All In

I lean on the door and let my head fall back against it. School will be finishing now. I check my watch. I’m pretty sure they called my mom straight away after my life disintegrated. I dig the heels of my hands into my eye sockets so I don’t cry and slowly knead my forehead with my fingertips. Breathe slowly and count to ten Mom reckons. I knew she wouldn’t be here when I got back. She’ll be home for an hour after six, exhausted between shifts at the care home and the bar she works at. Enough time for her to grill me and take my stuff away and ask if I want to be a thug who winds up going the same way my dad did. I hate letting her down.

Half of me wants to play some ball, let off steam; the other half wants to just shut myself away and hide.  I can’t do either.  I’ve lost my keys. Another thing I’ll have to confess to later.

I shoulder off my backpack and let it thud to the floor, scanning for cockroaches before I sit. I’ve seen giant ones scuttling around our building lately. Makes me shudder. Taking my phone out my pocket, I stare at the black screen even though I turned it off hours ago. My finger hovers over it but I leave it off and slide it back in my jeans. There was no way I was going to stick around today but I can’t help wondering how things went down once I left. I kick my bag, so it smacks into the opposite wall.

I could go upstairs and knock on Mrs Lin’s door. I like Mrs Lin. She spent the last two years proudly telling us how her son’s going to get a scholarship and head off to college so he can become a doctor. Now he’s actually there and she cries every time she goes to open her mouth. Mom says it’s Empty Nest Syndrome. That maybe she’ll be exactly the same when I finally leave home. Right. They sit up there drinking Mrs Lin’s green tea while Mom lies about how well I’m doing at school. I can’t go up there.

I drag my bag back towards me with my foot and take out my English folder, turning to the inside back cover that no-one sees. I’d drawn loads of stupid, cutesy cartoons of Damari with speech bubbles coming from his mouth. All the sweetest, funniest B.S. things he ever said to me are recorded here in writing so tiny only I can read it. I guess I knew I’d want to remember them when it all blew up in my face.

My knuckles look swollen. I flick to the assignment I got back today, covered in green pen – like it’s any different to crossing things out in red. Sir knows I’m dyslexic but he just can’t stop himself scrawling over everything, correcting, underlining my dumb-ass mistakes. I read his comment at the end.

This shows a lot of promise. You raise such interesting, thought-provoking points. You just need to phrase things more carefully at times. Let’s keep working on those spellings.

If it shows so much promise, why has he written ALL OVER it? Teachers think we’re idiots.

Someone starts pumping music with a real heavy bassline downstairs. I can feel it reverberating around my rib cage and up to my teeth. There was a strong smell of weed fogging up the hallway just now. For a second I think maybe I should head down there and introduce myself but I know I won’t. Not today.

It felt good to hit Jared. I’m not even going to lie. With his ratty little face and sharp eyes. He might be taller than me but he’s real skinny and I’ve been lifting seventy pounds at the gym lately, which is amazing if you could’ve seen me two months ago. Damari and I joined at the same time and he moans ’cause my build is changing faster than his. I had more puppy fat to turn into muscle if I’m honest so I guess I had a head-start.

The whole scene today re-plays in my mind, flickering past like an old cinema reel or something as I stare at the opposite wall.

Hey, Damari. Is it true? Are you a fag like this one? Jared gestured at me with his thumb, laughing. His eyes flashed, daring Damari to say it.

Yeah, I’m gay. What about it? We’re in love, man.

Of course Damari didn’t. He frowned like he was somewhere between surprised and insulted. What’re you talking about?

When Jared said, I always knew you two were queers and Damari just stood there open-mouthed, shaking his head, something flipped. I pushed Jared so hard he went flying and before he could get steady on his feet I landed an uppercut right on his jaw. Bam. I knocked him clean off his feet, just like in a movie. Everyone stared like they didn’t know I had it in me.  I didn’t know I had it in me.  People talk about your blood boiling when you’re angry and I get it. It was like hot lava washed through me and I don’t know if I was more upset with Jared, Damari or me. I turned and left before it turned into a full blown fight and I damn sure did not look back at Damari. I just kept walking all the way home.

If he was ever going to acknowledge us – this would’ve been the perfect time. I’ve never actually come out at school but when the rumours started and a couple of guys I don’t even know that well made little comments, suggesting, insinuating, I didn’t try to deny it. I’m not going down that road, pretending to be someone I’m not. Life’s too short. And when my friend Jen said, I think Ansel Elgort’s hot, don’t you? giving me the side-eye, I nodded. Hell yeah!

I wipe my nose. I know I’m being harsh. He wasn’t ready to deal with this stuff and someone forced the issue. But it still hurts like hell.

Footsteps hurry up the stairs. Mom’s wearing her work clothes and comfy shoes. She’s early. Hey baby, she crouches down with me on the floor. Her voice is soft and feathery – not what I was expecting after I just punched someone. I got a call from school.

She holds the back of my head and rocks me as I sob into her shoulder, an embarrassing heaving kind of sob, but she’s used to getting disgusting crap on her tunic. It’s like I’m a little kid again.

I hit someone! I sound all muffled and snotty and pathetic.

I know.

I’m not sure how long we sit like this. Then it all comes out. Even stuff I didn’t realise was lurking around in my brain seeped through. I’m tired of sneaking around with Damari, pretending to be buddies. I’m sick of small-minded jock types like Jared and I know he won’t be the last to get on my case. I can’t concentrate at school and even when I try real hard, I’m worried I’m always gonna be average, going nowhere. Or ending up a bigger disappointment than Dad.

She takes my face in her hands and looks me straight in the eyes. You, my baby, are the thing I’m proudest of in my whole life. You’re courageous, you’re smart and you’re going places. You’re just gonna have to figure out a way to deal with these idiots without losing your shit each time.

I nod and wipe my nose on my sleeve. She means it. I manage a smile.

Mom fumbles around for keys and lets us in before calling the bar to say she can’t make it. Something urgent’s come up. (We’re going to pop some corn and watch a movie after I’ve finished my assignment). I turn my phone on. Five missed calls from my mom, sweet messages from Jen and a couple of good guys on the basketball team, and one from Damari. I read his message first.

 I’m out. I’ve told them all. And I’m all in. If you get my drift. Can I come over?

I press my phone to my chest and a wider, toothier smile pulls at the corners of my mouth.

Mom, I want you to meet someone.