I groaned and sat up, blinking and feeling stupid. My arms were cramped and there was a dent in my forehead from where it had rested against the computer keyboard. I rubbed my chin and felt two days worth of stubble. Shit – I’d fallen asleep at my desk again. I had a test tomorrow, but this was not the way to get ready for it. I needed that A, though, or my grade point average would continue to drop.
My mouth tasted like the bottom of a birdcage.
I leaned back, cracking my stiff neck. So this was college. Too many classes and so much homework I never caught up on my sleep.
I couldn’t believe I’d looked forward to the ‘higher education’, promised myself that here, things would be different. I’d been picked on even in elementary school, but high school was the worst. That’s when I’d decided to admit to myself that I was gay – something everybody else seemed to have already figured out. Wasn’t it only other gays who were supposed to have ‘gaydar’? So how come every jock on the football team chose me to pick on when he was in the mood for some fun? Physically I wasn’t that skinny or geeky looking – not a classic nerd – so it had to be something else about me they hated.
Well, I wasn’t crazy about that part of me, either. What good had it ever done me? I’d never had a boyfriend, and no wonder. I’d fallen head over heels for my one-year-older cousin Tony in tenth grade and he’d knocked out one of my front teeth when I was dumb enough to tell him. My folks had been plenty pissed at him when the dental bills came in – until Aunt June told Mom why Tony had hit me. Then guess who they blamed.
Okay, okay, that was stupid of me. But I was glad Mom and Dad knew. Hell, it was the new millennium and things were supposed to be better for gays, right?
So, at my new school I’d kept my mouth shut about my sexual preference and tried not to do anything obvious, like ogle guys in the shower. I mean… one punch in the mouth was enough. I worked harder in my classes, got good grades for a change, applied for scholarships all over the place, and even got accepted! I’d decided on the college farthest from home. No one would know me there and I could finally be myself.
I went out of my way to dress and act like everybody else, afraid that if I didn’t I’d have ‘homo’ written across my forehead. I just thought if I could make a few friends, people who liked me for who I was, then when they found out it wouldn’t matter to them if I was gay. But, out or not, nobody seemed to care if I lived or died. Except my teachers, of course, but they got paid to care.
I sighed. What would Doctor Fields say tomorrow? I hadn’t yet turned in my last report, even though he’d given me an extra couple of days. I’d thought that high school courses were tough, but college was killer. The professor had been so understanding, so nice to me that I almost thought… Nah. He couldn’t be hitting on me – not a professor! He was just being a good teacher.
Paid to be or not, all my professors were nice guys. Doctor Mullins, my advisor, had listened to my woes and suggested I see the Dean of Students to ask for some extra help. I’d been nervous about meeting him, but he was a whole lot easier to talk to than I expected. Maybe things weren’t as hopeless as they seemed. Dean Tremain would arrange for a tutor or something. Hadn’t he said that? I’d been so stressed that the whole visit to his office was kind of a blur, but I remembered him saying I’d need to work hard, maybe make some sacrifices, and that he’d help me all he could. The dean was all right. He had just smiled when I said I’d gladly do anything he wanted.
Yeah, help was out there. I should quit worrying so much, just get back to work and do the best I could. I yawned and stretched, eyes closed, then snapping open, blinking at a sudden brightness. What the…? My computer screen throbbed a bright solid red. I stared. It was a Fourth of July fireworks kind of red, a Christmas candy red. It might have been pretty except for the pulse-like beat as it brightened and dimmed. The only application I’d been running was Word. What was making this mess of my screen?
Suddenly I knew what it meant to have a chill run up your spine.
Shaking it off, I hit the space bar. Nothing changed – still flashing red. I grabbed the mouse and clicked one side, then the other. The red screen cast a lurid glow across the keyboard and painted my hands with sick-looking crimson blotches. Hitting Escape didn’t help, not even Control-Alt-Delete. I was just about to do a manual shutdown when big block letters started a slow march across the screen from right to left. The first one was a B. It was red too, but a dirty, ugly, dark edged red like a half-healed scab that stood out against the bright stain on the screen. Next came an L, then an O crawled into sight, followed slowly by another O. I sat up straighter, my hands tensing above the keyboard as a D finished the word. The back of my neck bunched up, tightening like a twisted steel cable.
Was this some kind of stupid joke? It had to be a computer virus.
There was a space, but the letters kept moving. Next a T appeared, then an O, and others until finally they flowed together and stopped and the screen flashed BLOOD TONIGHT. No exclamation point, but it didn’t need one.
I stared, mind a blank, feeling like one of the idiot victims in those stupid horror movie spoofs. Eek! Don’t answer the door!!! Right. Then I forgot everything as my mouth filled with saliva. I barely made it to the toilet, stumbling, palm pressed against my lips. What was left of my lunchtime sandwich and potato chips came back up, and I thought my stomach was going to follow. The room did a slow spin.
What was wrong with me? Could a weird computer glitch somehow make me feel sick? That was crazy. Was it the weird dance of color on the screen? It had to be just a coincidence. I must be coming down with the flu or something.
Damn, I hated throwing up worse than anything. I straightened up, shaky, and flushed the mess away. In the mirror over the sink my face was dull, skin grayish, eyeballs streaked with red. Clutching the cool white porcelain, I rinsed my mouth with warm water and managed to keep down a mouthful.
When I turned off the water, I could hear pounding on my door. I glanced over at my desk, but the computer screen was black now, even the ‘On’ button was dark. I must have shut it down, though I didn’t remember doing it.
“Danny!” Somebody was yelling. I thought it sounded like Frankie, but I still felt too nauseated to care. Sneering at all remembered horror movies, I turned the knob and the door swung inward.
“Geez, buddy.” Frankie laughed. “What took you so long? Your landlady was peeking out her door at us. Maybe she even called the cops!” Steve and April joined in the giggling. Frankie kicked the door closed behind the three of them and sprawled on my ratty sofa, pulling April down with him. Those two had been like Siamese twins lately. I turned away as she groped his crotch, but Steve’s eyes were wide for the freak show. Assholes, all of them.
Frankie was my first semi-success in the friend department. To my surprise, he had approached me in the first week of the semester. We ate lunch together in the cafeteria every day after that and it was great to have someone to talk to. He was cute, in a sloppy sort of way, and I fantasized about him for a while, thinking I’d work up the courage to tell him about me and maybe ask him out if he didn’t run. Well, I did and he didn’t, but that was as far as the good news went. What he did do was laugh and say he didn’t care – that he had all kinds of friends. That was when Steve and April showed up. Kind of a three-for-one friendship package, he said. Yeah – what a bargain. Frankie made a point of coming on to April when they were around me and, even though Steve was so not my type – I’ve never found greasy stoners attractive – he couldn’t see me for staring at April. Two straight guys for the price of one – hooray.
But I kept hanging with them. At least they accepted me.
From the extra clowning, I figured they were high on something. Maybe it was just the beer I could smell, but you never knew with these guys. I’d been offered one drug or another – if I paid – but so far ‘just say no’ was working. Except for beer, of course… what harm could that do? I thought of the bottles in my fridge and my stomach lurched again. I swallowed, hard. No beer for me, thanks.
“What’s the matter, Danny?” April asked in that teasing way she had with all the guys except Frankie – not that I gave a shit. Her eyes narrowed. “You look kinda green. You sick or something?”
I took a deep breath. No good showing weakness in front of them. April would find a way to taunt me for it and the guys would go along. “I’m fine. Just need to brush my teeth. Did you guys want to do something tonight?”
April snorted as Steve held out a piece of paper. “What’s your problem, man?” he said. “You’re the one who sent us the e-mail with this address, said to come with you and it’d be the coolest party ever. What you been smokin’?” He giggled again and then they were all doing it. Real humorous.
These were my three closest friends? College was supposed to change my luck and obviously it hadn’t happened yet. But hanging with these losers had to be better than nothing, didn’t it? I hated being alone all the time. Shit, I didn’t hope to be Mr. Popularity. I just wanted to be accepted, have people appreciate me a little. And, yeah, I wanted a boyfriend. Was that too much to ask? Seemed like it, so far. Maybe I needed to break away from these idiots, find a new crowd. The idea scared me – if I did I’d be alone again. Maybe there was a club I could join or something, on campus. These three sucked as friends but I hated letting go of what I had, no matter how bad it was. How much worse could it get?
Irritated, I grabbed the sheet. Yeah, it had my name at the top, but I didn’t remember sending it. The street address was on the other side of town. Was this another gag from the asshole who’d been messing with my computer? It couldn’t be Frankie and his gang, they could barely check their e-mail.
I turned my back as Steve bent to feel up April’s butt. She didn’t even seem to notice, just went on sucking face with Frankie. I felt my cheeks get hot. I’d tried touching April once, just as an experiment. Maybe I wasn’t really gay, you know? Frankie had laughed, but she’d hauled off and punched me – hard. I would much rather have felt up Frankie’s ass but, if I did, April would probably kill me. And Frankie showed more affection to Steve than he did to me.
Dammit! Steve should have been the odd man out. He was scrawny and stupid, his face the acne capital of the world, but somehow it was always me who caught the shit.
I went and gargled the sour taste out of my mouth and pulled on a clean t-shirt. My head felt clearer. I wasn’t hungry after my little visit with the toilet, but I was kind of thirsty. The idea of beer still turned my stomach. Maybe they’d have soda or something at the party – if there really was a party.
Logically, I knew I should finish studying or get some sleep – in a bed this time – but maybe getting out was what I really needed. Forget about being Study Boy for a while, have a little fun. I’d been hitting the books for weeks and only had C’s to show for it. Fuck it!
It was full dark now, but the streetlights seemed brighter than I remembered as we piled into my old-but-reliable Ford. None of these knuckleheads owned a car. Come to think of it, that was probably the only reason they hung around with me. I glanced at the address again. It almost seemed… was there something familiar about it? No, of course not, I’d never been on that side of town before. But I was determined to find it. And if the address was nothing but an empty lot, then we could all have a good laugh.
It turned out to be a warehouse on a corner. Everything about it was dark when we drove up. It would have seemed deserted but I could hear pounding music coming from a door around the back. I parked the car under the single streetlight.
Frankie and April were in the back seat and for the whole drive I’d had to listen to Frankie’s low growl, the occasional slap of flesh on flesh and April’s brittle laugh. In the passenger seat, Steve had turned himself into a pretzel to watch them. I’d kept my concentration on the road. It was too dark to see anything in the rear-view mirror anyway. If this turned out to be one of their stupid jokes, I’d leave them there and they could find their own way back.
With a sudden burst of energy, I threw the car door open and headed for the entrance, hearing the other three shuffling along behind. About time I led the way. God knows I was sick of following.
Framed by the doorway, the big room was dark except for an old-fashioned disco ball spinning near the high ceiling. Flashing fingers of light picked out faces here and there. The first one I saw belonged to Trevor, the hot guy I’d been crushing on for the entire semester. We had trig and biology together, but he always ignored me, no matter how close I sat or what witty remarks I made. Trevor was noticing me now, as the four of us walked in. His slow smile, directed at me, made my gut tighten up. This party was looking good.
Tearing my gaze away from Trevor, I glanced around and realized that there were a lot of faces I recognized from campus – a few girls, but mostly guys. In fact, the place was full of students, even some teachers. Teachers and students? What kind of party was this?
The band at the back of the room was pushing out a heavy beat that made me want to move. Then the loud music died and conversation seemed to hush. All eyes turned in my direction. Goosebumps rippled the backs of my arms.
In the silence, the door boomed closed. I looked around, but my passengers just huddled there, blinking. What was their problem? Had they lost their taste for partying? Oddly, I could smell their sweat – ammonia sharp with an overtone of acid. My nose identified the mix and sent the info directly to my brain. Fear – we’d made it to the party and my three so-called friends were scared shitless. I smiled to myself – I was having a great time already.
All of a sudden the lights seemed brighter, everything coming into HD focus. Charmed, I watched a big black spider slide down its thread to land on April’s shoulder. It was a pretty impressive bug, but she didn’t seem to feel it as it crawled toward her neck. Like Frankie and Steve, her eyes had gone dull and her mouth sagged. I caught Trevor’s glance. As though our minds were connected, he pointed at April and laughed. Feeling a sudden surge of heat, I licked my lips, snagging my tongue on something unfamiliar and sharp.
Then, like a black velvet curtain parting to reveal the sunset, I remembered.
I reached out for the closest of them – Frankie. As I grabbed his shoulder, he looked up at me and his eyes went all deer-in-the-headlights. It was funny. I laughed as he pushed at me in slow motion. I reeled him in easy, but his head jerked to one side which gave me a perfect view of the big vein in his neck. Yeah – I grinned – target acquired.
There might have been screaming, but it was a sweet melody, blending with the heartthrob of bass guitar and drums.
Like pomegranate seeds bursting in my mouth, the liquid ruby taste was so good, so very good.
I relaxed my grip and something dropped at my feet. Not bothering to look down, I stepped over the useless empty thing and scanned the crowded room, licking my lips for the memory of the sweet metallic flavor. Trevor was standing close by, wiping his mouth, but my other two friends were nowhere to be seen. I didn’t miss them. I moved forward, careful not to step in the moist puddles that had appeared on the floor while I was busy.
A sudden blue spotlight gave me my own private circle. Outside it, all the others were staring… at me. There was a discreet round of applause.
“Well done, my boy.” It was Dean Tremain who came up quietly and slipped an arm around my waist. I saw Professor Fields and Doctor Mullins too – comfortably familiar now and looking young and rather handsome in their matching white tuxedos. Each wore a single rosebud in his lapel. Behind them the crowd was nodding, all toasting me with champagne glasses filled with crimson, their eyes hot and welcoming.
Trevor stepped up, put both his palms on my chest and licked a drop I’d missed off the corner of my mouth with a long wet tongue. Red burned behind his eyes. My arms went round his back to pull him even closer, and the feel of his erection against mine was as warm as the acceptance on the faces around me.
Just like that, I knew there’d be no more cramming for exams, no more loneliness, no more worries at all. I’d passed the test. I was one of them.