Miss Chen shook her head in frustration. The classroom was noisy. Noisier than usual for a Wednesday morning. She knew a good teacher should be able to control the classroom. But this was always her greatest challenge, controlling her homeroom at the beginning of the school day. Most of the kids were well behaved, but some very definitely weren’t. It complicated matters that she wasn’t their teacher. She only had them for homeroom, and they’d realized quite early on that they were in control.
On reflection, she understood she should have disciplined them right off the bat; she should have assigned detention or sent them to the office at the first sign of unruliness, but she’d thought sending them to the office would have made her look weak to the administration, and too, she still was at the stage of her teaching career where she wanted them to like her. So, she’d let the rowdy behavior slide. It only lasted for 15 minutes, first thing in the morning, she’d rationalized. What was the harm in a little chaos to start the day?
There were reasons for the noise. Bucky Thomson was shouting across the room at someone as usual. Bucky was one of the reasons for the high noise level in the room. Bucky was loud and pushed the limits on acceptable decorum when he could get away with it. The other reason for the noise was because this was Miss Chen’s first year of teaching. Actually, it was only her second month on the job. Being new to the classroom, being faced with the peculiar challenges of middle school teaching, and having unusually boisterous 7th graders to contend with, all combined to create a recipe for pandemonium.
Steven Chapman, also as usual, grimaced, looking down at his desk first in the hope that no one would notice. He didn’t like noise. It made him feel a bit panicky, actually. He hated homeroom. But he had to bear it, every morning.
Steven heard Miss Chen say, “Bucky, don’t shout,” but Bucky didn’t hear, or if he did he ignored her. Miss Chen simply didn’t know how to handle Bucky without an all-out confrontation and had decided it wasn’t worth the effort.
Steven wasn’t as lucky as Miss Chen. She had Bucky for only fifteen minutes a day. Steven had Bucky in several of his classes. Steven didn’t like the disruptions and the responses from teachers Bucky caused; he never liked it when teachers had to be stern or angry. He hated conflicts and arguments, and didn’t even like when the lessons were being interrupted. Thankfully, the other teachers generally were better at handling Bucky than Miss Chen was, but Bucky was still a problem. Except for gym. Mr. Toliver knew how to deal with boys like Bucky. Steven smiled, thinking about yesterday, and Bucky’s red face, and the other boys laughing. He’d even laughed himself, taking care that Bucky didn’t see him.
Steven looked at the clock and saw there were still four minutes till the bell. Miss Chen had taken attendance and talked about the Halloween dance on Friday. Friday would be a short day, and there would be an after-school dance at the end of it. School would let out two hours early, and then everyone attending the dance would come back in their costumes. Halloween itself was on Saturday so the dance wouldn’t affect kids’ ability to go trick or treating.
Of course, Steven wouldn’t be going to the dance. He had no costume, and he didn’t dance and, well, he wouldn’t be going.
Steven’s eyes fell on Chrissy Armstrong. She was the most popular girl in the school. Even the 8th grade boys thought she was hot. She had long blond hair and was really pretty. She knew it, too. Steven watched her as she was packing her backpack with books. She suddenly looked up, meeting his eyes, and he quickly turned away. He never knew what girls were thinking, but there was something about Chrissy looking back at him that was unsettling.
He looked away and ended up looking right at Rob Perry. Steven saw him look first at him, then at Chrissy, then at him again. He saw a puzzled expression cross Rob’s face. Steven knew Rob had seen him looking at Chrissy and how Chrissy had stared at him. Trying not to be obvious, he dropped his eyes from Rob, then cautiously, hoping Rob wouldn’t notice, looked up at him again. Rob was still looking at him, and now he smiled at Steven. Steven looked away quickly.
The bell rang, and another school day began.
Steven waited till the room was almost empty before getting up from his desk. He didn’t have to worry about jostling that way. He was shorter and slighter than most of the other kids and could avoid having to interact with them if he went last. Miss Chen said, “Have a nice day, Steven,” to him in her soft voice. She always said that to him, perhaps because he was always the last one out of the room. He had eventually started giving her small, awkward, almost-smiles and waving to her in response as he left. It had taken awhile before he had. Before that, he’d just blushed and kept walking without acknowledging her at all.
Steven might possibly have been the shyest kid in the entire school.
There were reasons for that.
His father wasn’t part of his life any longer. When he had been, he’d quite often been drunk, and then he’d berated Steven tirelessly. Nothing either his brother Paul or he did met with their father’s approval, but he was especially hard on Steven. He didn’t usually hit either of them, although it did happen occasionally. Steven got hit more because he made it a point to protect his younger brother when their father became physical. The last time it had happened it had been violent, and thankfully, the last straw; his mother had called the police.
But before that happened, much more frequently than hitting him, his father had criticized everything he did, made fun of his ineptitude, his size, his appearance, picking on and belittling everything about him, even though he was very normal and as capable as most any boy his age. His father was a failure in his own life, and he mitigated his own life’s disappointments by venting his spleen on his children. From the time Steven was five till the time his father left his family when Steven was 9 and a half, the man had spent most of his time when home expressing to Steven just what a failure and disappointment the boy was, how he hated looking at him, how he wished he’d had a normal son instead of the pathetic excuse for one that was Steven.
Because his father no longer lived with them, Steven no longer faced a constant barrage of criticism. That of course was good, but his father’s departure also meant there wasn’t much money to live on; their mother worked, but at two minimum wage jobs, both with uncertain hours. Steven and Paul were alone at home frequently.
The fact that money was tight, and sometimes even more than tight, resulted in other things that eroded any self-confidence Steven had managed to regain after his father left. His haircuts were done in the kitchen by his mother, who unfortunately was decidedly not a skilled practitioner of the tonsorial arts. He patched his worn-out tennis shoes with duct tape to prolong their life. Most of Steven’s clothes came from Goodwill, church donations and thrift shops, and were worn past the point where they were in style or actually fit him. The way he dressed at school and his overall appearance practically insured that he’d be teased and become an object of ridicule. Bucky was one of the ones who made it a point to talk loudly about whatever Steven was wearing, calling unwanted attention to him, asking him what trash bin he’d found his shirt in, or why he was wearing the same pair of pants he’d had on the day before, and asking whether he had the same underwear on, too, saying he probably did because Steven smelled like dirty underwear. That was the sort of thing Steven faced every day.
Kids other than Bucky teased him, too, because he never defended himself. His usual manner, when confronted, was simply to bow his head and stand still until he was finally left alone. Some kids took advantage of this, but most kids simply avoided him altogether, except for the occasional derogatory remark. They didn’t want to be involved with him or his problems. They had their own worries.
Steven was an average-looking kid, not terribly handsome or cute, but not one of the awkward-looking ones, either. Just like most kids, he was neither strikingly good looking nor abysmally ugly. He was in the middle in the looks department. He had a triangular face surmounted by a thick mop of brown hair, and beginning with a broad forehead, his face tapered to a rather pointed chin. Hazel eyes, a regular sort of nose and clear skin filled out a face that would have been much more attractive had he smiled more often, had his eyes ever twinkled.
He spent a lot of time looking at the other kids, evaluating how their society worked, and what he noticed was that the popular kids weren’t necessarily the best-looking ones, although that did help. The really good-looking ones did tend to be popular. But the thing that really made a difference and elevated kids into the upper echelons of the school’s social strata was their personalities. If you wanted to be popular, Steven had noticed, what really helped was to have an outgoing, self-confident personality. Unfortunately, as the shyest kid in school with the lowest self-esteem, Steven could claim neither of those traits for himself.
Not that he regretted his lack of popularity. Being shy, he didn’t want to deal with a lot of other kids. It was so much easier being by himself. He would have liked to have one good friend, but it was hard to make one if he couldn’t talk to anyone, and he found doing that really, really hard. He’d blush, and get sort of tongue-tied, and end up looking at his feet, and who wants a friend like that, anyway?
So he didn’t have any friends at school. And at home, since his mother usually wasn’t there when he and Paul got home, it was his job to be there for Paul. Steven wasn’t very athletic; his time was restricted by his responsibility for Paul. He was just as shy with other kids in his neighborhood as he was with those at school. The result of these facts was, he didn’t really have friends there, either.
He read a lot and did his homework; he hung with Paul when Paul wasn’t out and about in the neighborhood. He also did the laundry and was trying to teach himself to cook. His mother was always tired when she came home, and if he could help her by having dinner ready, well, he had the time and energy and she didn’t. So why not?
He did have one wish. He would have liked to have someone to talk to—to talk about things a 12-year-old boy needs to talk about. Paul was seven and in second grade. He was a great kid, and he had friends in the neighborhood so he was in and out of the house in the afternoons. He was there in the room he shared with Steven at night, but he was seven. There was simply not much you could talk about that really mattered to someone who was seven.
Steven would have liked to talk about all the feelings he’d been having lately. Having someone his own age with whom to do that would have been perfect. Someone he was comfortable with. Someone who would confide any and everything with him, and with whom he could do the same. The kids in the books he read all seemed to have a friend like that.
He had a vague idea what these feelings he was having were all about. Some of the books he read had kids his age, and the ones he really liked, the ones he’d read several times, touched on those feelings. He would have liked to find out more about them, but he didn’t have a computer—they were way too expensive—and so his knowledge was very academic in nature, sanitized and restricted to what he read in books he got from the youth or young-adult sections of the school library.
Steven walked to his next class through corridors that by then were mostly empty. Leaving the homeroom late every morning meant fewer navigation problems for him in the school hallways.
He’d made it his custom to leave every classroom a little after the rest of the kids had. He hadn’t had any particular problems that morning, but lunch was looming ahead. It was a difficult time for him. This day, it would be worse than usual.
Chrissy Armstrong was in the cafeteria at her usual table with the popular 7th-grade girls. Her table was all girls. Most of the 7th-grade girls weren’t ready to associate with the boys yet in social situations, certainly not with the rest of the girls in the school watching and judging them. As far as boys went, the girls were still at the feeling out, giggling, looking but not touching stages of social development.
Chrissy was involved in the table chatter, but her thoughts were on the Halloween dance. Most kids went to school dances in groups, mostly same-sex groups. Few went as girl-boy couples. Chrissy wanted that distinction for herself, as she felt it would help mark her social position in the school. She was aware of her position at the top of the social hierarchy, felt pressure to maintain it, and so the need to solidify it. Right then, she was scheming on how to get asked to the dance. Scheming to get her way was second nature for Chrissy.
Steven arrived at lunch late, as usual. This made walking there easy, but then his daily problem arose. Because he wasn’t one of the first kids there, he was usually forced to sit at a table that was already occupied. He’d have preferred being able to sit at an unoccupied one and then, if others joined him, it was their own choice. That way, there’d be fewer unpleasant remarks.
Today he looked over the room and saw most tables were full. There were only single seats left at tables where any space existed. He had his lunch in a bag, as usual. Cafeteria food cost too much. He qualified for a free lunch, but it came with more social baggage than it was worth. No one was supposed to know who got free lunches, but somehow they always did. So, he made his own lunch every day before leaving for school. Usually, it was a simple sandwich and a piece of fruit. Milk was free for all students, so there was no shame in taking that.
With his milk and his lunch bag, he scanned the room and inwardly sighed. He chose a table with the least offensive boys at it and sat down, and then was surprised that there wasn’t even any grunting or grimacing. No scooting away of chairs and no remarks, either, or demands he go elsewhere.
Without raising his eyes, he opened his bag and took out his sandwich and his banana and set them in front of him, carefully folding the bag and slipping it into his back pocket. It had plenty of life left in it.
Then, he carefully looked around his table, trying to do so without being obvious, without anyone noticing; he was very curious why he’d been allowed to sit without any reaction. Then his eyes fell on Rob and he knew the answer. He hadn’t realized Rob was there as his back had been to him as Steven had scanned the table’s occupants. Seeing Rob now, Steven blushed and looked back at his food.
The fact was, Steven was a bit taken with Rob, and felt an ambiguity about him. Steven thought Rob was very good looking, but there was much more to his feelings than only that. Rob was simply a very nice boy. He was friendly with everyone, didn’t tease the more awkward kids, and had a genial way about him that few kids his age seemed to possess. When Steven daydreamed about having a friend he could talk to, Rob was often featured. The upshot of that was, while Steven would have loved to become friendly with Rob in real life rather than just his dreams, he was in fact even shyer around Rob than the other boys at school.
Sitting at the lunch table with him was difficult; Rob’s mere proximity had Steven looking down and feeling flushed, but now that he was seated, Steven didn’t think he could just get up and leave. He also knew that Rob wouldn’t embarrass him. Rob was attractive and popular, but he was also a boy who took pains to get along with everyone, a characteristic uncommon in boys with as much going for him as Rob had. Rob didn’t sit with the really popular boys, didn’t hang with them to any greater extent than he did with any one group.
He’d even made several attempts to talk to Steven. Steven had been too shy to respond properly when it had happened, even more shy than normal because it had been Rob. So it hadn’t come to anything.
But Steven knew now why there’d been no reaction to him sitting there. Everyone knew how Rob was. They knew when they were with him they had to restrain themselves from making disparaging remarks about anyone, or Rob would give them a look, and then, if they continued, he’d excuse himself, saying he didn’t like to hear things like that, and go sit somewhere else. Most boys admired him and wanted to be his friend, felt somewhat honored when he chose to sit with them at lunch, and so behaved properly when they were with him.
Eating lunch so physically close to Rob was difficult for Steven. He blushed the entire time he was at the table, and never raised his eyes after that first peek. He left as soon as he was finished eating.
Steven had no way of knowing it, but Rob was aware Steven had sat down. He also knew how shy the boy was, and so didn’t try to speak to him. He sighed inwardly. He wondered what it would be like to be unable to speak with other boys. And, he wished there was a way he could break the ice with Steven without causing the boy such great discomfort.
Chrissy had seen Steven sit down. Her eyes continued to roam the room and fell on Bucky at the table next to hers. Bucky was an attractive boy, somewhat bigger than life, with more of a physical and emotional presence than most 12-year-old boys. He was a bully, but that didn’t concern her at all. She looked at him, an idea started percolating in her mind, and she smiled.
Steven left the cafeteria early while everyone else was still eating. He was feeling the need to be away from all the kids. Suddenly, he was slammed hard up against a locker in the hallway. An angry-looking Bucky was gripping his bunched up shirt near his neck and forcing him up on his toes, Steven’s back pressed painfully against the protruding locker door handle.
He cried out in pain, and in fear, and Bucky shook him, telling him to shut up. Steven did.
“What are you looking at Chrissy for? She doesn’t want you looking at her. You think she’s interested in a fag like you? You’re a dork! No one likes you! Don’t look at her any more. She likes me and doesn’t want you even thinking about her. You hear me?”
He pulled Steven away from the locker, then smashed him back into it. The locker door handle again hit him in his kidney.
Bucky balled his fist, and Steven knew he was about to be hit. He squeezed his eyes closed, turned his head to the side and tightened his stomach muscles the best he could in his awkward position.
The blow hit him in the side, and the force of it caused the locker door handle to cut into his back. Bucky let go of his shirt as Steven shrieked and fell to the floor.
The pain in his side and back was sharp enough that he couldn’t control the tears that sprang to his eyes. He pulled his legs to his chest instinctively. His head seemed to be buzzing, and he barely heard the commotion that was going on around him.
Steven lay on the cot in the nurse’s office. The nurse had wanted to have him go home, but they only had the home phone number for Steven’s mother, and of course she wasn’t there. Steven claimed he didn’t have her work number; he didn’t want her bothered at work or to be the cause of her missing any time there. So he lay on the cot till it was time to go home. Then, he said he was OK to walk home, and the nurse reluctantly let him go.
His back still hurt badly, and he had to walk slowly so as not to use his back muscles any more than he had to. It took him twice as long to get home as normal. Paul was sitting on the front steps waiting for him.
He went upstairs and lay down on his bed. He seemed to hurt all over. The nurse had checked him over, which had been embarrassing, and said his ribs weren’t broken, but probably bruised. She’d embarrassed him even more by telling him to pee, but at least she had given him privacy to do so. She’d wanted to know if there was any blood in his urine, which there hadn’t been. She’d bandaged where his back was bleeding and told him a bruised kidney was really painful and would make him feel nauseated, but if there was no blood when he urinated, that was a good sign and that he should be fine. She stressed, however, that he was to go to the emergency room if he started feeling much worse.
The nurse had been sympathetic and kind to him, and he’d appreciated that. She’d also been very gossipy, and he’d liked that, too. She’d told him that Bucky had been suspended for two weeks and told that if he ever got in any sort of trouble for harassing other kids again, he’d be expelled. Bucky had told the principal that Chrissy had put him up to it, saying she’d go to the dance with him if he were man enough to get Steven to stop looking at her. Chrissy of course had denied it. She and Bucky had been seen talking to each other, but she claimed that was because he’d wanted to take her to the dance, and she’d told him no. Maybe Bucky had been mad about that and took it out on poor Steven, she suggested. It was too bad he got hurt, Chrissy said with a long face and sad eyes. As she was quite a practiced liar, she had no problem making the principal believe she was telling the truth.
Chrissy left the principal’s office with her mind focused. She was thinking about who, now that Bucky wasn’t available, she could get to ask her to the dance.
Steven lay in his bed, reliving his day. He didn’t know what he had done wrong, or how he could prevent what had happened from recurring the future. His back ached but, when his mother got home, he downplayed how he felt. He got up and had a light dinner, then made an excuse and went back to bed. He never allowed her to look at his back.
In the morning, he could hardly move. His muscles were stiff and sore, and though he tried, it hurt too much even to walk downstairs.
His mother called the school and said he wouldn’t be there that day. And so he stayed home. He took some ibuprofen, which loosened his muscles and made him feel much better. He stayed in bed much of the morning but was up and walking around in the afternoon. The next day, Friday, he was able to return to school.
He knew something was amiss before he got to school. As he neared the building, he saw every kid on the sidewalk except him was dressed in a costume.
Being shy as he was, he often felt out of place, out of the basic rhythm of the school. Every step that he took bringing him closer to the school that day made him feel stranger and stranger. It was like the feeling that he’d had the first day of gym class when he’d stepped out on the floor in his regular clothes and saw everyone else wearing gym shorts and tees. He’d never seen the notice that instructed kids to buy and bring the required gym clothes for the first day of school. He’d had to sit out and watch while the rest of the kids participated.
Why was everyone wearing costumes? He distinctly remembered being told that the kids going to the dance after school were to go home and change and come back in costume. Nothing was said about wearing costumes to school.
He felt very much out of place, very much out of touch, very much a spectacle, and he wanted to turn around and go home. But he’d already missed one day. And he was almost at school by then.
Feeling awkward, he dropped off his jacket at his locker, left his backpack with his books in it and headed to homeroom. Every other kid he passed in the hallway was wearing a costume. He stuck out in the crowd of motley kids and felt like he didn’t belong even more than usual. What kept coming to his mind was the story about the ugly duckling being so different from everyone else. There was no doubt in his mind that the happy ending of that story wouldn’t apply to him, however. Happy endings might occur in fairy tales, but not to him.
Steven heard some laughter and a few rude comments from the other kids in the hall when they saw him, but he ignored them. That, at least, was nothing new.
He walked into his homeroom. Everyone there was in costume. Miss Chen was at her desk. She took one look at him and her face fell.
She beckoned him to come to her desk.
“Steven! I’m so sorry. I forgot you! Yesterday afternoon there was an announcement from the vice-principal. Everyone was to wear a costume today, and there’s going to be a fair outside with games and contests and refreshments and all, and then the dance later. It was announced that anyone showing up not in costume would spend the day in the library. All the kids who were absent were supposed to be notified by their homeroom teachers. I got a list of the kids who were sick, and you weren’t on it. I simply forgot about you! Oh dear, you’re going to have to miss out!”
It was so obvious that Miss Chen felt bad for him that Steven felt sorry for her. “Miss Chen, that’s OK. I’ll just go to the library. I really wouldn’t fit in with the games anyway. If there were teams, no one would want me on their side. It’s OK, really. I’ll just go to the library.”
And that’s what he did. He didn’t see Miss Chen’s melancholy attempt at a smile as he walked out the door with his shoulders slumped. He got the assignments he needed for the work he’d missed by being absent and for spending time in the nurse’s office the day before that, then headed to the library to spend the rest of the day.
Steven had his history book open and was absorbed in his reading when he felt a presence. He looked up, and there, standing before him, was a pirate. The pirate was wearing a loose-fitting, white woman’s blouse with vertical pleats and puffed-out arms, baggy pants that only came slightly past his knees, long stockings and sturdy-looking black shoes with buckles. Of course, no self-respecting pirate who could call himself a pirate would be without an eye patch, and this one was no exception. He had a large black patch over his left eye, and it was matched by a black hat about half a size too big which extended sideways over his ears with a large white skull-and-crossbones symbol emblazoned on the front. The fact it was too big and was threatening to slip down over his forehead added to the comical effect of the costume. Under his belt was stuck a wide plastic, curving cutlass with red paint strategically decorating the pointed and dangerous-looking working end. A penciled-in thin black mustache that curled up at both ends bedecked his upper lip.
“Shiver me timbers, matey!” growled the pirate.
Steven couldn’t help himself. After staring silently for a moment, for about the first time ever this year in school, he began grinning and then actually giggled.
The pirate was shocked. The boy in front of him who never showed any personality at all, who invariably seemed sad, was smiling! And giggling! It transformed his face.
“‘Shiver me timbers, matey’?” Steven repeated, emulating the tone and accent of the original, and then actually broke into full-fledged, fully engaged laughter. Then, remembering who and where he was, he quickly tried to stop, which resulted in his starting to hiccup.
The pirate sprang into action, getting behind Steven and vigorously patting him on the back.
“Avast!” shouted Steven, when he was finally able, but then again began laughing.
“Avast?” asked the pirate.
Steven was so taken with the strange events that for a moment he forgot he was shy. He neither froze nor hesitated. “Avast! That’s pirate-ese for ‘stop’. I thought you’d know that, being a pirate and all.” And then he giggled again.
“Well, I didn’t. You sure?” The pirate’s low growl had turned into a breathy pre-teen voice.
“Yes. I read a lot. I’m sorry.” The apology was because Steven had suddenly remembered he was talking to a boy he’d never had the nerve to talk to before and because what he was doing, reading, was a very suspect activity for boys in the 7th grade.
He didn’t know what more to say, either to the pirate or to the boy he realized this pirate was. He recognized him from the voice and the parts of his face and hair he could see. “Rob,” he said finally, and he made it sound almost accusatory, but of course Steven could never accuse anyone of anything. He wouldn’t dare. And Steven’s laughter in any case defused any malice in the accusation.
Rob was totally surprised by the reaction Steven had had to his appearance. Surprised and delighted.
“How’d you know it was me?” he asked, as much to keep Steven talking as anything else.
“I dunno. I could just tell.” Steven was beginning to fade back into his normal self. But he did have the curiosity to ask, “What are you doing here?”
Rob blushed. In the normal scheme of things, 12-year-old boys don’t show any sentiment toward other 12-year-old boys. He looked away for a moment, then finally readdressed Steven. “Uh, well, I didn’t think it was fair, you getting sent in here and stuff when no one had told you about wearing a costume. I talked to Miss Chen.”
Steven wasn’t sure how to respond to that. It sounded like Rob was feeling sorry for him. And why would he talk to Miss Chen about him? How did that happen? It seemed too much to ask about, though. So, he said nothing, the smile slowly disappeared from his face, his cheeks began feeling hot, and he dropped his eyes to the table.
Rob, who had been watching Steven for months, plowed ahead, knowing Steven would retreat into silence if given half the chance. “So, how ‘bout we fly this chicken coop?”
“Huh?” First a pirate, now a line from a B-grade movie? Rob was seriously upsetting Steven’s equilibrium.
Rob realized he had to go slower. Some boys were adventurous, some were timid. “I talked to Miss Chen. This is going to be just a fun day. No teaching. So if you’re not in here in the library for an hour or so, it makes no dif to anyone. I told her... well, never mind what I told her. I got permission from her.” He stopped and smiled, and Steven risked a glance at him because the words had come to such an abrupt and confusing sort of end. Curious now, he asked, “Permission for what?”
Rob grinned. It was a conspiratorial grin, but Steven had no way of knowing that. He just saw the grin.
“Permission for you and me to go to my house. I live close to the school. Only a five-minute walk. We can go there and figure out something for you to wear as a costume, then come back and join in the fun.”
Rob was grinning widely now, his enthusiasm accented by the way he was unable to keep from wiggling, and Steven was nonplused. Rob was waiting for him to speak; he could see that. So, tentatively, he did.
“Uh, Rob....” He tapered off, not quite knowing what to say. He and Rob weren’t friends. They had never even talked. Sure, Steven had watched and admired Rob, admired his looks and self-confidence, his easy manner and the way he was nice to everyone, but Steven had been able to avoid talking to him the way he avoided talking to everyone. Now, Rob was not only talking to him, he was proposing something that was way out of Steven’s comfort zone. And Steven wasn’t being given time to even think about it. He was not a rash, impetuous boy. He thought about any and everything as much as he could before trying it. If he could.
“Come on! The sooner we get going, the sooner we can come back!”
Rob put his hand on Steven’s arm and tugged, but very gently. He somehow knew pulling on him would get entirely the wrong results.
Steven was frozen. His heart sped up. The less control he had of his situation, the more uncertain he felt, about anything. Now he was supposed to jump up and simply go to a boy’s house, a boy he only knew superficially? But part of him, the lonely part, was telling him to do this. He liked Rob instinctively, he’d been fantasizing about being his friend since the beginning of the school year, and all of a sudden, it seemed there was at least a chance some of his dreams were about to come true.
He pushed back his chair and stood up. “Just a five-minute walk?” he asked.
Rob was grinning again. “Yep.”
So the two walked out of the library together, one striding purposefully and happily, the other warily and a little shell-shocked.
They walked out the side door of the school and Rob began chatting about how much fun this would be, asking if Steven had any ideas for a costume, then not waiting for an answer that never would have come anyway, chatting on about his own ideas.
Steven, on the other hand, was feeling very nervous, and that nervousness increased with every step he took as his imagination soared. He didn’t really know Rob, did he? And Rob was acting really excited, more excited than Steven thought he should be. What if... what if... maybe this was some sort of set-up. What if some of Rob’s friends were waiting for them at Rob’s house, or along the way, and they’d jump out and grab him? What if they’d been planning to get him and they’d all take turns? Doing what, he had no idea, but the memory of his altercation with Bucky was fresh in his mind, and he could imagine being captured, and, even without physical pain, how humiliating it might be. They could hurt him, or do things to him, and they’d be laughing and having fun, and he’d be crying and miserable and never able to face any of them again.
No! This simply wasn’t really reasonable, Steven thought. He didn’t know Rob, but then, actually, he did, if he really thought about it. From the watching he’d done. There were some boys at the school who liked to tease and hurt other kids. Boys like Bucky and the ones who followed his lead: those sorts of boys. Now if Bucky had suddenly come up to him and pretended to be his friend and lured him out like this, then his fears would be justified. But Rob?
No. Rob had always been nice. To everyone. Steven had seen it, time after time, all year long. That was one of the main reasons he fantasized about them being friends. Rob was kind and, perhaps, Steven thought, even gentle. Oh, he was all boy—he roughhoused in gym and on the playground with the others—but it wasn’t in his nature to be mean.
Steven was going over this in his mind when suddenly he realized that for the past couple of minutes, while they’d been walking, Rob hadn’t been talking. He looked over at him and saw Rob staring at him, wearing a puzzled expression on his face.
“What’s the matter?” Rob asked. “You seem very nervous. Scared, almost.” He stopped walking then, and Steven had to stop, too.
“Did I say something? What did I do?” Rob was completely in the dark. The look on Steven’s face made no sense to him. Rob was really excited about getting to know Steven better. He’d been wanting to befriend the boy all year. He liked the way he looked, and it bothered him that Steven was such a loner. Rob didn’t like to see anyone unhappy. He’d made attempts to talk to Steven in the past, but Steven either hadn’t responded or had managed to answer in such a way that nothing more was left to be said, and then Steven had simply walked away.
Rob knew the boy was shy. He had been hoping that by meeting him in the library and getting him to come with him, the ice could be broken. And it had been, momentarily at the beginning. Steven had laughed, and even talked to him with no hesitations or withdrawals. But now, he was back to being shy and quiet again and was looking like something had scared him. Badly scared him.
Rob wanted Steven to be happy. He couldn’t have put it into words why that was, but seeing the boy every day, seeing how unhappy he looked, touched something inside him. He’d watched Steven and seen a quiet, considerate boy who was terribly, cripplingly shy. He felt for Steven, and wanted to help. Now, it appeared to him that something had gone wrong, perhaps something he’d done that had frightened him. That was the last thing he had wanted to do.
Steven didn’t answer. He just stood there, in the position he always adopted when being harassed, his head down, his body drawn in on itself, waiting with resignation for whatever was going to happen to him. His mind was telling him that Rob wasn’t going to do anything to him. His nerves weren’t having anything to do with that, however; they were reacting as they’d become accustomed to reacting.
Rob wasn’t sure what to do. But he knew that somehow he had to reassure Steven.
He very gently laid his hand on Steven’s shoulder. He felt Steven wince, but that was all. He stood still, waiting.
“Steven,” Rob said, very softly, very soothingly. “I’m sorry. Whatever it is, you’re OK. I’d never hurt you. You know that, don’t you?”
Then there was a pause. Rob could feel Steven shaking, but kept his hand on his shoulder and simply waited. And waited. And then said, “It must be awful being as shy as you are.” He said it with great compassion.
And finally Steven responded. “It’s shit.” And then he shuddered.
Rob tightened his arm around Steven’s shoulders briefly. He didn’t know what to say to console the boy. He thought of all the times he’d seen him in school, looking lonely and lost, sad and miserable. Then, the image of him laughing in the library came to him. Steven had looked so completely different then. Rob realized, in a flash of comprehension, what had been so unusual: Steven had looked happy.
Rob didn’t know what to say, but he did think of something he might do. Something that might take Steven’s mind off his miseries. He’d have to be careful, he knew that. But it was worth a try. He so wanted to do something.
Rob took his arm off Steven’s shoulders and then turned so he was standing in front of him. Very seriously, he said, “Steven, you have no reason to be so shy. I’ve been watching you all year. There’s something about you that makes me want to look. I don’t know what it is. I just know that when I look at some people, I automatically like them, and others, I automatically don’t. You, I liked as soon as I saw you. The first time. I’ve even tried talking to you before, and it didn’t work for some reason.”
He stopped when he saw Steven start to blush. Rob grinned then. Maybe this would work!
“Aha!” he said, interpreting the blush but at the same time avoiding being too boisterous, too triumphant, taking great care not to scare Steven. “You knew! You were avoiding me, preventing me from making friends with you, weren’t you?” Rob laughed. He had to show Steven he wasn’t angry, or accusing him of something bad.
“Weren’t you?” he said again when Steven just blushed harder. And then, throwing caution to the wind, he said, “Revenge! Revenge, matey! Captain Buccaneer—uh, that’s me, by the way—Captain Buccaneer always kills his prisoners in the vilest, most dreadful way yet devised by man! The tickle machine!”
Then Rob menacingly raised his hands held as claws, wiggled his fingers, and took a step toward Steven. He made sure he was grinning as he did so. Even then, he was praying silently that Steven would see it as a game, not a threat.
Steven saw the fingers and was about to panic. He wasn’t at all used to playing like this, if indeed playing it was. But he’d had a strong attraction to Rob since seeing him on the first day of school, and even now, he was a little bit under his spell, and the grin on Rob’s face, and the hopeful look in his eyes, was reassuring.
Besides which, Steven really wanted a friend, wanted one badly enough that, now that Rob had made the first move, he was ready to risk taking a chance with Rob.
What Steven did next was entirely out of character, and, when he thought of it later, which he did many times, it was one of the things he was proudest of up to that point in his life.
As Rob moved slowly in for the kill, Steven suddenly roared, “Prepare to die, you bilge-sucking scurvy dog!” and, running forward in a crouch, took the bigger boy around the waist, forced him off the sidewalk onto an adjacent lawn and tackled him to the ground.
Rob was so surprised he put up no resistance. Steven shrieked victoriously, and then, lying on top of Rob, began his own tickling assault.
Rob was laughing too hard to fight back. Steven was feeling a joy he couldn’t remember ever having felt before. He tickled Rob for a short time, then suddenly rolled off onto his back. He lay on the lawn next to Rob, breathing hard, and when Rob began to rise, quickly rolled over onto his side, his back to Rob.
Rob started to speak, then saw Steven was blushing again. Rob sank back down onto his knees, then lay back on the ground again on his back.
“That was great, Steven. That was really fun.”
When the boy didn’t respond, to get him talking as much as anything, Rob asked, “How did you know I’d be ticklish?”
Steven sat up then. Cross-legged, he twisted his body so he was facing Rob. Ignoring Rob’s question, he asked instead, “Did you really like that?”
Rob propped himself up on an elbow. “Yeah, I did. ‘Bilge-sucking?’ ‘Scurvy dog?’” Then he started laughing. A little bashfully, Steven did, too.
Finally stopping, Rob said, “Steven, can I say something?” Then, not waiting for an answer, he said, “Please, don’t be so shy with me. I like you. I mean, I want us to be friends. It’s hard if you’re going to be so shy. You don’t need to be, with me. Really, I like you!”
Steven started to blush again, and started to drop his eyes, but then, he forced himself not to. He kept looking at Rob, blush and all. “It’s hard for me,” he said softly.
Rob sat all the way up, sitting cross-legged as Steven was, but facing him. Their knees were almost touching. They were both leaning forward, so their foreheads were almost touching, too. “I know it’s hard for you, but I’m on your side. Maybe it would help, whenever you’re feeling particularly shy, or vulnerable, or whatever it is you’re feeling, if you’d simply tell yourself to stop.” Rob paused, thinking, then said, his voice full of glee, “Hey, I know!” He had a huge smile on his face, which made Steven smile, too. “I know! When you feel that way, just think to yourself, ‘scurvy dog’! Maybe that’ll make you remember you don’t need to be so shy and bring you out of it!”
Steven’s smile broadened. He was looking into Rob’s face, only a few inches from his, and saw honesty there. And reassurance. And compassion.
I can’t stop myself from blushing, he thought. But maybe I can overcome the freezing up, the looking down, the letting my shyness overcome me. I think I can talk through it. Maybe.
And then, finally, he managed to say, blushing furiously, “I like you, too.”
A huge smile lit up Rob’s face. He reached out and put his hand on Steven’s knee.
Steven said, “I want to be your friend, too. I’ve been wanting that since I first saw you. I’ve... I’ve even dreamed about it.”
He would have blushed harder, but he was already as red as he could get. “I’ve dreamed of being able to talk to you, of us talking to each other. I don’t have anyone to talk to about anything important.”
Rob jumped up. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go to my house.” He reached down for Steven’s hand, took it and pulled the boy to his feet. “I want to do that, too,” he said when they were walking again. “I have lots of friends, but they’re not the sort I want to say anything special to. Personal things, I mean. They’re not the sort who I’d trust with private stuff. I don’t know why, but I....” He hesitated, then turned to look at Steven. “It’s really odd, you know? I have this feeling I can trust you. We hardly know each other, but... I think I can.”
Steven smiled. “That’s the kind of friend I’ve dreamed about having,” he said softly. “I want to trust you, too.”
“We have to decide what you’re going to be,” said Rob. They were sitting on Rob’s bed. Steven was still looking around, a bit dazed by everything that had transpired in the last few minutes and also subdued by what he saw in Rob’s room. His own room was pretty spartan, and he shared it with his brother. Rob had his room all to himself, and it was filled with things Steven didn’t even bother dreaming of having.
These things, and Rob, were combining to make Steven feel small and hopelessly unworthy again. He was trying to say ‘scurvy dog’ to himself. It wasn’t working.
Rob looked at Steven when he didn’t respond, and started to sigh. He stopped himself. He knew the sound of it would drive Steven deeper into himself. Instead, he wrapped his arm around the boy’s shoulders again, then reached over and started tickling him.
“Hey, no fair,” yelled Steven, and started to squirm.
“Fair,” yelled Rob back, and pushed Steven back in the bed. He climbed on top and, gently for him, started tickling the smaller boy.
Steven laughed and tried in vain to protect himself. Rob was moving his hands quickly from one spot to another. And then, suddenly, Steven was blushing again and stopped trying to defend himself. Instead, tears came into his eyes.
Rob stopped immediately and asked, “What’s the matter?”
“Dammit,” Steven screamed. “Dammit dammit dammit dammit!”
Rob looked down at him with no understanding at all. “Why?” he asked again.
Steven was red, and he was frustrated, and he was then mad. He was so mad at himself, he actually answered the question.
“Because I got a boner! Again!”
Rob smiled. “Oh, that. I’m always getting them when I wrestle with someone. I have one too. See?” And he leaned back, showing his pirate pants sticking out in front.
“But, but—” Steven’s day had just got even weirder.
Rob rolled off him and sat on the side of the bed again. “Come here,” he said.
Steven swung his legs around and sat next to Rob, his legs dangling over the side of the bed; Rob’s feet were sitting squarely on the floor. Rob put his arm around him again. He was about to speak when suddenly something dawned on him. “Hey, this was one of the things you wanted to talk about, wasn’t it?”
Steven felt tears come to his eyes. Which surprised him, because he wasn’t feeling sad at all. “Yes,” he managed to stammer. And then the tears were flowing.
Rob saw. He watched, and his compassion grew as the tears continued, but he didn’t speak. He simply tightened his grip on Steven. He was forced to realize that the boy was full of grief, it was bottled up inside of him, and he was seeing some of it spilling out.
Steven cried for a few minutes, never once understanding why. When he was finished, he didn’t know what to do. He was sure Rob must think he was an idiot, or at least a baby. Rob didn’t seem to, however. He still had his arm around him.
“You done?” Rob asked, not the slightest bit unkindly.
“I don’t know,” Steven said, very matter of fact. “I don’t know why I did that.”
“I think I do. You just have so much crap all bottled up inside you. That’s the way it decided to come out.”
Steven was quiet, thinking about that, then asked, “Why are you being so nice to me?”
“I told you. I like you. And I think maybe you need someone being nice to you. But hey, let’s talk about what just happened. I got a boner, sitting on you and tickling you. I guess you got one, too. And did you get one when you were tickling me before, on the grass? Is that what you meant?”
“Yeah. That’s why I stopped. I was sure you’d feel it. And, and....”
“And think you were gay or something?”
“If getting a boner when sitting on another boy, tickling him, and the boy underneath you is wriggling around, if that makes you gay, then every boy in the world is gay. We’re 12! We get boners all the time. Tickling someone like that makes it mandatory, I think.”
Rob laughed, and so Steven did, too. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing, and how calm Rob was with it.
“You don’t have anyone to talk about these things with, do you? About getting boners, or anything at all about sex?”
“No,” Steven said. “And I want to! So much! But I can’t.”
“You can, with me.”
“I can? Really? You won’t laugh at me? Tease me? Make fun of me? I don’t know anything.”
Rob stopped grinning. “Yeah, you really can. I want to, too. You know I wouldn’t do any of those things.” He looked disappointed, and Steven felt bad for having said what he had. He actually did know Rob wouldn’t make fun of him, or seriously tease him.
Rob quickly regained his spirits. He said, “I don’t have someone to talk to about this stuff either, I mean for real. The guys at school talk, but it’s bragging and lying and nothing serious, nothing real. I want to talk about it, about what I’m feeling, what I’m thinking about, too!”
They looked at each other then, and the grin each boy gave the other was priceless, conveying meaning and depths of feeling neither knew how to express in words.
Steven was quiet after that, just letting everything sink in, just thinking. This was what he’d wanted so badly, yet now that he was feeling that maybe, just maybe, he could say or ask anything he wanted, he was reluctant to start. His fears, perhaps, and his history of being shy, were both difficult to overcome. Still, he desperately wanted this, wanted Rob’s friendship.
Hesitantly, without looking at Rob, he finally managed to ask, “Do you ever worry about showering next year, after gym, like Mr. Toliver said we’ll have to?”
Rob grinned. “Not really. I’m kind of looking forward to it. Seeing everyone naked. I hope I don’t get hard, though. That would be embarrassing. I do think about that a little.”
Steven saw Rob’s grin, and it relaxed him. Enough, in fact, that he was able to say, “I think I’ll be too scared to do that. But, well, see, I don’t have any hair yet, uh, down there—” he blushed, but kept his eyes on Rob “—and still look like a little boy. Guys are going to laugh at me and tease me.”
This was a major concern of Steven’s, one that bothered him a lot, and one he’d wished he could discuss with someone. It wasn’t surprising it was one of the first things he divulged to Rob.
Rob turned on the bed so he was looking directly at Steven. “I don’t have any hair either. I don’t think a lot of guys our age do. We’ll all probably be starting to get some before school starts up again next year. Maybe by the time we have to shower, we’ll have some. But either way, I’ll just bet that some of us will have it, and some won’t, and it just won’t be a big deal.”
Steven thought about that. Rob was so calm about everything! That calmness about not having hair did more to dispel Steven’s angst about it than what he actually said. If Rob could be so calm, maybe it wasn’t that big a deal.
“But what about being so... small?”
“Same thing, really. We all know we’re developing right now. Some will have started earlier, and some of us not at all. Guys will look, and then that’ll be it. I don’t think Mr. Toliver will allow too much teasing about that. If a guy complained to his parents he didn’t want to go to gym any longer, and they found out it was because he was being teased for not being very developed, I think Mr. Toliver would get in trouble for having allowed it. Schools have to be careful about that stuff these days.”
Steven hoped what Rob said was true. He was about to say something else, when he had a thought. “Rob, is there anything you worry about? You said you wanted someone to talk to, too.”
The grin left Rob’s face. He fidgeted a little, then moved back on the bed, sitting cross-legged again. This way, with Steven still on the side of the bed with his legs hanging over the edge, he was no longer facing Steven, which made it easier to speak.
“Yeah, there is. But it’s hard to talk about.”
Steven grinned, a little wryly. “What I just said, that was hard for me, too. And I have a lot more things that worry me. But now it’s your turn. Fair’s fair.” Steven twisted to look at Rob and made his grin bigger, wanting Rob to see it.
Rob glanced up at Steven, and Steven could see worry in his eyes. Rob opened his mouth, then closed it, then said, mostly to himself, “Screw it!” and then started talking.
“Something does worry me. It shouldn’t, but it does. See, I think I like boys better than girls.” He stopped, then went on with, “No. That’s not true. I do like boys better than girls. I’m really not interested at all in girls. I like looking at boys, and, uh, thinking about them.”
Steven sat up a little straighter. “Are you saying you’re gay?”
Rob nodded, but then shook his head. “I don’t know. I talked to my father about it. He said it was perfectly normal at my age. He said I might be gay, and I might not, just like most boys my age. He said I’d know better when I was older, but that I shouldn’t worry about it.”
He turned then so he was looking directly at Steven again. “But I do worry. How can I not worry? What if I am?”
Steven was in awe, hearing what Rob just had, but it wasn’t because Rob said he might be gay. “You talked to your dad about this? Really? How could you do that?”
Rob smiled. “He’s my dad,” he said, as though that entirely explained it.
Steven knew what Rob meant by that, and felt a moment of emptiness. He’d never had a relationship like that with his own father. Had he told his father he thought he might be gay and liked looking at boys, he’d definitely have been beaten, and probably been hurt very badly. Yet Rob had been able to tell his father his fears and all that had happened was he’d received a lot of support. Rob’s life was so different from his. This was something he was going to have to think about.
But that was for later.
Continuing, he asked, “Did your father say anything about if you did turn out to be gay, when you were older?”
“Yeah. Of course. He said I’d still be his son, and he’d do everything in his power to make sure I was safe and happy. He said everyone has challenges in their lives. Everyone. And that being gay was just something to deal with, like any other situation I’ll be faced with. He told me not to worry about it. He told me he loved me and always would.”
“But you still worry?”
“Yeah. Not as much as I did before I talked to him, though.”
“I wish I had a father like yours. Mine only told me how bad I was, what a disappointment I was. I’d never have been able to say anything like what you did to your dad.” Steven’s head dropped at that point.
“Hey.” Rob wasn’t going to let Steven go into a funk. “I have another question, an important one. I told you that maybe I’m gay. Does that bother you? Can we still be friends?”
Steven grinned. “Do you like looking at me?”
“What do you think?”
“I asked you first.”
“I already told you I liked looking at you. I told you I saw you the first day of school, and I’ve been looking at you ever since. I’m attracted to you, Steven.”
Steven blushed, but kept smiling. “I like it that you like looking at me. I like that you’re attracted to me. I am to you, too. I don’t care if you’re gay. I don’t know that I am, though. I haven’t thought about that. I’m just me. I do know I’m feeling a lot of things I’ve never felt before, a lot of things I don’t understand. I think it’s the stuff kids feel when they’re starting to grow up.”
He stopped then, and Rob could see him thinking. It was only a moment before Steven spoke again. “I don’t know about, uh, sex stuff. I mean, what I’ve mostly thought about, what I wanted more than anything, was for us to be friends. But sex?” His blushing seemed continual and was worse now than ever. “I haven’t really thought about that, I mean, something that could actually be real, I mean something I could really do, that could happen, with someone.” He looked at Rob, right at him. “But—” he was so nervous, and this was so hard for him to say; he had to steel himself to get it out “—I get funny feelings sometimes, when I think about boys. Or maybe I should say, when I think about boys, I get funny feelings.” He giggled, his nervousness obvious. “You know, boys naked and stuff. And—” he blushed even harder now “—sometimes, well, sometimes, I’ve thought about you that way, too.”
Rob grinned, and his eyes were alive. “I’ve only ever just thought about doing stuff, too. But I’ve wanted to try stuff. We have to have a sleepover! We have to! And we will!” He grinned eagerly; Steven grinned back, timidly. Time seemed to slow down for a few moments.
Then Rob got serious. “This is great, being able to talk about this kinda stuff, but Steven, we have to get a move on with your costume. We have to get back to school before they dismiss everyone, if we want to go to the dance.”
“The dance? I’m not going to the dance!”
“OK, take off your clothes.”
Steven looked at him, then said, “Scurvy dog. Scurvy dog. Scurvy dog.”
Rob laughed. “You don’t have to be shy about undressing with me. Besides, you can leave your underwear on.
“Well, you shouldn’t see my underwear.”
Steven blushed. “It’s sort of worn out. We don’t have much money.”
“Let me see.”
Earlier, Steven thought, complying with that directive would have been unimaginable. Now, after the time they’d spent together, and the things they’d talked about, the two of them weren’t like they’d been before. Now, they knew each other better, and a friendship was in the early stages of blossoming. While it still wasn’t easy, Steven now could, and did, strip off his shirt, and then, blushing, his pants.
What he’d told Rob was true. He had on a pair of briefs that once had been white, that once had had viable elastic around the leg openings. Now, the material was grayish and hung without gripping his thighs at all.
Rob stared, realized he was doing it, and said, “Please don’t take this the wrong way, Steven. But, well, I wear boxers now, and have some briefs like yours I can give you that I never wear. I—” Then he stopped, and Steven saw again that he wasn’t the only one capable of blushing.
“What’s wrong?” Steven asked, puzzled.
“I, I’m afraid I’ll embarrass you. I just want to give you something you could use that I don’t need anymore, just one friend giving something to another. But I’m afraid I’ll hurt your feelings, and I don’t want to do that.”
Steven looked at him a moment, then said with a perfectly straight face, “And these briefs you’d give me, would part of it be I’d have to model them for you? You know, to check for fit and all? Is that part of the bargain?”
Rob’s eyes opened a little wider, and his blush grew stronger, and then Steven started laughing, which quickly turned into roaring. Rob watched for a moment, feeling a little ill-used even while knowing it was a joke, then said, “Grrrrrrr,” and attacked.
As Steven was wearing only his briefs, and they weren’t very substantial, there was no question this time, when Rob rolled off him, of Steven’s condition.
Rob looked down at him and grinned. “Well, do you want them or not?”
“OK,” was all Steven could muster, then rolled onto his stomach to hide himself.
When Rob was searching through his dresser drawers, Steven asked, “You sure I have to wear tights? Why not just regular pants?”
“Because the guy in the movie had tights. Tights and a tunic. Mom bought several pairs of tights for me because we weren’t sure what size would be right for my costume, so I have some extra ones. And we can make a tunic out of a jumper my sister wore when she was younger. You’ll look great. One of her large blouses, too, to cover your arms. The blouse will mostly be covered by the tunic so it won’t look girlish.”
Rob found the briefs, gave one pair to Steven to put on and told him he could get the rest to take home with him when he came over for their first sleepover. When he went to collect the other items needed for the costume, Steven slipped his old briefs off and pulled the new ones on. He threw the old ones into Rob’s wastebasket, shoving them to the bottom and covering them with the paper that was already there.
Rob came back with the jumper, the blouse, the tights, a couch pillow that had long been retired to the basement, some bright yellow cloth, a blue baseball cap, a pair of scissors, a glue gun and a roll of tape. Then he took over Steven’s body, and with a great deal of giggling and frustrated growls, transformed his skinny 12-year-old friend into a pint-sized Quasimodo.
They worked together, mostly in harmony but with quite a bit of shoving and elbowing and laughing, putting the final touches on Steven’s costume.
Steven had a very dry sense of humor. That he was very smart and witty had always been lost in the depths of his shyness. Only as the costume was coming to fruition, only as he was working with Rob, only as their newfound closeness was continuing to develop, was his personality beginning to emerge. Rob was delighted to find how much more there was to Steven than he’d realized, and how extremely likable he was.
Just working together, talking about the costume, led to gales of laughter and a growing bond of friendship between the two.
The laughter did most of the work. For instance, when Rob had, apparently very seriously, suggested that his original costuming thought was that Steven could go as a glowworm, that all they’d have had to do was attach a flashlight to his butt, it was five minutes before either could speak again as their hilarity fed off each other.
Perhaps one had to be 12 to truly understand the humor.
But there were serious discussions, too. Steven would suggest something and Rob would decide it was too complicated. Rob would suggest something and Steven would say it was too embarrassing, although these suggestions usually ended up with them laughing like crazy.
They talked as they worked, and Rob got them cans of pop, and they talked some more. When they were finally done and had checked each other out in the mirror, when they left the house for the trek back to school, they were already much better friends than when they’d walked in.
They got back to the school just as everyone was filing into the gym. The dance was starting!
Miss Chen saw them come in and started chuckling, then simply laughed. She couldn’t help herself. The more she thought about Steven’s costume, the more ridiculous it seemed. And the fact Steven was wearing it, a boy who never smiled, a boy who was too shy to meet anyone’s eyes, well....
The music was playing, and kids were dancing. As was the case at 7th grade dances, kids were on the floor gyrating, and it wasn’t a bit clear if they were dancing with a partner. In fact, most of them weren’t. They were at the self-conscious stage of social development. They loved to dance. And they were most comfortable doing it in a group.
“Let’s dance,” said Rob.
Steven was feeling very nervous. All these kids! He was conditioned to feel shy, and spending a few hours with Rob hadn’t taken that away.
“I don’t know how! I told you we shouldn’t come.”
Rob could see his nervousness, and knew he’d have to give him lots of support for this to work. There was a very real danger Steven would give in to his fears or be overcome by them and simply leave.
“Let’s get some punch. That’ll give you the chance to get more comfortable. We don’t have to dance if you don’t think you can.”
Steven smiled thankfully at Rob, and the two boys worked there way through the crowd to the refreshments table. They waited in line to get to the punchbowl, and while there overheard two girls behind them talking.
“Where’s Chrissy? She said she was coming, and that she had a date. She was looking very pleased with herself.”
“Didn’t you hear? Caroline told me she asked Tommy Atkins to ask her out, and that he said sure. They got it all planned out, they were going to meet out on the playground and walk in together holding hands. But Caroline said that Tommy told her he hates Chrissy, that she’s a real bitch, and he wasn’t going to show up. I looked out there just before coming in, and sure enough, Chrissy is standing by the swings all by herself, looking pissed.”
“So Miss Most Popular got stood up? I love it! Maybe she won’t be so smug, after this.”
Then both girls laughed and high-fived each other. Rob looked at Steven and shrugged his shoulders. Girls! He never could understand them!
They finally got their cups of punch, and then moved to the side of the room where they could watch.
Rob saw Steven’s nervousness gradually ebb away. “Look at everyone,” he said after a bit. “You see anyone out there who looks like they really know what they’re doing? Everyone is just jumping around, wiggling a bit, shaking their bodies. But look at their faces! They’re having fun! That’s what we can do. Please, Steven? Come and dance with me!”
“But, but I can’t dance, and we can’t dance together!”
“You can do as well as everyone else, and no one will know we’re dancing together. Come on! “
And Rob took hold of Steven’s arm and walked him out onto the floor. Rob started bouncing around, purposely looking awkward. Steven took one look and started laughing. Then, blushing, he too started gyrating, and they danced.
Miss Chen’s eyes were sparkling in the dimmed and colored lights of the gym. It was true that she was simply the boys’ homeroom teacher, but through the noise of the chaotic morning homeroom sessions, she’d seen Rob looking at Steven, and seen the shy Steven trying not to be seen looking at Rob each morning. Since their first day in her homeroom the two boys’ glances had danced with each other. Today, earlier, after Steven had left for the library, she’d talked to Rob. She’d told him where Steven was, and why, and that in her opinion, the boy badly needed a friend. Then she’d just looked at Rob. And Rob had smiled at her. That had been that. And now, it had led to this. She couldn’t stop smiling.
Miss Chen watched them on the floor. Try as she might, her giggles wouldn’t stop. Steven’s costume just was too much. He had a humped back, and tights and a tunic. But what set it off so imaginatively, so humorously, was a dark blue baseball cap with the gold letters ND glued on above the bill, and on the tunic front, quite obviously cut and glued on, was the legend: Property of the Notre Dame Hunchback Department.
Miss Chen marveled at the creativity and resourcefulness and resilience of youth. She smiled as the pirate and the hunchback, one of the nicest boys in school and probably the shyest, danced and laughed on the gym floor, mixing and merging with all the other costumed kids, their eyes only on each other.
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