The voice rose above the obnoxiously loud teenage noise of the south stairwell. My stomach churned, the acid rising and rolling in it as I sped up slightly. I wished they’d just leave me the hell alone. Unfortunately, they showed every sign of hounding me for the rest of the fucking school year and damn it, it was going to be hard enough without Jamie. In the back of my mind, I could still see him in the back of his parents’ car as they drove him out of my life.
“McAllister!” I heard again and finally stopped halfway down the second staircase, looking up to see that everyone else had stopped too. They wanted to watch, most likely to affirm their own superiority because it wasn’t them being tormented. The sun shone brightly from the window behind the speaker, giving him an almost ethereal glow. Dust and other particulates swirled and danced in the air around him, slowly, like the world had suddenly and inexplicably halted.
Even with the sun in my eyes and the shadow across his face, there was no mistaking Brad Mosely.
“I heard Jamie Mayfield had to leave town because his mom caught you guys fucking! Even my sister saw you guys kissing the day they moved!” His voice drowned out most of the shocked gasps from the onlookers, but not all. They were background noise as I focused my attention solely on him and tried to ignore the sudden heat in my face and the faint trembling of my hands. I didn’t know that Emma had seen us, but that certainly explained why I was suddenly a social outcast, especially so early in the school year. I’d never been particularly popular, and I expected to be even less so now that I wasn’t going to be in Jamie’s protective shadow. I hadn’t expected to become a pariah.
He came down a few more stairs so that he towered over me, two stairs up. “So, is it true? Are you a stupid little faggot?”
Literally blocking out the sun, he loomed above me. Mosely was already half a foot taller, the extra height from the stairs forced me to look almost straight up in order to watch my future pain build in his dark brown eyes. Everything about Mosely was thick, from his shaggy brown hair to the features of his face, his head, and his hands. There was no place to run, but I was going to try.
I should have known better than to turn my back.
I felt his forearm dig into both of my shoulder blades as he used his weight to push me. Instinctively, I grabbed onto the railing, allowing my book bag to fly down the rest of the stairs and spill open across the bottom. I tripped and stumbled, my momentum swinging me toward the wall as I tried desperately to regain my footing and minimize the damage. Finally, my foot found a solid hold just as my face slammed into the railing. The force of the blow busted my lower lip, and a protruding piece of metal ripped open my forehead.
I landed hard on the stairs, still holding onto the railing, dazed by the exploding pain.
“What the hell is going on here?” Another voice was coming from directly above my head, but I couldn’t see who was speaking because of the blood flowing into my eyes. The teacher was male, but all I could make out were the brown loafers. “Brenda, go into the bathroom and get some wet paper towels. The rest of you get to class. Now!”
It took a moment, in the haze of pain, for me to recognize the voice. It was Mr. Barnes, our art teacher. Of course, it had to be the queer teacher coming to my rescue. No doubt the rumors would fly if people thought that I was fucking the art teacher. I hoped that he would just give me something to clean up the blood and leave, but as always, luck was just not on my side.
“Brian, can you sit up?” he asked, his voice surprisingly gentle in contrast to the harsh tone he had used with everyone else.
“It figures you’d take up for him,” Brad Mosely said in an undertone just loud enough for me to hear, startling me because I thought he’d left with the others. I shrank into the wall on pure instinct. My face and back throbbed with the sudden movement.
“I said go to class. That goes for you too, Mr. Mosely. I have a feeling that you’ll end up in the principal’s office anyway, but if you don’t want to end up there immediately, you’ll do as I say!” Mr. Barnes was furious. It also sounded like he knew that it had been Mosely who’d pushed me down the stairs, but I was in no position to either confirm or deny it. The top of my shirt was spotted and stained with blood. I felt it, warm and sticky, almost halfway down the side of my face. Just as I’d pulled myself up to a semi-sitting position, Mosely aimed a kick at me as he walked by, catching me on the outside of my right thigh. I cried out in pain, unshed tears blurring my vision.
“That’s it!” Mr. Barnes roared as I curled up as small as I could next to the wall, trying to protect myself from any further attacks. “Mosely, go to the principal’s office and wait for me. Go!”
Just then, I felt something cold and wet being applied to my face, and I flinched. I felt the uncontrolled shaking in my limbs as I pulled away.
“It’s okay, Brian. It’s just to get the blood off of your face until we can get you to the nurse,” Mr. Barnes said in a low, comforting voice. I took the paper towel from him and saw Brenda, the girl I had pretended to go on a date with to hide what Jamie and I were. She looked shocked and upset. Mr. Barnes shooed her back to class, and after a long look at me, she went. Once the blood was out of my eyes, I held the paper towel to the cut and tentatively stretched out my legs, very slowly, starting to stand. The dirt and the grime from the stairs stung a scrape on my palm as I pushed myself up. As Mr. Barnes tried to help me, I waved him off, even though my leg felt cramped and shaky. The last thing I wanted was to be touched. Much to my relief, the stairs and even the hallway beyond were deserted. There would be fewer witnesses to my weakness and shame. My lower back was killing me from where I’d landed on the stairs, and my head pounded. I closed my eyes, feeling a little dizzy.
“Come on, I’ll take you to the nurse,” he offered, trying to put his hand on my arm.
I pulled away. “No, I have to get to class.”
His eyes were almost overflowing with concern and compassion as he watched me, unsteady on my feet. I kept my hand on the wall for balance as I stood, half stooped, trying to take the pressure off my back. As I forced myself to use slow, measured breaths, my heart finally stopped trying to beat its way out of my chest from fear. Everything became clearer as I started to calm down. I couldn’t let them win; I refused to let them think that they’d won. Showing up in my next class, no matter how battered and bloody, would show them that I wasn’t going to just roll over for them. If I let them terrorize me, it would never stop, and it would be a really long fucking year.
“You’re not going to class, not like this. We need to get you checked out. You could have serious injuries.”
By the way my body felt, I couldn’t really disagree with him. It hurt. It fucking hurt like hell. I just couldn’t let them get the better of me, because that would hurt worse, but it appeared I didn’t have a choice. He had taken out his cell phone and dialed the office.
“Betty, it’s Kyle Barnes. I need an emergency number for Brian McAllister’s father.” There was a short pause while he listened, and then, “Yes, Brian McAllister. Thank you.” He listened again and then pulled the phone away. hit the end button, and dialed another number.
“Dr. Schreiber, this is Kyle Barnes from Crayford High School,” he said in an authoritative manner. “Yes, it’s about Brian; he has been injured. He has a cut on his forehead and on the right side of his lip, and probably some serious bruising. It seems he fell down the stairs.” He looked at me, and I wondered if he’d tell Richard how I had come to fall down the stairs, as Richard knew I wasn’t particularly accident-prone. “No, I have a free period now. I can bring him down with your permission…. Okay, we’ll see you in about ten minutes.” He closed the phone and dropped it back into his pocket.
“Can you walk?” he asked with real concern. It felt like he wasn’t worried just because I’d been hurt on school property, or in front of him, but because he was genuinely concerned about me. Briefly, I wondered about his own past, what he’d had to endure growing up gay. I didn’t think I’d ever really considered Mr. Barnes as a person until right then because he was a teacher. Kids never think about their teachers having lives outside of school. The compassion and understanding that he was showing told me that he’d been bullied a few times himself. But that conversation would have to wait, because as I started to walk, my head still spinning, it was all I could do to remain upright.
“It’s all right, we’ll take it slowly. My car’s just outside the art room.” I was relieved to see that we weren’t more than a couple of dozen steps from the art room. Then I realized that must have been how Mr. Barnes knew I was in trouble; he must have heard the scream one of the girls let out as I was falling. The scream alone should have drawn every other teacher from their classroom, but it was funny only Mr. Barnes had come to my defense. He confirmed my theory just minutes later.
“I heard yelling on the stairs, but I couldn’t make out what was being said above the between-class chaos. Then I heard someone scream. By the time I got to the stairwell, you were already falling.” He sighed. “I was afraid of this when I started hearing the rumors earlier in the week.”
I couldn’t do anything other than nod, and he stopped us. “I’m sorry, Brian. I’m sorry that this is happening to you. I know what you’re going through, and it’s not right. Most of all,” he said, and then took a deep breath. I looked up to meet his eyes. “Most of all, I’m sorry that they took Jamie away. He was a great kid, and you must miss him very much.”
That did it. It wasn’t the pain in my back or in my head, but in my heart. The tears flowed uselessly down my face as I nodded. Mr. Barnes didn’t try to embrace me; he simply put a hand on my shoulder and started to once again lead me towards where he was parked.
Just outside of the art room, he disengaged the alarm and unlocked the doors on a midnight blue Honda. I climbed into the passenger side, forgoing the seat belt and reclining back, feeling more tired than I think I had ever felt. Closing my eyes, I wasn’t surprised to hear him get in and start the car without admonishing me for the lack of a seat belt. I just wanted to curl up into a ball on the soft leather and never move again. Knowing that I was hurting, Mr. Barnes drove carefully, minimizing the bumps on the way to the hospital where, no doubt, Richard would have an ER bay waiting for us. That was one of the benefits of being the foster son of an ER doctor. It was good, really, because I was sure I’d be seeing much more of the hospital before the end of the school year.
“Let’s get him behind curtain two,” Richard instructed Mr. Barnes when he met us at the door. Richard’s professional demeanor was perfectly intact, right up until he pulled the curtain. Carefully, he helped me onto the table and then pulled back to look into my face.
“Brian, what happened?” he asked as he hugged me before he started looking over my injuries. His hands were gentle but firm as they examined my face and helped me to take off my shirt. I felt his fingers lightly probing the area of my back where I’d landed. Then he turned away while I took off my jeans and put on a hospital gown. When I was done, he started to examine my injuries.
“They know,” I said flatly. Mr. Barnes had been sitting in the corner, motionless and silent, but then he stood and came over to stand next to the examining table.
“Brian, what do they know?” he asked as Richard cleaned the cuts on my face so that he could stitch them.
“That I’m gay, and that Jamie and I were….” The sound of his name was like physical pain in my stomach. My heart ached at his absence, and I couldn’t finish the sentence. It had only been a few days since he’d been viciously and brutally ripped from my life. He was gone, and I’d never even told him how much I loved him; I’d just let him walk away while I sat cowering in the rain. I’d made the moment all about me when it should’ve been about him—he was the one being moved halfway across the country because of me, because of our relationship.
“Someone pushed you down the stairs at school because you’re gay?” Richard asked.
“Yes. I was only about halfway up, so it could’ve been a lot worse. I’ll just have to be more careful,” I replied, shrugging, trying and failing to sound casual.
“No, Brian. I’ll go to the school after my shift ends in about,” he looked at his watch, “five minutes. Do you know who it was that pushed you?”
I nodded. “Brad Mosely pushed me.”
“Dr. Schreiber, I don’t think that going to the school is going to be much help,” Mr. Barnes said in a resigned tone. “The administration isn’t exactly gay-friendly, and worse yet, the Moselys will use their influence to make it go away. I had to fight every inch of the way for my position. It took the threat of a discriminatory lawsuit for them to relent.” His shoulders sagged under the weight of his remembered struggle, and he bowed his head almost as if he were ashamed.
I knew I was seeing a part of my art teacher that students never saw, that I wasn’t meant to see, his humanity and his vulnerability. He looked like a man who’d been forced, all of his life, to be ashamed of who he was. I promised myself that I wouldn’t let it happen to me.
“So, what am I supposed to do?” Richard asked, exasperated. “I’m just supposed to let him get beat up for something that isn’t his fault?” My heart warmed to hear Richard defend me. We’d never exactly been close, and that one conversation about being gay had really been our only meaningful contact. It meant a lot that he was going to stand by me. An odd, pained expression passed across Mr. Barnes’s face as he watched us, but I didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask him about it.
“I’ll watch over him while he’s at school,” Mr. Barnes said, and I saw my life flash before my eyes. A gay teacher standing up for me at every turn; I was sure that would make my life a lot easier.
“No,” I said quickly. “I don’t need anyone to watch over me. I’ll just need to be more careful, that’s all. It’s only about nine months, and then I won’t have to go back again. I can survive for nine months.” I’d be counting the fucking days, but I could survive. I had to.
“Brian,” Mr. Barnes said with a sigh, “I’ve been through this. My orientation has always been fairly obvious to anyone that knows me, as I’m sure you’ve guessed. My parents weren’t as understanding as your foster parents, so I got it at home and at school. Believe me when I tell you that it’s only going to get worse.”
I had already worked that out for myself. The God-fearing, good ol’ boys at school would torment me until I either quit or graduated. I didn’t want to consider the other, more life-threatening possibilities, so I waited for him to continue.
“I’ll deal with Mr. Mosely when I get back to the school. He will be punished for what he’s done, but that won’t stop him.” Mr. Barnes looked sad.
“We’re going with you,” Richard said as he finished up the last of the stitches on my face. “I want the school administration, the ones that you don’t think will protect him, to see his face.” Mr. Barnes agreed, and after a few more minutes, we were in the car following him back to the school.
“Brian,” Richard said as he looked over from the driver’s seat. “I’ll support whatever decision you make about school. If you want to stay, I’ll be here for you. If you want to try another school, I’ll support that too. Do you understand?”
“Thank you,” I told him earnestly. “I’m not going to let them run me out, or force me to say that what Jamie and I have is wrong, because it isn’t. If I went somewhere else, the rumor would just follow me anyway. We don’t need to make things any harder on us.”
“So, you aren’t giving up on Jamie, even if he’s in California?”
“I’ll never give up on Jamie,” I said, staring out of the window, unable to tell him that right after graduation, I was leaving for California too. I had to find Jamie so we could be together, but I just didn’t think that my foster father would understand. Richard remained silent for the rest of the drive to the school, appearing to be deep in thought.
When we got to school, classes were back in session. I couldn’t believe that the whole thing had only taken just over an hour. We followed Mr. Barnes to the principal’s office, slower than normal because of my injuries, and none of us spoke. I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Brad Mosely again, but I did feel more comfortable with Richard there. The office was deserted when we entered, but at the sound of the door opening, a secretary scrambled into the outer room.
“Betty, where is Brad Mosely?” Mr. Barnes asked, looking around. “I sent him down here earlier.”
“Mr. Payne sent him back to class,” Betty replied, looking anywhere but at Mr. Barnes. “He’d like to see you as well.” I wondered if she ever looked him in the eye or if there was something else going on, something that didn’t bode well for me.
“Fine, tell him I’m here with Brian McAllister and his father.” She nodded quickly and picked up the phone on her desk. Turning away from us, she spoke into it, so low and so quiet that we couldn’t hear what she said. Whatever they were discussing, it would definitely be bad for me.
“He’ll see all of you now,” she said, and Mr. Barnes led us back to a large room in the back of the office with Judson Payne, Principal stenciled on it. With two loud raps on the door, he opened it and ushered us through.
I’d never been in the principal’s office before; I’d never once been in trouble at school. As we entered the room, I felt like a condemned man, and my heart was pounding against my ribs. Under Mr. Payne’s stern look, Richard and I took seats across from the large maple desk. Mr. Payne didn’t rise to greet us; he simply sat behind the desk and went back to rifling through a stack of papers. The fact that he continued to read the same short paper, and that his eyes weren’t moving, gave away his feigning a lack of attention to our presence. Mr. Barnes leaned against a bookcase off to the side, and we waited for Mr. Payne to address us.
“Mr. Barnes,” he finally said, looking up from his desk. “You are suspended for two weeks without pay for removing a student from school grounds without the permission of the school administration.”
Mr. Barnes didn’t speak, he just nodded.
“He had my permission,” Richard said, his voice carrying with the ringing weight of its authority. “He called me when Brian was attacked, and I asked him to bring my son to me so that I could treat him.” I could see that Richard was trying to keep his temper in check behind his flushed cheeks and flashing eyes because losing control would not be helpful in any way.
“That’s all well and good, but he didn’t follow established protocols in case of an injury to a student and therefore must atone for his misdeed. With the sub shortage going on right now, we’ll defer your suspension for summer. Do you agree?” Mr. Payne asked Mr. Barnes, who simply nodded.
I couldn’t understand; Mr. Barnes had just talked about fighting to get this position, and now he was just rolling over. On the other hand, if he really had broken the rules, maybe it was a battle he couldn’t win. Instantly, I felt guilty for causing him trouble when he was only trying to help me.
“Fine, now what about this Mosely kid?” Richard asked. “What kind of atonement will he be making for his misdeeds?” His tone slightly mocked that of the principal, and childish as it was, I tried not to smile.
“Mr. Mosely was acting in self-defense and therefore will not be punished. He has confided in me that Mr. McAllister tried to kiss him,” he said with a note of distaste in his voice. “Mr. Mosely pushed Mr. McAllister in an attempt to stop his sexual advance, and Mr. McAllister lost his footing. He is sorry that your son was injured but was defending himself. Three other students that were present on the stairs corroborate his version of events.”
Richard turned to me, and I could see the rage barely contained in his eyes. “Son, is that what happened?”
“Would you tell Mr. Payne what happened on the stairs?” Richard asked, putting a hand on the arm of my chair. I wanted to stand up for myself, to shout them down, but I couldn’t repeat the disgusting things he’d said to me.
“It doesn’t matter; he’s not interested in my version of the events.” I looked up at Mr. Payne and saw the faint, smug smile on his face. It wouldn’t matter if the whole thing had been videotaped; he would still take Mosely’s side because he was a homophobic bigot.
“Do you have anyone to corroborate your version of events?” Mr. Payne asked.
“No,” I said, remembering all of the students on the stairs and how none of them had defended me or even tried to help. None of them had cared as he shoved me. I’d lost my right to friends, to allies, when I had fallen in love with Jamie.
“Then you are suspended for the next two days. We will see you back at school on Monday,” Mr. Payne said, handing me a suspension form. I nodded, and Richard stood up.
“The only reason I’m not going to fight this is because, as his physician, I think it’s better for Brian to be home to rest until Monday. I would’ve kept him out of school anyway. But if you think I’m going to let this pattern of abuse against him continue, you are sorely mistaken.” Richard turned to me, holding his arm out to put around my shoulders. I’m not sure I even understood the depth and complexity of the feelings that went through me then.
I stood quickly, and Richard put his arm around my shoulder, leading me out of the office. As we closed the door, I heard Mr. Payne start to lecture Mr. Barnes once again about what had happened. Apparently, I should have been sent, alone, to the nurse, and he should have been doing what Mr. Payne pays him for. It sickened me how that bastard talked to him. Mr. Barnes had only been trying to help me, trying to stop Mosely from putting me in the hospital. If a straight teacher had come to help me, he wouldn’t have been giving them such a hard time, especially someone like Mr. Butler with his minivan full of perfectly straight soccer-playing kids.
“Let’s get you home,” Richard said as we walked down the front steps of the school toward his car. “Carolyn’s going to be a mess when she sees you.” All I wanted to do was go home, try to eat something, and go to bed. When I was safely buckled, he turned to me, his face full of concern. “Are you in pain? I can write you a script for something to help. I can drop you off at home and then stop at the pharmacy.”
“Yes, I’m in pain. If you could pick something up for me, I’d appreciate it.” I accepted his offer, leaning back against the seat and closing my eyes, not even making the attempt to be brave because everything hurt. I felt him hesitate, and for a minute I thought he was going to say something else. Instead, he started the car and pulled away from the curb. It didn’t take any time at all, it seemed, for us to get home, or I dozed for a minute or two during the ride. Hopefully the medication that Richard was going to get at the pharmacy would knock me out for the night. I was sick of feeling. I was sick of hurting. I just wanted it to stop. Unfortunately, I knew that until I had Jamie back in my arms, the hurting and the pain would never really go away.
Richard walked up to the house with me and held the door while I went inside. I could hear Carolyn in the kitchen, most likely making dinner by the smell of frying chicken that permeated the room. A couple of pans banged against the counter as she called to see if it was Richard who’d come in. Then the oven door slammed, and she came into the front room.
Her gasp caused me to look up.
“Brian, what happened?” Swiftly she walked over and put her hand on the uninjured side of my face, gaping in horror at the stitches and the bruising. I met her eyes, and I could tell by her expression that my pain clearly showed on my face.
“They know,” I said softly, and she nodded, picking up on my meaning faster than Richard had. After she’d taken inventory of my injuries, she kept looking over at Richard in a way that made me think that she was desperate to talk to him. I’m sure she wanted to know how they could help me. I also knew that they couldn’t.
“I’m going to go lie down,” I said, heading for the stairs.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can with some pain meds for you. You don’t appear to have a concussion, so you can sleep if you want,” Richard told me over Carolyn’s shoulder as she hugged me gently.
“I’ll bring you up some soup when Richard gets back with your pills, okay?” Carolyn asked, and I shrugged, turning for the stairs.
I took them slowly, the pain in my back and leg making the climb almost physical torture. Finally, I got to my room and took off my sneakers and jeans. It was the first chance I’d had to assess my injuries alone, and I was surprised by the amount of damage that Mosely had caused. There was a large, angry bruise on my leg from where he’d kicked me. In the full-length mirror on the back of my door, I saw that almost the entire lower half of my back was black and blue from where I’d landed on the stairs. My face was banged up and stitched. It looked like I’d been in a car accident, not a schoolyard fight, if you could even call it a fight.
Leaving my T-shirt and briefs on, I crawled very carefully onto the bed and arranged myself on my stomach. Normally I didn’t sleep on my stomach, but I didn’t want to put any pressure on my back. As I turned my head so that the left, undamaged side of my face pressed against the pillow, I found myself looking at my only picture of Jamie. It had been taken at the youth retreat we’d gone to earlier in the summer. We were standing in front of our tent with an arm around each other’s shoulders, and our smiles couldn’t have been bigger. In the picture, we were flanked by two guys we’d thought were our friends, until they showed their true bigoted colors. Their presence was like a shadow over us, but I didn’t have the heart to take a pair of scissors to it. I’d framed it after he left because it had hurt so fucking badly not to see him every day. Looking into his beautiful face, I was almost thankful he wasn’t here with me because I couldn’t stand the thought of Mosely and his friends hurting Jamie too. So, I would shoulder the pain for us both, and hope that wherever he was, he was safe.