I'm With Stupid

by Joe Casey


Mr. K frowned, tossed his phone down on his desk and turned to look at Colton . I glanced at the phone before the display dimmed; what I'd expected to see was there: the picture of Colton and me, taken just outside in the hallway, a few days ago, with those stupid fucking t-shirts on. I couldn't even remember who'd taken the picture … probably one of Colton's idiot friends from the football team.

"Explain it to me, Colton. What, exactly, were you thinking?"

"Why are you asking me?" Colton answered, throwing enough righteous indignation into his voice that I had to resist the temptation to look around for the bus I knew was barreling right towards me.

Mr. K's left eyebrow shot up. "Because I have a pretty good guess that this was your idea."

It was, I wanted to add, but we weren't really at the stage for that bus to become useful. And I'd gone along for the ride anyway. I was just as guilty as Colton was.

"Dude, it was just a joke …" Colton countered, a little bit of nervous laughter edging his voice, hoping to take the edge off, to make light of it, something he always did when he knew he'd screwed up past the point of no return.

Mr. K said nothing for a long moment; I could see his jaw working in anger. Then, "I am not a dude, Colton . I am the principal of this high school. It would serve you well to remember that. Do you understand?"

Colton looked down. "Yes, sir," he muttered.

Mr. K fell silent, looking at the both of us. Mr. K was Mr. K because his last name was Polish and achingly bereft of vowels and unpronounceable by most humans. Everybody called him Mr. K. Most of the time, he was a pretty easy-going kind of guy; you'd have to be to be principal in a high school. But when you crossed him, you did so at your own risk. Fuck around and find out, as they say. Colton and I were firmly in the find out stage of that process.

"Let's try this again," he said. "What were you thinking? Explain to me why you thought this would be hilarious."

Colton shrugged. "I didn't mean anything, Mr. K. Honest. I just … I really did think it would be funny."

"To make fun of people?"

"No!" Colton countered. "I just … I mean, people take all of this shit so seriously! Do you know what it's like to try to get through a day in this school without pissing somebody off about all of it? You get a pronoun wrong, you'd think it was the end of the fucking world or something."

Mr. K sighed, ignoring the language. "I understand your frustration, Colton … but this is important to people. I know it can be confusing. All I'm asking is that you try, that we all try."

I glanced at Colton , wondering if he'd forgotten one very important fact: Mr. K himself was gay. Not in-your-face-about-it gay, but not exactly hiding it. I could see a photograph of him and his husband on the credenza to my left, if I cared to look. I'd even met the guy, once. Sam, I think his name was. Taught at the university here in town. Seemed like a nice guy.

"I do try …" Colton muttered. "I do. All the time." He jinked a finger at me. "Ask Evan , if you don't believe me."

… aaand, there it was. I was wondering how long it would take Colton to redirect the argument. I turned to Mr. K. "He does, honestly. We all do. But it … well, he's right. It's not easy."

Mr. K sighed. "Nothing about high school is easy, guys. I get that. But you just have to go with it. You know that. You know what this school believes, what we try to do. Everybody is important, everybody has the right to their own beliefs. We just have to keep remembering that. What we don't do is wear stupid t-shirts to school." He rapped on the desk. "And we don't bully people who aren't like us. You know that, both of you."

"I'm sorry, Mr. K," I said. "I really am. I just … I just wasn't thinking."

"Okay." He turned to Colton, waited. And waited. Presently, Mr. K cleared his throat.

"Sorry," Colton muttered. Obviously, he wasn't sorry in the least. He'd just wised up enough to know that he had to say it if he had any hope of getting out of this with his skin intact and attached to the rest of him.

"Thank you for saying that, both of you." Mr. K hesitated. "Now I just have to figure out what to do with the two of you."

I tensed, waiting for the worst: detention, probably. Maybe even expulsion. My parents would kill me.

He sighed again. I imagined that principals did a lot of sighing. "By all rights, I should send the both of you home for a few days, let you think about it."

My heart started pounding.

"But I'm not going to do that," Mr. K continued. "It wouldn't do any good. What I am going to do …"

We waited. Part of me understood that he was playing with us, making us imagine the worst.

He smiled. It was not a pleasant smile. "What I'm going to do is to make you stand up in front of everybody and apologize."

Colton's head reared back. "What?"

"You heard me. I want you to get up during weekly and apologize."

Our school, for as long as Mr. K had been here, held a weekly assembly in the gym where everybody from all four grades got together to listen to Mr. K talk about the upcoming week. It was supposed to help make us all feel like a part of a community, from freshmen all the way up to seniors. It was always on Monday when school was in session, before classes started for the day. After he spoke, anybody who had anything to say was welcome to get up and say it.

"Are you fucking kidding me?" Colton said. I closed my eyes, shook my head. Sometimes Colton wasn't smart enough to know when to shut up.

Mr. K leaned forward. "If you don't watch your mouth, it's going to get much worse. Don't try me, Colton." His voice was low in his throat, sounding calm … but I could hear the threat behind it. Shut the fuck up, Colton, I thought. Do yourself a favor and stop being an asshole, for once.

Colton's head dropped down again. "Sorry."

"Today's Friday," Mr. K said. "You've got the weekend to think about this. Monday morning, I want you to show me what you plan to say. Write it out. And think very carefully about what you want to say." He stood up. "We're done here, gentlemen."

We stood up as well, grabbed our backpacks. We were halfway to the door when, from behind me, I heard Mr. K's voice.

"Uh, Evan … why don't you hang back a bit?"

Fuck, I thought. Now what? Beside me, Colton snickered. "Later, dude," he whispered. "Watch your back." With a nasty grin to accompany it. I hoped that Mr. K hadn't heard it.

I stopped and turned. When Mr. K was sure that Colton was out of range, he came around the desk, sat on the edge of it, crossed his arms. " Evan …"

"Yes, sir?"

"I …" He paused, tapped the face of his phone. "I … well, this is pretty much par for course from Colton. But …"


"I … honestly, I expected better from you, Evan . You know better than this. I know you do."

I swallowed past a lump in my throat. He was right, of course. I did. "Mr. K …"

I watched as he opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it, then thought again. "You need to figure things out, Evan ," he said. "I mean it. I know you think you have time … but you'll be surprised how quickly it all goes. You need to figure out just what kind of person you are, and what kind of person you want to be."

My eyes stung with tears, but I didn't want to start crying in front of him. "I know …" I muttered.

"Look at me, Evan ." I did; he looked back at me. Something curdled the air between us. "What I really want to say is this: you can do this. I know you can. You're a smart guy, one of the smartest. I know you and Colton are friends, and I know how much it means to have friends … but, in the end, you're the only one responsible for everything that you say and do."

I nodded. "Mr. K … I will. I promise."

Another look passed between us, and I swallowed past a sudden quiver of nerves.

"Okay," he said. "Go."

I went.


Of course, Colton was long gone when I got out into the hallway. I went over to a wall, slumped against it, slid down the face of it to sit on the floor. At this time of day, nobody was here, for which I was glad. Mr. K had made the two of us come in right after classes were done for the day.

I took deep breaths, forcing myself to calm down, fighting off a panic attack that hovered there like storm clouds at the edge of my brain. While I sat there, I tried to figure out - again, for like the thousandth time - why I'd gone along with it, and him.

Colton and I had been best friends since before school. Our houses backed up to each other's; we shared a fence that my father had put a gate in - with Colton's parents' permission - when it became clear that we were friends and wanted to be with each other as much as possible.

He was a year older than me; not much difference, you would think … except, to me, it seemed like he was nearly grown up. He'd been ahead of me in just about everything; I remember the summer when his voice broke and I finally noticed that he'd filled out and gotten taller. I noticed the hair under his arms and on his arms and legs and even his jawline. I noticed his personality - always outsized - grow even more confident, to the point of brashness. He had a charm, though, about him, one that always seemed to win people over. Even when he got into trouble - which was just about nearly every week - he managed to sweet-talk his way out of it. People loved him.

In a way, I loved him, too. It had been easy to convince myself that Colton was the kind of kid I wanted to become: funny, smart (or so I thought), cute, tall and well-muscled, popular.

The kind of boy every father would want to have, afraid of nothing, eager to try new things, meet new people, go where others dared not.

I could never quite figure out why he tolerated me. I'd always been a bit undersized for my age, short and skinny, quiet and nervous. Colton was the kind of kid who threw himself into everything, sometimes even before he'd been able to figure out the consequences. I was completely the opposite, overanalyzing everything to the point of paralysis, only to end up doing nothing, thinking that every choice I might make would turn out to be the wrong one.

Maybe that was the secret behind our friendship. Colton dragged me out of my self-imposed shell; I acted as a brake on some of his more outrageous - and quite possibly fatal - impulses.

My thoughts were interrupted by someone walking down the hallway. I started to get up and slip out of the building before having to confront anybody, but I glanced to my right and breathed a sigh of relief.

It was my girlfriend, Abby.

She smiled when she saw me, waved. I waved back, glad to see her. She would help me understand all of this, I hoped, maybe get me to see that it wasn't as bad as I thought it was.

She eased herself down beside me. I leaned over, gave her a quick peck on the cheek.

"Hi, you," she said.

I smiled back. "Hi."

"How was it? You get kicked out or anything?"

"Uh, no, actually. But I have to get up next Monday at weekly and apologize. To everybody. Well, we both have to. Colton and me."

She considered it. "Wow. I guess that makes sense, really. You guys pissed off a lot of people."

"I didn't mean to, Abby. Really."

She ran a hand through my hair. "I know that. It's not like you to do that. Colton, though …" She trailed off.

"What about him?"

"Well … I mean, it's Colton, right? If anybody's going to piss off a whole community of people with one stupid stunt, it's going to be Colton, you know?"

"Are people really mad?"

"Well, yeah. I mean, they all think you're making fun of them, right? Saying that you two are gay when you're really not. It's like what they are and what they feel aren't important, are things to make fun of. I get it, really." She sighed. "I mean, it's bad enough just being a girl, right? But throw being gay or transgender or whatever on top of that … well, that just makes it ten times worse."

"Mr. K says that we're bullies."

She thought about it. "Mmm … I'm not sure I agree with that. You didn't go up to anybody in particular and harass them or anything. But … I can see where he might say that."

"I really didn't think it would go this far."

"I'm surprised you did it at all."

"I didn't want to at first."

"But Colton talked you into it."

"I … guess …"

She chuckled. "You're usually the one to talk him out of doing stupid stuff."

"I tried. I … he just … well, he's changed, you know? Ever since his parents split up … and with his new stepdad, he's been … I don't know … different. Meaner, maybe. Nastier." Thinking of the implication he had made all too clearly just a moment ago: that Mr. K had asked me to stay so that he could … well, whatever.

She said nothing for a bit. Then, "Well, that was always there, really. You just couldn't see it, or didn't want to."

I turned to her. "Are you serious?"

She nodded. "Yes. I can't tell you how many times the words Colton and asshole end up in the same sentence."

"I … really?"

She blew out a breath. "Look, Evan , I … I can see why you like him. I mean, he's … well, he's Colton, right? Kind of a class clown, I guess. Popular … funny."

I hit her lightly on her upper arm. "Are you saying I'm none of those things?"

She laughs. "No. Well …"


She turned. "Look at me." I did; she went on. "Colton's one thing. You're another. You're the kind of guy a girl would want to end up with. I mean, Colton's good for a laugh or two, and a fun night out. But you … you're the kind of guy a girl wants to walk down the aisle with."

"Whoa, whoa … don't get ahead of yourself."

She laughed. "I'm not. I'm just saying that you're a good guy. A lot of people are angrier at Colton than they are at you."

"Which won't make getting up in front of them Monday morning any easier."

"Oh, you'll get through it. In a few months, nobody will care, not really. It'll blow over."

"Mr. K's pretty angry at me."

She smiled. "Well, of course he is. He has to be. He's the principal."

"Well, yeah, I know … but, it was weird. When he was done with us, he asked me to stay behind for a bit."

"Oh. That is weird."

"Yeah. He, uh … he said he was pretty disappointed in me. He thought I should have known better."

"Well …"

I held up a hand. "I know, I know. Then he said I needed to figure some things out, and fast."

"Really? Like what?"

"Like … I don't know what. It was … strange. Like he knew things about me that even I didn't know." My phone vibrated in my pocket; I pulled it out, looked at the time. "Oh, crap … I … I have to get home."

She stood up with me. "I'll walk with you, if you don't mind?"

"Of course not. I'd like that." Something occurred to me at that point. "You didn't stay behind just because of me, did you?"

She shrugged. "Of course I did. That's what friends do, you idiot."

I kissed her again. "Well, thank you for that. And for staying, as well. Not just the … well, the idiot part."


Across the dining room table, my parents looked at each other, then at me.

"Well, it could have been worse," my mother said, when I was done telling her what Mr. K had planned for me and Colton.

"Do you know what you're going to say?" my father asked.

I shook my head. "No. I have to write something up, show it to Mr. K on Monday."

"Well, we'd like to see it, too."


"And Colton has to do the same thing?" my mother added.

I nodded. "Yeah. I figure we'll go up together and do it." My father opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it. Some part of me knew what he was thinking. "He was pretty sorry, if that means anything," I added.

My father rolled his eyes. "Yeah, well … he's always pretty sorry, after the fact."

"Easier to ask forgiveness …" my mother added. My father nodded in agreement.

For some reason, that made me angry. "He will. He was really sorry."

"Well, he was talking to Mr. K, Evan . Of course he's going to try to look sorry."

"Why don't you guys believe me?"

"It's not you we don't believe, Evan . It's …"

"You don't like Colton," I muttered.

"It's not that," my mother said.

"Well …" From my father.

I sat there, not believing what I was hearing. "Colton's my best friend! How can you not … I mean, he's … we've known each other forever!"

My father sighed. "He's changed, Evan . That's what he's done. You know he has, even if you don't believe it. Ever since Trace and Linda split up and she took up with that … oh, what's his name …?"

"Buck," my mother supplied.

Another eyeroll. "Buck - Jesus, what a stupid name - anyway, ever since Linda and Buck got married, it's been … I don't know … different."

The thing was, they were right. And I knew it.

Colton's real dad - Trace - was a good guy. Maybe not the sharpest tool in the toolbox, but he was a hard worker and a decent husband and father. Which apparently hadn't been good enough for Linda, though. She'd started seeing Buck - a guy she knew from her own high school days - while Trace was pulling long hours at the car plant. One way or another, he found out and left her. A few months later, Buck moved in. A few months after that, they got married.

And whatever charms Buck may have possessed when he was sneaking around with Linda just went out the window the day they got married. I didn't see a lot of it, but all of us got an earful more often than we wanted to when the two of them would be at it hammer and tongs in the back yard, screaming at each other, both of them drunk or fucked up or both. I felt sorry for Colton, having to be a part of that, probably watching from his bedroom window while his parents did everything they could short of killing each other, knowing that I was watching it as well.

And with Colton, Buck was, well …

Buck was the kind of guy everybody was familiar with: a kind of good ol' boy, into sports and guns and hunting and car racing, owner of a massive truck that must have cost him north of fifty grand, always willing to hang out with the guys, less willing to spend an evening home with his new wife and stepson. And, at first, he was okay with Colton … but pretty soon, words like pussy and faggot and cocksucker got dropped like bombs into whatever conversation he was having with Colton - usually just him yelling at Colton for one thing or another - and all I could do was to stand there quietly and witness it, wondering what might happen to Colton if I left, unable to do anything to stop it.

And, Colton changed. His humor and his personality took a sharp turn towards a dark side I'd never thought that he had. All of the abuse heaped upon him got recycled and spat back out at anyone and everyone who crossed him.

And me, as well.

One day, I'd had enough. Maybe one too many faggots lobbed my way.

"You need to back the fuck off," I said to him.

He looked up from his phone. "What?"

"I'm tired of being called a faggot. You need to shut up, or I'm going home."

He smirked. "Isn't that what you are, though?"

"Is that what you think of me?" I countered.

He shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe. Sometimes." He looked back to his phone. "Sometimes you can be a real pussy about things."

I left, thinking that was it, that we were done with each other.

A week later, though, there he was, at the back door, asking if we could hang out.

And, of course, I said yes. What else was I going to do?

I went up to my room after supper, went to my computer, thought about what I was going to say on Monday. I knew what I had to say, and I really was sorry. I knew it didn't matter to me one way or the other what people thought they were or wanted to be; they had the right to do just that … just as I had every right to be what I wanted to be. That part would be easy to say.

But what I also wanted to say was how Colton had somehow talked me into it … but I knew that that wasn't right, either, that Mr. K would be disappointed if that was all that I said. And he was right; I had no right to drag Colton into it when I could just as easily have said that I wasn't going to do it.

My fingers hovered over the keyboard and I watched the cursor blinking on the blank page of the word processor, waited for some kind of inspiration.

And waited.

And … nothing. I sighed, knowing myself well enough to know that I couldn't force anything, that it would come to me at some point. I just hoped that that point happened some time before 8:30 in the morning on Monday.

While I sat there, my phone buzzed. I picked it up.


I watched the phone, felt it buzzing like a bug in my hand.

And, I ignored it. Presently the buzzing stopped.

… only to start again. I waited it out.

… and, again. I waited it out.

Finally, it buzzed one more time, and I saw that he'd sent me a message, instead. I clicked on it.

Okay, dude, fuck you to, it said.

I shook my head, thought about replying - if only to comment on his bad grammar - but I held back.

I gave up, undressed for bed, slipped under the blankets, scrolled idly through my phone, watching videos. I thought about giving Abby a call, but it was late and I knew that she crashed early, even on a Friday night.

There was, then, a knock at my door.

I put the phone down. "Come in."

The door cracked open; my father's head slipped through, like some disembodied thing. "Mind if I …?"

I shook my head. "No. I was ready to call it a day anyway."

"Yeah, yeah, I know. I, uh … I just wanted to apologize."

"For …?"

He came all the way into the room, went over to my desk chair, turned it around to face me, sat down. "Colton."

"Colton?" The last thing I expected to hear in a sentence with the word apologize in it.

"Yeah. I … well, I probably said some things that I shouldn't have."

I shrugged. "That's okay. He probably deserved them."

My father grinned. "Well, that's for his parents to decide, I guess. I just … well, if the two of you still want to hang out, that's … that's okay."

I thought about it. "I don't know if we do, any more. I'm not sure I want to. Not after this."

"That was a pretty big thing, what you did."

"I still don't know why I said yes."

He made a face. "People make mistakes, Evan . All the time. The important thing is to know that they're mistakes and that you should never make them again."

"I know. And I am sorry. I just …"


"He … he has changed. You're right about that. I've noticed it. Ever since Buck …"

"Yeah. We've all heard it."

"He gets a lot of shit from his dad, you know. Sorry."

He smiled. "Don't worry." He thought about it. "Uh, yeah, I bet he does. Buck has a lot of shit to dish out, it seems."

"Buck can be a real asshole, sometimes."

My father grinned. "Don't push your luck with the language thing."

I grinned back. "Sorry."

My father sighed, reminding me of Mr. K. Parents seemed to do a lot of sighing, as well. "It's too bad, though. Trace - for all his faults - was a good guy."

"He was. He was good with Colton. I liked him."

"It's going to be hard, you know. Having to be around Colton but not friends with him."

I shrugged. "Oh, it'll be fine. I mean, he'll be gone next May and I have one more year, so …"

"You know what he's going to do, after he graduates?"

I thought about it. "I … don't, actually. He never talks about it. I don't think his parents can afford college, though."

"Well, there's community college. No harm in that, if he's interested. It's a good way to get used to college without all the financial commitment."

I shrugged, said nothing. I took it as given that I would be going to college - somewhere - when I graduated. Colton, though … well, it just never came up. I wasn't sure that any of his parents had ever gone to college.

At my silence, my father stood up. "Well, that was it, I guess. Don't stay up too late."

"I won't."

He crossed to the door, opened it, stopped, turned back to me. "I love you, Evan . We both do, very much. I just want you to know that."

My voice threatened to betray me. I cleared my throat. "I love you, too. Both of you."

"Good night, son."

"Good night, Dad."


I put the phone on my nightstand, plugged it in, turned off the light.

And lay there, unable to go to sleep, my thoughts churning with the events of the day, of the past week, of what I'd done, of what Colton had - and had not - done.

Finally, though, I drifted off.

And dreamt.

The people who owned Colton's house before Trace and Linda bought it and moved in were wealthy enough to put a pool in. It wasn't all that big, but when it was ninety-seven degrees out in the middle of July, it could have been a mosquito-infested mud pit and we probably still would have gone swimming in it. Over the years, I'd spent many an afternoon over there with Colton and his parents.

In this dream, though, it's night. Still warm, but the sky is deep blue above us and a full moon casts its silvery light over everything, over us.

And - I'm not sure how I know this, but I do - we are alone, the two of us.

The pool has a light built into the side of it and it's on, casting an eerie blue light that ripples and swirls with the currents we've stirred up with our swimming. The light is dim but not so dim that I don't notice one very important thing about myself.

I am naked.

I look down and see myself there, my junk bobbing in the water like some kind of strange aquatic animal, surrounded by a little tussock of dark hair. I reach down, trail a hand across myself, feel myself responding with the strange feeling of being outside, in a pool, with no swimsuit. The water feels sensuous and alive, somehow, pulling at me, caressing me.

I look over at Colton, wondering if he can tell that I'm naked. And that, at this point, I have an erection. He is nearer to me, now, treading water as I am. I desperately try to think what I can do, how I can distract him so that I can swim over to the edge, pull myself up and out, wrap a towel around myself.

Colton grins. How does it feel? he whispers.

I dissemble. How does what feel? I say . Desperately wishing he would find something else to do. This is not happening, I keep telling myself. This is not happening. Hoping I can short-circuit the dream and get myself out of it.

No such luck. Colton reaches down; my eyes follow and I can tell that he, too, is naked. He grabs himself and shakes it. This, idiot, he says

This isn't right, I respond, and push myself away from him.

Of course, he follows. Why not?

Because I'm … I mean … and you …

You don't think this has ever happened before? Two guys?

Well, yeah, but … I … I don't …

You do, I think. His gaze drops to the part of me underwater, comes back up to my face. He grins. That is, if what I see is what I think I see.

I can't do this, I respond.

Yes, Evan … you can. If you want to.

I launch myself towards the edge of the pool, hoist myself up and over, plop down on the concrete curb, hunch over, trying to hide myself from him, from myself. But Colton is there, right beside me, our thighs touching. Unlike me, he leans back, resting on his arms, displaying himself, showing himself off. Of course, my eyes go there, to the hard arc of it bowing up, pointing to the sky.

I have never, in all the years we've known each other, seen Colton naked. Plenty of almosts and not quites, but somehow never leading to the real thing. Had I wanted it to? I ask myself. Regardless, my dreaming mind fills in the details.

He is as hard as I am. Larger, maybe … but that might be because he's older. The patch of scratchy hair there is a dirty blonde versus my brown (how I know that under the moonlight, I have no idea) and a little bit fuller.

His erection quivers in keeping with the beat of his heart. I am mesmerized by it, like a cobra with a mongoose, weaving back and forth, enticing and dangerous.

No, I say, or I think I do.

Colton looks at me, his eyes slitted and unreadable. He licks his lips; moonlight catches in them.

Yes, he says, or I think he does.

Please, I say to … whatever is controlling this. I can't … I can't.

In response, Colton leans over and kisses me. I drink moonlight from his beautiful mouth. I feel his hand on my chest, fingertips trailing across one nipple and then the other, then down my chest and belly.

I know you've wanted to do this for a long time, Evan .

… yes … I say, or I think I do.

Colton breaks away, but his hand goes next to the back of my head and, gently - but firmly - he guides it down, to there, to that velvet hardness, and I know what he wants me to do, and I open my mouth, ready myself to become that which I thought I would never become, and …

And …

And, I woke up, heart thudding in my chest, a painful throbbing there between my legs. I came back to myself slowly, reassuring myself that I was here, in my bedroom. I glanced over at the clock; it was nearly two in the morning. The house was silent around me; the loudest noise was my labored breathing as I struggled to make sense of what had just happened.

I sat up in bed, threw the covers off of me, swung my legs over and planted my feet on the carpet, grounding myself. My shorts were tented out with my erection.

I shucked them off, looked down at myself, saw myself curving up. I could, I knew, take care of myself in the most obvious way possible - something I was far too good at - but then I would be forced to admit that Colton had been the one to coax this reaction out of me and not Abby.

My heartbeat slowed to something more normal. I willed myself to relax there, as well, watched as it began to flag.

I told myself that this was normal, that all guys went through it at one point. I remembered back to middle school, when we were just beginning to understand the greater things happening to us, to our bodies. And we thought ourselves capable of everything, of every kind of love. It became a kind of joke with us … gay one day, maybe, and straight the next, or something in between, or something else entirely. It was play, all of it, nothing more than that. What we were came and went like the tide.

But, now, in high school, it was different. We were expected to understand ourselves a little better, to find our place in the grand spectrum of possibilities, to be this and not that, whatever this and that might be. And, for me, that had been - so far - Abby, and the particular nature of her womanhood, of her curves, of her delightful differences, of her softness, of the contralto lilt of her voice, of the bright sparkle of her laughter, of how she felt in my arms.

We had, so far, done little else but kiss. I had thought myself capable of more, but Abby - more religious than not, kept on a tight rein by her parents - had kept me at arm's (arm, hah!) length even as I could see the hint of a greater promise there if she would just say yes. I had been happy enough with that.

Now, of course, I wondered why. Was this what it was, then, with me? Was this how it happened, for those to whom it happened? Some nighttime revelation, an angel descending from above, burning in the darkness, hand raised in benediction. Or in a curse. You are this. You are moved by this. Go out into the world and fill it with this kind of love.

I got up, walked over to the window, shouldered it open. October air, crisp and cold, poured into the room, drying the sweat on my body. I tried to clear my mind of all thought, tried to become a new, fresh canvas to be worked by another artist, more in keeping with what I told myself I wanted.

But, Colton, and his … and his …

He loves the cock, his t-shirt had said, with the arrow pointing to me.

Fuck, I whispered. Fuck, fuck, fuck.


I spent the rest of the weekend lying low, staying around the house, unwilling to go anywhere.

Unwilling to confront the import behind the dream, unable to shrug it off.

At dinner Saturday night, my mother looked at me. "Are you okay, Evan ?"

No, I wanted to answer. "Sure. Why?"

"You … well, you don't seem to want to do anything or go anywhere."

I grinned. "Trying to get me out of the house?"

She chuckled. "No. I just … well, usually you're out with Colton, or Abby, or your friends."

"I don't know," I answered. "Not really feeling it, I guess. I wanted to get some schoolwork done, anyway." Hoping that would mollify her.

"Oh. Okay. That's … good, I guess." She hesitated, then went on. "How is the … well, your … apology, I suppose. How's that going?"

"Mmm … okay. I've been thinking about it. Haven't really put anything together, yet. But I know I will."

"I still wish I understood it."

"Mom, really. There's nothing to understand. It was a stupid thing. I did a stupid thing. I won't do it again."

"I know you won't. I trust you. I just …"


"Colton," she said. "I feel … well, I feel sorry for him, almost. With those parents. God … they're really awful people." She looked at me, made a face. "Don't tell anyone I said that."

I smiled. "I won't."

"You're sure you don't want to go over and talk to him?"

"I … maybe later," I said. "Not just yet. I need time to think about it." And time to think about the dream from last night, and whatever all of that meant. But I couldn't tell her that.

Saturday slipped into Sunday. Luckily, there'd been no repeat from the night before. I'm pretty sure I dreamed, but I couldn't remember any of them. I hoped that that would be the last of it, that my brain had sorted everything else and had come to the right conclusion: that I was in love with Abby and that it was with her I wanted to spend time.

With that behind me, I had only to figure out what to say tomorrow.

But again, I found myself staring at the blank page on my computer screen, the cursor blinking idly, waiting for me to start.

It came to me, then, what I should do. I picked up the phone, went through my contacts. And there it was. Skia.

I needed to talk to Skia.

Skia - up until the start of sophomore year - had been Sarah, somebody I didn't know very well, even though she'd been in most of my classes. We got along pretty well, though. She was tall for a girl, gangly, bookish and shy, like me; maybe part of me thought about asking her out, but I never did.

On the first day of school that year, I had been surprised when someone I didn't know walked past me, some guy in clothing that seemed studied and self-conscious, like a costume. His hair was the most amazing feature, though: cut long on one side and buzzed down to the scalp on the opposite side, all of it dyed the brightest shade of magenta this side of a nuclear explosion.

It took me a minute to understand that this was no stranger, that I knew this person, and the person I knew had, last year, been a girl and not a guy. I picked my jaw up off the ground and started after her.

"Sarah," I said. No answer. "Sarah," I tried again. I might as well have been talking to a wall. "Sarah, wait, please."

The figure turned; it was her, I could see. She glared at me. "It's Skia," she said. Even her … his … voice was different, lower in her throat.

"I … what?"

"Skia," she repeated. "My name is Skia, now. Sarah's … well, she's … she's just … not, anymore."

"I … okay. Skia," I repeated. "That's … well, that's … cool, I guess. Does it mean anything?"

"Shadow," she responded, leaving me as clueless as always. At my confused expression, she went on. "It's Greek. It means shadow."

"Shadow. That's … I like that."

She gave me a look. "Well, good. I guess I win the prize, then. Lucky me." With that, she turned on her heel and walked into school, leaving me standing there like an idiot in the middle of the parking lot.

I got the truth - well, more of it - from Colton, of all people.

"She's not a she," he said. "At least, not right now. More of a they, I think. Maybe more boy than girl, but that seems to change on a day-by-day basis. Depends on their mood, I guess. Or the day of the week."

I ignored the sarcasm in his voice. "Colton, how do you know all this?"

He looked at me, shrugged. "Jason."

"Oh, yeah." I'd forgotten that Sarah - Skia - had an older brother, in the same grade as Colton.

Colton grinned. "Jason said it has been a most interesting summer."

I grinned back. "I bet."

I started to call them, thought better, sent them a message instead.

it's evan. can we talk?

I put the phone down, waited. And waited. I went back to the blank page, typed a few words in, looked at them, erased them.

A buzz from my phone, then. Skia.


need to ask you something.

Blinking dots … that went away. Came back. Went away. Then, maybe not a good idea.

Shit. Skia, please. It's important.

The dots came and went, came and went, Skia trying to figure out what to say. I really didn't want to have this conversation by text, though.

Another buzz, this time a phone call.

" Evan," Skia said, when I pressed the button.

"Yeah, hi. I, uh … thanks for calling."

"No problem. What do you want, Evan ?"

"Well, uh … you know what happened at school last week."

"Yeah. Dumb-ass thing to do, Evan . We didn't think you were like that."

"I'm not, Skia. I'm really not. Colton -" Shit, I thought. I didn't want to drag him into this. At least, not yet.

"What's the deal with you and him, Evan ? You guys, like, together, or something?"

"What? No, Skia! We're not. We're just friends." That dream, though …

"You know he's an asshole, right?"

"Everybody keeps saying that."

"Well, maybe because it's true."

"Look, Skia … I … I don't want to talk about Colton."

"Neither do we."

"I … well, you know I have to get up tomorrow in front of everyone at weekly and apologize. We both do."

"We know. Good."

I didn't really have to wonder how Skia knew; nothing travels faster in school than gossip. "Yeah, I know. And I will. I just … I don't know what to say."

"Really? I think it's pretty easy, Evan . You just get up and say 'I'm sorry for being an asshole and for being friends with an asshole who made me do an asshole thing because I'm also an asshole.' That's it. Easy-peasy."

"I think that might be too many 'assholes' for Mr. K."

There was a snuffling noise on the line; it took me a second to realize it was Skia laughing. "Maybe," they said. "Feel free to improvise."

"I just …" I sighed. "I just want people to know that I'm really sorry."

"Um, no guarantees, Evan . Just say what you need to say and people will either believe it or they won't."

"But … I mean, you know … if you could just … maybe …"

"What? Tell people what to think, Evan ? We can't do that. Nobody can."

"Well, I know, but …"

"You think we're the president of all the queers at school, or something?"

"Well, no, but … I mean, they respect you, Skia."

There was a long pause; I had to check my phone to make sure the connection hadn't failed … or worse: that Skia had hung up on me. Then, "We'll say it again, Evan . If you get up in front of everybody and really say what you feel, then maybe - maybe - people will see that you're sorry. You don't even have to say anything about Colton, and maybe it's better if you don't. Own up to it. That's all you can do. Whatever people think is up to them."

"Okay. Thanks."

"You're welcome. We do have a favor to ask, though."


"Please don't have Colton call us about this."

I chuckled. "I won't. Promise."


"Skia? Thanks. Thanks for talking to me."

"You're welcome." There was a pause; I opened my mouth to speak, but Skia went on. "We're … we're really glad you called, Evan ."

"I am, too, Skia."

I ended the call, put the phone down, started writing.

I showed what I'd written to my parents after supper, waited while they both read through it. When they were done, they handed it back to me, looked at each other, then back at me.

"That's …" my father started. "You did a good job, Evan ."

My mother smiled. "Where did you learn how to write so well?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. I just … well, I like it."

"Well, we're impressed."

"I just hope that everybody else will understand."

My father shrugged. "Well, at least you've made the effort. Whatever happens, happens." He cleared his throat. "You have any idea what Colton's going to say?"

"I don't, actually," I responded. "We're … well, we haven't talked since Friday. I have no idea what he's going to say." Other than telling me to go fuck myself, I thought.


I think I got only a hour's worth of real sleep that night. I tried to relax, but the specter of standing up in front of fifteen hundred people - plus teachers and administrators and, for all I knew, the Pope and the Dalai Lama - meant that I didn't drop off until probably around four. Only to wake up two hours later when my alarm went off.

I lay there in bed, hands crossed behind my head, staring up at the ceiling. I only have to get through this day, I thought. After that, the rest is easy. At least, I hoped it would be.

No guarantees, as Skia had said.

I yielded to the inevitable, got up, got myself ready for the day. I stuffed everything into my backpack, printed out a copy of what I was going to say, looked it over once again, folded it, stuffed it into my jacket pocket.

Downstairs, both of my parents were up, sitting at the breakfast table, working on their morning coffees before they left for work.

"Hey, sport," my father said.

I tried to smile. "Hey."

"Today's the day, right?" From my mother.

I started humming Chopin's funeral march. My father chuckled. "Which do you prefer? Cremation or burial?"

"Oh, neither. Just throw me out into the woods."

My father shook his head. "No can do. Something will just drag the bones back here and I don't want to have to deal with it."

"Again," my mother added.

Okay, a little funny. I smiled.

"Do you want either of us there, today?" she added.

I shook my head. "No. I have to get through this on my own."

I lived near enough to high school that I usually rode my bike on most days, unless the weather was bad. Up until recently, Colton and I rode together … but, last year, Linda had leased a car - a BMW, which she probably couldn't afford - and let Colton have her old Camry.

I didn't mind the bike. It gave me a chance to be myself, to get ready for the day.

Today, though … maybe not so easy to gin myself up for. Every turn of the pedals just brought me that much closer to school. I looked up to the sky, hoping for a lucky meteor to take me out of all of this.

Relax, I told myself. You'll get through this.

Fifteen minutes later, I was there, threading my way through a crowd of students getting off buses or out of cars, making their way towards the gymnasium, where weekly was held. It was the only space big enough for the whole student body.

I chained my bike to a rack, started towards the doors. Several kids glanced at me, but nobody said anything, not willing to commit either way.

I felt like the loneliest guy on the planet.

There was motion to my left and I glanced over … only to see Skia coming towards me, hands in pockets, backpack slung over their shoulder. They stopped when they got to me.

"Hey," they said.

"Hey," I answered back. "What are you … I mean, you don't have to walk with me, you know."

"We know," they answered. "But we're going to."


Skia smiled. "Might want to put a pin in that, maybe. Depends on what you have to say."

"Got it. Thanks, anyway."

We walked together until we got to the front door. Mr. K stood there, greeting people. I don't know how he remembered so many names, but he did. I imagined some kind of computer thing whispering into his ear.

He did a double-take when he saw me and Skia walking together. He smiled, nodded. "Good morning, Skia. Good morning, Evan . Good to see the two of you."

"Morning, Mr. K," we both muttered. Skia moved away from me.

"We're gonna … well …" They slipped into the crowd and disappeared.

Mr. K turned to me. "I'm glad you're here, Evan ."

"Well, I … I didn't exactly have a choice."

"You do, though. You always have a choice. You just happened to make the right one." He frowned, looked past me. "Where's Colton?"

"I … have no idea," I answered.

"You guys didn't come in together? I thought you always did."

"We used to, until he got a car. I still ride my bike."

"Is he going to be here?"

"I … have no idea," I repeated. "I'm sorry."

The frown deepened. "Okay. Well … go on in and take a seat up front."

I made my way through the crowd, not saying anything to anyone. As I walked past the row of bleachers towards the front of the gym, I could almost feel the stares being directed my way. I tensed up, expecting to be pelted by rotten tomatoes. Eggs. Trash. Rocks. Knives. I could hear my name being whispered here and there.

Up at the front of the gym there was a stage; on it were arranged a lectern - for Mr. K - and a row of chairs for anybody who wanted to say something to the crowd. There were already a few kids there; when they saw me, they all huddled together, whispering to each other, probably about me. I took the seat at one end of the row, far away from anyone else, shoved my backpack under my seat, stretched out my legs, crossed my arms, looked at the crowd.

Time seemed to crawl as the gymnasium filled; eventually, the crowd trickled to just a few stragglers and then nobody else. Mr. K came through the door, following latecomers in, and walked towards the stage. He mounted the stairs and looked at the row of chairs, and stopped. He looked a hard question at me; all I could do was shrug an I don't know at him. He pursed his lips, shook his head, stepped over to the lectern .

My heart was hammering so hard in my chest that I could only think that people must have heard it, like a drum solo. I had no idea where in all of this I was supposed to speak.

Soon, though, it was clear that I would be the last to speak. Mr. K started by welcoming the crowd, then moved through the few announcements that he had: upcoming athletic games, choir and orchestra performances, tryouts for the spring musical. Little Shop of Horrors, it would be this year, something I thought was a little too on the nose for a high school full of hormonal adolescents.

When he was done, the other students with me on the stage got up one by one and stated their business: tryouts for cheerleading and pep squad, tryouts for various athletic teams, an upcoming walkathon for Alzheimer's.

When they were done, I made a move to stand up … but Mr. K beat me to the lectern and held up a hand.

He adjusted the microphone back to his height, turned his head, cleared his throat. "There's one more speaker, today, and I want you all to give particular attention to him." He paused while the crowd got quiet; people knew exactly what was coming. I could see them quietly pulling out cellphones, probably so they could record whatever was about to happen. "Last week, there was an unfortunate incident in school. Two students - one of whom is here today - were seen to be wearing clothing that expressed some … harmful opinions that - and I want to make this very clear - did not and do not reflect the philosophy that makes up the backbone of this school and everyone here. I'm sure that all of you know exactly what I'm talking about. One of those students -" and he waved a hand in my direction; I watched as fifteen hundred heads all turned at once to look at me. I also wondered - hoped - that they understood the stress Mr. K kept putting on the word one, could see that it was me and not Colton standing up here. "- is here today to talk about what happened and where we might go from here."

With that, he turned to me. " Evan ?"

I got up, hoping that I wouldn't faint on the way to the lectern . Mr. K stepped to one side, but leaned down to whisper something in my ear. "You've got this, Evan . Do us proud."

I pulled the microphone down, got a squeal of feedback as a response, tried again. I pulled the written statement out of my pocket, read through it quickly.

And put it back in my pocket.

"So, yeah … I'm Evan Locke. I'm a junior this year; some of you might know me." I smiled, went on. "Well, at this point, I imagine that all of you probably know who I am. You've probably seen the photograph and what I was wearing. It … well, I didn't think so at the time, but in hindsight I can see how some people might have thought that it was making fun of … well, being gay. I just want to say that I never intended for it to be seen that way. I also want to say that it was probably the stupidest thing I've ever done in my life … even stupider than that time in middle school, up at Jackson Lake where I took a rope swing out and slammed right into a tree."

There was some laughter to that, which surprised me. I had gone there with Colton - of course - and some other kids and had embarrassed myself by knocking the wind out of me, ending up on the ground, gasping for air like a beached fish, while a circle of older kids stood around me, watching me.

"So, yeah … and let me tell you that that was easier than what I'm doing here today." I took a deep breath, willing myself to go on.

"Look, I … I don't know what I was thinking, when I put that shirt on. I'm not even sure that I was thinking. It was supposed to be a way to … I don't know, to try to get a perspective on some very important things that a lot of people are going through, and it backfired. It was just … so wrong, on every level.

"Somebody recently told me that I owed it to myself to figure out exactly what kind of person I was and the kind of person I wanted to be. I hadn't thought of that, but he's right. We all do that every day, I think, but I know now that that kind of thing has to be done consciously, and deliberately."

I risked a glance over to Mr. K, who sat there, looking at me, his face blank. He knew as well as I did that I'd gone off script … but not terribly far. Simply standing up here reading something - even if I wrote it - seemed … unfair, somehow, like I was reading something somebody else had written for me. Mr. K wasn't doing anything to stop me, so I went on.

"I know I should have said no that day. I had a choice to make, and I made the wrong one. I know that, and I just want you all to know that I will try, from here on out, to keep making the right choice, over and over, even if that choice isn't the popular one, or the easy one.

"I hope that you can forgive me. I know I don't have the right to ask that. I can hope only that I can earn that trust, little by little, going forward."

I took a deep breath. "I just have one more thing to say. Up to now, I don't know if I've really been listening to people. We all get caught up in our own little bubbles, not realizing that others are making very difficult decisions, ones that will affect them for the rest of their lives. I just want to say that I make a promise right now to start listening to anybody who wants to talk about what I did, and why I did it, and how I might become a better person."

I glanced over at Mr. K, who gave me a slight smile and a nod. I stepped back to my seat, to some scattered applause, which surprised me. I sat, feeling myself in some kind of strange limbo, neither here nor there, neither heaven or hell, feeling like I was holding my breath, waiting for life to start back up around me.

Mr. K turned to the crowd. "Thank you, Evan . That took courage, and I applaud you for it, as well." He turned back to the crowd, glanced at his watch. I looked at the clock on the wall in the distance; it was just about time for everything to wrap up. "So, unless anybody else has anything they'd -"

He was interrupted by somebody in the audience, standing up. I craned my neck to see who it was.

It was Skia. "We have something to say, Mr. K."

"I, uh … well, sure, Skia. If you could, well …" He tapped his watch.

Skia made their way towards the aisle, started towards the stage.

At that moment, one of the doors leading to the gym's lobby slammed open, and a figure walked through it. I couldn't tell who it was, at first … and then, I could.

It was Buck. Colton's stepfather.

Oh, shit, I muttered to myself.

Buck made his way towards the stage, and us.

Some people in the audience knew who Buck was; I could see them turning to others, explaining things … and, quickly, a kind of buzz started running through the audience. Nothing rude, nothing obvious, just a kind of chatter that grew with every step Buck took.

Buck stopped when he got to the bottom of the short run of stairs leading up to the stage.

"I got something to say, Mr. K."

"Uh, okay … sure, Buck. This is normally just for students and teachers, but …"

We watched as Mr. K stepped to one side, waved a hand, inviting Buck up. He glanced at me as he passed me, and I don't know what I could see in his face. Anger? Disgust? I kept my own face blank as he went by me.

I watched as Mr. K looked around at the audience gathered here, watched as he made a subtle gesture, watched as several teachers began making their way to the stage. One was already on a phone, doubtless calling the school's security officer and telling him to get his ass down here right now.

Buck had been a wrestler in high school, or so I thought, and he was built like one, short and muscular. Age and a shitload of beer had given him a gut, so now he looked more like a fireplug. When he got to the lectern , the only thing everybody could see was his head sticking up above the top of it. Some people started chuckling. Mr. K started towards the lectern to see if he might adjust it - or worse - give Buck something to stand on, but he thought better of it. I could almost see a smile darting around his mouth.

Buck, for his part, seemed clueless about how absurd he looked standing there, like a fifth grader. He bent his head towards the microphone.

"Yeah … some of y'all might know who I am. I'm Buck Preston, Colton's stepdad, and I just wanna say this about all this bullshit y'all have been putting my boy through the last week. I saw that photograph, and … you know what? I thought it was funny. I mean, I know my boy ain't gay or anything. I can't say anything about this one -" and he pointed with his thumb, over his shoulder, somewhere in my general direction "- but I know my boy. And, you know what? I'm goddamn glad he's normal."

With this, some people in the audience started booing. Mr. K took a step towards the stage; behind him, I could see the security officer step onto the stage and come to a stop next to him.

Buck ignored them, went on. "He comes home every day, talks about all this crazy shit going on here, guys who say they're girls, girls who say they're guys, all this shit about which bathroom you can and can't use … and we're all just supposed to put up with, right? Can't say anything about it, or you get your ass hauled up in front of the principal, who tells you that you're wrong for thinking that way."

Mr. K took another step towards the lectern. "Mr. Preston … Buck …" he started. I looked out into the audience, saw Skia slowly making their way to the edge of the stage, a frown on their face, their arms crossed.

Buck waved Mr. K away. "I'm about done. I just wanna say one more thing, then I'll go. Y'all say you want everybody to feel like they can say and do what they want, but that ain't true, is it? My boy's a God-fearing Christian - like me and his mama - but I don't see a lot of room for that opinion around here."

I took exception to the God-fearing Christian part of that; I had never known Colton or any of his parents to step inside a church outside of either a wedding or a funeral, but I said nothing.

Buck went on. "I'm beginning to wonder if this is the best place for my boy to be. I don't see how it can be. He does one silly little thing to try to make people think just a little bit different, and y'all just want to make him feel like shit about hisself just so you can make yourselves feel a little bit better about being a bunch of goddamn freaks. I'm not sure I want Colton to be a part of whatever the fuck y'all got going on here."

With that, he started to leave, but Skia took that opportunity to walk up onto stage. They looked at Mr. K, who only nodded.

Buck took one look at Skia. "What the actual fuck …?" he muttered.

Skia ignored him. "We've got something we want to say, too. We don't care whether you stay or go, Mr. Preston." They cleared their throat. "We know Colton. We've seen how he is around people. And … we feel sorry for him. We know it's not easy to see people you've known for your whole life suddenly change. We get that. It's strange. We wish we could explain it to people, but we don't know if we understand it enough to be able to do that yet. We only know what we feel, and we're trying to let that person out into the light. We don't expect everyone to be on board with that, and that's fine. If Colton wanted to talk to us about it, we would have been glad to. But, he didn't. He took the easy way out, by making fun of it, by making it seem unimportant, or wrong. And one thing we know for sure is that it's not wrong, that we're not wrong for trying to become the person we think we are."

Skia paused. Buck stood there, quietly … but I could read his face, could see the emotions there, just below the surface. Skia went on. "Colton can think whatever he wants. Nobody can tell him he can't. But when he says something or does something that hurts other people, then he owes it to them to apologize for it. We would have thought that any parent would make that clear to their child." They turned to me and smiled. " Evan understood that. That's why he's here. He could have run - like Colton - but he didn't. He did what he knew was right, and we're sorry that you can't see that. We're sorry for Colton. And we're sorry for you."

With that, they turned away and walked down the stairs, kept going until they left the gymnasium. The rest of us looked around at each other. Mr. K went over to Buck, tried to talk to him, but Buck just waved him away.

"Jesus fucking Christ …" he muttered, loud enough for some of us to hear it. "I'm done with this shit."

He turned on his heel and the crowd watched, silently, as he made his way through the gymnasium and out the door to the parking lot. I hoped that Skia had gone back into the school building. I really had no idea what Buck might do if they ran across each other.

Mr. K stepped up to the microphone. "Okay. Well … that's …" He glanced at his watch. "Everybody, go to your first period classes. Thank you for being here. Go make this a great day." The same thing he said after every one of the weeklies, but something that sounded … strange, here.


At one point during the day, Abby and I managed to find a little time to ourselves.

"I'm so proud of you, Evan ! I really am."

We hugged. "Thanks," I said.

"No, really. You were perfect. What you said was perfect." She made a face. "And Colton's father! Oh, my god! I can't believe he showed up, first of all … and then to say what he said? I just … I don't know …"

"Well, you can see where Colton gets it from, I guess. His dad's a piece of work. Colton has to listen to stuff like that every day of his life. It's no wonder he acts like he does. I'm surprised he's not worse."

"I can't believe he just didn't show up."

"I can," I answered. "I mean, sure, it's easy to say that in hindsight, but … well, I think we all know how Colton operates. If he can't talk his way out of something or make a joke out of it, he just denies that it ever happened or runs away from it."

"So, where do the two of you stand?"

"I … really don't know, Abby. I haven't talked to him since last Friday." I blew out a breath. "Look … I really don't want to talk about Colton right now."

"I get it. Sorry."

"Skia, though …"

"I know, right? They were amazing."

"I talked to them, yesterday. When I got stuck. And they were nice about it. Nicer than I had a right to expect."

She punched me on the arm. "Well, it's just your winning personality and positive attitude."

"Yeah, right. We'll see what happens later. Today's been a little … weird."

"And then some. I, uh … I do have one more question."


"Did you really slam into a tree up at Jackson Lake? And if so, why wasn't I there to see it?"

I chuckled. "I did. It was so stupid. I was showing off, acting like Tarzan or something, and I just … God, it was so embarrassing. I really did think I was going to die, though." I remembered the second part of her question. "Uh … I think it was before we met. If you'd seen it, you probably wouldn't have wanted to go out with me. Not one of my better moments." I made a face. "Not that I've had too many of those."

"Is there … I mean, is there, um … well … any, uh … video of it, by chance? Asking for a friend, of course."

By the time I got home that afternoon, I was all over the internet. Well, not all of it … just in the social media feeds of people I knew, people from school. The comments were mostly positive, although I knew I couldn't and wouldn't escape the wrath of some people, mostly strangers, who hadn't been there and didn't really know anything about anything. Trolls, but they were everywhere. For the most part, Colton seemed to fare worse than I did; chickenshit and coward and loser peppered those comments.

I showed all of it to my parents, even Buck's tirade and Skia's rebuttal.

"We're proud of you son," my father said. "And … well, relieved. I mean, we were probably going to have to rent out your room or something, otherwise."

I chuckled. "I figured you'd have to do something. I was assuming that you'd just lock me in the basement."

"Yeah, but the noise, and the smell …"

My mother poked my father in the arm. "David …" She turned to me. "I can't believe Colton's father, though. About what I said earlier …"

"It's worse than you ever thought. He really is awful."

"I hate having them as neighbors," she added.

"Well, we don't have to hang out with them," my father added. "Not that we ever did."

"Still, though … I don't know. I think Evan should try to talk to him. Colton, I mean."

Surprisingly, I agreed with her. "I will. Well, I'll try. Maybe after supper tonight."

True to my word, I did. After we ate, when it was dusk, I slipped on a jacket and stepped outside, went to the still-standing-but-barely remains of a wooden play set I'd had as a kid, sat on the swing, hoping it would still support my weight. I pulled out my phone, sent Colton a message.

out back if you want to talk.

I sent it, waited. I didn't expect anything, honestly, to come of it … but my mother was right. I had to try one last time, to see if there was anything worth salvaging of our friendship. Or whatever it was.

It was, I thought, something more than just friendship, not maybe on the same level of the thing that Abby and I had going … but it was nearer that than anything else. Knowing him was the longest relationship I'd ever had with anyone; Colton and I knew more about each other than I bet most married couples did.

And, of course, I remembered the dream, which still tickled the base of my brain every so often.

I was about to give up and go back inside - it was still chilly outside, despite my jacket - when I heard a noise from Colton's house. I looked over to see him slipping out the back door and closing it quietly behind him. He walked across the yard towards me, let himself through the gate, came over to sit next to me.

We looked at each other without saying anything for a long moment, neither of us really knowing what to say to each other or even how to start the conversation.

I gave it a try. "Missed you, today."

"Yeah. I was here."

"Did you see any of it?" Online, I meant.

"Yeah," he answered. He glanced at me, looked away. "You were good. What you said was great."

"Thanks. It was hard. I don't know how I got through it." I waited a beat. "You should have been there."

He said nothing for a bit. Then, "I know." His voice was quiet. "I … wanted to."

"What? Why weren't you?"

"Well, what do you think, Evan ?" Colton jinked a thumb towards his house. "Him."

It took me a second. "Really? Why?"

"He thought it was stupid. Apologizing. Especially about that."

I chuckled, hoping to make light of it. "Yeah. We, uh … we got that."

Colton didn't smile. "I didn't know he was going to go up to school."

"It was … it was something else."

"Was Mr. K mad?"

"Oh, yeah. He kept asking me where you were. Like I was your keeper or something."

"I was all ready to go. I had everything written up, like he wanted me to. But …" He shrugged.

"You should have just said no, Colton."

"Seriously? How? You know how he is. You know how he gets. He's …" Colton trailed off.


"He's never wrong, you know? It's always somebody else's fault. Never his. You've only seen a little bit, Evan . I have to live with him. Every fucking night, it's something else. I just tune him out at some point, go to my room, put my headphones in. I swear to God … some days, I just want to …"


He looked at me. "Nothing. Nothing," he repeated. He looked away. "It doesn't matter, anyway."

The tone of his voice worried me. "Why's that?"

He smiled. It was the saddest smile I thought I'd ever seen on a person. "Because I'm not going back, is why."

"Not going back to …?"

"School, asshole. He's taking me out of school."

"Are you serious? I thought that was just bullshit."

"Well, so did I," Colton responded. "But, when he got home, he told me what he was going to do."

"Which is …?"

He shrugged. "Well, he doesn't really know. Maybe home school. Maybe some Christian school somewhere in town. That is, if he can afford it."

The thought of Linda trying to teach Colton flashed through my mind. He wouldn't learn a thing, if she was in charge of it. "Colton, I'm … I'm sorry."

"Yeah. Whatever."

"You're just going to drop out?"

"Yeah, I guess. I don't really know how it works."

"I … don't think that's a good idea, Colton."

"Really. Well, okay then, Evan . Just go tell His Royal Highness that you don't think it's a good idea. I'm sure he'll understand."

"Colton, c'mon …"

He turned to me again. "You know what, Evan ? You're lucky. You really are. You have choices. You can make choices. I can't. He's not even my real dad, but I have to do everything he says, even when I know it's wrong. And, my mom … fuck …" He shook his head. "She just does whatever he says. Doesn't even think about it, like he's some fucking cult leader or something."

I thought about Mr. K, about him saying that everybody always had a choice. I wondered if he really thought that was true. "Look, maybe … maybe have Mr. K talk to him tomorrow. Maybe he'll be different in the morning, once he's had a chance to really think about it. Just … just get through tonight."

Colton looked at me steadily, not saying anything, until I finally just dropped my head and sat there. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him get up and step back over to the gate. Before he went through, he turned back to me.

"You know what, Evan ? Sometimes you are just so fucking naive."

With that, he went through the gate, shut it behind him, trudged back towards his house, slipped inside.


The weeks that followed were … interesting, I thought. Neither all good nor all bad, but tending - very slowly - towards better. It took me a bit to understand what was happening.

All of my old friends - ones that I had made because I knew Colton - slowly began edging away from me, not meeting my eye in the hallway, not talking to me, not wanting to hang out. I realized at that point that practically everybody I thought of as a friend was someone I'd met because of Colton. They were, almost all of them, jocks of one persuasion or another: football players, wrestlers, baseball players … all of which Colton played. I wasn't all that athletic, but I'd made half-assed efforts on the cross-country and track-and-field squads. I wasn't the best, wasn't the worst, managed to stay on both teams. I guess that had given me some credibility with these guys. Now, though … it was as if I'd never existed.

But, then, the strangest thing began to happen. Other people started coming up to me to talk. Kids I'd never, ever thought to talk to before now wanted to do nothing but talk. All the kids from … well, from band, and chorus, and the drama club, and the art kids, and even kids who weren't any of those things but were somehow held to the fringes - through no fault of their own - of whatever passed as society in our school.

And they were nice people. They were good people.

It felt like I'd gone to sleep in one universe and awakened in another one.

I wondered how much of a role Skia had played in that, by standing up with me at the weekly and confronting Buck. They would never say anything, I knew, but it must have counted for something: that if they were willing to accept my apology, then others might feel free to step forward and fill the vacuum that Colton and his friends had put me in.

One day, Skia came up to me. "We hear you can sing," they said.

I grinned. "Who told you that?"

"Abby. Who else?"

"Well … I mean, I like to sing."

They smiled. "That's half the battle, right there. We think you should come audition for chorus. We need voices. Especially guys."

"Can I, uh … can I think about it?"

"Sure." Skia grinned. "We'll let Mr. Oswalt know you're interested, then?"

"Skia …"

I thought about it, and thought about it … and thought about it some more.

"You've been talking to Skia," I said to Abby, one day.

She shrugged. "I talk to Skia a lot. I like Skia. What about, in particular?"

"Singing. For the chorus."

"You have a good voice. When you use it. I think you should think about it."

"I have been, actually. I don't know …"

"Why not? Are you afraid you might actually be good at it, and like it?"

"It's just so …" I shrugged.

"It's fun, Evan ."

"Getting up in front of people, like that? And … singing?"

"Well, it is chorus , after all. That's pretty much a given." She made a face. "Look, Evan … you ever have a class that you really like, that you really respond to? Like, the teacher's good, you enjoy the subject, and you're actually good at it?"

For me, that had been - and still was - English. "Yeah …"

"Chorus is ten times, a hundred times better than that."

"Mmm … okay. I told Skia I'd think about it."

"Good. But do more than just think about it, Evan . I know what you're like, right? You'll just think it into never doing anything about it. Take a chance."

I held up a hand. "I will think about it. I swear."

One day, I finally did it.

I hadn't expected much out of it, but it worked out better than I thought it would.

Much better, as a matter of fact.

I got in.

And Abby - and Skia - were right. I loved it. It was almost like some kind of high. It seemed like the best kind of goofing around, until - all of a sudden - you and everyone else around you just … clicked, and created the most amazing and beautiful sounds you could ever imagine.

After that, other dominoes began to fall. Guitar - something I'd fooled around a bit with in middle school and then abandoned only because Colton said it made me look queer - beckoned me and I started back with it, out of practice at first, but then muscle memory kicked in and all of the well-practiced but forgotten chords came back to me.

And … English. I'd always liked reading, but now I started writing, as well. Not much at first - little poems and fragments of stories that flashed through my head, usually in the middle of the night - but I wrote them down, good and bad ones alike, kept them in a file on my computer. Eventually, though, they began to coalesce into one story, and then another, and another.

One day, I ginned up enough courage to show them to Miss Douglas, my teacher. I sat there, after class one day, watching her as she read through them. Finally, after the last one, she sat back and looked at me.

"These are good, Evan ."


"Yes. You definitely have a talent. What are you going to do with them?"

"I … don't know, actually. What do people do with them?"

"Well, all the schools in the district get together and put out a literary journal of sorts every year. I think you should contribute."

"They're pretty rough."

"Well, sure. But not all that rough. If you want, I can work with you."

"I would like that."

"It's like he was holding you back," Abby said to me, one day at lunch.

I didn't need to ask who she was talking about. I nodded. "I can see that."

"I know he didn't mean to, but …"


"There are guys who … well, they're just … guys, right? That's all they want to be. The kind of guys who always need to fit in, to be the kinds of guys who … who make fun of people if they try too hard, if they're too smart or do too well in class. They just want to hold people back because they know that they themselves will never be able to achieve anything that means anything. They might be great athletes, but … so what? Is it going to mean anything in ten or fifteen years that you … I don't know, caught a football and made the game-winning touchdown, or hit a grand slam homer in some game with the school across town, or whatever?"

"Abby …"

"I'm serious, Evan . I can't stand guys like that. And there are always guys like that, right? Every year, every class, they're there. But … but if you can … I don't know … write a book, or make music, or paint a painting … that's, like, forever, right? It means something. It will always be there." She sighed. "I'm sorry to get so worked up about this."

I reached out, took her hand, squeezed. "It's okay. I understand. And … I agree."

"I have to say this, Evan . You may not like it, but … I … I hated you, with him."

I sat back in my chair. "You should have said something, Abby."

"How? How was I supposed to tell my boyfriend that I couldn't stand his best friend? You would have … I don't know …"

"I would have tried to understand, Abby. I would have. I … he … I can't explain it."

"You wanted to fit in. I understand that."

"No … it was more than that. Sometimes … sometimes I wanted to be him. If that makes sense. He just seemed to make it look so easy."

"That's what I'm saying. That's what guys like him always do. They make it seem like they have all the answers, until they don't. But they sure make life hard for everybody else, while they're trying to get their shit together."

I thought of all the times Colton had called me names, had accused me of being a fag or being queer. I knew he was getting it from Buck, but that didn't make it any easier. I thought of all the times I'd taken it, swore that I would never go back, and then he would just magically show up again like nothing had ever happened. I never got an apology from him, never any explanation; we just went back to being what we were with each other.

Whatever that was.

"I haven't seen him since that day, you know," I said to her.

"Really? Don't you guys live right next to each other?"

"Yeah. But … I think we're done."

"Where is he? Is he still in school somewhere?"

"I think so. I don't really know."

"I'm sorry," she said.

I smiled. "For what? You didn't do anything."

"I don't know. For … for everything, maybe. That it has to be like this."

I shrugged. "I think it was always going to be like this, with him. It was just a matter of when, not if, it would happen."

The months went on. They were some of the best months of my life, so far. I wondered if this is what Mr. K had meant about deciding who I wanted to be and what I might hope to accomplish with my life. I felt like anything and everything was possible.

Mr. K and I would run across each other every few days. It was bound to happen, of course; Mr. K wasn't the kind of principal who just stayed in his office for the whole day. He was always out and roaming the halls of the school, seeing how things were going, seeing how his students were doing. Although nobody would come out and admit it, I think they - we - were all glad that he did, that he took an interest in things.

He wasn't the kind of person who would hand out effusive praise to people, but when he talked to you, he always seemed to know what you were doing, what classes you were in, what activities you were participating in. Again, I wondered if he had some kind of implant that told him things like that. When he talked to me, we talked about music and writing.

He never ever brought up Colton. He knew, somehow, that I didn't want to talk about him, that I was past all that.

Still, I was always left with a shoe-waiting-to-drop kind of feeling after our encounters, like I was only part of the way to wherever he thought I was going.

Give it time, I told myself. It'll happen. I was not even halfway through this year, with more to go. Plenty of time.

December came and went with its usual whirlwind of activities: end-of-year concerts, holiday events, get-togethers with family and friends … and finals, of course. When I was done, my parents and I spent a wonderful ten days or so at a resort in Mexico with some cousins and my mother's parents. All in all, we didn't do much of anything, but sometimes doing nothing is its own reward. I came back with a great tan.

I was in my room unpacking, sorting clean clothes from dirty, putting things away where they belonged. I stared idly out of my back window while I worked. I could see Colton's house from my bedroom window; I remember late at night seeing the light on in his window, watching him move around his room, wondering if he, too, watched me.

As I stared, something seemed … off, somehow. There was something missing.

At the end of pool season, Buck would put all of the patio furniture and grills and pool equipment into storage in the basement. He would have people come in to shut the pool down for the season and install the cover that would not come off again until next May.

There was all that, of course … but the house still looked different.

There weren't any lights on; it was dark enough that there should have been. He's on vacation, too, I told myself.

But, still.

The house just looked … empty.

I went downstairs, found my mother in the laundry room, sorting clothes, with a load already going in the washer and another one in the dryer.

She looked at me. "You got anything for me to wash?"

"Uh, not yet. Soon. I'm almost done. Listen …" I started.


"You looked at Colton's house lately?"

She smiled, rolled her eyes. "I try to avoid doing just that. Why?"

"I don't know. It just looks different."

"Well, maybe they're out of town, Evan. Just like we were."

"Well, that's what I thought, too. I don't know. Maybe they are. It just …"

Together we went to the kitchen and looked across our snow-covered back yard and to their house.

"It does look odd," my mother said.

As we watched, a single light flickered on, somewhere in the house, not very bright, just the kind of light you might have come on automatically to make it look like someone was home. If anything, it made the house look emptier.

"I'm going to go over," I said.

"Are you sure you should?" my mother asked. "They could just be out to dinner somewhere."

I smiled. "I don't know. I just …"

"What if he's home?"

"Then, I'll know. He'll just ignore me, tell me to go home."

"Well … okay, then. Be careful."

I slipped on boots and my heavy winter coat and a stocking cap, trudged through the snow, through the gate - having to heave it hard against the foot or so of snow on the ground - and kept going, towards the house. A light on a motion sensor saw me, flickered on.

Nobody came out to greet me. I went over to a window that, I knew, looked into a breakfast nook, peered in. To see … nothing. I frowned. I went next to another window that looked into the kitchen. I could see the countertops and overhead cabinets. Everything looked clean. Maybe too clean. There weren't any appliances on the countertops, like toasters or coffeemakers or anything like that. Plus, Linda had never been the best housekeeper. Somebody had gone through this place and sterilized it.

I could see through the kitchen and down the hall that led to a set of stairs. It, too, looked clean.

A little tickle of something started up in the back of my head.

Colton's house was a split-level; on the basement level was a den/family room kind of thing behind a two-car garage, a room I'd spent many hours in, hanging out with Colton, with his friends. I trudged down a hill to the sliding glass door looking into it, peered in. It was completely empty. I could see indentations in the carpet where furniture had been, could see the rhythmic pattern of a vacuum on the carpet.

I tried the sliding glass door. With a bit of resistance, it slid open. Someone had forgotten to lock it. I opened it enough to let me pass through, and went in.

Trespassing flitted through my mind, at this point. I didn't care. I had the presence of mind to slip my boots off at the door so I wouldn't leave a trail of wet, dirty footprints on the carpet.

"Colton?" I called out, my voice echoing in the space. "Linda? Buck? Anybody?"

Nothing. I kept going. With every step, it became clearer and clearer what was going on.

They were gone. Nobody lived here, any more. Colton and his family were gone.

I went upstairs to more emptiness: a formal living room, a dining room, the kitchen with its breakfast nook. One more level up took me to the bedrooms. All empty, my voice loud and echoing as I called out, hoping against hope that somebody - anybody - was still here.

I fetched up in Colton's bedroom. Somebody had come through and cleaned it and painted it a plain off-white, bland and inoffensive, sure to please anyone.

I started crying. It was just so … shocking, to me, that he was gone without even giving me a hint that something was going on. I'd known him since I was six years old; ten years later … nothing, not even a fuck you, goodbye.

I looked out of the window; there was, in the front yard, a sign - Coming Soon to MLS! - with a picture of a woman on it, and a name; she was the mother of a girl I knew in school, part of a real estate team that bought and sold in the neighborhood.

I sat on the floor, sniffing back tears. I pulled out my phone, tried to sent Colton a message.

Message failed came back, immediately. I tried again, with the same response.

I speed-dialed his number, waited for the connection to complete … only to get a message saying that the number was no longer in service. I tried again. And again.

Finally, I gave up.

Colton was gone.


And then, one snowy January day that marked the first day of the new school term, there was Duncan .

Anybody new was going to stand out at school, but Duncan had no hope of ever just blending in. For starters, he was - in his junior year - already well over six feet tall, thin as a reed and built like a basketball player, lean and stringy, with wide shoulders, long arms, a narrow waist, long legs.

He had a boyish kind of face topped with a mop of curly, coppery red hair that you could see a mile away. His eyes were a brilliant sapphire blue.

He and his family - mother, father, two other brothers and a sister - had come to us from Nebraska, his father steadily climbing a corporate ladder that had deposited him and his family here, at least for a while.

He was amiable and easy-going, quiet and funny and smart.

The basketball coaches were all over him, of course, until he just point-blank told them that he had never picked up a basketball in his life and had no intention of doing so now.

"He's cute," Abby said to me, one day.

I grinned. "Should I be nervous?"

"No," she answered. "I think he's gay."

"Think? Or know?"

She grinned back. "Well, I haven't come out and asked him, but …"

I grinned again. "Sic Skia on him, they'll find out."

"We're not supposed to do that, you know."

"I know. If he wants to tell us, he will."

Because he and I were a year apart, we shared only one class, and that was French. I'd started taking it last year; this was the start of my second year. He'd come to it a year after me in whatever high school he'd attended back in Omaha.

We were also both in chorus; his voice was a surprising deep base to my baritone/tenor.

We became … acquaintances, I guess. Well, maybe more than that, but not true friends. At least, not yet. But it was there, in the way we managed to circle around each other. He quickly became popular with a lot of people; I wasn't exactly jealous of him, because I'd never been all that popular to begin with … but it was still a little disconcerting to see how easily he fit himself into our community. I realized that some people had that way about them where others didn't.

One day, we found ourselves alone in the chorus room, waiting for others to show up. We nodded to each other and made small talk, then retreated into our phones.

Soon, though, he spoke. "Can I ask you something, Evan?"

I put my phone down. "Sure. I guess."

"You're the t-shirt guy, right?"

I closed my eyes, suppressed a groan. "Yeah. I am. One of them, at least."

"Who's the other guy?"

"Colton," I answered. "He doesn't go here any more."


"What do you want to know, Duncan ?"

He shrugged. "Nothing. I just wondered."

"Well, now you know."

He grinned, made a face. "So, do you?"

"Do I what?"

"Love the cock?"

I rolled my eyes, played along with what I assumed was a joke. "I'm shocked - shocked, I tell you - that you would ask me that."

He chuckled. "Just wondering. Again."

I grinned. "What about you?" Expecting some kind of equivocation out of him, as well.

"I … do, actually," he answered. "I mean, I'm gay, so …"

"Oh. Okay. I, uh … well, people were wondering."

"I'm sure they were."

I said nothing to that. "So, you've seen the picture. Have you seen the rest of it?"

"Yeah. What you said was cool. I liked it."


"And, that guy … was that really this Colton guy's dad?"

I nodded. "Yeah. Grade-A, number-one asshole all the way."

"It must be hard, having a parent like that."

"He's actually Colton's stepdad. His real dad was a good guy. I liked him."

"You two were best friends, so I hear."

I nodded again. "Yeah. We were. He's … well, he's gone."

"You guys weren't … well … I mean …"

"Uh … no," I said, when I finally understood him. I grinned. "Despite the shirts."

He grinned back. "Just a joke, right?"

"Yeah. Not a very good one." I paused, then went on, not quite sure why I had to qualify it. "I'm not that person any more, Duncan ."

He looked at me for a long moment, not an uncomfortable one. "Good. That's … good." He looked down, then looked back up. "I … didn't think you were, Evan."

I didn't quite know what to say that … but, then, "What about you? You have anybody back in Omaha?"

"I … do, actually. Well, did, I guess. Sean is his name." He fumbled out his phone, opened it, scrolled through it, came up with something he showed to me. "Here he is." The picture was of Duncan and this Sean, mugging for the camera, arms around each other, poolside, in swimsuits. Duncan was a full head taller than Sean, who was Asian, with beetle-black hair and amber gold skin. Duncan was ginger-fair next to him, his ivory skin - rosy pink with sun - dusted with freckles. Some part of me noted without comment Duncan 's lithe, slender body.

I looked at it, gave the phone back to him. "That's cool. You guys look good together."

Duncan smiled. "Thanks. I miss him."

"It won't be easy, I think, to … well, to …"

"I know. We've talked about it." Duncan sighed. "Whatever happens, happens … right?"

"I guess. He looks like he might be worth fighting for."

"He is. He's a really good guy." He shrugged. "Maybe I should just start interviewing replacements around here, cut to the chase."

"Uhh … Duncan ?"

He held up a hand. "Kidding. Just kidding." He smiled. "Although if you have any suggestions, I'd be willing to listen."

I smiled back. "I'll, uh … I'll ask around."

Whatever else we might have said to each other was interrupted by a crowd of people coming in right before the bell. Abby was with them; she came over to me and kissed me as she sat down next to us. I returned the kiss, slipped a hand around her shoulder.

And looked over my shoulder to see Duncan staring at the two of us. When he saw me looking, he smiled and nodded. I did the same in return, not knowing exactly what I was trying to communicate.

Slowly - so slowly that we barely noticed it, frogs-in-boiling-water slowly - Duncan became part of my relationship with Abby. More often than not, it was the three of us doing things together … and, somehow, it seemed okay. I didn't mind it. Abby didn't mind it, or didn't seem to. There was something about it that made me feel … proud, I guess, that we were the kind of people that Duncan wanted to hang with. I had always been a kind of hanger-on with Colton and his friends, there but always on the edge of things, included only because of Colton.

I told myself that Abby didn't mind, told myself that she and I always seemed to have enough time together when it was just the two of us. Maybe I should have asked her how she felt about it, but I never did. Duncan took the edge off of things with me and Abby; what might have become a serious relationship slipped back into a tight friendship between three people.

I told myself that that was okay because I still didn't know, really, where things stood between me and Abby. She seemed to enjoy the times where we just kissed and fooled around, but that hardly went anywhere; she always pulled back, probably because of her parents and the limits they put on anything more than that.

I never stopped to think about why I always seemed to stop short of taking things further.

I only ever saw Abby get bothered by this new arrangement once. The three of us had gone out to dinner and a movie one weekend night. Dinner wasn't much - a fast-casual place in the mall, all that we could afford - but it was nice enough. At the movie, though, I found myself in the middle, with Abby to my left and Duncan to my right.

It felt … strange, honestly, to sit there with my arm around Abby's shoulders while Duncan sat directly to my right; he had to be aware of what was going on and it felt unfair for me to be lavishing so much attention on Abby while he was alone, his boyfriend hundreds of miles away, each of them wondering just where things stood between them.

It didn't help matters that I could feel Duncan 's left leg brushing against my right one in the darkness of the theater. It didn't help that his face was inches from my own, that I could feel the heat of his body in the air between us. It didn't help that I was conscious of his steady breathing, of his gentle laughter as we watched the comedy, of the … well, of the scent of him, soap and shampoo and something else, something darker and more primal.

Afterwards, in the lobby, Abby split apart from me, walked some paces ahead of us. Duncan and I looked at each other; I don't know, I shrugged. I'm sorry, his expression gave back to me.

In the car, after we dropped Duncan off at his place, I turned to her. "Abby, what's wrong?"

"Nothing," she muttered.

"Did I say something to offend you? Do something?"

"No, Evan. Of course not."

"Well, then - what?"

"Nothing. Don't worry about it."

"Just talk to me, Abby. What's wrong?"

"Nothing," she repeated.

"Abby, c'mon! You're obviously upset about something, and I want -" I stopped, took a deep breath, tamped down rising anger. "I would like you to tell me what it is."

"I think I just want you to take me home, Evan. I'm tired."

"Abby, please …"

She looked at me, her face still, her expression unreadable. "Okay, fine. You won't like it."

"Well, I don't even know what it is, so -"

"Are you in love with Duncan ?"

I didn't know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't that. "What?"

"I'm serious," she answered. "Are you in love with Duncan ?"

"Where the hell did that come from?"

"Well, Jesus, Evan … look at it from my standpoint. He's like this … third wheel, or whatever. He's with us all the time. And I don't know why. Everything we do, everywhere we go, there he is, tagging along."

"Abby …" I started. "I … I though you liked him."

"Well, I do, Evan, but … I mean, there are limits. It's like we can't do anything with just the two of us. He's always there, it seems. And … and …"


"You never … I mean, you never … kiss me, any more."

"Yes, I do."

"No, you don't. It's been weeks, Evan. And it's because it's him. It's like you're afraid to do it with him there."

"Abby, I'm sorry, I didn't realize …" But my voice sounded weak. "It's … well, he doesn't have anybody, so … yeah, maybe …"

"Well, that's not my fault, Evan! And he does, right? He does have someone."

"Yeah. Back in Omaha."

To which, she said nothing; she just shrugged.

Silence dragged on between us. There was something I wanted to ask, but it was something I didn't know quite how to bring up. Finally, I just said it. "Abby … do you ever want to … I mean, do you ever think about taking this to the next level, you and me?"

She frowned at me. "You mean, like … be with each other?"

"Yes. I … are you ready to do that?"

She made a face. "Are you?"

"I … yeah." I think so, I almost added, thought better of it.

She looked down, then back up. "Maybe," she said. "I think so."

"You think so," I echoed. "You don't know? Or you don't want to?" Was I trying to blame her for something that hadn't even happened yet?

"Oh, Evan … it's … it's not that easy."

"Because of your parents."

"I … well, yeah. I mean, that's part of it."

I barreled on, wondering just how far I could push this. But it needed to be said. "It always is. If you want to know why I hold back on things, it's because of that. I know that you won't let me do anything else because of your parents, about what they might say and do when they find out that their precious daughter has been with a guy she's been seeing for … how many years has it been, now?"

"Evan, that's not fair …"

"Oh, like accusing me of being in love with Duncan is, somehow? Like accusing me of using him as a … as a .. shield, or something? He's just a friend, Abby. He's just a friend." I sighed. "Look, if you want me to tell him that you and I need some space, I can do that. But you need to figure out what to do with that space, Abby. I'm not saying it needs to be sex. I just want to know if there's an us any more, because I'm not sure where we go from here."

And with that, she started crying. Hell, I was just about to cry, too.

Instead, I blew out an exasperated breath, said nothing, took her home. Hopefully we would sort out whatever it was at some point.


It had always fascinated me to see how people's brains work. There was the conscious part of it, the everyday part, where you interacted with people, did and said things that seemed to make perfect sense, and thought that you generally had a pretty good idea what was going on. You felt like you had control over things, that you were in charge.

And then your subconscious kicked in one night and told you what was really going on.

My own subconscious had been pretty much on autopilot for a while. I'd never had a repeat of that dream of me and Colton out by the pool that one night; most of my dreams had been forgettable even if I remembered them, and usually were completely forgotten the moment I woke up.

This one, though, I remembered. All too well.

In it, it is night again. I'm not at Colton's pool; somehow, I know that he won't be part of this dream. It is night, and I am outside, in the forest, and I am running. I'm not naked, this time; I'm in my running outfit - singlet and shorts, shoes - and I'm running as fast as I can through this forest, with branches blocking my way, slapping against my face and my body. I feel as if I've been running for a long time. My breath comes in fits and starts, I am sweating bullets, and I have that iron taste in my mouth. I want to stop, but somehow I can't. I know that I have to keep running until the end.

There is a storm coming towards me, with lightning splitting the sky apart and thunder booming almost right on top of it, so I know the storm is close, but the rain - if there is to be any - is not here yet. I feel like I have time to get to shelter, if I just keep pushing myself.

I can hear, in the distance, over the sound of the wind and the thunder, voices shouting, even though I can't quite make out what they're saying. Sometimes the voices sound like women's voices, sometimes they sound like men's voices. They seem to be calling to me, to go this way or that.

Inexplicably, I am joined at this point by Mr. K, and he is running quietly right beside me, even though he's dressed for school, in dress shirt, tie, slacks, dress shoes. He seems to have no problem running like this; it seems effortless for him. Abruptly, he spins around, so that he is running backwards, so he can face me.

We look at each other. Choose, he whispers. You have to choose, Evan.

What … what do I have to choose? I ask.

You know. What kind of person you want to be.

This, I say. I want to be this.

Are you sure? Mr. K says, smiling.

Isn't this what you wanted me to be?

It's a good start, he says. But there is more.

If you know what it is, Mr. K, you have to tell me. I don't know.

But you do, Evan. You know you do. You just have to let go.

And then I blink, and he is gone. I run on a few more yards, then everything changes.

I run headlong into a clearing in the trees, a perfectly circular one; the trees seem to guard the edges of this clearing like sentinels, like soldiers. Everything is perfectly calm, perfectly quiet. The wind and the lightning and the thunder are gone and the moon is full in a cloudless sky, straight over my head, almost so close that I can touch it.

I look down at myself. Now I am naked. My body shines silver in the moonlight, with inky black shadows. Not only am I naked, but I am aroused, painfully hard, curving up in a taut bow of flesh outlined in silver. I calm myself down, get control of my breathing, wipe the sweat off my brow, feel it evaporate in a cool zephyr against my face.

There is, then, a voice behind me.

Evan. The voice is a smooth contralto, genderless.

What? I ask, still looking straight ahead.

Turn around.

I … I can't, I say. I'm afraid.

Turn around, the voice says, again, and I do.

Standing there is a figure; I can't make out who it is, except to know that it is human. It seems composed of light.

Choose, the figure says.

Choose … what? I ask.

Choose, the figure commands. The time has come.

And … my body makes the choice, impels me forward and I merge with the figure, who envelops me in its grasp, warm and embracing. Hands go where they will and mouth finds mouth and we kiss … and then there is a strange pulsing there, at the center of me, and the figure laughs, its voice gone deep and husky in my ear.

It's about time, the figure says, laughing.

I, too, am laughing. I didn't know it would be this easy, I say.

… and then I was out of it and awake in my bed.

There was a sticky wetness there, between my legs, and I realized that I had come - copiously - in my sleep shorts. I threw the blanket off of me, swung my legs out of bed and stood up, shucked the clothing off myself, tossed it into a clothes basket. The sweet, cloying scent of it drifted up into my nostrils. Naked, I stepped into the bathroom, unrolled a length of toilet paper, got the most of it off me, tossed the paper into the toilet, flushed it.

I stood there, looking at my face in the mirror. I felt flushed and out of sorts … but I also felt a strange sort of calmness. What I didn't feel was the anger that I'd felt after the dream of Colton and the pool. That was replaced with a feeling of … peace? I thought … and finality and, perhaps, acceptance.

And I wasn't sure what that meant.

The import behind the dream was obvious; there was no real need to analyze it, to pick it apart, to see meaning where there wasn't. It was clear as day, even though it had been set in deepest night. This, I understood, was where Mr. K knew I would end up.

Was this where I wanted to go? I didn't know.

Really, though, what harm was in it? What if I understood, now, that the object of my affection wasn't Abby, was someone else, a boy, with a boy's face atop the body of someone moving into manhood? What harm in that?

But, how would I tell him that? And her?

I said nothing to either of them, for some time.

Abby and I entered into a kind of stalemate, friendly on the face of it, trying for something else underneath it … but always with a hesitation beneath it, each of us trying to figure out the other. We said nothing about that night, hoping that by ignoring it, it would fade into an unremembered past.

With Duncan …

I tried, at first to separate my friendship with him from my relationship with Abby, doing so in what I thought to be a subtle manner, hoping that he wouldn't notice or wouldn't care if he did notice.

There was something else, though, at work between us. Could he see it, somehow, on my face, in how I behaved with him, what I said to him? He, for whom this was simply part and parcel of what he was, would certainly see it, I told myself.

Did I want to hide it?

Once again, one day in late February, we found ourselves alone in the chorus room. We eyed each other silently. He looked … distracted, I thought. Lost.

I retreated into the safety of my phone, texted Abby, told her where I was.

"Can I ask you something, Evan?" Duncan said, at last.

I looked up. "Yes. Of course."

"Are you okay?"

The question took me by surprise. "I'm fine, Duncan . Why?"

"I don't know. You seem … well, distant."

"I … don't mean to be, Duncan . I'm sorry." I studied him. There was something in his face, in his eyes. "How are you?"

"I'm … fine." Which I took at face value; he went on. "How's Abby?" His voice was quiet, small.

"Abby's fine, Duncan ."

"I've missed you. Both of you."

I shrugged. "I know. I'm sorry. Abby's … well …"

He smiled, but it was a sad expression. "She doesn't like me, does she?"

"What? Of course she does," I said. But it sounded weak, even to me. "She's … well, she …" I swallowed, tried again. "She thinks you're … well … trying to steal me away." I laughed as I said this, feeling like Colton, retreating into humor to downplay the seriousness.

He closed his eyes, shook his head. "Of course she does."

"She doesn't mean it, Duncan ."

"Yes, she does. No one says something like that without meaning it."

"She'll get over it."

He shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not." He looked at me. "I never meant for it to come to this, Evan. I really didn't."

"I know that."

"It's just that … well, you've both been so nice to me. It's hard, you know, to be the new kid, to try to fit in. You guys … well, I liked hanging out with you. I didn't know about … that. I would never do that, Evan. I want you to know that."

"I didn't know she felt that way either," I said.

He sighed. "Is that why you've been keeping your distance?"

Not the only reason, I wanted to tell him, but "I'm trying to … well, I don't want to lose you as a friend, and I don't want to lose her as a girlfriend," or whatever she was, I added silently.

"I don't want you to have to choose, Evan."

I smiled. "That's what everyone keeps telling me that I have to do. Make a choice. I feel like I've been doing nothing but making choices ever since I got up during weekly." I made a face. "I'm getting a little tired of making choices, honestly."

"I know what you mean, Evan." His voice was thick and choked, so low and so sad that my heart ached for him.

There was something else at work, here. " Duncan , what's wrong? What happened?"

He looked me … and a fat tear rolled down one cheek, followed by another. "It's Sean. He …"

My heart started thumping in my chest. "He what?"

"He … we … well, we've split up. He decided that he wanted to see someone else, that he didn't want to try to make this work any more." He made a choked kind of sound. "Not that it was working, really."

" Duncan , I'm sorry. I really am."

He hung his head down. "I knew it was coming. But it still hurts."

I thought about Colton, about how I felt, sitting on the floor of his abandoned bedroom, knowing that he'd left without saying anything, knowing that I might never see him again. "It does hurt," I offered. Perhaps not the same way as losing a boyfriend, but like that, I thought.

And then, abruptly, the tears came on in full, dripping down his cheeks in a steady stream. He bent over, let his grief take him, his body heaving in sobs as he vented months' worth of anger, and frustration, and sadness.

I went to him, sat next to him, gingerly reached out an arm, laid it across his back. It seemed, then, that he leaned into me, perhaps unconsciously, and my hesitant touch became a kind of embrace and I let it happen.

I let it happen.

We sat there for a long time; presently he sighed, sat back up. He looked at me. "I'm sorry."

I smiled. "It's fine. I understand."

"Well, then … thank you."

I didn't know what to say at that point, so I said the first thing that popped into my head, hoping to lighten the mood, if that were possible. "I have something funny …" I start.

He tried a smile. "Yeah?"

"Abby. She … she thinks I'm in love with you." I tried another Colton kind of laugh.

His eyes flared wide. "What?"

And now maybe it didn't seem so funny. "Uh … yeah … so …"

"Evan … that's …"

" Duncan , I'm sorry … I'm so sorry. It … I just …" I sat there, trying to figure out how to take my foot out of my mouth.

He looked steadily at me. "Well?"

"Well, what?" You know perfectly well what, Evan, I told myself.

"Are you? Could you be?"

Decide, the voice whispered in my head. Decide. Figure out what you are, what you want to be. I leaned forward.

Duncan leaned forward.

Our lips met, as if by accident, the merest brushing of flesh against flesh, almost an afterthought … except that it wasn't. It was the first foray into unknown territory, at least for me.

We broke apart.

"So …" I murmured.

Duncan laughed, breathy and low. "So …"

We kissed, again. His hand went to back of my neck, held me there, gently, not forcing me - as Colton had done in the dream - but telling me that this could go on for as long as I wanted it to. My hand went to his thigh, rested there, felt the tense muscles flex and bend under my touch.

This moment seemed timeless, a sustained chord of sound echoing all around us.

Until there was a real sound, a surprised gasp of shock and unwanted understanding, behind us.

I turned, knowing what - who - I would see, and there she was, framed in the doorway, mouth slack, eyes wide, a glint of tears just starting in them.



On stage - the same stage where, in another life, I'd bared my heart and soul in front of the whole school - we took one final bow as applause rained down upon us from the audience. We took a step back while the curtain descended in front of us.

We turned to each other, not quite believing it.

"We did it," Abby said, into the sudden silence. "We -" and here she looked around "- we fucking did it!"

Duncan laughed. "That we most certainly did." He turned to me, and we hugged tight, and his lips brushed my ear. "You were amazing, Evan."

I pulled back, ran a hand through his wiry hair. "So were you, you man-eater."

He chuckled at that. "Hey … women, too. Right? I'm an equal-opportunity carnivorous plant." He looked down at himself, still encased in his costume. "Speaking of which, I have to get out of this thing before I melt." He stepped away, looked back. "See you guys at the cast party?"

"Absolutely," I called back.

Abby and I looked at each other; something passed between us, a happy kind of sadness, or maybe the other way around. She had been the Audrey to my Seymour, and there had been a bittersweet undertone to all of that, as well.

I started to say something, but then Skia came over, still in their costume as the mad dentist. They hugged both of us. "You guys were wonderful!" they said.

Abby laughed. "So were you. I think you might have stolen the show."

Skia turned to me, jinked a finger. "No … this one's boyfriend did."

"I'll let him know," I said.

"Oh, we will too. You're going to the party, right?"

The party was going to be more of a late supper of sorts; Mr. Oswalt had rented a private room at a restaurant near school and we were all going to meet there as soon as we could change. Duncan , Abby, Skia and I were all planning on riding together in Duncan 's - well, his parents' - car.

"We'll be there," Abby said. "Meet up out in the parking lot?"

Skia nodded. "Sure. Let us get changed."

They stepped away. Abby and I looked at their departing figure. I glanced at Abby, could see it in her eyes as she watched Skia. She noticed me looking, rolled her eyes, smiled. "Sorry."

I smiled back. "It's okay. You guys … are you two good?"

Abby nodded. "We … are, actually. Really good." She shrugged. "I mean, we're still working things out, but I'm … happy, you know? My parents aren't all that happy about it … but I don't think I really care, any more."

I went over to her, hugged her tight, felt her returning the embrace. We stayed like that for a long moment, neither of us saying anything … because we didn't really have to. It all lay there, between us: our history, the things we'd said and done with each other, the highs and the lows, the confusion and anger, the tears and lonely nights.

Leading to this. "I'm glad," I whispered into her ear. "I'm happy for you, Abby. I really am."

"You better be, you jerk," she whispered back, and I laughed.

Others came up to us and we chatted, congratulating each other on the performance, and I understood that this was what Abby had been trying to tell me the day that she tried to convince me to go out for chorus. We'd made magic up here, out of cobbled-together costumes and scenery, in a high school gymnasium in the middle of nowhere.

We'd made magic.

The crowd thinned out. I knew I needed to get ready, to go meet the rest of them outside, but I lingered a bit.

I stepped over to the curtain, slipped through it, looked out at the space. Everyone was gone and the lights were still off; janitors would deal with the mess in the morning. I imagined that I could still hear the applause echoing from the walls, understood that the sound of it had changed something inside me, perhaps forever. I knew that I would never stop wanting to hear that sound.

Standing here, of course I thought about Colton, who should have been here with me that day, who wanted to be here but for his father and the man's stubborn ignorance. I wondered where he was, hoped that he was doing as well as he could, hoped that one day he could rise above his parents' cruelty and intolerance.

I hoped, above all, to see him again. I wanted to show him what I was, now.

I wondered, then, if that had been the reason I'd agreed to the stunt. Had I known, back then, that this was what I would become? There had always been an undercurrent of feeling between me and Colton - perhaps only on my part - that might have hoped for something more than friendship. I had no answer to that, now.

I turned to go back, but then there was a voice off to my left.


I turned, saw who it was - who it had to be, I thought - smiled. "Hi, Mr. K."

He stepped out of the shadows and came to me, smiling.

"I saw it. You were amazing, Evan. All of you were amazing … but … well, I just wanted to say that I'm … proud of you, Evan."

I smiled back. "Thank you. I feel like I'm … drunk, or something. Does that make sense?"

"It does." He turned to go. "I just … well, that's all I wanted to say. I'll let you go. I just wanted to congratulate you. It was really something, Evan. I just wanted you know that."

I watched as he turned to leave. "Mr. K?" I asked. I had to know.

He turned back. "Yes?"

"Is this … I mean, is this what you meant, back then, when you said I had to make a choice?"

He thought about it, nodded. "Yes. I think so."

"To … to all of it?"

He knew as well as I did what I meant. He'd seen me and Duncan in the halls, together, saw how we were with each other. We stared at each other across the distance. "Yes," he said, finally. "To all of it." With that, he turned and slipped back into the shadows. I saw, or thought I saw, a smile playing on his lips.

How did you know? I wanted to ask him, but I stayed quiet. It seemed … wrong, in a way, for someone in his position to discuss this thing with a student. How had he seen it? I wondered. When had he known? I was someone just beginning to understand this thing; for him, it was in his past. He was more settled in it, with a husband and a life they shared away from this place. But I knew that he must have gone through the same experience as I did, as others did, as others would in the future.

Would I have that? With Duncan ? I hoped so, but I knew enough to know that that could change in a heartbeat. I would have to accept that or not, and go on from there. There were so many questions that I wanted to ask Mr. K, but I would never - could never - ask them.

They were mine to answer as I could. Perhaps for the rest of my life.

I turned to go back to the dressing rooms, back to my new friends, back to people I would probably love - in some way - for the rest of my life.

Back to my own future, ever and always beginning.

Back to a sweet, gentle, beautiful boy with hair like fire and eyes the color of heaven.


This story is part of the 2023 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: Captains Obvious". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 29 August 2023 to 20 September 2023 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.

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2023 Inspired by a Picture Challenge - Captains Obvious

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I'm With Stupid

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