The Circle Squared - Book One: Squaring the Circle

by Smokr

Chapter 14

"A. D. 1958" - Part Two

Wednesday

I obviously missed Mom's first and maybe second call, as what I first heard was, "Alex Raymond, do you hear me?" in her slightly angry voice.

She was most of the way up the stairs and not looking very happy.

"Sorry. Took a sleeping pill last night. Couldn't sleep. I'm awake now," I lied, my voice sounding like gravel in a bass drum rolling down a rough, stony hill.

The coughing started, so I had to sit up and get tissues.

"Good. You're running late and breakfast is getting cold. I need you downstairs pronto to change your bandages. And I mean, pronto."

I nodded.

"Did you forget your alarm? Or sleep through it?"

She had made it bedside by then. Very unusual. And she gave me the once-over up close.

"You sleeping at all? You don't look like it," she said, her expression becoming stern.

I knew I was under the eye.

"I sleep, but you try with one entire side sore and no way to lay on that side. Or on your back. And laying on that other side makes your head hurt. Even laying on my stomach bothers the ones on my legs."

I shrugged. It was all true.

She sighed, and I was sure she was wishing she could help. What could she do? Knock me unconscious each night?

"You can take two of the sleeping pills. You'd sleep all night."

"And wake up so sore I can't move. Somewhere, if not everywhere. And then what, take pain pills and feel stupid all day?"

She sighed again, but this time it was more from exasperation.

"Get downstairs. And set your alarm. Or turn it up."

She shook my arm and stood to leave. As I watched her leave, I yearned for a hug from her, and I was sure that she would have loved one. She had refrained from tousling my hair, and had settled on my arm. I hadn't wanted to rely on my mommie Monday morning, but I had. And I had seen how stupid it was to pretend that I didn't need her. Her hugs had been nice, and had been needed.

"Mom?"

I groaned my way out of bed and met her on the floor. She smiled her best smile and the hug was nice. It was needed, too. For both of us.

We didn't cry, we just sniffled. She had that grin after, too, as she turned and went downstairs.

"Down in a few," I said, then coughed on purpose to restart the real coughs.

I carefully set the alarm clock for tomorrow, then wheezed my way through another tiring shower and another exhausting episode of getting dressed. Many of the small burns on my shins were losing their scabs, and only the largest ones were still thick and rough. And a lot of them were starting to itch. Thankfully I had plenty on my mind to keep it off the itching.

Jeff changing so much that I was no longer sure that I was as attracted to him as I'd thought I was, or had been. And changing his seat at the breakfast table. And the worry over where he was going to sit at the table this morning.

Giving Tom that blow-job, and what Jeff would do if he found out. And how guilty I felt that I had even done that.

Kevin Corless, and just how long it would be before his harassment became physical.

The guys moving from the locker aisle in gym, and how many more were going to leave.

Civics class and Mr. B.. If I would be able to stand staying in the class for the rest of the year. And if doing so would even have any point other than not losing the credit and the probable A.

Trying to catch up in all the classes before the upcoming mid-terms.

The possible end of the Circle, since nearly everyone was more often missing than showing up.

Whatever was bothering Tom so much that I noticed it, and that it probably had something to do with me. The simple fact that he kept it secret from me.

Whether or not I should go to Rick's party, and if he was going to ask me again today, and what I should answer.

The fact that I was seemingly going to have the nightmare every night for the rest of my life, unless I turned myself into an emotionless zombie with mood altering pills.

All I need is about one or two more things and I can just go loopy, I thought with another humorless smile as I headed downstairs. Just crack up, get institutionalized, spend the rest of my days drugged out of my skull on the good stuff, and never have another coherent thought or that nightmare ever again. It might just be fucking worth it.

A strange sense of deja-vu washed over me. It was as if I were reliving the same moments over and over and over again.

Mom had made omelets, but mine had gotten cold. Dad had left before I came down. Mom barely had enough time to redo the bandages while making me promise to re-heat and eat breakfast before she left. I threw the cold breakfast in the disposal, not having the desire for anything in my stomach. I walked to the bus with Tom, rode to school with him and Jeff mostly in silence, aside from Tom's bitching about the cold, sat at the breakfast table with the usual crowd.

Jeff again sat at the end of the table. It hurt all over again. I did my best not to let it show, and I joined in the jokes and laughs, despite wanting to leave and never return to the table. The fact that it was the first day after the solstice was mentioned, and I thought how that meant to many earlier civilizations that the worst was over, and the long dark season began to brighten toward spring and eventual summer.

I can only hope, I hoped.

Physics went by fine, and Chris was helpful again, though I was still behind.

On the way to German, someone I didn't know called my name. I didn't know his name. I remembered him bumping into me on Monday.

"So, how are you doing?"

He was cute. He spoke smoothly and precisely. He met my eyes, smiled.

"Uh, okay."

I wanted to walk away from him, worried what he wanted with me, and wondering what insult or comment he was waiting to unleash. He was wearing expensive tan slacks, a thick, green, cotton Polo shirt, and suede shoes. He was almost the perfect preppy, and good looking, and probably popular. And I found him cute, which was unusual for his type. And somehow, oddly familiar.

"Good. Hated to hear what happened," he said in his smooth, even, exacting way.

He seemed nervous. His voice was smooth, too, not just his words and the way he spoke them. It seemed lower than his size would indicate. I thought how my own would, too. But the words he used and how he spoke them seemed practiced. Fake.

"Uh, thanks."

I didn't know what to say to him. Preppies didn't talk to geeks, and geeks didn't talk to preppies. He was obviously rich, and I was obviously a geek, and he had to know I was gay.

"I'm doing a lot better now, thanks," was all I could think of to say,

He quirked one corner of his mouth up in a half-smile that nearly stopped my heart, then said, "Well, hope things go better for you from now on. Talk to you later?"

"Uh, okay?"

With a nod upward, he turned away.

That gesture sent a pang through my breath. I had no idea why. Or why he seemed so familiar. His voice wasn't, or how he talked. Or how he looked. Something about him put him in the same category as Tom, Jeff, Thomas, even Toby. Somehow.

I sighed in relief as I watched him walk away. It was odd enough that a rich, apparently popular kid had stopped to talk to me in the hallway, but that half-smile of his had struck a powerful chord deep inside of me even before his parting nod. Somehow.

I was glad to put some distance between myself and him.

Classes came and went. I fell asleep in each one, at least momentarily. Kevin called me a faggot and gave me ugly looks. I kept my head down in the hallways. I struggled up the stairs and even between classes on the same floor. My head felt full of fuzz.

Erich offered to help me with my German words again, but I was uncomfortable at the thought of spending time alone with him. He was too cute, too nice, and I didn't want the difficulty of dealing with another such guy. Jeff was more than enough of a handful, in about any way you cared to use the term.

Lunch. Hoping to avoid the new Kevin Corless, I decided to spend the period doing homework in the library and looking for books on dream research. There were a few, and I almost checked them out, but I had enough to do trying to get caught up in my classes. I tried my very best not to think of Jeff, Tom, the end of the Circle, or the multitude other things that constantly wanted to intrude into my thoughts. I managed to avoid those horrible, insistent thoughts, to stay awake, and to get some work done.

As we sat down in Chemistry Two, Erich immediately began speaking in German, telling me that he had heard some more of the guys in my gym aisle that he had in another class talking about moving to other rows. I said that I didn't care, but it ate at me deeply.

Jesus Christ! That's gonna leave less guys in my row and make me stand out that much more! Fuck! It's hard enough to just go without being noticed, but how am I gonna do that when it's just me and even fewer guys now? Damn it to hell!

My thoughts or my mood showed, judging by the things Erich said next, trying to keep things light and making bad jokes in German. Eventually he asked me why I had taken chemistry level two.

"I like it. Chemistry is how we work. And how things are made. The building blocks of the universe and live."

"Life, not live," he corrected my German.

"Duh. Chemistry is one of the secrets of life. It creates us, feeds us, fixes us, even kills us. And makes us feel better if you know what chemicals to use," I added with a grin. "Plus, it's just cool how two chemicals or compounds mix together, make others, and along comes another one and blows it apart and creates other ones. Even making a new life, genes are incredible! They're just strings of four simple compounds stuck almost randomly on a pair of chains made of sugar and phosphates. And what's those four compounds and those sugars all made of? Simple chemicals; hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous. Just those five chemicals carry all the information for life, new life. And all body chemistry, too"

I'd used mostly English, for obvious reasons. The semi-preppies across the lab table had seemingly understood most of what I was saying.

"Christ," Mike Walters sneered rudely. "A fag and a geek. How can you live with yourself?"

His girlfriend and lab partner, Stephanie Hunter, laughed quickly, but suddenly changed to an embarrassed half-grin.

Already being in a mostly foul mood after hearing that my locker row in gym class was emptying out even before I returned to changing, there was no hesitation to my retort. Life in the Circle was full of insult challenges and dis-off contests, so I was well conditioned.

"Guess the same way you live with yourself being an asshole and ignorant."

He lost his grin and went ape-man.

"You wanna see what your body chemistry looks like splattered all over the floor?"

I was in no mood to be intimidated.

"O-o-o, I'm so scared. A threat from a drooling, slope-foreheaded, knuckle-dragging Neanderthal, after actually surviving death by fire. O-o-o."

I really wasn't scared - much. I thought that I should be, at least more than I was, but I wasn't.

"I'll show you scared, faggot!" he threatened in a rough whisper, his face contorted with anger.

I wasn't ready to back down and cow-out, and Toby telling me not to take any crap from anybody rang out loud and clear in my thoughts. My anger growled for release, and I wondered why I shouldn't let it out to play for a change. With an inner shrug, I opened the cage and let it go. I thought briefly of doing much the same thing with Jeff's mom not so long ago. And Jeff himself before that.

"No, I'll show you scared!" I said a bit louder in response, locking eyes with him, daring his ape-man to stand up against my anger. "I'll show you scared when you're trapped inside a burning van. I'll show you scared when there's no way out from the smoke, and the heat, and the fire, and the ashes and chemicals burning your throat, and your lungs, making you cough until you puke your guts up." I had to pause for several breaths, even though I had kept my voice low. "I'll show you scared, when you're still fighting to get out of that van, away from the fire, the smoke, the melting dashboard dripping flaming drops that burn right through your jeans and into your legs. I'll show you fucking scared when you're still trying to get just one gasp of clear air, but there isn't any, and you know there won't be, because you know you ain't breathing much longer!"

I kept my voice low only with extreme effort. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, but my instinct to remain anonymous, unseen by the masses, unnoticed, was much stronger. I was also acutely aware that my new, lower voice had more power than I was used to.

"I'll show you scared, when you feel yourself stop working! When your muscles stop doing what you're trying to tell 'em. And it gets so quiet you can hear your heart doing double beats, then missing ones, then it just stops, and you're still trying to scream for help inside your head, but you know it ain't coming!"

"Easy, Alex, fuck, man, easy," Erich was saying suddenly.

Or suddenly to me. His cute face was worried and scared, and I didn't like that, or that I was causing it. With an effort, I returned from inside the memories. I inhaled deeply and slowly, then released it in a rush. I pushed the anger back into its cage. I let go of the edge of the lab-top and took another deep breath. I looked back at Mike Walters again. He looked almost stunned. He had nothing to offer. He almost looked like a beaten puppy for a moment. At least to me. But I had one more kick, and this puppy deserved it.

"At least I had a good enough friend who risked his own life to save mine," I said directly at him. Then, with a doubtful sneer, "Do you?"

He was saved by the bell. I had more, and I would have kicked until he whimpered. And the fact that I would have, bothered me.

Mike and his bimbo looked shocked, gathered their things quickly, then headed for the door with alacrity.

"Dude, you okay?" Erich asked as we got our stuff together.

"Yeah," I said simply, as if he'd asked if the sky was blue again today. "Why?"

"Dude, I never knew you could blow a blow a gasket like that. Shit!"

He no longer looked worried, instead, he was grinning.

"Yeah, I kinda don't know where that came from," I said almost apologetically.

I knew. And I knew I could set it loose on command now.

"At least the bell rang. Think I might've had ta hold ya back from climbing over the lab table and chewing out his throat or somethin'."

"Yeah. Didn't even get to say his family would've had a funeral if it'd been him in the van. 'Cause nobody'd risk it for his ass. And probably nobody'd come to his funeral."

"Ouch!" Erich said, grinning wider. "Fucking mean streak in there."

Which also bothered me a bit.

By the time I reached my next class the adrenaline had been burned off by the effort of walking and climbing the stairs. Lit went by slowly, as usual. I found myself drifting to sleep despite the desire and extreme effort to pay attention and catch up.

Gym was dreadful, at least to start. Knowing that the aisle with my locker was nearly empty because no one wanted to change in view of the fag, hurt. Erich and the others chatted before the class started and I quickly fell asleep once I was alone. Erich shook me awake just before the bell rang.

I attended English in body only. I found myself wondering who had left the aisle in gym, and berating myself for not asking Erich. I wondered if more would leave if, as expected, I was released to dress for gym next week. I wondered what would happen in the showers. When I wasn't fighting my losing battle with sleep, those and many other worries ran their endless loops in my head.

And it was all topped off by another class of American Civics with a formerly favorite teacher; I now hated the class and the topic. I drifted to sleep almost instantly and wasn't woken until the bell startled me awake. Mr. B. never looked up as I walked by on my way out of the classroom.

Finally my free period, spent in the library doing homework and trying to catch up in my classes. I was at my locker by last bell when Kevin Corless came around a corner a few feet down the hallway. He was with two guys, one of whom I recognized as the guy I was supposed to tutor in civics. We saw each other at the same moment, meeting eye to eye. I knew, by his expression, that he wasn't going to pass up his chance. I wondered if he had come this way to make up for my avoiding him during lunch.

"Fag," he said as he passed, loudly enough for several others to hear him as well.

There was some laughter from the three of them as well as a few others who were walking by. There was no one in the hall that I knew well, so I wasn't all that upset by their laughter. I was more upset that he had changed his attitude toward me than at anything he had said, but it still hurt a great deal.

After passing me, the other guy turned and said more loudly, "Don't look at my ass, fag!"

Tom and Jeff showed up and we waited together in the hallway until our bus pulled up. The three of us talked, but it wasn't like the old normal. Our new normal was sometimes awkward, sometimes quiet. Once the bus arrived we dashed through the cold February winds to get on board. We were again quiet for most of the ride, as was the new normal.

Tom and I got off the bus and walked to my house. We smoked a doobie once we claimed we had finished what homework we needed to. Tom asked about the synthesizer. I explained that I needed something to do with my hand and fingers, some kind of exercise to help them heal. He nodded and thankfully didn't ask me to play it. He had never asked me to before, even when it had been sitting there for years. I had played it sometimes when he was over, but rarely. I wondered why I worried that he would ask me to play it, but I had no answer. We played a few games of Asteroids on the Atari, and I tried again to get a score on the leader board, but failed.

Alone we had a good time. There were no awkward silences, no avoided topics, no sudden changes of wording or phrase. It was all perfectly normal - the same normality Tom and I always had together. Or nearly so.

We split up for dinner. Mom and Dad chatted about this and that, avoiding anything heavy. Tom came back shortly after dinner for more weed, more games, and more chat over very little of any real import. It was our new normal, and it was far better than the new normal between him, Jeff, and me.

I thought of that more than once as the two of us spent the evening doing almost exactly the same things we had been doing for years, with the exception of sex. Normally, the old normally, Tom and I would have messed around right after school, and sometimes again before he went home for the night. But that was gone now that Jeff and I were trying to be a couple. And for the first time since Jeff and I had gotten together, I wondered if I had lost more than I had gained.

While sex with Jeff was far more emotional and rewarding, it was far more rare. With Tom it had been nearly every day, sometimes twice: It was never hugging, or kissing, or touching, but it was fun. Sex with Jeff was relegated to only Saturday nights and Sunday mornings: It was hugging, kissing, touching, and fun, but it was also awkward. Neither of us knew who was in charge, or who wasn't. Neither of us wanted to be fucked, but both of us wanted to fuck the other. I liked toying with his back door, though he didn't. Not much, anyway. I didn't mind his playing with mine, much, but he wanted to do more than I dared, or even considered possible.

Tom had no problem acting normal with all of the other guys, even Jeff, with whom he had been instrumental in getting me together with. Jeff, though, was mortified around even Tom, but would probably be even worse around the other guys. Neither of them wanted anyone else to know anything about what we did together: Tom knew others knew, but it hardly bothered him, while Jeff was mortified at that knowledge. I wanted everyone to know about Jeff and me, and no one to know about Tom and me.

Tom found the idea of kissing me absurd; Jeff loved it. Tom had almost never tickled or fondled after sex, Jeff loved to. Tom had never cuddled me except the times I had insisted or tricked him. Jeff wrapped me in his arms at any and every chance. Tom had never told me that I was cute, only insisting that I wasn't bad looking, when I needed an ego boost. Jeff had insisted that I was not only cute, but hot, sexy, and adorable. Tom had never said he loved me, except as his best friend, and he'd made that very clear. Jeff loved to say how much he loved me.

They were so different, but I found I cared so much for both of them. I found myself thinking how, if Jeff walked in right then - even if Tom and I had spent the afternoon naked, having sex in my bed - Tom wouldn't worry a single one of his thin, black eyebrows. But if their positions were reversed - even if Jeff and I hadn't so much as touched each other - Jeff would go quiet and awkward if Tom walked in, making me feel nearly the same. Or making me angry. Or disgusted.

Tom had hardly changed, only losing what little soft fat he had and becoming slim and trim. He was still just a bit shorter than I. He was fairly smooth and lightly haired, even if all of his hair was raven black. He and I knew we were equals; neither of us seemed to seek some kind of control or upper position on the other. Afraid of nothing, preferring hands and mouths.

Jeff had changed so much. He was now taller than I, broader, stocky, and dense. His fair, light hair was coming in thickly across his chest, his arms, his legs, even his buttocks and stomach. He seemed to need to be in charge, especially in bed. Afraid to the point of near-catatonia at the merest thought that someone knew. Even if they were our best of friends, who fully knew all about us, who had even gotten us together as friends and then as lovers.

As I sat there, comparing the two of them as I had done countless times, I only grew frustrated and confused. I rolled another joint, and held it for Tom to hit as he rolled up yet another high score. The asteroids were moving so fast that they left faint shadows behind them on the phosphorous screen. He moved his ship in sure, fast turns, rotating and firing, moving in another direction, tracking asteroids and chipping them into dust.

Jeff can barely keep up with the slow pace of Dig-Dug, I considered. He's not clumsy, just not as fast and agile with the joystick. Tom's awkward and clumsy doing everyday things, even walking at times, where Jeff has a kind of grace and smoothness in the way he moves.

So fucking different! How can I have two such close friends who are so different? I thought we were attracted to similar types of people for friends. So much for that adage. But then, maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm so weird that I don't know what group or clique to hang out with? But since when do I think much about the stupidity of cliques? You're friends with whoever you're friends with. What's it matter what group some nameless person or people say they belong to?

Look at the twins. Rich, good looking, powerful parents, athletic, musical, not real smart. Why are they friends with me? They should spend their scant free time with other rich kids with powerful parents, the future movers and shakers, hanging out at the malls, being seen where it's cool to be seen.

Eric. Not very brainy, not athletic even though he was built for football or wrestling, pothead rocker, poor. Why's he friends with me? He should spend his free time, when his dad lets him out of the house, with the other rowdy, future bikers doing things that get him grounded.

I laughed out loud at that thought. Tom turned and asked what was so funny.

"Just thinking how bizarre a mix of friends I have," I told him. "Two Richie Riches, one drug-addled failed athlete, a paranoid homo afraid to be one, and you."

He raised an eyebrow and slapped the pause switch.

"And what am I?" he asked suspiciously, but with humor.

"You're the normal one. The one who keeps me sane. The one I owe my life to. The best one. My knight in white linen."

He blushed a bit, it easily showing on his pale, Irish complexion.

"And you're the crazy one," he nearly mumbled with a grin as he slapped the pause switch again and returned to the game.

"Can't argue with that," I said with a grin of my own and a sigh, then added, "Gotta be crazy to compete in Asteroids with you."

"You just like having your ass beat."

I snickered, then said, "Not beat. Not my ass beat. Like my meat beat and my ass slapped, maybe."

He laughed and lost his ship.

At ten-o'clock, Tom left. I had already removed the bandages and changed into sweats behind Tom's back. I went downstairs and Mom did new bandages as we talked about this or that, mostly about the appointment at the doctor's tomorrow. I asked if she thought he might release me to gym; she was unsure. Upstairs again, I watched the comedies on PBS, still riding the buzz with Tom. From time to time I wrote in my journal, telling it of the day's events, leaving a very few last pages blank. I turned off the television after Monty Python ended and waited for sleep to come - like an idiot.

What's gonna happen in chemistry tomorrow? What if Mike Walters decides to get back at me? What if he gets some friends together to beat up the fag that made him look like the ass-hat he is? And right in front of his chick, too. Cripes.

And Kevin Corless. We never been real friends, but we'd been friendly, sorta. We talked sometimes about music, like Styx, or classwork he had questions on. He was always saying hi and nodding hi in the halls. But not anymore. Damn it.

Then some school friends leave the breakfast table and our group in gym class. I expected it some, didn't I? And it was only the second day back. How many more, now? And who? Fuck.

And what about my locker aisle in gym? How many left? Where'd they go? Who? Am I gonna have the whole aisle to myself? Damn it, that'd sure make me stick out! Fuck and shit!

Rick asked me to his birthday party. Only fair since I had asked him to mine. He had a good time, so I should go and have a good time at his. Wonder who else he asked? Maybe I should go? I don't know.

Fucking Civics. I liked Mr. B. before he proved he was a closed-minded asshole. Maybe it's left over from Bangladesh? Maybe they have a big thing against homosexuality there? But why's he care now he's here? He took American politics and such to heart, why not this? But then gays ain't really so welcome here, either. Fuck.

And what the hell is bothering Tom? It's got something to do with me, I can tell. Or something to do with something related to me. Gotta be since he won't talk about it. Why can't he let me help him like he helps me all the time? Damn it. And he's keeping secrets. He's never done that before, not from me.

The Circle. Is it gonna come to an end? Is that what Toby meant about how circles go 'round and 'round? Jon sure pretty much stopped coming. But he's older and we're still in high school. No surprise there. My birthday party had been his first time for a long time. Eric's been missing lately, and gonna miss this one. Jeff's missing his first that wasn't because I did something. Gonna be just Tom and me.

Jeff. If he finds out about me giving Tom a blow-job, what'll he think? Or do? Will he tell me to fuck off? How much will it hurt his feelings? Damn that was fucking stupid! Right after Jeff and I have our big weekend together as a couple, and right after I throw him out of my house. Idiot. But his stupidity around other people is really like wearing me out and shit. And this whole inability to deal with his sexuality to anyone, even the Circle guys, is all bullshit. Some big, bold, brave, in-charge, all-in-control, macho stud he is when he can't even deal with who he is himself.

Plus, I'm not even sure he's the same guy I wanted for so long. He's changed so much. So different. And he tries to be someone he ain't. Or someone he wasn't. Or someone I don't want him to be.

I wanted him, all of him, openly. All or nothing. Time and again it's closer to nothing than all. He won't let it be all. Probably ever. Whatever. Fucking hell.

Over and over those thoughts ran through my head, wreaking havoc. Yet, somehow, I fell asleep.

Then the smell of gasoline...

"Yeah. Old Chevy," Dad began saying again.

I knew there was nothing I could do. I was fated to live it again, over and over.

"See if you can pop that hatch cover, will ya, son?"

I leaned across the sizable hump between the front seats and unlatched the the passenger side clamp easily. Knowing that I would be unable to open the other, still, I tried. I pulled and yanked, afraid I might tear it off. The van was shaking from my efforts.

Dad told me to to break the latch, but instead to 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 wanted to scream at both of them to run as I bailed from the van, never to touch it again.

He peeked around the hood at me with a grin. I saw Jeff, hiding in the back of the garage, just like he had that day, just like he always had, just like every time since.

"Jeff! Help!"

"I can't! Someone'll see me. They'll know!"

Of course.

He ducked into a corner and curled into a fetal position.

Despite my best efforts to prevent myself from doing so, I moved the Styx medallion out of the way and turned the key. The engine turned, barely beginning to catch. Dad called for another pump of the accelerator. Knowing what was to come, I pushed and released the pedal. The engine turned faster, then caught with a pop.

Another, louder pop, then a loud, whooshing boom as there was a bright, orange light, and I was knocked against the van door, the side of my head hitting the pillar.

Things went fuzzy, and wobbly, and blurred, all at the same time. I heard my dad yelling my name. The 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 were burning the dashboard less than a foot from me and 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 until it hit the wall of the garage. 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, and I tried to call back, but I began a horrible coughing fit. I tried to roll the window down, but the crank came off in my hand. 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.

I felt the heat of the fire 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 it was no use.

Real panic began to set in, forcing reason and rational thought to flee. With the van parked so close to the wall, there was no exit to the left, and with the fire above the engine growing hotter and closer, no way out to the right. Flames were spreading along the dashboard in front of me, 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.

Trapped!

The air was full of burning particles and ashes, hot, and toxic with fumes and chemicals. The coughing became constant, painful, uncontrollable, gut-wrenching coughs.

I tried to make my lungs work, 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 because he was too chicken to be seen helping me.

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 awoke with a start, sweaty and shaking, sore and exhausted. All the new normal. But it was only two in the morning. I slipped into the kitchen, still sweaty and shaking, hoping Mom had returned the tray of bandages and pills there. Thankfully she had, and I chewed a sleeping pill.

The fear and horror didn't fade. The usual horrors of my life came to torment me. Tom and his secrets. Jeff and his problems that had become our problems. Being so far behind in school. Kevin Corless, and how long until it became a fight. Fewer friends at the breakfast table. Fewer guys in my locker aisle in gym class. Possibly being released for gym by the doctor tomorrow. Mr. B.. The looks and laughs in the halls. The strangely familiar stranger and his heart-stopping half-smile. And yet more.

By four I was drifting off.

It wasn't long after that when the smell of gasoline became overpowering for the second time that night, and this time I relived the entirety of the nightmare again and again, unable to wake, dying over and over.

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