Claire was upset and Sue was trying to comfort her. I watched for a few seconds and had the impression that Claire was mainly angry at Phil. I didn’t blame her; he had said some very hurtful things. I decided to let Sue look after Claire, and I turned back to Joe. “Will you excuse me for a sec? I just want to go talk to Brandon.”
“Sure, but would you like me to come with you, just in case?”
“Nah, I’ll be fine.” I thought I would be, but if I was wrong, it wouldn’t be as if I didn’t deserve it.
I strolled over. Brandon was alternately clenching and relaxing his fists, while muttering under his breath.
“Brandon? I just want to say thanks.”
He spun around to face me. It was still Bad Brandon. “What the fuck do you want? Why can’t you just fucking well leave me alone?”
His reaction didn’t make sense to me, but I didn’t think I was the main target of his aggression. That wouldn’t have prevented me from becoming collateral damage, but I thought it was worth the risk.
“If it weren’t for you, we would’ve been in a fight. So, thanks. I’m sorry that I teased you at the end. I understand if you’re angry with me.”
He glared for a moment and then Bad Brandon faded away. “It’s not you that I want to thump. I’m almost sorry he ran away.”
“Yeah, the homophobic arsehole. I’m glad Claire’s dumped him. I just wish I could have laid a few into him as he was on the way out.”
I nodded. Because I didn’t know Phil, I couldn’t comment, so I changed the topic. “Can I ask you a question?”
Brandon narrowed his eyes. “What about?”
“Why did you pick me to stand with you, and not Joe? You know him better than me. You couldn’t be sure I’d back you up.”
He chuckled. “A couple of reasons. One is that I thought that if it came to a fight, you’d appreciate having a chance to take on a homophobe like Phil. I would’ve loved that to happen, and then to be there when he finally learnt you’re gay. Being beaten up by a faggot, as he calls them, would be the ultimate humiliation for him.”
Brandon’s grin was evil, but I wasn’t the target. I felt uncomfortable, though, because I realised that he was right; the news would get out eventually, and there wasn’t much I could do about it. I was committed. “That’s one. What was the other reason?”
He refocused on me. “The other one is that I trusted you enough to be sure you’d stay. You’ve told me your story — friendship is very important to you. Unless I’m badly mistaken, there’s not much you won’t try to do for a friend. We’re not friends, but you consider the others to be friends, and you’ll do whatever you can to show that. Am I right?”
I almost laughed as he stiffened. “What? What fucking crazy idea of friendship do you have, then?”
I smiled. “You were right on that. I’ll do anything to keep a friend. You were wrong on one thing, though. I might not be your friend, but I consider you to be one of mine.”
I did laugh when his jaw dropped open. I appreciated what he had said, though I noticed that he had left it unsaid that Joe probably would have backed him up if I hadn’t. But I had a warm feeling that Brandon had given me the chance to show I could be trusted.
“I mean it. You’re definitely the craziest of my new friends — I can’t think of any of the others who’d face down three guys, though I don’t know them that well — but I know you’re loyal. Being loyal’s a strong indicator of someone who’d make a good friend, in my book.”
His lips twisted into a smile. “Angus would’ve, too. Peter and Joe would’ve fought if they needed to, but they’d try to find another way out. However, Angus is crazy and I have proof. He plays soccer.” He gave me a thoughtful look. “Okay, you just might turn out to be a good friend.”
I grinned. “Thanks, Marlon.”
“Don’t call me that!” Bad Brandon glared at me. “If you’re a true friend, you won’t call me that.”
I looked back innocently, trying to imitate Drew at his best. “Being a friend doesn’t mean I can’t tease you, Marlon.”
Brandon took a step towards me. His fists were clenched. I took an involuntary step back.
“Of course, there are limits that I’m going to have to learn not to cross.”
He took a couple of deep breaths, calming down visibly with each one. “Yeah. And that’s one you don’t cross.”
He took a step towards me. I trusted my instincts, so that time I stood my ground.
He took another step and, just before I broke and backed off, he laughed. “Angus has been a bad influence on you, Rick.”
He took the last step needed and pulled me into a massive bear hug. I thought he was considering if he should crush my ribs. While he was holding me, he whispered in my ear. “I’ll let you call me that only if you agree to the same conditions as Angus.”
He let me go and gave me a quizzical look. “Don’t you want to know what they are?”
“Of course, but I still agree to them. You trusted me to stay when you faced down Phil. I trust you that whatever those conditions are, they’ll be reasonable.”
He turned away. A hand went up and wiped across his eyes. I hesitated to believe he was going to cry, but that’s how it appeared.
He looked back at me, his eyes appearing to glow as they reflected the lights of the shopping centre behind me. “I’m your friend now and forever. No matter what, if I need you, you’ll be there for me. I know Angus will do that, just like I’ll do it for him. Will you do that for me?”
I nodded. I could see potential problems in that request, but I knew I would do my best. I even suspected why he was asking it. His mood swings had had me wondering if he had a mental health problem. I wouldn’t ask him, but I thought he was afraid and didn’t want his friends to desert him if his problem got worse.
“Whatever it takes, Brandon, I’ll be there for you.”
He gave me another bear hug. “Thanks, mate.”
The embrace became awkward very quickly. Brandon must have realised that he was hugging someone he thought was gay. He let go and stepped back.
“I think the others are going to start walking home. Are you going to come with us?”
Brandon seemed reluctant as he nodded his head. “Yeah, I’d better. Just in case that bastard is waiting for me to leave.”
“Don’t worry too much,” I said. “Joe and I still outnumber them three to two.”
Brandon grinned. “That’s true, but there’s no harm in stacking the odds in our favour a bit more.”
We returned to where the other three were waiting. When I looked in Claire’s direction she gave me a smile. It wasn’t a great smile, but it showed that she was feeling better.
“Now what?” I asked.
“It’s still early,” Joe said, “but I believe we should think about calling it a night. I’m going to take Sue back to her place, and then go home.”
Brandon smirked. “Carefully leaving out what happens between when you get her back to her place and when you leave.”
“And correctly so,” Joe said. He grinned at Sue. “That step may take me a while.”
“Only if I’m in a good mood.” Sue smiled at him, indicating that she probably would be.
Brandon rolled his eyes. “Save it for when you’re alone, you two.”
I turned to Claire. “Would you like me to take you home?”
“I’d love that.” She slipped her arm into mine and rested her head on my shoulder. “I just want to forget the last ten minutes ever happened.”
“Hear, hear,” Sue said.
I didn’t want to forget, because I thought my chat with Brandon had been too important. His glance at me made me think he probably felt the same.
“I don’t think Phil and his friends are still hanging around, but how about I walk back with you to the corner of Sue’s street?” Brandon said. “You should all be fine from there.”
“Thanks, Brandon.” Sue stepped away from Joe to walk up and give Brandon a kiss on his right cheek.
Before he could react, Claire had done the same on the left. “Thanks from me, too.”
“Don’t start expecting a kiss from me,” Joe said. “But thanks, mate. We all really appreciate what you did.”
Brandon grunted, though a faint smile played across his lips. “Let’s get going.” He headed off, leaving the rest of us to follow in his wake.
Claire and I brought up the rear, and I took the opportunity to chat quietly with her.
“Do you guys go out regularly? I mean, as a group like this and on Friday night?”
“Not every weekend. Friday nights are almost a given for most of us, but there’s people like Brandon who can’t make it, so there’s usually something happening on either Saturday or Sunday that he can join in.”
“You said ‘like Brandon’. Are there any others in this group I don’t know about?”
Claire frowned. “Have you met Yvonne?”
The name rang a vague bell, but I didn’t recall a face to go with it. “I’m not sure. Is she someone at school? I’ve met so many people there that I can’t keep them all straight.”
She smirked. “That’s probably because you’re gay.” I must have looked blank because she chuckled for a moment. “Drew and I have this conversation any time he says something about having trouble keeping things straight. I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just a running gag between us.”
“Okay. So who’s Yvonne?”
“You probably did meet her at school, but I can understand if you’ve forgotten. She’s a year twelve student, so we typically only see her at lunchtime or recess. She hasn’t been around much recently, because her new boyfriend Mike’s been taking up a lot of her time. Rightly so, too. She knows we’ll still be here if she wants to see us, but she needs to be with Mike. She’s been single for a long time.”
“You make being single sound like a disease.” I smiled to show I was only joking.
Claire laughed. “Yeah, I’m one to talk. Yvonne was Keith’s girlfriend — he was in our year — but after his family moved away she moped around for a while. Since she had already gotten to know us through Keith, she stayed as part of the group until recently. She’ll probably show up at some stage, hopefully with Mike in tow. But she’s the only one of the core group you haven’t met. There are others who come along from time to time, but they aren’t regulars.”
I thought about what she had said. “I may be wrong, but isn’t it a bit unusual for a girl to be dating someone younger than her?”
“Normally, yes, but Keith was one of those people with a personality that seemed to attract. Yvonne was lucky — I know a number of girls who hated her for a while because she got to him first.”
I was thinking of my next question when Claire spoke again. She sounded hesitant. “That was an odd question to ask, Rick. Maybe it was just the way you asked it, but you sounded like you don’t know much about dating.”
“Umm…” I started thinking furiously. I realised I had made a mistake.
Claire stopped and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “You just haven’t been interested in girls, have you?”
“Sort of.” That was as close I could get without an outright lie. “I’m new to this dating game. Let me know if I’m doing something wrong, please. I won’t mean to, but I might make mistakes.”
We resumed strolling after the others. Sue glanced back once at us, but then returned her attention to Joe.
“I’ll do that, Rick. If you’ve got questions about what you and Drew should do, or things like that, feel free to ask me. I won’t tell anyone, I promise. I really want things to work out between you two, so if you ever need help, just ask.”
I hadn’t meant dating with Drew, but I couldn’t tell her that. “Do any of the other guys have girlfriends? Apart from Joe, I mean.”
“Not at the moment. Brandon’s had a few over the years, but they don’t last long. The gossip I hear back is that he’s just too intense for them, which I can appreciate. It’s going to take a very special girl to handle him.”
I nodded. “Intense seems a mild way of saying it, but, yeah, I know what they mean.”
Claire laughed. “I think you’re already getting along better with him than most people do. Angus is the only one who appears able to get close to him. No one else seems allowed to get past that aggressive exterior of his.”
I could understand that. I had the impression that Brandon was secretly afraid — his condition on being allowed to use the hated nickname made that clear to me. His confident, blustery exterior was just a facade.
“Do you know why he hates the name Marlon?”
She thought about it for a few steps. “I honestly don’t know. I think it’s probably because it sounds too much like Marlin, and he doesn’t want to be named after a clown fish.” She smirked. “I can’t think of anyone who is less like a clown fish than Brandon.”
I grinned. “You don’t think he’s just like a clown fish who doesn’t know how to make jokes?”
Claire laughed and I felt a wonderful feeling run through me as she squeezed my arm. “You could be right. The only other theory I’ve heard — some of us have discussed this before — is that Marlon Brando’s most famous role was as the Godfather, and Brandon doesn’t want that image. That doesn’t seem quite right to me, though. But I’m not brave enough to ask him.”
“What about the other guys? They’re single, I think you’ve said.”
“That’s right. Peter’s been pining over Sharon O’Connor for most of this year. I don’t think any other girl’s got a chance with him until he gets over her.”
“I don’t know much about her. I had her pointed out, but I wasn’t introduced. What’s she like, and why doesn’t he ask her out?”
“That’s a tricky one. None of us really understand why he won’t ask her out. He just says he can’t. I personally think he’s so infatuated that any time he’s tried to talk to her he gets tongue tied. She’s nice, though a little standoffish in my opinion. She’s turned down a few guys already this year, according to the grapevine. Maybe that’s why Peter won’t ask her. He doesn’t want to be rejected, too.”
“Has anyone tried to get the two together?”
She laughed. “A few times. I think most of us, apart from Angus and Brandon, have tried, but Peter tends to run in the other direction if Sharon even glances at him. If it wasn’t so important to him, I’d think it was funny.”
I got the hint. “Be honest. You think it’s funny, anyway.”
She grinned at me. “Guilty as charged. And I happen to know, through some of my girlfriends, that she likes him, too. I don’t know if she likes him enough to go out with him, though, but if he won’t ask her, we’ll never know.”
I laughed, but sobered quickly. After all, I was in the same situation. I really wished I could ask Claire out on a date, but that act would raise so many complications that my nascent social life would self-destruct. “What about Angus? What’s his history?” I asked, trying to move the topic away from my own fears.
She made a face. “I honestly don’t know. He’s… well… I just don’t know.”
I gave her a quizzical look. “What do you mean?”
“Will you promise not to tell anyone else? And I mean absolutely no one else, not even Drew?”
That was a surprise. Then I did a double take as I realised it was an extra special surprise as it implied that not only didn’t she want anyone else to know, but she trusted me not to say anything. It was only then that I realised she was being very open with me. I had assumed that everything she had been telling me was general knowledge, at least in the group, but maybe I was wrong. I was too inexperienced with interacting with my peers to know what was normal and what wasn’t. I had to show Claire I could be trusted, so my answer to her question was obvious. “Sure.”
“I think he’s gay and he’s got a crush on Brandon. He’s never had a girlfriend, and he hangs around Brandon as much as he can. He says he’s just not interested in a relationship yet, but I have my suspicions. What’s confused me, though, is why he doesn’t just say it, if he’s gay. He knows that no one in the group will have a problem, especially not Brandon. But the few times when I’ve given him a lead, he’s just changed the topic.”
I thought about what I had seen. There was no doubt that Angus and Brandon were great mates, but I hadn’t seen anything more than the affection of two good friends. I laughed at myself. I hadn’t picked up on Drew being gay, so I couldn’t expect to sense if any of his friends were gay.
“How long have they been friends?”
“Four or five years, I think. If I remember correctly, they met in year seven, at the start of high school.”
“Is that when you became friends with them?”
“No. Most of us only got together as a group a couple of years ago, when Drew came out.” She smiled at me. “How much about that do you know?”
“A little. Joe told me last night about how he came out to his parents, and I heard that James became his boyfriend early on. I’ve gotten the impression that he and Drew broke up about a year ago.”
“Can you explain something? If I’ve got it right, Drew came out at school, got himself a boyfriend, and then came out at home. I would think coming out at school would’ve meant his parents would’ve found out pretty quickly.”
“You’ve got the order right, but it was only two or three weeks from when he came out at school to when he outed himself at home. And he wasn’t really out at school at the time. There were persistent rumours, but with Brandon staring down anyone who tried to say or do anything, none of it was confirmed until it became obvious that Drew and James were a couple. So, it wasn’t that surprising that his parents didn’t know.”
I felt a twisting in my guts. I knew that Drew had said he wanted to take things slow, but his idea of slow could be very different from mine. If he had tried to have a sleepover with his boyfriend only two or three weeks after starting to go out with him, I wondered how long he would wait before he wanted the same with me. He had said he had learnt his lesson about rushing things, but I wasn’t sure how well.
“You’re being very open about the others. How come?” I was nervous, because I thought I might be stepping over a line, but I wanted to know.
Claire pulled herself closer to me, which made it difficult for me to concentrate on what she was saying instead of on the wonderful tingling from the contact.
“Because I really want things to work out between you and Drew. While some of what I’ve said is just my opinion, a lot you could get from the others, anyway. But Drew’s just so much happier now that you’re around, that I really want to help if I can. There are some things I won’t tell you, at least not yet, but I don’t want you putting your foot in it by saying something inappropriate because you just didn’t know better. I’ve probably said a few things I maybe shouldn’t, but I think the way you stood up to Phil tells me a lot about you, and it’s all good.”
She flashed me a smile that I knew I was supposed to take as approval, but it felt more accusing. There were things I should be saying, that I wasn’t and couldn’t. I gave her a smile back and thanked her, but my heart wasn’t really in it.
We talked for a while longer, with it being my turn to carefully answer questions from Claire, until we almost bumped into the others. It was only then that I realised we were already at the turnoff to Sue’s place.
Joe grinned at Claire and me. “That must’ve been some chat you’ve been having, that you didn’t even notice where we were.”
“We were busy getting to know each other,” Claire retorted. She let go of me and went over to give Sue a hug. “Thanks, Sue. I’ll ring you tomorrow.”
“Okay, Claire. Until then.” The two girls exchanged pecks before letting go.
“Time for me to go, too. Joe, Sue, hopefully I’ll see you next weekend. Claire, Rick, I’ll see you on Monday.” Brandon waved and marched off, looking like he was he trying to stop himself from breaking into a jog.
After saying good night to Sue and Joe, Claire and I strolled, hand in hand, in the direction of her house. It was a part of the suburb that I hadn’t been to before. I laughed at myself.
“What are you laughing about?” Claire asked.
“I’m just thinking that I don’t know this area, but that’s not really surprising. I have to keep reminding myself that I only moved here three days ago. So much has happened, it seems like it should be longer.”
She was silent for a few strides. “Can I ask you a personal question, Rick?”
I didn’t like the way she was so hesitant, but I couldn’t think of a reason not to allow her question. “Sure.”
“You’re right. Things have gone so quickly. We all know that Drew’s impulsive, but what’s your feelings on being his boyfriend?”
Honesty had to be my policy, but with some very careful skating around the edges.
“I have to admit that I was surprised. I like him, I like him a lot, but being his boyfriend was… sudden. I had a similar chat with Brandon yesterday. I think it’s too early to know if a real relationship will develop between us, but I’m willing to give it a go. Friendship is very important to me, and the last thing I want to do is hurt Drew. But I can’t say if things will work out. It’s too soon.”
She smiled at me. “You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, Rick. I’ll tell you now that you’ll probably have to control how fast things happen, because Drew tends to jump in before he’s really ready, but you’ve got the support of quite a few of us. Even Brandon seems to like you, which is unusual for him. He’s normally a lot slower at warming to new people.”
I couldn’t tell her that he didn’t really like me. We had come to an arrangement that I sincerely hoped would work out. Finding a proper boyfriend for Drew wasn’t going to be easy.
The walk to Claire’s house took ten minutes. She lived on a quiet, tree-lined street consisting mainly of older homes. The street was dark, as two of the streetlights were broken.
When we got to her front door, she stopped and turned to face me. Taking both of my hands, she said, “Thanks, Rick. I’ve had a wonderful time and I’ve really enjoyed your company. I’d like to do this more, if you don’t mind.”
“No, I don’t mind.” That wasn’t even on the horizon of possibilities.
I felt myself starting to shake as I realised I should probably kiss her good night. She believed me to be gay, though, so a proper kiss was out of the question. I leant forward slowly, giving her control.
She leant into me and we touched lips. A shiver ran through my body as I enjoyed the contact. It wasn’t long, less than a second, but it felt wonderful. She then moved her lips and kissed me on the cheek. “Night, Rick.”
I kissed her cheek in return. “Good night, Claire.”
I don’t know how long I stood there after she had stepped inside. I was happy, but frustrated at the same time. I couldn’t help thinking that if I had spent more time with Claire before spending time with Drew, the whole situation could have been very different.
As I left, I kicked a stone that was lying on the pavement. I took a few steps and kicked it again. There wasn’t any reason for doing it, but it helped to relieve the frustration. I continued slowly down the street, heading home.
I glanced back when I was highlighted by a set of headlights, but then ignored it. It was Saturday night, and there would be a few people driving home.
I kicked the stone one more time as the car pulled up just in front of me. Idle curiosity made me lift my head to glance at the vehicle.
I froze. Phil was getting out on the passenger side. One of his mates was climbing out the driver’s door.
“G’day, bastard. Did you really think I’d let you get away with what you’ve done? We’ve been waiting for you.”
He was slurring his words, so a moment of hope struck me. If he was drunk, I might have a chance of running away.
I turned, only to find the third guy behind me. They must have dropped him off before they drove up.
“Wh…what do you want?” I glanced wildly around, looking for an escape. The property on my right had a high fence, so my only option was to run across the road and then down the street.
My feet took action before I could ask them. I managed to get almost across the road before I was tackled from behind and brought to the ground. A boot came down hard on my leg, and a wave of agony swept up my body. In a corner of my mind, I knew a bone had broken.
“I don’t want the bitch back, but I don’t get dumped for no reason.” Phil kicked me in the ribs.
I tried to roll into a ball. I couldn’t tell how successful I was, because the pain was confusing the signals to my brain. I knew I was still being hit, though, as each blow hurt like hell.
“Not so brave, now, eh? Come on, it’s one and a half against two, since I don’t seem to count, according to Brandon. That’s close to even odds. Show us what you’re made of.”
I couldn’t respond.
“Stop it, Phil. You’re going to kill him!”
I felt a kick to my head, and then my lights went out.
Copyright Notice — Copyright © November 2008 by Graeme.
The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form — physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise — without the author's expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.
Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
A special thank you to Ray, Kel, C James and Shadowgod, and also to everyone at The Mail Crew. The help they have given me with this story has been fantastic. Special kudos go to Aaron and Rain of The Mail Crew for doing a brilliant job of editing. I can thoroughly recommend their website to all teenagers who are gay, lesbian, bi or not sure.