Back to School, Ring the Bell – Ch. 11

Zain

I went to get a snack from Drydock, mostly to distract myself from wanting to call Seb again. I had to let him work this out with Quint and Theo, hard as it was when I knew he was feeling miserable and might be headed into a diabetes rollercoaster. My poor boy just couldn’t catch a break. I was glad, though, that we’d already been working on improving his morale. He was much better positioned to deal with it today than he would’ve been a few weeks back.

As I carried the bag of chips I’d bought out of Dahlgren Hall, I heard a shout. “Mohyeldin! I need to talk to you.”

I followed the voice to Myrick, approaching from the sidewalk along Blake Road.

“Not here,” he said, looking at the civilian tour group a few yards away.

JJ was planning to go to church with his sponsor parents later, but he hadn’t left our room yet, so there’d be no privacy there. I nodded to the gazebo in front of the Chapel. He led the way to it and up the steps. Following, I boosted myself onto the railing, popped the bag of chips open, and held it out to him. He shook his head.

“What’s going on?” I asked, taking a couple chips for myself.

While I chewed, Myrick paced to the far railing and then back a few feet in front of me, where he stopped. “I met Platt outside the Chapel after Communion service just now. I knew he’d be there. I wanted to try extending a hand of friendship to him again.”

Good for you. I swallowed and waited for him to get to the point. He didn’t say anything else, so after several seconds of silence, I said, “Okay, I’m guessing it went badly?”

He sighed. “I asked him how his summer leave was, and he just said ‘fine.’ I told him a little about how Justine and I went camping, and I remembered what you said about letting him know she’s on board with this, so I said she asked me how he was doing, which is true.”

“Let me guess…. He said to tell her he’s fine.”

Myrick nodded, and I smiled. Maybe they’d need a ‘no saying ‘fine’’ rule like Quint had with Seb.

“And he kept giving me one-word answers. It wasn’t like that with him before,” Myrick went on, frustration obvious. “So I asked if he’d ever gone on a long camping trip, and he said, ‘Yeah, I was a Boy Scout,’ which I knew. Dumb thing to ask. I said, ‘Oh, that’s right, you’re in the National Eagle Scout Association here,’ and he just nodded. Then I asked if he was still in Judo Club, too, and if he wanted more lessons–”

I groaned and peered up at the paint peeling off the boards of the gazebo roof. “Myrick. What is the one subject I told you to avoid?”

“I know,” he said. “I… I panicked, alright? I couldn’t think of anything else, and at least he was always willing to talk about judo before.”

“Not this time, huh?” I asked, thinking, Poor kid probably thought you were reading his mind and knew about the dreams.

Myrick’s strong brows scrunched together. He looked like a confused caveman. “He said he had somewhere to be, and he left. I don’t understand. There’s been some sort of change in the situation. I need more intel to rethink my strategy.”

“You need professional help, is what you need,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Both of you are hopeless. How’d you ever land Cameron?”

“I didn’t,” he said, the frown morphing into a flat glare. “She landed me. I told you she’s better at this.”

I shook my head and took out my phone, then flicked through my contacts to the entry I’d added when Cameron took Platt to the hospital to get checked out back in January. Let’s see what she has to say, then.

“What’re you doing?” Myrick demanded.

“Quiet,” I said, hitting the call button.

She answered on the third ring. “Mohyeldin? What the hell?”

I grinned. “Cameron! You kept my number!”

“I keep every number,” she said, while Myrick tried to snatch the phone out of my hand. I had to hold it up in the air and slide off the railing to evade him, and when I brought it back to my ear, I heard, “—calling me?”

“I’m here with your boyfriend,” I said, walking backwards away from Myrick in a circle. He lunged, and I used my hand with the chip bag in it to fend him off, so he grabbed that instead. I let him have it. “We were discussing Platypus.”

“What about him?” Cameron asked, deeply baffled.

Myrick stopped where he was. I knew if he’d really wanted to get the phone away from me, I’d be on the floorboards right now, and he knew that I knew, but it didn’t stop him from drawing his finger meaningfully across his throat and then taking a huge handful of chips from the bag as I said, “Myrick’s been trying to strike up a friendly conversation with him, and he keeps missing. Got any ideas?”

She snorted. “Conversation? No. He needs an activity. Something he can teach Platt or Platt can teach him. That’s why the judo lessons worked so well last year.”

“Judo’s out,” I said. To Myrick, I asked, “What could you teach Platt other than judo?”

He blinked, and a dark smirk came over his face.

And other than that,” I said, rolling my eyes again.

From the phone, Cameron said, “Lockpicking.”

“What?” I asked.

“When we first started hanging out, I taught him how to bowl and he taught me how to pick locks. It’s a very useful skill,” she said, sounding innocent. “That or pool. He’s a good pool player.”

I opened my mouth, then decided I’d rather not find out why they were picking locks, and switched gears. “She says you can teach him lockpicking or pool. May I suggest you start with pool?”

“Pool.” Myrick nodded and straightened his shoulders. “I can execute that.”

“‘Execute,’” I repeated. Turning away a little and lowering my voice, I asked Cameron, “You know he’s talking about this like it’s an op?”

Fondly, she said, “I know. He’s hopeless.”

“Good thing he’s got me and you.”

“Yes. Was there anything else you needed?”

“Nope.” I had a great feeling about this new plan.

“Then I’m hanging up now,” she said. “Oh, and Mohyeldin? I’m in California. Don’t ever call me at six-thirty in the goddamn morning again.”

The line went silent. I faced Myrick. “You could’ve warned me about the time difference!”

“What d’you think I was tryin’ t’do?” he asked through a mouthful of chips. “She’ll give me hell over that, too.”

Seb

I snatched the phone up and opened the email, but that was the entirety of the message. Hitting reply, I typed back, What happened? Then I set it on the counter again, keeping my eyes glued to it as I peed—except for doing the ketone test, which was negative—and washed my hands. There was still no answer, so I took it out to the dining table with me.

Quint was putting the ingredients for my omelette into a frying pan, his back turned. It was Theo who asked, “Why’re you staring at your phone like it’s about to blow up?”

“Bradley,” I said. “Something’s wrong. I don’t know what. I’m waiting for him to answer me.”

Quint came over to the counter, frowning with concern. “Does Zain need to be told?”

“Not sure. I want to get more information first,” I said. “Our emails are supposed to be just between us.”

“I know,” he said. “However, if it’s contributing to your stress, Zain will have to be told that, at least.”

“Just give him a few minutes?” I asked. “Maybe he’s already spoken to Zain.”

He considered, then nodded. “You can have until you’ve finished eating.”

When he put the plate in front of me on the peninsula, I cut the omelette into small, equal pieces. Then I began to arrange them into a grid, each line and row separated by a quarter of an inch.

Quint looked up from hand-washing the frying pan. His eyebrow twitched. “Eat it, Sébastien, or I will feed it to you.”

I flushed and brought the first piece to my mouth. But I chewed as slowly as I dared, so I was only halfway through when, finally, the phone buzzed again. I dropped my silverware in an instant.

He’d written, Myrick was there when I came out of Communion this morning. He started talking to me. I froze. I could barely look at him, and I made up an excuse to leave as soon as possible. It was horrible.

I meant to attend regular service then, but I forgot and came back to my room, and Nakamura and Diaz were hanging out. They weren’t doing anything except playing a computer game. I don’t know why they annoyed me so much. I guess because they were really into it, and they were making a lot of noise. I snapped. Told Nak to take his boyfriend and go somewhere else, even though I know Diaz is straight.

And I used another word before ‘boyfriend.’ I don’t want to write it here. I promised Mohyeldin a long time ago that I wouldn’t say homophobic things to you.

Nak said better to be a… the word I said, than to be an asshole, and he and Diaz left. So now I can’t go to Spectrum. He’ll be there. He’ll tell everyone what I said and they’ll all hate me. Plus, Myrick must think I’m a total loser. See? I’m a terrible person. I ruined everything.

“What is it, mon chaton?” Quint asked. He was sitting beside me, now, on the other bar stool.

I blinked up away from the phone and asked, “What you said earlier about how bad behavior doesn’t change who you are as a person? Why is that so much easier to believe with others than with myself?”

Quint frowned. “Is Bradley being irritable with you?”

I shook my head as Theo came around him and leaned on the counter. He looked like he understood much more than the Top. Softly, he said, “I’ve always thought it’s because with other people, you only see the bad stuff they let out, but with yourself, you see all of it, whether you act on it or not. There’s no hiding it away.”

Yes. It was like an ever-present demon lurking in the depths of your mind.

“Does Zain need to know what’s going on?” Quint asked again.

“Yeah.” For Bradley’s sake, he did, not mine. I know of no one better at making the demons both inside and outside yourself seem less scary. “But… can Bradley tell him?”

He looked doubtful. “Will he?”

“If he says he will, he will. Let me ask him.”

Nodding, he said, “Alright.”

I chewed on my lower lip as I wrote back. You didn’t ruin everything, and you aren’t a terrible person. Someone told me once that the inverse of the Golden Rule is also true: You should treat yourself the way you want to treat others. I know you don’t want to say things like you did, and that’s what makes you a good person. You just need to apologize to Nak and Diaz. And go tell Zain what happened with Myrick. He can help fix it. Okay?

Once I hit send, the three of us sat without talking, all our gazes on the phone. Thirty seconds passed, and it buzzed.

Or he’ll give up on me too.

My heart sank. I reached for it to reply again, but a second email came in before I’d typed a sentence. This one said, Yeah, I know that isn’t true. Fine, I’ll go tell him. Might as well tell him about Nak and Diaz while I’m at it. They won’t keep quiet. Wish me luck.

I breathed a sigh of relief. “He’s going to talk to him now.”

“Good,” Quint said. Then he tapped the counter next to my fork. “Eat.”

I ate.

Zain

Myrick walked with me back to Bancroft. “There’s a pool table in the company wardroom,” he said. “If you bring him there–”

“Not me.” I said. “He can’t know I have anything to do with this.” He’d suspect a setup and close Myrick out in an instant. We needed to get to him when his guard was down. I considered the best way for a few seconds. Cracks in his defenses were so rare. And they usually involved some sort of trauma. Obviously, that wouldn’t do. “Maybe I’ll find a way to get Nak to bring him,” I mused. “Look, just hang out in there today for as long as you can. Give me some time to work on it.”

“Alright,” he said.

We split up once we reached the company area, me headed for my room and him for the wardroom. JJ was zipping up his backpack as I came in. “Yo,” he said, hitching it over his shoulder and giving me a fistbump on his way out the door.

I almost closed it after him, but then I spotted his wallet still lying on his desk. I grabbed it and stepped into the hallway, calling, “J, you forgot something!”

He turned to look and held up his hand, gesturing for me to throw it.

Behind him, Platt’s blond hair and blue eyes peeped out around the corner from his own room, then vanished again. I frowned. Playing peek-a-boo, kid?

“Mo, c’mon!”

“Sorry,” I said, tossing the wallet to JJ. He snagged it out of the air and went on his way. I waited until he’d pushed through the swinging doors at the end of the passage before I started to count silently. Five… four… three… two–

Platt edged around the corner a second ahead of schedule. He looked like he was still dressed for chapel, and he walked towards me slowly, with his hands tucked into the pockets of his crisp uniform pants.

“Hey, kid,” I said, thinking that particular nickname was definitely appropriate at the moment. Guilt made him look younger. What’s causing it, though?

“I need to talk to you,” he mumbled at the polished floor tiles.

“I’m hearing that a lot today,” I said. Then I held my door open for him. “C’min.”

Once it was shut behind us, he looked up at me through his pale eyelashes. “I don’t think I can go to Spectrum.”

Oh, shit, I thought, Myrick freaked him out more than I realized. Trying to look baffled, I asked, “Why not? I thought we were good, and JJ’s going too.”

He went past me to the windowsill, sat, and bowed his head to stare at his knees. “Because they’ll all hate me.”

Okay, now I didn’t need to fake confusion. “Huh? Why would they hate you? Most of them don’t know you, but they’re a welcoming bunch. I bet you they’ll wanna be friends.”

With a disbelieving scoff, he said, “People don’t want to be friends with me.”

My chest ached. What a lonely childhood he must’ve had, to believe that. Keeping my voice light, I said, “We’re friends.”

“That’s because you’re crazy and stubborn as a mule,” he said. “Normal people won’t want to be friends with me. Especially after they hear what I did to Nak and Diaz.”

I shook my head. “You lost me again. You and Nak get along, don’t you?”

“We did. Or we could, um….” He paused to look for the right word. “We could coexist, anyway. Just doing our own things in the same space?”

“Yeah, so what changed?” I asked. “And what does Diaz have to do with it?”

“Just now. I… They were playing some computer game, and I flipped out at them.” He glanced up, hangdog, but his gaze went past my ear. “I said something to Nak I shouldn’t have.”

“What?”

A deep breath moved his wiry shoulders up a notch. Quietly, he confessed, “I told him to take his f-faggot boyfriend and get out.”

My lips parted. I blinked a few times, trying to make sense of that. “Why?” I asked, and my voice came out disappointed. “You know better.”

“Apparently, I don’t,” he said, bitter. “I guess I take after Uncle Hal more than my dad.”

That was heartbreaking enough to yank me out of the initial shock. “No. I don’t believe that.” I thought of how he’d always lashed out when he felt vulnerable. The conversation with Myrick. It did scare him. And he knows Nak is bi, too, so he projects all that raw emotion onto him. He’s gotta talk about this.

Carefully, I said, “What made you flip out? Were you already upset by something?”

He kept his gaze fixed near my shoes, staying silent. I wished I could just yank him off the windowsill and swat his butt. Not Seb, I reminded myself. “Kid, look at me.”

Slowly, his eyes came up. They were pink around the edges. “Myrick.”

I sat next to him, close as I dared. “What about him?” I asked, matching my volume to his, so we were both whispering.

Platt shifted and, I swear, leaned a half-inch nearer. “He started talking to me after Communion. Even when I didn’t say anything back. I– I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It was like I forgot how to speak.”

“It’s called having a crush,” I said, with a smile.

His cheeks went pink to match his eyes. He didn’t argue, though. “That’s not an excuse for what I said to Nak. I’m sor-sorry.”

Oh, kid. I bumped my shoulder into his. “I forgive you. Can I hug?”

He sniffed and nodded. Gratefully, I put my arms around him, holding tight for several long seconds. When he squirmed, I let go.

“Thanks,” he said, wiping his eyes.

“You’re welcome, but I’m not the one you really need to apologize to. Where are they?”

Shaking his head, he said, “No idea.”

“Okay, let’s go find them.” I got off the windowsill and took a couple of steps towards the door. Platt didn’t follow. When I looked back, he was staring like I’d suggested TP-ing the Superintendent’s house in broad daylight.

“What, now?”

“Yep,” I said, cheerful. “They won’t kill you. I’ll be there. C’mon.”

With great reluctance, he got up and literally dragged his feet over to me, a plea for mercy written all over his face. I grinned. He was such a Brat.

“Forward march,” I said, and he scowled.

We went to Diaz’s room first. His roommate, Rawlins, told us they’d said they were going to play Xbox in—of all places—the company wardroom.

I made sure I was ahead of Platt when we got there. Opening the door a crack, I stepped half inside. Yep, they were on the couch with a controller each. The rest of the room was empty apart from Myrick, bent over the pool table in the back, lining up a shot. He stopped and frowned at me in question. Subtly, I shook my head and mouthed not yet. Then I spoke to Nak and Diaz. “Hey, guys!”

“Oh, hey, Dad,” Diaz said. “You can play too, after this fight.”

“Thanks,” I said, “but actually, can you pause that and come out here a minute? Pretty please?”

They glanced at each other, confused. Then Nak shrugged. “Sure, Dad.”

I held the door for them, and they went past me into the passageway, where Platt was standing against the opposite wall like they were a firing squad. The moment Diaz saw him, his face twisted in disgust. “We have nothing to say to him.”

“He’s got something to say to you, though,” I said, stepping over to Platt’s side. “Will you give him a chance, for me? It’ll only take a minute.”

Nak crossed his arms. “We’ll give him half a minute, and only because it’s you asking.”

“Good enough. Better talk fast, Platypus.”

The kid swallowed and shifted his weight. Then, in one breath, he said, “I’m sorry for how I behaved earlier, and the homophobic language I used. I’m ashamed of myself. It won’t happen again, I give you my word.”

My gaze was on him, not the other two, so I saw how his eyes widened an instant after he finished. His already-rosy cheeks went deeper red. Following his look, I discovered why. Myrick had come to stand in the doorway. I wondered how much he’d heard.

“T–that’s all I wanted to say,” Platt stammered.

Nak and Diaz exchanged another glance. “He does seem sorry,” Diaz said.

“Yeah,” Nak agreed. They both studied Platt for another second while he stared rigidly at the wall.

“Alright,” said Diaz, “we can forgive you, but don’t be an asshole.”

“He keeps his word,” I said. “Thanks, guys. You can go back to your game now.”

They turned, and Myrick moved aside so they could get into the room. Platt, meanwhile, started down the passageway in a speed-walk.

“Platt,” said Myrick. He didn’t raise his voice at all, yet yards away, Platt froze. Then he spun stiffly on his heel to face us again.

“Yes, sir,” he said, to the air over Myrick’s left shoulder.

“That showed a lot of character, what you did just now,” Myrick said. He took a breath like he was going to say something else, then darted a glance at me.

Yes! I thought. Do it!

Myrick took a step closer to the kid. “Do you know how to play pool?”

It startled Platt out of his dead-eyed stare, at least. He blinked and focused on Myrick properly. “Um. Not really, sir.”

“Want to learn?” Myrick asked. “I need someone to play with. I’ll teach you.”

Platt blinked some more, like an owl, at Myrick and then at me. His expression pleaded with me once more.

“Y’know,” I said, “I could use a refresher on Eight Ball. Mind if I join you two?”

“Sure,” said Myrick, and he looked almost as relieved as Platt.

I better get a thank-you card from both of you when you’re finally together, I thought, amused, and ushered them ahead of me through the door.

As Myrick passed, he spoke in an undertone. “Homophobic language?”

“Old reflex. He didn’t mean it,” I said. “Partly your fault, too.”

Mine?

“I’ll explain later,” I said, and gave him a push towards Platt, who was looking doubtfully at the cue rack.

He went over to the kid and started explaining the rules of Eight Ball. It sounded like a class lecture at first, despite the noise of Nak and Diaz’s game in the background, until I mouthed the word friendly at him from behind Platt. Then he relaxed a little. He even smiled as he handed the kid a cue stick.

“Now,” he said, “let me show you how your stance should be when you take a shot.”

“Okay, sir,” said Platt, watching him closely.

I glanced at the clock on the wall and said, “Be right back.” Neither of them seemed to notice, though, when I went into the tiny Mess alcove to get a cup of coffee and call Seb.

He answered sounding a lot more relaxed than earlier. “Hi, Z.”

“Hey, babe. How’s it going? I haven’t gotten a desperate text for help from Quint yet. I’m assuming that’s a sign of good things, and not that you’ve sent him screaming for the hills.”

“Oh, be quiet.”

“Not ‘ta gueule’?” I asked, grinning.

“We’re on a walk. In public,” he said. “How’s Bradley? Did he come talk to you yet?”

“Yeesss,” I said slowly, a little taken aback. “Did he talk to you?

“Who do you think told him to go to you?” he asked. “Did he make up with Nakamura? What about Myrick? Not that they fought, but–”

I cut in. “Yeah, he apologized to Nak and Diaz, and they accepted, and he’s playing pool with Myrick even as we speak, so chill. I got things handled here. You concentrate on getting your sugars on target.”

His voice went up an octave. “They’re playing pool? Like a date?”

“Like a lesson, which apparently is a date in Myrick’s world,” I said, leaning back to check around the corner and make sure they weren’t headed my way.

Platt was bent across the table while Myrick stood behind him saying, “No, bring your chin down lower so you can sight right along the stick. Yeah, perfect.”

Except his eyes were on the curve of Platt’s rear end filling out his uniform pants.

“Okay,” I said. “Maybe it’s like a date in my world, too.”

“What?” Seb asked, over a loud honk of horns.

“Tell you later. Finish your walk and don’t kill Quint. I need him. Love you, habibi.” I hung up as he was still indignantly professing his non-violent nature.

Nak left Diaz on the couch and came over holding a Mountain Dew can. He tossed it into the recycling bin before turning and catching sight of Platt and Myrick. Myrick was now adjusting Platt’s grip on the shaft of the cue stick. Nak’s step faltered. He looked at me with his eyebrows up, as if to say, Um, are you seeing this?

I returned it with an expression that I hoped conveyed, No, and neither are you if you know what’s good for you.

He shrugged and returned to his video game.

Seb

“I’m doing everything right!” I said, and cringed because it came out as a whine.

“I know, mon chaton. I know,” said Quint. He sat beside me on the bed and started rubbing my back. “It’s not because you made a mistake.”

Yet in my hand, my meter displayed 317 mg/dl, like an accusation.

Leaning into the solid, comforting form of him, I asked, “Why can’t it just cooperate?”

He kissed my temple. “I think you’ll feel better after you rest a bit.”

You said I’d feel better after the walk!”

And that was totally unfair, and awful. I had felt better, actually, and my sugars were even on target. For awhile.

We’d walked to Chinatown and into a kind of underground mall that reminded me of California and Hawaii. You didn’t see many Asian products in New York. On the way out, Theo gave me a squishy keychain he’d bought when I wasn’t watching. The wrapper said Mini Bread Doll Angel. It looked like a roll made into a lumpy little person with its hands clasped together under its crosshatched mouth and wide, pathetic eyes. “For when you’re mad at carbs,” he’d explained. “You can just squeeze the fake bread really hard. And, it’s also an angel, so it’s like you’ll always have me with you.”

It was so cute I hadn’t wanted to squeeze it, but now I glanced around my room looking for my keys. Maybe if I took out some of my frustration on the squishy, I wouldn’t spew it all over Quint. He didn’t make my levels go low about ninety minutes after we got home, and he helped me precisely measure everything I ate for lunch to bring them up again. It wasn’t his fault that I somehow hadn’t taken enough insulin to prevent this.

No, I thought, that was you being a worrywart still! Zain said Bradley’s fine now. The offer on the house doesn’t even get submitted until tomorrow and the presentation isn’t until next week. Just. Stop. Thinking. About. It.

“I’m sorry. I’m being terrible,” I said.

Quint took the meter out of my hand and set it back in my test kit on the nightstand. “You’re not. Do you think a nap will help, after you’ve bolused?”

“I don’t really have a choice, do I?” I grumbled. Another walk was out of the question, with my latest ketone test showing moderate levels.

Placidly, Quint said, “Well, you could also read, watch TV, color, or draw?”

I shook my head. All of those required the ability to concentrate at least somewhat, and at the moment my focus buzzed from thing to thing like a fly. Watching TV was worst of all. It would require going out to the living room, where Theo was just trying to enjoy his Sunday afternoon. I didn’t want to ruin that. “A nap’s okay, I guess.”

“Alright.” He handed me my insulin pen and an alcohol wipe. “Do your bolus, please.”

I shifted an inch away from him, but his firm grip brought me right back, forcing me to give myself the shot while still enveloped in the warm safety under his arm. When I finished and pulled my sleeve down over the injection site, I said, “Um, I need to piss, and I don’t need company in there, merci beaucoup.”

Quint regarded me for a moment with an expression that made me force back an apology. Then he set me on my feet and delivered a low swat to my bottom, sending me scurrying out the door.

After emptying my bladder yet again, I returned to find he’d taken a set of clothes from my wardrobe. They were on his lap. “Come here,” he said. “I’ll help you change.”

It was nothing he hadn’t been doing for nearly a week now, but this time, I didn’t have the cushion of a spanking to make it easier to accept. I froze by the door, and something inside me shook and coiled tighter and tighter with defiance, until the spring released with a stamp of my foot.

“No! It’s a nap, not my bedtime! You are not tucking me in!” Immediately, I felt ridiculous, but there was no backing down now, so I kept on glaring at him with my hands balled into fists. “I don’t need it!”

Quint didn’t even blink. Like he had all the time in the world, he said, “Yes, I am, young man, and yes, you do. You are not going to succeed in shutting me out.”

I opened my mouth to argue more, and my phone started playing Zain’s ringtone, so I snatched it up and answered it instead. “You too! Go away!”

“Wow, I feel so loved,” said Zain. “What happened? Walk didn’t work?”

“It’s a Giant Dipper Day,” I snarled. “Nothing works. And now Quint wants to help me change my clothes for a nap. Tell him I can dress myself.”

He snorted. “Pretty sure he knows.”

This wasn’t getting anywhere. Switching tack, I said, “He swatted me and I didn’t even swear at him.”

Quint, who had been patiently watching me talk, raised an eyebrow at that. “It was not a swat for swearing, it was a swat for attempting to push me away, the same as you’re doing now.”

“I heard that,” Zain said. “Tell him I said good job.”

“No!”

“Then give the phone to him and I’ll tell him myself.”

It came out before I could stop it: “I hate you both.”

Merde. Squeezing my eyes shut so the hurt look that must be on Quint’s face wouldn’t imprint itself in my brain forever, I babbled, “I didn’t mean that, I’m sorry, I’m just mad and awful, and this is why you should let me be alone until I’m under control again.”

“You are under control,” Zain said. “Our control. We got you, habibi.”

I felt Quint’s hands on my biceps, taking a firm grip and tugging me forward. A moment later, I was lifted into his lap as he settled onto the bed once more. He took the phone away, and when I parted my eyelids—letting a few tears fall—he was holding it loosely in his hand in front of both our mouths. He’d turned speakerphone on.

Mon chaton, I know you’re scared and you’re trying to protect me. However, I can handle this. You are not too much for me. You haven’t hurt my feelings. Trust me, please.”

From the phone, Zain’s voice came out tinny, but full of affection. “Yeah, and trust me, too. You really think I’d leave you with someone incompetent?”

“No,” I said. Hesitantly, I looked at Quint. “You’re really not upset I said I hated you?”

“Not at all,” he said.

“He knows it means ‘I love you, but I’m not happy about what you’re doing right now,’” Zain said.

Quint smiled and nodded.

I wiped my face. “I’m still sorry.”

“I forgive you,” he said. “Are you ready to change?”

I knew he meant my clothes. The phrasing, though, struck me as just as symbolic as the act of letting him strip off my defenses. Was I ready to change? Or at least to try, like I did with Zain? I took a breath and whispered, “Oui, monsieur.”

“I can’t hear anything,” Zain said. “What’s happening?”

“He agreed,” said Quint.

“Oh, good! I’m proud of you, babe. Let me know when you’re done.”

And then he fell silent. I wished he’d keep talking, anything to distract me from this, but I supposed that would defeat the point.

Quint set the phone down as I got to my feet. He started undoing my pants, just like I was about to get spanked, and I felt perversely comforted. When my jeans and underwear were around my ankles, he held the pajama bottoms open for me so I could balance myself on his shoulders and step into them. Then he brought them up to my waist and reached for the hem of my shirt.

“Can’t I just sleep in this one?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “Arms up, please.”

I raised them just to my head. Quint pulling the t-shirt off me forced them up more, but before I could even bring them down again to cover my scars, he was tugging the new shirt on.

“We’re done, Zain,” he said.

“Awesome! Now get him nice and cozy in bed.”

Quint held up my duvet. I crawled under it, grabbing my pillow to push my pink face into as I stretched out on my stomach. He let the covers settle over me and patted my back. “Close your eyes, mon chaton, and keep them closed.”

“Yeah,” said Zain, “and let me tell you how the pool lesson went with our little Platypus.”

He recounted what sounded like the beginnings of something with real promise at becoming a relationship, and all through, Quint kept his hand between my shoulderblades, patting and rubbing, and soon Zain started talking nonsense like he does when he just wants to give me his voice to hang onto, and between them, I was lulled asleep.

*

My glucose finally leveled out at normal after that nap, staying steady through my parents calling to go over the final details of the offer on the house and Theo listening to my side of the conversation with sadness hiding in the back of his hazel eyes.

I hung up and said, “What should I name the bread angel? I was thinking of calling it Theo, because like you said, it’s so you’re always with me, but I don’t want to squish you.”

We were still tossing around name ideas in the middle of dinner, when Zain called for the third time. He used Skype and had me bring my laptop out to the table and set it in the empty place setting so we could all eat together, us with our plates and him with a takeout container full of lasagna. After, I got an email from Bradley as Quint was settling down with his book and Theo was finding something to watch on Netflix.

I’m guessing Mohyeldin told you about us playing pool with Myrick. He was so happy about it. So was I, while it was happening, but now I keep wondering what the hell I’m doing. Myrick is dating Cameron still, even if she’s off at medical school. He’s obviously straight. I should stay away from him.

Nak was acting a little weird this afternoon, too. He gave me this look when he came into our room like he didn’t know me. But he doesn’t seem mad from earlier. Maybe he’s hiding it and it’ll come out after I go to that Spectrum meeting. He can never keep his mouth shut about anything, so I know the second I show my face there, the whole company will find out. It’ll get back to Myrick, too, I’m sure. What’ll he think?

I just wish the waiting was over. I wish the meeting was tonight. Now, so I could get it done with.

I thought about the house offer and my presentation and wrote back, I know what you mean. The dreading it is the worst part, when your mind won’t let you stop imagining for one instant all the things that could go wrong. Try to find ways to distract yourself. Zain is good at that, if you need help.

As for Myrick, if he wants to be friends with you, let him. I only met him a couple of times, but he seemed honorable. He wouldn’t do anything his girlfriend didn’t approve of. He’s never had a problem with Zain and me being gay either, has he? So Spectrum shouldn’t bother him.

That was the best clue I could give. I don’t know if Bradley even noticed it. He didn’t reply before Quint confiscated my phone for no-screen time.

An hour later, Quint said, “Do a ketone test when you brush your teeth, please, Seb.”

I did. The test came back completely negative. I stood looking at the little strip for a few seconds longer, willing it to turn purple faster, because I knew, I just knew why he’d asked. Lying to him was never a consideration, though. I tossed the strip out, washed my hands, and went to take my spanking.

It was the quickest yet. My emotions had been riding close to the surface all day. No wonder Quint didn’t need to dig very far to hit the rocky parts. Then he pried them loose, and I felt hollowed out like a cave. But I’d never changed out of my pajamas after the nap, so he simply pulled the bottoms up again when he was done.

*

The next morning I had the achy, exhausted feeling that always hits after a Giant Dipper Day. Quint came into my room with a painkiller before he left for the hospital.

“Zain said you’d need this. Mon chaton, if you aren’t feeling up to going to your classes this morning, I want you to say so.”

“I’ll be alright once it kicks in,” I said, sitting against my headboard and taking the glass of water he offered to wash the pill down. “My first class isn’t until ten.” I almost wished it were earlier, to give me something else to focus on besides my anxiety.

Quint studied me, blue-gray irises piercing, and said, “Alright, but I’m going to be texting you to check in throughout the day.”

He kept his word. Between him and Zain sending me silly memes, my phone hardly went an hour without buzzing.

One of the buzzes was an email from Bradley, around lunchtime. You’re right, Myrick is a man of honor. He’d never let anything happen between us even if he were interested in guys, which he’s not. So there’s no harm being his friend, right?

I sighed. Clearly, I should leave the clue-giving to Zain. Right, I wrote back, and left it at that.

Another buzz was my mom, mid-afternoon, messaging Zain and I. The offer is officially in! Should hear back within a few days! Think positive thoughts!

Easy for her to say. I had nothing but a cold certainty that it would be rejected, or even ignored. We’d gone well below the listing price.

Zain must’ve gotten up in the middle of a class to send me a joke so soon after. It read, What’s a pepper that won’t leave you alone? Jalapeño business.

I smiled as I texted back, Awful.

*

That night, Quint cooked dinner. He also threatened to feed it to me again when I pushed more around my plate than I put in my mouth for the first five minutes. Theo rolled his eyes in sympathy from across the table and earned himself a mild Look.

“Theodore, is there something in your eye?”

“No, sir,” he said, slouching as he busied himself with cutting up his chicken breast.

“Good. Sébastien, do you need help with your salad?”

Non, monsieur,” I said, and quickly stabbed an artichoke heart.

“Good,” Quint said once more. “I expect that plate cleaned before you leave.”

I barely managed it. My fidgeting hadn’t left me much time to finish without being late to my class, and that was the absolute worse thing I could imagine: walking in when everyone was already settled, them all turning to look back…. I shuddered.

The moment I set my fork down on the empty plate, Quint said, “Go on. I’ll help clear. Good luck, mon chaton.”

Grabbing my bag, I bolted out the door.

My professor didn’t mention my leaving the last class early. No one else asked me what had happened as I made my way to my desk, either. I tried to feel relieved, but mostly I just worried about what my topic for the presentation would be. I could hardly pay attention to the lecture or discussion. That set off a whole new set of worries. What if this material was vital, and I wasn’t taking notes on it?

Finally, nearly at the end, my professor pulled out a stack of index cards. “Alright!” she said. “These are the presentation topics for next week. As a reminder, it is ten minutes, minimum, and there will be no group work. I don’t mind if you go over the time a little, but keep in mind we have only two hours to fit all eleven of you in.

“You must email me your PowerPoint before class begins. I’ll have them all loaded onto my computer and ready. Now, I’ll pass out the cards. Write your name on yours and return it to me on your way out.”

She walked along the rows, putting a card on each desk as she came to it. When she got to mine, she dropped the last one, face-down, then went back to the front of the room as people started packing their books away.

Flipping the card over, I read, Urbanization during the Industrial Revolution. I swallowed on rising panic. I don’t know anything about that! Couldn’t I have gotten something about France?

I tore my eyes off it to look around, thinking I could maybe trade with someone, but the room was emptying out already. Quickly, I scrawled Seb Crews below the words on the card and went to join the line of students handing theirs in. When I reached the front, I passed it over without making eye contact with her, then turned for the door.

“Just a moment… Seb?”

Merde.

She was looking up from my card, like she’d had to check it to find out my name.

In a weak voice, I said, “Yes, Dr. Andrews?”

Smiling, she set the stack of cards down on the podium. “You aren’t in trouble. I simply noticed you never came back to class last week, after what I at first assumed was a bathroom break. Are you alright?”

I hated my treacherous face, so willing to blush. “Um. Yeah, I just wasn’t feeling well,” I said. “I watched the video on my own time, though, so I’m not behind or anything.”

“That’s good,” she said. “You did the reading for this week as well?”

I nodded.

“Okay. Try to participate more in discussions, though,” she said, gently. “I don’t like to call on people, but I will if I need to. It’s ten percent of your grade, remember.”

“I–I remember,” I said. “I’ll do better. Désolé. I mean, uh, sorry.”

Her eyes lit up. “You speak French?”

Oui,” I said. “My mother was raised there.”

“Oh, it’s such a beautiful country,” she said. “I spent a year in Rouen after getting my master’s degree, yet I’m hardly fluent.”

I tried to think of something intelligent to say about Rouen other than, Monet loved the cathedral.

After a couple seconds’ silence, she said, “In any case, speak up in class, preferably in English, and let me know if you’re not feeling well again, because from here out, it won’t be as easy as watching a video, d’accord?”

I nodded. “D’accord. Merci.

Bon nuit,” she called after me as I escaped out the door.

I almost ran into Quint on the sidewalk in front of the building. My head was bent, and he caught me right before I hit his broad chest. I gasped and looked up straight into his face. He was frowning.

Mon chaton, what on earth happened?”

“Oh, nothing,” I said, a slightly hysterical edge to my voice. “She just told me I have to talk in class more. Quint, I’m going to fail. There’s no use wasting your time trying to get me through this. I’ll just give up now–”

“You will not,” he said, and folded me into his arms right there under the streetlight, so the rest of my babbling got cut off. “Stop that. You’re going to pass this class and complete your transfer. Now concentrate on your breathing before you hyperventilate, please.”

Him pointing it out made me realize I was dangerously close. I shut my eyes and focused on slowing down each exhale. It took all my concentration, making me forget, for a minute, where we stood. When I felt calmer, the awareness came back. I wiggled. “Quint, I’m okay, and we’re in public.”

Zain would’ve kept holding me just to make a point. The older Top tipped my chin up to get a good look at my expression, then let go except for an arm around my shoulders, which he used to turn me. “Alright,” he said, starting to walk. “Let’s head home. You’re going to get in more speech practice before bed. What was your topic?”

“Urbanization during the Industrial Revolution,” I said, “which is another thing I was panicking about, even though that’s stupid. One thing unschoolers know is how to research.”

“Research can wait until tomorrow,” he said. “For tonight, Washington’s letters will do.”

I read three of them after Theo got home from his gig, while they watched from the couch and Jagger sat by my feet like he thought the book was a bowl of food.

As I finished the third, Theo glanced at his watch. “Hey, that was ten minutes!” he said. “See, not too bad, right?”

I forced a laugh. “That felt like an hour to me.”

“Know what you should do?” He leaned forward with a mischievous glint in his eye. “Put a five-minute video in your PowerPoint and cut the time you have to talk in half.”

I frowned. “Wouldn’t that be cheating?”

Quint shook his head, pulling Theo back against him. “Yes, it would. You can use a short video if you feel it’s needed to illustrate a point, and to give yourself some breathing room, but five minutes is much too long. I don’t think your professor would view it kindly.”

“Okay, then, three words, Seb,” Theo said. He lowered his voice. “Animated slide transitions.”

2 thoughts on “Back to School, Ring the Bell – Ch. 11”

    1. I’m grateful for all commenters, frequent and occasional. ? So glad you like Platypus! I never expected him to have such a journey. Thanks, Ann!

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