by Hamen Cheese

Chapter 17: The Indomitable Mrs. C

I rubbed my head absently with my hand. The bump was still throbbing rather than being less of a pain. The prospect of an ice bag was becoming more and more welcoming.

"How are you, Derek?" Mrs. C asked conversationally without taking her eyes off the magazine.

I stared at her. What game was she playing at? I looked carefully at the nearest table. It was occupied by two people I vaguely recognized as Southmore students, though maybe a few years younger. It was a guy and a girl. I was worried they would overhear any conversation I had with Mrs. C but they didn't seem to notice us at all. They seemed unusually busy with something happening under the table. "I feel like crap," I finally replied. The two students didn't even glance at me as though they hadn't heard me.

She nodded approvingly as though dying to say eeeeexcellent but was merely restraining herself. "I heard some interesting things happened today."

Again, I stared at her. Was she going to play ignorant? Pretend like nothing was wrong? But then I recognized the pattern. She was always like this. Asking questions before getting to her point. She was simply laying down the trap, trying to see if you would attempt to lie your way out or simply say the truth. I learned at a young age that the truth was usually the best course of action with Mrs. C. I looked idly at the nearest table and took comfort in the fact that the two students there were still too distracted to pay any attention to us. "I guess you could say that."

"Guess?" She said with a finely arched eyebrow. She finally put down the magazine and set her eyes onto me.

"Yes," I said tentatively. Again she raised her eyebrow at me. "No. I mean yeah some interesting things did happen today."

She nodded. "Care to explain them to me?"

"You already know Mrs. C."

"Do I?" she said sounding quite bored. "Because if I did, I certainly don't understand."

"Understand?" I asked.

"Don't play ignorant with me, Derek Hampton," she suddenly said tersely. The hell? I wasn't the one playing games. "What have you done to my son?"

Charlie… what have I done to Charlie? My God, did something happen to him? Wait, why did I even care? "I'm sorry Mrs. C but I don't understand. What happened to Charlie?"

She shot me a piercing look as though trying to see if there was sincerity behind my question. Apparently, she decided that there was. "He came home today looking very distraught. Just walked in with a most blank expression on his face. He looked very much like a manikin – pale, lifeless. No amount of questioning on my part could get him to speak until finally he locked himself in his room."

"What makes you think I had anything to do with that?" I asked defensively.

"Come now, Derek," she paused as she took a casual sip of her coffee. "You and I both know that only one person, only one thing could possibly affect my son that way. And that… is… YOU."

I opened and closed my mouth a few times. I didn't know what to say. Was I supposed to tell her that her son was a faggot? How would she react? Would she lash out at me for slandering her son? I looked warily at the steaming cup of coffee before her.

"And then," she continued as though there was no awkward pause, "I call your mother to see if she knew what was wrong with Charlie. And what did I find out? She's hysterical. That's right," she said when my eyes met hers. "She was sobbing heavily over the phone. Said she couldn't find you. That you ran off without your car to who knows where. She's done everything to look for you short of calling you father. And we both know we don't want him involved, now do we?"

I shook my head no.

"Well," she resumed, "I asked her why she didn't call me. I could have helped looking for you. And you know what she told me? You know what she said? She said she couldn't. She couldn't call me. You know what that told me? Of course you don't because you don't understand how close your mother and I are. She would call me for anything in the same way I'd call her if I ever needed anything. I knew then that she couldn't call me because your disappearance had something to do with the state my son was in when he went home."

She took a slow sip of her coffee as though relishing the point she was trying to lay down on me.

"So I figured you couldn't have gone far," she said after a few more sips. "I checked all the nearby places I knew you and Charlie frequented. I even called a few of your classmates and teachers asking where you were. None of them knew. I even got the impression that some of them didn't care. There was one other spot I knew you might go to but without a car or even a bike, I knew it would take hours to get there."

"You know about The Spot?" I asked then had to swallow a few times from the evil smile that played on her lips.

"I know a lot of things, Derek Hampton. With enough time, there is nothing I can't find out. It would be wise for you to remember that."

I nodded nervously at the warning.

"So, I said to myself, Derek wouldn't be crazy enough to walk all the way there. No busses or any other public transportation passed through there so it was either hitchhiking or walking. No private vehicles passed there either other than at the dead of night or very early in the morning so no, it would simply be insane to go there without any means of transportation. But," she paused again to take a sip, "after several fruitless hours of searching, even I had to concede that there could only be one other place where you were hiding."

"I wasn't hiding," I said without much conviction.

She spoke again as though she hadn't heard me. "So, I drive up there with only a few hours of daylight left. I was almost sure you'd be there, somehow having found a means to get there, probably got a friend to bring you or perhaps was even desperate enough to steal an unattended bike. And what did I find? You, in the middle of the road, sweating, panting, limping as though you had walked a hundred miles."

She stared at me as though expecting me to say something. "What?"

"Were you?" she asked.

"Was I what?" I replied.

"Walking all the way to your special spot?"

Again, I found my mouth bobbing like a fish.

"Don't attempt to lie to me Derek," she said brusquely.

Again, I shook my head no. "I don't know."

"Don't know?" she asked with the practiced rising of an eyebrow.

"I don't know if I was walking all the way there," I said softly refusing to meet her eyes.

She didn't say anything for awhile but I wouldn't meet her eyes so I couldn't tell what she was thinking. When she spoke again her voice had a disbelieving tone to it. "Do you expect me to believe that you had no control over your actions?"

"It's not that," I shook my head no. "I don't remember."

She stared at me, waiting for me to continue.

"I don't remember walking there. I remember running out of the principal's office. I remember running out of the school. I didn't even have any destination in mind. I just wanted to run, to run away from everything. And then next thing I knew I was standing there in the middle of the road, breathless and drenched in sweat. I recognized the road but I had no idea how I got there. When I checked my watch, I realized over four hours had passed and I don't remember what happened during that time. Honest, Mrs. C, I don't remember." I said this all very fast like I used to when I was younger and Mrs. C would interrogate me over some crime (that I was most certainly innocent of).

Her brow furrowed and I could have sworn for the first time that night, a flicker of concern passed her face. But it was gone so fast it might as well not have been there.

We sat there in silence as she digested what I told her. I found my eyes wandering over to the other table wondering what had them so fascinated under the table. Their table shook slightly threatening to tip over their mugs of coffee which they seemed to ignore adamantly.

"So what happened at school?" Mrs. C asked which made me turn back to her.

I took a heavy sigh. I figured either way, I wouldn't get out of there without telling her. Well, at least not in a body bag anyway. "I found something out about Charlie today."

"And what would that be?" she asked with a casual glance at the nearby table which again shook.

"I'm sorry to tell you this Mrs. C but your son is gay."

She turned back to me. I expected shock. I expected disappointed. I expected mildly surprised. I didn't expect amused. She looked like I had said something funny.

"Didn't you hear me, Mrs. C? I said Charlie is gay."

"Yes, I heard you," she said as she took another sip of her coffee.

"And you're not bothered by this?" She shook her head no. "I saw him making out with another guy." At this she almost chuckled and for the first time that night I felt something other than fear. I felt angry. "What's so funny?"

"Come now, Derek," she said with a soft smile. "I told you, there's nothing I won't eventually find out with enough time."

"You knew?" I asked aghast. The girl near us gasped but I paid her no attention. "You knew all this time and you let me sleep in the same room as him?"

"I'm not prejudiced, Derek," she said casually. "I never was. I never will, at least not in that sense. I don't care if my son is one thing or another. What's important to me is that he is safe and happy. I don't see anything wrong about being gay especially in our more accepting day and age."

"Accepting?" I replied with shock. "Mrs. C, don't you know what happens to gay people? They're…" I struggled as I looked for the right words, "second class citizens. Hell, they're not even deserving to be citizens. Faggots deserve is to get beat up, spit on, and tossed aside like some piece of garbage."

"Twenty years ago, I might agree that many thought that way," she said with a bemused expression. "Ten years ago, maybe there were still quite a few. Five years ago, homophobes were dwindling in numbers. Today, we see an uncharacteristic acceptance of gay people, of all kinds of minorities really. Have you not seen the number of laws that have been passed across the states in favor of all kinds of gender equality?"

"Those people don't know what they're doing."

"Are you telling me that throngs of politicians across the country have no idea what they're doing?" She then frowned as though she had found some wrong in her question. "Anyway… I had hoped that you of all people would be understanding of such behavior."

"What is that supposed to mean?" I said letting some of the heat escape in my words.

"Derek, do you honestly expect me to believe that after all these years, considering how close you are with my son, that you have never, even once, considered him as more than just a friend. Are you telling me that you two have never ever experimented on anything at all?"

"I don't believe this," I said angrily. The guy on the other table looked at me for awhile then returned his attention to the girl. In a furious whisper I continued, "I am not a fa… I'm not gay."

"I didn't say you were," she said giving a disapproving glance on the couple next to us. "Certain behaviors are not wrong just because a lot of gay people do them. Studies show that a lot of straight people have in their lives done some things that many would consider gay. Doesn't mean they're wrong or that they were corrupted. Just means they were curious or perhaps acting on the natural tendencies of their bodies, perhaps even their minds and hearts. Maybe it is or rather was society's way of thinking that was wrong after all.

"It's not our place to judge someone's value based on their sexual preferences. If you look close enough, you'll find that the differences between you and my son are superficial and irrelevant in the greater scheme of things. Besides, I wouldn't care either way if you were or weren't. I'm just concerned with what happened to Charlie earlier today. And I know you were… where do you think you're going?" She asked suddenly as I stood up.

"I'm not going to stand for this," I told her in that odd ironic way after having just stood up. "I can't believe you people. Just because I was friends with Charlie for such a long time doesn't mean I've been corrupted."

"Sit down, Derek," she said heavily, all traces of being amused gone from her face.

"No," I said seriously. "I have nothing more to explain to you. Clearly, you have misinformed perceptions about me and I refuse to continue any conversation with anyone with those kinds of views."

"We are far from your house, Derek," she said threateningly. "It's a long walk home."

"I saw a lot of cars passing this road," I said as I turned my back to her to make my way out of the restaurant. "I will hitch home if I have to."

I was barely halfway to the door when something hard and very solid hit me at the back of the head and warm liquid gushed across my scalp.

"Owww!" I said with a groan as pain stabbed across the back of my head. I rubbed the point of impact behind my head and looked for the object that had hit me. There rolling on the floor spilling coffee everywhere was a very wooden mug. "The hell…" I said angrily to Mrs. C as I massaged the point behind my head certain that another bump was going to form there to match the one in the front.

"Heeeey," the girl next to our table said in a heavy, almost panting voice. "I wasn't done with that."

Mrs. C turned her glare at the young girl. Mrs. C still had her coffee mug in one hand. She apparently had reached over to the next table and thrown the girl's mug at my head with deadly accuracy. "Ms. Abernathy, I believe you are very much done with this place and will be heading home immediately."

"How do you know who I am?" The girl asked with surprise.

Mrs. C turned to the guy with her. "And Mr. Mercado, I insist you take your hand out of that poor girl's skirt this instant."

The guy quick withdrew his hand from beneath the table exposing very moist fingers. He blushed before quickly hiding them again and wiping furiously at his pant legs.

"I expect," Mrs. C said in a domineering voice, "that the two of you will be going home immediately. I will be calling your mothers in twenty minutes and if neither of you are home by then, by all that is holy, I will make sure you are both grounded until you turn twenty."

The two students looked disbelievingly at her.

"NOW!" she yelled causing the two to jump and quickly stand up from their seats.

They made their way to the door. The girl was rapidly fixing her rumpled skirt while the guy was trying to flatten the bulge in his pants. Before passing me, he gave me a casual glance and then did a double take. "Hey, aren't you…"

"I said NOW, Mr. Mercado," Mrs. C said loudly which caused the poor guy to double his speed out of the restaurant. She then turned her steely eyes on me and in the same voice said, "sit down, Derek."

"No," I said more out of fear than determination.

"No?" she whispered in a deadly voice and I had a feeling she was wishing she was behind the wheel of her car with me right in front of it. "Okay, you don't want to sit? Fine. Don't sit. You can go home. You can go do whatever it is you want to do. I'll tell you what. I'll even give you my car." She threw me a set of keys, which I only managed to catch before it escaped my reach. "You can even go to my house and confront Charlie. You can, what were your words, give him what he deserves for being a faggot. You said so yourself mere moments ago that faggots deserve to get beat up, spit on, and tossed aside like some piece of garbage. Go on, do it. I won't stop you. I'll even guarantee you a few hours so you can relish the experience of giving him what he deserves. I won't press charges so you'll have nothing to worry about. Go on. Go!"

She paused looking at me with venom dripping from her teeth. I wondered if she had gone crazy. Here she was handing me the keys not only to her car but to the life of her son. She was giving me the opportunity, no, she was commanding me to do to Charlie all the things gay people deserved. And she was doing it without any consequences on my part. I could personally teach Charlie the price of being gay.

The whole idea made me sick.

"Not so easy is it?" she asked so softly it could barely be heard yet so loud that it seemed to drown out everything else, even the Jazz music playing overhead. "To say and to believe are two different things, Derek. You need to understand the difference between them. Now, sit." It wasn't a request.

Despite the mounting fear in me, I took the chair once again. It was like I had no control over my legs and was doing only what she commanded. I did manage to avert my eyes though to think about what she was saying. To say and to believe? Was she implying that I didn't believe in the things I said? Of course I did. I looked around and saw a waitress cleaning up the mess caused by the fallen mug. The girl was shaking her head but had a soft smile on her lips.

As though Mrs. C could read my thoughts, she asked, "why can't you do it?"

It took me a moment to respond but the answer was as clear as daylight. "It's Charlie."

"How's Charlie any different from any other boy? From any other person? Why should he be the exception to the rule you believe applies to all gay people?"

I thought about it. Wracking my brain, the question seemed to just boil down to the same answer. It's Charlie. "Do you want me to beat him up, Mrs. C?" I asked as I fought the nausea that was threatening to overtake my resolve.

"Of course not," she said harshly, leaving no room to believe otherwise. "What I want is for you to realize that other people are not too different from my son, that the only differences are the prejudices we put on them. I want you to realize that, in the end, he and everyone else are not too different even from you."

I just sat there, staring at her, my vision slightly distorted, perhaps in more ways than one.

"I would have thought you'd know better than to hurt others," Mrs. C said after a long silence. Me? Hurting others? I wasn't the one throwing heavy mugs at people, or giving them multiple concussions on the head, or threatening kids about calling their mothers. "I expected more from you, Derek. Clearly, this is your father's doing."

"What does my father have to do with this?" I asked weakly. She stared at me and I found myself averting my eyes again then rubbing the new bump that was already forming at the back of my head.

I knew she was staring at me as though wondering how I had the nerve to ask her that question. "You will explain to me in your own words everything that happened today in school involving my son."

"Mrs. C…"

"Derek," she hissed and I visibly cringed in my seat. I could have sworn the snakes I once saw on her head when we were younger were once again snapping furiously to take a chunk of my flesh.

"Okay," I said softly and proceeded to explain everything to her. I didn't even leave out the fact that I had seen everything from the roof. I didn't even bother putting details at angles that favored me. It was like I was undergoing word vomit and every single thought that came to mind just came pouring out. By the time I was done, I felt so exhausted both physically and emotionally. I couldn't even stop myself from slouching despite the damage it might do to my spine.

"Derek, you foolish boy," Mrs. C said when I was finished. "You foolish, stupid boy."

I didn't have the strength to defend myself against her words.

She sighed deeply and shook her head looking around as though trying to find answers somewhere along the walls. She ran a hand through her dark hair as though in annoyance. "Okay," she said after what seemed like forever passed. "I will take you home now. You are not to speak to my son."

"What?" I asked surprised. I expected her to try and force me to make up with Charlie or something.

"What?" she imitated. "Did you expect me to just say everything's okay, aww poor Derek, or something like that?"

"No," I said softly.

"What did you expect then?" she said stiffly.

"I…. I didn't… expect anything."

"Liar," she accused with great conviction. "You expected me to understand you, to take your side. You expected me to understand that gay people are wrong or are evil. You expected me to conform to your misguided beliefs, believes that you don't even seem to believe in. You expected me to fix my son as though he was broken or diseased. I'm sorry, Derek, but the only one broken here is you."

I hung my head, suddenly feeling far too tired to say anything more.

"Look," Mrs. C said and this time her voice was softer. "You're eighteen already, Derek. Legally, you're already an adult. But more than that, you're mother and I would have thought you'd be better than this, more open-minded, more mature. A long time ago, I told you that I considered you a second son. Despite the mounting evidence against that statement, it is still true. I do care for you, Derek, even if you may not believe it. But I also know that between you and Charlie, you have the stronger personality. You have the greater capacity to influence and shape the world around you. I'd like to think that you would do it in such a way that it would make the world better, not just for you but also for Charlie and everyone else out there that's not as popular or as strong as you. But after what you've done, I just don't know how safe Charlie will be around you."

I heard her words but perhaps I was just too drained to let them sink in. I felt really weak as though I was on the brink of collapsing.

"I can tell you're exhausted," Mrs. C admittedly almost grudgingly. "I will take you home. Just… just think about things. Think about what's really important to you. Don't let other people's views influence you negatively, especially your father's. Despite what you may think, he is just one man. Don't let his way of thinking dictate how you live the rest of your life, okay?"

She helped me up at some point. I could feel her hand on my arm. She wasn't holding me like a prisoner or anything. It was more like a gesture of support, as though to say I'm tough on you because I have to be. She thanked the waitress and left a sizable tip before leaving.

She eased me into the car; even making sure my seatbelt was on before going around the car to enter from the other side. I barely noticed her enter the car as I drifted off to sleep. I didn't even remember till much later that I had, though minutes late, answered her question under my breath in the silence of the car, unheard by all but me.

I can't.

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