THE STEELY-EYED hero walked slowly into the cave.
(Wait, what does steely-eyed mean? Let me google that, hold on.)
(Yep, that’ll work. Let me start over.)
The steely-eyed hero crept into the cave slowly. He knew danger was afoot from all sides.
(Afoot? Really? Suddenly I’m Sherlock Holmes? Whatever, moving on.)
The hero walked into the cave and knew that danger was afoot all around him. With a practiced ease, he pulled his sword from his back and brought his shield up to bear, ready for anything. He had been here before, deep in the cesspool called Wallowdust Swamp, hunting the beast known only as the Midnight Beast. A black dragon old as time, she was a singular creature that few had seen and even fewer survived to tell the tale.
As he trod farther down the spiral path that led to her lair, our hero thought back to the many, many times he had walked these steps before. Each one taking him closer to the inevitable duel he and the beast had been locked in for ages now.
Every week for years now he had come here, stalking the Midnight Beast relentlessly, striking her down time after time. And each week she was reborn, renewed from her fatality, ready to fight once again.
Our hero slipped past the dragonoid guards that protected her inner sanctum, not wanting to engage in extra combat if he could avoid it. In and out, that was the plan, no time for trash mobs or random pats. He was after the main boss and nothing else.
Rounding the last corner, he came upon her, sleeping in the back of the cave, oblivious to his presence. There were 400 yards of open space between him and the beast and no cover to speak of. Saying a prayer of protection to his god, our hero charged out toward the great beast, a war cry exploding from his mouth as he started the fight.
She responded instantly, her old foe in sight once more. She returned his war cry with a savage roar of her own and began to charge toward him. Somewhere in the middle of the cave they met, the sound of metal striking metal echoing around them as her armor deflected our hero’s first blow.
Her massive claw reached up to swipe at him, but our hero darted to the side, avoiding the clumsy attack easily. Moving toward her, he flanked and struck her hard in her near haunch. The screams of pain were as satisfying as they were deafening. She spun around toward him and took another swing, blood gushing from her wound.
Her claw met metal as our hero brought his shield up to block the attack.
(Why he didn’t go flying back from the impact no one knows. All we can assume is that the laws of gravity work differently in this strange, magical world.)
He stabbed at her again, striking a mighty blow to the side of her snout. She snarled and unfurled her great wings and began to slowly flap them toward him. There was not enough room for her to actually fly, but more than enough to hover there and flap her wings. The wind pushed our hero back as her feet left the ground. He was forced to cover his eyes as the dust from the cave floor was blown into his face. He waited, letting her gain enough altitude so he could see again when he heard them.
(Hold up, let me google that one too.)
(Guess that works.)
A pack, a gaggle… hmm what is the word for a group of dragons? Back to Google.
Okay, so a collection of hatchlings would be called a clutch, and since these are hatchlings, that’s the word of the day.
A clutch of hatchlings came swarming out from the side of the cave, their tiny wings beating furiously as they took one look at our hero and instantly remembered how hungry they were. He had seconds before he would be overrun with baby black dragons, but seconds was all he needed.
Closing his eyes, he reached deep inside of himself and sent another prayer to his god. His faith reached out and grabbed a small spark of the divine, a mote of infinity, and brought it from the higher plane back to the here and now. As soon as the spark reached him, it exploded outward, engulfing the area around him in holy flames.
Just as the whelps were on him.
The sounds of their screams were horrific as they plunged into the fire, one after another trying to strike our hero. The Midnight Beast, seeing her children slaughtered, let out another roar and began to descend rapidly from the ceiling. As she landed, her mouth opened and our hero could see the flames begin to form inside her jaws. He had to end this now or be burned alive as the whelps had been seconds before.
Without a second’s pause, our hero leaped up toward the dragon—the heat from her snout was nearly unbearable—and swung his sword down, slamming her mouth shut. Her cheeks inflated and then glowed red hot as her flame was contained in her pinned mouth and then bounced back down her throat. There was the sound of a muffled explosion as her chest expanded once, and then she fell to the ground.
“What’s he doing?” Brandon asked, poking his head into the room.
Ethan looked over at him. “He’s in Wallowdust killing his dragon.”
Brandon rolled his eyes, and I knew I was busted. “Are you still farming that mount?”
“Shut up,” I said, about to loot the body.
Closing my eyes, I held my breath as I prayed this one would do me right….
A sword, a helm, and a bag of gems but no mount.
Sighing, I teleported back to the main city and logged off Brandon’s computer. “You’re the one taking forever to get ready. How long does it take to look completely average?”
He smiled at me and then threw the wet towel he had been drying his hair with at me.
I screamed, and he laughed; such was the way of our friendship.
“Give me five minutes,” he said, returning to the restroom.
I looked at Ethan. “It’s going to be way more than five minutes.”
He just nodded. “Oh yeah.”
Okay so anyways, let me introduce myself. My name is Jordan Miller, and I’ve known I was gay since forever. I know that’s abrupt, but I think we should get these things out in the open as soon as possible. I don’t want you reading my story and then getting all attached to me and then finding out I play for the other team.
Or it might be your team, I mean I don’t know you personally, but I’m just covering all the bases here.
So yeah, always known I was gay. My mom has told stories of me in preschool holding hands with other boys and telling people proudly they were my boyfriend. I envy that little kid because I suppose he didn’t care whose grimy hand he was holding. He just saw five fingers and went for it. That was how I used to roll.
As I grew up and realized not everyone was gay, I found myself worried about flirting with a straight guy by accident. Growing up in Long Beach, which is, like, listed as one of the gay-friendliest towns in America—seriously, it is, look it up—I was less concerned with getting beaten up and more worried that it would just come across as tacky or desperate. I mean, who hasn’t heard of the poor, pathetic gay kid with a crush on his straight friend, who one night confesses his love? I mean, ugh, who does that?
I had a group of friends who were pretty cool. We weren’t the most popular or the prettiest, but we were the loudest and the ones who really didn’t care what other people thought, so it was all good. I met Brandon at the beach when I was seven. Both of our parents had brought us to the great outdoors to get out under the sun and experience the real world and all that.
The real world is really bright, and it kind of stinks, so I am not sure who wants to live there, but whatever. No one asked me.
So Brandon and I met as prisoners of war and bonded quickly since we both liked video games and both hated being forced to do things outside.
It was friendship at first sight.
When Brandon and I started junior high, we met Ethan, who was the poster boy for a California surfer dude, with stringy blond hair and a body that looked like it had been designed to be handsome but all the good parts hadn’t shown up yet. I thought he was incredibly cute until talking with him for about ten minutes and then realized he really liked surfing. I mean really liked it. I thought I loved WOW or Wild Cherry Pepsi, but that was nothing compared to Ethan and his surfing. So our duo became a triple? A triplet? There were three of us, for God’s sake, and that winter we taught Ethan how to game, and the next summer he taught us how not to hate the beach.
Turns out the outside isn’t so bad when you aren’t being held at gunpoint by your parents.
We met our last member during freshman orientation when he raised his hand to ask a question and prefaced it with, “I don’t want to draw, like, mad aggro, but is it a closed campus for lunch or not?”
So anyone who used “aggro” in their everyday vocabulary was a hit in our book.
His name was Dominic, and he was a complete nerd. I don’t say that in a bad way, but he was the full-out, comic book reading, sci-fi-loving guy we all think of when we think of the word nerd. His saving grace was that even though he was a complete and utter nerd, he was a cute nerd, so it scored him major points all around. He rocked a pair of Harry Potter spectacles that really just accented his nerdiness, but he pulled it off, and since The Avengers came out, normal people realized reading comic books wasn’t a bad thing, so he wouldn’t get picked on for it.
So there were the four of us. Not the most popular, not complete dweebs, but squarely in the middle and clannish enough that people left us alone. No one had a problem with me being gay as long as I didn’t have a problem with them being straight, and for a couple of years, it seemed like it was going to be a nonissue.
Everything changed the summer between sophomore and junior year.
Ethan had just turned seventeen, and the rest of us were all sixteen and thought we were masters of our own destiny. Which was, of course, when we discovered sex.
Okay, not actual sex, but the concept of sex and wanting it. With like a real person. In the same room with you. You know, everything we hadn’t done yet. I had a few virtual boyfriends over Facebook but nothing serious, and I knew a couple of girls had tried dating Ethan but couldn’t get past the fact he had more feelings for his surfboard than for them. That summer was like a door being unlocked inside us. Once we walked through, we were never going to be able to go back again.
There were no words for it, no conversation we had as a group about it, but we knew what was happening. We were all boys, wandering a metaphorical car lot, looking at next year’s models, wondering which one we would end up being. We were geeks by choice, not because we were unpopular or socially inept.
I mean we were socially inept, but no more so than any other guy walking the halls of our school.
So there we were, looking out over a long summer that we all subconsciously knew would change our lives, but had no idea how. It started easily enough—we hit up every superhero and sci-fi movie that came out and then spent so much time at Starbucks after, arguing about what was good or bad about it. We would make the weekly trek to the comic book store to pick up the newest issues, each one of us buying four or five, and then we passed them around so we could all get to read everything that week and then spent even more time at Starbucks arguing what was good or bad about each issue.
If you can’t tell, we spent a lot of time arguing.
On the surface it sounds like a geek thing, and I am sure it is somewhat, but actually, it was more our way of displaying dominance. Some guys wrestled, some guys had spitting contests, some guys lifted their shirts and compared their abs… my crew and I, we argued if Captain America was right in Civil War or not. It was never about who was right or not, it was about how well you could form your argument. Where a six-pack might impress some people, we valued brains and a sharp wit over physical prowess any day of the week.
So basically we were that pack of nerds you see at Starbucks arguing way too loud about the latest Marvel movie.
Even though we had done the same thing last year, this year was different. There was an understanding that we were looking for more than just comic books or movies. We were looking for… something? Someone maybe, but we were looking for it, and we couldn’t find it no matter how hard we tried.
We stopped being four guys wandering around being stupid and became a pack of animals looking for… well, I don’t want to say “mates,” because that’s just crude. I mean, let’s be honest here, we were four horny teenage boys looking for anything that could change that. Our main problem was Shelby’s Law of Male Groups.
You’ve never heard of it? Let me explain, then.
Say you have one guy. Just a normal guy like Brandon, just standing there. He’s not bad-looking, kind of gawky like everyone at sixteen, hair a little out of place and his clothes too baggy to tell if he’s actually in shape. A perfectly normal guy who most girls would find completely cute. Got it? Okay, so on a scale from 1 to 100, 100 being like Tesla and 1 being Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber, Brandon kicks back at like a 56. Not dumb, not brilliant, but above average. You with me?
So then take Ethan. Dirty blond hair, a face that would be hot if it filled out, no body fat whatsoever to the point of looking like a scarecrow. There are a ton of girls who at first glance would think he’s cute. He walks around at about a 50; it would be higher, but his obsession with surfing lowers the curve dramatically. Now, let’s put Brandon and Ethan together, in public, just hanging out.
The two of them are kind of aware of their surroundings, so they don’t get too crazy, but they do tend to talk to each other and goof around. So instead of what should be two guys with above-average intelligence scores, they start bringing themselves down because they’re together.
So now add Dominic.
You have three guys sitting, walking, or reading comics together, and the goofiness multiplies. With three of them, it’s easier to get caught up in whatever they’re talking about, and the chances of someone goofing off skyrockets. Now instead of three intelligent-but-not-Tesla-smart guys, you have three goofballs, and the stupidity gets worse with each guy who ends up being drawn in.
I know you know this rule to be true, because how many times have you seen a pack of guys walk by, laughing way too loud, and just making complete fools of themselves? Yeah, that’s a high number, isn’t it? Welcome to Shelby’s Law of Male Groups and Its Effects on Individual Intelligence.
The more guys there are, the dumber we get. The dumber we get, the harder it is for other people to approach us. So for the first month of the summer, we would go out with the implied but never spoken out loud intention of meeting someone—for me a guy, for them girls—and by the time we got wherever we were headed, we were acting so stupid that we forgot all about what our mission had been. And then, once we were heading home, wondered why it was so hard to find normal people.
It’s sad, but I have a feeling you get it.
We were nearly four weeks in, had exhausted all the movies, read all the comics, and were nowhere nearer to the thing we really wanted. So, of course, being four well-adjusted males, we sat down and had a normal discourse about our feelings and inner thoughts….
No, of course not! We goofed around, and one weekend, while sleeping over at Brandon’s house, we dared Ethan to take a drink of Diet Coke with a Mentos in his mouth. Let’s just say that night ended messier than we expected.
It was one in the morning, and Dominic and Ethan had passed out while Brandon and I watched Dog on Twitch play Hearthstone. Dog was not a dog; he was a guy, and while Brandon watched because the guy was good at Hearthstone, I watched because Dog was stupid hot in so many ways.
“So what are we going to do with our summer?” I asked him between plays, trying not to sneak glances at my virtual boyfriend.
“Aren’t we doing it?” he asked in way of an answer.
“Yeah sure, but don’t you want something… more?”
He looked over at me. “Do you want something more?”
“I mean a guy, but sure. Don’t you think about it?”
He rolled his eyes. “All the time! But it’s so hard. I mean what are we supposed to do, just walk up to girls and talk? How do you even do that?”
I gave him a chuckle. “Least you have it easy. I have to figure out if the guy even likes guys before I can talk to him.”
“True dat,” he said wistfully going back to the game.
“But we should do something this summer,” I said.
“Sure, but what?”
It was a good question, one that I pondered for a long time.
Well, for the rest of the weekend for sure, that’s forever in summer-break time.
MONDAY I had an idea and brought it up when we all met at my place to finish out our raid lockouts for the week.
They brought their laptops over to my house, and we all logged in. As we played, I talked.
“So, me and Brandon were talking….”
“You guys going out now?” Ethan asked, not looking up from his screen.
“Ha-ha,” Brandon said, giving Ethan a glare. “You know if I was gay, I would be lucky to date someone like Jordan.”
Ethan looked up at me for a moment. “Yeah, I could see that. If I was gay, I’d go with him too.”
Dominic looked up quickly. “Is everyone gay now? Did I miss something?”
I sighed. “No one new is gay, Dominic. You can rest your homophobic little brain.”
“I am not a homophobe!” he protested. “It just… wigs me out, that’s all.”
The silence in the room was deafening.
“No offense,” he added quickly.
“Yeah I know,” I said laughing, letting him off the hook. Dominic wasn’t a homophobe per se. He was just weirded out by the visual of two guys getting it on and wasn’t shy about telling us. I understood where he was coming from. Sometimes a guy and girl locking faces like they were trying to eat each other made me queasy too, so I couldn’t fault him that much.
“Yeah, ’sides, Dominic, if we all turned gay, then you’d still be single and alone,” Brandon said with a grin.
“Oh snap!” Ethan yelled. “Shots fired!”
“Can we get back on subject?” I asked.
Ethan looked at me. “Um, what was the subject?”
“I was getting to that before you had me and Brandon married.”
“If we’re getting married, I want a Star Wars wedding,” Brandon said, still playing the game.
“Duh, but seriously. I think we should do something this summer.”
Ethan and Dominic looked up at me from their laptops. “Um, aren’t we doing it?”
“No, I mean something real.”
They just stared at me.
“Like something that involves girls.”
Ethan closed his laptop so fast I thought he broke it.
Dominic didn’t log off but looked questioningly at me. “I’m listening.”
“So you guys want to meet girls, and I want to meet a guy, so I have an idea.”
They all hung on my next words.
“The Great Escape.”
“No,” Dominic said instantly and went back to the game, but Ethan just stared at me, waiting for me to continue. I didn’t for six seconds, at which point Ethan’s patience hit Empty.
“What’s The Great Escape?” he asked.
The Great Escape was like Oz and Wonderland all rolled up with music to me. It was an underage club where they served energy drinks and played music until midnight, which was all fine and good, but it had one more reputation that would serve us well.
It was mostly thought of as a gay or bisexual hangout.
No one knew how it happened but The Great Escape just seemed to attract alternative type people and gay and bisexual people and it became a not-gay, gay club. Because it was known for this, people like me were dying to go to it, and people like Dominic weren’t.
“If we go there, won’t guys, like, hit on us?” Dominic asked. “I don’t know what I’d do if a guy grabbed my junk.”
I turned and glared at him. “Have I ever grabbed your junk?” His eyes got real big behind his glasses, and he shook his head. “So then why would you assume other gay people would?”
He thought about it for a few seconds before answering. “Because we’d be in their natural environment?”
Brandon didn’t even wait for my look and smacked him upside his head. “Dude, that was stupid even for you.”
Dominic refused to drop his point. “But won’t people think we’re gay if we go there?”
Brandon spoke before I could. “We all hang around Jordan, so most likely people already assume that. Since when does that matter?”
Ethan looked at Brandon. “Do you think the reason girls won’t talk to us is because they think we’re gay?”
Brandon paused a moment, which meant he was considering it. I felt my heart sink as I wondered if this was where I lost my friends.
“Girls won’t talk to us ’cause we haven’t cracked the code on what they want yet. If they did think we were gay, I bet we’d get more girls hanging around us. I mean, have you seen how many girls say hi to Jordan at school?”
Though I didn’t want to tell him there wasn’t a code, I was happy he stood up for me.
Ethan nodded. “Fair enough. Okay, so what’s at this Escape place?”
“Gay guys,” I said, smiling.
Dominic rolled his eyes. “Um, duh.”
“And all of the gay guys’ friends,” I added.
No one got it.
“All of their straight friends.”
“All of their straight, female friends.”
Now their eyes began to widen.
“All of their straight female friends who are probably pretty sick of just gay guys dancing around them.”
Brandon looked like he was going to fall out of his chair. “Dude, I never thought of that.”
Ethan’s head was a blur as he agreed. “A whole club of girls…”
Brandon finished for him. “…and we are the only straight guys.”
I let out a deep “Light bulb,” as the rest of the guys figured it out.
“Think about it, we would go from the dweebs at a party to the only viable candidates,” Dominic said, pushing up his glasses. “The odds would be on our side for once.”
Brandon looked at me. “So when do we do this?”
We decided on next Tuesday, which was today, which brought me to waiting for Brandon to get ready.
“You good?” he asked me as I got up from his computer. It was such a benign question, but it was so much more. We were about to enter a world we had only talked about before. I mean it sounds stupid, but we were about to leave the house as boys and take our first step toward being men.
I nodded and swallowed my fear. “Let’s do this.”
And we walked fearlessly into the beast’s lair.