Jeffrey squinched his lips together into a grimace, then stood up as straight as he could to ease the tension in his back, walked around his room just to be moving, sat down, shivered, and came to a decision.
It had been a long internal struggle. He wasn’t an impetuous boy or a brave one, so deciding to do the impossible had been forced on him by feelings of desperation and despair that had become increasingly unbearable.
Jeffrey didn’t fit in at his prestigious private boarding school. He had always been one of the marginal kids there because he wasn’t athletic, he didn’t have an effervescent, engaging personality, and he was super smart. But this year, after an incident on the soccer field, his not fitting in had turned into something much worse. After one of the popular kids had turned against him, his marginal status had changed. Now, no one would have anything to do with him, a cruel isolation which he was forced to accept even while not understanding it, even as day by day it cut deeper into his very soul. In his mind, he was just like all the other boys at school: the same height, same weight, same build, even the same color hair, same interests, same tastes. The same worries and dreams. So why was he having to live with the treatment that he was facing every day?
Scott, the boy responsible for Jeffrey’s downfall, had a large following at the school where he was both admired and feared. He was tall, blond, handsome and, to complete the picture, a terrific athlete. He was also, in his spare time, one of the school’s main bullies with the conscience of a rattlesnake. If you were in his favor, things were good for you. But if you were in his gunsights, beware! He had a lot of influence at the school, he had even more with the other students and he wasn’t reluctant to use it.
On the day when Jeffrey’s problems started, Scott was captaining the gym class soccer team that Jeffrey was on. Jeffrey was playing defender, where he was usually assigned because he was slow, clumsy, uncoordinated and didn’t have his heart in the game. One of the larger boys on the opposing team, a boy with a habit of steamrolling over smaller boys, broke through the midfielders and raced toward the goal Jeffrey was defending. Jeffrey knew he was supposed to stop him somehow, get the ball away, pass it back up the field, be a game-saving hero. Instead, he flinched, made only the most superficial of attempts to stop the bigger boy, then turned and watched as that boy easily ran past him, faked out the keeper and scored.
It was the winning goal. And almost before it hit the back of the net, Scott was in Jeffrey’s face.
“You’re a coward! A pussy! I saw what you did. Instead of stopping him, you just let him get past you! You didn’t even try! You’re a fucking coward! You cost us the game! A candy-ass pussy! Even queers are better than you! That’s what you are, a queer! A fucking gay loser. Get out of here. Nobody wants you here. Beat it, gay boy!” And he shoved him hard enough that Jeffrey fell down. Scott looked down at him, drew back his foot to kick him and saw Jeffrey flinch again. “Hah! You really are a little coward, aren’t you? A little gay bitch. You putting out for all the other fags here, huh, gay boy? Keeping them happy?”
Jeffrey didn’t have the slightest idea what to do. He looked to the sidelines to see if the gym teacher was there, but he’d turned and had starting his trek back to the school when the final goal had been scored. He was out of earshot by the time Scott was confronting Jeffrey. And then, this angry confrontation, it was all too much, happening all too quickly. As the game had been drawing to a close, Jeffrey’d been daydreaming about a book he’d been reading, Ivanhoe, ironically written by a guy named Scott, just before the big kid had raced at him with the ball, had passed him and scored, and now here he was, lying on the ground. Scott was yelling insults at him, and whereas the one adult who’d been watching the game had left, many of the other kids were standing there witnessing what was occurring.
What Jeffrey ended up doing was lying still till Scott got tired of yelling and stomped off. Jeffrey thought that would be the end of it. It wasn’t. From then on, whenever Scott, and then his posse of five friends, saw him, they’d shout abuse at him, abuse which invariably included the word ‘gay’.
Jeffrey always reacted the same way. If he was walking past them, he just kept walking. If they surrounded him so he couldn’t walk away, he simply retreated into himself during their vitriol—shrinking back and hanging his head and not responding at all to the words or the bumps and shoves that accompanied them. There was an unfortunate consequence to this. Other boys saw his behavior and began having nothing to do with him. They didn’t want to be caught in the crossfire. Some more or less agreed with the insults because he never fought back; he must really be a coward, and probably gay. Some simply didn’t want to be anywhere near the bullies, afraid it would be their turn next.
Something Jeffrey didn’t understand came from all this, too. The initial verbal attack by Scott on the soccer field had consisted of what were generally common and unfocused insults. But the word ‘gay’ had been used. Then the word had been included in all the later hazing incidents. Now, he seemed to be thought of as gay by the whole school. That, and the rest of the treatment he’d been receiving, had slowly separated him from all the other boys. Jeffrey had become a pariah simply because of the verbal abuse that never let up. And that label.
And then Scott passed the word through his posse to all the other boys: Jeffrey was off limits. No one was to talk to him.
Kids who might have still been his friend stayed away from him. They had discovered that self-preservation is important and it had become as instinctive as it was for smaller animals to wait till the predators had left the watering hole before quenching their own thirst.
After Scott’s decree, no one would have anything to do with Jeffrey. He had the misfortune of having a roommate, Joel, who happened to be a member of Scott’s inner circle of friends. He too was a jock and not very bright, and in the school only because his father donated a fortune to the school every year. Joel and Jeffrey had almost nothing in common and had never been friends. After Jeffrey became the targeted boy, Joel treated him with overt contempt. He didn’t speak to Jeffrey unless it was to insult him, and mostly gave him the same silent treatment most of the other boys at school now gave him. He kept this up even when they were alone in their room.
What hurt Jeffrey most, he realized, was being alone. Being isolated was a constant reminder that no one liked him—that he was different from them, even if he didn’t know why. He found, at 13, it was exceptionally harsh and cruel punishment being kicked out of the pack. But that was what had happened to him.
Jeffrey reached the point he couldn’t take it any more. There had been too many times he’d been ignored, been excluded, been bumped, been the brunt of jokes, and been entirely alone in a sea of boisterous and, for the most part, sociable and interactive boys.
The teachers didn’t help. As Jeffrey’s dejection deepened, as his misery grew, he often caught sight of teachers watching. When he was knocked down in the hallways or tormented with derisive shouts on the lawns, he saw teachers looking away, acting as though they were unaware of how he was being treated.
The administration had been no help, either. He’d eventually found the courage, through desperation, to tell someone in the school offices what was happening. Jeffrey was summarily sent to a counselor. He stepped into the man’s office cautiously. He knew what he had to say wasn’t very manly. He knew it made him look weak, but he was close to his breaking point and felt things had to change. If that meant he had to talk to someone, then so be it.
Mr. Deitrick was sitting behind his desk. He made Jeffrey stand in front of his desk waiting until he finished reading the report he had in his hands, which to Jeffrey seemed to take forever. Then the man looked up. “What?” he said, his tone imperious.
Jeffrey started to talk about how he was being treated. He had a hard time controlling his tears, but did his best and only leaked a few. Mr. Deitrick watched him, unmoved by Jeffrey’s obvious agitation, and then, when Jeffrey was finally finished, asked him, “Who is your roommate, and who was it who said those things to you on the soccer field?”
Jeffrey knew he wasn’t supposed to tell on other boys, but he was well past the point of obeying such unhelpful rules of behavior. He gave Mr. Deitrick both the names.
Mr. Deitrick’s expression changed just a bit. Jeffrey, suffering from his own demons, didn’t notice.
“Well,” Mr. Deitrick finally said, “it sounds to me like you need to grow some backbone. You need to tell those guys to lay off. I’d change your roommate but I’ve only heard your side of this and Joel might say you’re exaggerating, and in any case, we don’t have any empty rooms. Besides, I can’t just move another boy into your room; wouldn't be fair to him. No, Jeffrey, the thing is, we’re not in the babysitting business here. This is the sort of thing you have to learn to handle on your own. Now run along, I’m busy, and you’ve got your answer. Just go tell them to stop what they’re doing.”
Jeffrey left Mr. Deitrick’s office feeling worse than when he’d gone in. What was left for him to do? Calling his father would be entirely useless. He had no one to talk to here. What could he do?
What was so bad about him, anyway? Why did he deserve this sort of treatment? Was it the ‘gay’ label? He heard other people being called gay, but they made some sort of remark back and laughed and the slur was forgotten. With him, the label had stuck for no reason he could discern. He thought maybe it was because he hadn’t laughed it off, hadn’t done anything but walked away when it was all over, simply looking weak and unable to defend himself when Scott had finally tired of berating him. Maybe that was why, or maybe they really did believe the label was true.
Jeffrey didn’t know if he was gay, or even exactly what that meant. Gay boys were supposed to do disgusting things with other boys, weren’t they? Well, he’d never done anything with anyone. He did find some boys attractive, but he thought that was natural. Didn’t everyone have those feelings? It didn’t seem at all wrong to feel how he felt. He thought about girls, too, even though he really didn’t know any as his was solely a boys’ school. He was 13, and the vague and undirected feelings he’d had for the past year or so were now getting more insistent. But those weren’t his strongest feelings. What he felt most was great sadness and loneliness, despair and isolation. And, of course, confusion. Why him? He was just the same as everyone else… wasn’t he?
And if he really was gay, would he deserve this treatment? And did the guys calling him gay really believe it, or were they just doing what they did because they enjoyed seeing him suffer? Because it made them feel powerful? Because they could? It was just a few boys who took delight in tormenting him, and the rest took their cue from them and either halfheartedly joined in or left him alone in their own best interests.
Jeffrey didn’t know the answers. He just knew his situation was too much for him. He couldn’t take it any longer. He was isolated and tormented daily, had no friends, no hope of friends, and the adults turned a blind eye. And for the life of him, he had no idea what to do about it.
Eventually, he did try one more thing. Each floor of his dormitory had a head boy nominally in charge. It was usually a senior. He was supposed to keep order, keep the floor quiet during study hours, make sure all the other rules were obeyed, and on occasion would counsel the boys who came to him for help. Jeffrey had never spoken to the head boy on his floor before because Ted, which was his name, was the sociable, happy-go-lucky sort who was quickly friends with all the boys on the floor rather than their overseer. He seemed both immature and frivolous and Jeffrey didn’t see how he could be of any help at all, and thought it likely the boy would be against him the same way everyone else was. But, in his desperate need to find someone to help him—even if it was simply someone to talk to—he decided to go to Ted. He went to his room, and after knocking and being told to enter, did so.
Ted was smiling and had his earbuds in, listening to his iPod. He was nodding to the music as he gestured for Jeffrey to sit down. Then he turned the music off, pulled out the earbuds, and said, “What’s on your mind. It’s Jeffrey isn’t it?”
Jeffrey thought this was entirely the wrong boy to spill his agonies to, but there was no one else. He was sure Ted would just blow him off, but....
He hesitantly started in, and talked and talked, going into much more detail than he did with Mr. Deitrick because this was, after all, another boy, if an older one, and Jeffrey thought Ted just might be able to understand what he was living through with at least some empathy, some insight.
Jeffrey was surprised. Ted’s smile quickly faded but he didn’t try to stop what Jeffrey was saying. He listened and rather soon stood up and closed the door. Jeffrey kept talking, kept spilling his woes out on this other boy, and Ted listened.
Eventually, Jeffrey ran dry and stopped. He hung his head, exhausted, still sure Ted would dismiss him as easily as Mr. Deitrick had. He wasn’t expecting anything at all like what he got.
“I’m sorry, Jeffrey,” Ted said, and when Jeffrey looked up at him, he could see that Ted meant it. Ted had a serious look on his face, one Jeffrey hadn’t seen before.
“This is a good school, generally. Most of the kids here are great guys. We have some excellent teachers, too. But not everything here is great. And if you get involved with what’s wrong with this school, it can be very hard for you. It sounds like you’re in the middle of some of that. You’re not the first. This has happened to other boys here.”
Ted talked to Jeffrey for some minutes, telling him things that had happened at the school in the past, and recently, too. Some of the things were shocking. Ted didn’t spare him the details. When he was finished, he reached out and put a comforting hand on Jeffrey’s shoulder. “Usually it goes one of a few ways with these guys. Usually they get what they want from the guy they’re hassling. Or, if the guy fights back and puts up a giant fuss or gets his parents involved, they may stop. Or they can simply get tired of treating the guy like they have. But, if they do that, they always seem to end up finding someone else to go after. That’s the nature of bullies. They like the feeling of power they get, doing the things they do unchecked.”
Jeffrey didn’t understand, and wrinkled his forehead, thinking. He asked, “You said they want something, that usually they get what they want. All they’ve ever done is pushed me around and called me names. They’ve never asked for anything. What do they want?”
Ted looked away, but he did answer. “Different boys want different things. Money, maybe. Doing their homework for them. Sex. It just depends. They soften their victims up, like they’re doing with you, then tell them what they want to make the abuse stop. Most boys either give in or leave the school. But it doesn’t always end up that way.”
Jeffrey was stunned. “Why don’t they go to the administration?”
Ted turned to him, just looking, then dropped his eyes. He stood gazing out his window for some time before returning his eyes to Jeffrey. “You saw how well that worked for you. If you want my advice, it’s this: it would be best for you if you could transfer to another school. But if that won’t work, I’m sorry, you’re on your own. I can’t do much about your problem. My hands are tied. I only have so much power, and it isn’t anywhere near enough to do anything about this. If I actually see them going after you, I can stop it. But that’s about all I can do. Doing anything after the fact wouldn’t be possible. So transfer. Find a way to do that.”
Jeffrey felt better after their talk, knowing someone was on his side, even if it wouldn't affect how he was treated.
◊ ◊ ◊
It was the last day before the end of the term, and partying was in full swing in the dorms. The boys in charge of the floors were either looking the other way or were having their own parties and weren’t around to police things. Ted was attending a party in another dorm where the seniors roomed.
Jeffrey was by himself, of course, in his room reading. Then, five boys, two of them Scott and Joel, burst in, shouting, grabbed him, stripped him naked, and carried him up and down the hall, yelling. All the doors along the hallway opened, and boys came out to watch the procession, shouting gleefully when they saw what was happening. Very quickly, someone got the idea to decorate Jeffrey, and then all sorts of stuff was thrown at and poured on him, from ketchup to toothpaste to Pepsi, from laundry soap to chocolate sauce to the worst: shampoo.
It was the shampoo that caused the problem. It made him slippery, and some got in one eye, burning it and causing him to shriek and wriggle even harder to get free so he could wipe his eye. Being slippery and jerking around so violently made him difficult to hold, and he was dropped. Who knew whether it was intentional, but his arms slipped out of the grip of the boys holding them before his legs came loose. He hit the floor hard, smacking his head so sharply he saw flashes of light, and then his other end finally dropped, banging his hip so that a sharp pain shot through his entire leg.
Everyone laughed, and made taunting remarks as Jeffrey frantically tried to wipe his eye, but he had shampoo on his fingers and rubbing his eye just made it worse. He didn’t even try to get up. He was dizzy, feeling sick, naked and covered with sticky mess and now both eyes were stinging like crazy. He writhed on the floor as the boys around him in the hall laughed and jeered. He screamed as he frantically tried to clear his eyes, but that only made his throat hurt and didn’t do anything for the pain.
Eventually, as his agony went on and on, it became less interesting and some of the boys started to think what they were watching and laughing over wasn’t quite as funny as they’d first thought and began to feel something close to embarrassment. In twos and threes, the boys went back to their groups and back to their rooms. Jeffrey lay alone on the floor, naked, sick and filthy. His crying was slowly diluting the shampoo in his eyes, but they still hurt as badly as his hip. When he did finally manage to get up, minutes later, he could barely walk due to the pain in his hip. This might have saved him because he still had shampoo on his feet, and his taking exceptionally small steps to minimize the pain in his hip kept his feet from sliding out from under him on the vinyl-tiled hallway floor.
He slid along a wall for support and made it to the showers, where he was able to clean himself by sitting on the floor and letting the water wash over him. He had no towel, so had to painfully hobble back to his room naked, shivering and dripping. On the way he met Joel and some other boys. Joel pushed him and Jeffrey fell again; after that the pain in his hip was even worse. The jeers that followed him, which included the word ‘gay’ used repetitively, stung almost as badly as his injuries. It wasn’t the words themselves; it was the knowledge that none of these boys cared that he was hurt and in pain. He was weeping with both pain and despair when he finally fell onto his bed.
◊ ◊ ◊
So, Jeffrey came to a decision.
He was home now and had been going over and over what had happened to him and his life in general at school and had decided: he wasn’t going back. He knew what that meant. It meant standing up to his father. He’d never been able to do that. Not once. Now, he would.
Not that he expected his father to capitulate. What his father decided was always what ended up happening; his father had always had his own way in Jeffrey’s 13 years of life. His father had always been in control, never Jeffrey. And there’d already been a discussion, before Jeffrey had first gone away to school nearly three years earlier. Jeffrey had pleaded his case then and been ignored, as he always was. Jeffrey knew his opinion meant nothing to his father.
So when Jeffrey decided he wasn’t going back, it was more than simply deciding to tell his father that. No, it meant planning what to do when his father made whatever disparaging remarks he would make and told Jeffrey the matter wasn’t up for discussion, that he needed to act like a man for once in his life and get on with life at the school.
Jeffrey started his deliberations thinking that there was nothing he could do to help himself. But Jeffrey was his father’s son, and his father was smart and determined, even though as far as Jeffrey was concerned he was an abysmal failure as a father. So Jeffrey thought, and planned, and after moving past the dark point of no return in his thinking, he eventually hit upon an idea. The idea generated a glimmer of hope; he thought, and planned some more, and discarded the fantastical ideas that wouldn’t work. He considered other possibilities, and thought some more, and came up with the seedlings of a plan, which then began to sprout. It took time, but Jeffrey had time, and worked it all out. Finally, he was ready.
◊ ◊ ◊
Knocking on the door of his father’s den, Jeffrey’s heart was racing as it always did when confronting the man. His father never saw anything from Jeffrey’s perspective and never tried to. To him, Jeffrey was like any one of his possessions, to be done with as he pleased. His father was only interested in Jeffrey to the degree that he himself was involved. Jeffrey was someone who could make him look good or bad, and he simply would not accept the latter.
“Yes?” From inside. Jeffrey took a deep breath. The door that stood closed in front of him was solid, made of dark oak, and it was as unemotional and unsentimental as Jeffrey was sure his father would be.
“May I come in, Father?” Jeffrey knew better than to simply open the door and walk in.
There was a pause, and then with what sounded like a frustrated sigh, “Yes, enter.” His father was irritated. Jeffrey had expected nothing less.
Jeffrey opened the door and went into the room. It was a large and opulently furnished office. A handmade oriental rug covered a dark hardwood floor. Tall French windows overlooking a manicured lawn made up one wall. Two of the others had floor-to-ceiling bookcases full of leather-bound books that Jeffrey was unaware of his father ever reading. The wall behind his father’s desk had an enormous oil painting on it. It wasn’t a landscape or portrait; it was a painting of a large industrial plant, the first one his father had built and one he still owned.
His father sat behind a desk that was huge, made of mahogany and highly polished. Its surface was completely bare. The man himself sat in a high-backed black-leather executive chair, holding a financial report he had been reading. He glared at Jeffrey. “Make this brief. I’m busy.” His unwelcoming face was stern, and his look was one or two wrinkles away from an exasperated frown.
Jeffrey knew not to hesitate or falter. If he did, the conversation would be about his lack of proper diction and elocution rather than what he’d come to say. He stood as straight as he could in front of the desk, took a deep breath and began. “Father, I’m having a very bad time at school. I have no friends, the other boys give me a very hard time, and the teachers won’t help. I’ve been physically abused as well and was injured just before coming home. I’ve decided. I’m not going back.”
That he was able to say all that without stammering or stopping was a great and pleasant surprise to Jeffrey. He didn’t have time to savor it, however.
“Nonsense! You’ve decided? Hmmph! I went to that school. It’s a good place. They turn boys into men, and heaven knows you need that. Of course you’re going back and will continue to do so until you graduate. You’re a weak and useless child still, and wanting to quit now is a perfect example of that. You don’t stand up for yourself. No wonder no one wants anything to do with you! I wouldn’t have either when I was there. I chose strong boys for friends, not boys like you! I was somebody at that school.”
He paused, studying the boy now trembling in front of him. “Quitting is out of the question. When you return, eventually you’ll learn to handle yourself; you’ll be forced to in order to survive. And that will be good for you. If it takes being knocked around some till you get some grit in you, enough to fight back, then so be it. Don’t come crying to me, expecting me to fight your battles. Now, go away. I don’t have time for whining.”
Jeffrey had begun to shake during his father’s rant, but he didn’t go. He stayed and asked, anguish in his voice, “Father, won’t you listen? Please listen.”
“I told you, Jeffrey: go! Do you good to suffer some; build some spine in you. Some character. Toughen you up.” His father turned back to the report he’d been reading, dismissing his son.
Jeffrey turned and walked away. It had been nothing he hadn’t expected; in fact, the meeting had gone exactly as he’d thought it would. So. It was now time to put the rest of his plan into action.
It was surprising what desperation could lead one to do.
The next morning Jeffrey phoned the local newspaper. He gave his name, and his father’s name, and asked to speak to Ms. Meadows, the features editor. He was connected.
“This is Eileen Meadows. How can I help you?”
“Ms. Meadows, thank you for talking to me. I’m Jeffrey Rollins. My father is Parker Rollins; I’m sure you know who he is. I will agree to an interview that will be of great interest to your paper if you’ll send a photographer and reporter out to my house today at 11 AM. I’ll be waiting at the curb in front of the house.” He didn’t need to give her the address. He lived in the largest house on the largest property in town. Everyone knew where Parker Rollins lived.
“I’ll need more information before doing that,” Ms. Meadows said in her most businesslike voice. “Why would we want to interview you or take your picture?”
Jeffrey was pleased with her response. He’d thought that she might hang up when she heard his voice. “You’ll find that out when we talk face to face. Not beforehand. But I will tell you, you’ll be happy you accepted my offer, and will want the story for your paper, probably Sunday’s edition where it’ll get more circulation. What I was thinking was a two-part article. You’d sell more Monday papers that way, also.”
Ms. Meadows was surprised. She was hearing a young voice, a boy’s voice, and a tentative one at that, and boys just didn’t call the paper, and certainly didn’t ask for her. She was curious why he was doing so and why what he’d said sounded so, well, so mature when the voice was obviously that of a very young teen. The clincher, of course, was the boy’s father. Anything involving Parker Rollins was newsworthy. Still, she hadn’t risen to her current position without being professional. “I’m sorry, Jeffrey, but I need something more than just your promise. You sound young. How old are you?”
“I’m old enough that I know what will make a good story.” Jeffrey was getting into his stride now. He’d never been shy talking to most adults; he wasn’t his father’s son for nothing. He did back down easily when they were confrontational or angry or dismissive, but that wasn’t happening here. This conversation was more like a negotiation, he was being treated politely, and he found it was going much better than he’d hoped. “Readers love stories about rich people and some of the messes they get into. My father is well known in this community; he employs a significant number of people in this city; you might take that into consideration. All you’re risking is a little bit of time, and I’m telling you that the reward will be worth it. That’s all I have to say at this time. I understand that news-gathering and reporting is a competitive business, especially for newspapers these days.” He paused briefly, then finished by saying, “In the interest of fairness, I must tell you, you’re not the only one who’d like to have this story. I’ll be expecting your photographer and someone to interview me at 11 this morning, and your promise that will happen. Otherwise, I’m calling Channel 5.”
It didn’t take more than another twenty seconds before he hung up. When he did, he’d extracted the promise he’d wanted. He took a deep breath, and then another, and made his second call.
Jeffrey still had to make his props. When he was done, he prepared himself and sat at the curb in front of his house. The curb was well away from the house as the front lawn was expansive. Jeffrey knew what the effect would be, his standing with the mansion providing a background, with the lawn and flower beds between him and the spectacular house. It would make a picture that would draw eyes and hold them. So, he was sitting at the curb, knowing the photographer who was coming would immediately see a shot worth taking.
He’d only been at the curb for a few minutes when the people from the paper arrived. He stood up. The news people were startled. The boy was wearing nothing but a piece of old toweling, a holey one at that which didn’t cover everything it needed to cover very discreetly, and he was holding a sign made of cardboard which contained words in black felt-tip pen reading, ‘Young boy for sale to a good family; hardly used; inquire within.’
The photographer’s eyes lit up. Eileen, who had been intrigued and had come herself, put a hand on his arm and said, “Wait a sec. We don’t know what we have here.”
“Sure we do,” the photographer said, “page one, above the fold.” He started snapping without even leaving the car.
When Eileen got out and told the boy who she was, he smiled, a bit weakly, a bit sadly, but smiled, and the photographer caught it perfectly. In the photo the smile would be wan and appealing. Jeffrey told her, “Thank you for living up to your word. And for believing me, at least enough to come.”
“We need to talk.” Eileen was somewhat disturbed by the boy’s lack of clothing. But she was in the news business, so why not let the photographer get a couple of shots? She didn’t know if she could get them into the paper. The boy was obviously young. He was skinny with his ribs showing. There might well be legal issues here. But, there also might be a very compelling story.
“We can talk. I want to talk. But why not take some photos first?” Jeffrey smiled again, this time with more sincerity if not much wattage. It was a very becoming smile.
Eileen didn’t even have to agree. The photographer was already posing Jeffrey, who did as asked but also managed to make sure the sign was always in the picture and for those shots there was no trace of a smile on his lips. The photographer made sure the holey towel was as provocative as possible without crossing the line into indecency.
When the shots had been taken and the photographer was satisfied, Eileen asked where they could talk.
“Not here,” Jeffrey said. “It shouldn’t be on my father’s property. I’m not sure of the law, but he may have less ability to complain about what’s printed if the interview wasn’t conducted on private property—his private property. That’s why I stood in the street in front of his lawn for the pictures.”
“Well, see, that’s my problem with interviewing you,” Eileen said. “You’re under age, and in any event, if you’re going to talk about him, he’s not a public figure in the sense that a politician is, and as an individual he has a right to privacy. A teenager complaining about his father isn’t really news and certainly not anything we’d want to print. I’m sorry about that.”
“OK, then,” said Jeffrey, “but you don’t really know what I’m going to say, so you can’t be sure about anything, and as my father is about to be a public figure, a very public figure— something I’m about to make sure happens—that point may be moot. But if you want to back off, that’s fine.” He stepped over to the news van and glanced in the window at the clock on the dashboard. “The TV people are due in forty-five minutes, and I believe their scruples aren’t nearly as evolved as yours. I think they’ll like the outfit.” And he twirled around, causing the towel to rise and momentarily, causing Jeffrey to blush and proving without question that underwear wasn’t a part of his costume.
“I think you might regret your decision when you see their piece. But, all’s fair in love and business. At least that’s what my father says.” Jeffrey, sounding very determined, continued, saying, “But I’ll give you guys a plug just for coming out and talking to me. I’ll mention in the TV interview how I offered this to you first, and you turned it down.”
Eileen groaned internally. This kid had moxie, and she had a decision to make. This was an attractive, articulate boy, and if he wanted to talk, why not let him? She could always hold off on printing whatever he had to say until she’d talked to the editor–in-chief. And passed it by their legal department.
Jeffrey told her there was a city park just down the street, and the two walked there after Jeffrey was shod and had put on a shirt and a pair of shorts he’d stashed behind a nearby tree. Eileen had sent the photographer away once Jeffrey was dressed; she knew he wouldn't make nearly the impact clothed he made wearing just the towel, carrying his sign.
In the park, the two sat on a bench that was off the path, a bench that gave them some privacy.
“Now, some ground rules,” Jeffrey said, taking control, much to Eileen’s surprise. The boy was thin and not very tall, his voice hadn’t broken and was very much a child’s voice, and he seemed nervous in his mannerisms. Yet when he spoke to her, he didn’t come across as the timid creature he appeared to be.
“You’re a reporter, right? I mean, you’re an editor, but I’ve seen your byline in the paper. It’s why I asked for you.”
He stopped, waiting for an answer.
Eileen smiled. “Yes, I’m a reporter as well as a feature writer and editor.”
“Good. OK. The way I see it on TV, reporters always record their interviews, probably to refute their victims when they say they were misquoted.”
Eileen laughed out loud. “We don’t call the people we interview our ‘victims’, Jeffrey.”
It was Jeffrey’s turn to grin, although he was not to be deterred. “But you will be recording this?”
“Yes, certainly. Especially with you.”
“All right. Then here’s the deal. You record what we both say, and I get a copy of the tape. I also get a copy of a transcript of what’s on the tape, and a copy of your printed story before it runs in the paper. If I object, you won’t run it.”
Eileen opened her mouth, but Jeffrey forestalled her. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to do anything with those things that would prevent you from running the story. I want you to run the story. I need help, which is why I’m doing this. I need help, and that help will come from my having the transcript. If the story runs in the paper, it’ll be even better, but I’m not counting on that. I am counting on the picture. I need that to run. But the transcript is going to be the clincher for what I want.
“It’ll really just save me some time, getting that. I could type one myself from the tape of the interview, but one with your logo and letterhead on the pages—that would be best.”
He saw she wasn’t convinced, so went on. “If you don’t agree with this”—he reached for her hand, then turned it so he could see her watch—“I still have time to get back to meet the TV people, and I can easily make a tape of what goes on the air. I can record that myself and make my own transcript. However, as I said, I’d really rather do this with you guys, and with your paper involved. Things in the paper have more gravitas, and words on paper last longer. My picture, and your article if you write it, would have more of the effect I want and would be better for me all around.”
Eileen studied him for a moment before turning away to think. There was something about the boy, and about how serious he was about what he was doing and about the obvious thought he’d put into this. Most of his conditions for the interview, while strange, weren’t onerous, and she realized she not only wanted to believe him, she wanted to hear what this was all about. Her nose for a story was twitching.
That threat about Channel 5 doing the interview and the ‘plug’ he’d give the paper was hanging over her head as well.
“OK, Jeffrey. I’ll accept your conditions, as long as you retract the one about being able to stop us from printing the story. I can’t promise we will print it because there very well might be legal constraints due to your age, but if we decide to go ahead, we can’t allow you to have the right to stop it.”
Jeffrey pretended he needed to think about that, but in reality, he was ecstatic. He’d won! He’d only added the provision that he could prevent the story from running as a negotiating ploy, knowing that they wouldn't agree to it, and so he’d have something to give back to them if they agreed. He wanted the story to run. He remembered his father’s scathing words and similar words he’d been hearing for years. He well remembered being told to stand up for himself. That was exactly what he was now doing.
He turned back to Ms. Meadows. “OK, I’ll withdraw that condition.”
Eileen smiled. “We’ve got a deal then.” She got a small tape recorder out of her bag and set it on the bench, then turned it on. Before Jeffrey could say anything, however, she looked at him and said, “Gravitas?”
He got a wry grin on his face. “I go to boarding school. A very prestigious one, actually—and also one that’s very highly regarded for its academics. I get very good grades.”
But that was the lead-in Jeffrey wanted. “I go to the Montgomery Crest Academy. You know about it because it’s only 50 miles from here. It’s one of the top private schools in the country.”
Eileen nodded but didn’t speak.
“I’ve been there for three years now. And I hate it.” He paused to clear his throat. Just thinking about the place had a distressing effect on him. “The first two years were bad, but this year was horrible. No, actually worse than horrible.”
He had to stop then. Eileen could see the boy’s anguish and immediately felt a motherly feeling she never felt while doing her job. It surprised her. Jeffrey’s angst was obvious, and there was a personal appeal about the boy and his vulnerability that affected her.
Jeffrey cleared his throat again and said, “I’m sorry. I was hoping I could get through this without.... Anyway—” And he went on to tell her how this term had gone. He told her everything: his own confusion over being exiled, what had caused it, his being labeled as gay, that he had no idea if he was or not and how he didn’t even see why that should make any difference anyway.
What he did that Eileen wasn’t expecting was, he named names. There were six boys who were the worst, especially his roommate, Joel, and Scott, a loud noise on the Montgomery Crest Academy campus. He supplied their last names as well. He also named the teachers who’d seen him being bullied and knocked down in the halls and done nothing, and the school administrator who’d passed him on to a counselor without helping, and the name of the counselor who’d refused to get involved.
When he’d finished with the description of what had happened to him on the night he’d been physically attacked, Eileen, shocked, had to break in. “Were you all right, afterward? It sounds like you might have gotten a concussion. And what about your hip?”
Jeffrey smiled wanly at her. “I had a bad headache for four days afterwards and threw up once. I felt really weak, too, so I probably did have a concussion. But that next day I had to catch the train back home for the term break, and I didn’t have a choice. I had to go.”
He stopped, remembering the resolve, the determination he’d needed to catch that bus. Every fiber in him told him to stay in bed. But, though dizzy and weak, he’d forced himself to get up, to move.
“So,” he continued, “I got out of bed, didn’t eat breakfast because my stomach didn’t feel it could keep anything down, packed what I needed and somehow made it down to where the school bus picked up the boys heading to the station. It was difficult walking; I was limping quite badly. I heard remarks about that from the other guys, too. I ignored them the best I could. I’ve had to learn how to do that.”
Eileen squirmed. This was difficult to listen to. But she didn’t interrupt him. She could hear tension in his voice as he struggled to tell his story and was afraid if she broke in that he might not be able to finish.
He continued. “My hip has got better, and I’m hardly limping at all now. It was just a bad bruise, I guess. I still sometimes see flashes of light, and my eyes will go out of focus for a second or two, but the headaches have stopped. I don’t think there’s any way to really treat a concussion anyway. What do they do, wrap a bandage around your head?”
He tried to make that a joke and tried to laugh to show that was what it was, but thinking about what he’d gone through took all the humor out of it for him. His smile looked more like a grimace. Eileen didn’t smile either.
He resumed his story. “I got home. It’s just my father and me. My mother left when I was two. You’d have to ask her why. My opinion would be just that, an opinion. I suppose you could print my opinion, but it wouldn’t necessarily be factual.
“Anyway, I live with my father when school isn’t in session. He doesn’t want me there and has no time for me, but that’s the way it works. I’ve told him I don’t want to keep going to that school. He doesn’t listen. He never listens to anything I say. He never has. That you can print that. That’s true.”
Eileen heard his voice getting stronger as he spoke. His intensity was ratcheting upwards as well. “He’s going to force me to go back, even after what just happened. He thinks I’m weak and need to suffer to get stronger. He says it’s good for me, that it’ll toughen me up. But the suffering I went through didn’t make me tougher, it just hurt, and made me wonder if I wanted to keep living. Those were bad thoughts, but an even worse thought right now is having to return to that school. It’s awful there. Not for everyone; some boys, the ones in charge, like it. But for the boys who get picked on, if the school won’t protect them, it’s horrible. I’m going to tell you something now that you’ll have to research, but if you do, you’ll find it’s true.
“The boys who give me the hardest time, the ones whose names I’ve given you, are the sons of the school’s largest donors. The school turns a blind eye to anything they do. A boy who was being bullied there the first year I was there got badly hurt in gym class. The boy who hurt him is my current roommate, Joel. He bragged to his friends, the guys who harass me, how he’d done it when he was acting as a spotter for the boy while he was lifting weights. That boy was in the hospital for weeks and never returned to the school. My roommate, Joel, didn’t receive any punishment at all.
“I heard about all this from one of the boys who are charged with keeping order on the dorm floors. He heard about it from other seniors, and some of the boys themselves. But if you want facts, boys at the school can be questioned, and they’ll talk about what they know. And if the threat from boys like Scott and Joel is removed, other boys will come forward with stories of what’s happened to them. I know I would have if the police had ever questioned me.”
He stopped and looked up at Eileen, who was transfixed. She didn’t say anything or ask any questions, so Jeffrey went on, his voice even more serious and pained.
“And last year, a boy ran away from the school in the middle of the term. They found him a week later, in the woods, dead. He’d killed himself, using his tie to hang himself with. He’d been horribly and incessantly bullied for weeks by Scott, the guy who yelled at me on the soccer field. He’d tried to get help from the school and got the same treatment I got; he was ignored. Because of rumors going round the school, the police questioned Scott about what he was doing when the boy ran off. He told them he was in the library with Joel at the time the boy was seen running away and for the rest of the day, and Joel corroborated it. But, I know and will tell you the names of two boys who told someone I know they saw Scott follow the boy into the woods. I also heard there was evidence the boy had been used for sex. DNA evidence was found. It should match Scott’s.”
Jeffrey stopped for a moment, and when he resumed, there was steel in his voice that hadn’t been there moments before. “I’m not going back there. My father says I am. I’m not. I had to find a way of guaranteeing I wouldn't go. I thought of two options. One was the Oratawny River Bridge and the rocks below it; the other was talking to you and getting my problem publicized. I didn’t like the idea of the bridge much. There were pros and cons, and I thought them all through, considered all of them. The biggest con was that I’d be dead, and that’s the one that really dissuaded me. I decided I really wanted to see what life could be like if I wasn’t lonely and scared all the time, and what it would be like to know that someone loved me. I didn’t want to die before seeing what that was like. So I’m talking to you instead of choosing the bridge, and telling you I meant what was on my sign. I’m for sale to a good family, and will go cheap. They can submit their bids to you.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Eileen turned off the recorder, knowing the interview as over. She spent some time simply looking at Jeffrey, gathering her thoughts. He looked back for a moment before turning his head away. She saw him reach up and brush at his eyes. When she saw that, she had to do the same thing.
Neither spoke for several moments. Then Eileen said in a soft voice, “You know we can’t print a lot of what you said. We’d have to fact-check all of it, and the school would throw up roadblocks, and your father would sue us for sure.”
Jeffrey shook his head. “No, that isn’t true. Not entirely. You can run my story about trying to get sold to a good family. You can make it simply a human interest piece, or if you want, you can tantalize your audience by saying I gave you shocking reasons why I was trying to do that, but you’re not going to print them without further substantiation. You don’t have to write anything that’ll get you in trouble until you check it out. I didn’t really expect you to.
“You have investigative reporters working for you. I called you, a feature writer, not the news desk, because I was sure they’d balk at the idea. But you, you can do this as a humorous or ludicrous or weird piece. You can just do it that way, or you can include what those guys did to me last week. That happened, there were many witnesses, and you can easily get verification. As long as my picture is in the paper, that’s enough for me, but in my view, if you avoid all the rest of this and never print anything about it, you’ll be passing up the really big story that’s there for the taking. Newspapers are supposed to be cutting edge, aren’t they? They’re supposed to take chances to get the good stories. They’re supposed to do in-depth investigating and reporting that TV stations don’t have the time or inclination to do. But all that’s up to you. What I want is my picture in the paper, along with as much of the story as you see fit print, if any. Oh, and of course the transcript of this conversation. That’s what matters to me.”
Eileen started to speak, but Jeffrey was on a roll and kept talking. “But you won’t be sued. How can you be for reporting facts, verified facts? You might have maligned someone, but hardly libeled or slandered them simply by sticking to the fact that I was trying to get myself sold. Or by running my story of being hurt at school, a story you can substantiate in only a few hours and with a few phone calls. I’ll give you the names of boys on my dormitory floor who were involved. At least some of them should tell you the truth.
“Or ignore all that. Print a picture on your front page of me mostly undressed. That’ll get your readers’ interest. Inside, if you choose to go that way, there can be a delightful piece about me wanting someone to buy me. Human interest stuff, like I said. Written the right way, it could be great. Hey, you might even get a Pulitzer!”
Eileen looked at him with something that looked a lot like respect in her eyes. She thought a moment, then asked, “But what do you expect to gain from that.”
Jeffrey smiled, the first proper, sincere, full smile Eileen had seen on his face. It transformed him. He looked like the young boy he was for the first time, and a handsome one at that. “Leverage,” he said, and said it boldly. “My father will be livid and demand I explain myself, and I will. For the first time in years, he’ll have to listen to me. Whether he listens or not, I’ll simply lay the transcript of this conversation we’ve had on his desk. I know he’ll read it. He’ll have to realize the position it puts him in. He’ll see that because of that picture, I’ll now have a voice.
“And there’s more. Maybe, if you begin an investigation, the school will be upset and call him. If it does, it’ll come out that I know things they don’t want told. They won’t want me coming back any more than I want to go back. They’ll be scared shitl— Oops. They’ll be very reluctant to have me back. Which is what I want.”
“Won’t your father simply send you to another boarding school?”
“Probably. He doesn’t want me around. But another school, almost any school, will be better than one where they let certain privileged students run rampant. Where they turn a blind eye to bullying. And this time, I should have some say in what school I go to. I will have some say, and I’ll use it mostly to keep from being sent back to Montgomery Crest because I’ll be a known person by then, someone who’s been in the papers, someone people will want to know more about after seeing that picture, someone who can tell people what’s happening to me and have them listen.”
Jeffrey stopped and stood up. He wasn’t used to talking all this much. But he was saying what needed to be said and it felt good to be doing that. This was what he’d planned, and it appeared to be working.
He turned around once and looked at the greenery that made the park the park, but he didn’t really see it. He was into what he was saying and wasn’t going to be distracted. He sat down again and went on. “You see, my father will know if he sends me back there, it’ll be in the paper because I’ll tell you about it. You’ll print it as a follow-up, probably with that picture again, and he’ll look bad. I’ll have my dad by the b—, uh, I’ll have my dad where I want him, for once.
“And the kicker, the ironic part, is that he’s been telling me for a while now I have to stand up for myself. Doing that is hard when you’re 13 and facing a very hostile world, with everyone in it more powerful than you are. It takes a lot of thought to figure out how to do that, how to stand up for yourself in a meaningful way and get what you want. The one thing I got from my father, and it probably is the only thing, is brains and resolve.”
Eileen smiled. “That’s two things, Jeffrey.”
“I never was good in math,” he said, and laughed.
Eileen just looked at him. She thought about what she had been capable of at 13. She thought of the simple problems she’d been faced with. And how most of them had been beyond her control.
“Are you going to do the story?” Jeffrey asked, breaking into her reverie, and she heard hope, along with trepidation in his voice. She realized how important this was to him.
Eileen didn’t speak for a while after hearing that. She knew it would be difficult to get any of this into the paper. Parker Rollins was an important man. The board of directors at the school had to be powerful people as well. She thought about that and thought about what the boy was experiencing and his courage to try to find a way out. She thought how devastating it would be for him to have his proposal rejected. A picture of the rocks far below the Oratawny Bridge came to her mind unbidden.
She thought, and Jeffrey sat still, just waiting. Her mind was running and she realized he’d had a point. She didn’t have to treat this like a news story. She could present it, publish it, as a feature story, and write mere hints of what he’d told her. She could work with her legal department and keep incendiary material out of the paper until it had been checked. She could make the story about a boy trying to sell himself. Other details could emerge if there was public interest. She could find a way to do this.
And then she could see that an investigation of the school was begun.
She relaxed a little, and Jeffrey saw it. Still, he waited for her to speak. When she did, it was with a question. “Jeffrey, why us? I know what you said about an investigation, but still.... Most people your age seem to do everything on Facebook these days. They talk about their problems there, connect with people there. No one your age goes to the newspapers. So, why us?”
Jeffrey sat up a little straighter, and his eyes hardened. “Because I want this in the newspaper, the one my father reads, so he’ll see it. This whole thing depends on his seeing it and knowing others are seeing it, too. He’d never see it on Facebook, and even if he did, he’d be unimpressed no matter how many comments or ‘likes’ I got. I doubt he’s ever been to Facebook. If he heard about the story being there, I doubt he’d even bother to go there to look for it.”
He looked down for a moment, remembering, and then continued in a softer voice. “I heard him speaking to a colleague once, a guy I think he used for public relations. He was complaining about some bad publicity one of his plants had got in the newspaper. The PR guy was downplaying it, but my father said it had made a big splash in the papers. I remember that because that term was new to me, and I liked the sound of it. Well, running that picture in the paper will make a big splash. Doing it online wouldn't.”
She came to a decision right then. She looked him in the eye. “We’ll do the story. I’m going to have to fight for it, but I’ll get it done. The editor-in-chief owes me a big one, and I’ll call in the favor if I have to. This deserves being told, one way or another, and you deserve a break.”
Jeffrey’s eyes lit up. She was going to run the story! Even if it was only one of the pictures they’d taken, even if it was only presented as an offbeat human interest story, it would be enough to rattle his father, to get his attention. Jeffrey would let him know that his voice was going to be heard, one way or another, and it was in his father’s best interest to be the first to hear what that voice had to say. And when his father listened to him, Jeffrey would make him understand that he had a son who wasn’t going to be pushed around so easily any longer.
He was ecstatic that things were going the way he’d hoped they would, Eileen could tell his spirits had risen, could see it in his face and body language.
She paused, then asked, “Why did you give me all those names when you had to know I wouldn't be able to use them, that we’d end up at least initially only doing a story about a boy with the crazy idea of selling himself?”
“I’m going to get what I want for myself out of this by standing up for myself. But people at that school did bad things, cruel and heartless things, and the boys will continue to do them. They need to be stopped. The teachers and administrators that didn’t help me, well, and I’d love it if they got punished, too. I’ve given you the makings of a really big scandal, and the school can’t cover it all up. There are too many people involved. I thought if you had actual names, you’d have a great place to start investigating.” He stopped and grinned. “Maybe I got a third thing from my father. Maybe I’m a little vindictive. But I don’t think of it that way. What I think is, I like the thought that there can be justice in this world, and it might come from any of us, no matter how powerless we feel we are.”
◊ ◊ ◊
The picture was on the front page of the Sunday newspaper. It took up the entire page under the headline and over the fold. There was no story there, just words directing readers to the accompanying story in the Features Section of that day’s Chronicle-Times.
Jeffrey was still sleeping when his father stormed into his bedroom.
“Just what the hell is this!” he yelled, striding purposely into the room and yanking the covers off his son and throwing the first section of the newspaper on top of him.
Jeffrey woke to find his father looming over him, as angry as he’d ever seen him.
“I asked you a question! Answer me!”
Jeffrey was lying on his side, and his father grabbed his shoulder, squeezing it hard, and yanked him onto his back so he could see his eyes. Jeffrey was wearing pajamas, but his morning condition was obvious nevertheless. Somehow, the scattered sheets of the newspaper weren’t covering that. He tried to roll back onto his side but his father held him in a tight grip, staring into his waking face, oblivious of the problem Jeffrey was having trying to protect his modesty.
“Answer me!” he repeated.
“Let go of me!” Jeffrey couldn’t believe he’d said that with such force. It caught his father by surprise, too, as it was so atypical of the boy who always cowered in his presence. The man’s grip relaxed just enough that Jeffrey was able to yank his shoulder free. He rolled to the far side of the bed and sat up with his back to his father. His physical problem quickly subsided. His mental and psychological problems were just beginning.
“Don’t you dare turn your back to me!” His father was furious, and he was shouting. Jeffrey responded by half turning and looking at him. Before his father could speak again, Jeffrey said, “Do you want to talk? And actually listen to me this time?”
His father’s eyes opened wider. “You will never, ever use that tone with me! What the hell has gotten into you?”
“I guess maybe I listened to you, Father. I stood up for myself.”
“I stood up for myself. If you want to talk about it rather than yell at me, then let me get dressed. I’ll come down to your office. Or, you can keep yelling at me and I’ll sit here till you’re ready to listen.”
His father opened his mouth, but then closed it. He looked at Jeffrey, his face livid, and Jeffrey looked back, trembling but not shrinking away, obviously reacting to the anger he was witnessing but not nearly as intimidated by it as his father expected. Mr. Rollins opened his mouth again, then again closed it. He had dealt with union negotiators, bank officials, business executives, politicians and reporters. He knew from experience the first one to anger in any dealing was the one ultimately on the defensive. The thought of being on the defensive with his son was ridiculous, but he realized if he continued as he’d started, his position would become untenable.
He straightened, arranged his face, and said, “You will be in my office in five minutes. Do NOT make me wait or come looking for you.” Without waiting for a response, he turned on his heel and walked out.
Five minutes later, a dressed and resolved Jeffrey walked into his father’s office. His father was sitting behind his desk. There was a chair next to it, and without asking, Jeffrey sat down in it.
“What do you think you’re doing? You’ll stand and face me.”
Jeffrey didn’t say anything, just looked into his father’s eyes. He was shaking inside and hoping it didn’t show. But he knew if he was going to accomplish what he wanted, he had to face the man down. The best way he could think to do that was not accept his commands. So, he sat and looked at him. There was no confrontation in Jeffrey’s eyes. Just the fullest extent of calmness he could manage.
“I told you to stand. Now get up!”
“I thought you wanted to talk to me, to hear an explanation. If you want me to stand so you can berate me, holler at me, I can do that, but I won’t talk to you that way. It’s your decision. I can stand, you can yell at me, and then I’ll leave the office. Is that what you want?”
Mr. Rollins father couldn’t believe this was happening. Jeffrey wondered why he was getting away with it, too, and then realized that for the first time in as long as he could remember, his father was listening to what he was saying and reacting to it. They were almost having a conversation. He was giving his father the choice of listening, or getting physical with him. The latter was something the man hadn’t done in years. He hadn’t needed to. Now, his choice was to listen to or light into his son. He instinctively knew if he did the latter, he would have lost control of his son. So, he tried talking instead. It had always worked in the past.
“What I want is for you to do what I say!”
“And is that for me to stand and be yelled at and then leave, or, do you want to tell me why you’re angry and get my explanation? The one you asked for upstairs.”
This wasn’t going well or anything like Parker Rollins had expected it to, and he was well aware of that. He remembered what he’d thought of upstairs, that the angry one didn’t tend to win when in a discussion with someone who wasn’t responding to the anger. He was as mad as he’d been in years but knew he had to calm down. It was difficult, but he forced his anger down. He took some deep breaths, then sat back in his chair and began to think. What was it he wanted to achieve here? Did he want Jeffrey quailing in front of him? Well, perhaps part of him wanted that, wanted to know he still held reign over the boy, but more than that, he wanted to hear why that picture was in the paper. He was going to sue someone, that was for damned sure, but he needed knowledge first. And yelling wasn’t getting him anywhere; in fact, it was weakening his position.
After several long moments, Mr. Rollins spoke. There was a forced calmness in his voice. “I want to hear about this picture. I want to know why you were dressed like that, why you had that sign, and why it’s in the paper. After I hear that, I’ll decide what I’m going to do to you. You can be sure, whatever it is, you will not like it. Not at all. Now, talk.”
Jeffrey waited a moment, gathering himself. This would be the most important conversation he’d ever had with his father. He was not sure he was up to the challenge, but knew he had to be. One thing was for certain. The man would be listening. He realized that might be a good place to start.
“Father, I’ve asked you several times to listen to me. You never do. I needed to find a way so you would. This was it. I needed you to listen to me. I am not going back to that school. I had to find some way of getting that through to you. I now have it. That picture did that for me. We’re sitting in your office, I’m talking, and you’re listening. I don’t know how you feel about that fact, but to me, it’s amazing. Uplifting. Liberating.”
His father opened his mouth, but Jeffrey kept speaking. If he didn’t say this now, he never would. “I am not going back to that school. I decided that at a very low point in my life, and I’m not changing that decision. I knew I had to get through to you, and I did. That picture is in the paper, and a story went with it. I saw a copy of her story yesterday, before it went to the presses. I told the reporter much more than she printed. She has a much bigger story and will run parts or all of it as the situation develops, after the story has been researched and verified.
“One such situation would be if I killed myself. I don’t want to do that. I already considered it and rejected it because I hadn’t used up all my alternatives. I decided on this alternative. I decided to force your hand.”
He hurried on, forestalling his father’s outburst. “I got the picture into the paper, and people are going to be curious about it. They’ll be writing to the paper, asking for more information. The paper will do a follow-up piece if there’s enough interest. There will certainly be enough interest if you send me back to that school, because I’ll write to the paper and let them know you did that over my vigorous objections, and they’ll print that and why I don’t want to be there and how you ignored everything I told you about what happened to me there. It’ll be printed because I’m now news. I’m a big splash in the paper.”
Jeffrey stopped. His father’s face was red, and it appeared he was suffering from apoplexy. Jeffrey sat and waited for the explosion he was sure would follow.
“They won’t print any follow-up,” his father shouted, unable to control himself. “I’m going to be suing their ass off. I’ll own that damned paper!”
Jeffrey’s voice was much calmer than his father’s. “That seems like a silly thing to do, to me. Of course, you know a lot more about these things than I do, but wouldn’t the paper insist that any hearings be in the public domain? The reason you’re upset is that I’ve embarrassed you. A public trial where everything I told the paper about you would come out in the open would be much more embarrassing than that picture. And you’re assuming you’d win a lawsuit, that it would be a slam dunk, but the lawyers at the paper don’t think so. They vetted what was written very carefully. Every word was looked at. It wasn’t libelous. The only claim you might win is that my picture was used in their paper without your permission and that I’m underage. But that will at best win you an apology from them. It will come after I’ve testified that I gave them permission to use the picture because I couldn’t get you to listen to me. Do you really want that out in the open? The paper might get a slap on the wrist, but they’ll be happy to get that because the lawsuit will generate huge sales. It’ll be a godsend for them—and disastrous for you.”
He stopped, and his father looked like he was in shock. When he couldn’t get out the words he wanted to say, Jeffrey continued.
“Look, Father, I am sorry you’re embarrassed, but I am not going back to that school. That is the point of this. I am not going back. We should now talk about that. I need to find another school. And I plan to be the one to choose it. That’s the condition I’m insisting on. You might want to punish me by sending me to a military school or a sheep ranch in the outback of Australia or some such place, but you’re not going to. If you do, not only will that be in the paper—that you took retribution on your son for doing what you yourself asked him to do—but I’ll send weekly reports from wherever I am to the paper, and they’ll be printed. You won’t be able to stop it. I have freedom of speech, even if I’m 13, and the paper will go to court to prevent anyone from silencing me.
“So that’s where we are right now. I’m going to spend some time during the break researching schools, and I’ll tell you where I want to enroll. Of course, you don’t have to accept any of this. You don’t have to agree to pay for the new school. You’re free to do as you wish. I’m in your power. But I have a voice now, one you’ve always refused to acknowledge, and it can be as loud and outrageous as I want it to be. I’m going to continue doing exactly what you’ve told me to do. I’m going to stand up for myself, and continue standing up for myself. And first and foremost, I’m not going back to that school.”
Jeffrey took a copy of the interview transcript the newspaper had supplied him with from his back pocket, laid it carefully in the middle of his father’s desk, and said as he left the room, “There is stuff in there you might want to see. You might find you do not want anyone else to see it. Whether they ever do is up to you.”
◊ ◊ ◊
The sidelines were crowded from one end of the field to the other. Jeffrey was playing defender. It was where the slower kids ended up because they’d have less field to cover. Zach was bringing the ball down toward him on a breakaway. It was only him and the keeper in front of Zach. The score was tied and there were fewer than four minutes left.
The shouts from the sidelines seemed to be about equally divided. He heard his name being called, and Zach’s, too. He didn’t look up. His eyes were focused on Zach.
Zach was bigger than he was, although they were in the same year. He was a powerful kid with jet-black hair and striking good looks. Right now, there was an intense grimace on his face. He had the game in his hands, and he knew it. There were only Jeffrey, who wasn’t a great player, and Donnie, the keeper, to beat. He could fake out Donnie in his sleep. He’d done it before. Jeffrey shouldn’t be a problem, either.
He pushed toward the middle of the field, directly in front of the goal, to open up his options. Jeffrey was still about ten yards in front of him. If he beat him, the game would be his.
Zach moved the ball from his left foot to his right, back to his left, still moving forward fast enough that the defense he’d left behind had no chance of catching him. Jeffrey was standing still, waiting, knees slightly bent, on the balls of his feet so he could go either way as needed. He knew he had to block the ball. He just wasn’t sure he could. His heart was beating fast in anticipation.
Zach ran toward him, controlling the ball, then made a juke to his right and crossed the ball to his left, trying to catch Jeffrey off guard. Which he did. Jeffrey bought the move, took a half step in the direction of the fake, then caught himself and tried to move back to be in Zach’s way. He got his feet tangled and stumbled and manage to get clipped by Zach’s hip. Zach had already moved the ball past him at that point.
Jeffrey felt a shock of pain in his hip, screamed and went down in a heap. The hip that Zach had bumped was the one that had been badly bruised a year earlier.
Zach felt the bump, and when he heard the scream, he took one more step forward, then stopped abruptly. He turned, saw Jeffrey lying on the grass and rushed back to the fallen boy.
He knelt in the grass beside him. “Jeff, I’m sorry. Are you OK? Jeff?”
Jeffrey looked up into eyes showing worry. He started to respond with a swear word, but then changed his mind, his new-found and seemingly endless sense of humor taking over. Grinning at the boy hovering over him he politely asked, “And what, kind sir, are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be winning the game?” His grin broadened into a smile. Jeffrey had a wonderful smile.
Zach got an awkward look on his face. He and Jeffrey had been glancing at each other in the hallways for a couple of months now, and both had blushed a time or two when their eyes had met. But they’d never really talked. Now Zach blushed again and said, “Oh, yeah, sorry, I was just worried about you and wanted to check you were OK.” He jumped up and ran toward the ball, but saw Donnie was holding it and grinning at both of them.
Jeffrey was now at the Holden Preparatory School. He’d done some research, which had included talking to some students who attended the school. What helped sell him on the place, other than the school’s outstanding scholastic standing and reputation for community spirit, was that athletics were entirely voluntary and were only an intramural activity. What was emphasized was fun rather than winning, along with good sportsmanship. That had sounded really good to someone as athletically challenged as Jeffrey. He enjoyed the games but wasn’t very good at them.
The kids at the school all came out to cheer their friends and the sides they favored, but the rivalries weren’t intense. One of the reasons they all came was that everyone was served free pizza after the games.
Jeffrey had fit right in at the school. He was still unassuming, somewhat reclusive, more at ease in the shadows than the limelight, but his sense of humor had had a chance to blossom, his intellect and generous spirit had brought him into contact with kids who wanted his help with assignments, and he loved that there was no name-calling or bullying of any kind allowed at the school—a rule that was policed by the kids themselves. All this kept him from worrying about making a mistake. Not having to worry every day when he woke up was a revelation to him.
He had friends now, and a great roommate who talked to him. The difference this had made in Jeffrey bordered on the incredible.
In the past year, since he’d been enrolled, he’d grown in size and even more in confidence. He’d stood up to his father. It had required him to listen to a lot of shouting, but he’d found when he hadn’t reacted to it, had simply made his points, his father had listened. He’d had to. He hadn’t wanted to see his name in the paper again.
The paper. He was still reading his hometown paper, although he was now miles and miles away from there. He checked it out online and was following the investigation the paper was doing on what was rapidly escalating into a major scandal at the Montgomery Crest Academy. An audit had shown money had been siphoned from donors directly to certain administrators. Several boys had come forward with lurid tales of brutal physical bullying and sexual favors being extorted, some details of which couldn’t be printed in a family newspaper. He knew some of the people mentioned, like Mr. Deitrick. Neither Scott nor Joel had been named, as both were under 18, but the paper did say several minor boys were being questioned; the charges weren’t specified in the paper; Jeffrey was sure Scott and Joel were included in that group. He read the stories online out of curiosity but didn’t feel much attachment to them. He was leading a different life now.
Jeffrey was still unsure of where he stood as far as his sexual identity went. He was 14 now, but vastly inexperienced. He was keeping his options open. But Holden Prep was another all-boys school and what he saw that got his juices flowing was male. The temptations were rife.
He’d been thinking a lot about Zach recently. What had happened during the game was going to be fuel for more fantasies. And maybe he’d find the courage to actually speak to the boy. Actually, he had the courage. He knew he did, after all he’d gone through. He’d found that going after what he wanted not only gave him a sense of purpose that made him feel good, it also actually got him rewarded with things he’d thought were unattainable. And, Zach had said he was worried about Jeffrey. That had to mean something, didn’t it?
The next day, in the hall, he saw Zach. Their eyes met. This time, Jeffrey walked over to him. Zach saw him coming, and waited.
“You’re limping!” Zach said, his concern obvious in his eyes.
“Yeah,” said Jeffrey, “but it’s not bad, and it’ll go away. I injured my hip last year. Much worse than this, and it got better on its own. Actually, hurting it is related to why I’m at this school now. But the limp will be gone in a couple of days; it’s nothing, really.”
Zach looked at him, really looked. Then a mischievous glint came into his eyes, and he said, “Well, if it’s why you’re here, Jeff, I’m glad you hurt it.” And then he smiled, a really brilliant smile, taking any hint of sting out of the words.
My god, Jeffrey thought, he’s flirting with me! A warm glow spread through him. Then, rather blatantly, he gave Zach a visual once over like Zach had just given him and replied, “I’m glad too.” That was the point at which his audacity failed him and he blushed. Which meant Zach did, too.
Then he said, “Actually, I’ve always been called Jeffrey. That’s what my father calls me.”
Zach looked at him again, contemplatively, pursing his lips and overacting, then said, “No. Jeff’s better.”
Jeffrey wasn’t sure how to respond to that, but then he did. He grinned and said, “You know what? Jeff is good. I like it.”
Jeff and Zach turned and walked down the hall together, toward their next classes. Their getting to know each other had begun. Jeff was to lose his uncertainty about his orientation in the days ahead. He would accept that he was indeed gay, and get to know that Zach was, also. He would learn that being gay was just another one of the complexities of life, and was something that often brought him great joy. Walking down that hallway, he and Zach took their first steps together, the first of many, many more to come.