CHANGE IS a bitch.
I am using the term here to mean a difficult task and not a derogatory name for women or the scientific term for a female dog, just in case there are any who might take offense to the word. Change is a bitch, and that’s because it isn’t always easy to know it when it happens. I mean, sure, sometimes it’s obvious. I go over to Brad’s and end up kissing him, and my whole world turns upside down. Hard to miss that change. I decide to tell the world I like guys. Colossal change that is still affecting crap today. Kelly shoots himself. A change that brings the town to a standstill like an earthquake, and the aftershocks of it keep coming and coming.
Take race discrimination. After being considered property for far too long, African Americans were finally considered free people in the United States. That was a big change. But what went unnoticed, or at least unspoken, was the way people changed because of that decision. Some people thought the fight was done. The slaves wanted to be free—they were free, so that’s taken care of. Other people resented the fact that these people who were always second-class citizens to them were now supposed to be treated as equals, and they got angry. And their anger motivated a lot of ugly things, and the country changed while no one was looking.
Now, over a hundred years later, we elected a black president, and some people say, “Well that’s done.” What’s next? Other people reacted to that event in a rather unpopular way. They said the country was being taken over, they said he wasn’t an American, and some even said he wasn’t their president. And the world changed again.
Big change, little changes.
When Kelly killed himself, Foster, as a whole, reacted. Since no one thinks a teenage boy putting a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger is a good thing, the majority of the reactions were sympathetic, with a desire to make sure it could never happen again. People spoke out, said that the way kids were being treated was wrong, and that things had to get better. That was the bulk of the reaction, but there were others.
Some wanted to place blame on someone for why Kelly did what he did. Some blamed his parents, others blamed the kids on Facebook, and some blamed me. They said none of this stuff happened in Foster before I came out. There were arguments made that things were fine the way they had always been and that by rocking the boat, I had caused this to happen.
I’ll be honest, a lot of other things were said about me as well, but they were mostly hateful things, so you’ll excuse me if I don’t repeat them.
Things were changing in Foster, big and small, and most of it seemed to be centered on me.
Some for the better, some for the worse. The problem was, there was no way for any of us to know which was which until it was far too late. It is impossible for anyone to know what effect our plans will have until they already happen, and by then, there is no going back. I swore the day they put Kelly in the ground that I would change Foster before I left for college. It was a change, and none of us knew what would come of it.
There are 151 days until graduation. Roughly five months before I plan on running out of this town as fast as I can and never looking back. A lot of things can happen in 151 days. A lot of things that people might not be ready for.
So I’m telling you now, hold on. This might get a little bumpy.
JANUARY 14: WAITING ON THE WORLD TO CHANGE
It’s not that we don’t care, we just know that the fight ain’t fair.
151 days left
“SO I have a plan,” Kyle said during lunch.
Jennifer and Sammy sat there with us for lunch, but to be honest, no one felt much like eating. A week had passed since Kelly died. School had been closed, and today was our first day back. Foster, which was the center of the world to a lot of us, lurched to a halt as people tried to deal with the fact that one of Foster’s own had shot himself. Students who sent him nasty messages on Facebook were all buttsore now that they had been outed to the rest of Foster by Kyle and us printing out the hateful messages they had sent Kelly. By the end of the week, all the talking and texting quieted down and sadness had settled in.
The whole school seemed to be in equal parts shock and outrage about the situation. However, by lunch, four of us knew that the rest of the student body had agreed on one point. Our little quartet of freaks was to blame.
No one was pointing fingers and calling us out, nothing like that. But you know when someone is giving you the stink eye. Even if you never hear the words, you can just tell when someone is talking shit about you behind your back. No one dared to say anything to our faces, but the accusations were there in their expressions.
Kelly’s death was our fault.
I’d spent the last week careening between refusing to think about Kelly and bawling my eyes out like a little kid who dropped his ice cream cone. I felt like one of those hanging things in clocks that go back and forth. And mine went from Nothing to Crying Like a Bitch in seconds. Kyle had been there with me like a rock; in fact, he seemed to be dealing way better than I was. Not that I expected him to break down and just lose it, but he was the one keeping me up instead of me being solid for him. And that was unexpected.
So to find out he had a plan wasn’t shocking to any of us. If you knew Kyle like we did, it wouldn’t have shocked you either.
“What now?” Jennifer asked. Her voice sounded tired. The circles under her eyes and her less than perfect makeup and hair told me she hadn’t slept much more than I had.
I wasn’t surprised by her reaction, but I could tell Kyle was. We were all weary, drop-dead exhausted with trying to deal with what had happened and making Kelly’s suicide real in our heads. I know she wasn’t blaming Kyle for what happened, but she was having a hard time being excited about another one of his plans; the last one pretty much revealed the school as being hating assholes who hated each other.
Kyle paused for half a second, no doubt trying to process her response. Was it sarcasm aimed at him, or had she been just asking a question? He opted for choice two because he explained. “I want to start a gay-straight alliance here.”
Weird. I understood every individual word he said, but strung together, they made no sense at all.
“You want to start a what, now?” I asked, confused.
He opened his mouth to answer, but Sammy beat him to it. “It’s like an after-school club, but instead of, like, choir or cheerleading, it’s a place where kids can talk about their sexuality without judgment.” She glanced over at Kyle and flushed a little. “I’m sorry, Kyle. Brad was asking you.”
Kyle waved it off. “No, that’s exactly right. How did you know what it was?”
Sammy shrugged. “I looked alliances up before winter break. I didn’t think we could ever start one here. But that was before….” Her voice trailed off, and she looked out over the quad.
“We couldn’t have,” Kyle agreed. I looked at him and could see he was excited. “But I think we can force them to make one.” I realized what I had thought was excitement was really determination lighting his eyes.
“You’re talking about the emergency school board meeting this week, right?” I asked. He nodded, and I instantly sighed. “Dude, have you forgotten the last time we tried to go to one of those?”
He just smiled back at me and said, “Yeah, but this time we’re not going.”
That was when I knew the school board was not going to be ready for him, not this time.
His idea was to go to Mrs. Axeworthy and ask her to help.
Now, I don’t know about yours, but it seems like every school always had one teacher who was just… weird. I was going to say off the beaten path, but off doesn’t really cover it for Mrs. Axeworthy. She’s one of those teachers who never let the class get boring or just went on about the same stuff day after day. She always tried new things, like having class in the quad, or going on field trips to First Street. One time she made us write a song about Foster and its history. Like I said, in her case weird wasn’t a bad thing. Mrs. Axeworthy knew she was weird, and I think she liked it that way.
She had talked to Kyle after the last school board thing. From what he said, she had been out on a family emergency or something, so she didn’t find out until after, but she wanted to let him know she was on our side. I never knew what on our side meant, but at least it wasn’t actively against us like most everyone else. I’m going to be honest and say I had almost forgotten she existed until Kyle brought her up again in his plan.
This gay-straight thing had to have a teacher to run it or the school wouldn’t recognize it, and since most of the teachers at the school were barely tolerating us, I didn’t think asking them to volunteer would be a great idea. But Mrs. Axeworthy had said she was on our side, and Kyle thought that meant something. I silently hoped he was right.
Part of Mrs. Axeworthy’s weirdness was her wearing a black cat pin on her blouse every day. However, that afternoon, when we walked into her office, I realized we had not even begun to scratch the weird surface. She collected black cat things. Stuffed animals, pictures, mugs, anything that had a black cat on it seemed to have ended up in her office. I mean, sure, on the weirdness scale, black-cat-thing collecting was way low, but the idea of something like black-cat-thing collecting made me nervous. “Weird” meant “unpredictable” in my mind. Things I couldn’t predict always made me nervous, doubly so where Kyle was concerned.
She greeted Kyle like they were old friends and then stood up when she saw me. “You must be Brad,” she exclaimed. “I’ve heard a lot about you!” She looked like she was about to hug me, but then she stopped and held out her hand. It was odd, but I could swear I saw her glance at her door for a second.
I looked and Kyle nodded. He’d seen it too.
“Pleasure to meet you,” I said, trying not to sound confused.
“I came to ask you a question.” Kyle went straight to the point once she sat back down.
“Well, that sounds serious,” she replied, gesturing at the chairs across from her.
I wanted to stand, but then I would have looked like some kind of secret service agent, so I sat down next to Kyle.
“Have you heard of a gay-straight alliance?”
She smiled, but the expression didn’t seem very genuine. “Why do you ask?”
I saw Kyle pause. He hadn’t been expecting that question at all. “Um, I was thinking that we could use one here at school.”
Most adults are pretty good at hiding what they’re feeling. Case in point: my dad could be plotting how to kill me and hide the body undetected, and the smile on his face wouldn’t waver an inch. Mrs. Axeworthy was not one of those people. Her expression went from fake smile to nervous to almost paranoid as she glanced at the door. She walked over to it and opened it all the way, toeing the doorstop hard so it couldn’t close by accident. “That’s an interesting idea,” she replied, but her voice made the word sound like it was anything but interesting.
“Do you think you can help us?” Kyle asked.
She visibly paused.
“I mean, if you want to,” Kyle added, mentally backtracking. “It was just a thought.”
“No, it’s okay,” she said, sitting down again. “I am glad you asked me, but I’m afraid I can’t be of much help.”
I saw Kyle’s hopes deflate slightly around him.
“Why?” I asked, not really caring if this was a difficult subject for her or not.
She looked at me, and I could see a sadness in her eyes that hadn’t been there before. Seeing a teacher like a real person is weird, but my friendship with Tyler has taught me that grown-ups don’t know that much more than kids do. They just hide things better. “It’s a long story, and I’m afraid I am not at liberty to share it.” She paused and studied her desktop for a moment.
“You don’t have to tell us if you don’t want to,” Kyle assured her.
She gave him a sad smile. “It’s not that I don’t want to, Kyle.” Without knowing it, she’d picked up a pen shaped like a seated cat and started to doodle on a blank piece of paper.
“It’s that you can’t?” I threw out since she wasn’t saying anything.
She just looked at me silently.
“Mrs. Axeworthy, you can trust us.” Kyle reached across the desktop and put his hand on hers. She sat up a little straighter, eyes widening very slightly.
Then she patted his hand with her free one before gently lifting his hand away and pulling hers clear. At first I couldn’t understand, and then it hit me: if someone saw….
“You got in trouble,” I blurted out.
“I wish I could help you, but I can’t,” she stated quietly, not contradicting me. She stood up, ending the meeting.
Kyle got up after her, confused at what was going on.
“I hope you find someone who can help you,” she added earnestly.
“It’s cool, Mrs. A,” I said, standing up. “We’ll just keep trying.”
“We will?” Kyle asked me, half stunned.
I smiled and gave him a nod. “Damn right we will.”
“Thanks for talking with us,” I continued, since Kyle’s big brain was too busy thinking to give him the cue that he should actually talk. She gave me a grateful smile as we walked out. “So what’s plan B?” I asked Kyle.
He gave me an odd look. “You tell me. She was my only idea.”
“Have to be other teachers out there who will help.”
He stopped walking. “You’re pretty gung ho about something you didn’t even know word one about an hour ago.” He wasn’t mad, but he was curious.
I knew what he meant, so I stopped walking. “Look, you think this is important, so it is important. I didn’t do a thing to help you with Kelly, and that was a mistake, one I am not making again.” My voice cracked, as it usually did when I brought up Kelly. No one but Kyle had seen the danger in what was happening to him. I had sworn to myself that I wouldn’t let him be the only one again.
I didn’t tell him, but I wasn’t going to give up on this. So after school, I went with plan B.
“Me?” Tyler paused and looked at me for a second. I nodded as I pulled another handful of Dallas Cowboys towels out of a box and began to place them on the shelves. “But I’m not a teacher. How can I do it?”
“Well, you’re not a teacher yet, but I bet if you asked Coach Gunn, he would sign you up as an assistant coach or something. I mean, you’ve played college ball—that kind of experience has to be worth something.”
“Well, it was barely one year of college ball, and it does count for something. Not enough to get me a degree in education or sports management, which I would need to be an assistant coach.” I could tell by the tone in his voice he thought I was only half-serious.
That was his mistake.
“But how many credits are you shy an associate’s? I bet if you started at community college, Gunn would hire you on in a second.”
He paused what he was doing and looked over at me seriously. “Now you have me going back to school? And who will be taking care of the store between me going to school and coaching?”
Hmmm, I hadn’t thought that far ahead.
“What about Matt?” I offered. Tyler and Matt had been dating since New Year’s, and though it wasn’t serious, I thought it would be enough to ask Matt to hold down the store while Tyler came to school and made everything better somehow.
He laughed and shook his head. “One, he has a job. Two, I don’t want to be a coach. And three, you know, even if I did do all of that, there’s still a huge chance that they’d say no.”
Sighing, I nodded and kept putting the towels away. “I know, but Kyle wants this so bad, and I feel fucking useless.”
“You’re not useless,” Tyler assured me. “It just means it’s going to take a little more thinking is all.”
“Like I said,” I muttered, tossing the last of the towels on the shelf, “useless.”
When it came to thinking, I was a bit out of my comfort zone. After all, my claim to fame was being able to hit a little white ball 205 feet over the back fence more often than most guys. There wasn’t a lot of thinking in that job. But I wasn’t going to let Kyle down again.
“You do know just being there for him is enough, right?”
I tried not to look at him like a complete idiot, but I’m pretty sure I screwed that up. “You do know that sooner or later he is going to realize he’s been doing all this on his own and find someone who can walk and chew gum at the same time?”
He gave me that sympathetic face that adults give when they are lying their asses off. “You’re not dumb, Brad.”
“This is coming from a guy who is, like, fortysomething and is just now dating his first serious boyfriend?”
He shot me a look and asked, “What does that have to do with anything?”
I shook my head and slapped a set of golf tees on the shelf. “It means you might not be the best guy to judge if other people are smart or not.”
He crumpled up the piece of paper he had been going over and threw it at me, but he didn’t disagree with me. Suddenly his expression changed.
“You know, I heard of a club like that back when I was your age.”
I tried not to gape at him. “What? Where?”
“There were rumors there was some gay club at Foster. I mean, it could have just been talk. You know how bad the two schools talk about each other behind their backs. For all I knew, Granada said there was a dungeon under Foster where we locked up anyone who dared to root for the wrong team or something. I just remember hearing that there was supposed to be a gay club at Foster and that it ended up getting shut down, and someone almost got fired. I wouldn’t even remember, but at the time I was scared that my name would somehow get attached to it because I was curious to go see what it was about.”
That sounded crazy even for this town, but Tyler wouldn’t make something like that up.
THE NEXT day there was no practice, a sure sign the faculty didn’t think we were over Kelly’s death yet. Kyle was out somewhere with Jennifer, which meant when I was done at Tyler’s, I had some time to myself.
Time for Plan C.
I sat in my car for about ten minutes trying to think of a better Plan C than the one I had, but nothing came to mind. There were so many reasons I did not want to have to rely on Plan C. Then I thought of Kyle busting his ass for the rest of us and told myself to suck it up.
I drove up First Street and turned onto East Avenue like I was going to Kyle’s house. Maybe I could just go to Kyle’s house… no, I couldn’t….
I stopped a couple of blocks up and pulled in to the parking lot for Twice Upon a Time.
Robbie was a person I’d barely ever talked to, but for some reason, I didn’t like him.
I had “met” him when I was dating Jennifer, since she practically lived at his shop. Robbie was loud, flamboyant, and above all else, stereotypically “gay.” I admit it was a shitty attitude to have, but guys who didn’t act like guys drove me fucking crazy.
He had made a few smart-ass comments about me when I’d come into the store with Jennifer. I hadn’t really heard them because I was too busy biting the inside of my cheek to stop myself from saying something ugly about him and his place.
Sighing, I got out of my car and walked inside. Some show tune garbage being blasted at a speaker-shattering level smashed into my eardrums the minute I opened the door. Robbie’s back was to me, and his concentration was focused on the rack of clothes he was sorting. I didn’t even think he heard me come in. I called his name, but the music drowned me out. I took a deep breath and roared, “Hey!”
He let out half a shriek and spun around to face me, brandishing the blue plastic hanger he clutched like a sword. “What the fuck!” he yelled at me. “Who just yells at people?”
I pointed upward to the speakers. “It helps if you can hear people trying to talk to you.”
He pulled a remote out of his pocket and lowered the music. “Kyle isn’t here,” he said, stuffing it back into his pocket.
I opened my mouth to say something but paused. “I know. Why would you think I was here looking for him?”
He put the hanger up and moved toward the counter. “Well, in the entire time I’ve owned this place, you’ve been in three times. Twice with Jennifer, during which you gave me dirty looks the entire time, and once to pick up Kyle, during which you barely acknowledged my existence. I don’t see your ex-girlfriend dragging you in here, which leaves your boyfriend. Who isn’t here,” he added.
“I know he isn’t here,” I snapped at him. “I know where my boyfriend is.” I have no idea why I said that, but it seemed like the right thing to say.
“Well, bully for you,” he said, sitting down behind the counter. “So now what? You pledging a frat or something? Because I know for a fact there is no way you would ever wear anything that was second hand.”
I began to say something again and then stopped. Again he was right, but for some reason the statement pissed me off. “Why do you say that?”
He had pulled a book out from under the counter and was about to open it when he gave me a withering glance. “Well, because every single piece of clothing you have on now has an A&F or an eagle on it somewhere. Which is impressive, by the way, since the closest store is at least a hundred miles away. You shop online, or mommy and daddy make road trips for you?”
I want to point out a few things before I go all ballistic on this guy.
One, it isn’t a crime to like nice clothes. Two, I happen to like the clothes they sell at A&F, and I get an allowance every few months to order stuff online. Three, the idea of wearing clothes that other people have already worn gives me the creeps, because all I can imagine is a bunch of other people’s bugs wandering all over me. And four, what I liked to wear was none of this guy’s business.
“What’s your problem?” I asked him, walking toward the counter.
He closed his book and folded his hands on top of it. “Are you serious?” When I didn’t answer, he rolled his eyes at me and muttered to himself, “This boy cannot be real.”
“Yeah, I’m serious. Why are you being such a dick to me?”
He took a deep breath and let me have it. “Um, maybe because you’ve given me attitude since day one for no other reason than you’re a self-loathing douche bag who is so scared of people not liking him that even now you’re pitching a fit because someone is saying they might not like him. Even if that person is someone you can’t stand, like me.”
I really didn’t like that he had a point.
“But putting that aside,” he said, moving the book as an example of the metaphor, “the real problem I have with you is that you are so taken with yourself that you just take for granted people doing good things for you. God forbid you should thank them or even be grateful, not Little Lord Bradley Fauntleroy. Instead you should just go on with whatever issues you have in your own mind because they’re more important than anything someone else might say or do.”
“You think I should thank you for giving Kyle clothes?” Even as I asked him, that didn’t sound right.
“No, you jock dick. I want you to thank me for explaining to the girl you lied to for three years that you weren’t a complete asshole because you liked boys the whole time you were using her to hide behind. I would like a small acknowledgment that I took your side even though you have been nothing but shitty to me and that you’d never once consider taking my side if I needed you.”
I just stood there, stunned.
“See, I know Kyle told you why Jennifer wasn’t holding a grudge against you two, and still you didn’t think for one moment about, just maybe, saying thank you. I have no idea why Kyle would waste his time with you… no, wait, I do see it. Let me rephrase. If you couldn’t shred cheese on your abs, I’m sure Kyle would have nothing to do with you. Frankly, my dear, you aren’t a very nice person. I know, I’m not one either. Now you don’t like me for whatever little drama you have in your head, but I don’t like you because I went to the mat for you, and you’re still acting like a dick when you see me.” He gave me a plastic smile and cocked his head. “So you want to go another three rounds there, Sporty Spice?”
The last time I had felt this bad was when the guys in the library thought I was going to beat them up. Every time I think I’m becoming a better person, I trip over my own ego and find out I’m still the same asshole I didn’t like before.
“You’re right. That was shitty of me, and I’m sorry.” I would have rather eaten dirt at that moment instead of apologizing, but what choice did I have? Robbie was right. Jennifer had had every right to come after me to carve me up using a dull knife. Instead, she had buried her pain to become friends with me again.
And that was because of Robbie.
“You didn’t have to do that, and I didn’t deserve it. I apologize.” I turned to walk out, since there was no way in hell I could ask him to be the alliance’s sponsor after what he’d just said.
“So if you weren’t here for Kyle, why did you come in?”
I just shook my head and kept walking toward the door. “Doesn’t matter. Have a good one.”
“Oh, you fucking drama queen! Stop!” he snapped. I paused and looked over my shoulder at him. “I swear to God one of you butch freaks is worse than any three drag queens.” He rounded the end of the counter and came to a halt a few feet away, leaning casually against the glass top. “You came in here for something; then you were read. Now learn humility from that and try again.” I gave him a confused look, and he sighed at me. “Why did you come in here?”
I wanted to leave, but I knew I was in it now. “I was wondering…. I mean, Kyle is trying to…. Just never mind. It’s stupid.”
“Oh for the love of…,” he sputtered at me, glaring like he was thinking about taking a swing at my face. “Kyle is trying to…,” he prompted me.
“Kyle is trying to get a gay-straight something started at the school, and we need a teacher to run it, or they’ll say no.” I said everything in one breath, certain I had run everything together into one garbled phrase.
“A gay-straight something?” he echoed slowly.
“Some kind of club, I think, for gay kids. I don’t know. He just says it’s important.” I really wanted to get away from Robbie now.
He seemed to think it over for a few seconds. “You’re talking about one of those alliances, right?” I nodded in agreement. “One of those lame-ass groups where no one shows up, and the school thinks it’s done something for the poor, misguided ’mos wandering the halls.” He went back behind the counter. “It’s a waste of time. Tell him not to bother.”
I nodded and kept moving toward the door.
“Hold it,” he called out. I looked over at him, just dying for him to stop talking. “Why would you come to me for that?”
“I don’t know. I was hoping you could get a job at the school or know someone who would step up. I just have no idea where to find someone.”
He shook his head. “No, that I gathered. I mean, why are you here pushing for it?” I didn’t understand what he meant. “Why do you care so much? Do you even know why Kyle thinks it’s so important?”
I had to admit I didn’t.
“He thinks it’s important, so it has to be” was all I could answer.
“And winner of the worst reason to do something goes to Bradley Greymark and his ‘My boyfriend is smarter than I am, so I don’t need to do any thinking for myself’ response. I know why Kyle would think this idea is worth pursuing, but if you have no idea what a gay-straight alliance means, I suggest you get out of the way, because asking people to help you with something that you have no earthly clue about makes you sound dumber than you already are.”
I nodded, feeling even more stupid. “Sorry again,” I mumbled as I opened the front door.
“Figure out what Kyle is trying to do,” he called after me. “If you know why he is doing it, maybe you’ll find a reason of your own to ask me to help.”
So far it had been the best advice I’d heard all day.
I went to Nancy’s Diner because I hadn’t heard from Kyle, and I wasn’t ready to go home and call it a day yet. A thousand thoughts jostled for my attention, and I barely registered Gayle stopping at my booth, pad in hand, to take my order. “Well, well, well, young Mr. Greymark, as I live and breathe! You ready to order or waiting on Kyle?”
I shrugged and put the menu back next to the sugars. “I guess a Coke and fries.” My voice had all the excitement of a guy being woken up in the middle of the night to answer the phone.
She shook her head and then sat down across from me. “I’ve known you since you had to use a booster seat to eat at this table, and you have never once not been hungry.” She gave me one of her “talk to me” smiles. “You and Kyle fighting again?”
“No, it isn’t that.” I began to explain. “I just, I mean, Kyle is trying to do something, and I can’t….” I sighed as I realized I was making no sense whatsoever. “I am just tired of being the dumb guy in the relationship.”
She gave me a stern look. “How many all-star games did Nolan Ryan play in?”
I didn’t even have to think about it. “Eight.”
“And how many career strikeouts did he pitch?”
“Um, five thousand, seven hundred and fourteen.”
“And how many no-hitters did he pitch?”
“See?” she said, pointing a finger at me. “You are not dumb at all. You just have a very specific skill set.”
I rolled my eyes and thunked my forehead against the tabletop. “Awesome. My superpower is remembering baseball stats. I’m sure that will help Kyle immensely.”
I felt something hit the top of my head. I looked up and dodged away from the possibility of another lethal order pad attack. “I allow a lot of stuff in my place, but pity parties are not on the list. Brad, it takes real brains to remember all of that stuff. It took real brains for you to think past just being reinstated on the team and to demand an antibullying policy for Foster High. Thought I forgot about that, didn’t you? Well, I didn’t. Brad, the longer you sit there moaning about how dumb you are, the more you’re going to believe it. Sorry, son, you have lots of brains, so suck it up, buttercup.”
Neither one of us said anything for a few seconds. Finally I blurted out, “Do you think Kyle just likes me for my looks?”
Her eyes went wide, and she bit her lip in an attempt to withhold the laugh that burst out of her anyway. “Do I think Kyle likes the way you look? Of course he does, sweetie. Most of the people in the world would like the way you look.” More seriously, she added, “Do I think it is the only reason? No, and let me tell you why. Because Kyle isn’t in love with your face or your body or even that smile. He is in love with the guy who set up an elaborate date for him because he wanted to make him happy. He is in love with the guy who stood next to him when the rest of the school was ready to lynch him. Your looks might get you in the door, Brad, but I assure you it is your heart that’s the reason you’re staying. If Kyle has a problem, you’re already helping him. You’re there for him, and he knows that.”
I began to protest, but she talked over me. “And I know you wish you could do more than that, but I assure you, being there one hundred percent is way more than a lot of other people ever think of doing. Don’t sell yourself short there, son.” She slid out of the booth, straightened her apron, and snapped her order pad open again. “There are more than enough people in the world who will do that for you. Trust me, they don’t need any help.”
“But I have no idea what to do.” I swear to you, I was seriously trying not to whine.
“You will. Until then, be the guy in love with him.” She shook her head. “The two of you are so far ahead of the game, it’s silly. Finding the person who makes you want to rush in and save them is almost impossible in this world. Everything else is easy after that. Stop worrying.”
It was good advice, but I still felt like crap. I think she knew it, but she knew not to keep talking too.
“I’ll get your fries. You sure you don’t want a burger?” She watched me think and nodded at the same time I did. Weird. “Yeah that’s one burger too. Coming right up.”
She walked away, leaving me to sort out all the crap running around in my head. I really had no one else to ask to help with Kyle’s idea; to be honest, asking Tyler and Robbie was me going after the longest long shots I could have found. Gayle brought me my food, and I nibbled on a fry and tried not to feel completely useless.
Then my phone vibrated.
Kyle: Where r u?
Just seeing a text from him could get me to smile with insane levels of happiness.
Brad: At Nancys trying not 2 go home yet.
It took a few seconds, and he responded.
I had to laugh; for someone whose last phone was barely a step up from a tin can and string, he sure had figured out text speak pretty fast. I took my knife and cut the burger in half and divided the fries into two piles as I waited. Five minutes later, Jennifer’s car pulled up in front of the diner, and Kyle got out and waved at me.
I felt my face light up as I waved back and then waved at Jennifer before she drove off.
He strode in and tossed his backpack under the table as he sat next to me. “Hey, you,” he said, leaning over to kiss me.
I kissed him back, and the feelings of idiocy I had been feeling all day faded a little. “Hey back.”
He looked down at my plate, and his eyes got wide. “Did you wait to eat until I got here?”
I slid my plate closer to him. “I even decided to share.”
“Oh God, this is the best thing I’ve seen all day.” He grabbed half of the burger and took a huge bite. “We’ve been running around all day, and we didn’t stop to eat.” He chewed contently and looked over at me. “I love you so much for this.”
I looked at him, confused. “It’s a burger.”
He shook his head. “No, it was your burger, and now it’s ours. That’s pretty damn awesome.” I felt a warmth in my chest as he leaned closer to me and took another bite. “Not a lot of guys would wait to eat until their flake of a boyfriend could show up. That’s why I love you.”
I slipped my arm around him and pulled him against me. “How did you get to be so awesome?”
He smiled and shrugged at me. “Genetics?”
We both laughed as we finished the burger.
THE WEEK flew by, and the news got worse and worse.
Kyle had looked up the rules for an after-school club, and not only did it need an adult there but a full-fledged teacher to boot. So my plan of somehow getting Mr. Parker made an assistant coach wouldn’t have worked, because he wouldn’t have been an actual teacher with a degree and all that. At lunch I brought up asking Mrs. A. again, but Kyle was dead set against it.
“No, she was scared of something. I don’t think that’s the way to go.”
Jennifer sighed and tossed her sandwich into the trash. “This school sucks.” She sounded so defeated I was kind of shocked. “Any of you want to cut the rest of the day?”
Sammy raised her hand. She looked like a zombie as well. Most of the school was walking around like that, half-asleep, not sure what to do anymore. I’d seen the look everywhere lately, even my own mirror.
I looked at Kyle, and he gave me an “I don’t know” look in return. “I better not,” I said finally. “They’re barely letting me play baseball as it is. If I end up cutting too much, it’s just another reason for them to kick me off.”
Jennifer stared at me for a long couple of seconds, and for a moment I thought she was mad at me. With as much anger as I had ever heard in her voice she said, “I hate this fucking school,” turned around, and stormed off.
“Did I do something wrong?” I asked Sammy and Kyle.
Sammy got up and tossed her Pepsi can in the trash. “No, she’s just… we’re all just brain dead, Brad. This school sucks so bad that a guy shot himself to not come here. What does that say about Foster?”
“That it needs to change,” Kyle answered immediately.
She looked at Kyle with a thousand-yard stare and just sighed. “Then more power to you.” And she walked away.
“What’s going on?” Kyle asked me once they were both gone. “Am I pushing too hard? I thought the alliance thing would be a good idea, and the only way we’re going to get it is if we bring it up at the meeting Friday. After that they’ll never agree… should I just shut up?”
Gayle’s words came back to me, and I smiled.
“No. You’re not giving up,” I said, looking him straight in the eyes. “They’re tired, worn down. They just need some time. So we have two more days. What’s your next plan?”
“I don’t have a next one,” he said sadly.
“You will,” I assured him. “We aren’t beat yet.”
Suddenly, I understood what Gayle had said, and keeping Kyle’s head in the game wasn’t me being a dumb waste of space. After school we went to the library, and he dug through the school rules, trying to find some kind of loophole or some sneaky way to get around it while I sat next to him and looked up what a gay-straight alliance was.
A gay-straight alliance is where kids of all kinds could get together and talk about stuff that was important to them. If you were gay and had questions about being gay, you could ask them. If you were straight and wanted to ask gay people stuff, you could. They generally educated people on the different days, like coming-out day, or no-name-calling week. Both seemed like a long shot, but it was cool that someone was trying to have them. Generally it was a place, once a week, that kids could go to and feel safe no matter what. They weren’t freaks, they weren’t fags, they were just kids. And though I doubt I would have ever stepped into one before meeting Kyle, I could see how having one was important.
“I got nothing,” he said, sighing in frustration. “There is no way to get around not having a teacher.”
I grabbed his hand and gave him a smile. “We’ll figure something out.”
When I dropped him off at his house, he looked about ready to give up. I didn’t blame him. I think he knew more about the school charter than the school board did now. He was halfway out of the car when I reminded him. “Hey, you know if this doesn’t happen, it’s in no way your fault, right?” His expression told me that was the exact way he was looking at it. “Kyle, you didn’t make Foster this messed-up of a town.”
In a small voice, he answered, “I feel like I have.” He slid back into his seat again and closed the door. “What if I never came out? What if I just shut my mouth and kept my head down? Kelly wouldn’t have attacked me, and you wouldn’t have had to jump in. Maybe he would be alive, and you’d be better off.”
I turned off the car and turned fully to look at him. “Look, there is no better place for me than right here with you right now, so get that crap out of your head. I liked guys before you, and Kelly felt like he did way before he met you. What he decided to do was his choice, and a fucking stupid one at that. You know how hard you tried to help him, and he still pulled away. That isn’t on you; that is on every ass hat out there who thought it would be funny to make fun of a queer kid.” Sighing, I put my hand on his. “You can’t blame yourself for not being able to change everything all at once. You tried—hell, you’re still trying—and if it doesn’t happen, that isn’t your fault.”
“Then whose is it?” he asked me back.
I hated that I didn’t have an answer to that.
He kissed me good night and went inside. I drove home, determined more than ever to find a way to help him.
When I walked into my house, I could smell dinner from the doorway and felt my stomach growl in response. I slipped off my shoes and headed toward the smell of food like a hungry dog. My mom was stirring a bowl of mashed potatoes when I walked in. “How did I guess the instant dinner was ready you’d walk in the room?” I smiled at her and then tried to look behind her to see what was in the stove. “Not a chance!” she said, kicking playfully at me. “Go wash up first.”
Groaning, I turned around and went upstairs to wash up.
I tossed a clean shirt on and tried to think about Kyle’s problem from a new point of view. We needed a teacher, and the only teacher who would do it would get fired if she tried. I felt a headache coming on, so I took two Tylenol before I went back downstairs to eat.
I set the table in silence while I went over and over again the list of teachers in my head. Who would be so stupid to put their head in that lion’s mouth knowing how Mr. Raymond hated Kyle and me already? I must have been lost in thought because my mom tossed a dishrag at me to get my attention.
“Have you heard a word I’ve said?” she asked.
I grimaced at her. “You were talking?” I saw her mouth curl up in frustration, and I added, “I’m sorry. I just have a lot on my mind and zoned out. What did you say?”
She paused, and her eyes seemed to look right through me for a second. “Well, I was asking you how school has been, but I can tell not that good. What’s up?”
I sat down at the table and tried to organize my thoughts. “Was there a gay club at Foster back in the day?” She didn’t look like it registered to her. “Tyler said there were rumors of a gay club when he was a student, and Kyle went to talk to Mrs. Axeworthy about it and….”
I could see by the look on her face she knew that name.
“It wasn’t a gay club,” my mom said carefully. “Not in any official way.”
“But there was one?” I asked her.
“There was an incident,” she commented neutrally. “And a couple of people got in trouble about it.”
“Why?” I asked, feeling like I’d stumbled onto a murder mystery.
“Brad, I’m not sure I can talk about this with you. What happened was technically sealed. No one was supposed to talk about it.” She paused and looked at me. “Did Mrs. Axeworthy say something?”
“No, Kyle wants to start a gay-straight alliance at school, and we need a teacher to run it. And when we asked her she got really weird, almost scared.”
“I can’t imagine parents letting something like that be set up at Foster,” she commented as she pulled out the roast.
“It’s a place where kids can get together and talk about being gay or ask questions and be safe. I mean, what is wrong with that?”
“And if their questions are about sex?” she asked me. “What then?”
“Mom, do you think there is anything about sex we are going to learn in a school club that we can’t find on the Internet?”
She seemed to consider it as she sliced up the roast. “Well, I never really thought about it. We were presented with the parent’s accusation, but the board never got to talk to either one of them personally. All we were told was that she had admitted she let the kids talk about sex in front of her, and that was enough.” She saw the look of outrage on my face and added. “It was a different time.”
“So then why not now?” I asked her, standing up. “Why can’t we talk about sex?”
She stopped what she was doing and looked over at me. “Brad, there are just some things that just aren’t talked about in school, and gay sex is pretty high up there.”
“Oh, but health class and sex education is okay as long as it’s straight? Mom, gay kids have nowhere to go in this town, nowhere. If there was a place they could have, maybe Kelly might still be alive. You have to see that!”
She put the knife down and motioned me to sit down next to her. “I don’t know if Foster is ready for something like that.”
And suddenly I knew what Kyle felt.
“I don’t care what Foster is ready for, Mom. This is happening, right now. There are gay kids out there who are thinking about killing themselves, and the fact that a bunch of old, straight people have a problem with that doesn’t matter to me. My friend is dead, and we all talked about making this town a better place so it won’t happen again. That needs to happen now, not when Foster is ready for it.”
I got up and began to walk out of the kitchen.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” she asked as I walked away.
“I’m not hungry,” I answered truthfully and went upstairs before I started crying again.
THE FRIDAY of the meeting, I kept expecting a miracle to happen somehow. Like there was this unheard of rule or last-minute thing we could do to change it in the nick of time. I know Kyle was dying to storm into the meeting again, but there was no point, since the last time they’d made it pretty clear we weren’t allowed in. Jennifer and Sammy waited with us until the meeting got out, but they didn’t seem to have much hope that something was going to happen.
I hated to say it, but I knew exactly how they felt.
When the meeting let out, most of the school board proceeded past us without even a glance. As always, we were beneath their station, so they didn’t need to actually acknowledge us or anything. Mr. Raymond followed behind them. He gave us a chilling stare as he walked by. Finally, I saw both Kyle’s and my mom walk out with Jennifer’s dad right behind them.
Mrs. Axeworthy was walking with them.
Kyle’s mom saw us and said, “How did I know you guys would be sitting out here waiting?”
“How bad did it go?” Kyle asked, his voice laced with disappointment.
Mrs. Axeworthy looked at him and smiled. “That’s a funny story.”