The cafeteria at Holy Oaks Middle School was noisier than usual, which was saying something as bedlam reigned most days. But this was the last week of school before Christmas recess and spirits were high. School wasn’t the subject of a single conversation in the room. Christmas and all its ancillary events and excitements ruled the day.
The table near the back of the room where one group of kids sat every day held the mostly neglected lunches of the six friends. It was just as noisy as the rest and helped keep the volume level in the room above anything the adult monitors were comfortable with. It seated four boys and two girls, and the girls were every bit as loud as the boys. They were Katy and Sue. The boys were, alphabetically, Adam, Dorian, Philip and Xander. The boys were as typical as 8th graders could be, meaning in some ways they were like most of their classmates, and in others they were nothing like them at all. What the girls had in common was that neither was a giggling, simpering girly girl; Sue especially merited the title of tomboy. But both had grown up preferring the company of boys, and in middle school had grown close to these boys.
Right then, the group was arguing. Arguing was one of the things the group did best.
“I think we should have a gift exchange,” Adam said. Adam was the logical one, somewhat more reserved than most of the group. He was also the cutest one there, including the girls. He wore his sandy hair long and messy, which simply improved he looks. “But I can’t afford to buy you each a gift. We should all put our names in a hat and draw one name to buy for. I can afford to get one gift.”
“That’s just like you, Adam,” Xander snorted. “He’s saving up to buy a moped,” he said to the rest of the group. “Doesn’t want to go into his cache of cash for Christmas presents even for his best friends. Besides which, it’s a dumb suggestion—nobody wears a hat!”
“Like you’re Mr. Generous,” Adam shot back. “Like you’re eager to get everyone something. I’ll bet you can’t even afford a single gift for anyone!”
Adam and Alexander—who hadn’t answered to that name since he was seven and was staunchly determined to develop his own identity—were twins. Adam was never sure whether Xander even liked him anymore. He did sit with Adam at lunch, though, so that was something; maybe he did. Xander had been the last to join the table, and he could have sat anywhere. He had the most friends at school of anyone at the table. He was easily the most outgoing, the most confident member of the group. He looked similar to Adam but wasn’t as cute. He was the larger of the two, perhaps because he was the more athletic, lifted weights, joined all teams possible, and ate a lot. He was good looking, certainly, but in a more rugged way than Adam.
What Adam didn’t appreciate was that he tended to argue with almost everything Adam said. Which might have been the main reason Adam didn’t say all that much at lunch. Only Philip said less.
Xander grinned and was about to respond when Katy jumped in. “You guys! Come on. I think Adam’s suggestion is a good one.”
“You would!” Dorry snorted.
“What’s that supposed to mean, Dorry?” Katy’s tone of voice had changed from cooperative to defensive and challenging in the blink of an eye. Dorry was thin to the point of being skeletal, but he dressed with a sense of style that the others were envious of. He also brushed and combed his over-the-ears auburn hair neatly, making him look quite different from most of the boys at school who seemed to have only an indifferent acquaintance with a comb.
Katy was also thin, but it came from running. She was athletic, but instead of being the combative or contentious sort of competitive jock, she was very soft and supportive and didn’t like that Adam and Xander were always at each other. Well, to be more honest, she didn’t like Xander picking on Adam all the time. She wore her light sandy hair long enough to support the pony tail that she’d had since she as very young.
“You know just what I mean,” Dorry replied, not backing down. “Do you want me to spell it out for everyone?”
“Hey guys, come on.” Sue was always the peacemaker. She didn’t look like that. She had a rougher appearance than most girls, preferring clothes her older brother handed down and hair that was only perfunctorily tended to daily. But she hated when any of these friends became hostile and was the one who put a stop to it. She did that with a strong personality; she was not intimidated by confrontation, never having met a fight she didn’t welcome, and she made sure everyone knew she was no pushover; the word demure wasn’t in her vocabulary. She had black hair but always had wished it were bright red. Combative as she herself could be, though, she didn’t like the others at the table, all her friends, fussing at each other.
Her willingness to fight her own battles came honestly to her. She got practice at home from a mother who very much wanted a little girl to dress up, throw tea parties for and take on shopping excursions. Sue had to fight with her daily to maintain her preferred identity. Sue liked climbing trees, camping out in her backyard in the summer, and she often talked the boys in her neighborhood into playing football. Tackle. But she did want her friends to get along, and she knew what that day’s lunchtime to-do was about. She guessed some of the others did, too, though no one had mentioned it out loud. This was a ticklish age, and no one was really sure what was what in some budding areas of their lives.
Adam had already made his suggestion and wasn’t going to push it. If the others wanted to go with it, so be it. If not, that was okay, too.
Philip was the silent one, even quieter than Adam, and so, as is often the case with the quiet ones, when he spoke, the others listened. They were all good students, but Philip was the best, perhaps the top student in the school. He was also the smallest kid at the table and maybe the plainest looking, although people didn’t notice that when meeting him. Instead, they noticed his eyes and the life and intelligence they showed.
His intellect and gravitas afforded him a certain degree of respect. Besides, he was so quiet, often eating lunch with the others without saying a word a week, that the mere surprise of hearing him speak up made him the center of attention when he did. “I vote for the exchange. Good idea, Adam.”
Which made all the others’ hands go up as though they were in a classroom. And so it was decided.
x x x
The next day at lunch, Xander brought his baseball hat. He’d played shortstop on his Little League team. They’d won the town’s Major Division championship the previous summer. Adam had watched and cheered for him. He hadn’t gone out for a team himself, claiming he didn’t like baseball, but he’d showed up for all Xander’s games.
Sue said, “So there won’t be any shenanigans, I’ll write all our names down and put them in the hat.”
“What shenanigans?” Dorry asked.
“You know, like telling the person you want to draw your name what shape you folded your slip into so they can draw it.”
“I don’t care who draws my name, Sue,” Dorry said, sounding surprised and a little offended.
“Good, so you won’t care that I’m taking precautions then!”
“Gotcha good on that one, Dorry,” Xander laughed.
“Oh, just make sure Xander doesn’t draw me,” Dorry said to Sue. “He’d probably give me a pair of his old sweat socks and think he was doing me a favor.”
“Hey, great idea! That would be doing you a solid for sure! Hope I get you. I’ll make sure Mom doesn’t wash ’em.”
“If I pick you,” said Dorry, not backing down, “I know just what to get you: a new jock.”
“Huh?” Xander scratched his head, showing confusion.
“Yeah. I found a place online that has them in small.” He laughed and looked at Sue and spoke conspiratorially, though in a voice of normal volume so Xander could hear. “I’ve seen him in the showers.”
Xander laughed and said, “Good one!” He and Dorry, who had a huge grin on his face, high-fived each other.
“Maybe Katy’ll get Xander,” said Sue, and wiggled her eyebrows.
Katy blushed and looked down at her tray.
“Are we ready?” Adam asked.
“Yeah, I’m done tearing up the name slips. Give me the hat, Xander. Oh, and if anyone draws their own name, show it to me so I’ll know you’re on the up and up and then draw another slip before putting your own one back in the hat.”
He handed the hat to Sue, and she dropped all the torn and folded slips with names on them in it.
“One thing,” said Adam. “No one should tell who they have.”
“Why not?” Sue asked.
Adam looked at her when he spoke. “I just think it should all be secret. I think the gifts should be anonymous.”
Xander said, “Huh. He doesn’t want anyone to know it’s from him when it’s cheap.”
“No, it’s because this way none of us will be embarrassed. He’s trying to protect everyone.” Katy looked up long enough to say that, then down at her lunch again, apparently finding her fruit cup of special interest.
Dorry opened his mouth, but then shut it again without saying a word.
Adam asked the table as a whole, “When do we want to exchange gifts? And where? At school or should we meet somewhere?”
Everyone looked at each other, and then Sue said, “Last day of school, right here. That gives everyone the rest of the week to shop, and doing it here is easier because we’re all here anyway.”
The bell was about to ring, and they were putting their trash on their trays and getting ready to stand up when Philip spoke. “Ten dollars,” he said. “That should be the target. Nothing over ten dollars.” They all agreed.
x x x
Xander came into Adam’s bedroom through the open door. They’d shared a room until they were nine, at which time Xander had taken the spare room, saying he needed his own space. Adam had stoically accepted the change, but it was just another small hurt he’d had to put up with. He hadn’t wanted to separate but knew Xander was much different than he was. Xander had always been more competitive than Adam, and he’d always taken the lead in everything. Sharing wasn’t his way.
“Hey,” Xander said and sprawled on Adam’s bed. Adam was working on his computer. He turned in his swivel chair to face the bed. “Hey back attacha,” he said.
“This gift thing we’re doing. Who’d you draw?”
Adam shifted in his chair. “I thought it was supposed to be a secret.”
Xander wrinkled his nose, acting like he’d smelled something sour. “Like that matters. I’ve got Dorry, and Philip said I should switch. Trade with you. You’ve got Katy, don’t you?”
“Huh? How in the world would you know that?”
Xander smirked and ignored the question. “So, how about it? Trade? You get Dorry; I get Katy. Makes sense, doesn’t it?”
“Makes sense? How?”
“Oh come on. You’re my brother. You think I don’t notice things?”
Adam shifted again, looking very uncomfortable. “What do you mean?”
Xander stretched, looking at the ceiling and not Adam when he spoke. “So, Dorry for Katy. Deal?”
Adam didn’t answer right away. He stared at Xander instead, almost willing him to say more. Xander remained quiet. Finally, Adam nodded. “Deal,” he said.
“Good,” Xander said, then, “I’m getting Mom to drive me to the mall tonight after dinner. You want to come? We can get our gifts there. And you can help me decide what Katy would like. I haven’t a clue.”
x x x
Adam didn’t know what to buy Dorry any more than Xander did for Katy. He was quite surprised when Xander suggested something Dorry would like. “You know last week when Philip had two Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and asked if anyone wanted his second one? Well, Dorry started to say he would, and then didn’t after Sue said she would. She got it and didn’t notice Dorry’s look. From how his face looked, the way his eyes followed every bite of that candy all the way to her mouth, I’d say he’s addicted to those. So, you could get him one of those huge, one-pound, two-cup packages. He’d love that.”
Adam looked at Xander like he was a stranger. “You noticed that? You?”
Xander laughed. “I notice things,” he said. “I notice lots of things.”
Adam didn’t say anything else. But, later, he did suggest a package of colorful scrunchies for Katy. Katy put her hair into a pony tail every day and used a scrunchie to hold it.
Xander had the scrunchies package giftwrapped at the store, telling Adam wrapping gifts wasn’t his forte. He pronounced it ‘fort’. Adam didn’t correct him. He’d stopped doing that years earlier. He was perfectly happy letting Xander sink or swim on his own merits. Usually, the boy swam. Adam told him he’d wrap Dorry’s gift at home.
Xander nodded and smiled.
x x x
The group all brought their wrapped gifts to school on Friday. They were excited as they sat down to lunch. Each gift had a name on it—one name only. They were to be anonymous. Adam had said so, and they’d agreed.
“Who’ll go first?” Katy asked.
“I will.” Sue liked to be in charge as much as she could be. With this group and with Xander there, that was difficult.
She opened her gift, and her eyes grew wide. It was a new calf’s skin golf glove. Included was a note that said she was invited for a round of golf at the Canterbury Golf Club, and it was signed: A Secret Admirer.
She read the note out loud, then raised her eyes. “Philip? Isn’t your dad the club pro out there?”
He grinned. “Because of that, the round of golf will be free, so I stayed below the $10 maximum.”
Sue was fidgeting. “But . . . it says from a secret admirer. Does that mean . . . ?”
“I thought this was a good time to tell you,” Philip said. Adam looked at him in wonder. He had no idea Philip was this brave.
Sue smiled, and for the first time Adam had ever seen, she looked shy.
“Wow,” Xander exclaimed. “That’s super. Who’s next?”
They all laughed, and Xander feigned perplexity. “What?” he asked innocently.
“I’ll go.” It was Philip, and to the faces showing surprise that he’d be so bold as to speak, he said, “Well, she got my gift, so it should be my turn, right?” Adam smiled. The logic was certainly flawed, but who was he to argue?
Philip tore off the paper of a white box about the size of a ream of paper, then opened the box. Inside was a royal-blue tee shirt nestled loosely in white tissue paper. He picked up the shirt and then could read what was written on it: I’m with her → .
Philip looked up and saw Sue grinning at him. “I thought you could wear the shirt, and then I could come stand next to you and you’d figure it out,” she said. “I like you, too.”
The table let out a cheer, muted a bit because they were in school but not too much because of how noisy the cafeteria was. Both Sue and Philip blushed.
Katy said in the lull that followed, “My turn.” She had the paper off her gift almost as soon as she volunteered.
“Hey, great! New scrunchies. Who gave them to me?” She scanned the group. No one looked all that excited—no one except Xander. His eyes were twinkling.
“It’s supposed to be secret,” he said, feigning annoyance and fooling no one.
“But it was you, wasn’t it? You knew I liked these. Thank you. Thank you for noticing something about me.” Her eyes were saying more than her lips were. They were so expressive; Xander, of all people, blushed.
“I guess, by Philip’s logic, that means it’s Xander’s turn next,” Dorry said. Adam glanced at him. Dorry had sounded nervous.
Xander took his gift which was small, about the size of four decks of cards stacked together, shook it, smelled it, weighed it in his hands, then said, “I’m guessing it’s a block of limburger cheese.”
“Stinky cheese!” said Katy, obviously affronted, and Xander said, “Aha! Now I know who gave it to me.”
“So open it already!” Katy was looking exasperated. “Cheese indeed! And the smelly kind, too! I wanted my gift to be as romantic as Philip’s and Sue’s were!”
“It’s kinda light,” Xander mused, opening the package very delicately. Exasperatingly delicately. “Maybe only half a block of cheese.”
Katy reached over and ripped off a section of the wrapping paper. “Hurry up already,” she said. The rest of the group laughed. Katy donned a sheepish smile. “Okay, so I tend to be a little impatient.”
“A little?” Xander asked sarcastically, then continued opening the gift.
There was a small box inside all the paper, and Xander opened it. “Movie tickets!” he said. “How great. And two of them! I can take someone! Hey, any of you guys want to go with me?”
Xander realized as soon as he said it that it was one joke too many. The crestfallen expression on Katy’s face said it all. He snapped to the rescue. “Hey, Katy. I’m sorry. I was only kidding around. You know me. Trying to be funny and having no tact at all is who I am. Actually, I’d love to go to the movies with you. On a date. We won’t tell my parents, though. They told Adam and me we couldn’t date till next year—we were too young. Hah! Too young! Anyway, I’d love to date you. That okay with you?”
Katy blushed, but nodded.
“I don’t know how you scored two tickets for under $10, though,” Xander said, studying the two tickets.
“I have an aunt who works for AMC. She gets discounts and even freebies now and then.” Katy was over her letdown by now. She also kept glancing at Adam, who wasn’t meeting her gaze but looking at the two remaining gifts on the table instead.
That left Dorry and Adam. Adam was so nervous by now, he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t hyperventilate. To help settle his anxiety, he reached for his gift. “My turn,” he said, and his voice was about an octave higher than usual.
His was quite obviously a book. He could tell from the shape and the feel of the wrapping. It was a little larger and thinner that a normal hardcover, and so he wasn’t sure just what it was. Wondering, he tore off the paper and then was confused. It was a book, a very handsome one with a faux-leather cover, but riffling through the pages, he saw they were blank. He frowned and looked up at everyone. Actually, there was only one person to look at, the only one who had yet to open his present, the present Adam had given him. Adam looked at Dorry.
Dorry was looking back, so nervous he was almost shaking. Adam smiled at him, then wrinkled his forehead and asked, “What is this?”
Dorry shuddered, then said in a very small, tentative voice, “Read the last page.”
Adam opened the book, the front cover first, and saw writing on the first page. It said, ‘Adam’s Journal’. Then he flipped to the back and read the last page. There was a very short note written there. He read it, then refocused on Dorry, his heart speeding up, a feeling of warmth suffusing him.
The two boys stared at each other for a moment, and then Adam heard Philip’s voice. “What does it say?” he asked softly.
Adam dropped his eyes back to the book and read out loud what was written there. “It says, ‘This is so you can keep a record of what happens this last year of middle school. I hope I’m in it, too. I hope you write about us together. I hope there’s a lot to write about.’”
The table was quiet, and Adam said, his voice a little husky, “Now open the one from me.”
Dorry studied Adam’s face for a moment, the reached for the last unopened gift on the table. Rather than something in a box, it was a lot of wrapping paper surrounding an amorphous mass. Xander took one look at it as it sagged in Dorry’s hand and then raised his eyes questioningly to Adam. Adam noticed and smiled. He’d kept the Reese’s candy himself and bought something else for Dorry.
Dorry was anxious and didn’t hesitate. He ripped off the paper and saw what he was holding: a bag of Hershey’s kisses. But what changed his anxiety to something much, much better was the note taped to the front of the bag. “I wish I could give you real ones, but if I can’t, chocolate ones will have to do.”
Dorry read the note, and an impish smile formed on his lips. “You can,” he said, and it appeared to the others at the table that Adam began glowing. The table cheered again, as it had earlier, but didn’t try to keep the noise level down this time.
Then the table was quiet for a few moments, everyone looking at the person sitting across from them, all their eyes showing emotions that hadn’t ever been expressed before—their thoughts, their anticipations now becoming real, each person excited and full of new imaginings and hopes.
And then Sue broke the silence. “Hey, just a minute here! How come . . . why . . . how did this work out like this? Everyone got a gift from the same person they gave one to, and everyone is suddenly hooked up with the person they wanted to be hooked up with, the person they liked but was too shy to tell. What just happened here and how did it happen?”
They sat up straighter then, and they began looking around, looking at each other, seeking who was responsible for this, and then, slowly, all eyes stopped, coming to rest on Philip.
“What?” he said, but couldn’t hold a straight face. Instead, an impish smirk broke out. “Okay, okay, so maybe I was a tad sneaky and with just a few innocuous questions and suggestions, I found out what name everyone had drawn. Maybe I got some people to trade. It wasn’t hard—each one of you guys wanted the name of who you liked.”
“But how did you know who liked who?” Katy asked.
Philip grinned, a rather self-satisfied grin. “It’s not hard if you just sit back and watch. I’ve been doing that all semester. Watching eyes. Watching body language. You can tell a lot if you try. Look at who looks at whom more that anyone else. Look at who looks away when the other looks at him. The only complicated one here is you, Katy. You like both Adam and Xander. But I figured it was best if you got with Xander because Adam was already taken.”
Dorry nodded. “I hoped he was. But how did you know we were both gay?”
“I didn’t know that for sure, but did know you both had crushes on each other, strong ones, too, and were doing everything you could not to let each other or anyone else know. But if you are gay, I don’t think anyone of us here has a problem with it. Isn’t that right, Xander?”
Adam had been delighted, over-the-top elated, to discover Dorry liked him. But at the same time, he was worried about Xander. Could Xander accept that he had a gay brother? Because Philip might not be sure if either he or Dorry was gay, but Adam was certain about himself. He was certainly gay. Now, he looked over at Xander, worrying about Philip’s question.
Xander moved his eyes from Philip to Adam, then stood up and walked around the table to where Adam was sitting. “Stand up, bro,” he said.
Adam stood, and Xander reached out and hugged him, drawing him into his body. “Happy for you, Adam,” he whispered in his ear. “Dorry’s perfect for you. And if you get any shit, any shit at all, from anyone, let me know. I’ll kick their ass.”
Adam hugged Xander back, hard, and his smile grew and grew, and then suddenly he was laughing. The rest of the table began laughing, too. Philip took the opportunity to say, “I guess my work is done here. Merry Christmas, everyone!”