|Publisher:||Dreamspinner Press LLC|
|Edition description:||Second Edition,Second edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.42(d)|
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By Amy Lane, Sarah Frantz
Riptide PublishingCopyright © 2013 Amy Lane
All rights reserved.
The Home Pond
It was sort of a shock. I mean, I was supposed to be coming home for Thanksgiving, not getting kicked out of the house a month before Christmas. If I'd been mean about it, I would have blamed Oliver, but I couldn't. I mean ... you can't really blame Oliver for anything. He's just too damned nice.
In fact, that was why we hung out together all through our senior year. I mean, I'd been hanging with all those other jokers for my entire life. Kindergarten, grade school, middle school—you could have thrown our jock genes in a blender and pretty much swapped all our parts. We were interchangeable. White boys, blue/green eyes, sandy blond/sandy brown hair, good bones, good nutrition, some sort of Teutonic conspiracy to produce a football team in the nouveau riche suburbs of the foothills—that was us. I mean, I had brown eyes and blond hair, and I was the closest thing to an ethnic minority our high school had ever seen.
Oliver showed up in early September of my senior year, slender, brown on brown on brown. Dark brown hair cut with long bangs around his narrow face, dark brown eyes with thick, thick lashes, and light brown skin. He slouched quietly in the back of Mr. Rochester's English Literature class and eyed the rest of us with sort of a gentle amusement.
"Yo, Rusty," Clayton called to me as I took my seat by the new boy. "What's the new guy?"
I looked at Clayton blankly. He was one of those big white-blond kids with a face that ran to red whenever he exerted himself. He was a defensive lineman on the football team, and his father sold insurance. He was also a sadistic fuck who liked to haze freshmen by slamming them against lockers and calling them names until they cried. That shit had been sort of funny when we were sophomores, but my little sister told me the last kid he'd done that to had needed to change schools and see a shrink, and that's sort of a horrible thing to do to a kid.
It suddenly occurred to me that the dark kid slouching in the corner of the room was a prime target for Clayton, but he was looking at us, all amused like he didn't give a crap, and that might have offered him a little protection right there.
I liked that. He didn't give a crap. The last girl I'd dated had been so excited about dating a football player, she'd literally gone down on me before dinner, and, well, I'd liked her, but I hadn't been sure I wanted to know her that well. I'd also been hungry. I'd sort of pulled her away from my crotch and asked her if we could go eat steak. I think I hurt her feelings—she didn't say much during dinner, and she'd taken my kiss on the cheek like it was some sort of insult or something.
So this kid, smiling at us friendly but not slobbering all over us or being afraid of us—that was sort of nice.
I didn't like Clayton saying "What" in conjunction with those laughing brown eyes.
"What do you mean 'what'?" I'm not that smart but I knew I probably wasn't going to like that answer either.
"I mean Indian, Mex, darky, what?"
That snapped my head back. My mother wasn't the warmest person on the planet, but she was not pro on us being rude like that.
"Where the hell were you raised?" I snapped, appalled. "Jesus, he's a kid. Leave him the hell alone!"
Clayton rolled his eyes at me. "Oh my God, Baker, could you be any more of a fairy princess?" That was fine, though. He was so miffed at me, he'd forgotten about the kid, who was watching our byplay like he was watching a tennis match.
"Do you see me in a dress blowing you?" I asked, and the rest of the class chortled. Clayton turned red(der) and glared at me as the teacher walked in. I leaned back in my seat and gave the kid a reassuring grin.
"He should leave you alone now," I said quietly as Mr. Rochester pointed to the warm-up on the board. "See that? That's the page number. There's a quick assignment we do in our grammar books, and then we correct it."
"Thanks," the kid said. "But you know, I'm gay. I'm not really big on the princess dress, but if he wasn't an asshole, I wouldn't mind blowing him."
And that was Oliver.
I sat there, my mouth open, while the class got out their books and started the assignment. After about a minute, the kid looked at me sideways, and finally I saw a waver of uncertainty in him.
"You never met a fag before?" he asked, and again, those painful manners that had been beaten into my and my little sister's hard heads—pretty much in the cradle—asserted themselves.
"Nope," I said honestly, "but my mother wouldn't let me use that word." I wasn't sure she'd let a homosexual sit at our dinner table either, but then, that was my mother.
The kid looked at me for a minute, considering. "Okay, if we keep that word off the table, could you make sure I don't get stuffed in a trash can during lunch?"
I grinned at him. "I can do that. Can I copy what you got on the grammar warm-up? You scrambled my tiny brain with the big, scary word."
The boy laughed and handed me his paper so I could copy super quick before Mr. Rochester could call on me. That's when I saw his name: Oliver Campbell, which wasn't Hispanic or Indian, but he didn't look African American either.
I sat with him at lunch that day, and a few of my friends sat with us. (Not Clayton—he had his own squad of goons, and that was a relief.) My buddies harassed Oliver, don't get me wrong. Brian Halliday asked him if he got a thrill out of sitting with all us football players, 'cause we were all buff. All Oliver had to do was look him up and down once and say, "I may be gay, but I got better standards than that," and Brian was smirking and talking about cheerleaders. They kept at it, but Oliver was great at rolling his eyes or saying something just as good, and my buddies would start giving each other shit and leaving him alone.
It's kind of sad when I think about it now. At the time, I thought I hung out with a bunch of okay kids. I figured we were spoiled and sheltered, but that wasn't our fault, really. I mean, I was proud because we sat down with someone new and different, and didn't beat him into the ground. Pathetic, really—that's what I had to be proud of, right? That my peer group didn't bully people too badly? But it was something to hold on to, even if it was something small. I needed any pride I could find, because I knew college was coming along like a big steamroller to cream me into the fucking pavement.
* * *
Now see, I know I'm not that bright. I mean, give me time, and some hints, and an example, and directions carved in rock, and I can power through almost anything.
Not like Oliver. There's a quickness to him.
When he walks, his elbows come out from his sides in fluid, graceful little motions, and when he talks, his hands dart around his face and shoulders like fish. He can tell jokes, stupid ones but really funny, and rattle off the joke, and then the punch line, and before I have a chance to laugh, surprised because he's always surprising, he's on to the next joke.
"Hey, Rusty, why did the chicken cross the road sllloooowwwlllly?"
"Because he doesn't believe in cars. Why did the squirrel haul ass across the road?"
"Heh heh ... doesn't believe in ... wait—why?"
"Because he does believe in the ghost of chickens past."
"Wait, is that because the damned things are always getting killed on the—"
"What did the werewolf say to the vampire on the night of the full moon?"
"I have no idea."
"Things are about to get hairy. What did the vampire say when he got the power vac?"
"Hairy! Hah! Uhm, I dunno—"
"I vant to suck your mud."
And so on. We could spend an entire lunch, and Oliver would be dropping one-liners like firecrackers behind him, and the rest of us would be dancing in his wake. Most times, he knew what the class assignment was going to be before Mr. Rochester finished his usual joke about his own name.
"We're going to find the allegory in Jane Eyre, right?"
"Very good, Oliver. How'd you guess?"
"'Cause no one names a guy St. John unless they're making a point about saints—especially if he's the guy who gets dumped for some guy whose name sounds like a rock."
The whole class laughed at that, me included, but I'd had to spend some time in the bathroom the next morning, contemplating God, before I finished, flushed, and said, "Wait. That St. John guy wasn't real warm, and Mr. Rochester was really solid and good ... Is that what Oliver meant?"
So Oliver—hellsa quick. Me—hellsa slow. He should have laughed at me, right? Written me off as a dumb jock and gone and huddled with the coven of übergeeks who watched anime, or the girls who read yaoi. But he didn't. I guess because I'd been nice to him when I hadn't needed to be, he'd spent our entire senior year returning the favor.
By the end of senior year, after he'd helped me study for the SATs when my football friends were out getting drunk, I was really fucking grateful.
I also felt bad, because I sucked ass on the SATs. My scores were (and Oliver said this, and I'd had to spend another morning in the bathroom to get it) toiletastic! I'd applied to Berkeley and Stanford, because my grades were pretty good and my old man made me, but it wasn't until I saw the second round of SAT scores that I realized just what a meatloaf I really was. I was so embarrassed, I couldn't look Oliver in the face for an entire day. I bailed on him during lunch, and most other guys, they would have been hurt and bitchy and whined to their friends about what a conceited asshole I was, but not Oliver.
"What the fuck is up with you?"
He cornered me in the locker room of all places, because I was taking PE sixth period for elective credit like the dumb jock I was.
"What do you mean?" I knew exactly what he meant, but I didn't know what to say.
"You don't email me this weekend, you don't talk to me today—c'mon, Rusty—I thought we were friends." His black eyebrows were drawn together over his eyes, and his mouth was all pursed and pillowy. He looked cute, like a little kid, and I wanted to hug him and tell him it was okay and make the tantrum go away.
I looked down at my toes instead and clutched my towel tighter around my waist. I wasn't afraid of him checking me out—I'd been naked in front of girls before, and, well, I'd stopped caring—but I felt naked inside too, and that was new.
"Nothing, I ... you know. You ..." I had a lightbulb then—a truth I could tell him that would mean he didn't have to waste his time with me. "You have smart people to sit with." I looked up and met his eyes then and smiled, because I was proud of that—it made me sound like an asshole, but it meant he didn't have to waste his time with me neither.
Something funny happened to his face then. He squinched one eye and wrinkled his lip and sucked air through his teeth. His front teeth were a little big, and his canines a little crowded back—like he maybe could have had braces, but it wasn't so bad that he had to, so he didn't. He opened his mouth to say something, and then closed it, and then opened it again, and then he narrowed his eyes suspiciously.
"Didn't you get your SATs back?"
Oh God. It was like he'd read my mind. I looked at my toes again—I had really long toes, to match, well, you know. Not to brag. "Uhm ..."
"How bad?" he asked, and his voice was absurdly gentle.
"I don't wanna talk about it," I said, crossing my big toe over my middle toe. I could wiggle them from that position too.
"That's pretty bad. What'd your dad say?" Because we both knew my dad had this vision: me in some big college with a letterman's jacket or something.
And this was the part that really made my toes curl on the wet concrete. "He said he could pull strings. Get me into Berkeley anyway. Told me I'd have to really study when I got there, because this slacking shit wasn't going to cut it."
I was surprised when his combat boots snuck into my field of vision and a hand came out and touched me awkwardly on the shoulder.
"I'm sorry, Rusty."
I shrugged away, feeling worse than shit now, and ignored the shiver down my arm where Oliver had touched me. "I don't know why you're sorry. You're not the idiot who sucked up all your time trying to learn to fuckin' read and write. You're the kid who should be going to Berkeley, but you gotta go to junior college instead." I turned to my open locker and tucked my towel tight around my waist and started to rip out my cargo shorts and tennis shoes and tank top so I could get dressed and give him a ride home. He lived sort of far from my neighborhood—in fact, I'm pretty sure he'd transferred to my school for the AP classes only—but the house itself was cherry. It was small, but painted white, with red and pink flowers growing up the white fence that surrounded the yard. From where I usually sat in the car when I dropped him off, I could see four tiny dogs, who always about lost their minds with pure joy that Oliver was home, and it was getting so I could relate. Anyways, our pattern was for me to let Oliver off outside the gate of his little house, and since I had the car, and it meant he didn't have to take the bus, I didn't have a problem with that.
"Yeah," Oliver agreed, back here in the locker room. "Berkeley would be great. Ain't gonna lie. But a JC will give me a chance to get my skills up and running, and I'm damned grateful. Rusty, you're gonna get killed if you go there and you're not ready. Can't they see that?"
I leaned my forehead against my locker and swallowed, trying to breathe past the panic. "I'll be fine," I lied. "You know me. Time and an instruction book, and I can conquer the frickin' world."
"Yeah," he said, but he didn't sound optimistic.
The week after that, he asked me if I wanted to work for his dad that summer, part-time or full-time, my choice. His dad was a contractor, and I'd get to do real simple stuff—carry boards, push brooms, run water to the guys with nail guns and screwdrivers who were framing houses or sanding drywall. It wasn't a lot, but, well, my other job prospect was pushing papers for my old man or someone else's old man (cause we were swapped around like action figures) in an office.
Guess which one sounded better, right?
Not that the old man saw it that way.
"Rusty, this job could get you valuable contacts in whatever field you pursue—" Dad's hair had gone brown and gray, but I've seen pictures. It used to be blond like mine, streaked by the sun, with undertones of red-brown. His cheeks used to be wreathed with smiles too, but his mouth was a lot thinner now. I couldn't remember seeing his smile for a while.
"But Dad, this job doesn't need a suit."
"Well, maybe you're old enough to actually think about your future instead of the next girl or the next sunny day. Have you thought of that?"
I hadn't had a girlfriend since the girl who'd rather have had dick than dinner. It just didn't seem worth the trouble, really, explaining to them that they didn't need to put out. And getting some wasn't as much fun as it used to be—but then, having a friend at the movies had always seemed to be the best part of girlfriends anyway. But, well, Dad had this vision of me, and football-jock-superbanger seemed to be it.
"Dad," I said, trying to sound grown-up. "You know, maybe this ... this thing you've got set up for me in the future, maybe it's not really a good fit. You ever think of that? I mean, a college education, I get that, but maybe not Berkeley and the whole nine yards—maybe a JC and some life experience, you think?"
"Russell, we're not screwing around here—this is your life. You go to a good college, you network, you move on to graduate work. Why would you think that's changed?"
I opened my mouth, a lot like Oliver had, and closed it, and opened it again. "I ... I mean, I'm not great at school—you know, there's tech schools and vocational schools all over the place for guys who don't, you know—"
"You are not graduating from Western Career College," my dad snapped, and I grinned and tried to get the smile from him that I vaguely remembered from when I was a kid.
"You can do it!" I sang to the commercial, and apparently that was exactly the wrong thing to sing, because Dad rolled his eyes and walked away.
So I tried Mom.
Now in some houses, Mom would be the guaranteed win, right? "Oh, honey, of course. I understand that you're feeling out of your depth and you'd like to see if maybe something a little less cerebral might be a better match for your much-vaunted future." Or, you know, at least "Yeah, go out and sweat in the sun, you're eighteen, who gives a shit?" right? But that wasn't the way it was in my house. It wasn't like Mom was the guaranteed win; it was more like she was better at calculating what was in it for her.
"What will you be spending your money on?" she asked, narrowing her brown eyes at me as though trying to figure the angle. I'd gotten her eyes, but there was something wrong with mine. They were wider and nothing about me looked like I had anything to do with angles. I was all about the curved muscle and brick walls.
Excerpted from Christmas Kitsch by Amy Lane, Sarah Frantz. Copyright © 2013 Amy Lane. Excerpted by permission of Riptide Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsAbout our Charity,
About Christmas Kitsch,
Chapter 1: The Home Pond,
Chapter 2: Big Fish, No Water,
Chapter 3: Surfacing,
Chapter 4: A Different Place to Swim,
Chapter 5: School,
Chapter 6: Investing in a New Tank,
Chapter 7: The Key to Tank Decoration,
Chapter 8: Old Fish, New Fish, and the Shiny Things that Catch Them,
Chapter 9: The Flying Fish,
Chapter 10: Diary of a Flying Fish,
Also by Amy Lane,
About the Author,