AUTHOR'S NOTE: Yes, another new story. No, I'm not quitting the older ones. WARNING: This isn't going to be the usual, happy-go-lucky story I usually write. There will be much sadness and angst. I'm only telling you now so you go into this knowing what likely lies ahead.

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Chapter 1

The wind kicked up the leaves that late autumn afternoon, giving the setting an ominous feeling to it. I glanced at my best friend as he walked beside me down the sidewalk. This place is mostly a working man's town, my dad liked to say. And at that point the small town street was mostly deserted, being that it was already well into dusk. Most everyone had gone in for supper by that time. Me and Jeff? Well, his mom worked late, so he didn't have to be home anytime soon. And my parents thought I was staying at his house for supper anyway. We were like the last two people on Earth, so it seemed. I liked to think of it that way, leastways.

Jeff wasn't very big for our age back then. We were going on seventeen, but he wouldn't hit that another five months. Me? My birthday was two days from then. Anyways, Jeff was kind of short, about six inches shorter than me, and I was five ten. He was stockier, though, not having lost that "baby fat" as his mom called it. I had that kind of lean body you get from running track. And my dark brown hair was always cut short to keep out of my matching brown eyes. Jeff had what his mom called "cornflower blue" eyes, whatever the hell that means. Sounds girly to me, but he didn't mind. He'd let his blonde hair hang to his shoulders, but it was limp and greasy mostly. He didn't care how it looked though. Man, he didn't care about nothing but art. Jeff loved to draw. You never saw a good comic unless Jeff redrew it for you from his own perspective. He also loved painting and such. I never could draw right. Maybe I could do you some stick figures, but who really cared about those?

Anyways, like I was saying, Jeff and I were walking down the street. And he seemed nervous that day. He'd said he wanted to tell me something but wasn't sure if he should. Now, you just can't say that to someone and not have them nag you for what it is. But he was real agitated when I did, so I tried not to mention it too much. We stopped and sat on a bench under a streetlamp, huddling into out jackets to try to ward off the chill. This walk was his idea, so I didn't complain. I figured he wouldn't take well to it anyways.

"Danny, do you think God hates the gays?" he asked suddenly, biting his lip and looking at the ground.

Now what kind of question is that to be asking me, I wondered. But I figured I'd play along to get to the bottom of what he was worried about. But how do I play along?

"I don't know," I said quietly.

Yeah, I know. Brilliant answer. But what would you say to a question like that, especially from your best friend? I was beginning to have a bad feeling about this talk.

"I don't think he does," Jeff sighed. "I think the ministers are wrong about that."

I shrugged silently and kicked at a pebble with the toe of one of my Nikes. He always was a more religious person than me. Went with how he was raised. His mom took him to church every Sunday in his best clothes and spit-shined shoes. He and his sisters. Their daddy died a long time ago in an accident at work. But Jeff's mom? She wouldn't let any of them blame God for what happened, simply insisting he was called home to do the Lord's work. Wacky religion is all I can say.

"Why you worried about this?" I asked more sharply than I meant to.

Jeff turned sad and wary eyes to me and shrugged. And in that instant … I knew. I just knew what he'd been wanting to tell me. It felt like a betrayal, too. How long had he'd known? Why didn't he tell me before? Had he been checking me out in gym class? Yeah, all right. I know I was jumping to conclusions. But what seventeen-year-old kid welcomes this kind of thing?

"You – you?" I sputtered. Hey, I think you all know by now I'm no Shakespeare.

"I'm sorry he said as a tear traced its way down his cheek. "I'm – I …"

"Get away from me, you fucking queer!" I shouted, sprinting off the bench and facing him angrily. "How the fuck long you been this way?"

He tried to quiet his sobs and rubbed at his eyes with two chubby fists, not answering me as quickly as I wanted him to. And the rage that suddenly erupted inside me swept through like a tornado.

"How … long?!" I demanded.

"I … I don't kn-know!" he cried. "May-maybe always."

His weeping only fueled my anger. God, how did I not see how much like a girl he is? He's supposed to be my best friend! And here he was, a disgusting queer right under my nose all along.

"Don't you even look at me!" I spat. "You make me sick!"

"Well, what's going on here?" a deep voice practically purred. I looked behind me to see Frankie Mathers, a senior from our school and not a friendly soul to boot, standing there, watching us with that infuriatingly amused expression on his tanned face. He had two of his friends with him. I can't remember nothing about them though. They were there. That's all. "Lover's quarrel?"

Normally I'd have told him to fuck off. He may be older than me, but I think I could have taken him of he ever pushed things too far. Frankie had light brown wavy hair that he kept neatly cut and big hazel eyes. He was built kind of like me, except less muscle. But anyways, Jeff's confession gave his words new meaning, and one I didn't cotton to very well.

"Piss off, Mathers!" I hissed. "This isn't none of your business."

"Sounds serious," he drawled, approaching the bench and placing a hand on Jeff's shoulder.

He'd done that plenty of times before but I always stopped him from bothering Jeff. I didn't feel like stopping him that time though. He lifted an eyebrow in question and I just turned my back and walked away. I knew Jeff was about to get his ass kicked, but I told myself he deserved it. Anyways, maybe it would "cure" him, or something. I took the long way home and didn't say anything to my old man when I got home earlier than he thought I would. I pretended nothing had happened, in fact.

It was past eleven that night and we were watching the news when the phone rang. It was Jeff's mom, worried sick because her boy wasn't home. She wondered if he was at our place. When my mom said he wasn't, my dad asked me if I knew where he was. Shit, I wasn't about to rat Frankie out. Jeff was probably still licking his wounds at that street corner, I thought. I just said we got into a fight and I left him on a bench in town. My dad scowled at me like I did something wrong. He grabbed his jacket and said he was going looking. Did I want to come? I declined and sat back to finish watching the news, a bad feeling stewing in my gut. I told myself I didn't do anything bad. Jeff did. Still, I couldn't go to bed till dad got home.

After midnight, he finally showed back up, a horrible look on his face. I waited for him to take his coat off and get a sip or two of the hot coffee mom poured him. He sat down at the kitchen table and gestured for me to set down with him. I did slowly, not sure that I'd done right by leaving Jeff with those guys now.

"Jeff was in an alley when I got there," dad said, looking down at his coffee. He never did like to meet my eyes when he was giving me bad news. "But he wasn't conscious or nothing."

Not conscious? How bad was the beating? But I couldn't say anything. Frankie would get his friends to kick my ass for telling.

"How – how is he?"

"Barely alive," my dad sighed. "When the paramedics came they had put him on oxygen like your grandpappy was toward the end." He shuddered. "He was badly mangled, Dan. Do you know who would do that to him?"

And then he did look at me. Right in the eye. I wondered if he could see my guilt there in that look. But all I did was shake my head.

"Well, let's hope he wakes up so he can tell the sheriff."

"Poor boy," my mom said sadly.

Yeah, they wouldn't say that if they knew what he was really. But that don't make me feel any better about leaving him there alone with Frankie and friends.

"You think he'll make it?" I asked softly.

My dad shrugged. "Don't know, son."

And that's what happened that day. But if you think that's the end of the story, you're wrong. It's just the beginning.