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.

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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Website: http://www.markzubro.com/