Book 2: The Return Home

by Rick Beck

Chapter 2

School Days

I went to the office and asked for my schedule. It had been placed in Mr. Burgess' mailbox. They brought back the schedule and a stack of books. The girl behind the counter leaned on her elbows to report,

"You didn't miss much. I'm in your English Lit class. We talked about some of the books we liked on Tuesday. We were off for the teachers' meeting Wednesday, and we're reading passages from our favorite books before we pick one for the class to read."

"Oh, thank you," I said, remembering that I was trying to be nice.

"You're going to need to report to the nurse after homeroom," she revealed.

"How do you know that?"

"Mr. Burgess hands me the notes he puts in the teacher's mailboxes. One told the nurse to call you for an evaluation before you go to class."

"You read all the messages he writes?"

"Just the more interesting ones. It keeps me from falling asleep on the job."

I had to sit in the back of the homeroom class. Most of the seats were already assigned. It was just as well. Before I reported to my speech class I stopped at the nurse's office so I didn't need to make my exit in front of everyone.

"Oh, Billie Joe, I was just going to call you out of first period. Are you feeling ill?"

"No, ma'am," I said. "I heard it through the grapevine that you wanted to see me."

"Oh, well, yes I do. What did the grapevine have to say about the purpose of the meeting," she inquired.

"They didn't say, but I expect it is to make certain I'm not bonkers and likely to go nutso in school or anything, which I'm not if my opinion interests you?"

"Of course it does. While being bonkers would require a professional diagnosis, I want to let you know I'm here if you would like to talk. If you are feeling pressured or merely want to talk I want you to feel free to come to me."

"Thank you. I'll keep that in mind," I said, trying to sound delighted.

"Fine. You have your schedule and your books?"

"Yes, ma'am," I said, before going off to make my late entrance into speech class.

She seemed content that I wasn't going to shoot the place up in my spare time. Little did she suspect that it was far more likely I might love the place up.

I stayed to myself and only interacted in class if I was called on. Speech and drama were loosely structured to encouraging the students to participate. Psychology was equally as casual with reading from the text required. I had the same teacher in English and English Lit, which consisted of equal amounts of reading, discussion, and writing. English required the only serious concentration.

I did my impression of the silent man the first few days. Getting myself to focus was the hard part. I was easily distracted, usually by my own thoughts. My fear of being confronted by what I had done last summer hadn't surfaced and most kids seemed oblivious to my misadventures.

The teachers didn't treat me any different from other students in their class. Being behind from the start required extra reading to catch up with the class. By the end of the first week I'd caught up. I wasn't a good student. My grades reflected as much. I was going to do better by spending more time getting my grades up. It would help to pass the time and was far easier than looking for ways to avoid doing the work, which was how I did it before.

I read the book we'd decided to read in English Literature and caught up on all my homework by the first weekend after returning to school. My worries about the return to school seemed unfounded. Any talk about my disappearance hadn't penetrated any of my classes, although it was a good size school and I was taking quite a mix and match group of subjects that tended toward the more creative minds and less toward the more violent among us.

My parents and I called a truce. Meals were where we met most often. I always complimented my mother's cooking and I thanked her. I was thankful I no longer needed to rummage through dumpsters for my food.

The weekend went by all too swiftly and being home for ten days erased any casual reflections on my summer. It was late at night when I was haunted by the streets, the fear, and the feeling of being lost and wandering in a wilderness unknown to me.

Monday morning I was in front of my locker when I saw George Phelps coming down the hallway toward me. I'd forgotten about Marina Phelps seeing me at the clinic. Seeing her did upset me at the time, because if she learned anything about the purpose of my visit she would have shared it with George.

As I cradled some books in one arm, I reached into my locker for more. George stopped beside me even as I was trying to ignore him. Placing his hand in the middle of my books, he pushed downward until they fell on the floor.

It had begun.

I was half in and half out of my locker, trying to recover my balance as my books clattered to the floor. My initial reaction was to explode all over his big fat ass, but in my head I saw the face of Mr. Burgess and his warning to me.

One wrong move and I was going to be out of school no matter how pleasant Mr. Burgess sounded. No one had said it, but I knew they were looking for any sign that my presence was going to cause trouble. It made no difference whose fault the trouble was. I was the one being watched.

I focused on keeping my balance and ignoring him. He kicked the leg that was keeping me from falling and I ended up on the floor on top of my books. It was easy to see the hatred on his face. We'd never been friends but we'd never come to blows.

"Faggot," he snarled under his breath as several of his friends laughed and looked back at the scene of me being on the floor.

As George moved along to rejoin them, his goon squad gave him high fives. They kept walking when I failed to jump up to defend my honor. Our parents had been friends all my life, but I never liked George and I avoided him at gatherings when we went as families to socialize at special community events. George was obnoxious yet he'd never been confrontational, but he'd never been in a position to cause me trouble before my excursion.

I was a bit embarrassed as I ended up on my hands and knees while kids had gathered to see the goings on. Someone reached down and picked up a couple of books and someone else offered me a hand up.

Standing and taking the books, I said, "Thanks," checking to see which books I needed and which went back into my locker.

"You can't let him get away with that," a strong confident voice explained.

I looked up and away from my books to find people walking in both directions. I wasn't able to pick out the owner of the voice. I looked down the hall and back up the hall, but my time on view had passed. It was time to be in homeroom and that's where I headed. I wondered if the voice had come from inside my head but didn't know.

I understood I couldn't let George push me around, but there was a bigger picture involved. If I had to fight George and his buddies, it had to come off school grounds. Avoiding him had always worked, and I would continue avoiding him if it was possible.

Later that week it became obvious it was no longer possible. Gym class was always a break in my day. It came before lunch, which was great timing. On Friday it rained, so we weren't allowed outside to play touch football or softball. I dressed and reported to the gym with the other three classes that took gym at the same time.

There was something called murder ball that the gym teachers loved to employ on days when we were all inside at the same time. This left the gym crowded and created a target-rich environment. There was something like a rubber ball of the type used in kickball with half the air taken out. This diminishing of the air made the impact or being hit with the ball easy to hear and see. The ball was thrown into the middle of over a hundred kids and the object was to hit someone on the other half of the floor. Once you were hit you sat down on the edge of the gym floor.

This was your basic madhouse with guys on one side of the gym trying to hit guys on the other side of the gym. As guys were hit and sat down, the madhouse became less mad and the sounds of the game consisted of a thud, a loud "Ouch!" from the kid hit and cheers and applause from that side's already disqualified members.

I mingled in the midst of the mob for the first half of the game, but it became more difficult to stay out of the line of fire. I did not suspect or sense that the game was about to become serious until I heard a loud scream from behind me and there was a sudden sharp pain between my shoulder blades.

The next thing I knew I was lying on my back looking at the ceiling. The odd part of it was the ball was on our side of the floor and I had been hit from behind. I was hit by my own man, I reasoned as I tried to start breathing again. That's when I heard George's primal scream.

"He's got AIDS. Fucking faggot has AIDS."

I became aware of someone holding me up by the front of my shorts so only my sore shoulders touched the floor ever so slightly.

"Go ahead and breathe. It'll only hurt for a little while. Breathe, damn it!"

The first inhalation of air was like sucking down jagged glass. I gulped air for a minute or two before the gym teacher stopped assisting me.

"Go sit down. You'll be okay."

"Where the fuck is he?" I growled, trying to get up.

"Cool your tool, youngster. He's a bit out of your weight class. He's being taken care of."

Lunch wasn't all it could have been. I had a headache and my stomach didn't have its mind on the food. I made it to my next class without enthusiasm. I'd just gotten settled when the call came.

"Billie Joe Walker Jr., please report to Mr. Burgess in his office right away."

I collected my books and headed for the door.

"Mr. Burgess called me out of class," I announced to the girl at the counter as she looked up from the morning paper to point at his office door.

She pointed at his office without speaking.

When I got inside the door, I saw George sitting in front of the vice-principal's desk. I dropped my books and went after him. My oath to myself not to give George what he wanted didn't come to mind. Mr. Burgess, probably expecting trouble, intercepted me at the corner of his desk. George bravely stood up once Mr. Burgess was between us. I ended up sitting in the other chair in front of the desk, after Mr. Burgess dragged it a safe distance from where George sat. I breathed heavily and glared at George.

"Okay, that's it. Both of you are walking a fine line. Mr. Walker I'm disappointed in you for several reasons. I thought our talk last week made it clear you would come to me if you ran into trouble," he said, straightening his sports coat and tie.

I looked at George and he was glaring at me. Do I get anything from either of you two that explains your behavior in gym class and now here."

"He's got AIDS. He's a faggot like his dead faggy friend. They were fagging each other."

"You don't know your facts very well. Maybe if I give you three days off to think about it, you might have a change of heart," Mr. Burgess said as he jotted something down on a message slip. "You're suspended until next Thursday morning. Get out of my sight and don't try to con your parents. They'll be receiving a call from me to explain the suspension."

George grabbed the note from the vice-principal's hand and acted like he was going after me as he moved past my chair. I started up out of my seat to meet him half way, but he turned toward the door before we could clash.

Mr. Burgess drummed his fingers and shook his head as he looked at me.

"You weren't going to talk about the AIDS test," he said, sounding disappointed.

"I didn't. I'm not a fool. Why would I tell that asshole?"

"Mr. Walker, let's keep it civil. How does he know if you didn't tell someone?"

"His mother works at the clinic. She saw me. I saw her talking to the nurse that took my blood. She figured the rest out on her own."

"It does complicate matters," he said, drumming his fingers some more.

"Well, I could give you the same treatment I gave Phelps, but the gym teachers agree he came at you from behind and blindsided you. That leaves you in a gym class with a hundred boys any of whom might hold what Phelps said against you. What if I let you transfer to study hall that period? You don't need that credit."

"What if I agree to drop gym if you transfer me to an extra class in drama or speech. They're both interesting in a way I didn't expect."

"I'll speak to the teachers. It's highly unusual, but under the circumstances, if you assure me you'll come to me if Phelps causes any more trouble anywhere at any time, I'll ask both teachers to consider allowing you in the third period class."

"I can't avoid George. We go to the same school and he's gunning for me. I come to you and I'm a marked man. Being a crybaby isn't my style, Mr. Burgess. I can fight if I need to fight. I can take care of myself," I explained as he seemed to listen to every word without interrupting me.

"I heard about the incident in the hall. If you had come to me I couldn't have headed this off. I understand this puts you in a bad situation. My job is to protect you and keep you in school. Anything at school, anything at all, if he looks at you sideways, I want to know about it. Whatever happens off school property is your business. Is that satisfactory? I'll tell him I'll expel him the next time and that will probably keep him away from you here, but he's your typical asshole bully. He's come at you twice from behind. He doesn't want a fair fight. I can't sanction you two fighting, but if it comes to pass off of school property, I'll turn a blind eye and figure it couldn't be avoided."

"Thanks," I said. "That's acceptable. I won't fight him if I can avoid it."

"There will be pressure put on me if you do fight off campus. I'll do what I can to deflect it but not fighting is the best idea. Fighting never solves problems."

"Yes, sir," I said.

Over the next few days I was asked about my AIDS test. There was only one way anyone knew, and it all went back to Marina Phelps and her son George. While I had no intention of hiding what I was, I also didn't have any intention of facing the entire student body to explain my sexuality or my HIV status. It didn't seem that should be a required part of the curriculum.

It took that entire week for me to consider leaving. I even thought about going out to stay with Earl and go to school just up the street from his house, but I knew that would be worse than listening to the bigots each day. While George was a pain in my ass, I was surprised that no one else found it necessary to harass me. After George made his announcement in gym, I expected to hear from the other bullies in school. This could create more to be afraid of.

Guys were always calling one another faggot and worse. It was possible that the buzz created by George's attack on me could be seen as pure viciousness, because he hit me from behind, which was seen as dirty pool by most boys. It was possible his verbal attack would be seen the same way. George Phelps was arrogant as well as a bully. He wasn't going to win any popularity contests. If my adversary was better positioned in school and respected, the damage would have been permanent. It was never good to be called a fag, but if someone was going to hit you with the label, it was better when it came from a fat bozo like George. His only standing came from his followers who weren't smart enough to have a personality of their own.

By the time George returned to school the memory of what he said would have faded. Getting out of gym was no great loss. It meant I would no longer be there as a reminder of what took place. Gym was probably the most dangerous place for any outcast. I wasn't giving up much, but I was reducing my exposure to danger, or so it seemed.

Fear was easy to identify. Simply the act of living on the street had certain dangers attached to it, and with them came a cautious fear. While I felt fear about a lot of people knowing too much about me and what I'd done, the level of anger I felt boiling inside me blunted the cautious fear significantly. As unsettling as the fear was to face, the anger worried me more. I didn't know when it would surface and I couldn't control it when it did. I worried that I could seriously hurt someone without intending to do it. This was a remnant of the street I hadn't bargained for.

You learned to live with fear by listening to the signals coming from your own mind. You didn't so much live with anger as you kept it under control. Once your back is against the wall it's anger that brings you out fighting.

I wasn't scared of George. I did fear his words. I didn't know what I was capable of doing if cornered. At times I was barely able to stay in control.

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