Chapter 10

Billy and Paul did not get to see each other much the next week, the last week of school before finals. Billy had a lot of studying to do, and while Paul was prepared, he was also busy in the peer tutoring program, which many students were discovering still existed at the last minute.

On Thursday, Jim offered to give Paul a ride home after he finished. “You don’t have to do that,” Paul said. “I don’t want you to have to hang around and wait on me.”

“I’ll work on my homework in the library,” Jim shrugged.

But that afternoon, as he worked with people, Paul noticed Jim wasn’t really working on anything. He was watching Paul in a way that made Paul feel strange, but he was also watching the door. Paul heard the reason before he saw. Robert came in with a few of his friends. They were loud as they waited for a tutor to be free. Paul had the distinct impression they weren’t looking for a tutor. They were just hanging out until he had to leave.

Paul looked over at Jim, who barely acknowledged him, as he stared down one of the guys who were laughing and pointing at him – not Paul – and stealthily typed a text message beneath the table. Then he slipped the phone in his pocket before approaching Paul’s table as his next client left.

“You weren’t just staying to give me a ride home, then,” Paul said more than asked.

“No,” Jim whispered. “I heard one of them talking about cornering you this evening.” He left out the rest; they were going to do worse than rough him up this time. They were going to make him do what ‘fags do best’ before they beat the shit out of him. But Jim left that out, never taking his eyes off of the boys.

“Tell Mrs. Smith,” Paul said.

“What will she do? Make them leave?” Jim said. “They’ll just get us outside, or catch you alone later!”

“So what? What are we supposed to do?” Paul asked, scared.

“I got a plan,” Jim said. “I’m gonna leave in a few minutes and….”

“No,” Paul pleaded desperately.

“I’m gonna leave in a few minutes and go around and wait at the back exit of the library, the one you’re not supposed to use. You know the one?”

“The one that goes to the lunch room,” Paul nodded.

Jim nodded, and said, “When you feel your phone buzz, I want you to get up and go into the back like you’re grabbing something and when you’re out of sight, make a run for it. I’ll be there waiting for you and we’ll make a break for the parking lot.”

“What then?” Paul asked.

“When they figure it out and follow us, there’ll be a surprise waiting for them,” Jim said with a grim smile and a nod.

“Okay,” Paul whimpered.

Jim glared at the boys watching him, defiantly grabbing Paul’s hand, and leaned in and whispered, “Trust me,” as he squeezed.

Paul’s heart fluttered and he smiled, most probably giving those boys the wrong idea. “I do.”

Jim nodded and walked past the bullies with a grimace. They all laughed at him and then leered at Paul. Robert mouthed, ‘YOUR BOYFRIEND’S GONE! YOU’RE IN TROUBLE NOW!’

Paul’s next client sat down, but Paul was distracted until he lost himself reading the student’s paper. About the time he finished, he felt his phone vibrate. He looked at the girl and said, “Paper looks great otherwise! Would you mind sitting here a minute and pretending like I’m coming back?” he asked with a quick glance at the bullies.

She smiled and nodded, “Sure!”

“Thanks,” he said, before adding loudly, “BE RIGHT BACK!” He walked leisurely into the audiovisual room before breaking into a run. He burst through the door practically into Jim’s arms. Jim resisted the urge to hold the boy tight. Instead, he took Paul’s hand and ran outside, where they found a bunch of cars. Jim’s car was completely surrounded by big jocks. Paul breathed a sigh of relief when he realized the one sitting on the hood of the car was Danny. Standing next to him, baseball bat bearing hand hanging leisurely at his side, was Seamus.

Paul smiled a little as he looked up at Jim and said, “Thanks!”

“I always got your back,” Jim said, squeezing the hand he still held. He only dropped it to snake that arm over the boy’s shoulder to keep him close.

Soon, they heard footsteps running up the sidewalk in front of the school and around the corner. The five boys stopped dead in their tracks now that they found themselves face to face with seven of the biggest guys they knew, not counting Jim, who stood behind the rest to protect Paul in case anything went wrong.

“Hey, Robbie!” Danny said, his voice trembling with anger beneath the smile. “What’s up?” Seamus punctuated his words by smacking his palm with the ball bat.

“If you’re here, you know,” Robert replied. Technically, he was taller and more muscular than Danny, but the boy rightly scared him. Everyone knew Danny was too quiet, just a little … off.

“Yep,” Danny said, stepping apart from his little posse, some of the loyal football players he’d asked to watch Paul’s back and others, like Seamus, friends from elsewhere.

“It’s none of your business,” Robert said, backing up and turning as Danny began to circle him. Robert’s friends were beginning to separate from his as well.

“Christina made it my business, but even if she didn’t … Paul’s a good guy. My friends like him. I like him. So I thought I’d give you a … sensitivity lesson,” Danny said with a grin.

“He’s a fag,” Robert spat, and Danny’s eyes flared dangerously.

“He ever grab your ass? Cop a feel? Sleep with your dad? WHAT IS PISSING YOU OFF ABOUT THIS KID?” Danny asked.

“He is pissing me off – that he’s here, that he’s rubbing it in our faces and there’s nothing we can do about it!” Robert said.

“Seems to me, you’re the one who rubbed it in our faces. Until then, only Christina and me knew about it,” he said. “You and your butt boy Billy put him out here, and now you don’t want him around.”

“They shouldn’t be around normal people,” Robert said, flinching as Seamus lunged with the bat. Danny held him back with one arm giving Robert further reason to worry. Seamus was a big guy.

“Sorry about my friend here, but he’s what you might call a fag,” Danny said. “Now, normal people … do you mean a bunch of big old jocks who decide to corner a sweet little guy and make him do things to you before they beat the crap out of him? That kind of normal people? I’d rather have guys like him in the locker room than you pieces of shit!”

Robert flared red and looked at his friends. Whoever spilled the beans was going to feel it, his eyes said. “We were going to teach him a lesson!”

Paul began to tremble in fear at the realization of what nearly happened to him, and Jim lowered his arm to the boy’s waist to support him as he nearly collapsed.

Danny looked back at Jim and Paul. He looked nervous for a moment before he asked, doing what Jim never would, “Why isn’t your boy here to watch your back?”

Robert’s nose curled in disgust. “Said he didn’t want no part of it! Fuckin’ bitch! Was he the one who told?”

“No,” Danny said. “Heard those two assholes bragging about it before lunch!” he added, pointing to the two blonds, who would have been blandly handsome were it not for their part in the evil of the day.

Now Jim had to lower Paul to the ground as he began to cry; no one who was close but Jim understood. Paul whispered, “He knew.” Then a little louder, “HE KNEW!”

Seamus looked over at him shocked and left his place beside Danny to kneel next to the boy, on the other side from Jim. Seamus caught Jim’s eyes, and his own face displayed a look of horror as Jim nodded. “I’m going to beat the living shit out of him,” Seamus whispered.

“Not if I get to him first,” Jim growled.

NO!” Paul whispered. Then pathetically, “I just want to go home!”

“Get him out of here,” Seamus said. “We’re almost done here!”

Jim helped Paul up, but the boy asked Seamus, “What are you going to do to them?”

“Nothing,” Seamus smiled sadly. “He is….”

Paul’s eyes followed Seamus’s finger to a man, a big and angry man who walked around the corner and said, “I’ve heard enough!”

“Coach,” Robert stammered as he spun to find the man right on his heels.

I HAVE NEVER BEEN SO ASHAMED TO BE COACH OF THIS TEAM AS I AM TODAY!” the man practically screamed in his face. “I UNDERSTAND THAT SOME OF YOU FUCKUPS ARE IGNORANT, BORN AND BRED, OR INBRED, BUT I HAVE NEVER, NEVER TOLERATED THIS KIND OF … EVIL, STUPID….” The man’s speech broke off as he seethed in anger. He rubbed his face harshly as he thought. “Consider yourselves suspended!” he added, out of breath.

One of the dumb blonds said, “But the season’s over, coach!”

NOT FROM THE TEAM YOU DUMBASS! FROM SCHOOL! THE PRINCIPAL WILL INFORM YOUR PARENTS!” Breathing deep, he added, “Consider yourselves CUT from the team, PERMANENTLY!”

Robert looked through the crowd of boys blocking his path and felt a surge of rage as he saw Jim holding Paul. He very recklessly forgot how close he was to Danny. “YOU TWO FAGGOTS! I’M GOING TO,” he began to scream, and then silence and blackness.

“Did you kill him?” the coach asked as he poked Robert with his foot. Seeing the look on Danny’s face, the man rolled his eyes and laughed. “I’m just kidding.” Then he looked over his shoulder at Robert’s friends, still in shock about their punishment and Danny’s takedown of their leader. “Get him out of my sight!”

The boys lugged him to his feet and carried him off to one of their cars. The coach stormed through the group of boys and loomed over Paul, who was still trembling. “Kid,” he began.

“Paul,” the shaking boy corrected. “My name is Paul.”

The coach laughed and said, “Paul, I’m sorry all this happened. If I’d known about it,” he said, glaring at Danny and Jim, “I would have stopped it a LONG TIME AGO!” In a softer voice, he said, “You take care of yourself, Paul. Watch out for those boys, ‘cause they will be back.”

“We got your back,” one of the football players said, and the coach nodded.

“Jim,” the man said, “get this boy home.” Then he gave Jim a look he couldn’t read before storming off to call the principal at home. There would be a shit storm over the suspension of a bunch of star jocks by morning, he had no doubt.

***

Jim pulled up in front of Paul’s house, but the boy just sat in his seat and stared ahead. “I … I just,” he mumbled.

“Come on,” Jim said. “I’ll help you inside.” Jim got out and came around the car. He opened the door and waited, before unbuckling Paul’s seatbelt and physically helping encourage him to move.

At the door, Jim rang the bell. When Molly opened it, she exclaimed, “MY GOD! What happened?” Paul started crying and shook his head. He couldn’t talk about it.

“Excuse me ma’am, but I’m gonna help him inside,” Jim said. She moved out of his way and Jim walked Paul into the house. Paul was so out of it Jim didn’t know what to do with him. Paul collapsed into his chest and whispered, “Bed….”

Jim looked at Molly apologetically before leaning over and picking Paul up like a bride about to cross the threshold. Jim cradled him and carried him upstairs and into his bedroom, setting the boy down on the soft quilt.

“Don’t leave,” he begged as Jim turned for the door.

“Someone needs to talk to your parents,” Jim said softly.

“Come back before you leave?” Paul asked.

“I promise,” Jim said, before trudging downstairs, where he found Phil and Molly waiting at the bottom for him.

WHAT HAPPENED TO MY SON?” Phil demanded so fiercely Molly put her hand on his arm. “I’m sorry. Thank you for bringing him home.”

“Today, I overheard some of the boys planning to hurt Paul,” Jim said, averting his eyes.   Phil put his hand on his forehead, as he got the gist of what Jim wasn’t saying.

Molly, however, asked, “Hurt?”

“They were going to,” Jim said, wincing and looking away, “do things to him, before they beat him up, Molly.” Phil caught sight of his eyes reddening and looked away as well. “I stayed with him this evening and they showed up. I called Danny and the guys and the coach heard everything. He suspended the boys from school and the team, but the principal will have to agree….”

“If they don’t,” Phil said, seething. “They can’t leave Paul in danger!”

Jim shook his head. “They shouldn’t.” Then he looked away.

“There’s more,” Phil demanded.

Jim’s face betrayed him as the disgust welled up. “Billy wasn’t there, he told them he wouldn’t go through with it….” The two expectant faces revealed they weren’t getting it. “He knew, but didn’t try to warn Paul,” Jim said. “He knew what they were going to do!”

“That cowardly little son of a bitch,” Phil said, shaking his head.

Molly took his arm and set him down, before looking up at Jim and saying, “Can you talk to Paul?”

“I promised him I’d come up before I go home,” Jim said. Then he headed back upstairs. He found Paul curled up on the bed, facing the wall. Jim knocked softly before closing the door behind him. “You okay, Paulie?”

The boy, still crying, shook his head. Jim went and sat down next to him and put a hand on his shoulder. Paul grabbed on to it for dear life, and you could hear him stop breathing as Jim wrenched his hand away. Then he sighed as Jim swung his feet up onto the bed and curled up behind him, wrapping an arm across his chest. “How could he do it?” Paul asked. “How could he go through the day and not try to warn me?”

“I don’t know,” Jim whispered. “I … I….”

“You would never let anything happen to me,” Paul replied, grabbing Jim’s hand and putting it over his heart, clutching it like a little child might a teddy bear.

“No,” Jim sighed, “I wouldn’t. Not for anything.”

“I thought he loved me,” Paul cried.

“He did, I think,” Jim said, unsure of himself as he said it. “In his own warped way.”

“Just not enough,” Paul sobbed.

“As much as he can anyone,” Jim said, shaking his head. “He’s screwed up. He’d have to be to take you out on a date Sunday and then leave you to get raped on Thursday.”

Paul heaved lightly in his arms for a few more minutes, crying softly as Jim held him, until he fell asleep. Jim tried to disentangle himself but found Paul had a vice grip on his hand. Jim smiled softly and squeezed Paul back into himself and, finding him quite asleep, gently kissed the boy on the neck.

“He’ll be sorry he missed that,” Molly whispered, making him jump with fear. Seeing it on Jim’s face, she said, “I won’t say a word. Until you’re ready,” she added with a smile. “But I already knew.”

“Seems most everybody does,” Jim whispered. “I can’t get him to let go,” he added apologetically, indicating Paul’s hands grasping his.

“Do you want him to?” she asked cryptically.

“Can you call my dad and tell him I’m spending the night?” Jim asked.

“You mean ask him if you can?” she laughed.

“Sure, however you prefer,” Jim smiled.

The woman nodded and closed the door behind her, turning off the lights.

When Paul woke in the middle of the night, he was afraid. It was very dark, and he didn’t really remember falling asleep. Then he felt the extreme heat to his back and sighed. Jim was still here. Paul felt sweaty and dirty in his clothes, and slipped out of Jim’s grasp. He went to the bathroom and relieved himself before returning to his room and stripping to his boxers before pulling on a pair of pajama bottoms. Then he crawled back into bed and grabbed Jim’s arm and draped it back across his chest. The feeling of the boy’s hand on his bare smooth skin was electric, and who knew when he’d have this opportunity again. “Why did I fall for Billy?” he wondered to himself.

***

[Flashback]

Billy and Paul had made up a few days after Paul stormed out of Billy’s house, and they’d sneak off into the woods nearby and lie out next to the creek, or splash around in it if it was really hot. Paul would sometimes just stare at Billy’s body, his handsome face, his sexy stubble, as they lay there together talking. Then Billy would smile at him. When they were all alone and the smile was just for him, at him, Paul felt his chest swell with emotion. He didn’t know what Billy would call what they shared, but Paul could see it in his eyes.

“Will we ever be able to be together?” Paul asked one day.

Billy looked at him with that look, the look that sang, ‘I love you,’ and said, “I doubt it.” Paul’s look broke Billy’s heart, but the only way for him to be fair to the boy was to be honest about who he was. And Paul was the only person who let him be who he was, good and bad. “But I wish.”

“Me, too,” Paul said, hugging him.

***

[Present day]

Jim woke up and felt the silky smooth skin beneath his hand and smiled as he stroked it gently with his fingertips. “Get too warm last night?” he whispered,

“Mmmm hmmm,” the boy said, stretching in his arms, before spinning around so they were nearly nose to nose. “Thanks for staying, Jim. You didn’t have to….”

“Yeah, I did,” Jim grinned. “You wouldn’t let go of my arm!” Paul laughed and he added, “But I would have stayed anyway, I just would have gotten more comfortable!”

Paul stuck out his bottom lip in a cute pout and said, “My loss!” He tried to look over Jim before asking, “What time is it?”

“We’re late for school for sure,” Jim said. “It’s too bright outside.” Jim rolled off the bed and stretched. “I’ll go downstairs and see what’s going on while you get ready.”

“Okay,” Paul said. “Thanks.”

Jim went downstairs to find Molly still at home. “You didn’t wake us up,” he said.

“Principal called this morning and excused you both. Said he wants to talk to both of you after he gets through with the bullies and their parents. Who knows when that will be. I called your dad, and we’ll all go in together.”

“Thanks,” Jim said. “I should go home and get some fresh clothes.”

“Your dad dropped some by this morning,” she said, inclining her head toward a bag on the table in the living room.

“Cool,” he said. Grabbing his bag, he headed for the stairs.

“Jim?” Molly said stopping him. “About last night….” Jim stiffened and she added, “I promised I wouldn’t say anything and I won’t. But I … thank you for staying with him.”

“I guess you know that I really wanted to, so it’s not such a big deal,” he said with a blush.

“Billy’s the only boy he’s been serious with,” she said, “so it’s a pretty big deal.” After a moment of silence she asked, “What are you waiting for?”

“My dad,” he began. “You know about my mom?” She nodded. “Well it’s scary! You never know who will react how,” he said.

“Paul would keep your secret until you’re ready,” she said.

“Paul deserves better,” he retorted. “I just … I need to find a way to,” he started to explain, but a door opening upstairs silenced him.

Paul came down and said, “I’m ready!”

“Can I use your bathroom? I need to get ready,” Jim said.

“Towels are in the closet at the top of the stairs,” Molly said. Jim left her with her son for the first time since he’d come home the night before.

“How are you feeling?” she asked.

Paul’s cheeks burned bright and he shook his head. “I … don’t know!”

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“It was horrible, mom! And what could have happened is just so much worse. Billy broke my heart, again. What am I supposed to feel?” he asked.

“Angry, hurt, vengeful – that would be natural,” she said.

“I just feel this dull ache in my chest,” he said. Then he looked upstairs and said, “Most of the time.”

***

Three hours later, Jim and Paul were sitting in the office of the school while their parents sat in the principal’s office. There had been raised voices and a lot of angry discussion for the better part of half an hour when the door opened and the principal waved them in.

He gave both boys a steely gaze, before saying, “Paul, we’re in a bind here. Those boys are coming back after their suspension. We feel it’s best if you transfer to another school for your own safety.”

We?” Jim asked.

“The administration,” the man responded.

He’s the victim,” Jim argued loudly. “Let those other assholes find a new school!”

“I understand you’re upset,” the man said condescendingly, “but….”

Just then the door burst open and the football coach stormed in. “What did I miss?”

“They want to kick Paul out!” Jim said, despairing.

“Not kick him out,” the principal sighed. “We’ll get another school to offer him a scholarship equal to or better than ours!”

“If he goes, I go,” Jim said.

“Hush,” the coach said to Jim. “Would you folks excuse us for a bit?” he asked the boys and their parents. They all left the room and the man asked, “What the hell are you doing, Jeff?”

“Cleaning up a mess,” the man replied.

“Then clean up the mess, don’t clean out the good kids!” the coach retorted.

“Robert is a star football player, and his friends are starters,” the man protested.

“And none of them will play for me, Jeff, not anymore! Jim’s the best player on the team and you’re about to lose him too!”

“He can’t just transfer,” the principal said. “He needs his scholarship too!”

“Jeff, you are a miserable piece of shit,” the coach spat. “I know why Robert had to transfer here, and I know that you know too. And I know that when it all started again here, you didn’t do anything about it!” Jeff McCormick’s knuckles were white, he was gripping his desk so hard, as he glared at his school’s coach. “And I WILL testify to that! Do we understand each other?”

McCormick nodded stiffly and said, “I’ll expel Robert. The rest can return after their suspension with a final warning.” The coach nodded and left as he’d arrived, nodding at the bewildered people outside the door. McCormick said to them, “I’ve had a change of heart,” and explained what would happen from there on out. “Why don’t you gentlemen take the rest of the day and return for finals next week?” McCormick suggested.

Phil looked at the man and said, “We’ll talk about my son’s safety in January when those thugs are allowed to return.” McCormick nodded and their meeting was over.

Jim’s dad asked, “Would you mind taking Jim back to your place? His car’s there, and there’s something I need to do before I leave.”

“Sure, Andy,” Phil said, shaking his hand.

Jim watched his dad walk down the hall toward the dining hall and gym before rushing to catch up with Paul.

Just off the locker room was an office. The light was on and Andy knocked on the door. “Sean?” he called.

“Yeah,” the big man inside called, coughing. “Give me a second, Andy?” A couple of minutes later, he said, “Come in!”

Andy walked into the office, lined with team photos and trophies. The walls were covered with degrees and certifications, thank you gifts of various sorts, and news articles. Sean Spencer sat behind his desk in his standard coach’s uniform of track suit and t-shirt, but Andy could tell something was wrong. “You alright, Sean?”

“I’ve been better,” the man said, leaning back with a big sigh. Andy remembered when the man wasn’t so big. In fact, when they had been in school together, Sean had been on the short side; he hit his growth spurt late but clearly had worked on his body a lot since then. “This shit’s getting to me, my man!”

“What happened in there today?” Andy asked.

“I just explained a few things to the man,” Sean shrugged.

“I wanted to thank you,” Andy said, sitting down. “Jim’s smart, and he’s a good player, but I know you brought him here. Without you, well…. And now this. Jim would follow that boy back to public school in a minute.”

“Well, we needed a boy like Jim,” the coach shrugged. “And I had my reasons besides….” Andy looked at him expectantly. “You didn’t exactly stay in touch after Dent … passed away, did you? He looks like him, you know?”

Andy rubbed his eye surreptitiously. This conversation wasn’t going where he intended, or expected. “It was a long time ago.”

“He was my best friend … in the world,” Sean said, looking at the ceiling. “After he died, I don’t know. I wanted … I don’t know what I wanted, Andy, but Jim reminds me of him so much.” Sean turned his chair slightly so he wasn’t facing Andy and said, “I blame myself, Andy….”

“WHAT?” Andy said. “It was an accident! He was driving too fast….” Denton had been coming home from a party and took a sharp curve too fast. He ran straight into a tree, and though he was buckled in, he died after spending hours in a coma.

“I was at that party,” Sean said.

“I didn’t know that,” Andy said. “I … don’t need to hear this.”

“I need to tell you. I’m sorry, but all this shit with Robert and Jim and that Paul boy….” Sean wrung his hands and said, “I’ve never forgiven myself for what happened that night….”