LIAM PULLED the covers back over his head, hoping the shrill ring of the alarm would go off by itself. It continued however, so he tossed the covers back, then swung his legs over the side of the bed. He punched the clock with a little more force than necessary, silencing it. The calm, quiet of the morning came over him. If only his thoughts could be silenced as easily.
He headed toward his bathroom, grateful he didn’t have to see anyone else in the house quite yet. It was Sunday, time to get ready for church. It was also his sixteenth birthday, and he couldn’t think of a worse way to start his special day. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in God; he just didn’t quite buy into all the passive-aggressive lessons being shoved down his throat. He didn’t think any loving God could hate anyone or deny anyone happiness.
The image staring at him in the mirror was the same as yesterday, just now considered a whole year older. He flexed his pecs, allowing a small smile as he admired his physique. He’d worked hard over the past year to bulk up, enough so that during the just-completed football camp, he’d been mistaken for a senior instead of a junior by one of the newly hired assistant coaches.
He ran his fingers through his short blond hair, and his blue eyes studied his face. He had a fairly decent complexion with one little pimple popping up near his eyebrow. Typical, he mused. Got a zit on my birthday. He spread some facial wash on his face and scrubbed away, wishing it was that easy to scrub away his fears. He put a little dab of acne cream on the offensive lump, then grabbed his toothbrush. He tried to focus on the tasks at hand: brushing the teeth, combing and styling the hair, finding something church-appropriate to wear. He wished not for the first time he could skip the service, but what excuse could he give? He wasn’t ill, there wasn’t anything pressing he needed to do. Church attendance was pretty much mandatory unless it was something extremely important that needed attending to. Even minor sniffles weren’t enough to keep him in bed.
He plopped back down on his bed, his clock showing he still had over fifteen minutes to kill before he had to be downstairs for breakfast. He could hear his mom in the kitchen, and from the smell drifting up the stairs, she was making bacon and eggs. There were probably blueberry pancakes too, as that was his favorite and it was his birthday. She always made blueberry pancakes for his birthday.
He reflected on the past year and the secret he had desperately tried to keep. He was sure no one knew, not even his best friend. He didn’t dare tell anyone in this small town of Bayberry. While just a couple hundred miles from Chicago, it might as well have been a million, as it was nothing like the big city. He wasn’t a star athlete, being a decent enough punter on their Division 7A football team, but nothing that was going to get him a scholarship out of here. He was smart, very smart and he hoped if he kept his grades up he’d be able to escape by using his brain. He desperately longed for that escape so he could be who he knew he was. He desperately longed for someone to hold his hand. He desperately wanted to let the world know, to not keep the secret any longer. But God would smite him, or at least condemn him for sure, according to the lessons from the pulpit. Because what he was was unacceptable to the God this family worshipped.
He was gay.
BREAKFAST WAS tasteless, even though his mom had indeed made his favorite blueberry pancakes. He smiled, ate everything on his plate, but it was all a show. Now all that food sat in his stomach, threatening to make a reappearance on the ride to church. He pulled a couple of antacids out of his pocket. Funny, he’d been chewing these things like candy recently. And he knew why.
School had just started that past week, and with it came three new students who had moved into their sleepy little community over the summer. Liam had met two of them, their families showing up at church to be welcomed. But the third, ah, the third was a special one indeed. Tall and thin, at least six foot one, unconventional for sure. His hair was a grayish purple, definitely not natural, and he had brown eyes that looked almost black. He had a piercing through his eyebrow. And his name was Cody.
Liam chewed his antacids, allowing himself a small smile as he recalled meeting Cody for the first time.
Liam felt a hand on his shoulder and wheeled around.
“Sorry to bother you, but which way to the chem lab?”
Liam looked into the almost impossibly dark eyes and weirdly colored hair.
“Are you new too?”
“Do you know how to get to the chem lab? Or is this your first day too?”
“Oh, sorry, it’s up on the second floor.” He pointed to the staircase. “Head up the stairs, third door on your right.”
“Thanks, bro. Appreciate it.”
“No problem. They do need better signs around here.”
“Yeah, I mean I know it’s a small school, but the building is like a maze.” He held out his hand. “I’m Cody Williams. Just moved here.”
Liam took the hand. “Liam.”
“Well, thanks, Liam. I’d better hurry, bell’s gonna ring soon. Catch ya later?”
“Uh, yeah, later.” Liam stared at Cody as Cody headed up the stairs. The jeans Cody had on accentuated his ass perfectly. Liam shook his head and headed to his own class.
THE CAR came to a stop. Liam brought his thoughts back to the present, and his stomach started to act up again. The idea of sitting through another sermon where he would feel belittled and hated was not his idea of a fun birthday. It was inevitable however, as same-sex marriage was pretty much the norm now in the nation. However, this entire conservative small community was still up in arms about it, thinking a gay pride parade full of drag queens was literally coming down their street to corrupt all the children.
He wished his family and friends would suddenly become enlightened about gay people. That they weren’t pedophiles or murderers or out to recruit anyone. Gay people were just like everyone else, wanting to be loved and accepted. Gay people like him.
He sat down next to his mom, his dad sitting on the other side of her. His dad put his arm around his mother, giving them both a smile.
“Beautiful day for a sermon and a birthday.” His dad gave his mother’s shoulder a squeeze.
Liam faked a smile, hoping it was good enough. “Sure is.”
His mom patted Liam’s knee. “It’s your choice for lunch, anywhere you want to go.”
The thought of food, even his favorites, burgers and milkshakes, made his stomach revolt. He smiled again. “Let me think about it, ’k?”
“Anything. You decide, but focus on the sermon first.” His mom nodded to him.
The music started up, and the procession started down the aisle. He and everyone else stood while the pastor settled in at the pulpit.
The congregation chimed back in unison. “Good morning.”
“Let us start with the Lord’s Prayer.”
Liam said the words without really understanding what he was saying. It was habit, having memorized this particular prayer before he could even read. The words held no meaning for him any longer.
The pastor called out a hymn to sing, and again, Liam went through the motions, his voice blending in with everyone.
“Please, be seated.”
Liam took in a deep breath, steeling himself for what he was about to hear.
“We are in troubled times, my friends. Unending wars, poverty, homelessness, apathy—they all weigh heavily on my mind. But what can one person do? We can take a stand. Pick an issue and make a stand. The destruction of America started with the destruction of the family.”
Quiet affirmations and “amens” scattered throughout the sanctuary.
“We can no longer sit by and watch from the sidelines as politicians tear down what we spent decades building up. We must fight for the family, for the mothers and fathers and children. We need to take a stand against the abomination of two men or two women being allowed to marry.
“Can you imagine, my friends, two men, up here in front of the sanctuary, in front of God, vowing to love, honor, and cherish each other?”
Loud “noes” came from the congregation.
“It is an outrage that these people can live openly and now form families where they will teach their perversion to young, impressionable minds. We must stop this cancer, for that is what it is, a cancer that has taken hold of American society. We must extricate this cancer, just as a doctor would.”
More “amens” and Liam felt a spark of shame as he heard his mom agree with the pastor’s words.
“I implore you to reach out to the governor’s office, our senator’s office, even the highest office in the land and voice your displeasure. I ask that you support those politicians who are running on traditional marriage platforms in the next election. Run the bums out of office and take back our community!” He hit the podium with his fist.
Liam wanted nothing more than to run and hide, or wake up and hope this was all a nightmare. But he had to sit and listen, like a good son, like a good straight son.
“I THINK we should start a letter-writing campaign, target the liberal politicians and let them know we won’t stand for any of this.” Liam’s mom sat down in the booth across from Liam and his dad.
“Sarah, no one writes letters anymore. It’s all e-mail now.” Liam’s dad passed out menus to both his mom and Liam.
“Well, then an e-mail campaign. Something. Pastor Robbins was so right today. We need to make sure we have a proper society available for Liam when he is grown and ready to marry.”
Liam wanted to sink down into the booth. He wanted the booth to actually seal him up so he could get away. At least he had a menu he could pretend to be looking over and ignore his mom and dad.
“Why don’t you bring it up at the next women’s meeting at church?”
“I think I will, Steven.” Sarah put her menu down. “Sorry, sweetie, don’t mean to bring you down on your birthday. No more shop talk. What do you want to eat?”
Liam’s stomach threatened to revolt. They had taken him to his favorite burger joint, but right now the thought of ground beef on a bun sounded just as appetizing as that picture of the tuna-Jell-O-salad recipe he’d come across in his grandma’s cookbook. “I guess the usual.”
Liam’s dad gave him a friendly punch in the shoulder. “Double cheeseburger, ketchup, pickle with a chocolate shake, right? Just like your old man. Can’t go wrong with a classic.”
“Yeah, guess so.”
“Is everything okay? You don’t look very excited for your sixteenth birthday. I’m sorry we couldn’t have a party today, but it is Sunday. I thought your friends were going to come over next Friday?”
Liam nodded. “Yeah, Friday. Pizza and soda still okay?”
Liam’s mom put her hand over his. “Of course, anything you want. Cake too?”
Liam shrugged. “Can I have a chocolate ice cream cake?”
“Of course. I’ll call the Dairy Queen tomorrow.”
Liam felt a little better, knowing he could celebrate his birthday with friends and have his favorite dessert. He wondered if Cody would come if he asked. Liam allowed his thoughts to center on Cody while his parents chattered on about the town gossip.
ONCE THEY finished lunch, the family headed home where Liam could hide in his room with the pretense of studying. He could hear the TV being turned on. He knew his father would be tuning in to the local football game and his mother would be sitting next to him, reading or sewing. They always spent Sunday afternoons together, or at least in the same room. Liam never understood why his mom didn’t sit in the den where she could concentrate on what she was doing rather than being interrupted by his father with his exclamations of “did you see that!” or “that ref is blind” every other minute. But Liam guessed it was what married couples did.
He thumbed through his history text, trying to read about the Revolutionary War, but nothing held his attention. His mind kept wandering back to Cody and their first lunch together that first day of classes.
“THIS SEAT taken?”
Liam glanced up from his meatloaf surprise to see Cody standing next to him. “Nope. Have a seat.”
Cody sat down. “I see you got the meatloaf too.”
“Looked better than the tuna casserole.”
“Yeah, that looked scary.” Cody took a bite. “Not bad. Needs ketchup. You got any?”
Liam tossed him a packet. “Here.”
“Thanks. Seems you can stomach anything with ketchup.”
Liam took a bite of his salad and swallowed. “Hey, can I ask you something? What’s with the hair?” He pointed to Cody’s shoulder-length, but definitely silver-lavender, hair with his plastic fork.
“Cool isn’t it?”
“It doesn’t exactly blend in around here. But I think it’s neat.”
“Got the idea from one of the X-Men movies. Have you seen any of them?”
Liam poked at his mashed potatoes. “Yeah, I’ve snuck out with some friends to see them.”
“Why’d you have to sneak out?”
“My parents think most Hollywood movies these days just corrupt youth. You should see our DVD collection—it’s all musicals from the ’40s and ’50s.”
“It’s not too bad. I get to sneak out, adds to the thrill.” He glanced over to Cody. “So, what’s your story?”
Cody slugged back his milk. “Dad got transferred here for a few months. He works at the headquarters for your local ceramics company and came to oversee some new equipment installation at the factory. So we all moved here, me, my younger sister, Mom, Dad. I grew up in the ’burbs of Chicago.”
“So this move isn’t permanent?”
“Oh hell no. I don’t think I could handle living in a small town for a long period of time. No offense.”
“None taken. I want to get out of here too.”
“Small town kinda stifling, huh?”
“You have no idea.”
“You’d love Chicago. All sorts of different people, cultures—” He stirred his mashed potatoes. “Different food.” He tossed his fork down. “This stuff is almost inedible. What I wouldn’t give for a deep-dish pizza right now.”
“Yeah, that sounds really good.”
“So, what grade are you in?”
“Two more years of small-town living, huh? You ever been to the big city?”
“We went on a field trip to the Field Museum my freshman year. Man, that place is huge.”
“I love that place. When I head back next year, I’m going to try to get a job there, then maybe an internship when I’m in college. I want to either study archeology or anthropology. Maybe both.”
“You’re a senior?”
“Well, sorta. With all this transfer business, I’m a little off track. According to my high school back home, I could’ve graduated this coming spring, but with this move and the limited classes offered here, gonna have to put off graduation until next December.”
“December?” Liam furrowed his brow.
“Yeah, my school back home offers December graduations. There are quite a few who are able to get the requirements in and graduate early… or there are some who are going to be late like me.”
“Just how many are in your high school back home?”
“In the whole high school, around three thousand, five hundred.”
Liam choked on his milk. “Damn, that’s more than the K through twelve here!”
Cody tossed him a napkin. “Small-town living, man, small-town living.”
“You aren’t kidding. No wonder you color your hair. Gotta do something to stand out, huh?”
Cody shrugged. “Eh, I guess. I just thought the character was cool, loved the hair, thought I’d try it out. There are very few in my school who stand out. Just too many people. You could stand out with your respective cliques, though. I’m known as a comic book nerd, really.”
“You like comics?”
“Oh hell yeah. Even been to the San Diego Comic-Con once. That was intense!”
Liam smiled. “I’d love to attend that, just once. But my parents would think it was frivolous. Gonna have to go once I’m able to leave home.”
“It’s a madhouse, for sure. You’re gonna have to plan a couple years in advance and hope you get tickets. They sell out like in a day.”
Liam’s eyes got big. “Really?”
“I lucked out; one of my dad’s friends is an exhibitor there, got me a free pass if I helped him set up and take down.” Cody popped a grape into his mouth. “Ya know, if we keep in touch after I leave, might be able to do that again. Save some money and a guarantee to get in. Be a great way to celebrate graduation.”
“Oh man, that would be totally awesome!”
“We’ll have to make a plan.” The five-minute bell went off. “Guess that’s it for lunch. Gonna be starving by the time practice comes around.” Cody picked up his tray.
Liam followed him. “Practice? You doing marching band?”
“Nope, gonna try out for the football team. I was a reserve receiver back home. Figured here I have a good chance of getting play time. I know I wasn’t here for summer camp, but I’m hoping the coach will overlook that and let me at least be on the team.”
Liam snorted. “If you’re breathing and can run, you’re gonna be first string here.”
Cody placed his tray on the conveyor belt. “You on the team?”
“Punter. Got a pretty good leg.”
“Well, great. I’ll see you out there!”
Liam watched Cody saunter off, still marveling at the great ass that was receding in the distance. He wanted to smack himself for his thoughts. There was no way Cody was gay. No one else was. Liam was certain he was all alone.
LIAM WAS shaken from his thoughts by his dad’s voice booming from downstairs.
“Oh come on now, that was a fumble!”
Liam sighed. What he wouldn’t give to be able to leave this small-town mentality and be true to himself. Only two more years, and then I’ll be off to college. That I swear.