The light from his computer screen washed over a face tense with apprehension. Ryan poked at Luke on Facebook, hoping for a response so he could start a conversation—the details of which were still sketchy in his head. Luke, however, was offline, and even after a long half an hour, remained that way.
Giving up, Ryan switched accounts once more. As Damon Jamieson, he re-read the earlier message thread, almost wishing for some indication it was a mistake—the alternative made his stomach churn.
Surely not? After all these years, he could hardly bear the thought. Not because he didn't want it to be true, but because the deceit after all he'd had to carry, was unforgivable! Quickly, his anger mounted. It had already been a crap weekend…but this? Maybe he should have been pumped by the news, but it just made his foul mood even worse.
The fucking bastard!
He chewed on it until it was late. Finding no resolution, he finally went to bed.
Morning came too fast. Monday’s always did, but this time Ryan woke earlier than was normal—even for him. He’d slept badly, and had woken as conflicted as he'd been the night before. Now, however, it was himself he was most upset with—and disappointed, too.
The previous night, he’d come unglued. After such a crap day it had been easy to think the worst about everything and everyone. Now, in the cold light of day, the possibility that Luke Summers—his best friend whom he'd grown up with these last five years—was gay, seemed even harder to believe. Impossible, even. It just didn't add up, and surely there had to be a different explanation for the exchange that Luke and 'Damon' had had the previous evening? On the other hand, Ryan had stared at that message thread long enough that it was burned in his memory. There's this guy I kind of like.
Actually, Luke had said, ‘This guy I kind of like…a friend...’ But what the hell did that actually mean?
Maybe Luke wasn't talking about himself...that was a possibility. Covering for Simon, maybe? That wasn’t out of the question, and Ryan had always wondered about Simon and Toby Skerrit—just something about the pair.
If not that, then either it was a wind up, or it was disappointing. Disappointing would be that Luke was in fact gay, but had absolutely no interest in any of the guys around them at school—including, Ryan realized—he himself.
On the other hand, what if the 'guy he kind of liked' was Ryan? He was a friend, wasn’t he? Ryan scowled to himself. Come on, get a grip! He knew he was letting it mess with his head, but he needed to know the truth.
Rather than lie there and mope, he hauled himself out of bed and considered his options as he took a longer shower than usual. He went through his normal routine with soap and shampoo, but his mind was on other things as he scrubbed his hair and tried to think it through.
What a fucking shit weekend!
And now this. After all these years and all the hiding, the pretending, the painful stuff. And now Luke was gay after all? What was that all about? Perhaps he should have been over the moon, but instead, he was just confused.
Maybe some would say he was no different, but he didn't see it that way. Damon Jamieson—an online persona that he'd created several years ago and developed over time—gave him safe access to forums and online resources for gay people. Places where he could never risk being himself. It was a necessary evil, but at least he was out there, and Damon was him and as real as it could be if you got past the cover story.
Befriending Luke on Facebook had been an accident that had almost blown Ryan’s cover. It had happened when, quite some time ago, ‘Damon’ had accidently befriended the real Ryan Alexis Facebook account. Facebook had then gone into overdrive and offered Damon—as a friend of a friend—to a number of Ryan’s school friends!
Shit—he'd felt sick about the whole thing for a week!
He'd rectified it fast, and as it turned out, Luke had been the only friend who'd taken a bite. He’d left Damon there, and had even started chatting to Luke through that online persona! It was amazing the things that had come out, though Ryan had to be damn careful about what account he was using at any one time—and about how much he was 'supposed' to know.
But now he was confused—it almost felt like Luke was cheating on him! He was caught between a nagging desire to message Luke with a, 'I know what you are' text, and the frustration that he wasn't meant to know anything! With all that he was still saddled with at home, came the fucking awful fear that he'd somehow get outed at school, too, if it all went pear-shaped.
Nothing should risk that!
The hot water massaged his neck and shoulders, and he began to calm down at last. There was something about a hot shower. It tended to wash away more than the grime, and he admitted at last that he was being a stupid fucking asshole!
He still didn't know why Luke was suddenly coming up with all this stuff, but maybe he had completely misunderstood where he was coming from? What if it really had been a joke; a stupid wind up? He'd hardly hung around to find out, had he? The only real things Luke had actually said—and Ryan had checked Damon’s message log enough times—were, ‘Well…there’s this guy I kind of like…a friend…”, followed by, “I’m not sure what you mean...”
That could mean lots of things—not all of them necessarily gay! Ryan turned off the shower, and reached for the towel as he tried to fathom what those might be. On the other hand, if Luke was into guys then he'd hidden it for whatever reason that was important for him. It wasn’t hard to guess, in the world they lived in, what some of those could be. Either way, the idea now that Luke was some total evil bastard, was as stupid as it got!
Drying himself off, Ryan mused that the only good news was that at least it was Damon who would take the flack for the bad behavior, not Ryan. The trouble was, after going ape-shit in that online conversation and slamming the lid of his laptop, now he didn't know what the real truth was!
In many ways, it might have been easier for Damon to sleuth it out; to question Luke online and tease out some real facts—and at least put to bed the possibility that it had all been a stupid stunt. But, with the way he’d kicked off at Luke the previous night through Damon, Luke might not want to talk. Ryan wouldn't even be surprised if his alter-ego had been un-friended by now! At the same time, with the things he wanted to ask Luke, he wanted to see his face and measure the truth in his replies. Some things were far too important for a chat box!
So what should he do? Confront Luke at school? It would just be so much easier if he could hurry up to him sometime in the next couple of hours with a big grin on his face, and say, ‘Who’d have guessed? It looks like we’re both gay! I guess there’s a lot to talk about—any plans for later this afternoon?’ However, that meant coming clean that Damon had been a lie. Luke probably wasn’t going to like that. Worse, what if Ryan was totally off about his friend being gay. Getting that wrong could be a disaster and his world could suddenly go tits-up faster than a knife fight in a phone booth!
Wrapping the towel around his waist, one thing he knew; he couldn't just ignore it and forget what Luke had said. Pausing by the sink, he studied his face in the mirror.
God, what a mess!
The bruising had spread around his eye and had developed into that ugly, milk chocolate shade that came before bruises began to disappear.
For the first time, Ryan had contemplated that it was time for a serious look at his—and his mom's—situation. He hated his mom for her weakness and her unwillingness to break away, but was he much different? In his own head, too, he'd been trapped by his link to the school. He was so used to the Academy that being somewhere else hadn’t even figured, but maybe even that needed re-thinking? He and his mom could make a complete break from the area—go live up with Papa and Gramma so that he could finish his schooling somewhere around there? He doubted his father would even care, other than the money would dry up!
Having showered and dressed, he lay down on his bed to continue to think. He must have drifted off because when he next looked at his clock, he knew he'd have to hustle.
He headed down to the kitchen to get a bite to eat for breakfast, checking his watch as he slipped quickly down the wide stairs. Time was getting on—he'd have to put his foot down if he wanted to get in early enough to start on Luke and stop off for gas on the way! Thankfully, his father would be long gone by now, but hopefully there would still be coffee in the pot. He needed something to better his mood, which, looking out of the window was as sodden as the weather. Heavy clouds bunched up above them and it was still raining. It had started the previous evening, and by the deep puddles in the yard and driveway, it looked like it had been raining most of the night, too.
His nose twitched as he passed through the hall. It actually smelled like bacon! Stepping into the kitchen lugging his backpack, he was surprised to find his mom standing by the stove, tending strips of bacon that sputtered invitingly under the grill.
He studied her in surprise. It wasn't just the breakfast—that she was up at all, was verging on a miracle! She looked pale, though maybe that's what she normally looked like when layers of makeup and pretense were stripped away. He wondered where she'd got to the previous night, and how much she'd drunk.
"Hello." Her voice was quietly dry, and she sounded hung over. "I made you breakfast." She pushed a few bacon strips onto a plate and brought it to the table.
The attempt at breakfast was pitiful, and the bacon looked forlorn—hardly the Full English at the Savoy—and Ryan remembered the times she used to cook when he was young. Life seemed so much happier then, but rarely now did she ever put a pan on the stove.
“I thought we could all go out somewhere special tonight,” she murmured as, leaving the plate where it was, Ryan moved past her towards the coffee pot. “To celebrate. Maybe to that nice restaurant Papa and Gramma like to take you to?”
“Celebrate?” He shook his head as he poured a cup. She had to be kidding. “What’s there to celebrate?”
“Of course there’s something to celebrate! Your father will make major today. We have to do something special, don’t we?”
He rounded on her, wanting to scream, but just said, “And if he doesn’t? Then what?”
“Oh, don’t be silly. Of course he will. Then you’ll see that—“
She stopped and flinched as she caught a glimpse of his face. Even through her rheumy eyes, he guessed she could see the creamy-brown bruising that had developed.
"Maybe you should stay off school today," she said. "I can write you a note or something."
He glared at her. "Why would I need to stay off school? Because it’s raining?" He didn’t hide his antagonism.
"Well, I just thought..."
"You thought I might not want to have to tell my friends that my father beat the crap out of me?" His tone remained scathing.
"No!" She looked away. "I didn't mean it like."
"So what did you mean, Mom?" He found it almost impossible to feel sorry for her at times like this.
"It was an accident. You know he didn't mean it."
"An accident?" For so early in the morning, he already felt weary. He poured coffee into a travel mug, and added creamer. There was probably no point even arguing about it, but he said, "He's been beating me most of my life. So they were all accidents, now?"
"Oh don't be ridiculous—you're overreacting! He only smacked you yesterday, because you were being disrespectful." She even managed to glare at him through her bloodshot eyes. "He's kept you straight, hasn’t he? It's only because he loves you and wants the best for you!"
Ryan barked with laughter. Straight? It was almost funny!
The humor quickly evaporated, and he said, "I promise you, if he touches me one more time, I'm outta here! But tell me this—if I'd have gone to the cops yesterday after I left, and brought them back here, what would you have told them? Anything?"
"Now you're just being foolish!" Her tone was indignant, but he could tell from the fleeting traces of guilt in eyes that couldn't meet his own, that he'd hit home.
Thought so. He was already beginning to turn for the door.
The tone of her voice stayed him—as did the look of defeat he saw when he glanced back. She stepped towards him and reached out to touch the side of his bruised face, but he was still too angry to do anything else than grab her wrist before she made contact. It was the pained grimace that she couldn’t hide that got his attention.
“Mom?” Still holding her wrist, he pushed back the sleeve of her dressing gown. He cried out quickly as he saw the livid bruising that had spread up her arm. “OH MY GOD! MOM!”
That FUCKING BASTARD!
Quickly she tried to cover it up. “It’s nothing,” she muttered. “I shouldn’t have upset him.”
“Upset him? Fucking hell, Mom—did he did that to you?” Ryan already knew that his father had to have been the cause. He felt nauseous and livid all at the same time. He reached for her and held her in a hug.
“Mom…” All he could think right then was that he was right—they needed to get out of there, and to hell with anything else!
“No, it’s not!”
“I just banged it on the door, that’s all,” she said, the lie not even fitting with her previous explanation. Extracting herself, she made an attempt to back away. “Stop fussing. Now, are you going to eat that bacon?”
Ryan took a deep breath, but there didn't seem any point in challenging the lie. It wouldn’t get them anywhere. But why couldn’t she see it? What would the bastard have to do before she finally realized she needed to get out of there? And worse, what if she stayed? What would become of her once he’d left for college?
He studied the meager strips of bacon. “I’ll eat it if you promise that we’ll talk about this again when I get home.”
“There’s nothing to talk about—" The protest lacked conviction, and he interrupted.
“But if it means you’ll eat something…“ she sighed, “…then...whatever....”
It was hard to know whether she meant it or not, but he knew it was probably the best he’d get just then, and time was running out to get to school. So he made a show of putting the bacon strips between two thick slices of bread and took a bite. Actually, it was quite tasty! Then, carrying the rest of his breakfast with him to his truck, he said, “Later, then. And I mean it, Mom, we’ve got to talk about this!”
Two minutes later, he was backing out the drive.
By the time he was hurrying down the school corridor and into their classroom, he was a lot later than he wanted to be. It had been a mistake to stop off for gas on the way when what he really wanted to do was to get there early enough to start probing Luke before class got underway. On the other hand, he still hadn't quite figured out how to go about that cross-examination. In fact, with Luke and his own mom both competing for his headspace, Ryan had more on his plate than a bacon sandwich that day!
As it was, Luke hadn't even arrived in their classroom by the time Ryan got there, and Ryan hadn’t spotted his Volvo in the parking lot where he usually parked, either. Frowning, he passed between the school desks, heading towards his own, to wait. Maybe Luke was sick?
Todd had been checking something in his bag, and looked up as Ryan approached.
"What the hell happened to you?" Barring Ryan’s way, Todd stared hard into his face.
Ryan shrugged. "I gave as good as I got." It was better than the rather clichéd and unbelievable, 'I ran into a door', and a whole lot better than 'my old man hit me'! He added, "You should have seen the other guy!"
"Jeesh!" Todd shook his head and let him by. "You’re a psycho!"
“Who’s a psycho?” Matt chuckled, pulling into the exchange. Then his eyes widened. “What the fuck happened to you?”
Ryan ignored him as, around about them, the Monday morning began to take shape.
Todd shrugged. “He said the other guy was—“
“Have you seen Luke?” Ryan demanded.
“He’s not in yet.” Todd looked suddenly suspicious. "It wasn't him that decked you, was it?"
"Nobody fucking decked me—and certainly not Summers!" Irritated, he began to push past Todd to make towards his own desk.
"Okay, okay... I still don't know where he—" Todd’s eyes flicked to the door. “I tell a lie…” He pointed to the new arrival before turning to begin a conversation with Matt.
“What in God’s name…?” Luke said as he bustled up. He looked relaxed that Monday morning, and decidedly straight as he peered at Ryan’s face.
“Hell—what happened to you?” It looked like it had started raining again, and Luke was wet as he dropped his backpack onto the desk. “Well?”
Ryan tried to shrug it off. “I gave as good as I got. You should have seen the other guy.”
“What other guy?”
“Just some asshole at the cookout…” Ryan shrugged again and hoped he wouldn’t have to figure out more lies to make it sound plausible. Instead he set his own question. “What about you? Do anything good over the weekend?”
“Nothing much." Luke went back to his backpack and was either cautious or offhand; it was impossible to tell. "You?”
Ryan shook his head. He had more interrogation lined up, but then everything got shut down for roll call. Afterwards, on the way to the first lesson, he was trying to get back to his questions when Todd interrupted with his own agenda.
"Luke—are you coming down to the baseball game this Saturday?"
"This Saturday? I’m not sure I can make it—I might be busy doing something."
Ryan's eyes flicked at his friend’s wary tone. Busy? Doing what?
Todd seemed to agree, and frowned. "Doing what? Come on, you can't blow off—everyone's going!"
"Like who?" Ryan said, wondering who everyone was as he stalked alongside the other two. "First I heard of it."
On the other hand, he mused, with everything else he was dealing with just then, who the fuck cared? Saturday seemed a lifetime away—he might not even be there by the time the weekend rolled around! Part of him was still toying with the idea of walking out of school right then, heading straight home, putting his mom in his truck and driving the two of them to his grandparents. They might not even come back! He probably would have done it if he thought she would actually go. On the other hand, it might end up causing more troubles than it solved in the long run. He'd spent his life keeping his head down and biding his time—it was a hard way of life to break, even for him!
Drawing up alongside them, Matt piped up enthusiastically, "Are you guys talking about Saturday? Me and Alex are going!"
For the sake of normality,Ryan tried to appear interested. "Well it sounds good to me, too. I might be in."
They reached the next classroom and made towards their allotted space. Ryan turned his attention back on his friend as he paused at Luke’s desk on the way to his own. Trying to keep his tone nonchalant, Ryan said, “So what did you say you were doing this Saturday? It’d be a pity to miss the game."
Luke had been looking at his phone, which was obscured from view inside his backpack. He appeared to be reading a message on it, but he looked up.
"I dunno, it's not fixed yet." The grin that had been on his face slipped away, and he sounded defensive as he pushed the mobile out of sight again. "We might be going out somewhere, I think."
"Going out? Where?" Ryan pushed as hard as he dared without it becoming too obvious.
"For God's sake, does it matter? I'll come if I can!"
Ryan’s hackles rose at the snippy reply, and he had to bite his tongue. Who was Luke messaging? Was he getting texts from ‘this guy he kind of liked’? If Luke was glued to some new boyfriend, then any hope Ryan had that it might be him, just went south!
He shrugged. “I was only asking.”
As he moved on to get to his own desk, he also knew that all of it could just be the product of his own neurotic imagination! This approach was getting him nowhere, fast, and as they started into the History class that had usurped last year’s Monday morning Math, he knew he had to back off a bit. Instead, he looked forward to boredom as he got out his textbook. In his opinion, History had to be the worst possible way to start a week!
Mid-morning came before they escaped some mind-numbing lessons, and the class gathered in the small gymnasium, where they took to the mats for some wrestling. Usually pretty hard to beat, Ryan's heart wasn't in it, and he got turned over several times. Afterwards, he left the showers quickly with a plan. Luke had seemed glued to his mobile that morning. Ryan wondered about that, wondered if he could sneak a look at that phone; could there be some clues there?
Back where they had changed, and making sure he wasn't being watched, he slipped his hand down the inside of Luke's backpack. He was hoping to quickly locate the phone, but was disappointed.
Where the hell was that thing?
He gave up on the backpack and started running his hands over Luke's jacket. He'd only just felt presence of the hard, flat plastic casing in an inside pocket, when he was disturbed by the voices of others returning from the showerheads. Stepping away to go back to his own stuff, his heart was thumping hard, and he felt guilty.
What the fuck was he doing? Stealing phones now?
Even though he hadn't been spotted, he couldn't look his friends in the eye as they dressed alongside him. They were soon ready to go and were running a bit late as a group of them gathered at the door. Several were scowling at the continuing bouts of rain.
“Come on, guys. It's just a shower!” Luke was in a good mood and grinned as he stepped out into the heavy downpour. “You should try living in England! Anyway, it’s stopping now”
Laughing, he bounded away, and they all followed as the downpour passed. Jogging, they hurried past the football fields towards the main school buildings.
Jacko’s year were out on the fields on what looked like a back-to-back sports period for the sophomores, and he waved to Ryan as they passed. It looked like the whole lot of them were soaked and completely pasted with mud. Simon was there, too, and Luke paused long enough to speak to his brother. Ryan couldn’t catch what either said. Then they pushed on, legging it to the next class.