Chapter One

 

 

ADMITTEDLY, I was not an island. I needed people. Needed as in had to have them around me 24/7 in order to feel like a human being. I’ve always been that way as far back as I can remember. My first day of kindergarten, I was so excited I threw up my breakfast all over my new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shirt, necessitating a return trip home and a late pass.

I am the first to admit I still get a buzz over coming into school and seeing everyone lined up to greet me. Okay, so not everyone lines up to greet me, but I do enjoy saying “hey” to all of my friends. And I can safely say I had a lot of them.

“Hey, Jason, how’s it goin’, man?” That was Kevin. He’s the only jock alive that is super cool with having a queer-as-a-three-dollar-bill best friend. I’ve known him since I was four, and he’s known about me being gay since I was thirteen. He’s taller than most guys in school, with blond hair, green eyes, and an ass you could bounce a quarter off of with little difficulty. He plays tight end for our football team. Erwin High School isn’t really known for anything but football. It’s a Southern thing.

“Heyo, Kev,” I greeted him with my normal level of enthusiasm, slinging my ripped backpack down beside his against the brick wall where our group tended to congregate. “How is my stud muffin doing?” He cringed when I said that. He honestly should’ve been used to it by then. I did it every day, sometimes more than once a day, since he’d muttered through his “I don’t care what you are, man. Just don’t hit on me” speech when I came out. If not for his gorgeous red-haired girlfriend and her honest declarations that they screwed regularly, everyone would’ve assumed that he was my boyfriend. But that was gross. He was like my brother.

“God, J. You’ve got to knock that crap off.” He said that every morning.

“Oh, but why? Are you ashamed of me?” I joked, pouting for effect. He usually got fed up with it after that and started tossing crap at me. It was funny. A pinch to my ass interrupted his reply as I yelped. I half turned to see Aaron and his twin brother, Adrian, behind me, giving me identical white grins of mischief. They were just a little taller than me and had their hair dyed various colors, depending on their mood. They were also on the football team.

Let me just say this as a disclaimer: we live in Asheville, North Carolina. For those who have never been to Asheville, let me explain why this is significant. Asheville might be located in the middle of redneck country, but they call it the San Francisco of the South. It has an abundance of three things: great food, hippies, and gays. So when I say that going to Erwin High allowed for more liberal-minded social norms such as Kevin having a gay best friend and my punk rocker friends being on the football team, I’m not kidding. They were actually living within the “rules” of high school. Too conservative would’ve placed them outside the realm of acceptable liberalism and subsequently made them outcasts. Other high schools in our state tended to claim that our school colors of white and red mixed regularly to make pink. Yay for homophobia.

“What’s up?” I said. Adrian—or was it Aaron? At any rate, one of the twins pointed down at my feet.

“Nice shoes,” he said. My eyes flicked down to my toes. The torn orange off-brand sneakers that I’d pilfered out of a fifty-cent bin at Goodwill had been my pride and joy since I’d found them in the correct size three days ago. I had waited until Friday to wear them so they would have maximum effect and match my equally pilfered T-shirt that I’d worn for the occasion. I glared.

“Shut the fuck up, Adrian.” Kevin’s voice cut in before I could formulate an equally venomous reply. “He was just tryin’ to match your stupid-ass hair color, but since you dyed it already, J decided to just go for something obnoxious.”

My white knight. He’d always been like that with me. He was my big brother in so many ways it was frightening. Despite the fact that we were the same age, he’d always protected me. Even being in Asheville, there were still some people who hadn’t taken kindly to my announcement, my very brave announcement, in my mind. I’d done it in seventh grade, in the middle of fifth period English as we were waiting to be released to go to a pep rally. Some dickheads who were neck-deep in questioning their own sexuality had decided to make me pay for my bravery and their cowardice. Kevin had stepped in then too.

He’d done the manly thing. I’d done the revenge thing. When Tommy, the ringleader of the band of assholes, had come out freshman year and had asked to blow me after a football game, I’d let him. Then I posted the video to his mom’s blog. Petty, I know. But effective. The bastard never talked to me again. I’d sort of developed a reputation after that. Even the straight douche bags respected me.

Adrian laughed. “Okay, okay. Chill out, Kev. I promise not to pick on your boyfriend for his ugly shoes.”

“He is not my boyfriend,” Kevin growled for the millionth time. Did he really not get that the more he did that, the more they would say it?

“Why do you deny me, baby?” I cut in. It was the only way to save him from the jibes that would have escalated with his temper. Everyone laughed at Kevin’s facial expression. Everything was fine again. Just another early morning at Erwin High.

 

 

I HATED math class first thing in the morning. I didn’t suck at it, but I hated it nonetheless. I was angling for an academic scholarship to NYU, therefore I had to take all the brainy classes to get an edge on the competition. So it was AP Calculus I at 8:00 a.m. Next semester it was going to be AP Calculus II at the same time. Junior year was not supposed to suck so badly, but we were now a month into school, and I could honestly count on a two-fingered hand how much fun I’d had. Between my part-time job at Kmart and my friends’ afterschool activities, I’d spent a good majority of the year alone between the hours of 3:00 p.m. and lights out, which was just unacceptable in my mind.

I couldn’t wait for football practice to be over for the year so my friends would be free after school. Then I wouldn’t have to walk home by myself. Yep, I was officially a hater when it came to school sports. Angelina, Kevin’s girlfriend, was a cheerleader; Aaron, Adrian, and Kev were on the football team; my other friend, Jan, played basketball; and Devon wrestled. Life blows for the athletically uninterested.

Well, I wasn’t completely uninterested. I had played basketball with Jan in middle school, but that was only because I couldn’t get a job yet. Then I hit fifteen and wormed my way into a cashier job. I only worked three days a week, sometimes four, if I could score an extra evening during the workweek, but it didn’t leave enough time for socializing for me.

“Everyone, settle down, please.” Mrs. Markinson came through the door and shut it behind her. She always carried a mug of coffee that was almost the size of her head. For such a little woman, it was a wonder she didn’t get the shakes from all that caffeine. She could only have been five foot on a good day. “Jason, get your feet off the desk.” She said that every morning. I sighed and let my seat come back down from where I’d tilted it back to allow enough room to prop my legs on the top of my desk.

“We’re going to be going over antiderivatives today, so take out your calculators and get them set, please.” She walked over to the whiteboard and took out a blue Expo marker to write with. A review meant a pop quiz would be given in the last five minutes of class, so everyone scrambled to get out paper for notes and something to write with. I managed to dig out a pencil that wasn’t the size of a toothpick and began scribbling.

My brain completely zoned out for the next twenty minutes as she droned on. She never called on me anymore. She knew I played dumb. My tests and quizzes proved that. Every time she caught me alone after class, she’d lecture me about how I didn’t need to “conform to what my friends thought was cool.” My friends didn’t think anything because they didn’t know one iota about what I did outside of lunch. The key to surviving as a nerd was to pretend that you weren’t one, and when you hung out with the most popular kids in school, it was assumed you were just another pretty face anyway. So in my case, it was easy to achieve.

I raised my hand. “What is it, Jason?” she asked, pausing in her task of drawing a curved line between two points.

“Can I go to the bathroom?” I’d forgotten that I’d chugged two Cokes on my way here this morning to wake me up. My bladder demanded my attention more than her calc lesson. She sighed.

“We’ve discussed the fact that you need to go before class, Jason,” she lectured.

“I know. Won’t happen again, Mrs. Markinson,” I interrupted. I really needed to go.

She pursed her lips. “I mean it, Jason. If it happens again, you and I are going to spend an afternoon in detention together.” She was going to threaten me with detention for having to take a leak? Get real.

“Okay,” I said, shrugging. I stood up from my seat in back and stepped over the leg of a sleeping nerd in the chair ahead of me. I didn’t really know any of the people in my AP classes despite the fact I’d had classes with them multiple times in the past. They were outside my social circle, and despite what’s shown on TV, “our” kind and “their” kind didn’t mix. It didn’t matter if we shared brains or hobbies or even sexualities. I’d tried dating some of the other boys who were brave enough to come out. I found them beneath me, completely undeserving. Kevin regularly said I was an unapologetic snob. He was right. They stuck with their own, I stuck with mine. It wasn’t my fault that I had the personality of the “in” crowd and the likes of the “out” crowd. I dealt with it. So could they.

I grabbed the hall pass and headed out into the now empty white hallway lined with gray-green lockers. My sneakered feet squeaked a little on the tile floor. It had rained earlier, so the polished floor was still slick. I looked at my prize shoes and recalled Adrian’s earlier jibe. Yeah, I wasn’t ever wearing them again. My heart constricted, but I looked on it as a necessary evil. When you were part of the pack, you listened to the pack.

I swung into the bathroom, which smelled of urine and body odor, and headed to the urinal to relieve my bladder. I didn’t know what it was about public bathrooms that gave me the willies, but they did. I was always terrified something would come tearing into the bathroom while I had my junk out and try to take a chunk out of me. It was probably from my addiction to zombie flicks, books, and the like. I had actually stolen The Zombie Survival Guide from the library last year.

With my business finished in record time, I went over to the sink. I cursed as I was confronted by the empty soap dispenser. Again. “Son of a bitch,” I whispered, glaring at the empty apparatus.

“Don’t you just hate when that happens?” a voice asked from behind me. I glanced up at the scratched mirror above the sink and was struck stupid by what I saw there. He was gorgeous in a way that surpassed everyone at my lunch table. Thin, but wide through the shoulders, with lean muscle as opposed to bulk. Thick, cruel thighs that bunched as he shifted from foot to foot as I stared—runner’s thighs. But all that paled in comparison to his flawless face, lips that quirked up into a half smile, and dancing gray eyes. I was never speechless. But I was absolutely speechless in that moment. I swallowed hard and tried to remember how to breathe.

Finally thought returned. “Yeah. It blows.” I managed simple sentences that sounded like I’d been taking remedial English instead of AP. Get a grip, dumbass. If he isn’t straight, I’ll friggin’ eat my orange sneakers. The guy nodded like I’d given the right answer and went over to the urinal. I vowed I wouldn’t check out what he whipped out. I succeeded, for the most part.

I kept my eyes doggedly on my hands as I ran them under the tap water and then went to the towel dispenser, which, of course, was jammed. Who was that guy? I heard him finish and zip up his jeans. I had to remind myself three times that popping a hard-on was not conducive to me getting back to calculus. I would hate to miss my quiz on account of wood.

“I’m Danny Johnson by the way,” the boy said, sidling up to me at the towel dispenser. God, his voice was sexy too. It was deep. Yum. Down, boy, I commanded myself. “I’m Tommy Johnson’s cousin.” The same Tommy Johnson who I had humiliated by sending his mom a vid of him on his knees for me? Crap.

“Uh, cool,” I said, my normal mask sliding into place. “You new or something?” I was really good at looking unaffected by everything despite the fact that my heart was pounding like a Salvation Army drum. I got plenty of practice at home.

“Yeah. Just moved here from Boston. My dads liked it here the last time we visited my aunt.” He offered the information freely, and I filed it away in my memory for future examination. Then something he’d said struck me.

“Dads?” I asked. I looked over him, and he winced, looking embarrassed.

“Yeah. I have two. They’re, uh….” He searched for a word.

“Gay?” I supplied.

“Yeah.” He looked grateful that I’d been the one to say it. Why was he ashamed of it? I knew a few people who had two same-sex parents.

“Okay,” I said. What a weird guy. Somehow he managed to get the paper towel dispenser unclogged and then handed me a towel to dry my hands. I finished drying them, wadded up the cheap, brown towel, and tossed it a few feet into the trash bin flawlessly.

“Nice shot,” Danny complimented. I looked back at him and gave an internal sigh of want. He wasn’t much of a talker, but God, what I wouldn’t give to have a half hour of playtime with him. But if he was that worried about his dads, he was probably straight. Too bad. All the good ones were.

“Thanks. Later, Danny. See you around.” I turned and walked out the door to get back to my pop quiz.