The Circle Squared - Book One: Squaring the Circle

by Smokr

Chapter 2

"Rockin' The Paradise"

Monday

"Alex, hun, you awake yet?"

With a typical teenager's groan at being woken up, and then some, I answered back with a grunted, "Yeah."

The single word triggered coughing, as usual. Even if I hadn't spoken, my first breaths each morning always brought the deep, racking coughing which always produced thick mucus, often of various colors. Once the fit was over, I complained in my new lower, nearly gravelly voice, "Mom! I don't have school today, ya know!"

That caused fresh coughs.

She was still at the bottom of the stairs, and answered, "Oh, I know. But you're getting up and having a decent breakfast. No cereal. Now get in the shower and get down here so I can take care of your bandages and you can eat. Hurry up."

With an even more heartfelt groan, I began moving. The burns hated my first movements in the morning, and I had to move slowly and carefully. I had developed a habit of sleeping on my left side, sparing the burns my weight through the night. That meant laying on my temple and the sutures there from the surgery, but I had found ways to lay my head so that it was tolerable.

Showering was a chore, as I had to take care not to let the water directly hit the sore burns or the sutured incision at my temple. I also had to be very careful not to let any shampoo get around those sutures, as it stung horribly. Since waking up after almost a week of being drugged unconscious, and another week in a hospital bed, I was weak and easily tired. At the end of even that quick shower I needed to sit and regain my breath, breathing carefully so that I didn't start yet another coughing fit.

Eventually I dressed in sweats and headed downstairs, despite weak and wobbly legs. But even as carefully and slowly as I moved, I was nearly panting as I entered the kitchen. Mom had pancakes and bacon ready. She applied the oily cream to the burns on my back and side, and then covered them with large gauze pads held in place by elastic mummy wrapping. The entire time, she reminded me that I had a doctor's appointment on Friday, that the workmen were coming today to work on the garage, and that I had chores needing to be done around the house, as well as other normal things.

After checking the numerous healed dots on my legs, where drops of flaming plastic and nylon carpeting had burned and melted through my jeans, and after changing the bandage and applying ointment to the temple wound, she started on the splints for my injured fingers.

"Can we skip that?" I asked.

"You going to do them yourself?" she asked doubtfully.

I flexed my left hand, holding it out before me. The two middle fingers were still slightly swollen, and painful of course. They didn't want to open all the way, nor close all the way, and any movement was at least slightly painful. I bent the wrist, turned it, and then rotated it several different ways. It tended to pop and click a lot, but other than the pain in the tendons to my fingers, the wrist itself felt much better.

"Probably. Or not. Lemme have it out for now. I'll have Tom do it or do it later myself if I need to."

Surprisingly, she silently put the metal splints and gauze wrap with the rest of the new medical supplies on the counter.

"I laid out the pills for this morning," she said, pointing at the table next to my plate.

I took all but the little yellow pill that was intended to help me, "... deal with any lingering anxiety from your experience." What it did was erase all emotions and leave me feeling like an empty shell. It did seem to release me from the terrifying dreams when I took it at night, but that led to a morning that seemed to last forever, in which nothing mattered and I didn't enjoy anything.

After the Tylenol poisonings and deaths, just months before, Mom, and most mothers were wary of pills, and that affected me. I was already paranoid about medications in general.

I was willing to take the general vitamins and the pill that promoted skin growth, because, it was mostly naturally derived and basically just a combination of hormone and vitamin. I was barely willing to take the antibiotic. It wasn't one of the questionable ones, but I found almost all man-made chemicals to be dubious. I was even willing to take the artificial steroid but planned to drop it as soon as I showed no signs of needing it. The sleeping pill was an artificial version of a natural compound. I preferred not to use it, but often did. The little yellow pill was the worst. It was a totally artificial compound that mimicked a natural chemical in the brain, blocking the brain receptors that transmitted mood-related signals, blocking emotional responses. That was about all that was known about it.

I ate, wishing that the burns were healed and I was going back to school and things were back to normal, with the exception of Jeff.

I grinned to myself as I pondered the fact that Jeff and I were together and it was the new normal. It seemed too awesome to be real, every time I thought of it.

"You hear me young man?" mom insisted. "You're not so wounded that you can't get some of these things done around here."

"Mom, you don't have to remind me of everything every day, okay?"

She smiled and nodded but continued reminding me of things until the moment she walked out the door to the honking of her carpool van.

"You could'a backed me up," I complained to Dad.

He smiled and said, "What? And have your mom thinking attitude adjustment? No thanks. Valentine's Day. You think I want her to have any ammunition tonight?"

I rolled my eyes as I returned to my breakfast.

Valentine's Day. I never even thought of it. All that time I should'a been thinking that! It's Valentine's Day and I've got Jeff! I should'a thought of it and gotten him something! Dumb-ass. Or would that make him uncomfortable?

"And one thing your mother didn't think to remind you of in her flurry of motherly activities this morning was that we'd be out tonight until ten or so."

"Yeah, yeah. And you never answered just how you got reservations at The Sabre Room tonight."

His only answer was the same grin as before.

"And be sure you thank her for all the hot breakfasts. In case you haven't noticed."

"Oh, I noticed. I figure she's got at least this week to go. Once I don't have to wear any bandages every day, she'll go back to normal."

I'd already thought of telling her not to bother making breakfasts, but I knew that she would probably have a good reason for continuing, at least for a few more days.

"When's it her turn to drive the pool next?"

"Two more weeks."

"Ah. So that'll be when breakfasts go back to normal."

As I placed my dishes into the dishwasher, Dad's ride pulled up and honked.

"Remember what your mom said, son. It'll go easier, you know," he said with a wide grin. "And it's really good to have you back home, kidd-er, son." He reached for his wallet and said, "Here, get pizza or something tonight," handing me twenty dollars.

He still looked a bit odd wearing that fedora to cover his lost hair, but his hands and arms looked normal now, except for lack of hair.

A twinge of guilt ran through me again at seeing him. Without thinking of it, I again apologized.

"Son, stop it. I told you. I'd trade all my hair for the rest of my life to have you here. This is nothing. It'll grow back in time. I'm fine." He smiled as he shrugged and then adjusted his hat on the way out to the front door and to his ride, saying, "Besides, I look damned good in a fedora!"

The moment he was gone, I relaxed. I hadn't noticed that I was tense until then. For a moment, I wondered what had caused that tension, but soon I was thinking again of Jeff, and grinning.

Suddenly I felt like dancing around. My stomach felt as if a small swarm of butterflies had just hatched and taken to flight. I wasn't the dancing type, but I had an unusual desire to move about freely and joyously to music. I hadn't felt like that since Toby, so naturally his name popped up, and a whole other group of butterflies was birthed and taking to wing in my guts. And of course, as soon as that name popped up, thoughts of him followed.

The fact that Toby had warned me of the van even before it was mine, and that without his warning I might well have burned to death alone in it, warred with my mortal self's certainty that there was no way to punch through the barrier of death.

The very thought of death caused my eyes to swing toward the door to the garage and to cause images from my nightmares to run across my mind's eye.

I got through that barrier the hard way that time, I thought. Damn!

The expletive was in response to a violent spasm that ran behind my right eye, forcing it to wink while at the same instant my right hand momentarily snapped into a fist.

But worse, I felt even more butterflies stirring in my stomach at the thought of the garage, these taking violently to wing. The usual ones that came along with thoughts of Toby, and the newer ones from thoughts of being with Jeff, both suddenly fled in terror. Somehow their absence in no way lessened the effects on my stomach of these newest butterflies and their agitated flight.

The garage. Fuck. I ain't been out there since then, not even since I got back from the hospital three days ago. Did I forget it even existed? I don't remember thinking about it at all. Not once. Yet I died out there. Almost. Or did, for a while.

As I stood at the counter near the dishwasher, the door to the garage seemed to grow larger and closer, bringing a looming fear with it. All the joy of just moments before, at thoughts of Jeff and Toby, was gone, crushed by the weight of the terrors so recently so real.

The next thing I knew, I found myself opening the garage door. The strong odor of gasoline, burned plastic, carpet, and rubber assailed me instantly. Those combined odors brought back memories of the van more powerfully than ever before. Even the vivid nightmares had been weak compared to the images, emotions, and sensations that momentarily consumed every thought as those smells assailed me.

I thought of the little yellow pills. I hated the empty non-feeling they created, however, I seriously considered running for one. They were only a few feet behind me in the kitchen, on the counter, on a tray, in a bottle...

I flipped on the garage lights. My eyes were instantly drawn to where the van had been parked that day. My parents' car should have been parked near the door, blocking part of my view of the actual area. Instead, it was gone. I assumed it was parked outside for the work being done inside the garage this morning. The floor was bare, and where I expected cabinets along the walls, they were gone. All the metal shelves were stacked in front of the back garage door, where the walls didn't need anything but fresh paint.

Where at one time I could have almost eaten off the garage floor, now I wouldn't have sat down on it. The concrete was stained darkly in odd shapes, from near the garage door to nearly halfway to the rear wall. The far wall was soot-stained from the overhead door to halfway to the window in the middle of the wall. It started at a clean horizontal line where the wooden counter along that wall had since been taken out, and in wavy streaks reached up to and out across the ceiling. A space on the wall was smeared where Mom or Dad had tried to clean the blackness away. The ceiling was the worst; it was blackened in the front corner where the van had sat, and black trails and whorls of soot and smoke ranged over the ceiling, clear to the back wall and over my head as I stood in the door to the kitchen.

As I stood there, I could almost see it all happening. The smoke hanging low, almost chest height judging by the faded layering on the walls. Dad in a panic, rushing through the door here, his always short hair singed shorter, his face red and nearly blistered, his arms already red and hairless, dialing the phone, asking for help for his dead son.

Tom, Knight, out in the garage, alone with the body of his best friend, frantically trying the tricks and techniques learned in a single-semester high school class on life saving.

Myself, lying on the garage floor, blood running from my temple onto the concrete. No breath, no pulse.

As if I had been teleported, I suddenly stood where the van had been parked. The air in the garage was frigid and ignored my feeble sweatpants and shirt. The cold concrete seemed to suck the heat from the soles of my feet, but I stood there nonetheless.

There was where I lay while Dad went to call for help and Tom used mouth-to-mouth to get me breathing again. This was where I died. Really died. If Tom hadn't come by, I'd be dead. Dad didn't know about artificial resuscitation. If Tom hadn't taken Life Resources class instead of Health and Reproduction, I'd be dead, I thought.

I had been so very close to being with Toby forever at that point, I reminisced. While Tom breathed life back into me, Toby and I talked about so much. About our feelings for each other, and mine about Tom and Jeff. And he had hinted so much about theirs for me. He hinted about the differences between Tom and Jeff by leading me on the topic of my glasses. He told me to watch closely when my glasses were given back to me, that I would be able to find a clue about the two of them in that act.

And I had turned to look behind me, that first time with him. I was so very close that I could have touched him. So close that I had seen that" wall behind me. That whirling, bubbling, chaotic barrier between life and death. The shock of it threw me back to myself. I was back in the real world, was prisoner in my own body, drugged into unconsciousness in the hospital, knowing only suffocation and pain.

It had been a living hell, waking again and again to pain and immobility, silence and suffocation, drifting between dreams of death and blurry torture.

In response to the memories, my breath was shallow and rapid. Even though I knew air was moving through my lungs well enough, I still felt short of it. That fear of suffocation, despite my breathing nearly normally, tried its best to take me over.

I threw off those horrible memories of the agony, sweat forming in armpits and palms. I swayed momentarily, nausea just teasing from a distance.

A clear spot about the size of a wheel or beach-ball stood out clearly. Someone had cleaned that spot diligently. It was the color the garage floor must have been the day it was laid some five years ago. Adjoining stains ended at its periphery.

That's where I'd bled, I knew. Mom had probably insisted that Dad bleach and scrub that spot clean. It was obvious that the rest of the floor had been swept and cleaned of the burned and melted plastic and rubber that had dripped and fallen there, but this was the only spot that was truly clean.

As I pictured that scene, that distant nausea began jogging toward me, waving and smiling in anticipatory glee. I grew hot, my body seemingly remembering the conditions in the van. The burns on my right side and back itched and prickled, sweat aggravating them. Nausea arrived and took me into a tight embrace against my will. I belched loudly, wetly. My glasses slid down my nose on sweat. I swayed, and the garage began to twirl around me. My right eye winked, my right hand jerked.

Without thinking to, I stood up straight, closed my eyes, and inhaled deeply, ignoring smell and vision. I held that breath momentarily then exhaled powerfully, letting my arms hang loosely. I inhaled again, controlled. My only thought was a brief thanks to the nice elderly teacher who had shown me the technique so long ago to control my speech.

I took several deep breaths, smoothly and fluidly, ignoring everything but feeling the air moving through my chest despite the tickle deep within. I cut out sound and sight, seeing instead the various systems and parts that made up my physical form. I heard only my breath and my heart. I fought down the nausea and brought my balance under my control.

I felt the familiar, wonderful sense of washing away those awful things, replacing them with stability, calmness, and control. I saw myself as stationary, solid, flexible but resistant. I was in control, I assured myself. I let myself recede a bit more, closing in on absolute disconnect.

I focused on myself, my body, my breathing, swallowing, standing erect and stable.

Feeling better, I opened my eyes, and again felt the nagging itch of sweaty burns, smelled the stinking garage, saw the clean spot on the floor.

I returned to the kitchen. The stink followed me there.

In time it'll be like it never happened, I assured myself. Not only the garage, but also the memories of the flames, the heat, the pain. The fear. The suffocation. The horror of being trapped and helpless. The sense of imminent death. The agony of each strained breath full of hot, searing fumes and chemicals. My own heartbeat throbbing in the bones of my skull. The peppery-popping-searing needles thrusting into my shins.

I shivered as I turned off the lights and closed the door.

Someday it'll be like it never happened, I reassured myself as I nearly collapsed into a chair, holding myself upright by placing my hands onto the tabletop.

Even the memories of suffocation, immobility, and pain from the hospital. The repeated sessions of searing agony and suffocation between the dark, horrifying visions of torture and death. The eventual waking, the coughing until I cramped, puking up pieces of my discolored lungs until my head was splitting with agony and I grew dizzy and puked in earnest.

I shivered again, sweat beading on my forehead.

For the first time, I noticed that the kitchen wall above and around the door, as well as the ceiling, had been freshly painted. I hadn't known that smoke had gotten in past the garage door. But then, I thought, someone probably opened it before all the smoke had cleared out.

Of course! Dad had run through it to call nine-one-one! I realized.

My eyes shot over to the phone hanging on the wall. The sudden reality of that situation struck me like a thrown rock. Or one propelled by a snow blower, I thought.

Naturally, my fingers gently probed my temple. It was more numb than anything, as was usual once I had taken that morning pill for pain. The sharp pains that had accompanied the transitions to visits with Toby was a clear memory; I winced at it.

The smaller pain pills that I didn't mind taking worked okay to dull those pains, and the pains from the burns. The stronger pills did more, I forgot about all pain, and just sat and went vacant. Sleeping, but awake, and dull. As good as dead, really. So I settled for the smaller, weaker ones. But as I sat there, looking at the doorway to the garage, I began thinking that it might have been a good idea to be on the major pain killers right then.

It'll someday be like it never happened, I promised myself yet again.

Looking at the clock, I saw that I had about an hour before the workmen showed up to work on the garage. Dad had given them his remote control for the garage door, so I didn't need to answer the door or even make an appearance. I locked the door between the garage and the kitchen and headed upstairs to my room. The stairs were now a hurdle where once they had hardly been noticeable. By the time I reached my room I was again out of breath, nearly panting, and my legs were wobbly.

And I felt out of place. Immediately. I was at home, in my room, but it was a school day. I should be there. I missed it.

But not the normal for now. Not for a week or so. Suck.

Geeze, I miss school. Nerd. Dork. Geek. Fag.

I sat at my desk and rolled a joint. I wrote in the journal very briefly. Doodling more than anything. Just words. I missed school, Jeff, Tom, normal life. Being able to move without worrying about the fingers or the burns, or the sore muscles, or being weak. Or breathing clearly.

The joint did help cough up a few chunks, and it seemed I was breathing a little clearer by the time I turned on the television and tried to find something worth watching. With nothing but soap operas and talk shows, I gave up quickly. Looking over my VHS tapes, I didn't find anything I wanted to watch again. I looked at the Atari and dismissed it quickly; it was only fun with someone to play with.

Sitting back at the desk, I settled in for a boring day. Thoughts of jacking-off popped up more than once, and I even gave myself a few rubs and squeezes, hoping that the mood would develop. It was quickly clear that no such desire was going to rise easily, especially with a work crew due to show up, and after Jeff and I had spent Saturday night and Sunday morning depleting each other. I gave up. I wondered if it was from one of the pills.

Maybe time will go by quickly, I hoped, fearing that it wouldn't. I heard the workmen arrive outside and watched as they threw a tarp over my parents' car and then carried buckets and sheets of drywall out of view toward the garage.

What the hell am I going to do all day? And for the rest of the fucking week? Shit. Got the whole week off school. That's cool, but what the hell can I do? Tom's there, along with Jeff and all the rest of the guys. Can't go talk to Tim, I won't even get a letter from him for probably days yet. Don't wanna go anywhere on my bike in this weather. Even if I had the energy. It was stupid to ride it to school before. Tom was a dumb-ass for doing it with me. Or a best friend. Or both.

I didn't want to dwell on those thoughts. I wanted something to do, but I couldn't think of anything that appealed to me. I ended up doing homework in silence until I suddenly I wanted music. Tom's brother had bought a new Walkman that played compact discs, and he had passed his cassette-playing Walkman to Tom, who had given it to me in the hospital. He and Jeff and some of the other guys had then given, or bought for me, nearly every album they knew I liked that I didn't already have on tape. My hospital room had been well stocked with music, and now my bedroom had a sizable collection of cassettes. I had meant to order and arrange them this week, so I got started.

At first I let the radio play, but when I came across Paradise Theater, the yearning began burning. It hadn't been at the hospital, so I'd not heard it through for weeks, a record length of time since its release two years ago. Toby had been visiting for the first time when it was new, and he had experienced it for the first of many times. Toby had brought his guitar with him, and I played what parts of it I could with a simple synthesizer from Sears. Together we imagined ourselves on stage, backstage, and living the lifestyles of the rich and famous rockers.

It had been the sound track to our summer, and it had remained our album that second summer together as well. While the cheap, new, J. C. Penny keyboard could sound something like what Styx used at times, it failed for the most part. But that hadn't stopped me from playing along until I had nearly the whole album down pat for almost all the keyboard parts by the time Toby had returned the next summer. I hadn't expected his return, had been playing and practicing Styx and some other groups simply because I enjoyed it and it brought back memories of being with him.

That second summer, I had planned to take Toby to play at the twins' house, where they had dual drum sets and a real synthesizer. They played drums nearly constantly, and the few Circle meetings we had at their house would invariably include some time with the three of us jamming along to Styx and others. They had gotten a real synthesizer for me to play by that second summer, one used by professionals, even Styx. But Toby and I had never gotten around to it. We'd had only a very short time together that second summer, and had spent most of it alone together.

One regret, I thought, and vowed again my vow to share Toby whenever possible, and never to deny him.

I started the tape of Paradise Theater and tried to clear my throat. Singing along to favorite songs had always been something I secretly enjoyed doing. I knew that I wasn't very good, but that didn't stop me when I was alone. Even with one of the guys, or during Circle meetings, I'd sung along a few times, as had most of them. But alone or with Toby, I sang out loud.

I'd sung to Styx the most, by far, but also with nearly any other singer or group that I liked. I'd lower or raise my voice, trying to sound like the singer, always off but always with equal gusto. I could almost sing along with others, but Dennis I could mimic well. My only real difficulty was the lower parts, and his amazing personal vocalizations.

So as he opened "A.D. 1928," I did too. Or tried. My voice cracked and crackled. I coughed a bit and cleared my throat, then rejoined him at "And I'll take any risk." Or tried to.

Aggravated, I coughed and cleared my throat again. This time some mucus was cleared. I rejoined him again at, "And stay with you here tonight."

Or I tried to.

I spent considerable time humming and hawing, trying to loosen my vocal chords. I hadn't sung aloud since before the fire, and obviously I was going to need some tuning up. Knowing the high yells ahead in the next song, I wondered if I was going to be able to do it, let alone the rest of the album.

I rewound the tape and tried again. It'd been so easy before, but now, with lungs and throat damaged by heat and chemicals, I found that I was unable to produce the same high, clear, loud notes.

I spoke aloud a while, hearing my voice and hearing the difference for the first time. Nearly everyone had mentioned that my voice had changed, but I hadn't paid it much attention. The yelling and screaming, or the thick, chemical-laden smoke, or possibly both, had caused either damage or changes to my vocal chords. I could tell that my voice was a bit lower and very much rougher.

I wondered if it was permanent, or if only a temporary situation until my vocal chords healed.

What about when it gets lower from growing more? I wondered. Sixteen ain't done growing. So my voice wasn't done dropping before, either. It kind of needed to. It didn't much before, I still had a higher voice than most of my friends. I was able to sing along with Dennis and others that high. I knew it was gonna get deeper. I didn't expect the roughness, though.

I let the song play, giving half-hearted attempts at places, between bouts of coughing and catching my breath.

I found my fingers playing air-synthesizer during the songs out of habit, wincing at even the reduced motions of the middle two fingers on my left hand. I tried to sing along throughout the album, but with my new, lower voice, I couldn't. My voice cracked and broke when I tried anything above my new normal speaking voice. Before the fire I had been able to sing along through most of the album, but trying to follow Tommy Shaw's voice in the lower ranges had been awful. Now, I could sing that low, or nearly so, between gasping for air during the longer sections and fighting the urge to cough.

For the first time, I swung low along with, "mirror, mirror, I confess," through, "feelin' again," right up to the slide upward through, "snowblind," where I broke up. The sad ending strings to "Snowblind" seemed to perfectly fit my mood.

The powerful lyrics of "Half-Penny, Two-Penny" brought some feeling of success. I'd never been able to sing to it before: my voice had always been too light to sound serious enough for the power of the lyrics. Now I yelled them out, denying the desire to cough. I pushed my voice, making it do what I wanted. I pushed my diaphragm up but held the air back. I thought that I felt my vocal chords vibrating, smashing back and forth. I began applying more pressure to my lungs while holding back the passage of that air. After I nearly yelled, "we all wanna be free" into the middle, acoustic section, I panted for breath and allowed the coughs for a while.

I worked with my diaphragm, taking note of how it moved, how far, and what strength it had. I pushed with it, but didn't let any air move. I tried inhaling while holding my breath. Immediately I was assailed by fears of suffocation and images of the van fire. I continued experimenting until the vocals returned.

I joined in with gusto. It was too high, but I sang anyway, lower and flatter. After I yelled out the last "we all wanna be free", I coughed deeply until chunks came up. I spat them into the toilet and noticed that my breathing was smoother. What looked like thin strips of skin were floating in the water. They were pink and yellow, and certainly not phlegm. I coughed and nursed my throat as I listened to the perfect, clear saxophone wailing out the end of the song. My injured fingers sent twinges of pain up my arm as they phantom-played the last piano notes that led into the finale of the album behind Dennis and his lovely voice.

I took several drinks of water, swishing the first and last around in my mouth, and my throat felt less painful. I tried a few words and found my voice even lower, but a bit less rough. Taking several deep breaths, I noticed that part of the harshness was no longer evident. There was an almost wet kind of tingle in my voice box, but it wasn't painful or very uncomfortable. I continued clearing my throat for a while, unused to the sensation. I stopped the tape deck before it would begin playing the first side again.

I'll never sing like that again, I lamented, feeling a sense of loss. The ending of Paradise Theater always left me with melancholy, even while sitting next to Toby, but now, knowing that my voice was unable to match even my poor performances of before, and that my hand would be unable to even play the synthesizer, my desire for playing vanished again.

I laid down on my bed, nursing a sore throat and aching fingers and wrist, wishing that I had something to do to take my mind off music. I didn't want to think and end up in the same place I always did when I started thinking, but I had nothing else to do. The ending of Paradise Theater played repeatedly in my mind, driving me into that familiar melancholy. I had never been a good singer, but I'd enjoyed trying, and that was gone now. I'd been very good at picking up notes and playing them on a keyboard, and that was likely gone now as well. Toby was gone, period. I did my best to not think of all the horrible things. I was home, safe, and things could get back to normal.

Normal, hah! I thought with a mental laugh. What's normal? Especially for me? I'm the fag. And the red-head. And the four-eyes. And the geek, even if I'm more nerd than geek. And I fell in love with a guy who became one of my best friends. And now we're gonna be going out. Well, not dating. Or maybe. I don't know. But it won't be the old normal. Some new kind of normal. Just so long as it's mostly normal. And quiet. And I get to stay in the background. As long as I get Jeff.

I stretched out on the bed, feeling tired despite having done next to nothing. I knew it would be a while before I got my stamina back, that recovering from death and laying about in a bed for two weeks had weakened me considerably. It felt very good to lay there and relax.

Suddenly, the stink of gasoline filled my senses and I quailed in fear.

I watched as I pumped the gas pedal once, then moved the Styx medallion aside so that I could grasp and turn the ignition key.

The engine turned for several seconds, almost catching, but not quite. The smell of gas grew stronger.

"Yeah. Old Chevy, not started for a few days, in cold weather, used to driving every day. She's gonna be stubborn. I should've gotten some starting fluid. And that gas leak is serious when it turns over. I shouldn't of messed around with it without taking the cowl off. See if you can pop that hatch cover, will ya, son?"

I leaned across the sizable hump between the front seats, knowing that I would be unable to open the hatch cover. Still, I unlatched the one on the passenger side easily. The driver side was far more difficult; I pulled and yanked, afraid I might tear it off. The van was shaking from my efforts.

"Don't break it off. I tried. It's stuck good. Try to start it one more time, then we get that clasp fixed so we can get to the engine decently. Go ahead and try starting it again."

"At least you know I ain't even started it," I answered with a sly grin.

I didn't feel like grinning. I felt like screaming "Get the hell out of here!" and running for my life, but there was nothing I could do. I was fated to relive it again and again.

He peeked around the hood at me with a grin.

I thought, Don't stand there smiling at me! RUN!

Despite my best efforts to prevent myself from doing so, I turned the key again. The engine turned over, barely beginning to catch. Dad called for another pump of the accelerator. Knowing that it was the final doom, I watched as I pushed and released the accelerator. The engine turned faster, then caught with a pop. I tried to close my eyes as tightly as I could, knowing what was about to happen and completely unable to stop it. Another, louder pop, then an even louder "whoom!" as there was a bright, orange light, and I was knocked against the van door, my sore temple striking the pillar.

Things went fuzzy, and wobbly, and blurred, all at the same time. I heard my dad yelling my name. The engine cover was gone and flames rose toward the dashboard. My eyes closed instinctively against the heat and smoke. I could feel the heat of the fire on my right side. I choked on the odors of burning carpet, oil, rubber, and plastic.

I reached for the key, fumbled with the Styx medallion, and killed the engine. The flames still raged, even seemed to grow larger, and started burning the black shag carpet on the lower half of the dashboard less than a foot from me. Flames now reached to the height of my face. Thick, black smoke curled up the windshield and rolled over my head.

I opened the driver's door, but it hit the wall of the garage after a mere six or seven inches. My lungs began rejecting the air they drew in, making me cough uncontrollably. I couldn't keep my eyes open against the smoke and heat, let alone breathe it.

I heard my dad calling my name again. I tried to call back, but when I inhaled to scream, my lungs refused the smoke. I rolled the window down to get fresh air from outside the van, but the crank came off in my hand. The smoke increased and billowed out of the partially open window, still choking me. I slid as far from the blazing engine and dash as I could, pressing myself against the partially open door, shoving my face out the partially open window in an effort to find air.

Trapped!

I sat bolt upright, sweating, panting, coughing, shivering from fear and horror. The dream wasn't going away, it was seemingly just as happy to terrify me even in broad daylight. Though I had woken up somewhere in the middle of it, it was still just as potent. I shook off the remnants of the nightmare and went to the bathroom where I washed away the sweat. It took a few minutes, but I settled down and regained my composure.

I looked outside and saw that the work vans were gone. Curious, I went downstairs. On the way I wondered why I was so curious to see the repaired garage. Earlier, I had nearly passed out from being in there, but now I had to see it. Once I unlocked and opened the door, the stench of burning van was still in the air, but the more pleasant smell of fresh drywall and joint compound vied with it.

The entire ceiling was new. The entire wall opposite the door was fresh, as was the wall above the overhead door. The repairs went a long way in making the garage look better, but they did very little to make it feel any better.

The dashboard in flames, burning drops of it melting and falling onto the legs of my jeans, burning through the jeans, then burning into my shins. The flames from the engine heating my shirt near my right hip to the point that it started smoldering, searing my skin below. The painful, almost acidic burning of the smoke in my throat and lungs, making my eyes water uncontrollably. The sensation of being trapped and unable to do anything about my own impending, slow, painful death.

My stomach turned over noisily and I noticed that my breathing had picked up. I forced my body to relax and take control again.

It's over. And someday it'll all be like it never happened, I promised myself yet again as I turned off the lights and closed the door.

No, it won't, I realized. My voice changed because of it. For that at least, if for no other reason, it'll never be the same.

And Tom and me'll never be the same.

Or Jeff and me.

Or Tom and Jeff, I suddenly realized, seeing an entirely new angle to the situation.

I sat at the kitchen table, stunned. Whirling thoughts of the implications between Tom and Jeff, of Jeff and me being together, occupied me for quite some time.

I saw that I had not considered the effects of the situation between Jeff and Tom. I had never taken that angle into consideration. I tried to imagine their view of this new situation. Again and again, I imagined troubles, worries, problems for them. My mood fell into an even lower arena than listening to Paradise Theater had dropped it. Even lower than dealing with the garage had plummeted it.

It was the doorbell being rung that brought me back from those thoughts. The clock told me exactly who it was, and how long I had spent turning those thoughts over inside my head. I walked to the door and opened it with a grin I hoped he would find normal.

"Hey, man. What's up?" Tom asked, stepping through the door.

That simple question had previously carried the typical sexual innuendo prior to the last three weeks. Now, though, it was a simple question, as we had agreed to wind down the private jokes between us having to do with sex. We both half-grinned in recognition of the alteration.

Yet another thing that's changed so much recently, I lamented.

"Not much. Looks like a boring week," I said.

"Wish I had a boring week to look forward to. Lucky bastard. What'cha gonna do all week?"

"Probably just lay around," I said with a shrug.

"Just don't sprain your other hand. You'll need it when you get back to school to write with, ya know."

We laughed together as we headed upstairs. It seemed fine to joke about masturbation, just so long as we kept off direct sex between the two of us. I pondered how odd that was, until he broke the silence as we climbed the stairs.

"Sounds like your voice dropped some more."

"Sorta. Sound weird?"

"No. Just different, I guess. Not like sandpaper as much now, but lower."

"Guess some changes take longer, huh?"

We smoked a couple joints, played a few different Atari games, listened to some music, ordered Casciani's pizza delivered, and had a good time. For most of the night we were just buds again, without much to care about for a few hours. I had missed that a lot while in the hospital, and having it again helped me feel that things were somewhat normal. Or could be again.

At nine o'clock he paused the game, stood up, and walked toward the desk with an eye on his watch. I opened my mouth to ask what he was doing when he held up a single finger in a 'wait a minute' gesture and rested his other hand on the phone. He seemed to count the second hand on his watch for a few seconds before the phone rang. He picked it up before the first ring had a chance to finish and held it out to me with an innocent grin.

I narrowed my eyes and cocked my head. He gestured at me with the phone and held his chilling grin: I knew there was something up when he smiled like that.

There's only one person it could be, I thought, as I stood and took the phone from my knight's hand.

"Hi, Jeff," I said as I placed the phone to my head, grinning at Tom in victory.

"Hey Alex!" Jeff's voice said cheerily. "So how's stuff?"

Tom went back to Asteroids and I sat on the bed.

"So you guys planned this well. Real Mission Impossible stuff."

"Thanks. His idea."

"Figured. So, what's goin' on?"

"Well, uh, don't tell Tom, okay? But, I wanted to uh, to, uh..."

I sensed something in his voice that told me he was blushing and holding one hand over his eyes. I grinned to myself at that image of him. It also made me feel strangely wonderful.

"I, this is hard. Kinda bear with me, okay?"

"Hey, if it's hard, bare it" I said, laughing.

"Perv! I mean, you know what I mean!" he said, laughter in his voice even though he tried hard to hide it. "I've never asked somebody to be my valentine before."

I felt my heart skip a beat and then do a double-take to make up for it. My right eye blinked and my right hand flinched, dropping the phone. I suddenly felt sweat on my forehead and under my arms.

Did he just say what I think he did? I asked myself in astonishment as I recovered the handset.

"So, will you?"

Would I? Fuck yeah! But play it cool! And did I miss him actually asking? Or did he?

"Yeah. That's cool," I said smoothly. "If you'll be mine?"

"Well, duh!" he said with as much machismo as he could muster at that moment.

We both laughed in embarrassment, and happiness.

Suddenly Tom said softly, "Tell Jeff to ask Todd to bring it now."

I looked at Tom askew, but he only repeated the words at me. I shrugged and repeated the words over the phone. Jeff told me to hold on a second after asking what I was talking about. I could only repeat to him to ask his brother to bring it.

"Asshole. Fucking ass was listening in!"

Todd was infamous as a spy and sneak, and I had no doubts at all that he had been just around the doorway to their shared room, listening to Jeff's side of our conversation.

"So what is it?" Jeff asked as I heard paper tearing over the phone.

I looked at Tom, feeling completely lost and totally pranked. Tom smiled his gotcha grin and shrugged, then went back to the Atari.

"Oh! Awesome! Thanks! I feel bad I didn't think of anything! I was just glad you got home and was doing better. I never even thought of doing anything for Valentine's Day until today! Now I owe ya!"

I heard in his voice that there was indeed something coming my way from him, and I knew it was going to be good! What I didn't know was what Tom had arranged for Todd to give to Jeff. Then the other obvious aspect of the situation became clear to me.

"Tom mention something that reminded you of it today sometime?" I asked nonchalantly.

I threw Tom another look, to which he rolled his eyes before he again returned to Asteroids.

"Hmm, now you mention it," Jeff said slowly.

"I'm glad you like it," I said, bluffing my way along, changing the direction of the conversation.

"You knew I would," his voice said, full of honey and cream.

What the fuck did Tom get for him? And how did he get it to him? And how do I pay him back? And how much was it? Tom, you magnificent bastard! I should promote you to a Duke.

We chatted for a while before Tom turned off the Atari, grabbed his coat, and said, loudly enough for Jeff to hear over the phone, "See you on the bus in the morning."

"Tell him later for me," Jeff said. Then after I had, "So now Tom's gone, wanna have phone sex?" with a laugh.

Feeling like turning the tables, I said, "Sure, but you wanna risk your mom hearing? And you know Todd still is."

"Ass-hat," he replied. "Guess I deserved that back, huh?"

"Yup. But if you were willing, I would."

"Oh my gawd!" he said loudly. Then, "Shit," very quietly.

I knew his mom would not approve of him being on the phone so late, no matter who it was with.

"You would, too, wouldn't you?" he asked.

"With you, hell yeah! I'd tell you all the things I'd do to you. One at a time. First I'd-"

"Shut-the-fuck-up!" he hissed quickly, his smile coming over the phone through his voice.

After a brief pause, during which I pictured him sitting on the chair in the front room of his apartment, next to the only phone, naked, his massive cock in his hand, one leg over the arm of the chair, he said, "Al, you better not be picturing me naked here."

Stunned by his prescience, I remained silent, unable to think of anything to say.

"Oh... my... gawd! You are!"

I remained silent except for a small snort of a giggle.

"You fucking pervert!"

There was another short silence, during which I tried not to be heard giggling, before he asked, "So what are you imagining I'm doing?"

"If I told you, we'd be having phone sex," I said luridly.

After our laughter there was another pause.

"I can't wait until the weekend," he said simply. "I know we get Wednesday, but it don't count for alone time. Ya know?"

"You and me both! And yeah, I know," I added.

Another pause.

"Alex?"

"Yeah, sexy?"

He laughed, then said, "I love you, man."

There was a rush of warmth from my head to my toes. I smiled, laughed shortly, and tried to cuddle the phone.

"I love you, too, Jeff. So much."

A longer pause.

"I got to go. If Mom catches me, it's dead meat time."

"Yeah. I know. I miss you."

"Miss you, too. See you Wednesday. And Friday I'll get off the bus with Tom. See ya."

"Cool. See ya, Jeff"

I held onto the phone after he hung up, wanting to somehow feel him through it. Realizing what I was doing, I shook my head and hung it up. For a while I let the wonder of being with Jeff roll through me. I had wanted him for so long, and now it was happening. Our first steps at being together had been put on hold due to the van fire, but over the weekend we had taken those steps again. It had been an exhausting Saturday night and Sunday morning for more than physical reasons. While having so much sex with Jeff while I was still weak and easily fatigued had been tiring indeed, the emotional load had also been draining.

If I hadn't had the dream again last night I might feel better, or at least have more energy, I thought as I laid down. Is that thing gonna be with me forever? Or can I get rid of it? If I can, how? If I can't, will I be tired all the time like this? I got to get some strength back, right? Even if I don't sleep well?

Dave Allen At Large was on, but instead of watching it, I lay there thinking, going over the day in my head and wondering if I should take a little yellow pill. I hated the non-feeling of it, especially the morning after, but it did keep the bad dreams at bay. I finally decided I didn't need the pill, as I was already drifting to sleep, and I didn't want the feel-nothing-hangover in the morning. Once that was settled, I let myself sort through the day, and try to anticipate tomorrow.

So I can't help Tom. He says so, and I should believe him. Then why don't I? And now it seems Tom has a new puzzle piece I'm not seeing. I wonder if it will make him not fit next to my piece anymore? Or will it lock us tighter together? What is it? Is he going to be cool with Jeff and me having alone time like we all three planned? Tom and I still have all the weekdays. I can't wait to find out what he worked with Todd to give Jeff while we were on the phone!

I'll have to check in with Jeff, lovely Jeff, to see if he picked anything up about what's bothering Tom, while I find out what Tom got him for me. And we get to be together! The three of us talked about me and Jeff having Saturday nights and Sunday mornings alone. After the Circle guys leave Saturdays, Tom'll take off too, or hang around a bit. Then come back sometime Sunday. Jeff and I get that night and morning alone!

And the van. Lost. How can I replace the van? The only ones like it I've seen were plain ones, never one so decked out. And I bet that will cost a hell of a lot to get done. Fuck. I had and lost the best vehicle in school in one week. Well, coolest ride in school in my opinion. Depending on what clique you talk to, you're gonna get a big difference in what's a cool ride. And I never even got to drive it! Never got to see how that would affect my rep at school.

And some rep I got now at school. Fuck. What will school be like now? Everybody knows about me being gay from the fight with Charlie Derek. Fuck, am I gonna get the shit. How many times I been called a fag just because I don't do sports or because I'm smart, or because I'm ahead a grade? Or because I'm not rich or don't look like someone they think is hot?

And now I really am gay. Well, I was then, but now they really know I am. Shit it's gonna suck. And do any of my friends get grief over knowing me? And how much fucking homework will I have to do? Two weeks missed. Fuck. Plus trying to keep up when I get back.

And I've been dead, and then in the hospital for days. Maybe get some sympathy and get left alone? Hah! But maybe. I hope so.

It was bad today, seeing what happened out there. Fuck, I thought I was gonna get sick and pass out! Just don't dream about the fire. The big mess is gone from the garage and mostly cleaned up. And I gotta go out there and paint. Fuck. I can do that. It won't be a problem. It won't.

Some day it'll be like it never happened.

At least Mom and Dad are normal. Wonder how their date is going? Not home yet, so they're probably having a good time. They might have come home but not let me know, so they could have privacy downstairs. Eww, don't wanna think about that.

They're probably working hard to make everything as normal as possible for me.

Probably busting their asses to make things seem normal.

Normal.

Hah!

Nothin' 'bout my life is normal... they're wasting their effort.

But maybe, someday... it can all be like it never happened...

I slid into sleep, leaving my thoughts behind.

Then the smell of gasoline came.

I felt my stomach fall in anticipatory dread and fear.

I could only watch as I pumped the pedal once, then moved the Styx medallion aside so that I could grasp and turn the ignition key.

The engine turned for several seconds, almost catching, but not quite. The smell of gas grew stronger.

"Yeah. Old Chevy," Dad started.

I leaned across the sizable hump between the front seats, knowing that I would be unable to open the hatch cover. I pulled and yanked, afraid I might tear it off. The van was shaking from my efforts.

"Don't break it off. I tried. It's stuck good. Try to start it one more time, then we get that clasp fixed so we can get to the engine decently. Go ahead and try starting it again."

"At least you know I ain't even started it," I answered with a sly grin.

I didn't feel like grinning. I felt like screaming "Get the hell out of here!" and running for my life, but there was nothing I could do. I was fated to relive it again and again.

He peeked around the hood at me with a grin.

I thought, Don't stand there smiling at me! RUN!

Despite my best efforts to prevent myself from doing so, I turned the key again. The engine turned over, barely beginning to catch. Dad called for another pump of the accelerator. Knowing that it was the final doom, I watched as I pushed and released the accelerator. The engine turned faster, then caught with a pop. I tried to close my eyes as tightly as I could, knowing what was about to happen and completely unable to stop it. Another, louder pop, then an even louder "whoom!" as there was a bright, orange light, and I was knocked against the van door, my sore temple striking the pillar.

Things went fuzzy, and wobbly, and blurred, all at the same time. I heard my dad yelling my name. The engine cover was gone and flames rose toward the dashboard. My eyes closed instinctively against the heat and smoke. I could feel the heat of the fire on my right side. I smelled the odor of burning carpet, oil, rubber, and plastic.

I reached for the key, fumbled with the Styx medallion, and killed the engine. The flames still raged, even seemed to grow larger, and started burning the black shag carpet on the lower half of the dashboard less than a foot from me. Flames now reached to the height of my face. Thick, black smoke was curled up the windshield and rolled over my head.

I opened the driver's door, but it hit the wall of the garage after a mere six or seven inches. My lungs began rejecting the air they drew in, making me cough uncontrollably. I couldn't keep my eyes open against the smoke and heat, let alone breathe it.

I heard my dad calling my name again. I tried to call back, but when I inhaled to scream, I began a horrible coughing fit. I rolled the window down to get fresh air from outside the van, but the crank came off in my hand. The smoke increased and billowed out of the partially open window, still choking me. I slid as far from the blazing engine and dash as I could, pressing myself against the partially open door, shoving my face out the partially open window in an effort to find air.

Trapped!

I felt the heat of the fire singeing my skin through my clothing. Images of my charred and smoking body being pulled from the van by firemen, my grieving parents held back by police, ran in my head. I clawed at the window, knowing that even if I broke the glass and tried climbing out that I would only get my head out before hitting the wall, and only end up cutting myself horribly. I knew it was no use.

Real panic began to set in, forcing reason and rational thought to flee. I pushed the door with my shoulder, but it was as far open as it could get. I knew there was no way out to my right, not with the fire above the engine growing hotter and closer. Flames were also spreading across the thickly upholstered dashboard, the carpet near the engine bay between the front seats, the material of the overhead, and the hanging curtains just behind both seats. The flames were traveling across the bottom of the dashboard, and multiple, flaming drops of it were falling onto my jeans, melting through them, and then into my legs. The pain was excruciating, but I couldn't get my legs away from the falling drops of fire without putting them into the raging fire on the engine.

Not only was the air full of burning particles and ashes, it was hot, and toxic with fumes and chemicals. The coughing became constant and painful. Each inhalation burned terribly, the chemicals, burning ashes, and heated air triggering uncontrollable and gut-wrenching coughs.

I tried to make my lungs work, to draw in and take what oxygen they could from the smoke, but they refused. My heart's efforts doubled. I pushed my face into the window, no longer caring if the glass broke and I was horribly cut; I only wanted the air. I clawed feebly at the stub where the crank had broken off, knowing that I could never turn the spindle, but trying anyway.

The pain in my temple flared with each cough. I felt the familiar dizziness come, and knew I was about to lose consciousness.

And somehow, my own thoughts were to blame it on God, worry about not being with Toby in the afterlife, how unfair it was that now Jeff and I were going to be a couple, I was going to die instead.

The heat of the fire, the pain of my skin burning on my right side and back, the pain as flaming drops of carpeted dashboard burned through my jeans and into my legs, the pain of my lungs filled with toxins and chemicals and hot ashes, the horrible suffocation.

The pains, the smells, and even my vision all began to fade, and I knew that I was dying. Again.

I woke up coughing, and almost screaming. I sat up and tried to bring my rapid breathing back to normal. I was wired and sweaty, shaking and still afraid.

It was all so nearly normal now.

I washed away the sweat and then went back to bed, wanting sleep, but afraid that I might dream it again. I thought of the little yellow pills. I rejected the thought.

Just don't dream it again. Just sleep. Too tired to go downstairs and get a pill, so just don't dream it again. Too tired to dream it again, anyway, right?

Sleep, and don't... dream...

Sleep finally returned. It wasn't long before the smell of gasoline did too.

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