It All Began With a Comic Book…
In everybody’s life there are defining moments when you can look backwards and oh-so-clearly see the proverbial forks in the road. Most move through their daily lives full throttle in the typical way, barely aware of their surroundings in order to focus singularly on the narrow path ahead. Until you lift your eyes to spot the traffic-filled T-intersection in front of you and suddenly realize you’ve run out of pavement. Either you stomp on the brakes with all your might and cause a horrific pile-up or reach a quick decision, right or left. Not both. There is no middle-ground here; you must make a choice and turn.
The worst, however, is when you aren’t even allowed a say-so in your direction because it has been pre-determined for you by fate. For Christian Adams, that crossroads arrived on a February morning when he was fifteen years old.
He was hopping up and down while standing on the front porch of his neighbor and best mate, fellow freshman Gabe Norwood. Just as he did every school day, he stabbed at the button for the doorbell and waited for someone to answer. Christian tried to stay warm in the chill dawn and ducked his head to shield his watery eyes. His stocking cap and thigh-length jacket did little to protect him against the wind gusts zipping around the corner of the house and he tucked his aching fingers into his armpits. In this inclement weather, he reflected how lucky he was to catch a ride to school, seeing as how Gabe’s older brother, Skylar, was a senior and had his own car.
Christian and his younger sisters had grown up with the Norwood boys. Their fathers had met on the exact same day as new hires at Rawlins Industries shortly after it opened its doors over two decades before. Ted Adams was an accountant and Darrin Norwood worked in the advertising department, but that didn’t stop them from becoming fast friends. They settled into their rising careers in the small but successful business, enjoying the hands-on management style and caring atmosphere. Eventually, they put down roots in Sharlington, a bedroom community known for its old-world charm and friendliness outside of Sacramento, California’s capitol.
In those early days both of them were bachelors, but they double-dated and in due course married local girls the same age who were already like sisters in their own friendship. Birthdays and barbeques signaled the couples growing closer, and holidays and vacations were usually spent together. The Adams’s first commiserated with, then supported Darrin and Jen when she popped up pregnant only five months after their wedding. Three years later there was rejoicing all around when the Norwoods learned of Kristy’s first pregnancy a month after they announced they were expecting their second-born. Both were boys too, and who could deny the common sense of raising the children together? Gabe’s mother and father were Christian’s godparents the same as his had been Skylar’s.
But on that winter morning Christian wasn’t thinking about how long he’d known Gabe or how much in tune the two boys were. He didn’t stop to remember he had a history test he forgot to study for or that he was supposed to bring his hacky sack to school so his buddies could kick it around during lunch. He wasn’t truly thinking about anything in particular... until that heavy front door opened and every last thought was wiped out of his mind.
He stared into a pair of familiar mocha-brown eyes with a golden fringe of lashes under arched blonde brows. The same eyes had sparkled in older sibling mischief while playing pranks on him and Gabe or tightened in anger as he screamed bloody murder at their antics. As if his three years of seniority gave him the right to be a substitute parent. Gabe’s brother, Skylar, stood back to welcome him into the house, mumbling words to the effect that they would depart shortly.
Christian’s uncomfortable last breath of air lodged somewhere beyond his lungs and his whole body tingled. For the first time in his young life he had been hit by Cupid’s arrow. Even as he noticed that this man-child was the most enchanting creature he’d ever seen, the other half of his brain was reminding him that it was Skylar. Neighbor Skylar. He didn’t even know how to react. All he could do was stand there, statue-like, and remind himself to breathe. Just breathe.
Christian had figured out he was gay when he was very young. His reaction to girls had never moved past the stage where they were gross and basically useless, and all his earliest romantic fantasies revolved around other boys. Not Gabe, never Gabe; he was just a friend. Best, yes, but never someone he dreamed about. That would have been too distracting.
Maybe because his homosexuality had been a near-lifelong presence, he didn’t consider there might be negative consequences in telling his parents. One day when he was twelve he blurted out that he was in love with the new boy who lived at the other end of the block, and Kristy and Ted took it in stride. His father was surprisingly calm in subsequent years when he sat down at various times and discussed age-appropriate topics that would ultimately encompass safe sex and whether he wanted to publicly come out in high school or wait until college.
In the end, Christian opted to keep the news on the down low after seeing the way several other gay students were maligned at Sharlington High. He couldn’t even summon the courage to tell Gabe, although his closest friend had never given any sign of being prejudiced against gays. He tried to convince himself it didn’t make a difference since he would probably never love Gabe in that way, but it hurt to be too scared to share such a vital part of his life. Some day, he reasoned, he would tell him.
Except for the childish attachments of his early teen years Christian didn’t have practice in falling in love. He had never met anyone that caused his heart to thump mad fast in his chest or made him have to grab a solid object to keep his buckling knees from spilling him to the ground. But his lack of experience was all pre-Skylar. Before his whole perspective on Gabe’s older brother changed. Before his eyes swept from the red Chuck Taylors past the dark jeans and band t-shirt to his soaring six foot height and his heart said “wow”.
After knowing each other his whole life, Christian wondered why he had never noticed Skylar before. It was like he was glowing gold in the backlit doorway, oozing rock god status in a human package. Gold flecks in his big mocha-brown eyes. Curly golden hair streaked with paler blonde shades that dusted the tops of his shoulders and was always messy. Even his skin was gilded bronze with no blemishes, unless they were man-made.
Christian knew that the left side of Skylar’s back sported an awesome tribal tattoo in a black and henna pattern of vines wrapped around a medieval sword from shoulder to hip. He had a smaller sword on his right bicep, and his nipples were pierced by golden rings. He wondered if he had any other tattoos or piercings in more intimate places under his clothes. Then the sudden mental image of Skylar naked gave him a raging hard-on and he was instinctively scrambling to cover his crotch by slinging his pack off his back and holding it in front of him.
“Twerp, are you going to come inside or not?” Skylar asked half a minute later, his eyebrow arched up in amusement. Compared to other freshmen, Gabe’s best friend appeared to show intermittent signs of real intelligence but that didn’t erase the fact that having him around was usually just like having a second brother, a second younger brother.
“Huh?” Christian asked in a daze before his frozen body abruptly reminded him that he was still perched outside on the porch. Skylar was shooting him bewildered glances but he didn’t dare look down to see if the bulge was visible in his pants. He took his beanie off his head to nervously push his long raven- black bangs out of his face.
“I’d like to shut the door,” Skylar declared impatiently wondering what was wrong with the kid. Damn, he didn’t even seem to know he was staring. “You’re letting the cold in, Chris.”
“Don’t call me Chris,” he automatically retorted in an aggrieved tone.
It was an old disagreement. Going back to the start of middle school and discovering no less than two Christophers in each of his classes, he had reverted to his full name and requested that everyone else do likewise. Only Skylar still persisted in calling him by his nickname.
Skylar rolled his eyes, stifling a laugh. This boy was so easy. “Well, Christian, it’s too fucking cold to stand here with the door wide open so either move those feet or wait in the car.”
With a baffled smile and a shake of his head, Christian stepped through the doorway and privately adjusted himself before Skylar could turn around. The warmth indoors was such a contrast to the outside chill that his glasses immediately fogged up and he pushed them up his nose. He felt as if he was a stranger here even though the house was nearly as familiar as his own, he was at the Norwoods so often. He realized that life as he knew it had been altered infinitesimally by his newfound feelings for Skylar, and he would never be the same.
Christian's heart was trying to take wing. Thankfully he could blame the goosebumps blossoming over his skin on the cold weather, and he kept his eyes lowered so he wouldn’t be tempted to stare at his crush. I am in love with Skylar kept echoing between his ears. How did he tell him? No, he couldn’t tell him, not ever. So how did he deal with these deep feelings for someone who would never love him back?
Christian could scarcely hope Skylar was gay— not a popular senior like him that everyone wanted to hang with. He attracted the hottest girls who fawned over him in droves and one of them was always on his arm. In his bed too, according to Gabe who relayed the gruesome details. Skylar threw the best parties, had the coolest friends and rolled through life with an ease that was almost frightening. His word was his bond, and he was loyal to his buddies although they didn’t deserve it most of the time.
Skylar was completely masculine and level-headed but some of the ideas he came up with in way of hijinx were legendary. He just owned this aura of self-assurance and being able to think things through when life was falling apart. You couldn’t disparage him by labeling him a jock, but Skylar was a sports trifecta unto himself, a triple threat at football, basketball and baseball. He shredded on guitar and fronted a decent alternative rock garage band that was known as the Holy Anarchy and played around the area.
He couldn’t let the older boy get under his skin, but seeing him in this new light, it was tough not to drool in longing. Skylar’s still-forming body already hinted at what lay in store for him as an adult. He was a natural athlete and had a sturdy frame topped with a well-developed chest, wide shoulders and a rock-hard abdomen. His face was expressive and striking, all smooth skin and features fitting together in a way that made girls eager to do anything for a smile. What appealed to Christian was how what should have been a flaw— his slightly crooked nose that had been fractured in a sixth grade P.E. accident involving a thrown baseball bat— just gave him character.
Even if Skylar did prefer boys, why would someone of his caliber settle for one so run of the mill when he could have practically anyone? Christian was a realistic boy and under no illusions about his less than stellar appearance. He was a skinny, five-foot-five runt with blue-gray eyes hidden behind black rectangular eyeglasses that seemed to weigh his face down. His hair was naturally a glossy ash brown shade, but Christian was still struggling to find himself and had been through several fads and phases. At this particular moment his locks were dyed an unrelieved black and were long and shaggy. His skin was so pale in his baby face that the freckles on his cheeks and nose popped out even at a reasonable distance, and the solid black clothing he wore, including his never-parted leather jacket, accentuated the pallor. Even his voice betrayed him because it wasn’t finished changing yet, and often he thought he sounded like a sick frog.
The smartest thing he could do was tamp down on his emotions and hope this was a simple crush he’d get over when reality settled in. The reality that being homosexual added another layer of angst to an already overcrowded realm of teenage insecurity and it sucked. Just throw it in the drawer of classified secrets he couldn’t talk to anyone about. Like being gay. No matter what it cost him, his life would be destroyed if Skylar were ever to learn he was crushing on him.
Wisely, Christian resolved to try to act normal around him and go with the flow. No puppy eyes or staring, no emo temper tantrums or pretending to be helpless and in need of an older boy to help him out. He vowed not to invite himself into Skylar’s coveted circle of companions where, as his kid brother’s shadow, he wouldn’t be welcome or pop up unexpectedly and turn into a pest. Be casual, he reminded himself, and don’t even think about changing your routine.
“Gabriel,” Skylar shouted towards the ceiling unexpectedly. “Stop your goddamned vanity primping and get your bony ass down here or we’re going to be late for school.”
Christian nearly jumped out of his skin as he was yanked rudely him from his reverie and then hunched his shoulders in embarrassment at being caught daydreaming.
“I was never that pathetic, twerp,” Skylar cracked, smirking both at his jitteriness and the way Gabe came bounding down the stairs in such a hurry he nearly tripped on the front doorjamb.
“No, you were worse,” Christian couldn’t help but reply and followed his best friend outside before Skylar got another word in edgewise.
Three months went by. Christian was still quietly in love with Skylar. Miraculously, nobody else knew. He went about his business and kept his feelings for him, the ones that refused to die a peaceful death, hidden. He was optimistically certain nothing in his behavior gave him away because he was always so careful around him. Thankfully the high school senior really had no time for anything other than his own life. Especially now that Skylar was nearing graduation and would be going off to college in August to play football for Michigan State.
Even if he had managed to look twice at him, Christian wouldn’t have known how to follow up or attract Skylar’s attention. That was not the kind of guy he was. He was steady and true and didn’t flirt, not even with the girls to allay suspicion of his own sexuality. All he had ever managed over Skylar were the few wet dreams he remembered the next morning upon awakening in cum-flaked sheets. He’d never so much as looked at another guy, much less kissed one.
With his own set he was anything but shy, but there was something intimidating about Skylar Norwood. He was sex personified and moved with a graceful arrogance that was the right of the upper echelon at the high school. Not that he was ever mean or rude on purpose… Skylar’s parents would have grounded him indefinitely for mistreating their best friends’ son. It was a familiarity breeds contempt kind of thing mixed with a general disdain for underclassmen. Skylar didn’t pay any attention to him other than during the ten minute trip back and forth to school, and that was only out of duty. Often he seemed to struggle even to remember Christian’s name. Usually he called him ‘twerp’.
Christian stayed busy with his own classes and time spent with Gabe and his other friends. He was a middle distance runner on the track team, but it was just hard work. He ran because Gabe was also on the freshman squad so it was something to do together. That and talking about girls as both were at the age where they expected to become more sexually active.
Christian hemmed and hawed when his school pals boasted of their conquests. It was all bullshit anyway, each boy trying to make the others believe they knew what they were doing and these cute, virginal girls were thrilled to give it up to hopeless, fumbling freshmen. Mostly he listened, the only time his ears perking up was when a guy described getting a blowjob from a willing girl.
Like his friends, he surfed the web for information on sex, but with the parental controls his parents set up on the family PC, he had little access. Ditto on the porn. He was up in arms and joined the protest at school when the administration forbid the wearing of the colorful jelly bracelets the students snapped off wrists to determine what level of sexual activity they were prepared to undertake. Christian didn’t wear any; he was too worried some girl would break it and he’d be trapped into kissing or worse, but his friends should have the right if they wanted.
He had two passions in life. One was art. He loved to draw, and most people who saw his work told him he was very talented and should look into making it a career. His favorite form of expression was cartoons. Anime to be exact, which he not only loved to sketch but also read.
Japanese manga was his other love. He had collected the small paperback books of black and white-illustrated stories for many years. His room was littered with sketches taken from the anime he poured over, perfecting his craft. Many of the books had at least one blank page in the back, or truthfully, in the front since the Asian format favored reading right to left. Christian would use these pages for his own drawings. They were private, and he showed them to no one.
The year before when he turned fourteen, Christian had been wandering through his local Barnes and Noble bookstore at the mall looking for the latest volume of his favorite Japanese anime when he picked up a paperback showing two males hugging on the cover. In the true manga style, one of them had large eyes and long hair, but even though he was willowy, almost feminine, he was definitely a boy. As he would later learn, this character was known as the uke or, in American culture, the bottom. The other male, the seme or top, was larger and masculine, much like the hero in Christian’s favorites. Reading his body language, he was protective of the smaller man.
With that, Christian was introduced to his first yaoi, a Boy Love comic that was actually written by female authors. He didn’t care… not that some of the plots weren’t farfetched or that the story lines didn’t feature blatant stereotypes of gay love. It was kind of juvenile how the stories made the younger male characters appear like weak, dainty victims. All he cared about was that he was able to relate to the story because it involved men loving boys. Much to his delight, there was an added bonus. Illustrated, fully-depicted sex. For an adolescent boy, the yaoi was heaven.
He read a lot of it those first twelve months. Christian mowed his neighbor’s lawns and walked their dogs, large and small, for spending money. He didn’t get rich but it kept him in enough cash that he could afford to purchase the newest yaoi editions off the internet so that he was never without. Even if he had to read under the cover of darkness so his parents didn’t find out, he would indulge his passion. Christian stashed his used books in a big box on the closet floor and drew to his heart’s content in notebooks and the extra pages of the paperbacks themselves.
His favorite yaoi was The Beat of My Heart written by Kizumi Tomoko, a popular anime author. It was about an innocent but headstrong teenage boy named Akiro, his female best friend, Maki, and her handsome older male cousin, Teru. Maki was sweet, loyal and fun to be around with great ideas for adventure. Teru was the smart, affable hero exhibiting an almost saintly level of endurance for Akiro who was madly in love with him.
The little blonde boy—Christian could never figure out why a Japanese character would have light hair—was determined to make Teru notice him and constantly discovering ways to get into trouble. He liked to proclaim his undying affection at the most inappropriate times which fostered the drama between them. For his part, Teru occasionally seemed harsh and impatient, his tolerance level for Akiro’s mistakes running near empty. Despite their disagreements, he would go to extremes to save the boy. As the reader, Christian often wondered if Teru’s sarcasm was just a front to mask how he really felt. In any case, every chapter ended with them having sex, and then Akiro would be off on another ill-advised exploit.
The freshman had been enjoying the eighth book in the series up until a pretty day in May. Even with some of the outlandish prose, he loved the story’s romance. In the latest chapter, Akiro had managed to run afoul of a bully at school whose uncle worked in his apartment building, and the two were worried he would tell someone in authority. Their plan was to kidnap Akiro and shut him up in the basement. Of course, Teru immediately discovered what had happened and rushed to liberate him from the villains.
Teru was leading Akiro through the darkened cellar towards a small door where Maki waited just as Christian hastily looked up at his alarm clock and noticed the time. He was going to make the Norwood boys late for school if he didn’t hurry. Jumping to his feet, he slammed the paperback into his backpack, already halfway out of his bedroom. The house was quiet since he was alone. His mother always dropped his sisters, Ashley and Jordan, off at their school on her way to work, and Rawlins Industries was a twenty mile trip southeast so his father left early. This usually gave him a half-hour of privacy before he had to be at the Norwoods for his ride to school.
Christian and Gabe had the same teacher for World History but in different periods, and the unit test for their most recent chapter was scheduled for the following day. After Skylar brought them home from school they spent two and a half hours studying and finishing homework for their other lessons. By the time he walked next door to his house, Christian’s mother had returned from her job, and she set him to grating cheese and chopping onions and bell peppers for some chicken dish she was preparing for dinner. He set the table just as Dad arrived, and they ate. Jordan and Ashley did dishes while he folded his clean laundry, and the family all sat down to watch an evening of sitcoms.
He said goodnight and went to his room at 9:30. After washing up and brushing his teeth, he stripped down for bed. Christian was excited because was almost at the last and pivotal love-making scene in The Beat of My Heart; in fact, he had been saving it for just this occasion. Even though yaoi is cartoon, it was fairly sexually explicit and not bad as light visual stimulation for jacking off.
Christian reached into his backpack for the book. It wasn’t there.
He checked again and then completely emptied the bag, pencils and pens dumped in a pile with his calculator and a package of index cards, graded papers flying everywhere and a somewhat bruised apple from lunch rounding out the assorted school supplies. The paperback was gone.
By now Christian was frantic. He honestly didn’t remember the last time he laid eyes on it but he knew the book had been in his pack earlier that morning. Okay, taking it to school was probably not the best idea because some adults considered yaoi to be porn. He probably would have gotten into trouble if he had been caught with it. Frankly, dropping it somewhere on campus was the least of his worries since if it had been picked up randomly by a stranger few would be able to trace it to him. He never loaned out his yaoi so he didn’t put his name in them.
However, if Christian left it under a desk in class or in the Norwood car or home, that was a different matter. His artwork was original and rather distinctive. He cringed thinking of the sketch he had penned the night before on the inside cover. In the wrong hands, Christian’s book didn’t need his name in it to announce ownership.
He fretted all the next day, and by the time he met Gabe and Skylar in the parking lot he had begun to panic. He’d traced his footsteps from the previous hours and thoroughly cleaned out his locker. He dug through the lost and found finding discarded jackets and other clothes that looked as if they’d been there for a decade. But not his yaoi. He even considered asking his teachers if someone turned it in but he was afraid of getting sent to the office so the vice-principal could call him a pervert and telephone his parents.
“Hey, Norwood.” A small mob of Sharlington High students, all junior and senior friends of Skylar’s, approached them as he unlocked the doors and they prepared to leave campus for the day. Christian knew most of them by name because they were the movers and shakers on campus. The speaker was Bart Landers, the football team quarterback.
The five men in the group knuckle-bumped Skylar but ignored the younger boys, and Bart said, “I think I dropped my wallet in your car two nights ago when my truck broke down and you gave me a ride home. If you didn't find it already, it’s probably on the floor somewhere.”
Skylar continued to talk to his friends as he squatted down next to the open back door on the passenger side and ran his hand under the seat. He grasped something firm and cardboard-y, not a wallet but he was curious. He pulled out a paperback book and stood up.
It was standard paperback size and the back cover was a shiny dark gray. Turning it over to look at the title, Skylar’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head at a colorful cartoon image of a tall, very thin dark-haired man nuzzling the neck of a smaller, younger blonde boy in his arms. “The Beat of My Heart, Vol. 8,” he read to himself. What in the hell was this?
Out of the corner of his eye, Christian saw him stand up, his missing manga in his hand. His skin went clammy and his heart began to seize up in his chest in a block of ice. Oh, just do me a favor, God, he thought in desperation, and strike me dead right here and now.
Gabe heard his quick intake of breath and, sensing an immediate rise in the surrounding tension, looked over at his friend. Christian was sweating and turning pale as he stared in trepidation at his brother. “Are you okay?” he asked in concern.
Words sticking in his throat, Christian couldn’t do anything except shake his head helplessly and push his glasses up his damp nose. He didn’t have the courage to stride over to Skylar to pull his paperback away from him and mitigate the damage before he had a chance to crack the spine. No matter what happened afterwards, taking charge was better than the onrushing disaster but it was like he was frozen in place.
“What do you have there?” Bart asked, curiously becoming aware of his friend’s odd silence. He sidled closer to Skylar so he could check out the paperback in his hand and saw the cuddling men on the front. “What is that?”
“It was in my fucking car,” Skylar answered, strangely fascinated by the eroticism in his hands. The central questions were how did it end up on the floor and who did it belong to?
It was as if the object burned his fingers but he reluctantly made himself open it and thumb through the pages. Resembling a comic book, it nevertheless was unlike any he’d ever read. The story seemed to have a villain alright, and he thought the tall man on the cover was some kind of hero, but what was with all the cocks and naked skin? His face turned red at the graphic illustrations portraying anal sex between the man and the younger blonde in the story, and he felt his blood begin to pound in his head.
Three feet away, Christian closed his eyes, sick to his stomach and knowing what was coming. Skylar was looking at the yaoi images now and reading a bit of the accompanying text. Soon he’d find the sketch and his fate would be sealed. He cast about in his brain for any option that would help him out of this mess but it was like he’d gone numb.
“Oooh, look at Skylar blush,” one of the girls in the crowd, a cheerleader, proclaimed.
“What is it, Sky?” another asked. “Let us see.”
Skylar, more than a little embarrassed by the contents of the paperback, refused to relinquish it. A sense of dread welled up inside him. For the past year he’d been assailed by these unwanted feelings and images… ones he tried to ignore except they pushed their way into his dreams at night and thoughts by day. He’d begun to wonder if there was something wrong with him since less and less he was turned on by the girls he dated. Skylar had even begun to doubt that he was heterosexual, but he’d kept his churning fears to himself. Or, at least he thought he had.
Right away he speculated that someone must have guessed what he was going through. Did that mean that subconsciously he acted gay? There didn’t seem to be any point of trying to force him to own up to the truth and come out unless to embarrass him, but who would do that?
By now the whole group was clamoring to look at the book and trying to reach in to take it from him. That just made Skylar hold on tighter and he pulled away. Discomfort, expressed in awkward laughter, was bubbling up all around. He was just about the close the cover when he glimpsed a sketch at the very front that looked completely different than the rest of the images inside.
Focusing on it carefully, he took in the clean lines that showed creative talent. At least enough to make out what the artist was trying to convey. His mouth went dry as sandpaper and his breath hitched as his temper spiked.
Two people entwined together. Two teenage boys kissing. Faces plainly illustrated. One was Christian. The other was himself.
His head jerked up and he glared at the freshman. How did he find out when nobody else had? What did he plan to do with the information?
Gabe didn’t see what was in the book because his brother’s large hands filled the cover and there were far too many people circling him. All he knew was his best friend Christian was soundlessly freaking out, his eyes as big as saucers and looking like he wanted to melt into the ground. That could only mean the paperback belonged to him and was something he didn’t want to share.
“Sky, give Christian his book back.”
Skylar’s eyes flicked immediately to Gabe and darkened in anger, his mouth settling into a thin line. Fuck, he had already discussed his suspicions with Gabe. Did his little brother think he was gay too? Damn Christian Adams to hell!
With a strangled snarl, Skylar threw the paperback at him. It bounced off Christian’s chest and fell to the ground at his feet. “What the fuck, Chris!”
The outburst silenced the crowd. Now scenting blood, they turned their stares to the frightened younger boy. There was nothing like a fistfight to energize their boredom and this looked like it would be a doozy, what with Skylar ready to go off on Christian. Gabe gulped, instantly realizing that whatever he had just uttered had worsened the situation for his friend, not helped him.
“Are you gay?” Skylar taunted viciously. “You gay, boy? You think I want to be your boyfriend and you have a chance with me?”
Christian frantically shook his head, flushing crimson and starting to tremble. He was watching his life crumble around him and wished it was as easy as fantasizing it all away. Skylar was livid and screaming at him. Gabe looked miserable with guilt. The surrounding students started to buzz in enjoyment of the spectacle. There was worse yet to come, but the protests that might save him were trapped behind his palate along with saliva necessary to moisten his tongue.
Harsh laughter rang out, and Christian knew it was directed at him. Skylar was a popular senior and of course didn’t have a gay bone in his whole body. He had a legitimate reason to be angry and someone would have to pay for this debacle. It wouldn’t be Skylar. No, the high school kids would go after the easiest one to ridicule, the lowly freshman without a posse to back him up, and they would trample him into the dust.
“Shit, don’t just stand there like a fucktard with nothing to say for yourself,” Skylar yelled at him venomously. “I’m not gay. What’s up with the fucking picture?”
They were attracting a larger crowd now, and Christian struggled not to break down and cry in front of Skylar and everyone else. His humiliation was complete. Tonight, the Sharlington phone lines were going to light up with the gossip that he was gay. By tomorrow the whole school would know. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they would also find out he had a pathetic ninth grade crush on Skylar fucking Norwood, the popular, straight… read not-gay… senior and despise him for it. Not only because he was gay but for thinking he even had a ghost of a chance with him.
Skylar took a menacing step towards him. The kid was as white as a sheet but he refused to let himself be affected by his traumatized expression even though internal warning bells had begun to sound telling him to back off. There was a part of him that instinctively knew something was off in Christian’s behavior not fitting with the circumstances but he didn’t heed it. Instead he kept lashing out at him much to everyone else’s amusement.
“Stop staring at me with your mouth hanging open, asshole. I’m not a queer, and I don’t do boys. What the fuck ever gave you the idea that I liked you?”
Like a tsunami rolling in, it was suddenly all too much for Christian to handle. “I know you aren’t gay,” he screamed raggedly, bursting into mortified tears. “I know… I know you d-d-don’t like me. It’s just a g-g-goddamned picture, okay? I d-d-didn’t mean… I’m… uh… sorry… really. Oh god!”
With that he bolted, racing back towards the school building as if his life depended on it. It made no difference to him that he was knocking people out of his way; he needed somewhere private to lick his wounds and didn’t stop until he reached the empty bathroom in the Fine Arts wing on the other side of the campus.
Gabe was ready to chase after his best friend and find out what was going on. “Slick,” he yelled spitefully at his brother watching Christian’s retreating back as he dodged around students.
Aren’t gay. Don’t like me. Didn’t mean it. It was like a rumbling echo in Skylar’s head. But Christian hadn’t denied having a crush on him, and that’s what the sketch meant. Damn him, he thought, for putting him in this position. But wait, a second voice protested, Christian didn’t cause this. You did, asshole, by seeing red when you dragged that paperback out from under the seat and deciding to handle it in public. That wasn’t Christian’s fault, but he was going to reap the reprisals.
He could hear the upwelling of laughter from the crowd. They had enjoyed the spectacle of him, the popular senior, putting a lowly freshman in his place, and already cell phones were coming out to transmit the news that they had another fag in their midst. Skylar should have felt sorry for him, but he was still too angry at the self-doubt the kissing picture had brought to the forefront. Listening to his little brother take Christian’s side just made him more enraged.
He whirled on Gabe. “Shut up, Gabriel, and just get in the fucking car.”
The sandy-haired boy paused uncertainly, knowing he’d get in a world of trouble if he didn’t obey his older brother, but that was his best friend out there. Gabe was a little miffed he hadn’t confided in him about being gay, but still, if he didn’t fix this Christian was going to think he had abandoned him.
However, Skylar made his decision for him when he grabbed him by the arm and nearly threw him in the seat. Marching around the vehicle he spotted the offensive paperback still on the pavement and quickly snatched it up. There was no sense in leaving evidence around. He’d toss it later.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Christian berated himself aloud as he stumbled through the bathroom door. He was so stupid not to make finding the book a priority or think that once Skylar read it he could talk his way out of trouble. He felt like slugging something and settled for throwing himself against the tile backsplash next to the water fountain over and over until his nose and lips were bleeding and his shoulder and hip ached with bruises.
A sudden combination of turmoil and pain, both internal and external made Christian’s guts clench, and he rushed to the bathroom stall to puke up his lunch. He hid there for twenty minutes crying his eyes out and mopping at his bloody face with toilet paper. Gradually he realized nobody was coming after him, not even Gabe. He ventured out to wash his shaking hands and sticky, tear-stained face, pressing wet paper towels to his mouth and nose until the bleeding stopped. By that time it was four o’clock and the janitor came around to shoo him out and lock up. Christian started walking home.
How had things gone so horribly wrong so fast? Of course he knew perfect Skylar wasn’t fucking gay. His love for him was just a dream, now turned into a nightmare. Just reliving the disgrace of having his love for yaoi discovered and how he had been forcibly outed to the student body made him flinch violently and brought up a fresh batch of tears. He had no idea how he was going to face the teens at his school ever again.
Naturally, Christian’s parents made a big deal out of his injuries, demanding to know whether he’d been in a fight. He shook his head ‘no’ and refused to discuss it, but in rushing straight to his bedroom with tears running unchecked down his face, something looked plainly amiss. They were concerned and left feeling he was covering up the truth. Kristy’s alternative was to call the Norwoods.
“Gabe,” Jen yelled upstairs, her cell clasped to her stomach to muffle the sound. He peeked around the corner, thinking he was in trouble but his mother, while looking upset, wasn’t angry.
“Did Christian get into a fight at school today? Kristy says it looks like someone beat him up.”
Gabe shook his head, hiding a gasp of anxiety for his friend’s safety. “No, but he stayed after and didn’t ride home with us.” He didn’t explain why. Inside, he wondered what had happened to Christian after they left. The news that he was gay would spread like wildfire. Maybe he’d encountered some of the haters already.
Jen went back to her phone conversation, and Gabe moseyed down the hall to Skylar’s room. His brother looked up from his government homework, and Gabe spat, “Just so you know, dickwad, somebody already beat up Christian.”
“Good,” Skylar sneered right back.
In his heart he didn’t mean it. Away from the crisis his irritation was abating and, with it, the conviction that his response had been justified. Christian’s love wasn’t welcome by any means but Skylar’s parents had raised him better than to go on the attack like that. Even worse, Christian hadn’t even tried to defend himself, and his declaration about Skylar being straight clinched the deal. He wasn’t pointing fingers, playing games or even making an educated guess.
Skylar couldn’t get Christian’s haunting humiliation out of his mind. Unless he planted the book on purpose, which was a farfetched scenario, he didn’t deserve the wrath he had unleashed on him. He should have remembered that Gabe’s best friend was a nice kid who didn’t have the type of personality to be malicious or want to do anyone harm. It was just the coincidence of an innocent crush and it made him feel guilty to have suspected him of an ulterior motive.
“You’re such a loser,” Gabe replied darkly, starting to spin away and return to his own room.
“Hey, Gabe, wait,” Skylar summoned him back, recalling that there were some issues that needed to be resolved. “Does Christian ever talk about me?”
“What about?” Gabe was curious in spite of being angry and thinking Skylar was just about the biggest jerk on the planet.
Skylar shrugged, trying to act nonchalant. “You know, guy stuff.” Seeing the puzzled look on his little brother’s face, he took a more direct tact but it made him blush uncomfortably. “Does he like me? As in like-like. Uh, love-like, not… you know… not because… we're friends.”
Gabe scoffed bitterly. “Like you? How the hell would I know? I’m his best friend, and he didn’t even tell me he was gay. He didn’t say nothing.”
Skylar reflected on the deep resentment in Gabe’s voice as he watched him walk away. Now he felt really shitty, seeing how he’d misread the entire episode and leveled a firing squad of false accusations at Christian. By overreacting and assuming that he had guessed his secret which wasn’t the case at all, Skylar had set him up to be hated on and harassed at school.
And another thing, he thought ruefully. Gabe was right—for what he’d done to the boy, he was a loser. No worse—he was something he despised, a homophobic asshole.
Christian managed to hide out in his bedroom all night by telling his mother he didn’t feel good and wasn’t hungry, and she didn’t push it. It allowed him time to think about what had happened at school and how he was going to fix it. He wasn’t sure if he’d be able to move on otherwise.
He didn’t blame Skylar for being mad; not really. In his place, finding a book of sexy gay comics and an illustration of the two of them kissing, Christian actually would’ve done the same. What tore open his heart was the disgust he’d seen in Skylar’s angry eyes as he stared back at him. It was especially painful because of their history, and he fondly remembered the many times the older boy had been there for him growing up. Allowing him and Gabe to tag along when he went to a nearby canal with friends to fish. Teaching him to skateboard. Letting him sit in on Holy Anarchy rehearsals instead of demanding he get lost and find someone else to bug.
Christian had drifted in and out of hero worship since childhood, but this was different. This was grown up emotion. His first time ever falling in love with another boy. What happened today was like putting total faith in someone you absolutely needed to trust and watching them screw it up big time. He was disappointed in both Skyler and himself. This was what he deserved for being careless.
He felt so stupid. He was the one who had blithely taken the book to school when he knew better. It must have fallen out in the car on the way home the day before when he was fishing around in his pack for his water bottle. He should have looked for it straightaway when he climbed in that morning. But no, he waited until disaster struck, and how was he going to face Skylar after this?
Gabe texted Christian after dinner to ask how he was doing. Christian replied that he was alright, and Gabe surprised him by alluding to his getting hurt and asked who beat him up. ‘Nobody,’ he messaged back.
‘Then why did your mom call my mom and ask who you got in a fight with?’
That was when Christian linked the theories together and understood. ‘I tripped running to the bathroom.’ It was what he planned to tell his parents when they insisted on the full story.
Gabe let it go. He didn’t believe Christian and thought he was hiding something. Hell, nobody would want to admit that they’d been a victim to a bigger, stronger bully.
‘What’s up with this afternoon?’ Gabe sent him, changing the subject. ‘I thought you trusted me.’
Christian didn’t answer because he had no believable excuses for not being honest with his best friend. He figured Gabe had a right to be mad at him too, but he didn’t want to deal with it over a series of texts. He was exhausted both mentally and physically. Maybe he should give it a couple days until they both cooled down.
When Christian didn’t respond, Gabe tapped in one last message: ‘Skylar is a dick.’ The other boy smiled in spite of himself because even if he loved him he had to agree one hundred percent.
Skylar The Dick spent an uncomfortable evening waiting for the axe to fall. Any minute now, he told himself, he was going to get called on the carpet by his father demanding to know what he’d done to Christian Adams. Darrin wouldn’t care if it turned out to be a prank or even if Skylar thought the boy was purposely put the book in his car. He was eighteen and expected to behave in a civilized fashion which included not going off on the neighbor boy and calling him out.
He was surprised by the knowledge that Christian was gay. True, he’d never seen him with a girlfriend, but he was young. He was a great kid in a lot of ways and never acted even the least bit effeminate. Skylar wished he had listened to that tiny voice of his subconscious telling him he didn’t need to humiliate him that way.
Looking back on the afternoon, Skylar could not believe how badly he’d treated him. Ranting like a homophobic prick at Christian and taunting him over being gay? Anger at being the object of his affection aside, when had he become so judgmental? The answer came immediately— since he’d begun to suspect he was gay too. The saying, he doth protest too much, popped into his head from somewhere in his former education. It sounded like Shakespeare, but it applied. So did the term hypocrite.
Christian finally dropped off to sleep in the wee hours of the morning and was rather surprised that he didn’t have nightmares. Come the next morning, he refused to get up for school, and the strain in his face was still evident. His mother was too worried about why he wasn’t bouncing back emotionally to argue. He’d always been such a sunny boy, but in one afternoon it was as if he had been rudely forced to grow up too fast. Kristy was going to get to the bottom of the problem but for now she had to get to work, and if he missed a couple classes it wasn’t a big deal.
The time alone helped Christian categorize the yaoi dilemma and what to do about it. That Skylar wasn’t gay or didn’t want to be his boyfriend was the least of his worries. It was whether anything in their friendship was salvageable and if the rest of the student body at Sharlington High was going to start treating him like a pariah now that his secret was out.
Gabe kept trying to talk to him. He jogged over to the Adams’s house upon arriving home after sixth period but Christian wouldn’t even answer the door. It’s not like Gabe wanted to share the latest dirt; he knew it would serve no purpose to tell him the gossip at school was all about him and Skylar. Nearly every student, at least those who knew he was Christian’s homie, had intercepted him at some time during the day to ask if it was true that Christian was gay. Gabe hated looking like a fool, having to repeat that he wasn’t sure. Or say no and possibly lie for him.
It hurt Gabe’s feelings when he clammed up like this. They had been friends from the cradle and were supposed to share important stuff with each other. Being gay was a monster of a secret to hide. Christian stopped answering his text messages or phone calls too, and he growled in frustration. After the crappy day Gabe had spent, part of which was his best friend’s fault, it was the last straw. Let the drama queen come to him when he felt like talking, but he was done begging for his attention.
Christian ended up missing the rest of the week of school. He spent most of his time in his bedroom shutting out the world and moping but he knew it wouldn’t last forever. In the near future he would have to return and face the consequences of the fight, and it was going to be ugly. As for Skylar, he didn’t fall out of love with him, but it definitely felt like someone had thrown a cold bucket of water over his feelings. It was better to dodge him.
Skylar, on the other hand, felt worse and worse as the days went by and he viewed the harm he’d wreaked to Christian’s reputation first hand. At first he let the remnants of his irritation rule him and behaved in the manner of the victim. He had his own reputation to maintain. He laughed like everyone else over the poor pathetic queer boy’s crush on him and made vague threats about what was going to happen the next time Christian showed his face at school.
By Friday he felt sorry for him and knew some damage control was in order. He thought about Christian’s yaoi book, The Beat of My Heart, which he hadn’t thrown away. Instead he stuffed it in his bottom drawer so he could take it out and read it every so often. He was still shocked over the illustrations of sex, especially the fucking, but for some it would have an appeal. Skylar queried if drawing a picture Christian probably never intended to show anyone was a reason to persecute him and came up with a resounding ‘no’. So what if Christian was gay; he didn’t deserve to have it thrown back in his face like that. It was only because of his own confusion and fears that Skylar had gone on the attack. He should’ve kept his big mouth shut.
Skylar was the only one who had seen the sketch of him and Christian embracing and he didn’t think anyone really had paid attention to what he said about it. Furthermore, nobody but him and Bart even knew what the paperback contained. Skylar went to him, and for whatever reason he begged him to tone it down, Bart agreed to nip his accusations in the bud.
Personally there was no question in Bart’s mind that Christian was a fag, but to those who would listen he and Skylar pointed out that he had never actually admitted he was gay. Skylar even manned up and said he might have acted a little hasty in blasting his brother’s friend. It could all be a tempest in a teapot, but he deserved the benefit of the doubt.
The tide really turned when Gabe revealed that the poor kid had been hunted down without delay and beaten by some sick bigot. Gabe did not believe Christian’s claim of tripping, and he wasn’t around to counter it. By the time school let out for the weekend, the gossip mill had him in the hospital with broken bones and a concussion. A fair number of Sharlington students prided themselves on their open-mindedness, and it was a hit to their honor that one of their own would slap around a defenseless boy who was already suffering through one of the worst days of his life. A few of them even tried to discover the identity of the culprit to no avail.
On Saturday Christian was ready to tell his parents the truth. Part of the truth.
“There’s this senior at school that I like. I know he’s not gay, but I doodled something in a book, and he found out. He challenged me in the parking lot after school on Tuesday and yelled at me in front of everyone. I got scared and took off.”
“So what happened to your face,” his father asked calmly, empathizing with his son. Christian was a quiet boy who minded his own business, and this kind of confrontation would be difficult for him to deal with. No further words were necessary to explain his distress.
Christian shrugged and launched into his rehearsed explanation on how he had tripped running to the bathroom. He absolutely refused to give the name of the other boy, saying he thought that specific element of the situation had resolved itself.
“What sucks is that I’m out now and everyone at school knows I’m gay.”
They spent the afternoon discussing what Christian should do and the pros and cons of no longer hiding, even if it wasn’t by choice. “Thankfully you only have three more weeks of school,” Kristy encouraged. “By the time you start your sophomore year it will be old news.”
Christian wanted to retort that being gay would never be ‘old news’ but he didn’t want to concern his parents. His mother was right in that it was silly to worry about prejudice until he returned to Sharlington and discovered firsthand whether Shylar’s altercation made a difference.
“Oh by the way,” Ted asked as the discussion was wrapping up. “What’s going on between you and Gabe? You two usually live in each other’s pockets and he hasn’t been around all week.”
“It’s nothing,” Christian downplayed. “He’s been busy.”
The next day he was in the garage and picking up his father’s fishing lures from where he’d spilled them on the floor when he looked up and saw Gabe walking by and looking forlorn. Christian had ignored him all week. Their friendship was too precious and had gone on too long to just let it collapse, and he knew it was up to him to make the first gesture.
“Hey, Gabe, how’s it hanging?”
His friend looked up and spied Christian closing the tackle box, and he veered up the driveway. Gabe slapped fingers with him. “S’okay,” he answered, looking grumpy. “You talking to me now?”
Christian sighed and knew he deserved the petulance. “Sorry that I’ve been distant.”
“Distant?” Gabe rolled his eyes. “How about awol? For longer than just a couple days.” He stared fully at Christian until he caught on what he was implying.
“Yeah, maybe I have,” his friend answered softly. “I’m sorry.”
Both boys watched the other in uncomfortable silence for a few seconds, and then Gabe decided to break the ice. “How’ve you been. You skipping school?”
Christian pushed his heavy frames up his nose. “Nuh-uh.” He wondered whether now was the time to get into it and decided to bite the bullet. “What happened on Tuesday was fucked up. Skylar getting into my face and all… it was harsh, man.”
“Do you want to talk about the whole being gay thing?” Gabe cleared his throat nervously. “And how you have a crush on my bro?”
Christian took a deep breath and indicated going indoors with his head. Gabe followed him into the kitchen where he greeted the rest of the family before the two boys went up to his room with Cokes and a plate of leftover pizza.
For a little while they talked about everything but the elephant in the room as they ate and listened to music they both enjoyed. Finally Gabe said, “How long have you known?”
“Forever,” Christian acknowledged in a tiny voice, sweeping his dyed-black hair off his face. “It wasn’t something I was comfortable talking about yet. Until Tuesday I’d only told my mom and dad. I can’t cope with…” he extended his arm in a wild circular motion to indicate chaos… “that shit until I’m ready. I never expected to be outed like that. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”
He could feel his eyes glistening but he was in too deeply to pull back and decided Gabe deserved the full truth. “I wasn’t ready to handle people spitting on me and writing graffiti on my locker but now I guess I’m going to find out what it’s like. Not that you would treat me like that, but the haters are out there, and some are at our school. The fewer people who know, the less I had to worry about someone…”
“Accidentally mouthing off,” Gabe finished for him. Despite his offended feelings, he realized Christian had a right to be scared. Putting himself in his friend’s place maybe he’d do the same. He hiked his eyebrows up to his hairline. “So about Skylar…”
Christian flushed bright red. “I never meant it to happen, believe me. He’s been almost like a brother or cousin to me, and then three months ago he… wasn’t. Kind of disgusting, huh!”
“I totally don’t see the attraction,” Gabe giggled. “He’s my big bro, dude! Like eww.”
Christian chuckled with him even though thinking of Skylar was anything but a laughing matter. “It’s not like I planned it that way, and he isn’t gay so there’s no worries there. He hates me anyway.”
“I don’t think he hates you, Christian.” Gabe looked at him in sympathy trying to wrap his head around the gay issue and how it meant his best friend would fall in love with a boy the same way he was attracted to girls. He didn’t let his thoughts settle on the physical aspect because it was too weird. That he was in love with Skylar blew his mind.
“I mean, he doesn’t like you like that but he isn’t mad at you anymore. What was in that book anyway that pissed him off so much?”
His cheeks turned a darker pink. “You know I like to draw, right?” Gabe nodded. Christian had shown him several sketches he had done for the mangas he used to read… the regular ones, not the yaoi. Gabe had told him they were really good.
“I drew an illustration of the two of us kissing,” Christian explained. “He saw it I think.”
Gabe cringed, not because he was disgusted over the kissing but due to how Skylar would have reacted. “Ouch. Instant bad karma, dude.”
“I know,” Christian sighed. “I shouldn’t have ever taken the book to school. Fuck!”
He was settling into a pessimistic funk, and Gabe hurried to change the subject. “Who beat you up that afternoon?”
“Huh?” The question caught him off guard because he didn’t even recollect Gabe suggesting it.
“Beat. You. Up.”
“Nobody beat me up.” Christian threw him a sincerely mystified glance and then remembered. He didn’t want to lie to his friend. “Honest. It was my fault for being stupid and clumsy.”
Oh, well Gabe was going to have some issues to settle when he went back to school the next day but maybe it wouldn’t come up. He was suddenly aware of Christian speaking again.
“Just so you know, I’m not riding back and forth to school with you and Skylar for the rest of the year but I don’t want my parents to know. Keep it on the down low, ‘k?”
Gabe’s mouth dropped open in shock. “Why the fuck not?”
Christian shook his head dejectedly as his eyes started to water again. “Come on, Gabe. You know why. Being around Skylar after…” He shuddered.
“But he’s okay. He isn’t mad or anything about Tuesday.”
“I can’t make myself…” Christian whispered, a tear dripping down his face. “What he did… it was so hard listening to him scream at me. I know I deserved it for the picture but in front of all those other kids? He called me a queer, Gabe. He made me feel so small, like I was dirt. I know every time I see his face it’s going to put me right back there. So no, no, I can’t ride with you.”
“But Christian.” Gabe was picking up on his acute distress and felt almost as bad. “Please don’t start ignoring me. I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not Skylar so don’t…”
“I know, dude.” He put his hand on his best friend’s shoulder. “Nothing is going to change us. It isn’t you, it’s him. We can hang at school or you can come over here.
“Please don’t do this,” Gabe continued as if he hadn’t heard him. “I’m not Skylar and I won’t…”
Christian gave him a light punch which finally got his friend’s attention. “Gabe, s’okay. Trust me, it’s for the best, and I’m not ditching you. It’s only until he goes to college.”
Gabe snorted. “You’re going to ignore him all summer? Good luck with that.”
But Christian set his mouth stubbornly and refused to budge. “I can and I will.”
Christian was as good as his word. His father and mother had early hours and were out of the house in the morning by the time he left for school, so it was just a matter of setting his alarm clock a half-hour ahead so he could walk. After three days he found a substitute ride with a fellow track team member two blocks away, and his parents never knew.
The person who, surprisingly, almost threw a monkey wrench in the works was Skylar. He took his duties as honorary sibling, driver and all-around chaperone seriously, and he was very upset to learn that Christian planned to avoid him like the plague. Skylar deserved it, but the desertion was anything but palatable.
Like pretending he didn’t exist was going to change anything, Skylar scoffed under his breath, but he wasn’t ever given the option of voicing his opinion out loud. He eventually had to face facts that what he did was extremely hurtful to Christian so he didn’t blame him for his choice, it just sucked to be the cause. He had already sent his apologies to him by text message… not the best way to make amends but the only available method seeing as how the younger boy wouldn’t even look at him. He received a simple message of thanks back without explanation.
In the end, Gabe blackmailed him when he threatened to tell their parents. He firmly explained to his older brother that if he said a word about the change of transportation arrangements, he would make sure that Mom and Dad found out how badly he had treated Christian that terrible day. To tell the truth, Skylar was shocked they didn’t already know, but that was the kind of kid Christian was. He took his lumps without whining and didn’t tattle. However, Gabe had imprinted the whole conversation in his brain and remembered each slur and word of ridicule. Just thinking of the punishments that would be inflicted on him, Skylar backed down.
Christian resumed his friendship with Gabe as right as rain, and just in time. Overnight his life at Sharlington High turned into shit. For all that the students proclaimed themselves tolerant, there were just enough of the bigots enrolled to make trouble for him. Christian kept his eyes lowered so none of the boys could accuse him of checking them out. Becoming hyper-vigilant he watched his back because the bullies liked to slam into him from behind and trip him up. Words like fag and queer materialized out of thin air, spoken into his ear and sprayed on his locker. P.E. was a nightmare. Even being loosely connected with Skylar, one of the most popular boys in school, couldn’t save him from the abuse.
It took awhile, but Christian’s parents eventually had to acknowledge that whatever happened to their son that day at school had changed him forever. Their innocent little boy was gone, forced into a maturity he wasn't ready for. It broke their hearts to see the sparkle leave his eyes as he stared pensively into an unkind world. Too late in the year for the administration to assign a bullying mentor, Gabe took on the job to become his bodyguard. Skylar would have volunteered too, but Christian visibly trembled when he was nearby. Christian’s parents sent him into therapy to provide an objective ear to listen to him. The family drew a collective breath of relief when school ended in June.
Skylar graduated and found a summer job that kept him busy on evenings and weekends. It was such a different summer in a lot of ways since he was now an adult. Not only because of the new employment and getting ready to leave for college in August, but it was the first summer in memory where he didn’t hang around Christian as well as with Gabe. It was as if the Adams boy vanished off the face of the planet, and Skylar missed him. Not in a romantic way, but as his little buddy. So much had been changed by his callous rant, and if there was any possible way to take it back he would have.
Neither the Norwood nor the Adams parents ever heard the truth of that fateful May afternoon. Even more incredibly, they didn’t put two and two together to detect the change in the boys’ relationship. Between Skylar’s work schedule and the careful way the younger boys planned each day out, he and Christian were never in the same place at the same time. Their late June dual-family camping trip to Yosemite? Skylar stayed home because he couldn’t get time off his job. Fourth of July at Happy Valley? Christian had convinced his parents to let him fly back to see his grandparents in Chicago for a month, and they thought the change of scenery would do him good. Barbeques and parties? Work again, or Christian played sick… or got himself invited somewhere else.
Skylar recognized the pattern… around the end of July and the fifth time Christian ducked out of a celebration. He hung around the Adams home for several hours after the party ended and caught Christian as he came in at seven o’clock, surprised into silence.
“There you are, Chris,” Skylar smiled, thinking the kid looked pretty good. He had only been back from Illinois for three days.
“It’s Christian,” the younger boy said like a robot. He was caught fair and square but that didn’t mean he had to like it. At least he wasn’t shaking in his boots. “What do you want?”
“Why are you ignoring me?”
Christian tossed his long hair back, newly streaked with purple highlights. “After May, isn’t it obvious? I wouldn’t want you to accuse me of making you queer or perving on you.”
Skylar winced. “Chris, you know I wouldn’t do that.”
He stared at Skylar scathingly. “No, I don’t know. It’s exactly what you did two months ago. Even with us being friends all our lives you made some pretty lethal accusations that day.”
“I said I was sorry,” Skylar replied softly, having it brought home again how deeply he had hurt Christian’s feelings. His already scratchy voice wavered in emotion, the wound almost as raw as if it had been inflicted yesterday. Maybe they could be in the same room now without him freaking out but Christian was not getting better with time.
“And I accepted your apology.” Christian looked down at his flip flops on his feet. “But it doesn’t change anything, Sky. It doesn’t make my last three weeks of school better or the bruises I got from the bullying disappear. I have to go back to Sharlington in four weeks. I have no idea what kind of reception I’m going to get, but I do know it won’t be easy. Not like when nobody knew I was gay.”
Skylar made as if he was going to answer him, but Christian wasn’t finished yet.
“I had a crush on you for three months without you or anyone else finding out. Hurting nobody while I tried to get over my feelings for you, seeing as how no good would come from them. Like I already knew you were straight so I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell getting your attention.
“In ten minutes you destroyed everything. You couldn’t be a man and come to me privately so we could handle a simple problem between the two of us. You had to do it in front of the whole damn school. So if I choose to stay away from you, I think I have a real good reason, don’t you?”
Skylar didn’t know what to say. Christian’s explanation was well-phrased and practical, making him sound the more mature of the two of them by a wide margin. He was shocked to learn how long the neighbor boy had cared about him.
“Fair enough, Chris,” he qualified cautiously, looking at the floor because staring at him made him feel like a bully. “How long are you talking about pretending we’re strangers?”
Christian smiled inside a bit. Skylar sounded as if his pride was hurt. Ruffling his feathers wasn’t intentional but maybe if it helped him get some of his own back…
“At least until you leave for Michigan. Maybe longer. Maybe even until I’m out of school and don’t have to feel the effects from what you did. I don’t know yet. Unfortunately we live in the same town, so it’s not like I can just up and disappear.”
“You can’t keep ignoring me, you know,” Skylar reminded him. “Are you going to spend every single holiday and vacation for the next three years until you graduate hiding from me?”
Christian lifted his shoulders nonchalantly. “If I have to. At least until being around you doesn’t hurt as bad since you don’t want the same thing I do. Maybe even forever.”
That statement alone told Skylar everything he needed to know. ‘I do’ as in present tense… Christian still loved him. After everything he'd done to humiliate him, he still had feelings for him.
Skylar groaned inwardly, freely admitted that he definitely didn’t deserve the courtesy of this detailed explanation, much less Christian’s love. But on top of that statement crowded in a question about why it mattered. As friends… or more? No, he wasn’t going there.
“We’ll see about that, Chris,” he smiled. “Forever is a very long time.”
Forever, everlasting but necessary, Christian realized, although he hoped his heart would heal before then. At this point, he could only hope and count on a time in a not-too-distant future where they might have a chance to be friends again and put the past away for good. He just couldn’t give it an exact date. The pain was still too fresh.
He had no idea that seven and a half years would go by before they laid eyes on each other again. Less than forever, more than either of them wanted, but neither could foresee it at the time.
(To be continued…)