After gym, the remainder of the morning was full-on, and, when it came to Luke, Ryan decided to park his unresolved questions. He had more than enough to worry about what with facing a tough situation at home—because of it, he still had no idea what the rest of the week would bring. Luke would have to wait. Whatever was going on there wasn't going to go away, and Ryan still wasn't totally convinced he even had it right. Perhaps something new would come up and it would start making more sense, given time.
At lunch break, a group of them crossed to the cafeteria. It had stopped raining as he, Luke, Todd and a few others motored over and joined the line. The conversation at that point got back around to the recent school fire.
"Did you guys read the article in the paper yesterday?" Chris Parker asked. Chris had joined the line just ahead of them. Matt was with him, as was Landon.
"'The Academy Burns’, you mean?" Todd quoted the title of the rather colorful write-up as they inched forward. His face creased into a grin. "Yeah. I saw that. It was in the sports supplement, wasn't it?"
Even Ryan laughed out loud. He glanced over, and not far away, Landon studied the floor. Fire or not, nobody was letting Mitchell forget his trashing at the hands of the Creek Volleyball team, and Landon had tried to distance himself from the humiliating defeat—and finding out that real friends were thin on the ground.
Ryan felt a subtle bump on his backside, and he wasn't surprised to turn to find Jacko grinning like a Cheshire Cat that wasn't afraid to acknowledge it had just done something a little risqué! And either the kid was trying to stand a bit taller, or he was growing like a weed! With him were the usual gang including Mason, Gabe and Danny Gillespie—and most of all, Ryan was pleased to see Simon with them. He saw Simon flash Luke a quick grin. Simon had been having problems—Ryan knew that from Luke—but he looked like a different person that day. He was grinning, happy, and more like the old Simon once again.
That was great. On the other hand, Jacko was a bit of a problem.
It was becoming awkward that the kid had a crush on him. It wasn’t that he didn't like the talented younger tennis player—he did. Just not particularly in the way Jacko was leaning. Being on the team together, they saw quite a bit of each other, and he was beginning to realize Jacko seemed to have more in mind than just the tennis balls when they practiced at the nets! It had gotten to the point that Ryan had balked at showering afterwards the last couple of times.
Jacko had called him often during the summer break—and even 'popped over' once! Innocuous at first, it soon became clear that he was looking for more than Ryan was willing to give. At the Nike camp, it hadn't been too bad, and being in a different age set, Ryan didn't really see much of either Mase or Jacko during the days. In the evenings, when everyone tended to hang out as a group and have fun, Jacko had been unusually reserved in a setting outside his comfort zone. But now, back at school, he was getting a bit—scratch that—a lot more forward.
Ryan sighed to himself. Who could blame the kid, really? Who else was there around them who Jacko could talk honestly to? Ryan was probably the only gay guy Jacko knew. Who else could he flirt with without getting his teeth bashed in?
"Hey, Ry!" Jacko locked eyes with him, and then his eyes widened. "Oh my God...what happened to you?"
"According to him," Chris smirked, "the other asshole was worse off—but we heard it was some kid from the sixth grade."
Jacko's eyes widened further. "Really?"
"Of course not fucking really!" Ryan barked. He was getting sick of the jokes, but immediately regretted cursing, as Jacko flinched.
"Is there anything I can do?" Jacko asked, gathering himself.
Like give it a kiss and make it better, you mean?
Ryan quickly regretted that hidden thought. All the kid was trying to do was help for Christ sake, and typical of him, he was thinking of others and not just himself like too many of the assholes around about them usually acted.
"Thanks, Jacko. It's fine,” he said, with a little more grace.
"We're still on for after school, though?" Jacko was a little more tentative this time.
Oh shit! Ryan clapped his hand across his forehead. With everything else that was going on, he'd completely forgotten he'd agreed to an hour's tennis practice that day after school. "Awe, hell...I'm really sorry, bud. I totally screwed up! I didn't even bring my racquet today."
"Oh..." Jacko's face fell, but then, in a hopeful tone, he added, "I've got a spare if you—"
"If I could, I would," Ryan countered, "but it's just that I've got a lot going on...and I need to get home pretty quick."
"It's alright." Jacko’s face, however, couldn't hide that it wasn't. That was the thing about him—you got what was there.
"At least let me give you a lift home," Ryan said as the line moved forward and they shuffled along with it. He was annoyed with himself. What a fucking messed-up day this was!
"It's fine. Mom can come and get me."
He could tell that Jacko was hurt. He sounded deflated and perhaps even felt like he was being given the cold shoulder—and there was some truth in that, though there was nothing Ryan could do about it right there in the cafeteria. He shrugged and turned away, frustrated by the distractions. He had more to worry about than some love-sick kid! He was relieved when he heard Mason say to Jacko, "So, are you coming over to our place after school now?"
Behind Ryan, Jacko brightened up as he and his friends made plans.
They collected their food, though Ryan had little appetite for anything more than a small sandwich, and they passed through the tables until they found a big enough space for them all.
"Is it really true that Daniels is leaving?" Gabe asked through a mouthful of fries once they'd got down to the serious business of eating. "And that they're building a new media center?"
Ryan frowned, mid-bite. "What? Daniels? Leaving? Who told you that?"
"Actually, I heard that, too," Todd said, chewing absently. "They're saying the Art department is going to share space somewhere else. At least for now."
"Since when?" It was the first Ryan had heard of it.
"Since this morning. Something about them cutting back on art," Todd said, swallowing before adding, "but if you ask me, there's probably nothing in it."
"I heard they were putting a swim center in there," Mason said, his tone eager. "A full-size Olympic pool, diving boards, the whole works!"
Todd was scathing. "Oh come on, Mase! I doubt it—there's never that much space. You'll believe anything!"
Mason snickered. "Duh...and how do you spell 'gullible'?"
Ryan didn't have the energy for the jokes as Todd got rinsed, and he turned the conversation towards Luke. "Luke, have you and Si heard anything about any of it from Toby?" If Art was being downgraded, Toby Skerrit for one was not going to be happy.
"What?" Luke looked up from his phone that he’d had out again, hidden under the table. A smile had crept onto his face from something the rest of them couldn't see.
"Toby? Dunno…" Luke's eyes flicked around the table as he slid the phone back into his pocket. "Can’t you ask him?"
Ryan struggled to keep the rising irritation out of his voice. "He’s not in today!"
"Nobody knows where he is," Simon confirmed.
Luke shrugged it off. "Sorry—I've no idea, then." By the look of him, it felt like he hardly knew what they were even talking about! Then Luke’s expression changed and he said, "Did you know that in German, ‘The Hobbit’ is called 'Der Kleine Hobbit.'? It means 'The Little Hobbit'"
Chris wasn't the only that looked at Luke as if he'd just taken a stroll out of a mental asylum!
"We bow to your great wisdom, Summers the Grey!" Todd flared his hands like a wizard\s. "Where the hell did you dig that one from? A hole in the ground?"
"Haha...funny guy!" Luke's good mood wasn’t doused. "We went round to the Carters for lunch yesterday. Elliott has the book in German. They say hi, by the way."
Elliott Carter. The guy from Creek! It hit Ryan harder than his father had. That had to be it!
No, it couldn't be. He remembered how Elliott and that Spanish girl had been all over each other like a rash during the ASSF! Despite having decided to leave his questions about Luke to one side, he couldn’t let go. "So what's Elliott like?"
It was Todd who replied. "You met him, didn't you? He's a nice enough guy. His folks are loaded, so not sure why he's at Creek, but hey...to each their own." He shrugged as he swallowed the last dregs from a can of Coke. "His brother's a handful, though, from what I remember."
Ryan's ears pricked. "He has a brother?"
"Sam!" Mason rolled his eyes.
Luke had started in on his own sandwich, and nodded as he chewed. Swallowing, he said, "Yep, Sam...he's in middle school. He's actually dating Owen Kear's sister, Becks. You remember her from the cookout at Todd's?"
Middle school? Becks? Ryan guessed that counted both brothers out for the kind of thing he was concerned about.
Five minutes later, Todd heaved himself up and grunted, "Okay, I gotta shift. There's stuff I need to do." With that, lunch broke up and Ryan was still none the wiser.
The afternoon passed slowly, but eventually the final bell went off, freeing them for the day. Along with a horde of others, Ryan gathered what he needed from his locker and joined the press to escape the buildings. As he made his way toward the student parking lot, he was surrounded by the usual expressions of relief that another day was through as ties got pulled off and jackets slung over shoulders. Walking just ahead of Ryan and Luke, it sounded like Simon, Mason and Danny were still making plans for that afternoon.
"I'll come up to your place as soon as I can," Simon chattered as Jacko hurried to join them. "Jacko's coming too, if he can. We'll bring our swim stuff."
It was good to see Simon in a better mood at last, Ryan thought once again. The kid had been cranky for weeks!
Simon turned and said, "Luke, are you still good to drive me over to Mase's this afternoon? We need to pick up Danny on the way."
For once, though it was in his hand, Luke wasn't on that damn phone, and he nodded. "Sure. Like I said, as long as you're quick. I'm going out this evening, and I need to go to the mall first."
Ryan’s ears pricked up again. Going out this evening? Where? With whom? At the same time, he felt wary about asking. Still, maybe if he indicated he was planning to go to the mall, too...
"Aha?" Luke looked across, but then again got distracted by his phone, which rang. "Hold on a mo—" He turned away to speak to whoever had called.
Ryan's own mobile—which he kept on silent at school—buzzed in his pocket. He took a quick look and discovered that the call, and the one he’d ignored earlier, was just AT&T. No doubt they were trying to sell him something. He put it away and got back to the problem that was getting away from him. What the hell was Luke up to? He had to know, and what was on that phone Luke was holding was the key.
Luke’s call didn’t last long enough for Ryan to get close enough to eavesdrop, and he and Luke soon left the three younger ones making arrangements and began to thread through the rows of parked cars and trucks. They paused not far away from Ryan's truck, and Luke twisted back towards the buildings and shouted, "Come on Si, move it. I've got stuff to do! Talk to them later!"
Stuff to do? What stuff, Ryan wondered?For once they had little schoolwork that needed completing.
Simon waved back. "Just coming!" He went back to a conversation with Jacko.
Luke turned back as they kept walking, shoving his phone into his pocket. "Sorry, Ry, what were you going to say, earlier?"
A new plan hatched, and Ryan threw caution to the wind as they reached his truck. He drew his own mobile and made a pretense of frowning at it.
"I'm outta battery." He shoved it back in his pocket. "Can I borrow yours? My mom asked me to call."
“Sure.” Luke held out his phone and Ryan took it as Luke turned again, distracted by another shout from across the parking lot—Simon saying he was just coming as he began to dodge around the traffic.
“For God’s sake, get a move on!” Luke shouted in the direction of his brother, though his tone was upbeat. Luke’s car was not too far away, and he started to move towards it, apparently forgetting his phone.
Ryan knew he only had a moment, but he just couldn’t stop himself wanting to check if there were clues in the recent calls list. Then he paused on the way to that day's history, as the phone chimed. This had been his phone before he gave it away and he knew exactly what that sound meant.
A text message.
Should he read it?
Seeing who it was from, he ignored the voice in his head that said, ‘It’s none of your fucking business!’ and tapped to open it.
“What the hell are you doing?”
His head jerked up to find that Luke had wheeled around and was bearing down on him. He'd probably heard the text chime, too. His friend looked really agitated at catching Ryan reading his messages instead of calling. Reaching out his hand, Luke growled, “Get the hell out of my phone!”
Ryan just couldn't obey. He held onto the phone, and looked down.
‘Don't eat 2nite. Dad's treat 4 taking Es. What do u fancy? Elliott x’
Ryan's eyes widened and his stomach became a knot of confused emotions. Most of it made no sense, but it all hung on a single letter—an x that meant nothing on its own, but spelled a whole world of trouble in the wrong hands.
“Elliott Carter?” Unable to control his tongue and just pretend he’d seen nothing, Ryan blurted the name. “You and Elliott?”
Luke turned scarlet and looked panicky. “Give me my fucking phone! You don’t know what you’re talking about.” He snatched back the mobile, his tone laced with outrage.
“Luke…shit…” Ryan's words became garbled and he didn’t know how to get out what he wanted to say from the mush his brain had become. Gobsmacked didn't even come close!
Luke looked like his world had just come to an end. He backed away as he continued to burn. “Just piss off! You don’t know anything about me!” He wheeled and hurried towards his car.
“Luke!” Ryan ran after him, trying to think how to put this right. What the fuck had he gone and done?
Ahead, Luke fumbled trying to open the car door, and in the heat of the moment, it felt to Ryan like there was only one option left. He just couldn't let Luke get away like this, and he shouted at him as his friend wrenched open his car door.
Around about them, others who were also getting into their cars and trucks looked over curiously at his outburst. Part way into his car, Luke froze.
“The Chameleon,” Ryan repeated, running up. He didn’t know what else to say with others all around them, listening. Surely Luke would get it?
Luke stared at him through features that were stretched by an agony of anxiety. At first, it seemed that he had trouble comprehending and making the connection, but then the flush of his face darkened from embarrassment to rage.
“You? You’re Damon?" It came out as a low hiss that hardly sounded like the precursor to elation. The name hung between them like an indictment as, breathing heavily, Luke stared. He seemed to struggle to find the right words, until, "You…you…fucking bastard!”
Ryan flinched, trying to find a way to recover and smooth it over, but Luke wasn't finished as he really got his voice.
“You LYING SHIT!” Luke spat the words with such furious venom, Ryan couldn't hold his eye. Dropping his gaze with shame at the catalog of lies being thrown back at him, Ryan missed the sudden movement as something else was thrown. Luke suddenly lashed out with his fist, hooking Ryan around the mouth, sending him sprawling.
If it had been any other person and any other circumstance, Ryan would have been right up onto his feet and getting ready to knock the teeth out of whoever had done that to him, but this time he stayed on the ground as Luke stood over him with fists curled into balls.
“I’m sorry.” It came out as a whisper as Ryan hung his head in shamed defeat.
Simon hurried up, his anxious face jumping between his brother and the ground trying to figure out what had just happened. “What the hell’s going on?” he demanded. The look on Luke’s face remained stony, and Simon finally turned his full glare on Ryan. “What the hell did you do?”
That only added to the numbers of people who converged on them, pushing closer and hoping for a fight without having any idea what it was about.
Luke rounded on Simon. “Get in the car!”
Simon couldn’t drag his eyes off Ryan’s prone form. “What happened?”
“GET IN THE FUCKING CAR, NOW, OR YOU’RE WALKING!”
Blinking at the reprimand, Simon complied, and the pair drove off, leaving Ryan wiping blood from his mouth. He ignored the rest and pushed past them. Stumbling into his truck, he slammed the door, started the engine with a roar, and squealed towards the exit.
* * *
“Luke!” Simon finally said.
Simon stared wide-eyed at his brother as they waited at the light. "What the hell that was all about?"
“Just leave it!” Luke pulled away fast once it turned green, and went back to trying to keep his foot off the gas and the car under the speed limit. He kept checking his mirror, watching out in case Ryan tried to overhaul him, but there was no sign of Ryan's truck.
What the fuck had just happened? One minute he thought his life had just come to an end, and the next he was smashing his fist into Ryan's face...or was it Damon fucking Jamieson’s face? He gripped the wheel, spinning it angrily as he rounded a corner, skidding through a puddle and causing Simon to swear. Ahead, a police cruiser was on the prowl. Stepping on the brake, Luke dropped back and decided to pull in to a 7-11 on his right before he lost his license...or worse.
"What the fucking hell is wrong with you?" It looked like Simon was close to getting out of the car.
Luke leaned over the wheel and tried to calm down. "Look, I'm sorry—just not now!" His hand throbbed where he had driven it into Ryan's face.
Just how long had Ryan been lying about this? A year? Two? More?
It wasn’t that Ryan was Damon Jamieson. Damon never mattered. He lived a long way away and could be unfriended. Fuck, he wasn’t even real. But Ryan was. All too real. And too dangerouslyclose.
Luke nearly threw up. How long had Ryan suspected? Since he friended Luke as Damon? Ryan must have suspected and wanted to get proof. That had to be it. And when Luke confided in ‘Damon,’ Ryan had his evidence. Fuck!
He wanted to punch the steering wheel, but he’d already freaked Si out enough. He tried to remember all the private things he'd told Damon, and how Ryan could be planning to use them against him. He saw Ryan laughing his head off as Damon all that time.
He took a deep breath and tried to assess the damage as his headspace went into overdrive to figure out what could be contained. Maybe it wasn’t so bad? He’d never said he was gay. And when Ryan asked about him and Elliott, he hadn’t actually confirmed a thing. He could easily explain his reaction as being pissed that Ryan had read his messages. But….he couldn’t make sense of it—none of it.
If Ryan wanted to find out if he was gay so he could out him, why didn’t he? And why did he look so guilty in the parking lot? It made no sense. Why would Damon… Ryan be so upset last night, and then not out him today? Why would he admit he was Damon and then apologize if he planned to ruin Luke?
“Are we staying here all afternoon?” Simon muttered. “’Cos if we are, I’m ringing Mum!”
Luke glanced at his brother. "If you breathe a word of this to Mum and Dad, I'll—” He didn’t finish, but pulled back onto the road, driving a bit more carefully.
The remainder of the journey was made in tense silence. As soon as they’d stopped on the drive, Simon threw open the passenger door, took his backpack and slammed the door shut behind him. Angry, he stormed towards the house. Quickly, Luke got out of the car and looked across the roof.
“Si…” The timbre of his voice got Simon to stop. “Please don’t tell them.”
Simon glowered, but came closer. “I won’t, but you need to tell me what happened.”
Luke glanced towards the house and lowered his voice. “I…I think Ryan may have found out about me and Elliott.”
Simon’s face fell. “Elliott? How—”
“He saw some messages on my phone.”
“Your phone?” Simon’s eyes widened. “Oh…shit…”
Simon gave him a plaintive look, like he wanted to help, but Luke shook his head. After a few moments, Simon turned to go inside. He looked back when he got to the front door, and Luke could see he was worried. That, however, was the least of his problems. The big one, he knew as he hauled his backpack out from where he'd thrown it into the back, was what happened now? What would Ryan do?
Well that wasn't difficult. Luke knew Ryan well enough to know that first off he'd call. To forestall it, he quickly turned off his phone. He wasn't anywhere near ready to want to talk to him. He certainly didn’t want to listen to some tidy little excuses! But then there was the home phone? There was nothing he could do about that other than try to answer it first and then put it straight down. He stared at the front door as he approached. What if it was already ringing? He hurried in, but there was no call—at least not yet.
Another thought loomed. Maybe there’d been no call because Ryan was already on his way round to their place? Knowing him, he could well be, so better still, Luke decided it was best not to be in at all! A plan formed as he bounded up to his room. He'd get changed fast and then go out to get gas, and camp out as long as he could. He changed into jeans and a tee, grabbed his keys and wallet, and hurried back down the stairs.
"Luke?" His mum's voice drifted from beyond the kitchen on the back deck as he came to the bottom of the stairs. Frustrated at being stopped, he went through and put his head out of the back door.
"What?" Had there been a phone call already?
"I assume you're still not planning to be in for dinner?"
“No. But I need to go out to get gas.” He would probably text Elliott when he'd calmed down a bit and make up some excuse. He certainly couldn't face all that just now.
She looked suspicious. "I thought you said this morning you were going with Elliott and Estela to the airport? Isn't he picking you up soon?"
"That's later. Right now, I'm just going out." His response was short and tight, and he tried not to fall into an argument. There was no time for that, Ryan might turn up at any moment. “Does it really matter? I’ll be back.”