What happens when two lonely boys meet in a shopping mall food court?
The alarm seemed more vile than usual Monday morning. Josh was sleeping more soundly than he ordinarily did and so the abrupt awakening was harsh punishment indeed. The noise shattered not only his sleep but a wonderful dream as well, so it was with a violent and unforgiving hand Josh reached out and battered the offending clock into submission.
He rolled onto his back and lay still for a moment, then remembered he was not alone. He looked over at Bryan, who was on his side, facing toward him, still sleeping from the looks of it.
Josh watched him for a moment, then said, “Hey, there’s no way you could have slept through that alarm. You must be awake. Bryan? Bryan?”
Bryan groaned, one eyelid flickering. “Shut up! I’m trying to stay asleep, and you shouting my name at me doesn’t help any.”
Josh looked at him, then took the edge of the sheet and very lightly brushed it over one of Bryan’s nostrils. Then again. On the third pass, Bryan started swiping at it with his hand. Being half asleep didn’t help his coordination. Josh kept tickling him, then began giggling.
“I’m going to kill someone!” Bryan roared, then pushed himself up onto his knees. Josh shrieked and raced for the bathroom. Bryan collapsed back onto the bed.
When Josh returned five minutes later, Bryan was still lying in bed. “Hey, you’ve got to get out of here before I do. Better get moving,” Josh advised.
Bryan opened one eye. “It’s too early,” he moaned.
“How have you been getting up every day without my help?” asked Josh. He was at his dresser, faced away from Bryan, sliding off the boxers he’d slept in.
Bryan propped his head up, watching. Josh opened the bottom drawer, took out a clean pair of boxers and stepped into them. Realizing Bryan hadn’t answered, he turned around and saw Bryan watching him. A shy grin crossed Josh’s face.
“Oh, I see. That’s what you were waiting for.”
“Not really, but as long as there’s going to be a floor show and I have a front row seat, it’d be silly not to watch it.”
“Well, it’s over now, and you still need to get up. I’m just having cereal for breakfast. Is that okay, or should I make you eggs or something? You probably need to be leaving in no more than 20 minutes.”
“Nag, nag, nag. Okay, I’m up already.” When Josh had turned back to the dresser, Bryan bounced out of bed and headed for the bathroom, calling back, “Yeah, cereal’s great.”
Josh finished dressing and went downstairs. He put two bowls on the table, got out milk and several boxes of cereal, then started toast. By the time he had the rest of the table set and four slices of toast were done, Bryan was coming down stairs, wearing some of his new clothes.
They quickly ate their breakfast, neither saying much. It turned out Bryan was not a morning person and Josh had never been an impulsive, bubbly talker. When they were done, Josh stacked their few dishes in the sink while Bryan made sure he had everything he needed in his backpack. After slipping his arms into it, he told Josh he was taking off.
“Hold it a second,” Josh said.
“What?” asked Bryan, curiously, his hand on the doorknob.
“There’re a couple things you need. First, here’s a spare key for the house.” He handed it to Bryan, who took it and put it in his pocket. “That’s yours,” Josh continued. “Secondly, what were you planning to do for lunch?”
“I hadn’t thought about lunch.”
“Exactly. Well, here’s ten dollars.” Josh offered Bryan a ten-dollar bill.
“Josh . . . .”
As Bryan wasn’t making any move to take the money, Josh just stepped forward and shoved it into his pants pocket, then stepped back. Bryan looked a little sheepish. Josh was sure he was going to complain again about too much being done for him. He was surprised, instead, to see a mischievous grin flash across Bryan’s face. He looked at Josh for a second, then, giving a little wave as he left the house, called back over his shoulder, “Thanks, Mom.”
----  ----
Even with his long bicycle ride, Bryan got back to the house before Josh did that afternoon after school. He was the only one home. It felt odd to him, being by himself in a house that he didn’t feel much connection to. The house felt very empty, and he felt very much the stranger in it.
He was in Josh’s room, sitting on the bed with his history book open when Josh walked in. Josh looked at him and smiled.
“Hey. Everything go okay? Did you get to school at the right time? No problems with the bike ride?”
“No, it was perfect. I left at just the right time this morning.”
“Good. And did you get a snack when you got home?”
“No. I’ve only been here a few minutes.”
“You want something?”
The boys walked downstairs, Josh leading the way. Josh was feeling good about Bryan. Bryan seemed to be accepting things without so much fuss. That made it much easier for Josh. Without Bryan complaining about everything that Josh was doing for him, to Josh it seemed Bryan was now thinking of himself more as Josh’s friend. A friend doesn’t complain when he gets something from another friend. He takes it for granted. The fact Bryan was now doing less complaining made Josh feel the relationship between the two was changing in Bryan’s mind and he wasn’t now so much feeling like some sort of stray kid Josh was just being charitable to. That was very much what Josh wanted.
Josh opened the refrigerator and started taking things out. He set two cans of soft drinks on the island counter, then grabbed a package of lunch meat and a jar of mustard. He was swinging around to put them on the counter when Bryan, carrying a bag of chips he’d scrounged from a cupboard, bumped into him.
Josh gasped and dropped the mustard. Then he looked embarrassed, knelt down and picked the container up off the floor. As he stood back up, he saw Bryan staring at him. He looked away and went back to getting things out of the refrigerator.
Josh didn’t answer immediately. Instead, he leaned over and took a jar of mayonnaise and some pickles out of the bottom of the refrigerator door, stood back up and kicked the door shut. Bryan hadn’t moved and was still staring at him.
“Josh?” he repeated.
“What?” His voice was defensive, so Bryan lowered his.
“Josh, what’s the matter?”
“What do you mean?” Josh frowned at Bryan, then tried to look puzzled, then tried confused, then went back to evincing puzzlement.
“Josh, I hardly bumped you, it was just a nudge, and you gasped. Lift up your shirt.”
“What? I’m not going to do that. What’s the matter with you? Let’s just make some sandwiches. Grab the bread, would you?”
Bryan laid the chips on the counter, then started walking toward Josh. Josh began stepping back, but within two steps he was backed up against the counter with no place to go. Bryan stopped in front of him.
“Lift up your shirt,” he repeated.
Josh didn’t do anything for a moment, just looked at Bryan. Bryan looked back, his face stony.
Josh sighed, then reached down and lifted his T-shirt up so it was above his stomach and over his chest. There was a nasty red area low on his left side that was starting to turn into an ugly bruise.
Josh let his shirt fall. “It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it. Let’s just make the sandwiches.”
He started to shove past Bryan, but Bryan put his hands on Josh’s shoulders and continued to look into his eyes. Josh couldn’t read his expression. It seemed to be a mix of anger and compassion and a couple of other emotions.
“Josh, what happened? And tell me the truth.”
“Okay, okay. Let’s fix the snack while I talk. I’m hungry.” He tried a weak smile, but it didn’t affect Bryan’s expression at all.
Josh got plates from the cupboard, then opened the bread. As he was taking bread slices out of the package, he started talking.
“It was just after lunch. I was at my locker, getting books for my afternoon classes. I’d got the ones I needed and closed my locker when this guy, Tom Beddings, came by. There are four guys at my school who like to give me a hard time. Tom’s one of them. He looked at me like he does, kind of contemptuously, and said something, the sort of thing he usually does. I just ignore him, usually. Today, well . . . .”
Josh stopped. He suddenly realized, if he said just what had happened, what he’d been thinking before it had happened, maybe he’d be saying too much. He paused and was considering that when Bryan spoke.
“Yeah?” Josh said this just a little cautiously, like he maybe knew what was coming.
“Josh, you stopped like you were going to say something, then sort of changed your mind. Remember yesterday, remember when we said we were going to tell each other the truth? I know that can be hard, but remember how good it felt when you did it? Can you do that now? I’d really like you to do that now.”
Josh blushed. He did remember. It was hard, and half of him wanted to protect himself. The other half wanted to take the chance, knowing that this was the way to become closer to Bryan.
It was this other half that won.
“Okay. You’re right. We promised. Here goes. Usually, I just ignore Tom. Today, I was feeling cocky. I think it’s because of you. You’ve made me feel so good about myself, it somehow felt wrong to take any crap from him. So when he told me not to look at him, that he didn’t want any chicken-shit fag looking at him, normally I would have looked away. This time, the thought of doing that bothered me, and I didn’t look down. This time I just looked at him, and I smiled. That was stupid, I know, but it wasn’t a challenge or anything. I was just feeling good, I knew his name calling wasn’t going to hurt me, I thought about you, and I was feeling a little proud of myself, not something that’s normal for me, and I just smiled.
“Tom got a look on his face, and then he lowered his shoulder and knocked me into my locker. It was pretty hard, and my side slammed against the handle. It bruised my ribs pretty good. I’m sure nothing’s broken, there’s no sharp pain and it doesn’t hurt to breathe or anything. But he got me pretty good. I hit the locker and fell to the floor. He looked down at me, then snickered and told me that’s where fags like me belong, lying on the floor at his feet, and I should get used to it because he’d make sure I spent a lot more time there. Then he pulled his foot back to kick me, I flinched and shied away, he stopped his foot and laughed. Then he leaned down to me, grabbed my shoulder so hard it hurt and said, ‘Next time, fag. Next time I’ll kick you too.” He sort of sneered at me and then just stood up, turned around and walked away.
“It really hurt where I’d hit the locker handle, but I’m sort of used to being messed up at school. I’ve learned to live with it, not to make a fuss. I got up and checked I wasn’t bleeding, then just wiped my eyes, picked up my stuff and went to class. It doesn’t hurt much any more, unless it gets bumped or something. It’ll probably be mostly all gone tomorrow.”
“You didn’t tell anyone?”
“Bryan! I can’t do that! I can’t do anything! I can’t tell, I can’t fight back, I just . . . .” Josh was getting increasingly upset. He backed away from the sandwich he was making and looked down at the floor. “You want to know what hurts the most? You want the truth?” There was anger in his voice now. “This is the truth. This is what I hate the most. This is what I hate about me. I’m a coward, Bryan. I’m a chicken-shit, yellow, fucking pussy-ass coward. I don’t fight back, I don’t do anything. I just take it. I can’t do anything. I don’t know how, I’m weak, I’m just a dumb, weak, coward. And I hate it.”
He stopped and just stood looking at the floor. Then he drew in a deep breath and said, softly, “And I hate that you know it.”
Bryan immediately stepped forward and grasped Josh’s upper arms. He held them for a moment, then said, “Josh, look at me.”
Josh didn’t move. They stood like that until Bryan stepped beside him and said, “Josh, let’s go sit down. In the living room.” Then he slipped his arm around Josh’s shoulders and got him to walk into the next room.
When they were both seated on the couch, Bryan looked at Josh and waited till he lifted his eyes. Then he said, “Josh, how much does Tom weigh?”
“I don’t know. Maybe 165.”
“And how much do you weigh?”
“Right. So you’re a coward because you didn’t stand up to him and fight him?”
Josh didn’t say anything and dropped his eyes.
“Josh, all these guys that give you a hard time. Are they all bigger than you?”
“Yeah. They all hang together. They’re all big. But still . . . .”
“But still nothing! Josh, that isn’t courage, fighting those guys! Fighting them would be stupid! You get a tooth knocked out, maybe several, you get your face broken, maybe a rib. That’s stupid! I know we hear all the time about standing up for ourselves and not letting people push us around and all that, but come on! You know you can’t fight those guys! Deciding not to fight when you have no chance of even holding your own doesn’t mean anything at all about your courage. Do you know what does? Think about it. Think about what a coward would do.”
When Josh didn’t respond, Bryan went on. “A coward would run away. He’d see any of them coming, he’d run. He’d find a way to avoid them. There’s ways to do that, and you’re smart. So you can figure them out. In fact, I’ll bet you already have. Let’s see. One is to go to the principal or a teacher or someone in authority at school every time this happens and tell. Have you thought about that?”
“Well, sure, but — ”
“Stop. Let’s go on. Another thing to do is, with your father having money and all, you could go to a private school. Have you thought about that?”
“And why haven’t you done that?”
“It seemed like I was just running away. It seemed if I did that, why wouldn’t I do the same thing at the new school? It didn’t seem like I was handling it very well if I did that.”
“Josh, you know what courage is? Courage is going back to your school day after day, week after week, knowing those guys are there and they’re going to mess with you, and not quitting. That’s courage. Going to school knowing you’re going to have to face those guys again, every day, well, to me that means you’ve got courage to burn. You’re facing up to your problem by not letting it beat you. You’re not taking the easy way out. That’s about as brave a thing as you could do. But you’re not letting yourself see that. You’re focusing on the wrong thing. You have a bad opinion of yourself, and just because you’re not 6’ 3”, 240 pounds and can beat the shit out of those guys, you think you’re weak and a coward. Josh, you’re amazing, you’re not giving an inch to those guys. Tell me. Other kids must see this. They have to see what’s happening. You’re small. I am too. Small kids get picked on in middle school, but we’re in high school now and it doesn’t happen nearly as much there. So tell me. Are you picked on as often now as you were before?”
“Well, I guess not. In fact, those four guys? I guess that’s about it. There used to be more, but this year, it’s just those guys.”
“I think that’s because other kids have seen you don’t give up, seen you just keep coming back. I think people are admiring you, even if they don’t do much to help. That’s the way kids are. They don’t want to get involved. Seeing someone else get picked on and not helping, that’s where the problem is. Those kids are the ones who don’t have courage. Not you. You have all the courage a person could have. More than almost anyone else.”
Josh had looked back up at Bryan. Now he thought about what he was hearing.
“It’s nice of you to say that. But I don’t feel brave. I just feel stupid and sort of worthless. I wish I could fight them.”
“You can’t do that. Not like you’re thinking. But there are other ways. And you know what? We need to talk about those. The one thing we can’t do is just let you keep getting hurt. That has to stop. And I want to do something about those piece of shit guys.”
Josh got a smile on his face. “Hey, I like the way that sounds. I like it that you’re upset that this happens. But I don’t know what to do about them. I don’t know how to get them to stop beating on me without telling on them, and I’m not going to do that.”
“Josh, you know what? You’re really smart. Without trying to pat myself on the back, just being real, I’m smart too. Not like you, I don’t think, but I’m pretty good at thinking things out. What I think here is, if we have a problem, we can talk about it and think about it and sort of work on it together. We need to talk about this.”
They stayed on the couch just a little longer, talking, then went back to the kitchen and finished making their snack. Then they took their plates and drinks upstairs, where they sat down and began talking again. They spoke for a long time. A lot of it was Bryan convincing Josh. When they were done, they started their homework. They both had some problem concentrating on it. They were excited, and their excitement got in the way of studying. Especially for Josh.
----  ----
Dr. Warren was reading in the living room when the boys came down stairs. Josh and Bryan both said hello, but he didn’t raise his head from his book. Josh looked at Bryan and broke out laughing, and Bryan just giggled. They moved to the kitchen where Josh began getting things from the refrigerator.
“How about pork chops, macaroni and cheese, asparagus and a tossed salad? How does that sound?”
“After three weeks of hamburgers, fish tacos, hamburgers, pizza and hamburgers, it sounds like heaven to me. What do you want me to do?
They divided up the work and in a surprisingly short time had things pretty nearly ready. While they were setting the table together, Bryan asked, “Are you comfortable with this? You all set and everything? We could wait till tomorrow.”
“It’d be just as hard tomorrow. Let’s get it over with. I’m pumped.”
Bryan grinned. “Me too!”
Dr. Warren brought his book with him when he came to the table, and Josh gave Bryan a look. “We can’t have that,” he told him.
“He won’t hear or remember a word we say.”
When the boys had been eating a while and were about done, and Dr. Warren had taken two bites and was thoroughly engrossed in his reading, Josh said rather sharply, “Dad!”
Dr. Warren looked over the top of the book at him.
“Dad, could you put the book down for a couple minutes? We need to talk to you.”
Dr. Warren looked at him, then slowly started to raise the book again. Josh reached out and stopped him, then tugged on the book. Reluctantly, Dr. Warren let him take it, a quizzical look on his face.
“Thanks, Dad. We need to talk and need your full attention. Do we have that? Do you need a minute to leave Greece and get back here with us?”
Dr. Warren got a sheepish grin on his face, then looked down at his plate as if seeing it there for the first time. He picked up his knife and fork and said, “Okay, sorry about that. What’s going on?”
“Dad, I want you to do something for me. What I want to do is change schools. I want to start going to Taft instead of Kennedy. I want to transfer, and you’ll need to go in and sign the transfer request at Kennedy and the enrollment forms at Taft. If you can, I’d like you to do it tomorrow. I don’t know how long it takes after you’ve made the request, but I want to change schools just as soon as possible, like this week if we can.”
Dr. Warren had a questioning look on his face. “I don’t understand, Josh. Why do you want to change? I’m not even sure you can. I think you have to go to the school that’s located in the catchment district you live in.”
“We figured that out, Dad. We looked it up on the computer. You’re allowed to transfer if there is a class or classes you want to take that are not offered at your regular school but are at another school. Taft offers advanced creative writing classes. It’s a magnet school for those classes. We don’t have them at Kennedy, so I’m pretty sure they’ll let me transfer. I get A’s all the time in English, so I should meet the qualifications for the class.”
Dr. Warren didn’t say anything for a minute. He glanced at Bryan, then back at Josh.
“You said, ‘We figured that out.’ Why do I have the idea there’s more going on here than what you’re telling me?”
“There is, Dr. Warren,” Bryan answered. “May I tell him, Josh?”
Josh had been against giving his father any details about why he wanted to leave Kennedy. Bryan thought he should know. They’d agreed to play it by ear. Bryan was asking permission before revealing what Josh would have preferred they kept private. Now, Josh just looked at Bryan a moment, then reluctantly nodded.
Bryan looked back at Dr. Warren. “Josh really didn’t want to talk to anyone about this, and hopes you’ll respect his wishes on how to handle this. He really wants to handle it on his own, and we’ve talked about this a lot. Please, sir, let him handle it, it will really help him to be able to do that. But to get into it, for the past couple of years, Josh has been having a hard time at school from a few guys. He didn’t want to say anything for a number of reasons, and I hope you won’t be upset with him for that, but the fact is, he’s been hurt a few times. It happened again today. We’ve talked about it, and one of the things we want to do is get him out of that school as quickly as possible. If you’ll sign the papers tomorrow, and maybe give the administrators there a nudge, maybe we can get him transferred right away. Tomorrow even.”
Dr. Warren was looking at Josh while listening to Bryan, and suddenly stood and went to Josh, crouched down and took him in his arms. He held him, Josh still sitting in his chair. “Are you okay, Josh? Are you hurt?” Dr. Warren’s voice was breaking. Which made Josh tear up too.
“I’m okay, Dad. Really. I’m fine.”
“Why didn’t you tell me, son?”
“Lots of reasons. Maybe I was wrong. But that’s past us. Will you come in with me tomorrow and sign a transfer request? And then will you not say anything else? Other than maybe try to push it as fast as possible?”
Dr. Warren stood up, looking down at Josh, then walked back to his seat, still visibly upset. He sat down and looked at his plate, trying to calm down. Eventually he looked up, looked at Josh, then back at Bryan. His eyes softened.
“You’re helping him, aren’t you, Bryan?”
“I’m trying to. He’s helping me, too.”
Dr. Warran thought, then said, “A moment ago you said getting him out of his school was one of the things you were going to do. That presupposes other things. What are you thinking about?”
Bryan looked unhappy. He’d hoped that slip of the tongue hadn’t been noticed. Then he replied, “Dr. Warren, Josh hasn’t felt very good about himself, not being able to do anything about being bullied. We’ve talked about that a little bit. I think he’s being too hard on himself, but that’s how he feels. It would be sort of therapeutic if he could do something on his own initiative to take care of what he’s been through. We’ve talked about it. Moving to Taft will make him safe. After that, he’s got some scores he wants to settle, a point he wants to make, and we’re discussing ways to do that. I don’t want him to get hurt any more than you do, and we’re going to figure something out that won’t be dangerous for him.”
Dr. Warren swung his eyes back to Josh, who had a pleading look on his face. “I want to do this, Dad. I don’t want you going to the school and getting kids expelled or the principal in trouble or anything. I need to take care of this myself. Well, with Bryan’s help. Please?”
Dr. Warren sat in his chair, looking first at one boy, then the other. Finally, looking at his son, he said, “Look, Josh, I don’t like this at all. But I think I understand. I’ll tell you what. When you decide what you’re going to do, I want to know about it. If it sounds safe to me, and legal, we’ll see. I can’t promise anything, but I’m not going to say no without giving you a chance to persuade me. Does that sound fair? Is that all right?”
Josh and Bryan traded looks, then Josh said, “Thanks, Dad. Yeah, that’s great.”
“Okay. Now tell me about what happened to you today.”
“Dad! I’m okay!”
“Josh, tell me, or let me see. I need to know.”
Josh slowly stood up and, looking greatly put upon, raised his shirt. The bruise was if anything uglier than when Bryan had seen it. Dr. Warren looked, then looked back into Josh’s face, anger clouding his own.
“Has this happened often?”
“No, not a lot, Dad. Occasionally.”
“It’s not going to happen any more, Dr. Warren. I have friends at Taft, and anyway, they have a very, very strict policy about harassment of any kind and it’s enforced.”
“That’s right, you go to Taft, don’t you? And you’ll be able to watch out for him?”
“Dad! I don’t need a babysitter! Yeah, I know, my side doesn’t look like that, but still!” Josh had a petulant look on his face. He absolutely hated feeling small and impotent.
Bryan grinned at his outburst, then looked at Dr. Warren. “He’ll be better off there than at Kennedy. Kennedy’s a rougher school, we hear that all the time. He’ll like Taft.”
The discussion at the table continued, but both boys felt good. They’d got agreement from Josh’s father for the transfer. They hoped everything else would go as smoothly.
----  ----
Getting ready for bed that night, they were both in a good mood. When they were in bed with the lights out, the joking and teasing they’d been doing a few minutes earlier continued.
It seemed natural when, after Josh had made known how much he disliked the idea of being babysat in school by making several insulting remarks about Bryan’s ability to baby-sit anyone or anything, Bryan in response reached over and began tickling him. Josh was very ticklish. He began squirming and thrashing around. One of his hands, flying around while trying to protect himself, hit Bryan in the testicles.
“Ouch. Oh my god. Ow ow ow!” said Bryan, drawing up his legs to cover himself.
“Oh shit. I’m sorry Bryan. You all right? Damn, I’m sorry!”
“Oooh! Damn that hurts. You didn’t hit me that hard, but damn! I think it’s because, well, in the last few days I haven’t, haven’t, well, you know.”
“Josh! You know. I haven’t been able to, uh, haven’t been able to relieve the tension. I think it’s just made my balls a little more sensitive.”
Josh was quiet for a few seconds. Then he started giggling. “I’m sorry, Bryan,” he sputtered between giggles. “I didn’t know. I’d offer to help, but . . . .” And then he was giggling too hard to speak.
“Yeah, with the hand you’ve had in this, you’ve helped enough already,” grouched Bryan, and with that, Josh was laughing even harder.
After a while, Josh was able to stifle his laughter. After a pause, he said, “Bryan, you know, what you just said, well, I’ve never really talked with anyone about that. Ever. Aren’t you, like, embarrassed? How can you just say that? Admit you do that? I couldn’t do that!”
Bryan didn’t answer right away. Then he said, “It’s funny. It is really embarrassing to talk about, till you actually do it. After you’ve done it, kidded with other kids about it, talked seriously about it with someone, you realize it isn’t that embarrassing and you feel a sense of comfort about it. You feel a little more mature, or at least I did. But the first time, yeah, it’s hard to do it and you do feel embarrassed. You sort of feel people will judge you, or picture you doing it of something. But then, once you’ve actually spoken with someone about it, it’s a lot easier. They admit they do it, too, and you realize you’re just like everyone else.”
Josh didn’t reply. This was exciting, getting even this far, but now he was too embarrassed to go any farther. Finally, he said, “Can we not talk any more right now? Maybe some other time, I think maybe I’d like to do that, but not right now? Please?”
The two boys were on their sides, looking at each other in the dark. Bryan got a smile on his face. He nodded at Josh, then rolled over so his back was to him. Then, to Josh’s amazement, and absolute delight, he scooted back so he was up against Josh, so Josh was spooning him. Bryan wriggled in, getting comfortable, then said, “Goodnight, Josh.”
Josh laid his arm over him, his shyness no longer bothering him, a feeling of happiness and calm coming over him.
“’Night, Bryan." And he hugged Bryan closer against him.
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