When I had followed ‘Hollywood’ to his office we had gone straight there from the car park, so I was still carrying my bag and needed to drop it into my locker, so that was where I headed after leaving his office.
The journey back along the school hall was a strange one, mixed with warm greetings, stares, smiles, whispers and the occasional slap on the back, but not as strange as the sight that welcomed me at my locker, which I soon discovered was plastered with cards and even a few flowers, almost as if it were a shrine to someone who had died.
When I glanced along the row of lockers to where I knew Dallas’ locker was I saw exactly the same sight. The day was certainly getting stranger by the minute.
Reaching out I pulled one of the cards from my locker, with the sticky tape that held it there coming with it and also pulling off some of the bright red paint with it.
It had a picture of what appeared to be an old church on the front of it and inside there was a simple, hand written message … ‘Come home safe.’
It wasn’t signed, but the message was definitely touching.
Picking off a few more cards I found that they were very similar in content, with some having been signed while others were also left unsigned. Regardless of who they were from I couldn’t help being anything but moved by them.
As I was reading them I heard some footsteps behind me and turned to see who it was, soon finding myself face to face with Timmy Baker.
He was alone this time and he just stood there staring at me for a moment, a study of indifference. After all the grief this asshole had given me I would have been quite within my rights to feel nothing but hatred for this guy, but after having had a lot of time to think about it lately I had come to the conclusion that he simply wasn’t worth the effort.
Once an asshole, always an asshole, as far as I was concerned, and I had no feelings toward him whatsoever. He wasn’t even worth thinking about.
My only concern was how Dallas would treat him when he returned. They had been friends. Would that still be the case? I hoped not, but that would be Dallas’ choice, not mine.
Nothing was said between us and so I turned away again and went back to reading cards. I heard him walk away and open his own locker down past where Dallas’ was, but I didn’t even bother looking that way.
More footsteps came up behind me and I turned once more, only to this time find Merry and Pete standing there, holding hands and grinning at me.
‘What the hell are you doing here?’ Merry demanded. ‘Shouldn’t you be resting or something?’
‘Well, it’s so nice to see you too,’ I replied. ‘Welcome back JJ. So glad you didn’t drown or get kidnapped by aliens out there in the wilderness!’
‘Get over yourself Jackson … we already gave you all the mushy stuff the other day!’
‘And I love you too Merry … although by the look of it I’m too late anyhow!’
‘She’s not your type JJ, so hands off!’ Pete warned me, with a laugh.
‘Oh, I think her virtue is safe while I’m around,’ I shot back. ‘But you on the other hand …’
I made a playful dive at him, which he easily evaded, just as Timmy walked back past us, looking quite horrified.
‘Damned faggots,’ I heard him say under his breath as he passed me. I didn’t think either Pete or Merry had heard it, as they didn’t react, but it did tell me that nothing had changed after what Timmy had caused to occur out there beyond Salvation. He obviously wasn’t feeling any remorse for sending us into the drink like that. The thing that I couldn’t decide was whether or not I was more pissed off by that, or more disappointed.
When classes started that morning I was given a welcome back from the teachers, who were all, it seemed, glad to see me. During home room I even received a visit from the school principal who asked exactly what had happened and how we had managed to survive, so it was good to get that out of the way relatively early. In one breath he also informed me that there was an extensive enquiry being carried out by The Authorities (which I took to mean the police and National Parks people), as well as a review by the school into how the trip was managed; then in the next breath I was told that life must go on and that he hoped there would only be minimal disruption to the school routine.
At this contradictory statement I could only look at Merry in dismay, while she could only shake her head.
When home room was over the rest of the morning progressed basically as normal, though it was still with great relief that we heard the lunch bell ring. I had let Pete and Merry know that I wanted to go to see Dallas at lunch time and despite them both saying originally that they wanted to come as well they were happy enough when I explained that I needed some time alone with him, even if they weren’t quite sure why.
I still hadn’t said anything to either of them about Dallas and me patching up our differences, if that’s what it could be called, but I figured that they would find out about that all in good time.
Traffic was light when I headed to the hospital and once more I found a car park almost directly in front. After locking the car I almost skipped up the front steps, feeling nervous, but still quite positive about what lay ahead. I guess that after what had been an upbeat kind of morning at school, Timmy aside of course, I was in a relatively good frame of mind.
Once again I rode the lift up to the third floor and headed down the corridor to what I had begun to think of as our room. The nurses I passed were ones I didn’t recognise, so I managed to reach it without being stopped and asked how I was doing, which was something I was grateful for; however, when I did reach the room I was totally unprepared for what I found. The place was empty!
There was no sign of Dallas, or the old man with striped pyjamas that had taken my bed. All I found were two neatly made, although thoroughly empty, beds.
Walking out of the room feeling dejected I made my way to the nurses station, where I asked the nurse on duty what had happened to Dallas? Had he been moved somewhere, or perhaps discharged?
‘Oh, he was discharged this morning,’ the nurse replied. ‘His parents came and picked him up about nine.’
I suddenly felt cheated. Why hadn’t he let me know that he was being discharged? Surely he could have left a message for me somewhere?
‘Thank you,’ I replied, before turning and starting once more for the lift, dragging my feet as I went.
I knew that his being discharged had nothing to do with the two of us; however on the way back down to the car I mulled over in my own mind the events of the last few days. In terms of our own relationship, had what happened the other day been the last straw? Was Dallas truly so freaked out by the thought of his father finding out about us? I was beginning to wonder if he would ever be able to face up to the fact that he had to live his own life, not the life his father wanted him to live?
And what of his mother? Had she actually stood up and supported him in any way?
Given the support I had received from my own parents it actually saddened me to think that he was so seriously afraid of his father’s possible reaction that he would forgo any chance of happiness for himself.
Maybe I was being a touch melodramatic, and realistically, I knew that I needed to talk to him first before jumping to any conclusions myself, but the fact remained that given how he reacted just two days ago to the news that our mothers both knew what was happening between us, that made me think that he was still far from being accepting of his own sexuality.
And if he was yet to fully accept his own true self, then was he truly ready to accept me?
I really needed to know the answer to that question, so when I climbed in and started the car I decided that I would just have to ask him.
* * * * *
Instead of going back to school I decided to head to Dallas’ house, which was only a few blocks away from my own home, but in an older, leafy, and more affluent area of town. I was hoping that he would by now be home and I would have the chance to talk with him, but all the same I was feeling rather nervous about seeing him.
The house was an older style brick home set back off the street and surrounded by well kept gardens and numerous trees, giving a general feeling of privacy. Facing the street there was a low brick retaining wall in the centre of which was a gateway and stone steps which led up onto the level of the lawns and a stone path that led to the house. There was also a gravel driveway which ran along one side of the property and led to their garage, but I would stick to the path.
I had walked this path many times when I was younger, but this was the first time I had been here in a few years, although nothing seemed to have changed in all that time. The place was neat and tidy and just as I remembered it.
I parked on the street and climbed the few steps, then started to make my way up the long path toward the house, not knowing quite what to expect.
The house looked quiet as I approached it, with no sign of life anywhere. There was no car in the driveway or any lights on inside, from what I could see, nor could I hear the sounds of a television or radio coming from anywhere. Maybe they just hadn’t arrived home yet.
Undeterred I approached the front door, crossing the stone landing that ran along the front of the house, and knocked on the solid wood, rather than using the old brass gargoyle shaped door knocker, which for some reason had always freaked me out as a kid.
After a minute or so of nothing happening I knocked again and waited some more, and was just about to walk away when I heard a noise inside and the door opened.
‘Hello, Mr. Pearce,’ I cheerily said to Dallas’ father. ‘I’ve been to the hospital and they told me Dallas was discharged. Is he home? Can I see him please?’
He looked me up and down and I could tell at a glance that his attitude toward me had changed since the last time I had seen him; and I didn’t think it was for the better either. I could only guess that either Dallas’ mum had let something slip, or he had heard something about me on the grapevine.
‘Hi, JJ,’ he replied. ‘Dallas is … errr … sleeping at the moment.’
Just like his son, he was a terrible liar.
‘How are you doing?’ he asked. ‘We’re all very grateful for what you did out there. Dallas has told us how you saved him. Quite a story really.’
‘Thanks,’ I said to him, ‘but … I was really hoping I could talk with Dallas about some stuff.’
‘Well, I think it’ll have to be another day I’m afraid. He’s still trying to get over it all really. I’m sure you can understand.’ And I imagined him adding in his mind something about me not getting my faggot hands on his son again!
‘Now, if you’ll excuse me JJ, I’m sorry, but I’m in the middle of quite a lot of work that I need to catch up on after being away for most of last week. Dallas should be back at school later this week I would imagine, so you can talk to him then. Please say hello to your parents for me, won’t you.’
He closed the door on me, leaving me staring at that brass gargoyle that I hated so much. At least now I knew where I stood with Dallas’ father. The message had been plain and clear.
Stepping down off the stone landing I took a few steps down the path, but then stopped. I remembered that Dallas’ bedroom was down along the side wall of the house and wondered if I should risk trying to take a look in through the window to see for myself.
Deciding that I had nothing to lose I slipped around the side of the house and crept along the wall, being careful to stay below the level of any windows so that I wouldn’t be seen. When I neared Dallas’ window, which I recalled was the third one along, I could see that it was open and I could hear voices coming from inside.
‘But Dad,’ Dallas was saying. ‘He’s a friend of mine. He saved my life for fucks sake!’
Attaboy, I thought. There’s that set of balls I was hoping you had somewhere!
‘Son, if you know what’s good for you, you will steer clear of him. Do you want to get labelled as being … well, being like him! I’ve heard the stories that have been going around about him. I can’t imagine how his poor parents must feel, having a son like … like THAT!’
‘Don’t talk about him like he’s some freak. He has got more guts and courage in him than just about anyone I’ve ever known. And what if I don’t … steer clear of him? What then? What if I said we really were …’
‘As I said, Dallas …’ he said, cutting him off calmly, but forcefully, ‘if you know what is good for you, while ever you are living under this roof you will do as I ask. And I don’t want to hear another word on the subject.’
I heard a door slam then and what sounded like Dallas collapsing onto his bed. He was muttering something softly which I couldn’t quite hear, then there was silence. All I could hear then was the sound of my own heart beating and that of a breeze whistling softly through the nearby trees.
As quietly as I could I retraced my steps to the corner of the house, then looked down to where my car was parked. If I went down to the car now, I realised, and was spotted by Dallas’ dad he would surely know I had been snooping. Looking around me I saw a gap in the tall hedge that was the fence between Dallas’ house and their neighbours so I took a chance and headed for that, ducking between the close knit plants then scooting down along the other side of the hedge just as fast as I could, just in case I was spotted by somebody.
When I reached the relative safety of the car I finally stopped running, collapsing against the side of it and gasping for breath.
As oxygen started flowing to my brain once more I started going over what had just happened. It was apparent that Dallas’ father knew what I had been up to recently, which could have come from any number of sources, but the bottom line was that he didn’t want his son associating with someone who was known to be … well, gay.
I was proud that Dallas had stood up for me in the way he did, and I couldn’t be sure, but I think he had tried to tell his father that we may have been more than just friends, but had been cut short. If that was what he had been doing it was certainly very brave of him, but judging by the threat his father had made about him knowing what was good for him I would say that there was more riding on this for Dallas than I could know.
Still confused and growing angrier by the minute I climbed back into the car and started it, then put it in gear and pulled out onto the street, not really knowing where it was I intended going, but knowing I wanted to be anywhere but here. I thought about heading back up to the lookout, just to get away from everyone and everything, but in the end I went home instead, deciding to skip the rest of the day’s lessons there and shut the door on the outside world, for a few hours at least.
As I expected there was no one home when I got there, so when I headed inside I fixed myself a snack from the kitchen then went and crashed in my room, not bothering even to change out of my school clothes or to turn on my computer.
I figured that if anyone asked me why I skipped the afternoon at school I would just tell them I wasn’t feeling up to it, and given recent events I was pretty sure that no one would call me on that.
With the afternoon sun streaming in through the window it wasn’t long before I was feeling warm and sleepy, and pretty soon I had nodded off, despite the turmoil that was going on inside my head, only realising this when I woke up much later with the sun not too far above the horizon and the temperature starting to cool off.
Getting up off my bed I went to the bathroom and sloshed some water on my face to try and wake myself up a bit, then I made the mistake of looking into the mirror above the wash basin. To my eyes I looked even worse than I had the other day. It was like another person was there staring back out at me; a bleary-eyed stranger with a haggard face that I barely recognised. These last few days seemed to have really dragged something out of me.
‘You’re not looking too good there, JJ,’ I said to my reflection. ‘I hope you can get all this crap sorted out soon!’
Of course the stranger didn’t answer me, but all the same I knew that I did need to get some things in my life sorted before they really did start to drag me down.
After drying my face I went back to my bedroom and switched on my computer. Glancing at my alarm clock while it was booting up I saw that the time was four fourty-five, which gave me about half an hour before my parents came home; enough time to check my emails and Facebook account to see what was going on in my life that I didn’t already know about … which these days seemed to be quite a lot.
When I opened my email account I found that once again I had been flooded with mail, including one from Merry from that very afternoon.
‘Where the hell did you get to? Are you all right?’ she asked. It had been sent only ten minutes ago according to the time stamp, so I quickly logged onto MSN Messenger in the hope she would be online and I could chat with her.
When I logged in she was there, so I messaged her.
‘I’m fine. Just a lot of shit happening,’ I said.
‘That’s good … that you’re fine, I mean. What shit? Is Dallas giving you a hard time?’
I had to smile at that. If ever there was a loaded question that had to be it.
‘No, it’s all cool between Dallas and me,’ I replied.
‘How cool? Are you two … ummm …’
‘Well? Answer me dammit!’
‘Well … not exactly,’ I typed.
‘What the fuck is that supposed to mean?’
‘It means that we’re over our little differences and are working on something more … maybe …’
‘Oh? As in, you’re together again … well, almost?’
‘SIGH,’ I typed. ‘Yeah, almost.’
‘But … it’s complicated.’
‘How?’ There was no doubt about Merry, she knew how to get directly to the heart of matters.
‘Call me please. As in, on the phone. Do you remember how to use one of those?’
A few moments later the telephone in our living room rang and I went and picked it up.
‘You took your sweet time,’ I said, without even waiting to see who it was.
‘Pardon?’ a familiar male voice said. It was Dallas.
‘Oh, shit. Sorry about that,’ I said. ‘I was just expecting Merry to call me. I have her on MSN at the moment.’
‘Sorry,’ he said to me.
‘Don’t be,’ I replied. ‘Just let me message her and say I’ll call her back later.’
Quickly I sat back at my computer and typed. ‘Dallas has just called. BRB.’
‘Okay them. I’m all yours,’ I said to Dallas. ‘How are you? I went to the hospital today but you were already discharged.’
‘I’m … I’m fine,’ he answered.
‘You’re a terrible liar Dallas. You know that don’t you?’
‘Yeah, I think you’ve told me that before.’
‘So? What’s really up?’
‘About … the other day,’ he said to me. ‘I’m sorry I over-reacted. I didn’t mean to sound like that. I hoped you would have come by yesterday so I could apologise.’
‘You wanted some time to think,’ I said, ‘so I thought I should give you some space.’
‘Thank you for that. I’m seeing things a bit clearer now.’
‘About your father?’ I prompted. ‘Is everything okay at home? You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do Dallas. You’re your own man now.’
‘He said … he said you came by today. Is that right?’
‘Yes, it is. But he wouldn’t let me see you. He said you were asleep.’
‘I know,’ I remarked. ‘I heard the two of you have a row when I decided to try and sneak around to your window to check if he was lying.’
‘You heard … everything?’
‘Holy fuck! I’m sorry you had to hear that.’
‘It’s okay. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before.’
‘No buts, Dallas. It might have stung at the time, but my skin is a lot thicker than it used to be. What I’m more worried about is you. What did he mean when he said that if you knew what was good for you, you would do what he says? It sounded like an or else kind of statement.’
‘It was. Mum told him about us and he went ape-shit. So now, if I want a car, or if I want to go to university, or if I want to stay in his will, or if I want money, or whatever, then I need to toe the line. He’s trying to hold all that over me because he doesn’t want the shame of having a gay son.’
‘Is that what he has? Have you come to terms with that?’
‘I … I’m still working on that,’ he replied flatly.
I bit my lip, trying to make sure I didn’t say anything I would regret later.
‘Please don’t think badly of me for saying that.’
‘I’m not,’ I replied. ‘I want us to be together, but it has to be because both of us want it and because it feels right. There can’t be anything like doubts or insecurities hanging over our heads. Do you understand that?’
‘You can always turn your back on him all together?’ I offered.
‘What? And where would I live …’
‘With me … somewhere … here even … I don’t know … I guess I was just thinking out loud.’
‘It was a nice thought I suppose … but not very practical. What would we do for money? How would we survive? And please don’t tell me we could live on fresh air, sunshine and love … not even you’re that … out there!’
I laughed. ‘Well, it is a nice thought, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah, I suppose it is, even if a little impractical,’ he chuckled.
‘So … I guess that all isn’t lost then? There’s still hope for us?’
‘Yeah, tomorrow is another day, so there’s still hope for us, yet.’
‘I’m so glad to hear it,’ I replied.
* * * * *
Tomorrow was indeed another day. It was Tuesday. One week to the day since we took our unexpected swim in a flooded creek. How time flies when you’re having fun, eh?
My conversation with Dallas the previous night had restored some hope to my otherwise gloomy outlook, while the conversation with Merry which followed was reassuring.
I told her in detail about what had been going with Dallas and me, and with our respective families. She seemed to be listening intently as I prattled on about all our problems. For a while I feared that she was going to tell me to snap out of it and wake up to myself, hadn’t I seen the way he had treated me and everyone else at school, but in the end she said that she was happy for me and that she thought Dallas would come around; he would be mad not to.
‘So you don’t think I’ve lost it altogether?’ I asked her in the end.
‘Quite the contrary, my dear boy,’ she said. ‘I think for the first time in your life you’ve finally got your shit together, and I couldn’t be happier for you.’
‘And how about you? Do you have your shit together these days as well?’
‘No thanks to you, it seems?’
‘Pete told me what you said to him. That he should go after me before someone else did … did you really say that?’ she laughed.
‘Errr … words to that effect maybe. I can’t quite recall.’
‘Well, thank you all the same. He too is a changed person, since Salvation it seems, so what ever it was that you did or said, I thank you.’
‘You’re most welcome,’ I replied.
‘So, when is Dallas coming back to school?’ she asked.
‘Later this week by the look of things, once his foot has been put in a cast and he’s found his walking legs again.’
‘And what will happen with you two when he gets there? There’s bound to be questions if you start hanging together again. How will you handle that?’
‘To be perfectly honest I hadn’t thought that far ahead.’
‘Well, you had better think about it, because if the status quo at school changes then there’s no telling what might happen with some of his other friends. Just be careful, that’s all I’m saying.’
‘I will,’ I said to her. ‘Thank you.’