by Kit

Chapter 6

Winter Woodland

In response to my inquiry just before she left, Gran told me she'd slept very well during her visit and thanked me for giving up my comfortable bed. She also told me that her very restful slumber was probably due to the quality of the air and quietness of the countryside. Although I was glad she'd enjoyed her stay, I must admit to being a little disappointed that she didn't report anything unusual. It occurred to me that if I was the only person to have strange experiences in the room then maybe it was just an ordinary room and there was a problem with me. If so, perhaps that problem was related to my mother's mental illness.

After Gran's departure I decided to spend another couple of nights in the 'old guest room', so named because it had all of the old furniture from the guest bedroom in our former home. The reason I gave for that decision was that I wanted to reduce the rate of production of dirty laundry. Dad accepted this without comment, and Mrs Crawford merely said that she didn't mind doing the extra laundry. However, from her expression I had the impression she was a little sceptical about my reason for not moving back into my own room.

While Gran was with us, I had no problem sleeping in the spare room, but the first night after she left I was very restless. Something was niggling at the back of my mind and preventing me from settling down. There was no obvious reason for me being unable to sleep, but it just felt as if I'd forgotten something or needed to do something before I could allow myself to relax. Eventually, though, after hours of tossing and turning, I drifted off to sleep.

The same thing happened the following night, so on the third night after Gran left I decided to move back to my own room. As soon as I got into my own bed it felt as if I were returning from a long stay away from home, and I immediately relaxed. Within seconds I was fast asleep.

The following week, during one of our frequent evening phone calls, Tony and I discussed the upcoming mid-term vacation. Fortunately, we both had the same days off, so I invited him up to stay with us. As expected, when I later told Dad that Tony was planning to visit, he not only didn't raise any objection but in fact he was genuinely happy to be seeing Tony again.

The next morning, when I turned up at the Crawford house before school, Brian's first words on seeing me were, "I hear Tony's coming up for mid-term. Have you made any plans for his visit yet?"

"Erm, n-no," I replied, startled that Brian knew about the visit already. "We only arranged it last night. How did you know?"

"Had an email from Tony."

Tom emerged from the house, and we set off for the bus stop. As usual, he followed us at a distance that seemed calculated to set him apart from his brother while still remaining part of our group. At least that was my impression, but I had no idea if that was really Tom's intention. Usually, he was also close enough to Brian and me to be able to hear our conversation, but he never joined in or even gave any indication that he was listening.

That particular morning, however, my attention wasn't on Tom's behaviour but instead my thoughts were concerned with Brian's knowledge of Tony's visit. Of course I knew they exchanged emails, but the fact that Tony had informed Brian so quickly made me wonder just how close they'd become. To be honest, I was feeling more than a little jealous. After all, Tony was my best friend, not Brian's. I also felt a hint of paranoia, wondering what information about me they might be sharing.

"You're lucky to have a friend like Tony," Brian said, breaking into my thoughts.

"Yes, I am," I replied a little sulkily, "but you've got lots of friends of your own."

"Lots of acquaintances," he replied thoughtfully, "but only a few friends, and none of them as close as you and Tony. Ya know, I'm not sure I should say this, but he's always asking me how you are, and in his emails the only thing he writes about as much as you is soccer."

"Oh," I said.

Whenever I didn't know what to say but felt the need to say something, I tended to avail myself of the word 'Oh'. I always found it to be a very useful multifunctional expression, and with variations of intonation it could be used in many different situations. In this particular case it was uttered in a deliberately neutral tone intended to hide my jealousy and paranoia.

Between Gran's departure and Tony's arrival I'd heard the tapping in my bedroom only once. Thankfully, it signalled the start of an erotic episode rather than a nightmare, and now that I'd grown almost accustomed to it, the experience became a source of enjoyment rather than a cause for concern. The eroticism was more intense than on previous occasions, and despite the fact that I'd had an orgasm just before falling asleep, I also had a wet dream featuring Tom. Fortunately, the next day was a Saturday and Dad was working, so I managed to get my sheets cleaned and dried without anyone noticing any embarrassing evidence.

While I was stuffing the sheets into the washing machine the next morning, I wondered if this overflow of sexuality was yet another one of the effects Prospect House had on me. That thought in turn reminded me that since I'd moved into the house I'd not experienced any of my 'mini-visions', and it occurred to me that if my dad knew this he might consider that to be at least one beneficial effect of the move.

When Tony arrived, I had him installed in my bedroom, citing the same reasons as I had for giving Gran my room. It was more comfortable, had a bigger bed, was more convenient for the bathroom, and was close to the guest room where I would be sleeping. Those public reasons were genuine, but in addition I secretly wanted to know if Tony would experience anything unusual. Gran had stayed for just three nights, whereas Tony was staying for six, so that should provide twice as much opportunity for him to feel something. Maybe it was heartless to use my Gran and best friend as test subjects, but I was anxious to find out if I was the only person to have strange experiences. Also, the worst things that had happened to me were just nightmares, so I was convinced that my test subjects wouldn't suffer any harm.

Around mid-morning on the second day of Tony's visit he, Brian, and I were waiting for a bus to take us into Moreton. Tony was telling us about a recent party he'd been to, when Brian swore quietly. Tony fell silent and we both looked questioningly at Brian who, obviously not intending for us to hear his swear words, blushed slightly.

"I wish Tom would stay away from that kid," Brian muttered, looking across the road.

Following the direction of his gaze, I saw Tom standing just outside the open door of Chris's cottage and apparently talking to someone hidden from view inside the doorway. As I hadn't seen Tom going to the cottage, I assumed that he'd just emerged.

"What kid?" Tony asked.

"The one who lives there," Brian replied and nodded his head toward the cottage.

If I'd given the matter any thought I would probably have remained silent, but something about Brian's tone goaded me into speaking. "His name's Chris. He's Tom's friend."

"What's wrong with Tom's friend?" Tony asked.

There was no way that I was going to answer that question, and even Brian hesitated before replying, "He's queer."

Tony frowned, and for some reason I felt embarrassed, so I looked away from him and gazed across the road, noticing that Tom hadn't moved from his earlier position.

"How do you know?" Tony asked.

"The lads in his class say he was always looking at them in the changing room. That's until they made him start changing on his own in the toilets."

"That doesn't mean his gay," Tony said and gave a snorting laugh. "Lots of lads are curious about other guys' equipment. Don't tell me you've never sneaked a peek."

"Well, maybe," Brian admitted, clearly embarrassed. "But I never stared. And anyway, everybody knows he's queer, and he's never denied it."

Tony frowned and appeared to be thinking carefully before he spoke again. "Don't you like gay people?"

I don't know what, if anything, I'd expected Tony to say, but his words and the irritable edge to his voice took me my surprise. He also put a slight emphasis on the word 'gay' as if to contrast it with Brian's use of 'queer'. Apparently this had an effect on Brian as well, because when he spoke again he was very defensive and not at all like the self-confident young man I'd come to know.

"I've not got anything against them. As long as they stay away from me and my family."

"Why?" Tony said. "Afraid you'll catch something?"

Again his tone, almost a sneer, took me by surprise, and again it seemed to have a similar effect on Brian. I felt embarrassed, and for a moment I think that Brian and I were both wondering why was Tony making such a big deal about this.

"Don't be daft!" Brian said. "I just don't want people thinking my brother's gay."

It didn't escape my notice that he'd said 'gay'. At that point I expected Tony just to accept Brian's statement and let the matter drop, but I was wrong.

"Would it be so bad if he was?"

"Well, erm, maybe not," Brian replied defensively, but then his tone changed to one of exasperation. "Look, I don't much care whether Tom's gay or not. I just don't want people to think he is."

Tony's look of slight irritation gave way to one of mild confusion.

"You're used to living in a city," Brian said with a sigh, answering the unspoken question. "You don't know what it's like in a little village. Everyone knows, or at least wants to know, everyone else's business, and gossip is a major hobby. Once a bit of juicy gossip gets started it sticks forever. I don't want that to happen to me or my family."

As his short speech progressed his voice became more and more intense and emotional. Tony must have realised that he'd pushed the matter far enough, because he said no more on the subject. I remained quiet and glanced across to the cottage to see that the door was closed and Tom had disappeared. No one spoke until the bus arrived, by which time the tense atmosphere had fortunately faded. That was the first time I'd ever heard Tony say anything on the topic of homosexuality, and during much of our trip to Moreton I wondered why he had pressed Brian so hard on the subject.

That night I had one of those special nightmares, but this time it differed from previous such experiences. This was the first time it happened when I wasn't in my own bedroom and it wasn't preceded by any tapping. Also, it was by far the worst nightmare I'd ever had up until then, and the escalation from deep sadness to crushing breathlessness happened very quickly. In a very short time I was trying unsuccessfully to struggle against a weight on my chest and a tightening round my throat, and then I rapidly lost consciousness.

When I opened my eyes I was dazzled by the light, and as I squinted and tried to focus I saw Tony's concerned face looking down at me. Then I felt the carpet under my bare back and realised I was lying on the floor by the side of the bed, with Tony kneeling next to my head. While I was still coming to my senses, he spoke.

"Are you okay? What happened? Shall I get your dad?" he asked, sounding almost frantic with worry.

Although I was still groggy, I understood enough to want to make sure he didn't wake my dad.

"No, don't bother Dad. I'm fine now," I said.

Bearing in mind what had happened to Mum, and with the spectre of possible mental illness hanging over me, I certainly didn't want my dad to know that I was having nightmares bad enough to wake up guests. I tried to sit up, but as soon as my head left the floor I felt so weak and dizzy that I fell back. From the expression on his face I could tell that Tony wasn't entirely convinced that I was fine.

"I just had a nightmare. Must have fallen out of bed," I said with a weak smile, trying to convince him there was no need to wake my dad. "Anyway, what are you doing here?"

"I woke up and heard you banging on the wall between our rooms, and when it didn't stop I came to see what you were up to. I knocked on your door and asked if you were okay, but when you didn't answer I got worried and came in. When I turned the light on I saw you on the floor."

While my mind was still absorbing what he'd told me, I noticed that his bare knee was pressed against my naked shoulder and that he was wearing just his boxers. Then I realised that it wasn't just my shoulder that was naked and that as usual I'd been totally nude as I slept. Despite the circumstances, I started to get aroused. Fearing that he would notice this, I forced myself to sit up, and as nonchalantly as I could manage, I draped my forearm across my genitals. Unfortunately, the effort of sitting up proved too much for me, and I would have fallen over sideways if he hadn't caught me in time.

"Let's get you back into bed," he said gently, lifting me easily in his strong arms.

I felt embarrassed at being so weak and useless in front of him, but before I could protest that I could manage on my own, he'd got me onto my bed and was putting the duvet over me.

"Sure you're okay now?" he asked.

"Mmmm," was all I could manage, because almost as soon as my head touched the pillow I was overwhelmed by a wave of weariness and fell into either sleep or unconsciousness, I'm not sure which.

When I next awoke, the room was dark, apart from the dim glow from the clock radio on the small bedside table. It was almost five o'clock in the morning. Then as I slowly became more awake I noticed that my hand was being held loosely by another hand, larger than my own. Looking to my right I could make out a shadowy figure, which even in the dim light I could tell was Tony.

There was just enough light for me to see that was now wearing more than just boxers, and from the outline I guessed was wearing my dressing gown. He was sitting in a chair that he must have moved from the desk at the opposite side of the room, and his head was leaning sideways, supported partly by his shoulder and partly by the wall behind him. Although his position seemed far from comfortable, he appeared to be snoozing.

"Tony," I said quietly, gently squeezing his hand. "Tony. You awake?"

"Mmfffhh" he uttered, straightening his head.

His hand tightened its grip on mine then, as if embarrassed, he slowly withdrew it.

"You okay now?" he asked groggily.

"Yes, I'm fine."

"You sure?"

"Yes, I'm fine now. Really," I reassured him. "How long have you been here?"

"Mmm," he said, shifting his position to look at the clock. "Maybe a couple of hours. I wanted to make sure you were okay."

"Thanks," I said, realising the word was totally inadequate. "But I'm completely recovered now, so why don't you get back to bed and get some rest."

He stood up and stretched his limbs, which must have been stiff from the uncomfortable position in which he'd been snoozing. When I heard him bump into something I switched on my bedside light, and we both had to shield our eyes from the sudden glare. Sleepy and slightly unsteady, he made his way to the doorway.

"We need talk about this later," he said just before he closed the door. "G'night."

"G'night. And thanks again," I replied.

When he'd gone I turned off the light, lay back, and closed my eyes, not at all keen on the idea of 'talking about this later'.

Then something else occurred to me. The headboard of my bed was against the opposite wall to the one that was between my bedroom and this guest room. Tony had said that he'd heard prolonged banging on that wall. It seemed unlikely that I would really have got up from my bed, crossed the length of the room, banged on the wall, and returned to collapse on the floor beside my bed. I certainly didn't remember doing so. If I didn't bang on the wall, I asked myself, then who or what did?

That morning I slept in until after ten, and although I still felt weary and drained, I didn't actually feel sleepy, so I got up. When I peeked into my bedroom after my shower I saw that Tony was still fast asleep, so I decided to let him rest as long as he wanted and went downstairs to the kitchen. Mrs Crawford was already there, and when she offered to make me some breakfast, I gratefully accepted.

"I suppose Tony's still asleep?" she asked as she filled the kettle.

"Yes. We were up late last night so he's having a lie-in," I replied, bending the truth just a tiny bit.

"Ah, you teenagers!" she said with a smile. "Can't get you to go to bed at night and can't get you up in the mornings. My two are just the same. They were both still in bed when I left the house this morning."

"Is Tom alright?" I asked.

"Yes, he's fine," she responded, looking slightly puzzled. "Why do you ask?"

"Oh, no special reason. Just checking that he's okay."

She didn't seem very convinced by my little lie, but for the moment she didn't pursue the matter.

"He didn't have any nightmares last night, then?" I continued after a long pause.

"Well, yes he did," she said, apparently surprised by my question. She gave me a piercing look before continuing, "But it wasn't one of his really bad ones, and so far he doesn't have a migraine today. So why are you so interested in his bad dreams?"

Had I not been so weary I would've anticipated that she'd be curious about my questions, but as it was I didn't have a prepared answer and had to think quickly.

"It's just that I remember you mentioning his nightmares, and it reminded me of all the nightmares I had for years after Mum died. So I sort-of know what it's like."

Given more time I could probably have thought up something better, but given my tired brain I thought my answer wasn't too unbelievable. I wasn't proud of using the 'dead mother' ploy, but I wanted to discourage further questions, and in the past I'd found the tactic to be effective in that respect. Fortunately, it worked again this time.

While she sliced bread for toast, my thoughts turned back to Tom. He'd had nightmares on the same nights as my two previous ones, so of course the real reason for my questioning his mum was to find out if the coincidence had occurred a third time. The fact that it had was very puzzling and more than a little disturbing. However, I managed to take some small comfort from the fact that although there may have been a correlation between the times of our nightmares, the severity seemed to be unrelated.

Tony got up about an hour later, and I sat with him as he ate his breakfast. He was very subdued, which was very unlike him, and he seemed to have something on his mind. The weather was cold and damp, so after he'd finished eating we decided to stay in and watch DVDs. A little later, while we were sitting together on the living room sofa watching an old Indiana Jones movie, he cleared his throat a couple of times as if about to speak, but then seemed to have second thoughts.

"Mark?" he said eventually.


I guessed that we were about to have the 'talk' he'd mentioned in the early hours of that morning, so I stopped the DVD, muted the TV, and turned toward him.

"Have you had nightmares like that before?"

"Well, not exactly like that," I equivocated.

Knowing me so well, he could sense that I wasn't telling him everything, and as he continued looking silently into my eyes I felt the best option was to tell him the truth.

"Since we moved here I've had some similar nightmares, but none were as bad as last night."

"I was thinking," he said slowly and very seriously. "What would've happened if I'd not been here to hear you banging on the wall? Your dad's on the other side of the house, so he wouldn't have heard it."

"I would've eventually just woken up on the floor and got back into bed," I replied with a rueful grin, trying to make light of the matter.

"No, really," he said, frowning. "I'm being serious."

"So am I. Really, it wasn't a big deal. I had a bad dream and fell out of bed."

"But when I found you on the floor you were as pale as a sheet and gasping for breath," he persisted. "And you just admitted that it wasn't the first time."

"It's the first time I fell out of bed," I said, again trying to make a joke of it. From the expression on his face I had the impression that he was going to press the matter further, so I tried to divert him. "It's probably just moving up here, living in a new house, going to a new school and being surrounded by strangers. I'm sure that once I've settled in the nightmares will stop."

He was silent for a while, but I could tell that he hadn't entirely accepted my explanation, and it was clear that he was thinking hard about what to say next. When he did eventually speak, his words took me by surprise.

"Erm, ya know," he said hesitantly, "I thought that maybe something Brian said yesterday might have upset you and caused the nightmare."

I suddenly had an uneasy feeling about the direction our conversation was taking, so I didn't respond, hoping that he'd drop the subject. Unfortunately, my hopes were unfulfilled and after a brief silence he continued, "He's a bit, erm, provincial in his attitude to gay people, isn't he?"

My uneasiness about the way things were going increased enormously, and I had the urge to run from the room. However, realising that he wasn't giving up and that it was difficult to avoid responding to a direct question, I decided to go with the flow and hope it didn't lead toward anything too dangerous. If it did, then I felt reasonably confident that I could find an escape route.

"I s'pose," I said. Trying to make a joke of it, I continued, "So you kept pushing him about it in order to educate him into a less provincial outlook?"

"Yeah, in a way. He's basically a good person, and I don't think he realises how hurtful he can be. I wouldn't want any friend of mine to be hurt just because Brian's careless about what he says."

Now if I hadn't been so tired maybe my curiosity would have been overruled by caution and I would have remained silent. Perhaps if I'd kept quiet he would've dropped the topic, but as it was I spoke without thinking.

"You have any gay friends, then?"

"Maybe," he replied cautiously.

"Who?" I asked.

Although I was dreading the fact that he might be referring to me, I was also extremely eager to find out if he had other gay friends. I'd never met anyone I knew to be gay apart from Chris, and I wasn't even sure about him. After all, for all I knew his 'reputation' might be just idle gossip.

"Even if I was sure," he said with a grin, "I couldn't tell you that. Anything I knew about such a friend, even his name, would be my secret and totally confidential."

From his expression and the way he was looking into my eyes I was now pretty sure that I was his 'maybe-gay' friend. Although I wasn't yet ready to either confirm or deny his possible suspicions, I couldn't resist just one more question.

"Don't you think there's anything wrong or weird if a guy fancies another guy?"

For a few seconds he seemed to be deep in thought then he laughed quietly.

"Not wrong. Definitely a bit weird," he said. "But not nearly as weird as a guy who actually enjoys exams."

I blushed deeply, because now I knew that he suspected I was gay. What was more, it was clear from his expression that he knew that I knew. Of course, I wondered why he suspected me, but for the time being I had no intention of asking.

"Let's watch the movie," I said. Then, without waiting for a response, I pressed the play button.

Despite the fact that I made neither a confirmation nor a denial, he had a knowing smile on his face as he sat back and turned his gaze to the TV. Throughout the rest of his visit I half expected him to bring the matter up again, but he didn't, and his behaviour with me was in no way different from all the other times we'd spent together. Also, he never at any time made any comment about having unusual experiences in my room, so I had to conclude that I, not the room, was the source of any weirdness.

After Tony's visit there was a subtle and gradual change in Brian's behaviour toward Chris. In fact, it was so subtle and gradual that it was several days before I noticed anything at all. Previously, when Chris had joined us at the bus stop, Brian had made a point of totally ignoring him and frowning at me if I greeted Chris. Now I noticed that although he still didn't speak to Chris, he occasionally acknowledged that the younger boy existed by bestowing a brief nod in his direction. However, if any of Brian's friends, especially Nick or the twins, were around then Brian returned to his former habit of totally ignoring Chris.

Another change that I noticed was that, at least when I was around, Brian no longer made disparaging comments about Chris or about gay people in general, although he never went so far as discouraged his friends from doing so. Still, as I lacked the courage to publicly defend Chris and merely ensured that I was not associated with his attackers, I was in no position to criticise Brian for behaving similarly.

One day in early November, about two weeks after Tony returned home, my last class of the day was a self-study period, so I went home early. When I arrived I went down to the kitchen to make myself a snack and found Mrs Crawford just finishing her work for the day.

"Don't forget to leave room for cake later," she said when she saw me opening the bread bin.

"Cake?" I asked, grinning in anticipation. "Did you make us a cake?"

"Well, I actually made it for Tom. It's his sixteenth birthday today. Didn't he invite you to have cake with us later?"

"Erm, no. He didn't even mention it was his birthday. If I'd known I'd have got him a card or something."

"That's very odd. I told him I was making an extra-large cake so he could invite friends round after school," she said with a frown. Then more to herself than to me she added, "Not that he has all that many friends. I wish he'd make more effort."

She refocused her eyes in my direction and, unusually for her, appeared to be a little embarrassed that she'd spoken her thoughts. Meanwhile, I wondered why neither Tom nor Brian had mentioned the birthday.

"Anyway, Mark, I hope you'll come round at about five and have some cake with us. Brian's got rugby practice, so he won't be there, and I don't want Tom to think no one cares about his birthday."

"Well, if you're sure Tom won't mind," I said hesitantly. "After all, he didn't invite me, so maybe he doesn't want me to go."

"Don't be silly. I'm sure he'd like you to be there," she replied with conviction.

Mrs Crawford was not the sort of person it was easy to disagree with, so I accepted her invitation. As soon as she went home, I changed my clothes and went into the village to look for a suitable card for Tom. Both the general store and the Post Office sold cards, but the choice was very limited, and my least-worst option turned out to be a mildly amusing Garfield generic card. I would've liked to have bought him a small present, but there was nothing even remotely appropriate in the village.

Shortly after five, I turned up a little nervously at the Crawford's front door. Tom let me in, and as he accepted my card with a mumbled 'Thanks', it was clear that both of us were uncomfortable and more than a little embarrassed. He led me through to the dining room, where there were two other boys and a girl, all about the same age as Tom. One of the boys was Chris, and the girl, introduced to me as Sophie, was a slender Goth-type I'd occasionally seen talking to Tom on the school bus. The other boy, whom I don't remember having seen before, was called Michael and appeared to be Sophie's boyfriend. He was tall, slim, fair-haired and not unattractive. Sophie and Michael sat next to each other at the dining table and Chris stood near the centre of the room.

After Tom introduced me there was an uncomfortable silence, during which I hovered uncertainly in the doorway. Fortunately, Mrs Crawford distracted everyone's attention when she arrived from the kitchen bearing a large multi-layered cake. Tom and I quickly moved further into the room to allow her through the doorway, and as she passed close to me on her way to the table she paused briefly.

"Glad you came," she said so quietly that only I could hear.

After placing the cake next to a stack of plates already on the table, she addressed the whole room. "I was going to put sixteen candles on the cake and get you all to sing 'Happy Birthday' while he blew them out, but our Tommy thinks he's too old for that sort of thing now."

"Well, I am!" Tom said, blushing deeply.

I think his mum was the only one in the room who didn't feel sympathy for Tom at that moment, and probably most of us were reminded of times when we'd been similarly embarrassed by our parents. Apparently oblivious to this, Mrs Crawford proceeded to slice the cake and put large pieces on five plates.

"Come and get it," she invited us brightly before heading toward the doorway.

"Aren't you having any?" I asked her as she passed me.

"No, pet, not just now," she said with a smile as she paused to answer me. "I'll have some later with my Andrew and Brian when they get home."

After she'd left the room, we all went to pick up a loaded plate and remained gathered round the table. Sophie and Michael were furthest away from me and began whispering to one another. I got the strong impression that all four of them would have been chatting together if I hadn't been there, so I began to eat quickly so that I could make my excuses and leave as quickly as possible. Unexpectedly, the first person to speak to me was Chris.

"Tom told me you moved up here from Birmingham," he said, speaking quickly, as if he'd been rehearsing what to say in his mind. "I s'pose it's boring being in a little place like this after living in a big city."

"I didn't actually live in Birmingham..." I began. Then, noticing that they were all looking at me and listening to my reply, I became even more self-conscious than I'd been before the cake had arrived. My first impulse was to run away, but I didn't want to appear ill mannered, so I continued speaking to Chris as if he were the only one listening. "I lived in a large town not far from Birmingham, but I guess that as it's all built-up, some people might think it's almost just a suburb of the city."

"Still," Chris said, blushing slightly, "it's got to be more interesting than here. More things to do, more places to go, more people."

"This place can be quite interesting," I said, smiling to myself as I thought about my strange experiences in Prospect House. "And I think being in the countryside is nicer than being surrounded by lots of houses. There was certainly a lot more people where I used to live, but I'm not sure that's such a good thing cos I don't like being in big crowds."

"Yes, but in a big crowd it's easier to be yourself without anyone noticing you, " Chris pressed on, apparently unfazed by the fact that our conversation was being monitored by the other three.

"Yeah, I s'pose so," I said thoughtfully, wondering how many people at my old school, apart from Tony, had noticed I even existed.

"Anyway," Chris said, "I can't wait to leave school and get away from here, and maybe even go and live in London."

"I agree with Mark," Tom said, eventually joining the conversation. "Visiting a big city might be fun, but I prefer living in the countryside. And if you want to visit a city then Newcastle's not too far from here."

"Well, actually Newcastle's not very big as cities go," I said, reluctant to contradict Tom but wanting to set the record straight.

"Whatever," Tom said, shrugging his shoulders and seeming a little irritated at what he may have regarded as my nit picking.

By this time I'd almost finished my cake, so I quickly wolfed down the remainder and decided to beat a hasty retreat. I put my plate on the table and looked at my watch.

"Dad will be home soon," I said to Tom, "so I'd better be getting back to the house now."

Without waiting for a response, I said a general 'See ya' to everyone in the room, then went to say good-bye to Mrs Crawford and thank her for the delicious cake. After I'd spoken to her very briefly in the kitchen, I made my way to the front door and was surprised to find Tom there, apparently waiting for me.

"Thanks for coming," he said as he opened the door for me.

He appeared to be as embarrassed and uncomfortable as I felt, so I'm not sure what induced me to say what I said next.

"It was nice of your mum to invite me," I responded, emphasising the word 'mum'.

Instead of being offended as I might have expected, he became apologetic.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I would've invited you myself, but this whole 'birthday cake' thing that Mum insists on every year is really embarrassing. And, well, I thought you might not like my other friends."

The first thing that struck me was the phrase 'other friends'. One possible implication of which was that he considered me to be one of his friends, and that possibility made me feel happier than I would have liked to admit. The second thing that occurred to me was that Brian might have deliberately arranged a rugby practice for that day.

"I don't know Michael or Sophie at all, so can't say if I like or dislike them," I said after my brief pause for thought. "And today is the first time I've really spoken to Chris, but he seems quite likeable."

He didn't respond, so before the silence became too uncomfortable I said a quick 'good-bye' and made my exit. As I crossed the threshold he spoke to the back of my head.

"You haven't really spoken much to me either," he said so quietly that I could barely make out his words.

"But I already know that I like you," I said, equally quietly and without turning to look at him.

I continued walking, and as I walked up the drive toward Prospect House I mentally kicked myself for revealing my feelings. However, I comforted myself with the thought that there was a good chance that he hadn't heard me.

During the next couple of weeks neither Tom nor I mentioned the evening of his birthday, but it seemed to have started a thawing in our previously friendly-but-formal interactions. The change wasn't immediate or rapid, but within just a few days I began to notice little differences. For example, instead of lagging a couple of paces behind Brian and me as we walked to the bus stop, he began walking close by my side. Also, he began to contribute to our conversations, though his remarks were still addressed to me rather than to his brother.

This improvement in my relationship with Tom was accompanied by an increase in the frequency of my experiences of the tapping sound in my bedroom at night. The sound was always followed by intense erotic feelings. As time passed, those feelings were more and more directed toward Tom, and Tony began to feature less in my fantasies. Thankfully, during that time there were no nightmares, and I began to hope that they had gone away forever, now that I was settling in to my new life.

Everything seemed to be going well for me in other ways. Dad and I were getting along well, and despite his long hours at work we seemed to be closer than we'd been for several years. Life at school was pleasant because my classes were easy and I found a routine that minimised the need for personal contact with other students. In addition to my improving relationship with Tom, I was getting along well with Brian, and even Chris occasionally said more than just 'Hi' to me.

As well as my new friendships with Tom and Brian, I was also maintaining my close friendship with Tony, despite the distance between us. He and I were in almost daily contact, but neither of us made any reference to the conversation we'd had in which he'd mentioned a possible gay friend. I was pretty sure that he knew, or at least suspected, that I was gay, but I wasn't yet ready to confirm his suspicions, even though I now knew that he'd be okay with it.

With the disappearance of the nightmares, I managed to set aside my worries about the possibility of inheriting some sort of mental illness. Overall, everything in my life was proceeding just how I liked it, smoothly and with minimal complications. Of course, I should have known that life doesn't run smoothly for very long.

One afternoon in the middle of November, I was on the bus going home from school. As it was one of the early school buses of the afternoon it was almost empty, and being a creature of habit, I sat in my usual place at the back and next to a window. Just as the bus was about to leave, Nick got on, but if he saw me at all he chose to ignore me. He sat a couple of seats in front of me and looked at his watch. When the bus stopped outside the High School in Moreton, a handful of younger kids got on, and one of those kids was Chris, who was on his own.

This was one of the very rare occasions that I'd seen Chris when Tom wasn't with him. He didn't appear to see me, but he immediately spotted Nick. Much to my surprise, Chris took the seat just in front of the older boy, who leaned forward and apparently whispered something into Chris's ear. Then he quickly sat back and just stared out of the window.

I was intrigued to see that Nick didn't get off at his usual stop, and when both he and Chris got off the bus together, just one stop before I expected Chris to leave the bus with me, I was even more intrigued. As the bus drove off, I looked out of the rear window and saw the two of them cross the road and start walking in the direction the bus was going. Of course, my curiosity was aroused by the fact that two boys who apparently disliked one another had gone off together like that.

The bus travelled only a short distance before taking the road that branched off toward the village. When I got off the bus my curiosity made me decide to go back to the previous stop and try to see what Nick and Chris were up to. As I trotted along, I noted that on my left and following the line of the road was a high wall. It was made of red bricks, some of which were crumbling with age, and much of the wall was covered in winter-brown vegetation. My mental map of the local area was still rather fuzzy, but it occurred to me that the wall might be the boundary of the old Armstrong estate.

Although it took me only about five minutes to reach the place where I'd last seen the two boys, there was no sign of them anywhere. As there were no side roads and very few nearby buildings, I looked around, wondering where they might have gone. Just as I was about to give up and go home I noticed a gap in the wall. The gap was partially covered by vegetation and obscured by shadows cast by the setting winter sun, so it wasn't surprising that I hadn't seen it earlier. After a brief hesitation, I squeezed my way through and entered the woods on the other side.

In the fading light the bare winter trees were quite spooky, and a shiver ran up my spine. Reassuring myself that there was nothing to be afraid of, I went deeper into the woods. Stepping warily on the fallen leaves, I told myself that my cautious tread was merely to avoid any sounds which might betray my presence if Nick and Chris happened to be nearby.

Although there was no obvious path, I slowly made my way deeper into the wood, following what seemed to be a line of least resistance through the sparse undergrowth. I'd travelled about twenty yards from the wall when I heard a voice. Although it wasn't loud enough or close enough for me to make out the words, the pitch was too low for it to be Chris, so I assumed it was Nick.

Trying to make as little noise as possible, I headed in the direction of the voice. When I got close enough to distinguish the words, I crouched down and slowly crept closer, so I could see the speaker without myself being seen. Before I could get a good view I heard Nick growl.

"Go on, ya little queer, you can do better than that."

Peeking out from behind the trunk of a large tree, I saw Chris and Nick, but at first the dim twilight prevented me from being able to make out what they were doing. Then I saw that Chris, facing Nick, was bent at the waist at an angle of about forty-five degrees. Almost immediately I realised that because of the big difference in their heights, this put Chris's head on a level with Nick's crotch.

"C'mon, you can get more in than that!" Nick said, his voice thick with lust, and his heavy breathing puffing out clouds of vapour into the cold air.

Even before he said that, I knew what was happening. As quietly as I could, I moved to take cover behind another tree that afforded me a closer view with a better angle. From my new vantage point I could see that Chris had Nick's penis in his mouth and was rubbing his own erection. Then, what I'd initially thought to be two boys just having fun, suddenly appeared to become something more sinister. Nick grabbed the side of Chris's head and began pushing hard into the younger boy's mouth. Chris tried to pull away, and I thought I could hear him gagging.

"Don't be such a wimp," Nick rasped impatiently. "You've had enough practice, so you should be able to take it all by now."

Despite Nick's words, Chris was choking and trying to pull away. After a couple of seconds he managed to free his head from Nick's grasping hands, and he stood up, gasping for breath.

"Okay," Nick growled in frustration. "If you can't fit it all in one end, let's try the other."

For a couple of seconds Chris just stood immobile, then he appeared to understand what Nick meant and shook his head.

"No," he said. "I've never done that, and I'm certainly not going to do it with you."

"Well," Nick said with a smirk, "if you prefer, I can tell everyone about Shotton Wood."

Chris hesitated for a couple of seconds then took a deep breath before responding.

"I don't care!" he said defiantly, though his voice was trembling. "I don't mind sucking you, but you're not going up my bum."

"Oh yes, I am!" Nick hissed. "Now drop yer pants!"

Chris turned and began to move as if he was about to run away, but Nick grabbed him and twisted his arm up his back.

"Ow! Gerroff!" the smaller boy yelped. "That hurts!"

"It'll hurt more if you don't cooperate," Nick snarled.

With that, he pushed Chris down over a fallen tree trunk and threw himself on top of the younger boy. Chris struggled and wriggled for a few seconds, then I saw him go limp, as if he'd given up and resigned himself to his fate.

When Nick had started twisting Chris's arm, I'd become frozen with shock. I'd always abhorred violence, and as my shock wore off, the scene in front of me made me feel physically sick. To be honest, and to my shame, my first reaction was to run away. After all, neither of them knew I was there, and it wasn't really my business. Then I thought that not only would flight be morally wrong, in the long term it would be worse for me. How could never live with myself if I just ignored what was happening to Chris.

"Aargh! Owww!" Chris squealed.

While I'd been wrestling with my conscience, Nick had wrestled Chris's trousers and underpants down to below his knees and was now lying on top of the younger boy.

"Ow, it hurts!" Chris yelped. "Stop! It won't go in!"

His cries galvanised me to action, and with a thudding heart and growing nausea, I stood up.

"Leave him alone!" I called out, hoping that my unsteady voice hadn't betrayed how scared I was.

Nick jumped up, more in surprise than fear, giving me a glimpse of Chris's white buttocks.

"What the fuck are you doing here?" Nick snarled as he struggled to push his penis back inside his trousers.

"What are you doing here?" I countered, trying to sound more confident than I felt. "This is my dad's land, and you're trespassing."

Actually, I wasn't sure if it was my dad's land, but I was counting on Nick not being sure either. He looked uncertain for a moment before he spoke.

"I was just having some fun with the queer boy," he said defiantly.

"Looked more like rape to me," I said, my voice shaking with mixed fear and anger.

"Don't be stupid," Nick retorted. "He's queer. He likes it."

Chris stood up, sheepishly pulling up his trousers, and I looked at him uncertainly, hoping that he'd say something to back me up. Instead, he carefully avoided meeting my gaze. My brain went into overdrive as I tried to think of a response to Nick's assertion.

"Doesn't matter what he likes," I said eventually, adrenaline making me sweat, despite the cold. "He's under sixteen and you're over sixteen, so you're still breaking the law."

"So what?" Nick said smugly. "He's not going to say anything cos he knows what will happen if he does."

"But I'll say something if you don't leave him alone. Do you want to end up on a sex offenders register for the rest of your life?"

"You wouldn't dare! No one would believe you!" he hissed.

From his glare and stance I thought he was about to attack me, but I tried to suppress the shaking of my body and fought to keep my voice from trembling when I replied.

"Are you sure of that? I think Brian and Tom will believe me."

I thought that Tom would probably believe me, but didn't know about Brian. However, I hoped Nick wouldn't call my bluff. After glaring at me for what seemed like an eternity but was probably just a few seconds, Nick stormed off and rapidly disappeared into the gathering darkness between the trees. As he departed I heard him mutter something in a threatening tone, but I could make out the words.

I turned to Chris, who by now had pulled up his trousers and was removing dead leaves from them. He appeared embarrassed and uncomfortable, and he was still avoiding eye contact. I had the impression that he, too, would leave as soon as he was sure that Nick was well out of the way.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

He looked down at his feet, then into the trees, as if he was seeking an escape route. I was mildly irritated by the fact that he was so defensive and almost afraid of me, bearing in mind that I'd just rescued him.

"Yes," he said very quietly, still without looking at me directly. "Thanks."

By this time my adrenaline rush was fading rapidly, and the reaction left me shivering and feeling weak. Feeling dizzy and nauseous, I leaned against the tree behind which I'd previously been hiding and closed my eyes for a second.

"Are you okay?" Chris asked with genuine concern.

When I looked back at him he was taking a hesitant half step toward me, and this time he didn't avoid eye contact.

"Yes, I'm fine. Just not used to being so confrontational," I replied and smiled wanly.

"D'ya want me to walk home with you?" he asked shyly.

"No, that's okay," I said and laughed weakly. "Actually, I was going to ask you the same question."

He smiled for the first time since I'd seen him with Nick on the bus, and I could sense that he was beginning to relax a little.

"Well, there's a shortcut to your house through the woods," he said, "but it's not such a good idea in the dark. You'd be better going the long way round, in which case you'd go past my house anyway."

"Okay," I said, straightening up. "Lead on."

I followed him back to the wall and out through the gap. Although my mind was full of questions, we maintained a slightly uncomfortable silence as we walked along the road. When we were just a couple of dozen yards from his house, Chris was the first to speak.

"So," he said hesitantly, "what were you doing in the woods?"

The question might have been expected if I'd given the matter any thought, but as it was, it took me totally by surprise. I was reluctant to tell him the truth in case he thought I'd been spying on him, which of course I had been. So I thought I'd distract him by reflecting the question back at him.

"And what were you doing there with Nick. I thought you didn't like him?"

"I don't," he said. Looking very uncertain, he hesitated before adding, "Oh, it's a long story."

His tone made it clear that he'd no intention of telling me any part of that story, so I didn't pursue the matter. Much to my relief, he also didn't return to his original question, and nothing else was said until our paths diverged and he was about to cross the road to go to his house.

"You won't tell anyone, will you?" he asked anxiously. "You won't let anyone know what happened?"

"No, of course not," I replied. "But if Nick bothers you again maybe you should tell someone."

"But you won't say anything to anyone? You promise?"

"Yes, I promise."

He nodded his head slightly, then turned and crossed the road. I watched him until he got as far as his garden gate, but he didn't look back, and I carried on toward home.

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