Nick Greiner grinned as his teammates gave his best friend, Joel Newton, the accolades he so justly deserved. It was their senior year of high school football and the season was going well. It looked as though they would be going out in style. A big chunk of responsibility for that achievement lay with the running back working his way through the locker room towards Nick.
“That last touchdown was just awesome, Joel!” Nick added a high five to his congratulations.
Joel gave a wry smile. “Thanks, Nick, but I was just doing my job.”
“Come on! The way you charged through that line was amazing. You know you’re allowed to brag sometimes. This is one of those times. Loosen up and just celebrate it!”
Joel and Nick turned to their lockers and started taking off their gear.
“You can thank Greg for opening a hole. Without him, I wouldn’t have made it.”
Nick glanced over to where fullback Greg Chambers was rolling his shoulders. Joel and Greg made a powerful team, regularly breaking through the opponent’s defensive line. As was usually the case, Greg winced as he felt the new bruises he’d sustained — something Joel would be doing, too, once he was undressed. Nick grinned. No matter how much those two were hurting at the end of the game, Nick was sure the other team was feeling worse.
“Sure, Greg did his part — we all did — but it was you that shrugged off that tackle and charged down to the end zone, not Greg.” Nick shook his head. “I don’t know what it is with you. You’re acting like scoring the winning touchdown in our homecoming game with only a minute left on the clock is nothing to brag about. How did you get to be so modest?”
Joel paused and glanced over his shoulder at Nick. “I’m not being modest. I’m being honest. If it hadn’t been for Greg, I would’ve been slammed.”
Nick continued to strip while trying to beat some sense into his friend. “Nah. I saw that line of faggots and they were almost begging you to run through them. There was no way they’d stand up to a bruiser like you.”
Joel snorted. “Yeah? Well, I can tell you that this bruiser has bruises that are telling me those guys were no pushovers.”
Steve Wilson, a linebacker, jumped in. “I heard one of their cheerleaders say that a couple of the players on their team are gay. She didn’t say which ones, though.”
Nick rolled his eyes. “I’m not surprised, the way they were playing. Fags can’t play football — that’s a fact.”
“Oh yeah? And where did you drag that from? Out of your ass?” Joel asked.
Nick wasn’t surprised by Joel’s reaction. On the football field, Joel was a demon personified, but off the field he was the all-round nice guy that every mother wanted her daughter to date. None of the girls at school had caught his eye for more than a date or two, but he had convinced Nick that he was waiting for college before he started a serious relationship.
“You’re too soft, Joel. I know you like to think the best of everyone, but you have to face facts. Fags don’t even deserve to live.”
“That’s kinda harsh,” Steve said. “I certainly couldn’t tell which ones were queer. They played a good game.” He grinned. “We just played so much better. The Eagles rule!”
The locker room was filled with raucous agreement.
When the cheering died down, Nick grinned at Joel. “Anyway, I think you’re certain for homecoming king, now that you’ve made the homecoming weekend.”
Joel scowled. “I still can’t believe I let you talk me into that king thing.”
It had been a struggle, but with a lot of help from their friends, Nick had convinced Joel to accept a nomination. Joel had insisted that there wasn’t any point and that it was a waste of time, but he had eventually given in.
Nick draped an arm across Joel’s bare shoulders. “That’s what friends are for. You’re a popular guy, but you’re too modest. This is my way of making sure you stand up and be counted. Just you wait — tomorrow night you’ll find out just how popular you really are.”
Joel sighed. “Yeah. That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Nick laughed and punched Joel on the bicep, and then laughed again when he winced.
“Careful! I took a fall on that arm today.”
* * *
The homecoming dance was in full swing, but Nick and a few friends were clustered in a corner. Joel hadn’t shown up, and the homecoming king and queen were to be presented during the DJ’s first break. It would be a big anti-climax if Joel won and wasn’t there. Nick was getting worried that something had happened. Joel had always let him know ahead of time if he was going to miss something they had planned.
“Try him again,” Carol Irving suggested.
“I’ve already tried him three times. He’s not answering his cell.” Nick scowled while he stared across the room, still hoping Joel would suddenly materialize. “Just a sec. I’ll try his home number.”
“Hello?” answered a feminine voice.
“Yes. Who’s this?”
“Nick Greiner, Mrs. Newton. I’m at the homecoming dance, but Joel’s not here. Do you know where he is?”
“Didn’t he tell you? I thought he would’ve. Joel’s up in his room. He told me he’s not feeling well, and hasn’t been all day. He also said he’s still very sore from the game last night.”
After thanking Joel’s mom, Nick hung up and told the others what was going on. The night didn’t seem the same after that. The possibility occurred to Nick that Joel was faking his illness to avoid being homecoming king, but he dismissed it. That just wasn’t like Joel. Nick told himself to call Joel in the morning to check on him and to let him know how the vote went.
* * *
The next morning, Nick drove over to Joel’s house and parked in the driveway like he usually did. Joel’s dad, who was working in the front yard, looked up as Nick got out of the car.
“Hi, Nick! Congratulations on Friday night’s game. I thought you gave a real star performance.”
“Thanks, Mr. N, but Joel’s the one who won the game for us.”
Nick glanced toward the house. Joel hadn’t answered when he had called first thing that morning. “Is Joel okay? Mrs. N told me he’s not been feeling well.”
Mr. Newton made a face. “I don’t know. He says he’s not up to doing anything and just wants to spend the day in his room. It’s so unlike him that I’m wondering if I should take him to a doctor.”
“It’s that bad?” Nick was concerned. Joel had never been lazy. He was always doing something. One of the constant jokes Nick had with his friend was wondering when Joel ever found the time to sit down and study. Nick would speculate that he did it in the middle of the night, because it was a rare occurrence when he found Joel reading a book. Joel would just smile, shrug and say he was lucky.
“He says it’s not all that bad, just something that’s gotten him down for a couple of days.” Mr. Newton stared up at Joel’s bedroom window. “He looks okay, but he’s very quiet and doesn’t seem to have a lot of energy. If it wasn’t so out of character, I’d say something was bothering him, but he knows he can always talk to me. Maybe you can get something out of him.”
“I’ll try.” Nick waved and headed to the door. As was normal at Joel’s house when someone was home, the front door was unlocked. Nick wiped his shoes on the mat and walked in.
Joel’s mom stuck her head out of the kitchen. “Nick! Would you like something to drink?”
Nick smiled. “No, thanks. I was just going up to see how Joel’s doing.”
Mrs. Newton frowned. “He’s not well. Knock before you go in, but I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you.”
Nick bounded up the stairs. Joel’s bedroom door was shut, so Nick knocked and reached to twist the knob to go in. It didn’t budge.
“Who is it?”
Nick thought Joel sounded fine, if a little depressed. “It’s me. Nick! What’s up with the locked door?”
“I’m sick.” There was a short pause. “Sorry, Nick, but I wouldn’t want you to catch what I’ve got. I’ll see you at school sometime, okay?”
There was something odd about the way Joel said that, but Nick couldn’t put his finger on it. It wasn’t quite bitter. It wasn’t quite sad. Nick put it down to the fact that Joel was seldom sick, and he must have been finding it annoying.
“Okay. Get some rest. In case you don’t already know, you won the vote last night. Congratulations on being the homecoming king! I told you that you were popular. Hopefully that’ll cheer you up.”
“Thanks, Nick. Now I need to rest. Sorry.”
* * *
The next morning, Nick was sitting in his homeroom, doodling on the cover of his English notebook. Normally he’d be spending the time chatting with Joel, but Nick hadn’t seen him when he’d arrived at school. They always met at the same gate, so Nick assumed Joel was still sick and at home for the day. For a moment, he felt envious. Joel didn’t have to endure the seemingly endless announcements that were coming over the PA system.
“… and to finish off, I’d like to introduce our homecoming king, Joel Newton, who has asked to say a few words.”
Nick sat up straight and snapped his attention to the video monitor where he saw Joel seating himself at the announcer’s desk. He wondered why Joel hadn’t mentioned he’d be at school. A stray thought that Joel may have been trying to avoid him crossed Nick’s mind, but he couldn’t see a reason for that. Nick chuckled when he heard one of the nearby girls give a dreamy sigh as she stared at the screen. Joel was wearing a black muscle shirt that showed off his broad frame and well-defined upper body. Over the years, more than one girl had asked Nick to introduce her to his friend.
“Thanks, Mrs. Kennedy. Hi, everyone. I know a lot of people have been wondering where I was on Saturday night. The story that went around was that I was too hurt to go to the dance, and that was true, but not in the way that people think.”
Nick frowned. He hoped it was just the sound system, but he thought Joel sounded almost angry. There was an edge to his voice that Nick didn’t hear often, but whenever he did, it always meant bad news for someone. Joel’s face appeared calm, but Nick thought his posture made him look tense.
“You see, I’ve been blessed and cursed with a perfect memory. It’s a blessing, because it’s made school work easy. I can ‘see’ the relevant textbook pages while I’m doing tests, and I can recall every comment the teachers have ever made. But it’s a curse, too, because I can also remember every single comment anyone has ever made about me.
“My best friend put me up for homecoming king. He said it would show me how popular I am. Well, what he said made me do something I’d been planning for a long time, but I’d been too afraid to do. I spent Saturday working out how unpopular I am. That’s the reason I didn’t go to the dance.”
Nick glanced around the room to see how the other kids in the class were reacting. Someone whispered a question asking what Joel was talking about, but Nick just shrugged.
“I went back over the last year and counted every time someone said they didn’t like me. That they hated me. That they thought I was useless. Just the last twelve months, and the ones I thought were joking, I didn’t count.”
Nick grinned with relief. He had spent enough time with Joel to know that practically no one told him they didn’t like him. There were a couple of girls, after Joel had told them that he wouldn’t be going out with them again, but that was all Nick could recall. He felt that even if someone did hate Joel, they wouldn’t say so to his face. They’d be too scared he might beat them to a pulp, even though he wasn’t a violent guy. Nick was sure that Joel was setting things up for some sort of joke and wondered again if he had faked being sick to avoid the homecoming festivities. Joel never liked being the center of attention.
“The numbers were shocking. I expected them to be, which is why I had been putting off doing it. In the last 365 days, 237 different people have told me a grand total of 862 times that they don’t like me. Forty-nine of those people went so far as to say they wished I was dead, with 37 of them saying they’d like to kill me themselves.”
Nick wasn’t the only one who was stunned. His mouth hung open while a buzz of disbelief ran through the room. Nick knew that Joel wouldn’t lie, so there was something going on that Nick didn’t know about. Joel had a resolute expression on his face, one that seemed touched with anger. Nick decided he had to see Joel in person.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Nick ignored the homeroom teacher and sprinted down the hallway. The broadcast booth was on the upper floor and Nick wanted to get there before Joel got away.
“Not all of those 237 people are students. Three of them are teachers here at the school. Two of them are coaches. Twenty-nine are adults from outside of the school. Regardless, I have, on average, been told more than twice a day that I’m not liked.”
Nick slid around a corner and almost collided with a custodian. “Sorry!” Nick narrowly avoided being tripped up by the broom and kept on running. He was listening to the PA system and trying to make sure he didn’t miss anything Joel was saying.
“My best friend tells me I’m modest. That I don’t brag about how good I am. There’s a good reason I don’t boast. I’ve got too many people telling me how bad I am. How useless. Pathetic. The ironic thing is that my best friend is number two on the list of people who tell me how bad I am the most. I suppose that’s because I spend more time with him than anyone else, but it certainly hasn’t helped me feel good about myself. There isn’t a week that goes past without him putting me down.”
Nick stumbled. He had no idea what Joel was talking about. He had always looked up to Joel. Joel wasn’t perfect, but he was the best friend anyone could want. Nick knew he would never knowingly put him down. He felt a tightening in his stomach as his mind jumped back to the word “knowingly”. He didn’t know what he’d done, but as he took the stairs three at a time, he was busy trying to work out how to apologize.
“I can imagine Nick now — he’ll be denying everything I’ve just said. But, just after the game on Friday night he told me that he wished I was dead. His exact words were, ‘Fags don’t even deserve to live.’ He didn’t know that I’m gay when he said it, but that’s never stopped it from hurting.”
Nick froze at the top of the stairs. He remembered saying the words, but had never connected them to Joel. He stared down the corridor toward the broadcast room. Behind that door was someone Nick had thought he knew. All the times he had talked about faggots ran through his mind. He had never considered Joel in the same category as them, but he now knew better. His best friend was a fag.
Nick turned and rested his head on the wall as a circle of thoughts ran through his mind. Fag. Best friend. Fag. Best friend. One and the same.
“I’ve been hiding this for years and I’ve finally had enough. For all the other gay guys and girls out there, all I can say is to stick it out. You’re not alone. There has to be a light at the end of the tunnel, and if there isn’t, I’m going to try to make one.”
Nick had heard that tone before. It was the one Joel used on the football field before he slammed through his opponents. It was when everything was make-or-break — he would crash through or crash out.
Nick had always admired Joel for that attitude. He realized that unless he did something, he was going to be one of the people Joel crashed through. Nick wasn’t sure if he knew his friend anymore, but then he had never met a faggot — he corrected his thinking — no, a gay guy, before. Joel was nothing like the mental image Nick had of someone who… did those sorts of things.
“I’m going to go home now to pack. I don’t know if I’ll see any of you again. I said my best friend is number two on the list of people who have put me down because I’m gay. Number one is my dad. He’s often told me that he loves me, but almost as much, he’s told me he hates me. Tonight, I’ll have something to tell him. Tonight, I’ll find out which is stronger — love or hate. If I’m not at school tomorrow, you’ll know that hate is stronger than love. I’ll be homeless, or worse. For those of you who believe in a God of love, pray for me.
“Thank you, and, maybe, goodbye.”
Nick watched the broadcast booth, only ten feet away, while he thought about what he was going to do. Joel had told the school something that couldn’t be taken back. A smile flickered over Nick’s lips as he admired the courage Joel had shown. That his best friend had shown. Nick straightened and walked forward as his thoughts and priorities solidified. Before anything else, Joel was his best friend.
The door opened and Joel stepped out. He paused and narrowed his eyes when he saw Nick. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I heard my best friend might have some problems at home, and I was wondering if he’d like me there tonight.”
“Why? I’m a faggot, remember? I don’t deserve to live!”
Nick winced. He knew he had a long way to go if he was going to deserve to reclaim Joel as his best friend. “So I’m an asshole. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to help. Isn’t that what friends are for?”
Copyright Notice — Copyright © August 2007 by Graeme.
The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form — physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise — without the author's expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.
Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
I would like to thank Colin, Dewey, Ray, Kel and also everyone from The Mail Crew for the advice they have given me on this story, especially with the American specific details.
I would like to thank Aaron and Rain from The Mail Crew for editing this story for me. I can thoroughly recommend their website to all teenagers who are gay, lesbian, bi or not sure.