This was a first for me. Perhaps I was late entering puberty, or perhaps it had to do with being separated from my age peers for the past couple of years, but I'd never even had a crush before, let alone been in love. Of course, I didn't know the difference. Maybe that's what this was, a crush. How would I know? How would Mike know?
That I was so attracted to this boy, this Sutton, and that he was a boy, I somehow didn't find at all disturbing, a fact I realized was true as I thought about this whole new aspect of, well, me. This was something that I had no control over, just a facet of myself that I hadn't encountered before. There were things about me that I didn't like and things I did. I wasn't happy with my appearance; I did like that I was intelligent. Being timid and afraid much of the time when I was with other kids wasn't something to acclaim, but being able to talk to adults with no fear or intimidation belonged in the plus column along with my other assets. I'd learned to live with and accept what deficits I had and to appreciate my assets. If being attracted to a boy was part and parcel of the package that was me, so be it. As time passed I'd learn into which column—the plus or minus side of the ledger—that personal characteristic needed to be assigned.
Mike was watching me as I cogitated. "You've got it bad, don't you?" he eventually asked.
"I don't know," I answered truthfully. "Actually, I was thinking about how this affected me rather than about Sutton. But I will say, I've never felt this way before about anyone."
He got more comfortable on his bed, rearranging his pillows so he could sit back against the wall, facing me, rather than against the headboard. I was sitting up straight on my bed. Right then, comfort was incidental to me; it took second place to self-discovery.
He, on the other hand, seemed to be enjoying the moment. "Never had a crush on anyone?" he asked.
"No, never. Why? Have you?"
"Well, sure." He smiled; I must have stirred a memory. "They never lasted long. Maybe that was because I'm not shy. When I had a crush on anyone, I went up and talked to them. I wanted to be around them. And every time, when we got to be friends, it wasn't long before the crush was sort of replaced by just liking them as a person. Maybe crushes are just a physical reaction to someone. Sutton is awfully pretty. A lot of guys react to him."
I think I blushed. But Mike seemed entirely straightforward and open. He was friendly, and somehow I found him easy to talk to, which was surprising. But I found him in no way threatening. So I plunged in, saying something I'd ordinarily keep to myself. Maybe keep so far hidden inside myself that even I didn't have access to it. "You think he's pretty? So do I."
"Of course you do. He is pretty. That's what attracts a lot of boys. And maybe it's because his beauty is so feminine."
"Is he gay?" I asked.
"I have no idea. I've only been here a few weeks. I don't know anyone very well yet, and Sutton not at all. Most of the guys latch onto their roommates as their first friends and hang around with them all the time, and I haven't had a roommate, so I've been left out a little. I know a lot of the boys go up and talk to Sutton, and ones who are too shy to do that seem to covertly look at him a lot. He seems to enjoy his popularity. I think he's well aware of the effect he has on all of us." He stopped and looked at me, then asked, "Why? Are you gay?"
I hesitated. Mike was a stranger. Yet I seemed to be able to talk to him without embarrassment. I wondered how he did that. Usually I was more circumspect with people about my feelings than the Sphinx was with his. Or hers. "I don't know," I finally said. "I haven't spent any time around other kids recently. Before that, I was probably too young. But I sure reacted to Sutton. If I was gay, would it matter to you? Are you gay?"
He grinned at me. "Not that I know of. And if you are, that'd be fine with me. I'd get to learn what it's like. I enjoy learning things. I like school. I like people. And so far, I like you a lot. I think we relate well; I can talk to you, and you can to me. We'd be pretty good roommates—unless you snore."
I started to refute that, then stopped. It had just occurred to me that he was ending a lot of his remarks with what could be humor, yet he kept a straight face. I'd heard of dry humor, but if that was what this was, it was the first chance I'd had to see it in practice. I discovered I liked it, and I really liked the intelligence he was keeping under wraps while doing it.
So, instead of railing back at him for suggesting I might be a snorer, I said, "That works both ways, you know. If you snore, I'll just do what I've done in the past: suffocate you with a pillow. Just so you can beware. And if you never sleep, forewarned of the lethal consequences, that will be fine with me: there'll still be no snoring!" I didn't crack a smile—well, I did allow my eyes to smile—even if he hadn't.
He laughed, then said, "So it sounds like you're planning to stay then. That's great! Welcome to Mike's Room. There are rules, you know."
"Hah! Rules, schmules! I'm bigger than you are! I'll be making the rules!"
"You are not! And hey, there have to be rules. Like playing the radio during study time. Yes or no. For me it's a no. Like farting: should it be announced in advance of the reek. I'm of two minds on that. We can discuss it. Like, um, well, that one we can talk about later."
He laughed, and I sort of thought I understood what the that was all about. I blushed, but he ignored it and said, "I'd better show you around the rest of the house and maybe introduce you to a few of the guys. They're nothing like the Kennilworth House pukes you met. Then I should return you to Mrs. Fannon. I'd guess your mother will be waiting for you there."
My mother and I were back in the headmaster's house. His wife had served us all lemonade, and I was sipping mine when Dr. Rettington asked, "So, Luke, what have you decided? Are we going to have you with us? Will you give it a try or not?"
I'd been mulling over that very question since my talk with Mike in 'our' room. I was torn. I abhorred the idea of meeting up with any of the Kennilworth House boys out on the school grounds, in classes, anywhere. I was afraid I'd curl up in a fetal position when I did and be the laughingstock of the school. I'd have to withdraw ignominiously in abject shame, my image a humiliating object lesson for legions of boys to come to this school after my inglorious presence here.
Even if I didn't meet any of the Kennilworth boys, I doubted it would make any difference because for certain they'd blab to everyone they knew about how I'd performed when meeting them. How I'd physically backed down from them, how I'd not defended myself, the crying, the possession of a teddy bear, the whole thing. It would be common knowledge at the school, and the teasing would be relentless, perhaps even physical. Coming here simply seemed impossible.
But if I told the headmaster I would not be attending this school, that meant I'd have no further contact of any kind not only with Mike, whom I really liked and was already thinking of as a friend, and with Sutton, either. And whether it was a crush or love or just a momentary physical infatuation—heck, I'd never even spoken to the boy—I didn't want to leave wondering what might have been. What if he was as attracted to me as I was to him? I know: absurd. Unattractive me. Yet he did look at me, and he did drop his eyes with that peculiar and unreadable smile. Who knew what that meant? But I felt a visceral need to find out. And a growing internal refusal to back away from the possibilities that lay there beckoning me.
Hey, I was 13. I'd read the phrase 'horny as a three-peckered billy goat' somewhere, but I'd dismissed it as simply being amusing and a little vulgar without giving thought to what it meant. Suddenly, I was feeling a certain empathy with that goat. I think I'd had an awakening at lunchtime, and a redheaded boy had been ringing the wakeup alarm. Could I walk away from that? Did I want to?
I was torn by an awakened sexuality wanting fulfillment on the one hand and a rational ever-after fear of humiliation at the hands of the Kennilworth House residents on the other, both tugging at me as I sat there in that book-lined office. Mother and Dr. Rettington were looking at me. I was supposed to let them know what I thought. What I thought was: I wasn't ready to make a decision! It was in my best interest to delay it.
"There are things I like here and things I don't, Dr. Rettington," I managed to say at last. "I guess before I can decide, one way or the other, I'd like to know what you're going to do about the Kennilworth House situation."
Dr. Rettington looked at me, then at my mother, then back at me. I could tell, he wasn't comfortable with the question or perhaps with my asking it. From the glance at my mother, I had the distinct impression that, without her there, he might well not have answered it at all.
I wasn't the only one who knew how to delay, because when he answered me, he said, "What would you like to have done about it?"
I gave that a quick run-over in my mind and then sat up a little straighter and put on my confrontational hat. "I don't think that's my job," I answered, softening it by adding, "with all respect, sir. I don't know your past history of discipline in cases like this. I don't know if any or all of those boys have been cautioned for their behavior before this happened. I don't know what the effect on the school would be if you dismissed the lot of them—financially, socially, or on admissions—or if you take all those into account when you make such a decision. No, sir, I don't think it's my place to respond to that. I'm prejudiced in this case because of my property, things I cherished, being ruined in the cavalier manner in which they were, and being told I had to fight someone. All of that colors my thinking.
"But, in any case, I think this is in your purview, and expect you have a good idea what steps you're going to take. Don't you? And, if you really would like to know where I'm coming from, if you want full disclosure, I want to get a feel for the administrator you are by seeing how you handle this."
He was studying me. I fully expected that last zinger to have an effect on him, but it didn't. He merely stared at me, and I suddenly remembered what Mike had said about his eyes. They were looking into mine with an unaccustomed intensity. But, as I've said, adults don't bother me. I looked back with what I hoped was equal intensity.
Eventually, he sighed. Then he said, "Luke, disciplinary matters are kept private. I do understand you have a valid concern here, though. And the fact of the matter is, I haven't had a chance to investigate, to talk to any of the boys, to hear their explanations of their behavior. To hear if they're ashamed, or if they're blasé about it. I did call their housemaster and had them all restricted to their house, restricted from contacting anyone else at the school. Until I've talked to them, I really can't say what decision I'll make."
I wasn't going to give up that easily. "Well, let's look at the hypothetical. When you do investigate, if their story matches mine, which it will if they're honest, then what?"
He shook his head. "It won't be that simple. You have no idea what they were thinking or feeling. Only a few boys out of the whole group actually did or said anything. What did the others feel? And the worst perpetrators: why did they do what they did? I can tell you for a fact: it was entirely unprecedented. And another thing to consider: we're talking about boys whose ages range from thirteen to eighteen."
I squirmed, then said, knowing I was pushing things, "But those who were involved did what I reported. When you say this is unprecedented, I say, so what? They did what they did, and whether it has happened before makes no difference to me. And even then, what you mean is nothing like this has been reported to you in the past. I know from personal experience that what boys at a school do when there are no adults around to witness them can be quite different from what the adults think is happening on their campus."
He winced. But he wasn't going to go on the defensive. "Luke, I hope you'll give me a chance to look into it and you'll have decided to come to school here before I've made a decision. I guess I'm asking you to trust me. Do you think you can do that?"
Man, this guy was good! It was going to be up to me after all, with nothing in the bank to draw on.
So, what did I want to do? Stay, or go.
I glanced at my mother, and she smiled at me but didn't say a word.
I looked back at Dr. Rettington, whose face told me nothing.
"OK," I said. "Tentatively, perhaps temporarily, I agree to come here. If I find that my fears are justified, I won't stay. If stories of what happened earlier today float around the campus, if I'm looked at differently from other newcomers, if I hear whispers, or more than whispers, then my presence here will terminate abruptly. But, for now, I'm in. I liked what I saw at Culver House today." And then I sank back into my chair, and unbidden, my head filled with a vision of Sutton and his elusive smile.
It had been a few weeks since I'd matriculated into Banyard. We were in our room. By we I mean Mike and me—or 'me and Mike' as most of the boys I'd overheard talking would have said. I hate that. Why couldn't they speak English? Anyway, that's a separate rant. I had to keep thoughts like that to myself. I'd learned that pretty quickly. Everyone seemed to judge everyone else here, and when I talked like I'd grown up doing, speaking as Mike said I did when I was nervous, using proper vocabulary and correct grammar, some boys looked at me funny, and I think I overheard someone use the word 'snob' when I was walking away from them.
But as I was saying, we were in the room to which I'd been assigned. I lived there, and Mike lived there, too, with me. How's that? Better than Mike and I? Anyway…
Mike and I were together in our room along with Tyler and Derek. We four hung out quite a bit. Mike had sort of attached himself to those two before he had me. Boys need friends, especially 13-year-old boys, and Mike wasn't the sort to live by himself in his room and put up with that kind of lonely desperation. So he'd glommed onto those two, who were roommates in the room next to ours and the same age as he was, and when I'd come aboard, he hadn't dropped them for me. Oh, he and I got along great together—I am not going to write 'me and him', so there! I'm just not!—but being Mike, rather than dumping them, he just got the four of us together. And it was great. I liked both of them.
Just as Mike and I were different in many ways, so were Tyler and Derek. Tyler was an athlete, the kind of boy who usually had a ball of some sort with him. He loved our physical-education periods and all the activities they involved. He was a rough-and-tumble kid, big for his age and strong and altogether the sort of kid I'd always despised. Except Tyler was much more than just what I'd described. He was outgoing and could hold his own with anyone socially, but he was sensitive to others, soft-spoken, not a bit stuck up even though he was really good-looking, and to top it off, he was smart. OK, from all that anyone could believe I had a crush on him. I didn't. Well, not much, at least. Maybe a little. I did notice when he was in the room with us. Or wasn't.
He had brown hair that the sun had lightened in streaks. Now, in early fall, it was beginning to darken some, but the streaks of light blond remained. He cut it short as many athletes did. He had a muscled physique that included wide shoulders, bulging biceps—well, he was thirteen like the rest of us and thirteen-year-olds don't really have bulging biceps, but he had noticeable ones and the rest of us didn't, so 'bulging' isn't all that far off—and a torso that narrowed as it approached his waist. I hadn't seen what was below. We were all still a bit body-shy. I hadn't even seen Mike naked yet, but it was only a matter of time; he wasn't all that modest. When he'd told me he wasn't shy, he had been speaking the truth.
Derek was considerably less outgoing than Tyler and not nearly as attractive. He was just a plain-looking kid, and you tended to not notice him much at all, which I think was fine with him. But Derek was always there. I think that was both Tyler's and Mike's doing. They were both nice kids and looked out for Derek, who was the sort of kid that seemed to need looking after. Although, really, I wondered about that. Perhaps it was just because he was Tyler's roommate and there was a considerable size difference, but Tyler had taken him under his wing right from the start, and Derek had sort of stayed there, but I noticed times when he didn't appear to be quite as uncomfortable when that protective arm was absent as one might have expected. He was certainly reticent, but I began wondering at one point if it was a role he was playing rather than who he was.
One thing I couldn't help but notice about him was that he was really smart. That was one reason he fit in well with us; we all were. Derek always showed up in our room before Tyler. That simply had to mean something, because I knew from talking to Tyler that Tyler was really smart, yet it seemed Derek finished what schoolwork they had before Tyler did his.
Derek was slightly smaller than the rest of us, both shorter and thinner, and he was dark where Tyler was light. Black hair, dark eyes, slightly olive-pigmented skin. He was as gentle as Tyler was boisterous. He never said much, but when he did, he sounded clever. I didn't know if it was shyness that caused his reticence, whether it was real or feigned or was natural for him or just the way he'd been brought up. But he was one of us and seemed very comfortable with us. All four of us fit well together. Somehow, we seemed to complement each other.
We all gathered in our room every night after prep time was over just to talk and be together.
There were set hours for doing our homework and reading for the next day's classes, but after that, there was free time before bed. The four of us had no trouble finishing our work during the set time. In fact, for me, it was a breeze because the classes I had were covering material I'd already learned. But my point here was that, for the first time in a long time, since I began school really, I had friends. Real life, in the flesh, friends. Guys my age who liked me even with all my flaws. I knew I wasn't attractive and that I tended to use inappropriate words when I talked—although Mike insisted that was a nervous tic and nothing to be concerned with—and I was altogether too timid, and I wasn't a bit athletic. I could go on, but as depressing as it must be to read this, it's even worse to write it. But my lack of physical courage was what I thought was my most severe shortcoming.
My friends didn't seem to notice.
Friends. It seemed incredible to me.
Dr. Rettington had spoken to me about my academics. I'd wanted to be installed in advanced classes when I began. He'd tried to be diplomatic, but because I'd argued the point, he'd had to spell it out for me; he told me I needed to learn social skills, and he thought it would be easier and I'd be happier doing that with kids my own age. I was undecided, but in the end, realized he had a point. My experience at Kennilworth House wasn't forgotten. I'd had no idea how to handle that situation. Perhaps if I'd had more tools at my disposal, things might have gone differently.
Or perhaps not. Being socially adept wouldn't have helped when it came to the confrontation and my lack of a backbone.
I'd had that talk about academics with Dr. Rettington when I'd returned to the school to begin classes. Dr. Rettington had said I could stay and begin immediately when my mother and I had returned to his office that day after I'd spent some time with Mike at the Culver House, the same afternoon of the day of my disastrous arrival at the school. I'd nixed that idea of remaining right then. I was still upset from what had happened that morning and still needed some time to get over it. Too, I thought that might give Dr. Rettington time to sort out the Kennilworth House crew, and that would be a good thing. Also, there was the matter of my suitcase. My mother thought it would be a good idea if I'd go and recover it; she said it was a way to show I had some spunk. There was no question on my part about that; I had none whatsoever. I was adamant that my retrieving my luggage was not going to happen, and for once, she backed down. What ended up happening was that Dr. Rettington had had it delivered to his office, and we collected it before driving home. The leather had been scratched, which I showed Dr. Rettington, suggesting that there should be some reimbursement for the cost of such expensive luggage. I also opened it and found, to my surprise, that someone had folded the clothing inside. I wondered how and when that had happened—and why.
A separate paper bag had been delivered with the suitcase. I opened it to find the remains of my picture and teddy bear. Was this some sort of apology? I doubted it and didn't even care if it was meant to be that. Both those items which had meant so much to me were now destroyed. I had to deal with that.
It had been decided that I'd return to the school on the next Sunday afternoon, four days hence, and begin classes on the following Monday. I'd miss a few days this way, but I was already behind in getting familiar with the kids in my house, so another few days wouldn't make any difference there. Missing the first few days of academics would make no difference at all. The main thing to me was getting my emotional state in balance. I felt that was the most important thing of all.
I had also insisted that when I returned, my first order of business would be meeting with Dr. Rettington and learning what had been done about the Kennilworth House boys. That meeting had occurred. I had been alone this time; my mother had not accompanied me back to school. I'd wanted to do this on my own.
Dr. Rettington clearly had been uncomfortable during our meeting. He didn't like talking about disciplinary proceedings; I had the feeling he didn't much like disciplining anyone. But I had to know what I'd be facing if I were staying at the school. I had to know if I'd be meeting those boys and so be prepared.
Dr. Rettington and I had met in his office. Assuming he'd done what I expected him to have done, I'd shipped some things to the school that were waiting for me at the Culver House, and I'd still had my suitcase with me at my side as I'd sat across from the headmaster in his office. While meeting his eyes, I asked him what he'd learned in his investigation, and the outcome of it.
He frowned. "I spoke to all the boys in the house privately," he began. "Where stories disagreed, I called the two boys in whose versions differed and hammered out the differences. By the time I was done, I had a full account, and it was very close to your version, and any disparities were of minor importance. So, I know what occurred.
"Then it was a matter of learning why they'd done what they'd done, what they'd felt while it was happening, and how they'd felt after the fact." He stopped there. Obviously he'd been troubled by what he'd learned. I couldn't blame him for that. No one wanted to be in charge of an organization whose members acted the way some had in his.
"I won't go into all that. I learned there were problems in that house. The housemaster had only begun in that capacity during the middle of last year's final term. He was still in his first full year here, and I found he had some strange ideas. He'd told the boys this year that their house was going to win all the house competitions, and he expected them to do it with physical strength and a dominant attitude. That theirs was a house of men, fit and assertive boys, and there would be no weak links there. Frank Norris, the head boy, took that to heart. He'd already had some deportment problems in the years he'd been here—to be honest, some problems with bullying younger boys—and had been voted head boy at Kennilworth House more out of intimidation than respect. He held sway with the rest of the boys, and they very much acted in the manner he demanded of them. They had little say in the matter, and no one in that house wanted to look soft when he was around."
He cleared his throat and took a sip from a glass of water on his desk. He shook his head before continuing. This entire conversation was uncomfortable for him. "I should have been watching, but the first few weeks of any term are a bit helter-skelter, and I just didn't find the time. That's my fault, and I'll take the responsibility for it. I'm shocked and saddened by what happened to you."
I'd nodded. "Thank you," I'd said, rather formally. "And what steps did you take to ensure nothing like this will happen again so in the future I won't be facing these boys or having to explain what I did and didn't do when they confronted me that day?"
What I'd wanted was for them all to have been expelled. Somehow, I hadn't expected that to have happened, but I knew if nothing at all but a severe talking-to was the result of my misadventure, I would not be staying. I'd call a cab, get taken back into town, and hop the next train home, even if I never had ridden it alone before.
His face became even longer, though I hadn't thought that possible. "The housemaster has been terminated, and a replacement couple already established in his stead. They're an experienced couple and very capable. Frank Norris was suspended for the two terms that comprise the school year. If he decides he wishes to come back next year, he'll have to convince me he's changed and has an entirely new attitude. I doubt that he'll avail himself of that opportunity; he'll have found another place to fit him by then. As for the other boys…"
His pause was accompanied by a riveting stare into my eyes. I met it. He held it. I began to think it was a competition by the time he continued. Then he softened his eyes. "You may not like this. But I believe in second chances, especially with young boys who have a tendency not to think beyond right now, who rarely consider consequences, and are in the sway of bad influences. Most of the boys at Kennilworth House were under the control of a bully, and while they should have spoken up, should have let someone know what was happening, their head boy and their housemaster were both involved, so they wouldn't have known what to do. Accordingly, though they misbehaved, they weren't entirely responsible for how they acted.
"Rest assured, they now understand what they did to you was wrong and just how wrong it was. They each wrote me an essay on how they'd have felt had they been in your shoes, and in doing so they learned something about empathy. They have been given restrictions and told that there will be no leniency should I have to deal with any behavioral problems of this sort with them again. Also, they've been told to keep what happened private; if it becomes general knowledge at the school, they will be held responsible, and their punishment will be swift and final."
I shook my head. "There's no way a bunch of boys are going to keep that secret."
He grimaced. "Perhaps not. But they know how I feel. They also have now been made to understand that if they do talk about what happened, they'll also be telling everyone how they themselves acted, and that most boys here will be much more sympathetic towards you than them. In any case, that's a bridge to cross if we come to it. I don't think it will matter much, to tell the truth. How you handle yourself as you begin to involve yourself with the rest of the school will make much more difference than what a few boys might say about something that's in the past, an event that many would feel they're exaggerating. In any event, it is what it is, we can't change what happened, and I'm not going to kick out an entire house of boys because one boy led them astray."
He could see me fidget at that and rushed on. "However, I will say this. There are a couple of boys who are hanging by a thread. Joe Bixley and Chet Brewster were both disciples of Frank's and were part and parcel of what he did. They will be closely monitored. I may have to suspend or expel them, and they've been made well aware of that. Joe is only thirteen but comes from a difficult background, and how he treated you probably was an outgrowth of that. He's still very young, and hopefully his character is still malleable. Does he have compassion in him? Can he learn it? He tried to pick a fight with you. He actually physically pushed you. But he did it to impress Frank. That's the only reason I'm giving him a stay of execution. You need to let me know if he causes you any grief."
He sat back in his chair. "There is one last thing. I've made some changes and moved some of the boys from Kennilworth House. Ones who wanted to leave. And I replaced them with different sorts of boys—a more mature and academic group. Hopefully that will accelerate the change in the ethos of Kennilworth House as well."
He stopped and looked at me for a response. It was my turn to grimace. "I guess I'd have liked harsher punishments. But we'll see how it goes." I stood up. "At least, thanks for getting rid of Frank. For the others, well, as I say, we'll just see."
He'd risen out of his chair, too, and had extended his hand, and I'd shaken it.
Such was my second welcome to Banyard. The visit with Dr. Rettington was closely followed by a happy reunion with Mike, who said he'd missed me. He helped me unpack, and we put the things I'd shipped into convenient places—things like a couple of posters, a self-contained stereo system and CDs, a small area rug and, wonder of wonders, a tiny but useful refrigerator. TVs weren't allowed, so we didn't have one of those. We talked while we arranged things. Eventually, I asked the one thing I'd been thinking about all morning, even when in the headmaster's office.
"Uh, how's Sutton?
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