiting the queer, needling him. His cousin was big, an athlete, and had already made a lot of friends this summer, something he did easily, a trait Brent envied. He would have high-fived Julian if there weren’t a dozen or so kids between them.
Instead, he saw trouble coming down the corridor and called out, “Heads up, teacher coming.” Then he split. Others did too.
Move along people, nothing left to see. Next show to be announced.
After hearing his cousin, Brent’s, warning, Julian let go of Nick and allowed him to throw his rabbit punches. “Oh! Ow!” he cried, flinching as if the blows actually hurt and raising his arms defensively.
Nick knew the bully was faking, but couldn’t stop himself. He had to hit Julian; it was an overwhelming compulsion. This was his worst nightmare and as if in a dream, he battered and punched at his enemy, growing steadily more furious as he realized how little damage he was actually inflicting. He felt weak, impotent, and worthless but he kept hitting as hard as he could. In the background, over the sound of students laughing as they drifted away, he heard the last passing bell ring.
“What’s going on here?” A large woman wearing a black and orange school sweat suit with a whistle around her neck pushed her way through the quickly dissipating crowd of teenagers until she found Nick pounding away on Julian. “Stop that right now, young man.” Nick continued to hysterically hit the bigger boy, tears streaming unheeded down his cheeks. The teacher reached out and grabbed one of his arms, effectively blocking him. “I said stop it!”
When he sighed and slumped, she turned him away from Julian, now one of only a few students still lingering, and marched Nick down the hall. “You’re late, all of you. And you,” she barked at Julian, “if you don’t need to see the nurse, get to class.”
“Yes, Coach Davis,” Julian answered. Nick could tell by the sound of his voice he was smirking.
“If you need a late pass, I’ll be in Mr. Schmidt’s office. We’ll just see what he has to say about this!” The coach shook her head. “What a way to start the year.”
Nick just had time to see Penny slip inside room 306, into the world of English literature and away from the world of faggot cocksuckers who get beat up. She, and everyone else, lived in a world so different from his, as if through a looking glass, or somewhere over the rainbow, in a place safe from bullies like Julian Cain. He sighed, and felt his shoulders slump. This time even his chin dipped.
But I don’t. I live in a personal hell named Tranquility and there’s no escape.
His office gleamed in the early morning light shining through streak free windows. Every surface, award, trophy and photo were spotlessly clean, just as they were on the first day of every year. The scent of lemon Pledge teased his nose as he held the door open. Everything in its place and ready to go, thought Kirk.
A new student, Nicholas Clements, sat between his parents, eyes glowering exactly as he expected from a violent miscreant. As the principal of Tranquility High he’d seen it all before. What remained now was establishing a relationship with parents who would clearly be visiting his office all year, and most likely all next year too. It was imperative to start off on the right foot.
The Clements family settled across from him, wife wearing a yellow Big Box Store jacket and a business skirt most likely purchased where she worked, husband wearing a worn white lab coat with ‘Clements Optometry, Styxwater’ embroidered in red thread over off the rack slacks probably bought the same place. Both parents were already defensive and furious. She was clearly fuming and he looked like a thunderstorm about to break.
Well, they’re obviously bullies themselves, it always runs in families. He’d seen them drive up in their car, not a bad brand but three years out of style, most likely bought used. It happened all the time, people without the means moving into houses they couldn’t afford followed by the inevitable bankruptcy or eviction. They won’t be a problem for long.
Kirk mentally adjusted his principal hat as he sat at his desk and folded his hands on the report of the incident. He looked up at the Clements to begin speaking, but was summarily cut off.
“Why is our son the only boy in trouble?” Paula Clements glared across the empty expanse of desk at him. “This is not the first time this bully has assaulted our son.” Her eyes met those of her husband, who sat rigidly still as if restraining himself. “I still can’t believe he’s here at all.”
Mr. Clements turned from his wife, his reined in fury glaring from both steel blue eyes which he now trained on the principal. Kirk was beginning to feel distinctly uncomfortable.
“As a matter of fact,” the mother continued, “Julian Cain is one of the main reasons why we completely disrupted all our lives to move here.” A quality of shrillness entered her voice, a sound Kirk disliked immediately. He listened, trying to look sympathetic as she explained she’d given up eighteen years of seniority at the Styxwater Big Box, and taken a pay cut when they relocated. Her husband had sold a thriving practice as an optometrist to start again in Tranquility, which already had two and really didn’t need a third. They’d sold their house at a loss, but were determined to provide the best education for their son. Kirk nodded at regular intervals as the distraught woman droned on, and on.
Good God, woman, give it a rest. You made sacrifices, I get it.
The kid sitting between these two intense people slumped low in his seat, looking neither left nor right, just down. The little troublemaker sported the latest hair style, and brand new, high label clothes in direct contrast to those of his parents. And he looked settled in for a long, long session.
Well, that’s not going to happen. Kirk had appointments to keep and people to see; the congresswoman who would host his Principals for Principles pancake breakfast for Christian educators tomorrow morning, for instance. It wouldn’t do to keep her waiting. I am a very busy man, after all. I don’t have all day to waste on ruffians and their low class parents.
The small, neatly kept principal cleared his throat, straightened his tie, and folded his hands together again on his desk. “Let me just say,” he said, and stopped to let the parents take in his dignity and professional civility. The wife quieted immediately.
“Let me just say,” he repeated to emphasize his control over this meeting, “the teacher who broke up the fight reports that only one boy, your son…” he raised his hands and glanced at a paper under them before refolding them back on the desk, “… Nicholas was doing the hitting. He was the sole aggressor.” Principal Schmidt smiled sadly at the parents, as he always did when reporting behavior so deplorable.
“The other boy,” now he did not need to refer to the papers, “Julian Cain, had his hands raised defensively, blocking the punches your son was throwing. The reporting teacher did not see Julian hit, push, or in any other way harm your son.”
Kirk Schmidt had stayed in touch with Coach Morgensen all summer, tracking the efforts to convince Julian Cain’s parents to transfer him to Tranquility High. Coach had seen him play several times, and assured him that with Julian on the team they were likely to take the state championship in hockey this year, even though they’d lost two very good seniors through graduation. Julian would make the building year a winning year, or so Morgensen maintained. There was no way Kirk was going to let a miracle hockey star, or the parents who’d needed so much coaxing, get mixed up in this mess.
I’ll handle it myself, just like I always do. He sighed.
“Julian Cain not only punched my son in the stomach, he called Nick foul, vile names.” Mark Clements spoke for the first time, his voice strained through clenched jaws. He was only medium height, but powerfully built, and he focused those cold blue eyes of his on the principal once more. “He accuses my son of being a…,” his strong voice halted for a split second, then hardened again, “of being a homosexual.” Mark Clements may have been wearing off the rack clothes, but he matched Kirk dignity for dignity, civility for civility, an attitude that nonplussed the little principal. “What about that Mr. Schmidt? What are you going to do about that?”
Now Kirk smiled, back on firm ground. “Well, in that case, everything changes,” he said.
The miscreant, the reason they were all in his office on the morning of the very first day of the new school year, raised his head to stare at Kirk with something close to hope. A little thrill went up and down his spine. He loved moments like these. He put on his best principal face.
“Did he accuse you of being a,” Kirk coughed delicately, “homosexual?” He looked the boy in the eye and asked, “Did he, uh…” a pause while he referred to the report again, “…Nicholas?”
As if someone threw a switch, three pairs of eyes swung to the kid all at once. Six high intensity spotlights searched his face for the truth. His mother’s eyes held support and encouragement. His father’s eyes held a command to be strong. And Kirk knew his own eyes held what, anticipation, expectation? The kid remained silent.
The silence drew on for agonizing seconds before his father barked, “Tell him, Nick.” It was a command that could not be disobeyed and despite himself Kirk was impressed, thinking of future dealings with errant students. “Sit up straight. Tell him what that bully calls you,” insisted Mark Clements.
The miserable little homosexual, who Kirk was now frankly starting to feel sorry for, sank even lower in his chair and said in a whisper that could barely be heard, “Faggot, and cocksucker, and queer, things like that.” The boy couldn’t look up. He couldn’t meet the eyes of his mother, or his father, or Kirk himself, the Master of the Universe who would seal his fate.
“You see!” announced Mark Clements triumphantly, oblivious to his son’s squirming. “You see what he calls my boy? This hockey star, this athletic phenom, is nothing more than a thug and a bully. Now what are you going to do about it?” The maddened father once more turned his intense scrutiny on the principal.
“I?” questioned Kirk patiently, calmly. “I can do nothing about it Mr. Clements. The Tranquility School District board has instituted a policy that all school staff must remain neutral on topics of sexual orientation.” He offered a tight lipped smile to the parents. “Nathan’s sex questions must be answered at home, by you, his parents.”
“Nicholas,” snapped Paula Clements, her shrill voice rising, “his name is Nicholas. Nick,” she corrected, throwing an apologetic glance at her son, a huddled mass of miserable dejection. “But what about Julian?” The fiercely protective mother turned her attention on Kirk who was suddenly glad he was sitting with a very large desk between them. “How will the school keep him from bullying Nick?”
“My dear Mrs. Clements,” he said in his best official’s voice, “except for your story and the story of your son, there are no accusations of bullying against Julian Cain. Since your stories cannot be corroborated by any Tranquility High staff, there will be no action taken against him.”
He shuffled the pages of the report until he found the one on the bottom. “Nicholas, however, will be suspended for two days. He will report back to school on Friday, and not until then.”
He did not add, and didn’t need to: You are dismissed.
Nick found his legs and rose first. He led his parents out. It’s official now, he thought. I’m dead.
Dad’s firm grip on his shoulder hurt, but he refused to wince. Glancing at the clock on the wall as they passed out the school’s single open door, still guarded by the man he would forever think of as the Boot Nazi, Nick smiled morosely.
His dream of being accepted as a normal student lasted exactly two hours. It was ten o’clock on a September Wednesday morning, and his life was over.
The passing bell sounded. As she left the classroom, Penny looked out the second floor window. The new boy, Nick, was being marched through the parking lot by two very angry parents. Penny sighed. Her lunch date would be a no show.
Is he really gay? She wondered as she watched him slide into the back seat of a mid-sized sedan several years old but shimmering with a high polish shine. She’d never known anyone who was gay for comparison but Nick looked the same as everyone else, except she’d never seen anyone look so thoroughly miserable.
That boy definitely needs a friend, she thought.
Brent stood easily among a group of big, brawny football players and flicked a lighter, using his shirt to block the wind. When he raised his head puffing on a cigarette, he saw the new kid, the faggot, sitting in the back seat while his parents drove off in some old POS car. It just keeps getting better and better, he thought. He’s a fag andhe’s a wannabe, ready-made for hating. With him around no one will even think about me.
Senior year would be a snap if he could just get a handle on algebra. His dad and uncle both insisted he wouldn’t make it to the Gophers if he didn’t keep up the grades. Stupid college ball. He was meant for the major league.
Brent had always known he would one day play for the Minnesota Gophers on his journey to the NFL. His baby blanket had been red and gold and his favorite binky had two large plastic teeth on it making him look like a gopher when he’d sucked it. There were embarrassing photos to prove it. Both his dad and uncle had played for the U of M and it was understood that Brent and Julian would carry on the family tradition, he in football and his cousin in hockey. Unlike Julian who was content to let things slide, Brent would study for hours to keep from letting them down.
That was okay with him, Brent was used to studying. Learning had never come easily to him and long ago he’d figured out that he had to work harder than everyone else. He was in third grade before anyone noticed he needed glasses, not that he ever wore them now. He’d switched to contact lenses the next year and while they made the words on the board easier to read, they made them no easier to understand. So he studied each night, except during football season when he was really too busy to keep up.
And this year he planned on getting a real girlfriend. He figured it was time, his image demanded it. He’d been stringing the guys along with stories of out of town girlfriends for the last few years, but they were getting suspicious and he couldn’t have that. He figured he’d date up a cheerleader, they were supposed to be easy. With a fag to bash, and a flashy girl by my side, I’ll be sitting pretty. By this time next year I’ll be at the U, ready to play.
He had just one more year of high school left, and Brent planned to leave a bigger-than-life reputation behind, one completely of his own design. They’d be talking about him for years to come; his name would be legendary. I will build a reputation that will put Dad’s to shame.
His cell phone vibrated in his pocket. He reached for it and keyed it open to read the text.
TigerJock: Dude bell rang U late
Brent looked up, his green eyes startled, and found himself alone in the parking lot, his forgotten cigarette dangling a long ash. He threw it to the ground and started loping quickly to the basement and wood shop.
Always the player, never the played: that was the family motto.
Nick returned to school on Friday morning extra early. He sailed through the gun check with sneakers on and without the cross, although at 7:30 in the morning there was no one else in line. He found his locker, and stored the empty new backpack inside. He hadn’t even gotten his text books yet, although the office had called to say they’d been collected and were waiting for him in his homeroom. Hoping to find Mr. Kincaid, he walked through the silent corridors to room 222. The door was unlocked, but the room was empty. Nick sat at his desk and waited.
The walls were covered in posters of famous figures from history. Nick recognized Eleanor Roosevelt, Alexander the Great, Booker T. Washington and Harriet Beecher Stowe among others. There were timelines too; of inventions and human development and the growth of civilizations. Stapled to the bulletin board beside Mr. Kincaid’s desk were photos, hundreds if not thousands of thumb sized photos all neatly contained in a black construction paper frame with the title: LIVING HISTORY. Some photos were old and faded, once black and white. Most were newer, but all were filled with smiling hopeful faces of students who’d sat in these seats before him.
Just after 7:45 Mr. Kincaid, wearing dark brown corduroy pants that whisked when he walked and a sweater patterned with autumn leaves, meandered into the classroom with a steaming cup of coffee in one hand, and his briefcase in the other. He started with surprise at seeing him. “Well,” said his teacher, “you’re here early Nick.” He threw his briefcase onto his desktop, set the coffee down more gingerly, and came to stand beside the desk in front of Nick.
“Mr. Kincaid, I was told you have my textbooks,” he said. “I was hoping to get them now.”
“They’re right here,” announced the grey haired teacher, who walked solidly to a shelf behind his desk and pulled down a stack of six books. “The school secretary brought them yesterday.” He walked back over to Nick and placed the stack on his desk. “If you hurry, you just have time to get these into your locker and be back here before class starts.”
Nick looked up at him with a faint smile. “Oh no, that’s okay. I’ll just wait until the passing bell rings.” It seemed to Nick that Mr. Kincaid gave him a pitying look, but he couldn’t be sure because the teacher had turned away to return to his coffee and briefcase.
“Well, you’re in my fourth period for world history, Nick. I’m looking forward to seeing what you can do with your brain.” The words were casually tossed over the teacher’s shoulder, but they hit Nick squarely between the eyes.
What can I do with my brain? The words lit a fire, because Nick had always been smart, even if his grades didn’t reflect that lately. He needed to put his brain to good use, just as he’d done this morning to avoid meeting any students, but on a smarter, grander scale. He needed to dodge Julian Cain and deflect any future attacks. He needed to disappear.
After everything his parents had given up to get him to Tranquility, there was no chance they would consider moving again short of a tornado tearing down the house. He was stuck here for the next two years, and it looked like Julian wasn’t going anywhere either.
The situation seemed hopeless, but maybe he could figure something out, something better than he’d managed in Styxwater. But that was there and then, he was older and wiser now and if he put his brain to it he was sure he could figure out a way to avoid the bully.
Who knows, maybe Julian will focus on hockey, and leave me alone, he daydreamed.
Yeah, and maybe I’ll suddenly grow wings and fly far, far away.
He watched students flow into the classroom and wondered if they ever looked at the people who changed history on the wall.
To make room for a discussion area, the desks in her homeroom class had been shoved so close together she had to turn sideways to get to hers, third one back in the fourth row. It made her self-conscious knowing her big rear end was now right in somebody’s face, and her big boobs were bouncing by another’s. She clenched her eyes shut and shuffled through until almost there, opened them again to take aim at her desk, held her breath, curved her spine, and slid down smoothly into her desk. It was a tight fit, but she’d learned how to do it by holding her breath.
Angela O’Shea got her notebook open, looking as if she was ready to take notes. Mostly she would doodle; flowers and fairies and other dainty things, but she wanted to look studious. It kept the teachers from coming too close to see what she was really doing. She glanced up once to make sure Mr. Kincaid was behind his desk, and then glanced up again to take in the other students.
No one was looking at her, thank goodness. But she saw that other new kid, the one Julian Cain had pounced on the first day of school, sitting at his desk with a stack of books in front of him, head down. She saw that he was visibly disappearing.
Angela’s mind drifted to that big piece of man meat, Julian Cain. He was in her world history class, and since the moment she laid eyes on him the very first day she hadn’t been able to stop dreaming of him. His deep set grey eyes and short bristly straw blond hair, his full lips and straight nose all defined her sense of male beauty. He was hard bodied in a sleek, almost courtly way; unafraid to display his physical assets in super tight jeans and the brightly colored polo shirts he wore every day. Julian was even more gorgeous than the guy who played the vampire in the movies.
She sighed. And all those muscles don’t hurt one little bit.
Angela wanted him to see her, but not her outside self. She wanted Julian to meet her inside self, the thin, elegant, witty, and cute one. She closed her eyes and dreamed until the final passing bell rang. When Mr. Kincaid started calling the roll she opened her eyes so she wouldn’t look suspicious or call attention to herself. Angela put her pen to paper and started drawing. She wondered if she’d see Julian in the hall between classes.
Ten minutes later that was the exact same thought Nick had as the passing bell rang. He gathered up his things and threw a grateful glance toward Mr. Kincaid, hoisting his stack of books. He wondered if he were safer wading in the middle of the crowd of students, or waiting until the hall was clear and arriving late for math?
He stood, dithering, as the classroom emptied around him. He was startled when Penny Papadopoulos appeared beside him. Her eyes flashed as she tucked her bobbed hair behind her ear. “I know a back staircase, you know,” she said casually. “I’m taking it today. Want me to show you?”
“Sure,” he said hurriedly, surprised she was speaking to him. “That would be great!”
The two waited by the door until most of the kids had gone by, then Penny led him down the hall, around the corner, through a door clearly marked ‘Staff Only’, and into a short hallway of empty classrooms. Hurrying through another door marked ‘Fire Exit – Leave Unlocked’ they entered a stairwell. Their footsteps echoed loudly in the empty space as they climbed two stories. The door they used to enter the third floor was at the end of the corridor, right beside room 309.
Nick just had time to say a quick, “Thanks!” before Penny waved and hurried down the hall to English. He darted through the door to his algebra class. Math he knew. This he could handle.
The only seat left was directly up front, right under the teacher’s nose. Nick sighed, but he’d expected as much. Math classes always sorted out in a specific order. The dumb jocks claimed the back of the room where they could pretend to work together while they really talked about sports and girls. Nick quickly scanned their number.
Damn. There sat Julian, grinning at him.
The popular kids sat directly in front of the athletes where they’d be sure to hear if something interesting came up in the jock talk. These kids had rich parents who would buy their way into expensive universities, so they spent most of the class time sending text messages back and forth when they should have been working.
The math nerds always sat in the front of the classroom, which actually worked to everyone’s benefit – at least those who wanted to talk about math during class. The math teachers, who like everyone else on the face of the planet enjoy talking with those that share their interests, spent 85% of each class with the nerds. The other 15% of the time they strolled through Popular Land and Jock Territory forcing conversations to stop and cell phones to disappear in an age old game of Hide ‘n Seek.
Referring to his class list surreptitiously, Nick discovered his math teacher was listed as V. Azikiwe. She glanced up from her desk as he sat down and said, “You are Nicholas Clements, yes?” Her dark face was impassive, closed, surrounded by sky blue material draped over her head and shoulders atop a long flowing gown of the same color, a Muslim abaya. “Now that you’re back, I hope you will refrain from any more fighting.” She looked over his head, past Popular Land and into Jock Territory. “Perhaps you’d rather sit in the back of the room?”
“No, ma’am,” said Nick quickly as her questioning eyebrows arched. “I’d like to keep this seat, Miss Azikiwe.”
“I am Mrs. Azikiwe,” she corrected gently, “but you pronounced it perfectly.” She smiled cautiously at Nick and dropped the topic of seat changes.
Brent quit listening to the talk about whether Shannon, the head cheerleader, would put out or not, and pulled his cell phone. He had an alert to sound. He logged on to Chirps.
BrentHowardQB: Queer alert!
It was time to put his plan in motion. His target was in his sights. Smart aleck cocksucker, cozying up to the teacher, he thought. It was enough to make you sick. Quickly he whipped up a storm of resentment, a trick coach Lee had taught him long ago. His cell phone vibrated.
KHJock4: Wut U mean?
BrentHowardQB: Got a homo in class.
H*ckeyW*ng94: WTH? Who?
BrentHowardQB: Jr. name of Nick. RC
TigerJock: LOL U in algebra again?
BrentHowardQB: Yeah, math aint my thing man. But thats not the point. The point is I got a cocksucker sits 5 seats up
TigerJock: Ha! R U kidding me?
BrentHowardQB: No but I kinda like havin him here in front of me.
H*ckeyW*ng94: No shit then the fags not sneakin up behind your sorry ass.
BrentHowardQB: Uhhuh we wanna know where he is @ all times rt?
TigerJock: On it. Rechirping now.
H*ckeyW*ng94: me 2 we gonna track down a fag
TigerJock: Keep Me Posted shit4brains
H*ckeyW*ng94: OK I will KUP
He Chirped all morning, and grinned each time his cell phone vibrated, announcing another response. By lunchtime he had the little faggot’s schedule. This was good. This was fun.
It reminded him of something his mother told him once when she had way too much to drink. Dad was furious but Mom deflected his anger by complaining loudly about the invented wrongs of a neighbor. Dad had been distracted and raged about the neighbor, his kids, dogs, and wife in that order. When Mom came with her vodka breath to kiss him good night she said as she tucked him in, “Son, if there’s only one thing I know, it’s this: The spotlight operator is always in the shadow.”
Kenneth Olsen, sitting alone in his usual spot in the corner of the library, read the Chirps at lunch and realized they were about the new, good looking guy. Nick had been in three of his classes that morning, yet never once had Kenneth seen him while passing through the halls, and he was looking.
He started to think of Nick as The Mysterious Phantom of Tranquility High, who appeared out of nowhere just before the start of class bell sounded; scooting into whatever seat was nearest the door. He was always the first one out, gone before the bell finished ringing.
I’d love to know how to do that, mused Kenneth. He usually just flowed in the middle of the largest group he could find, disappearing among them as best he could. Most of the time it worked fine, but once in awhile someone would single him out and make fun of him. He’d keep his head low and disappear among another group for some time until he was forgotten again. He’d been doing it that way for years. But what Nick was doing looked even better.
Walking to the library to eat where he couldn’t be seen he saw Nick having lunch with Penny Papadopoulos at a table in the cafeteria, the two of them talking quietly together. He made up his mind to follow Nick on Monday, to find out how he managed to avoid the hallways, Kenneth’s daily travail. He mentally snapped his fingers in a Z pattern. Hey now, gay, cute, and smart enough to disappear between classes? That’s my kind of guy.