Cary was frustrated. Hadn't Clearing offered to let him come over and build a computer and maybe get one of his own? Frowning, Cary rolled over onto his back, scattered his English homework in annoyance. He wanted to snarl and curse... but what good would it do? I just have to find a way around Bird was all.
As though summoned by this thought, Lana appeared. She looked smug and satisfied, “He always punishes those who deserve it, Cary.” Lana said looking down her nose at him. Her arms were crossed under her chest, her eyes blazed with righteousness. Cary had no response he could articulate. He just looked at the floor and chewed his lip until she left. Things would be even worse, because Lana would make a sincere effort to watch him, in the hopes he would break Bird's grounding, so she could get him into more trouble.
Even God can't change Lana.
The next day at school wasn't any better. On his way to his first period Cary passed Jonathan in the hallway. Oddly, his former friend was alone and they made eye contact. It was the first time Cary had seen him alone since school started. Something arced between them, an unspoken conversation condensed into a steady gaze. Neither looked away. The anxiety made Cary swallow nervously and nearly walk into a row of lockers against the wall. He stumbled. By the time he righted himself and looked around, Jonathan was gone. Cary's mind reeled with questions, with hopes, with despair.
He wanted so much to be friends with Jonathan again, wanted so much to ease feelings which ached inside of him. Cary didn't really understand the source of the feeling, was definitely confused by it, but nonetheless was convinced Jonathan had the answer.
Some answer at least.
The hallway was entirely empty now. Cary looked around and caught sight of posters which lined much of the wall not covered by lockers. Posters of a group of teenage boys with towels wrapped around their narrow waists and rubber caps on their heads posing before a pool. In the center of the group was a familiar face, though Cary saw him shirtless for the first time. It was his neighbor and occasional tormenter Troy Smalls. In large letters under the photograph an announcement read:
“Come One, Come ALL! District Championship Swim Meet! See Happy Endings High ALL-STAR Swim Team break records!”
Cary was stuck staring at the poster and its photograph when the bell rang announcing he was late for class. He rushed the length of the hallway for the classroom near the end; tore through the door and managed to trip just as he was inside the room. Gales of laughter greeted him. His English teacher, Miss Bateman, a woman with hips wider than her shoulders and crew-cut platinum-blond hair barked at Cary.
“You're LATE Ick...e..” then she paused as she smirked around his name. “Carver!” Though it had sounded exactly like the jeer so many used towards him.
Did she misspeak? Did she just... Ickie.
“Hadwell. Icarus.” Cary said inaudibly to the ground after the pause extended for a few seconds and more laughter came from the kids already seated, none of whom heard Cary say his right name. Scarlet-faced, Cary rushed to the still empty desk directly in front of Bateman's podium. Bateman sniffed as she began to give her lecture. The class passed in a whirl as Cary's mind waffled between confused thoughts of Jonathan and unwelcome intrusions of the photo of Troy Smalls and the other swim team members, laced with new found anxiety over Bateman. Just before the bell rang to end class Miss Bateman called everyone to attention.
“Now, let's everyone remember our very own swim team is competing this weekend and the District Championship is up for grabs. Let's wish our superstar Troy Smalls well and pray he breaks another National Record!” Bateman directed the class into a round of applause for Troy Smalls who was sitting in the back of the class. Why the older boy was in a freshman English class Cary didn't know. But Cary wanted to get out of there before Troy had a chance to corner him. Grabbing up his book sack, Cary rushed out of the classroom.
His other classes whizzed by, his mind disengaged, unable to focus on anything too long, still trying to wrap itself around his situation with Jonathan. He managed to get through Gym without Coach Mandy making yet another example of him. As seventh hour wound down he felt almost like he was going to make it. Cary attempted to slink out of Clearing's classroom, having heard not a single word of the man's lecture until Clearing called his name loudly. Cary kept his eyes on the ground and pretended he had not heard. Still Clearing trotted over and tapped Cary lightly on the shoulder.
“Wait up, Cary.” Clearing said amiably. "I just wanted to see if everything was OK? You seemed awfully distracted in my class today...”
Cary nodded. “I'm OK.” He managed to push the words out.
Clearing sighed. “Well, OK then. Don't forget about this Friday. I hope you're ready to put some good work in and get those machines built!” A note of cheesy excitement rang through Clearing's voice. Cary wanted to respond cheerfully, to let the man know he, too, was excited. But his mind was too consumed by questions about Jonathan, weird feelings about Troy and over his situation with Bird and Lana. All he could get out was: “OK. Bye.” He pulled away and trotted off as fast as he could.
Just outside the school a lone figure came out of the woods ahead. It took a second to realize it was Jonathan. Jonathan fidgeted and looked around nervously. Cary's face heated and his hands start to shake. He had no idea what to say to his friend... former friend... but was sure he must say something. A thousand somethings floated in his mind and Cary could not choose one.
“I think maybe you could play Chun-Li better.” was what Cary did say when he reached the other teen. Jonathan blinked, clearly confused. He shook his head as Cary stared resolutely at the sidewalk.
“Maybe. Um. So, I know it's weird and all, and I...still want to be friends,” Cary's chest swelled with a welcome and frightening warmth. “But I mean, you understand right? People here won't think it's OK and I'm sure I think it's OK, I keep telling myself it's just how I feel, but...” Jonathan's voice trailed off and he looked away. Cary finally looked up. The indecision was plain on Jonathan's features. Cary had no idea what Jonathan had meant by all that.
Cary did not have any idea what to say in response either. “I'm grounded.” Cary said quietly, his toe drawing an arc across the ground.
Jonathan blinked and nodded. “Well, I guess that's good right? So, um, let's just be cool in public, is that cool? Like don't talk to me or look at me and I'll try to find a way we can, you know, hang out, and stuff.”
Cary thrummed excitedly and nodded.
Not former. I'm going to be friends with Jonathan again.
His face went ashen and he wanted to run. Standing less than ten feet away, her body half-hidden by a tree and the expression on her face making clear she had heard every word, was Lana. Cary's face went white and Jonathan turned to follow the direction of his gaze. When Jonathan saw Lana his mouth moved, though no sound came out. Lana's eyebrows were close to meeting as she pursed her lips at the older boy. Jonathan turned back to Cary, his expression set and cold as he said.
“Listen, Ickie Queenie, you little fag, you need to leave me alone. I tried to be nice about it, but we're never going to hang out. So beat it!” Jonathan shoved him hard, one-handed, against Cary's shoulder, the same place Clearing had lightly tapped several times before. Cary nearly fell over, more from shock than the push.
He stared open-mouthed and upwards, utterly confused. Jonathan pushed him again, this time harder. “I SAID GO!”
Cary ran away, not bothering to look back, no idea where he was running to. His mind went strangely blank, the image of Jonathan's angry, reddened face taking up all the air inside Cary's mind. He fully expected Lana to come find him at home later that night, interrogate him and accuse him of things, lecture him or attempt to berate him. Worse, the word Jonathan had used, it blared across Cary's emptied mind as though the boy were still standing next to him shouting it.
Fag. Fag. Fag.
When Cary finally went home there was no sign of Lana or Bird. He lay on the bed in the guestroom, staring at the ceiling trying to understand. Cary knew it was supposed to be a bad thing, a fag, but he wasn't quite sure exactly what it meant. Hearing Jonathan call him a fag stung so bad Cary was sure he was actually, physically wounded. He paid no attention to the hours which ticked by. Didn't move when the sound of the front door slamming announced either Bird or Lana arriving home. It was well past nine in the evening when Cary finally passed out, his dreams thankfully forgotten when he woke the next day.
Sheer habit and fear of Bird sent him to school. He felt like a robot, following a set program, letting the routine carry him step by step over the day. The only thing which drew him out of his near catatonic introversion was the sight of Lurlene Darxis in the hallways after first period. His neighbor looked extremely angry. When she caught sight of one of the posters of the swim team, she studied them earnestly for some time. Cary watched her, his mind mostly blank, stupefied. Lurlene noticed Cary watching and tromped over to him.
“Why are you staring at me, Cary Carver?” she asked angrily. Cary couldn't respond. He just stood there staring at the floor tiles. Lurlene huffed. “Go to class before the Principal sees you.” She pushed him roughly in the shoulder, in nearly the exact spot where both Jonathan and Clearing had. The sense memory of the touch sparked something crouching inside Cary and he growled a horrible word at her without thinking.
The change in her was instantaneous. Her face clouded and she shoved him against a wall of lockers faster than he could react. “What did you say?” she barked.
Cary swallowed hard and started to sweat. The woman was incredibly strong. Her arm pressed against his chest and he couldn't breathe. His vision swam. He wanted to say “Nothing. I was just being grumpy.” Formed the words but could not make them come out and couldn't find the air to fill his lungs.
A voice interrupted them. “Unhand that student!”
Cary recognized the voice. He looked, only his eyes moving. Clearing trundled up the hallway toward them. The hallway was empty otherwise. Lurlene's arm remained set for a moment longer, as if in defiance and the pressure let up. She stood, her gaze haughty, as Clearing bore down on her, and she carefully straightened her thick shirt.
“What do you think you're doing?” Clearing asked. Lurlene glared at the man for a moment, said nothing, and strode off. Her quick, purposeful steps took her away, she did not spare a glance for the indignant Clearing. Clearing and Cary both watched as she disappeared around the corner of the hallway heading towards the Principal's Office.
“Are you OK, Cary?” Clearing asked solicitously.
It took Cary a long moment to nod yes. Clearing exhaled loudly.
“Well, come on with me, we'll go talk in my classroom, I've got the period off. I'll make sure you're excused.” Clearing said, adding the last when Cary didn't move.
Still, as this was not part of Cary's routine, his feet were unwilling. He was afraid to break the routine just then, had no idea what would happen if he did. It took Clearing tugging at him to make him follow. What's WRONG with me?
In response Jonathan's voice boomed between his ears:
Fag. Fag. Fag. Fag.
As Clearing guided Cary towards his classroom the question escaped Cary's lips quite of its own accord.
“Mr. Clearing...um. What's a...fag?”
Clearing stopped. He stared forward, glued on the spot. Sensing he had done something wrong, though no idea what it could be, Cary stared at the floor tiles. His left toe traced a pattern over the tiles and his hands were clasped behind his back. Clearing coughed.
“Come on, Cary, we can talk about... that in my classroom.” Clearing's voice was weary, beaten down. Inside the teacher's classroom, the door shut behind them, Clearing sat on the edge of his desk his ankles crossed and his hands clasped white-knuckled tight about his waits. Cary was seated in desk among the front row facing the huge whiteboard and Clearing. Clearing's expression was exasperated, as though he was presented with a troublesome equation he was unable to solve.
“Did someone call you a fag, Cary?” Clearing asked, his voice quiet, his tone kind.
Cary, unsure, did not answer right away.
It's Clearing. I can tell him. But what if he laughs at me? I think he might be...He might hate me. He might call me... With an effort of will Cary pushed the voice away and nodded without looking up. Clearing sighed.
“I'm not sure how to explain it to you, Cary. I'm guessing you don't have Internet access, or cable.” Clearing said, as he spoke his voice gained confidence, cadence; resembled more of the lecturing manner from his class.
“Well, I know it's difficult, Cary, but don't let such people bother you. Be who you are. You'll see, this will all pass someday. It gets better, I promise.”
Cary looked up, glared at the whiteboard behind Clearing. He met Clearing's eyes. Nothing gets better. I'm stuck being me. What am I supposed to do once Bird makes me leave? My life sucks. Clearing looked away, nervous, as if he heard the sum of Cary's angst.
“But sir...” Cary said, surprised his voice was as strong as it was, with effort of holding his inner voice down. “It's not normal. What I feel...” You've never been normal ICKIE. FREAK. ORPHAN.
Clearing cleared his throat, tapped his heels against the floor. He stood up and opened a drawer in his desk. From the deep drawer he pulled a framed photograph. He approached Cary and handed him the frame, backside up. Cary turned it around and looked at the photo. A younger, slimmer, beardless man...Clearing?... his arm draped around another young-ish man, with light brown hair, a wide-mouthed smile and delicate metal-rimmed glasses. Both men seemed deliriously happy, as though caught unawares laughing with each other at a great joke.
“Who...who is that?” Cary asked softly.
Clearing coughed several times before he answered, sighing. “Derek.” Clearing said. He gently pulled the photo frame away from Cary. "I lost him some years ago, Cary. Do you understand?”
Maybe?. Something was generating between him and Clearing, a strange feeling. It took Cary a confused moment to understand what it was, all the while Cary's inner demonic voice was harking at him.
I wonder if this what a real father would feel like?
Clearing wiped at his eyes under his glasses. “Well, time is getting on, Cary, so I'll let you be, just make sure and get to your next class on time, OK? And don't let anyone make you feel bad for who you are.” Clearing left.
Cary nodded to no one, unsure, then set the photo face down on Clearing's desk.
He's hiding something...
Some central fact Cary needed to know. Why does he care so much? Cary understood a bit more, and even better, he now knew he wasn't alone. Unless he's just trying to... STOP IT! Whatever a fag is, I think Clearing might be one too.
But then, what is Jonathan?
He was contemplating this question when he heard footsteps nearing the door. Cary freaked out and ran behind Clearing's desk, dove underneath it. Thankfully he was small enough to tuck himself completely underneath. Two women's voices flowed in. One sent a tremor of fear through him and made him clutch involuntarily at his neck. Lurlene Darxis.
“...talk in here, it's empty....” Lurlene said.
The door to the Clearing's classroom shut quietly. Cary shivered.
“I don't know what you want from me, Lurlene!” the other woman said exasperated. She sighed loudly. “I've given you all the records! There are only five adopted boys in the entire school! You have their names, their birth certificates, everything, now, I brought them ALL from my house! Smalls, Carver, Ketson, Phillips and Jones! What more do you want?” Cary realized it was Principal Jenson speaking.
“I want to know what you're hiding, Beverly. Must we do this AGAIN?” Lurlene snarled. Cary shivered again.
“No! NO!” Jenson said. "I.... swear! I'm not hiding anything!”
Even Cary didn't believe her. Something about the cadence of her voice was wrong, She sounds...robotic? A chill went up his spine. What was going on between these two?
What is Jenson hiding from Lurlene and why does Lurlene want it? And what can Lurlene do to make such fear come out in Jenson? Cary's neck throbbed in answer. He gulped.
“So be it, Beverly.” Lurlene said. "We will have another discussion soon. Some place else. Some place quiet, where we can have hours to.. ..talk.” Lurlene said and her voice was deeper, sinister. Cary shivered for a third a time and could hardly stop, long after he wanted to. He heard Lurlene leave and the door slammed loudly behind her.
For some time after Jenson stayed in the room, breathing heavily and sobbing. Finally, the bell rang for next period and with a startled squawk the Principal left with scratching steps, though the door did not slam behind her. Cary crept out from under the desk just in time to see Clearing re-enter the room, surprise on his face.
“Still, here, Cary?” Clearing. “Well...get on to class now.” The teacher's eyes did not meet Cary's but instead focused on the overturned photo still on his desk. Cary saw Derek's face.
Jenson saw the photo!
Cary nodded at the floor and ran off to his next class, his mind a flurry of questions which made him completely forget to be unhappy.