Here are the first two chapters of One Little Word. Enjoy!
My mother raised me right. She would say that everything good about me came from her, and my less pleasant qualities were inherited from my father. It’s not that they’re divorced, or that they don’t get along. She’s teasing him. They’ve been together 20 some years and they do that, tease and joke and then kiss right in front of me, it’s pretty disgusting.
But I am a good guy. And I mean more than just good to look at it. Not that I’m a slouch there. I see the way girls look at me when I walk through the halls. It could be my sandy blonde hair or the muscles and trim body I’ve developed from lifting weights and playing baseball. Maybe it’s my vibrant green eyes or just the confident way I stroll through school, like nothing and nobody can stop me.
It’s precisely that attitude that got me in trouble. It was a few minutes before school started. Me and some of my buddies from the team walked from the gym after doing our morning weight training routine. We’re sweaty and tired, not just from the exercise but at having to get up so freaking early, though a few guys shoved each other and messed around in their typical fashion.
“My grandma can bench press more than you, Ahmad,” said Joey Wilson, a great catcher whose IQ was much lower than his batting average, which was saying something since his batting average wasn’t that great. My best friend Zach Ahmad didn’t look over at Joey. I don’t even think his eyes were open.
“Got nothing to say to that, Ahmad?” smirked Ted Summers, our team’s back up third baseman.
“If you expect a response from me before 9:00 a.m.” he started haughtily, “come up with something worth the effort of replying to.” He leaned into my shoulder and let me guide him down the halls. Lazy asshole.
“You didn’t have to come work out,” Ted pointed out.
Zach swung his arm around my back, clapping me on the shoulder. “The captain here said I should show initiative.” The last words dripped with disdain.
“I will drop you,” I warned.
He opened one eyelid to peer at me, his tired blue-grey eye projecting a surprising amount of menace. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“How did you make captain anyway?” Joey asked me, switching targets. “My little sister can bench press more than you.”
I scoffed at the catcher. “One, you don’t have a little sister.”
“Okay, your little sister can bench press more than you,” he corrected.
I carried on like he hadn’t spoken. “Two, that was basically the same insult.”
“Whatever, you queens.” Joey gestured to Zach and me limping down the halls together.
“Going to take each other to prom?”
“How would they decide who gets the fancy crown?” Ted snickered.
I considered thanking Ted because if we got a crown that meant we won something, but I directed a question to the leech on my shoulder instead. “You got anything to say to this?”
He lifted a finger in Ted’s general direction. “Blah-blah, you’re a girl.” Then he pointed towards Joey. “You’re gay, blah-blah-blah.” Zach positioned himself more firmly on my shoulder. “You make a surprisingly comfortable pillow,” he told me. “Why don’t I sleep on you in Spanish class?”
“You’re a vain bastard who’d never do this in front of anyone else?” I guessed. The guys watched, thinking that might get a response. Zach opened his mouth, then shrugged and closed it, conceding the point.
“You’re so gay,” Joey said, laughing at us.
“Better than being a retard,” I responded instantly.
Remember, my mom raised me right. I don’t swear in front of my grandparents or act rude to ladies, and I take my cap off for the national anthem. But in front of the guys, it’s different. I may be the most popular guy in my grade but part of that is because I fit in. Juvenile, off-color remarks are the only things Joey and a lot of the other guys understand. I guess I could not say anything, but okay, maybe I’m a macho idiot jock who can’t be the bigger person because I just can’t let the comments slide.
“At least I’m not a pussy,” Joey said, and Zach snorted on my shoulder because the catcher basically conceded to being a retard. I mean, mentally challenged.
I’m just going along with everything, responding back as I’m expected to, not even thinking about it, already trying to remember if we had any homework in algebra that I forgot to do. “Whatever, you fag,” I respond. No points for originality, but I flipped him off too for good measure. He snorted and rolled his eyes, opening his mouth to respond, probably with something witty and original along the lines of I know you are, but what am I.
Except then I heard a sharp intake of breath and a stern voice behind me. “Mr. Chambers. Head to the principal’s office.”
“Hey, I don’t swing that way, gay boy.”
Our school’s zero tolerance policy on bullying is a joke. I’ve learned firsthand it doesn’t actually stop anything. It just makes cruel kids learn to watch their backs, effectively making bullies better at their job while the superintendents pat themselves on the back for making their schools a more “inclusive” environment.
They can spend a day as the only out kid in their grade, then tell me how inclusive school is.
I may be ostracized and picked on, but my grandma has some saying about how God doesn’t give us challenges we can’t handle. So, when my perpetually late ass rushed to get to class and I innocently brushed against some homophobic jock, I’m not flustered or embarrassed. I sighed. I was going to be tardy. Again.
Oh well. I stopped in my tracks, looked the boy I bumped into over, then looked him over again. He might not be that bad looking, if douchebag weren’t a total turn off. The scowl on his face distorted his visage and made it unappealing, but he’s a wrestler with a solid body. I looked until he and his friend fidgeted and got uncomfortable, then I smiled slowly. “Honey, I may be gay,” I said in a lilting, feminine fashion, “But I can do better than you.”
Then I sashayed away. Truthfully, I used to cringe at some of the stereotypical, over-the-top gay caricatures in American culture. Then, I was outed. Forced out of the closet before I was ready. Now, all those clichés save my life, or at least my sanity. People know me as the gay boy, sure, but they don’t really know me. I show up to school, act like a sassy gay boy whenever the spotlight’s on me, and then people think I make sense at least, I’m what they see on TV, and they left me alone.
Well, I’m an outcast until some jerk wants to heckle me in front of his buddies or a girl he likes. Or until a group of tough guys wants to beat me up. I don’t engage in any school sports as a rule, but the track coach makes an attempt to recruit me every year, my running skills are that impressive. It’s a survival mechanism.
Did I say I was the only gay kid in my grade? What wishful thinking. I mean, I am, but it’s not there’s anyone out in any of the other grades. I spend a lot of time on my own. It’s lonely, and the running was tiring, but it’s life. “Only two more years,” I told myself out loud. “Then it’s off to college.”
“Classes haven’t started yet, and you’re already talking to yourself?” Alicia Philips, my best friend asked. “It’s going to be a long day.” Okay, she’s pretty much my only friend, but she’s a theater geek, and that little group of misfits accepts me as their own thanks to her. That safe haven was the only reason I survived high school, the bright spot in an otherwise disappointing school life.
“You can say that again. How mad is Mr. Eldridge?” Our homeroom teacher said I might be the only student in Lake Forest High history who will be suspended for being chronically tardy. Side note, how unfair was it that our school is named Lake Forest when we have neither? Is that someone’s cruel idea of a joke? We’re in a flat, dusty farming town that’s plain as far as the eye can see.
Why did I have to live in a small town? Why couldn’t my dad be something exciting instead of a farmer, where we could go to a big city and I’d just be another queer kid instead of the only one? I’ll have to mention a career change to him again later. Maybe this time he’ll agree.
“He didn’t seem that mad actually,” she shrugged. She always covered for me when I was late, it gave her a chance to try all manner of excuses and see which ones worked. For science. “Probably because I told him I needed to skip homeroom because of lady troubles.” She smiled. “He didn’t have any follow up questions after that.”
I rolled my eyes. Men. My gender was crazy sometimes, but I couldn’t help but want them anyway. Mr. Eldridge was a math teacher who was rumored to give female students better grades if they cried in front of him. I was a budding scientist, so “lady troubles” was just biology, a natural part of human life that half the population dealt with. “I apologize on behalf of all men,” I said while walking towards our first class.
“Don’t, if your lot were better, then us women would be able to get away with much less.” Before we could start chatting much, there was a commotion in the hallway. Well, as big of a commotion as two people could make. The hallway was quiet, just us truants, so Mrs. Sharp’s heels clicking on the tiles were loud. She was followed by a chastised boy, head down and grumbling under his breath. A small throng of jocks trailed behind them.
Alicia and I slowed to watch the scene.
“The rest of you get to class,” she ordered and they scurried off, leaving their leader alone. Luke Chambers. We were a relatively large community, for a farming town at least, so it was possible to not know everyone in your class, though you’d probably recognize their face if not their name. He definitely had the kind of face a boy like me remembered and a body that made me salivate. Everyone knew Luke Chambers though.
He was an all-star, a golden boy. The kind of guy kids like me dream of and don’t tell anyone about. Hot shots like him only dated cheerleaders and mean girls, and oh yeah, just girls in general. I didn’t spend much time thinking about Luke, even though he had dimples and an enticing, toned body. He was hot but an asshole. He thought he was better than everyone else, that was obvious when he had the audacity to hold the door when Mrs. Sharp tried to open it. Rumors said she was the inspiration for Medusa, her glare turned mere mortals to stone. Plus, she feasted on the souls of students who displeased her to remain young. No one tried to disobey her or talk back. Unless you were Luke Chambers.
“Please, it wasn’t a big deal.” There were those dimples as he shot her a winning smile. I couldn’t see her react, but if it was like her reaction to everything else, she remained unmoved. I could almost feel the displeased aura radiating off her. I soaked it in, enjoying the normally perfect, unshakeable athlete’s moment of unease.
“Mr. Chambers, you’ll be lucky if you aren’t expelled.”
There were kids in third world countries that had a harder life than me, I knew that. I may indulge in overdramatics about my suffering sometimes, we all have our ways to cope, but my life probably wasn’t that bad on a cosmic level. Still. Watching Luke Chamber’s face fall as he headed to the gallows, possibly to be expelled, felt like a reward for the torment I endured daily. God smiling on me, saying here’s something to help you get through the day.
“What do you make of that?” Alicia asked.
I smiled. “Karma’s a bitch.”
Mrs. Sharp dragged me to the principal’s office while I stuttered behind her. “Expelled? You can’t be serious!” She was. No one had accused her of making a joke in her life, but I couldn’t believe it. Could one little word really ruin everything? My parents taught me that hard work would be rewarded, and I worked hard, got decent grades and was a great ball player. That was less important than my stupid mouth?
“What do you think zero tolerance means?”
I started working on an impassioned plea about free speech in my mind.
“What seems to be the problem?” Mr. Simmons asked, grinning at me like a kindly grandpa. The short, stout man always looked cheerful, and he was the type of caring yet out of touch educator who might say something lame about putting the “pal” in “principal.”
“I heard Mr. Chambers use a derogatory slur,” Mrs. Sharp said without preamble.
The smile dropped off his face. Dread gathered in my stomach. Just as Mrs. Sharp didn’t have the required facial muscles to smile, I thought Simmons was physically incapable of not smiling until now.
“Well, have a seat so we can discuss this matter.”
I may be cool, calm and collected up to bat, whether on the field or with the ladies, but I couldn’t find any composure now. As soon as my butt hit the seat, I blurted, “Am I really going to be expelled?”
“Mr. Chambers doesn’t seem to understand our zero-tolerance policy,” Mrs. Sharp said smoothly. Her face was blank, but I thought I heard a smile in her voice. If she wasn’t a high school teacher, she would have been a prison guard. She lived for rules and their enforcement.
“Apparently, you aren’t as familiar with it as you ought to be either,” Mr. Simmons said. I breathed a sigh of relief. I knew I could count on Principal Grandpa, I mean Simmons.
“We do not tolerate behavior that—” she started, but he interrupted.
“That bullies or harasses others, or leads to an unsafe school environment,” he finished.
“I know, I helped write the policy.”
“I’m not expelled?” I asked, smiling hopefully and widening my eyes, trying to look as innocent and non-threatening as possible. My mom said this act doesn’t work with guys as tall or broad shouldered as me, but Simmons seemed to take pity on me.
“The zero-tolerance policy simply states our commitment to take action when bullying occurs,” he explained patiently, then looked at me with what passed for a stern expression on his face but was still mostly kind. “No one gets special treatment.”
“Of course not, sir. I don’t expect that,” I rushed to agree. I would love special treatment right now, but I went along with him anyway.
“Depending on the circumstances, a suspension might be more appropriate,” he mused out loud.
A suspension?!? The adults talked around me. Mrs. Sharp filled him in on the situation, but I didn’t hear them. I won’t be able to play if I get suspended. I’ll be demoted! As juniors, the guidance counselor had started giving our class talks about how it was time to start preparing for college. How would a suspension look to scouts, to schools? It seemed like the only difference between suspension and expulsion was when I started working at McDonalds, now or when I graduate, but either way led to a bleak future.
Shit, everything was getting out of control so fast. I was on top of the world this morning. I had everything: popularity, team captain status, a bright future. Now I could lose it all. There had to be something I could do.
“Mr. Chambers?” Simmons interrupted, drawing me from an internal panic. “Would you like to explain your side of the story?”
“It’s not what you think,” I started. I had no idea where I was going with this. Mrs. Sharp looked amused, and Simmon’s smile turned down at the corners.
“Well, I’m afraid there’s not much to it,” he said. “Either you said the word or you didn’t.”
“Okay, I did.” Mrs. Sharp looked victorious. “But it’s not that bad.” Simmons opened his mouth to speak, no doubt to give some lecture on sensitivity and how words could hurt, but I rushed over him, saying the only thing I could think of, “I’m gay.”
The world had turned upside down, and the whole school was abuzz with rumors, even a lowly outcast like me heard all the theories. Luke was expelled for taking performance enhancing steroids. Luke and Mrs. Sharp were having a torrid affair and were caught doing it on the principal’s car. There was an illegal boxing ring in our school’s basement, and he was the ringleader.
I didn’t know what the truth was, but I didn’t care. However, I’d be kind of miffed that I missed sweaty, shirtless boys wrestling if that rumor was true. But what they were saying didn’t really matter, it was just that people were whispering about the popular boy. Okay, they always did that, but it was normally because of curiosity and awe. Now they were treating him like a sideshow. It was a nice change of pace. I savored it. It was like Luke could do no wrong, until now.
“Mr. Miller, if you’re going to keep being late, there’s no reason to show up at all.” Mr. Eldridge glared at me from his desk. I guess that meant I could head to lunch early. I gave him a lazy wave and turned around to leave. “Get back here,” he hissed. “What’s your excuse this time?”
“Lady troubles,” I said, looking him in the eye. “My period came early.”
“That explains it, Miller’s a girl,” some douche from the football team chuckled.
“Knock that off,” he told them without looking, narrowing his eyes at me, but I didn’t budge. He sighed. “Just go sit down.”
“Lady troubles?” Alicia asked when I took my seat in the back next to her.
I shrugged. “You seemed to have success with it.”
“Well, you’ll probably only get to use that once. He won’t be off guard next time.”
“Damn, I should have saved it.”
She nodded. “That’s what I’m saying.” Alicia leaned in to me and lowered her voice. “But we have more important matters to discuss. Did you hear Luke’s an undercover detective, and they called him back to the precinct?”
Before we could start comparing rumors, Cara Lewis turned around in her seat. She was a cheerleader, so she looked like it was distasteful to even speak to us. “No, that’s not what happened. Someone from the mob put a hit on him.”
“We don’t have the mob in the Lake Forest,” I shot down.
“Then why was he covered in blood when he came into school?” Cara asked smugly.
“He wasn’t,” Alicia explained “We saw him.”
That got her attention. “You did? What happened?” She looked at us like she suddenly saw our value.
I traded a smile with Alicia. “Well, he’s getting expelled,” I started.
Who had the bigger flair for dramatics was a tough call, but I thought Alicia might come up with something more inventive than me; the only ideas running through my head at the moment were soap opera plot lines. Would they believe Luke had an evil twin?
“No way, he’s too pretty to be expelled,” Cara replied.
She had a point. I had to admit, to myself at least, that I would miss the eye candy if he was expelled. Luke looked like the man of my dreams with bright green eyes, hair I wanted to run my hands through and those freaking dimples. The glimpse I’d gotten once of him shirtless told me that the athlete was in fine form. I nearly had to fan myself just thinking about it. I’d miss his body but not him. He seemed nice to everyone, but it was just an act. I’d experienced that firsthand.
“What he did was so bad, they had no choice,” I said simply, then looked to Alicia.
My friend smiled as inspiration struck. “He’s a public health hazard,” she informed Cara gravely.
She frowned. “What? Luke has a disease or something?”
“Oh yes, he’s very contagious to pretty ladies. He’s gotten four girls pregnant already. He might need to be castrated.” Alicia made a gesture to demonstrate, and the cheerleader’s eyes widened as her face paled.
I struggled to keep from laughing until the guy who heckled me earlier turned around and smirked at me. “Oh yeah, that’s why he’s looking for you, Miller?”
“He’s been trying to find you since first period. Did he knock you up?”
The lunch announcements started, saving me from answering. I had enjoyed the gossip until then. That might be the weirdest rumor of all: Luke Chambers was looking for me.
“Excuse me?” Principal Simmons asked, blinking at me with a confused expression on his face.
Abort, abort! I yelled internally, but doubled down instead. “I’m… I said, I’m gay.”
The principal frowned. “But you’re the captain of the baseball team.”
I nearly laughed. “Are you serious?” The guidance counsellor gave us a speech last year about “diverging sexualities,” something she said they did every year, but it happened shortly after Ryan Miller came out. There was a whole part about how gay people were just like anyone else and were all different, there was no one way to be gay. Yet they seemed skeptical when I made my “announcement.” That was totally unfair.
I looked at Mrs. Sharp after the Principal still seemed confused. She sighed.
“What he means,” she tried, “is that this seems a little… convenient.”
“Yes, that’s a good point,” he agreed. “I just didn’t know that… your people, could play sports.” He chuckled to himself. “Well, see, I’m already learning.”
“Do I really need any other “proof” of why I’m not out yet?” I gestured to him.
Mrs. Sharp didn’t concede the point exactly but didn’t say anything in defense of his remarks. She crossed her arms over her chest, but her persistent frown lessened a bit. I was getting close.
“I’m trying my best,” the principal defended. “There just aren’t many gay people here.”
“That’s heteronormative,” I said. That was a term I learned when my older sister came back from a Liberal college with a shaved head calling herself “Blue Fern.”
“What? No, these candies are organic.” He pointed to the dish on his desk.
I gripped the side of the chair I sat on tightly to avoid grinning in triumph. I looked at
Mrs. Sharp, trying to appear as innocent as possible.
“Mr. Chambers,” she said evenly. “Why don’t you explain—”
“You can’t ask a student to tell you about his orientation,” Simmons interrupted. “I know that much.”
“Mr. Chambers,” she said again, authority clear in her tone, and the principal shut up.
“I’m not asking you to reveal anything, just help us understand. Let’s see.” She straightened in her seat, arms falling down to her sides and a neutral expression on her face. Trap, this was a trap, but I didn’t know how to avoid it. “Perhaps you could just enlighten us with your preceptive on LGBTQ culture? Or give us a general idea of what it’s like being gay in a small town?” The corners of her lips twitched, she was laughing at me internally, I knew it. “Who are your favorite queer icons?”
“Oh yes, another learning experience.” Simmons perked up. “Go on, son.”
Shitshitshit. “Well, I like dudes obviously.” Okay that wasn’t the best start. “Anyone can, like me,” I emphasized trying to look them each in the eye, but it was difficult. I thought I was a better liar than this, but I was so off guard. I bumbled on. “Our society is so patriarchal and gender norms, those, uh, suck too, so…” I didn’t even know which question I was trying to answer. “My favorite gay icon is… Elton John?”
“Really, not Michael Sam?” Mrs. Sharp asked.
“Uh, he’s good too.” I nodded. “Anyway, um. Inclusion and tolerance are important to stop the hegemony of micoagression.” I tossed around a lot of words that I was pretty sure I hadn’t made up, trying to remember the main talking points my sister had used. “It’s time to end homophobia and racism and reverse racism… all the isms. Well, maybe not feminism. That’s good, isn’t it?” They just stared at me.
“Plus,” I continued. “Love is love.” I thought I saw a bumper sticker that said that once. “And, uh, love makes the world go around?” I lost my train of thought though and faltered. “So, in conclusion, give peace a chance.”
Simmons was quietly befuddled while Mrs. Sharp radiated the aura of a predator closing in on its prey. Naturally, it wasn’t any of this that they bought. Time for a Hail Mary. That was more of a football thing, but I couldn’t stop the idea once I had it, terrible as it might be.
“To be honest, I don’t know much about this stuff,” I admitted. Before Mrs. Sharp could go for the kill, I kept going. “My boyfriend knows more.”
That took the satisfied smirk off her face, she blinked at me. “Boyfriend?” she asked, suspicious but more hesitant. I jumped on the idea with gusto and it worked.
I was off the hook.
Simmons said this was a “learning experience” as they hadn’t considered whether or not it was bullying if you used a word that applied to you. He said they’d review the school policy, and even invited me to contribute input, a request to which I nodded politely to. I got a long lecture and a detention for using inappropriate language at school, but I was no longer in danger of suspension. I couldn’t believe it. I felt dazed.
I stood outside of the office. Mrs. Sharp fumed silently next to me at justice denied and me… I didn’t know what I was. Gay, apparently. I couldn’t even deflect Mrs. Sharp’s stern look with a disarming comment like I usually would. My mind was a blank, just the word gay rattling around in my head.
“That was quite a story you told to avoid trouble, Mr. Chambers.”
“It’s the truth,” I said weakly, and her eyes narrowed.
“Nevertheless, be careful with your language. Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?”
I grimaced. “I don’t kiss my mom, that’s gross.”
She looked unimpressed. “I’ll be watching you.” She did, for a few more moments, then stalked away.
I didn’t feel like I got away with anything. I avoided being expelled or suspended, I got to stay captain, but I didn’t feel relieved. It’s not like Simmons or Mrs. Sharp could tell anyone what I told them, but that didn’t mean I could trust them either, especially Mrs. Sharp. I’d avoided some trouble but got into a whole other mess.
I didn’t walk to my class like I should. I just stood there, waiting for sanity to return to my life and for the world to make sense again, but that didn’t happen. What I said wasn’t enough, my first confession. I had to go further. And Simmons took this no bullying thing seriously. They’d want to make sure I wasn’t lying, so it wasn’t over.
What had I told them to finally sway them?
I said I was dating Ryan Miller.