Jacob was never nice to me. He never needed to be. He was strong, and cute, and funny, and cool. He was the guy that all the other guys wanted to be like. All of them, except me. I see him and I just want him to notice me. To say my name. To say, “Hey Wade.” That’s all I need.
Today it happened. He said, “Hey Wade,” and he said it to me. It’s perfect. It’s nice. I nodded and smiled. It was all I…
At home, my bed held me as I opened my yearbook to his page. It’s harmless really. Maybe a little creepy. Hormones don’t care about creepy, it’s the brain that cares about that later. The hormones say go, go, go. No one knows I like Jacob. No one even knows that I am that way. Just my yearbook and me.
My legs splay and my toes curl as I finish. The world drifts back to me slowly. Sticky. Wet. Sweaty. Tired. The yearbook rests on my chest. Cold glossy pages against gooseflesh and the beginnings of chest hair. A late bloomer. Junior prom right around the corner and I can’t even grow chest hair. I don’t know if I want to.
A strange smell, something added to my own strange smell. Like hot ozone. Morning breath and electronics. Dinner has already been cooked. Mother is already in bed. Windows are closed against the cool night air of spring. A small hum creeps into my ear. A small nothing. Drift off into…
Jacob looks at me. Really looks at me. Not the wall behind me. But me. He’s alone. He’s not usually alone, but he’s alone now. I smell ozone. With a motion of his head he calls me over. I come. Try to be smooth. Try to play it cool. My foot catches on the linoleum floor and I almost tumble. A smile lights across his face. Not mockery. Understanding.
“Hey Wade,” he says to me and no one else.
“Hey,” I say back. He sits on an old radiator next to the gym without his usual friends. It’s just Jacob and me. I sit with him. The cold radiator doesn’t work anymore. Non-functional, but we use it in our own way. We talk and we dance around an idea. We talk about nothing, which is really everything. The radiator hums, but it can’t be the radiator. I smell ozone and…
The yearbook stays on the shelf. My eyes close tight picturing him. I smell ozone. I hear the slapping. Sensations tumble back to me in gentle waves. Waves that bring unpleasantness. Wrongness. It always feels wrong. Feels dirty once it’s done. I hear a hum, electric. Maybe with Jacob it wouldn’t feel…
We meet again. No friends again. Behind the school this time. The sun is warm, but we sit in shadow. We sit close, almost touching. We dance around the idea again. Gently move closer. Our bodies say things that our mouths are afraid of. He leans in, but only slightly. He leans in just enough. He says, “I like you.” Like is good enough for me and he says it. I move in closer. Words do not leave my mouth. Too afraid. Too confused. My lips twist. They call him to move that extra inch. My eyes looking into his.
I feel the cool breeze and it smells of ozone. Hot breath and melting steel. I hear the grass growing. It hums and wiggles through my fingertips. I see his lips move. They do not move to meet mine. They move for something else. His lips say a word. Not a question. A statement, as if a discovery. His lips say the word. Too many letters for me now. Too much hate. Too much shock. I stare at him as he laughs. He laughs as he gets up.
He gets up and he spits on me, and laughs some more. His laugh is the hum. His spit tastes of ozone. He leaves me there alone.
The classrooms are filled with voices, and Jacob, and friends of Jacob, and more voices. The rooms are full and I cannot breathe. The rooms are full and I can only taste ozone and hear the hum of hate. Not really hate. Not the real stuff that you can ignore when you get old. The childhood hate that lingers in the hearts of soon to be adults. The childhood hate that cuts down into the soul and leaves the body bare and bleeding. Wounded and wound-less. I…
Still. In bed. Nothing. Ozone and nothing. Nothing and hums. Violence without action. Internal. Bleeding without…
I try not to go. I try not to. Mother will not allow it. Mother is making me go. She says, “You are not sick Wade.” My name always comes out when there is anger. I’m not sick, but they’re sick. And I must tell her about “they.” If she doesn’t let me pretend, they will make me sick. Their corruption. Their wrong.
It’s worse right away. Snickers and rumor. In the halls, they bump me. Reality pretending to be an accident. They want to hurt me. I don’t know why. Neither do they. They just do. Jacob stays away. His eyes stay away. He’s the sickest of them all. He is case zero. The ill that creates the plague that thins the herd. I am not the plague. He is.
At lunch, he confronts me. I call him the plague. He calls me something else. His friends surround me and laugh. All of them ready, with their sickness. Ozone blankets us. Ozone and a hum that blocks the clatter of trays and gossip. Just Jacob and me. Like two days ago, on a broken radiator that hummed. But he is sick now, apparently always was. He is corrupted. He calls it out again. That word. Calls it harder. Another dagger meant to vivisect me. He shouts it and it hits like a hammer. I am not hurt. I will make it. I need to. He pushes and laughs. I do not laugh. I push back. He trips. Falls backward and onto a table. The table gives, and it breaks.
His friends are on me, but I hear his voice. “Stop,” he shouts. He tells them to stop, and they do. Then the teachers come.
The office is cold. Spring has not come here. They ask why. I tell them nothing. I tell them what they need to know. They send me home with a…
Mom is away. She didn’t get the call. She didn’t come home early. I wait with the ozone and the hum. It comes from my room now. Only from my room. It’s strong. I wait on the living room couch and I prepare to pretend that it’s nothing. She comes home and she doesn’t know. Everything is quiet, except the hum which grows and calls. I stay on the couch. I stay and I think of Jacob. I think of his wrong. I think of revenge, or something like it. I think I…
I try to stay home. “Wade you need to go to school.” She’s upset. She wants to know why. She wants to know and I tell her. I tell her my stomach hurts and it does. A knot of knowing. Knowing how bad it will be. Jacob will not take this. This will hurt. My stomach knows and it hurts. It hurts for the hurt to come. It hurts and I go.
I go and they are waiting. All of them wait. The blacktop still cold from the spring night. The sun baking the cool air away. No ozone. No hum. I left that behind. That’s in my room now. That’s back there. Back where I wanted to stay but couldn’t. Jacob is here. His friends are here. They are all around.
I am nothing. I am small.
I try not to be small. I try to be something else. I try to be strong. To look proud. It makes them angry. I feed off their hate. I feed off it and it’s good. I like it. It makes me stronger. I am proud in that moment. Proud of it being out there. Freedom. Not hiding. Right here. Right in front of them. Right where they don’t want me to be.
In the next moment, I am on the ground. Gravel on skin. Morning black top. Heat sinking in. Pain blossoming. Feet kick. Pain racks my body. I wait for the smell. I wait for the ozone and the hum. They do not come. They’re not here. They’re at home. Ribs crack. Nose bleeds. Eyes are blinded by blood. I taste the blood and I taste the iron. The pain fades. Everything fades.
I feel that it’s over. I feel the pain and the sun come back. Warmth that hurts. Warmth that fills my body with sickness. Vomit hits teeth. I choke it down. It tries again. I don’t succeed. The smell fills the air. Not ozone, but bile.
A bell goes off. It rings and I know that school is starting. I know that I won’t go.
I drag myself across that black top. Warm in the sun. I drag myself to my car. The pain grows. I grit my teeth. I close my eyes. I let my hands work. They get me to where I need to go. The car door opens. Pain twists. Pain wraps my spine. I get in and close the door. With the window down, I spit blood. I spit blood and I…
I drag myself up to my room. I hear the hum. I smell the ozone. The hum grows. Ozone fills my lungs. It feels right and I like it.
The hum echoes in my head. In my room, the air feels heavy. I feel it. It’s under there. Under the bed.
I slide myself on the floor. I slide myself under the bed and I see it. A white-hot disk of nothing. Glowing and inviting. Just big enough for me to go through it. I stick my head in. The white glow invites me deeper. There is nothing. Just whiteness. But somehow, I know it will all be okay. There’s no Jacob here. Nobody like Jacob. There’s only nothing. Only escape. I can live here and it will all be okay. Pain on my face drifts. Dissolves into nothing. Just hum and ozone.
Escape will make this all go away. Escape will make everything easy. Escape is through the portal under my bed.
I pull my head out. The pain comes back, hot and heavy like a neutron bomb.
I slide out and I go on top of my bed. On top of my portal. On top of my escape. Sleep comes to me through the door and through the pain. Sleep comes and I…
A door opens. My eyes open. The clock says it’s early. Too early for the door. Mother shouts. She’s angry. I can’t hear words. A gasp, then my name. She comes. She comes, and she looks, and she cries, and she’s scared, and she asks. She asks and I tell her all. Through blood and spit, I tell her. I tell her I’m gay. I tell her what they did. She hugs me. She cries and she hugs. I do not tell her about the portal. The portal is mine. She won’t…
We go to doctors. They tell me I’m fine, or I will be. Broken ribs, a concussion, and a broken nose. Time heals all wounds. That’s what they tell me. It doesn’t and I know it. Time is scar tissue.
Social workers come. They are nice. I tell them everything. I have nothing to hide anymore. Except my portal.
They say I can change schools. Jacob is expelled, but I can change. I wish he wasn’t. I wish he was still there. I would change nothing except that he would still be there. I stood up before, and I will stand up again. My mother hates it, but I don’t care. This isn’t for her. Not now. This is for me. I will live. And I will do it on my…
First day back. Everyone watches. I hide a limp. I walk tall. They didn’t get the better of me. The better of me is still here. It will always be here. They can only get that if I let them, and I never will. Someone spits on me. It’s a friend of Jacob’s. He’s stupid. He doesn’t even know why he does it. He hasn’t a clue. He has a label, but a label is on the outside of the container and the label has no idea what’s on the inside. A label is just a label and it can just as easily fall off. I wipe the spit off me like it’s just a label. If I’m not strong, who will be? I won’t roll over and take this. I give him a smile. All my pearly whites. He needs to see. He needs to know that he has no power here.
I push through the crowd like it doesn’t exist. I push through like nothing matters. I push through like I have a portal under my bed and I don’t need it.