EXCERPT – Chapter One from “HOPE” (Sequel to SAFE) by Mark Zubro

HOPE

by Mark Zubro

Excerpt:

Chapter One

Friday 8:04 P.M.

 

I held Steve tight and whispered, “Shhhhsh, shhhhsh.”

Through his sobs, I heard him say, “I won’t go back. I won’t go back. No one can ever make me go back there.” Between words and tears there were a lot of sniffles, snorts, and hiccups. The shoulder of my T-shirt was soaked.

I wasn’t sure what to say or do. I’m not sure a lot of people would know. I guess maybe a therapist would, but I wasn’t one of those. I was a high school senior who got pretty good grades, but I was holding the boy I loved, and he was in a lot of pain. I knew I was going to hold him for as long as he needed me to. The poor guy.

We’d been dating a few months. My parents had come around and were pretty okay with me being gay. He and I

had talked about him coming out to his mom and dad. Both sets of parents knew Steve and I hung around. I’d

helped rescue him from some terrible people. He’d been through some hideous moments but wasn’t given to tears and hysterics. Or hadn’t been until now. I was really worried. Most of the time he was quiet and shy except when we managed to find time to ourselves alone.

I didn’t call it dating in front of my parents. Why rub it in? We were still in high school after all. His parents fawned over me when I saw them. They saw me as the savior of their son.

They were big on Saviors being members of the largest fundamentalist church in Riverside, California. His dad was the pastor of the Witness for Jesus conglomerate.

I didn’t urge or discourage Steve from coming out to them. I’d told him no matter what he decided, I’d be there for comfort and support.

No question, it’s gotten better for gay kids in general and for me in particular. I’m just not sure it’s always easier. When I’d come out to my mom and dad, they had been a little nutsy at first, but they’d come a long way since then. They had even attended the last few local PLFAG meetings.

It was night, and Steve and I were on a bench in Fairmont Park down by the river in Riverside, California. Moonlight shone through the leaves of a vast pepper tree under which the bench we sat on rested. A ring of huge old jacaranda surrounded our tree making it as secluded a spot as we would like in the middle of the city.

We’d come here before. If we didn’t have a movie to go to or a place to be, we headed for this corner of hidden serenity. It was quiet, and we weren’t likely to be disturbed. We could cuddle, and we did that a lot. Sometimes through the branches and leaves of the trees we just sat and watched the moon rise and the stars begin to shine over the mountains to the east.

I heard footsteps on the path about twenty feet on the other side of where the tree’s shadows ended. It sounded like a couple murmuring to each other. I heard a soft giggle. They moved on and gave no indication they were aware of us.

A gentle wind rustled the leaves. The weather was warm so we didn’t need jackets right now. The night would cool enough for that later.

Half an hour ago, all his message had said was, “At Fairmount Park. Please come at once.” We’d planned to go out that night so it wasn’t a big change of plans. Sometimes we texted about what we wanted to do instead of calling, so getting a text wasn’t real odd. As soon as I’d joined him under the tree, he’d flown into my arms, which had caused me to stumble a few steps backwards.

Once I’d steadied us, I’d eased him onto the bench. When he calmed down enough but his head was still resting on my shoulder, I asked, “What happened?”

“I walked into the house after you dropped me off.”

I’d picked him up from the downtown library where he’d been while I was at baseball practice. We didn’t kiss when I dropped him off. It was too public, too risky being right out in front of his parents’ house.

He took a deep breath then lifted his head. “When I walked in, my mom and dad were both sitting on the couch. Each of them held a Bible. They just sat there. So I began to go up to my room. Then my dad commanded me in his most pissed from the pulpit voice, ‘Come here young man.’ I didn’t know what was going on. His tone kind of scared me, but what he said next for sure scared me.”

“What’d he say?”

“He did that raise his right arm, shake his index finger at me. He does that from the pulpit when he’s describing and denouncing great sinners. Then in that deep, disdainful, rumbly voice, he asked, ‘Have you been dating that boy?’ When he said the word ‘dating,’ I knew that tone he said it in. I’d heard him use it from the pulpit when describing all kinds of sins. He made it sound like filth and perversion.”

He gulped. “I didn’t know what to say.”

Steve moved his head and looked me in the eyes. “I finally just gave this real pathetic nod. I wish I’d been braver.”

“You were doing the best you could. I know even that nod must’ve taken a lot.”

“I was scared shitless.”

“Then what?”

“His voice got real quiet which was almost scarier than the rumbly angry voice. He’s learned to change his voice to great effect.”

“What did he say?”

Steve shuddered. “He said, ‘Get out. Don’t come back until you have confessed to the Lord and begged his forgiveness.’ I started to say something. I’m not sure what I was going to say. I didn’t know what to say, but I didn’t even get a word out. At the first sound that came out of me, he was on his feet bellowing at the top of his lungs and ranting about God and Jesus, sin and perdition, and burning in Hell.”

A light breeze ruffled the leaves for a few moments. A few stray purple petals from the nearby jacaranda trees skittered by our feet. I heard the hum of a couple of cars on Market Street.

“Did he say who told them?” I asked.

“Not him. I stood there for his ranting. When he finally drew a breath, it was my mom who told me in her mousy voice. I hate that mousy voice.”

His mom was this real plain woman, gray hair, gray complexion, kind of always sort of gray clothes. She never said much when I was around and even then she spoke in pretty much a whisper.

Steve went on. “She said that the neighbors told them, the Bazniks. That it was embarrassing that they had to hear it from someone who lived next door to us.” He shook his head. “The Bazniks are prominent in another church called Heaven Sent. They’re my dad’s big rivals. They’re always smiling to each other’s faces, but my mom and dad hate them.”

“Not very Christian of them.”

HOPE_Mark Zubro cover

He gave the briefest hint of a smile as one side of his mouth lifted a half an inch. He continued, “My mom spoke so calmly, almost like a recitation. It was spooky. Zombie like. It bothered me more than my dad’s ranting. She went on and on about what the damn neighbors would think. She actually said that. ‘The neighbors. What will they think of us?’ She talked about how she knew they’d gloat about our family harboring a nest of sin.”

“You’re a nest of sin?”

“I guess so.”

“How does that feel?”

“If I’m in your arms, not bad.”

“How’d the neighbors find out?”

“She said the neighbor’s son, Harold, saw me kissing ‘that boy’. He’d taken a picture with his phone. She showed it to me. It was of us in your car in the parking lot after a night baseball game. Remember? We thought everybody was gone.”

Was Harold jealous? A closet case? Or just a teenage religious whack job with too much time on his hands?

“My mom finished with, ‘We thought he was a nice boy.’” Steve took a deep breath. “At that point I lost it. I yelled at her, ‘He is a nice boy. I love him.’” He pulled in another deep breath, let himself calm down, then resumed. “After that it got really quiet. I felt bad right away for yelling at my mom. I shouldn’t yell at her. She puts up with enough from my dad. She looked like I’d slapped her, and saying I loved you to them was also a mistake.” Another deep breath. “My dad started screaming, ‘Love! You don’t know what love is. Has he touched you? If he has, it’s rape.’ He gave this big shudder, but when he started again he was still screaming. ‘Touching another boy!’ He advanced on me. I was just frozen to the spot. He loomed over me. He belted me with his right hand.” Steve began crying again.

He’d rushed into my arms when I arrived, and I didn’t get a close look at him in the dim light. When he was once again calmer, I lifted his head and saw his left cheek. From his ear to his nose was red and a darkening purple dotted the area nearest his eye.

“He hit you!”

More tears fell. I held him tight.

When Steve finally stopped sniffling, got himself under control, and blew his nose, I asked, “What did you do?”

“I rocked back on my heels. I may have taken several steps back. I had to brace myself on the coffee table for a few seconds to keep from falling. When I finally stood back up, he swept his arm toward the front door and just kept screaming, ‘Get out! Get out! And never come back!’

“I ran all the way downtown to the library. I hid in the reference section in back on the second floor. I didn’t call you because I know your family doesn’t let you take calls while you’re eating dinner. One of the librarians saw me crying and he asked if I was okay. He’s always nice to me. I said I was fine.”

“He might have seen your face.”

“Is it really bad?”

“It looks like you got beaned with a baseball several times around the same spot.”

He wiped his nose. “When I was finally calm enough, I came here and texted you. I was too upset to talk, and I was afraid someone would see me crying.”

Steve and I were pretty out as a gay couple at school. Most of the more prominent homophobes were in jail or on probation or kicked out of school or cowed enough not to try something openly against either of us. The biggest and most blatant homophobes from school had murdered an unfortunate gay kid a few months before. I was part of helping find out who did Steve and I had almost got killed ourselves in the process. It had been a harrowing rescue. After everything calmed down, we began dating.

Kids are kind of benign these days about gay stuff. Most of them anyway, but all it takes is one and at that time, there were more than a few.

In terms of his family finding out, I realized we probably should have been more careful. That kind of teenage hubris, we’d studied that in literature class last semester. Or was it teenage obliviousness? I thought I had less of that than most. I guess I had as much to learn as any other teenager. We should have been more discreet, should always have kept in mind the danger of our being a couple hurting Steve’s relationship with his family. It was a tough barrier for two high school kids dating each other even though I was a senior, graduating soon, and he’d be a senior next year.

Normally we didn’t do public displays of affection and were careful when we did. Obviously not careful enough. Angry or jealous people were following us around, maybe taking pictures with their phones as if we were the victims of some kind of demented high school paparazzi. At the moment that didn’t seem too paranoid.

A lot of times I just wanted to hold his hand, like straight couples did, as we walked down the halls, or a peck on the cheek as we each left for our separate classes, or have him jump into my arms after the team won a game. Or, hell, make out like some straight couples did when the lunchroom supervisors weren’t looking.

He’d just told his parents that he loved me. Those words echoed in my brain. We actually hadn’t said “I love you” out loud to each other even in a romantic moment.

I wanted to show the world I loved him, to show him I loved him. Saying “I love you” to him was kind of a big step I had been waiting and hoping to take.

I’m realistic enough to know love in high school doesn’t have a big chance of lasting forever, but I wanted to give whatever we had as much of a commitment as I could for as long as I could. Sometimes I thought about a huge marriage ceremony with the two of us all dressed up in tuxes. That would be cool. Someday. If we’re lucky.

Right after he’d had an awful fight with his parents, and he was stuck in a horrible, rotten situation, didn’t seem the right moment to discuss the romantic state of our relationship. I was too concerned with helping him through this than with my need to express my feelings, which I wasn’t as good at as I wanted to be.

He was still in my arms, gazing up at me while we talked. I rubbed my fingertips between his shoulder blades. I knew he liked that, and it soothed him when he was stressed.

He sighed and lay in my embrace for a few minutes, but then he shook himself and stood up. “What am I going to do?”

I leaned forward, put my elbows on my knees, and looked up at him. “What do you want to do?”

“Erase the afternoon.”

“I left my time warp at home.”

He gave the briefest of smiles. “That would work.”

We’d watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show together on my computer a month ago. He’d said he thought Rocky was hot, and that I had the build of the actor who played him. I agreed that the guy was a stud, but I thought it was a bit much to say I resembled him. Nice, but exaggerated.

Steve began pacing around under the leaves of the trees. Puffs of the breeze reached us in our shelter. We could hear the distant rumble of traffic on Highway 60.

I stood up and went to him. We hugged for a few minutes, then he stepped back. “I guess the first thing is to figure out where I’m going to go now, for the night. There aren’t any relatives that live nearby who I’m close to. The ones that do live nearest are all as loony religious as my parents. Some worse, if you can believe that.”

I didn’t know the right words to say. The only thing that came to mind was that for the moment we needed some kind of adult intervention. I said, “I guess for now, come home with me.”

“Can I stay with you?”

“You’ve gotta have some place to stay. We’ll talk with my parents. We’ll begin to put the wheels in motion to deal with this. Your situation is more than a couple of teenagers can handle.”

As I drove, I wondered what my mom and dad would say. They liked Steve, but a houseguest for an indefinite period of time? And one with issues? I guess we’d see.

We stopped at In-N-Out Burger on the way home. He hadn’t eaten dinner. He still ate like the entire starting infield of the baseball team combined including the pitcher and the catcher but never gained an ounce.

Discrimination and being an Opening Gay Mystery Writer by Mark Zubro

Guest post by Mark Zubro, Lambda Award winning author of Safe and Pawn of Satan

 

Part of this was posted on Huffington Post under the title “A Walk to the Store.” This is a more full treatment of the topic:

One of the questions often asked in interviews with reporters, on panels at mystery conventions, or when I’m making personal appearances, is if I have experienced any discrimination connected with my being an openly gay teacher, while having twenty-three gay mysteries published.

Remember, at the time the books first came out, February 1989, of the people who were writing gay mysteries, a few were out, but most of the people who were writing them used pseudonyms, were actually married to a member of the opposite sex, or were in some other closet.

As so many of us have heard and indeed preached, it is important for us to come out so people know who we are. The decision to use my real name, first, middle, and last names was made in 1988. Remember this was before the Senate even passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) or Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was instituted to try and ameliorate an even worse policy. Using all three names was a defiant gesture of being proud and open about the tremendous accomplishment of writing a book and having it published.

There were a few mainstream gay authors using their real names at the time. Armistead Maupin comes to mind. And there were others.

I do wonder about so many who have preached we need to come out. So many in the gay media and in gay organizations preach being open, but what exactly are those now, but especially back then, were they risking? They’ve got jobs in gay media and jobs in gay publishing. For those of us who live in conservative areas with jobs in conservative school districts, the risk back then was real. And remember in more than half the states in this country, it is still legal to fire someone from their job just for being gay. It was legal to do so at the time in Illinois.

At the time the first book was published, the superintendent received two letters complaining about me. One complained about a teacher using gay characters in a book. As if, then, authors were to be limited by profession; as in an electrician could only write books with these type of characters; or a waiter could write books with only this, that, and the other type of character. The other complained about what I might be saying about my private life in the classroom. Basically they meant we don’t like this gay guy teaching our kids. And it could have been a problem. But the superintendent simply wrote them letters reassuring them that there was no problem. So I was lucky that there were only two letters, if luck it was? Or I was lucky that the superintendent wasn’t a homophobic pig, if luck it was? He only told me after the fact when the letters had been received and replied to. He gave me copies and did not discuss the issue.

zubrom-330-Pawn_of_Satan_Final_Front_Cover_for_OK__9_10_2013

I did receive lots of positive feedback from my colleagues. Perhaps the other members of the English department and other members of the staff were happy for me in having an actual real book published by a real New York, big time publisher. Doesn’t every English teacher dream of writing a book and having it published? Or maybe the homophobic pigs just kept their mouths shut?

But in terms of discrimination the students were another possible issue/problem. Although it turns out mostly, they didn’t care that I’d had a book published. It was an adult world of books that was foreign and uninteresting to them. They did want to know if it made me rich, and were, I believe, disappointed when I told them no. Not perhaps as disappointed as I, but still.

They may or may not have been interested in my private life but then, as now, my private life is about the same, pretty dull and boring. At the time I taught, ran the teachers’ Union as president, went home and read books and wrote books. Now as a retired teacher I sit at home and read books and write books. Sometimes I vary the routine, then as now, with naps or eating chocolate. I long ago learned I was good at dull and boring. I believe in going with your strengths. Those are two of mine and I’m sticking with them.

There were, however, problems of discrimination with the kids.

There was one essay from an eighth grader, who wrote in part the following: “I know he’s gay because I know what his books are about. They’re about gay people. I think my dad is right about what should happen to gay people, a bullet hole in the head.” This student was in my class for a full year. I didn’t read the essay with this comment in it until after the school year was over. I found this more sad than anything else.

Then the following occurred and I learned how pervasive the discrimination and danger from some of the students was back then. The following is all true.

I walk to the convenience store down the street every day to get my newspapers and so I can claim I’m getting exercise every day. Yes, even in winter, I just bundle up and then bundle up some more and hope I don’t slip on the ice. Tripped and fell once last year as I got distracted by a beautiful dog who was being taken into the animal grooming place two doors down from the convenience store. Just a klutz, no medical issues.

Once in a blue moon I run into former students. At least they introduce themselves as such, since some of them are now in their twenties, thirties, forties or even early fifties.

One Saturday a woman in her thirties who was chatting with one of the clerks at the store turned to me and asked the usual, “Aren’t you?” and I said the usual, “I’m sorry I don’t remember your name. Please tell me.”

I wouldn’t have recognized her in a thousand years. She told me her name, and she has a husband, kids, and lives in town. So, we chatted less than five minutes, and I walked back home.

That next day, Sunday, she’s there again. She introduces me to the clerks at the store adding that she always liked me as a teacher and said I was always good to her and her friends. That was good. But the conversation quickly lagged, like one of those moments when you kind of don’t want to be talking to this person, or at least can’t think of anything to say, and are starting to feel uncomfortable. I finished the conversation and walked home.

The next Saturday, she was there again. She’d been chatting with the clerk again, but as I turned to go, she followed me out of the store. The weather was nice that day as it has been.

Over the few days of brief conversations, we’d talked about other students who were in the same year with her. I usually remember the kids from a particular year, if at all, as most teachers do, by the most rotten kids in the class. Since she was in her thirties, the people and events we were talking about happened over twenty years ago just after the first books were out.

The most rotten kid that year was Biff. (fake name here)

The woman — I’ve forgotten her name now — and since she was married her name wasn’t the same as when she was a kid, said that her husband had gone to a school in the next district over from mine. Her husband had been best friends with Biff and his cronies.

Then she apologized to me. She told me Biff, but not with her husband — maybe I believed that — came to my parking lot and flipped my car. She said she was so sorry for that, and she always liked me as a teacher.

I told her that no one had ever flipped my car, if she meant as in turned it over on its roof.

She said she’d always wondered if what they’d bragged about had been true. She then listed the other things they’d done.

These were all too true.

SAFE

One time, my car had been picked up and moved about three feet from the perpendicular. I drove a high-mileage, small compact car so it was possible. Two other times the windshield was smashed. Another, nails in tires. A broken window in the apartment. Sand in the gas tank — I got a locking gas cap in all subsequent cars. The list went on.

At the time, I’d called the police for a few of the incidents, but there was nothing to be done. I had no clue as to the identity of the perpetrators.

It didn’t all happen at once — in fact over about a four-year span.

Stupid me. All the little things I dismissed or didn’t pay attention to. I asked once at the place where I went to get replacement tires, wasn’t it odd that I was getting nails in my tires so often. Couldn’t someone be sabotaging them? The clerk at the time said no, they must be nails from construction sites. Much as I might fantasize about studly construction workers, I’d never so much as gotten close to a construction site and certainly have never driven through one.

The woman reiterated that they used to brag about what they’d done to get the fag.

Teenage homophobia. A form of intimidation and bullying.

I never put it all together. The incidents all happened too far apart for me to connect them.

I think on some of those interviews and panels I may have said something like, ‘oh I was pretty lucky, there wasn’t much of a problem with homophobia, only a few letters from parents, and then I’d tell the story about the letter.’ Turns out there was constant homophobia of a violent and dangerous kind, and I missed it.

The woman at the store apologized several times. Repeated that her husband wasn’t involved. Named the names of kids I’d long forgotten who’d helped Biff.

So, yes, the bullying of a teacher, against an openly gay writer. And I was too naive or stupid or arrogant to see it. What a fool.

She was so was so nice and so apologetic.

I ask myself how I couldn’t have put it together? The basic fact is, I didn’t.

The apology happened recently. The events she was apologizing for happened in the early ’90s after my first books came out. I ask myself have things really gotten better for us? I often think they have, but then there are headlines about another gay teen committing suicide. I imagine they are getting better, but then I still see us as the only minority whose rights are put to a vote. I try to remember that in all the years between Dred Scott and Brown vs. Board of Education, African Americans mostly lost court cases.

When you are in the middle of a storm, it always seems a long way until the end. But there are signs of hope for us, some large and global, some small and personal. I think about the president and the ringing phrase in his inaugural address, “From Seneca Falls, to Selma, to Stonewall,” and I have hope. I think about the Illinois senate taking a positive vote for marriage for us on Valentine’s Day, and I believe there is hope for us in this world. I listen to, instead of further scorn and derision, a woman making an apology to an author many years later, and I believe things have gotten better.

 

http://www.markzubro.com/

 

 

SPOTLIGHT – Mark Zubro’s gay YA Mystery novel; SAFE

Very special treat for you today with an excerpt from SAFE, the new Gay YA Mystery/Thriller novel from Mark Zubro.

SAFE, by Mark Zubro

Blurb:

In an unsafe world, death and danger stalk gay teens, Roger Cook and Steve Koemer.

Roger Cook is in the middle of his senior year when Kyle Davis, the most picked on kid in his high school commits suicide. Roger agrees to write an article on Kyle for the school newspaper. As he gathers information, Roger realizes the dead boy was gay and may have been murdered. Gay himself, Roger wants to find out the truth, but this leads him to danger and the possibility of love. Roger opens himself to even greater risk while trying to make those around him safe.SAFE

 

Chapter One

Monday 7:04 A.M.

 

When I was two feet from the newspaper office door, Darlene Banyon rushed up to me and said, “Roger, did you hear the news?”

I shrugged. “I’m lucky to be awake and moving at this hour.”

“Kyle Davis committed suicide.”

It was early on the Monday after Christmas vacation and only some janitors and a few of the nerdiest teachers were in school. Monday is deadline day, whether or not we just had two weeks of vacation. I planned to finish some final rewrites on my next column before the bell rang for first period.

Darlene Banyon is our editor. She’ll probably be valedictorian of our class. She’s a little overweight and wears a huge assortment of rhinestone-studded glasses. She’s pretty silent, like she rarely says, “Good story” or “Thanks for the help.” I know she takes her job seriously because she’s always after school for hours every day making sure everything is perfect. Nothing gets past her scrutiny.

I guess that’s good in an editor, but I think she could lighten up a little. I know the pressure gets to her. On the days the paper is supposed to come out she snaps at everybody, demanding rewrites and cuts and edits and changes at the last second. If the paper is even a minute late from the printer, she starts slamming things around. She only calms down after a couple of her friends come by and tell her how great the paper looks.

I like her a lot. I just avoid her when she’s in a mood. This year we’ve become friends, and even though she’s dating a guy who goes to the University of California Riverside, we go out for coffee or a soda once or twice a week. We discuss politics, the reason why things happen, the meaning behind events, why people do crazy things, everything. Of all the people I know, she’d be the first one I’d tell I was gay.

Darlene continued, “It was too late to make this morning’s Riverside Tribune. It got posted on a few kids’ pages just an hour or so ago, and now everybody’s sending messages about it.” She showed me her phone.

After I read a couple, I said, “It doesn’t say when it happened.”

“Supposedly, sometime after nine o’clock last night.”

“I was at the basketball tournament all weekend. The final game ran into double overtime. I didn’t get home until late. Nothing was on the Net when I went to bed.”

Darlene snorted. “I’m surprised anybody Tweeted anything. I’m surprised anybody cared. They probably don’t. They probably just love death and gossip.” She gave an angry snarl as we walked into the office together.

In the senior class at Riverside Memorial, we’ve got just under a thousand kids. So you don’t know everybody, but I think we all knew Kyle Davis. Every day he plodded over two miles to school. He could have taken transportation provided by the district, but when he was a freshman, a few other kids had forced him into the back seat of the bus, taken his pants and underwear, and tossed them out the window. Before the bus driver figured out the screams were those of distress, he’d driven half a mile.

They caught the guys who did it, and they got suspended, but Kyle never rode the bus again. Danger lurked as he’d walked down the halls: getting shoved into lockers, his path blocked deliberately, incessantly taunted and teased.

Kyle had been maybe twenty-five pounds overweight, and all of it had added to his baby fat. He was around five foot six, so fighting back, even if he’d wanted to, wasn’t a practical consideration.

At least, I’d never heard of him getting back at his tormentors. He’d never been in any of my classes, but I’d seen him nearly every day, on the way to school, one foot plunking in front of the other, never hurrying. He’d always carried a faded green backpack. Every day as he’d approached what was for him high school hell, he’d looked like an out of shape recruit in the army finishing his first twenty-five mile hike.

Darlene read from her iPhone. “They found him hanging from a pepper tree in the orange groves, somewhere way out past Victoria Avenue near Jackson Street.”

“Does it say anything about him leaving a note?” I asked.

“Nothing here.” She punched a lot more buttons. “Nothing like a police report. Nothing on the Riverside Tribune Web site so far.”

Steve Koemer rushed in, nodded to us, and hurried to set up his laptop. In about ten seconds he was typing away. Steve was our newest staff member, the gofer to do the dirty work nobody else wanted, a junior severely afflicted with teenage uncoordination, terminal shyness, and skinny to the point of emaciation. He dropped stuff all the time. He often made silly mistakes while working on the newspaper program on the computer, but he never made mistakes editing our copy. He wore black-framed glasses. Darlene helped him out a lot, and I’d helped him cover up a couple mistakes he’d made with the computer program. When I worked with him, he was quick to learn and asked intelligent questions. His dad was a preacher for the Witness for Jesus Church.

Bert Blaire, our so-called ace reporter, breezed into the room. He slapped me on the back and said, “Hey, Rog, how’s it hangin’?” He chucked Darlene under the chin and said, “Good to see you, lady boss.”

Darlene swatted his hand away and growled at him. “Next time you touch me,” she said, “you get belted across the room, then I kick your nuts so hard, you won’t ever have to worry about birth control again.”

Bert gaped at her. I’d never seen her display this kind of anger.

Bert said, “Hey, easy. I’m just being friendly.”

She glared at him.

I don’t like Bert Blaire. He doesn’t know when to stop or let things go. I wondered if Darlene might have been working up to her explosion for a while, and her upset over Kyle’s death might have triggered the response. I’d seen and heard her endure a lot from Bert. If I thought she needed my help, or asked for it, I’d be happy to lend a fist or foot to cause Bert any amount of discomfort.

Bert was hosting the annual newspaper staff bash this coming Saturday night. It was a tradition for the seniors on the paper to throw a party for the whole staff sometime during the year. Bert had offered to do all the planning. At his place it wouldn’t be just the newspaper people and their friends. He’d have a mob of athletes, rich kids, “in kids”, plus us regular schlubs from the paper.

Bert walked over to Steve, slapped him on the shoulder, and said, “How’s the stud junior gopher today?”

Steve winced, ducked his head, and stopped typing.

“Leave him alone,” I said.

“You too?” Bert asked. “Jeez, I’m just being friendly. Everybody needs to back off.”

Bert is almost as bright as Darlene. In fact our whole staff is in the top five percent of the class academically. Bert will probably get a four-year academic scholarship to some college even though he doesn’t need the money because his dad owns half of Riverside County.

Usually everybody on the newspaper gives Bert a wide birth because he’s a jerk. Compounding the dislike is the fact that he is one of Mr. Trumble’s pets.

A computer pinged with an incoming message. We all glanced at the clock. Seven twenty-two precisely. The Riverside Drone comic strip appeared in all the inboxes and in text messages. It was anonymously drawn, with lush colors and careful shading. Even better it was bitterly sarcastic about teachers, athletes, popular students, and school administrators.

Today’s strip was about a chemistry class experiment gone wrong with a supervising teacher who resembled Frankenstein’s monster. Mr. Trumble rarely let us print them, but we all looked forward to them. They were cool and funny. Bert hated them. I loved them.

Mr. Trumble is the faculty advisor for the paper. He pretty much wears the same brown pants every day. They’re all shiny so I guess he never washes them. A few times a year, when it’s really hot out, he’ll wear Bermuda shorts with black socks and sandals. He’s an old guy with white hair growing out of his ears and nostrils. In winter when it’s cool, he puts on long sleeve white shirts and sweaters. When it’s warmer, which is most of the year, he has these short sleeve beige shirts with his initials stitched on the pockets. He rarely talks above a whisper, and it’s really tedious to listen to him because he rambles so much, but he pretty much leaves us alone. All he cares about is that we don’t get him in trouble printing controversial stuff that teenagers are supposed to have never heard about, like abortion or AIDS or teen pregnancy.

The newspaper office is about twelve feet by twenty feet, so everything is pretty cramped. We’ve got a bunch of old reject computers, but some of us have laptops and wireless Internet connections. Still, Mr. Trumble watches us pretty carefully on our Internet use. We can get in a lot of trouble if we’re caught on inappropriate-for-school Web sites.

On the left as you walk in, there’s a corkboard wall that has a mock-up of the paper laid out page by page. On the other walls are huge posters from old musical plays: Hello Dolly, Man of LaMancha, Finian’s Rainbow, West Side Story, and some I’ve never heard of. We have those because Mr. Trumble is hot for old musicals. He claims he starred in a couple in college.

After we took a moment to read the strip, Darlene told Bert about Kyle Davis committing suicide.

“Who cares?” Bert threw himself into a chair. “The guy was a fag and nobody liked him.”

“Don’t say fag,” Darlene and I said at the same time.

“Will everybody leave me alone?” Bert asked. He always wore the most fashionable clothes in that casual I-don’t-really-care-how-I-look way that’s popular among people that care about that stuff. I wear mostly jeans and T-shirts myself, with my letterman’s jacket or a sweatshirt if it’s cool out. “You can’t sue me for being a hypocrite. I’m not going to get all weepy over a kid I barely knew, that nobody liked, and that nobody is going to miss.”

Darlene advanced on him and towered over him as he lounged in his chair. Through clenched teeth, she said, “We need to write a story about Kyle.”

“Don’t look at me,” Bert said.

“I wasn’t going to ask you,” Darlene said. “I’d do it myself, but I agreed to help out for two weeks on the yearbook staff, plus my usual duties here.”

Darlene always liked to help people, constantly took on more and more, and was always swamped.

She turned to me. “Roger, would you do the story?”

I wanted to protest and say no, I only did sports, but after Bert’s reaction, I could hardly refuse.

I had strong mixed feelings. I, too, thought, Kyle was gay. I was pretty confident about being gay myself, but not about being open about it. It’s not that if people associated me with Kyle that they’d think I was gay, but I wanted to be careful.

I mumbled a yes.

Ian McCord strutted in. He raised an eyebrow at me and swept a bow toward Darlene. I disliked Bert, but I hated Ian. He worked on the theater, arts, and movie news and reviews. If anybody in the school fit the stereotype of an effeminate gay male, he did. His wrists limped, he swung his hips and sashayed around campus, and he could adopt a lisp at the drop of an insult. Ian’s being effeminate wasn’t the issue. The problem was that he was a total jerk. He was overweight and proud of it, and he liked to tell us in nauseating detail about every new fad diet he tried. He thought he was funny. I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve laughed at some of the things he’s said. I just thought a lot of it was a pile of pretentious nonsense.

Ian often talked about the latest opening he’d been to in L.A. or how this or that play was so ghastly. His reviews of school plays were generally really nasty, even after Mr. Trumble toned them down.

In the realm of emotions, Ian dealt only in superlatives. He was always the tensest, saddest, gloomiest, or happiest, and he let you know which it was in great detail.

He didn’t like me, either. He thought I was a dumb jock. He kept up a string of snide innuendos, which he thought I didn’t catch. I had him figured out. On the days when I wore my oldest, most faded, and tightest jeans, he wouldn’t stop fawning over me, patting me, finding things to come over and talk to me about.

This morning Ian burbled almost incessantly about Kyle’s death, but he had few facts. That never stopped Ian. His up moods annoyed me more than his downs. Ian said, “Did you hear? They’re going to have ‘grief counselors’ in the school.”

What I got from his explanation was that a sort of swat team of psychologists, counselors, social workers, and others were descending on the school so that any kids or teachers affected by Kyle’s death could come talk to them.

“I may go so that I can get out of class,” Ian said.

“You look like you’re ready to weep with sorrow,” Darlene said.

Ian put a hand to his breast. “You wound me deeply.”

“I wish,” Darlene said.

I wanted all of them to shut up. I wasn’t sure how I felt about Kyle’s death, except gay or straight, it was sad.

Ian launched into a long-winded description of the party he went to Saturday night. Others began working. I entered my column on a computer, finished my rewrites, printed it out along with an article of mine, and added them to the cork board, and left.

 

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