September Salt

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Them and I, and Tom from Spanish

Chapter Thirteen: Them and I, and Tom from Spanish

JOEY

I turned and began to stride in the opposite direction to the way the four guys had gone and Freddie had fled, trying to go faster and faster as I heard persistent footsteps following me.

“Hey—” I didn’t stop. “Hey! Joey?!”

I whirled around, pushing anger upwards so that the fear and anxiety wouldn’t show. My eyes widened, surprised to see Freddie’s friend, Tom from Spanish, staring down at me.

“Wh-what do you want?” I asked him sharply. For a second he didn’t reply, and I cracked my knuckles subtly, nervously, looking around us. “What?” He’d clearly heard. His face softened and I hated it.

“Are you okay?”

I moved to turn away, refusing to look at him. Faking nonchalance. “Yeah. Why?”

“You just looked pretty spaced out during the lesson.” I glanced at him. He laughed. “Actually, you always do, but you seemed even more so today.” I didn’t reply, brows raised. “Eh, maybe I was wrong,” he said.

I adjusted the strap and shrugged. “Yeah. Guess so.” I cracked a small smile and looked around us wearily again. “I’m fine, though.”

“Wanna join me for break?”

My confused expression only grew and I opened my mouth to refuse, but in the corner of my eye I saw Ryan amidst a group of people heading towards us. He hadn’t seen me yet, but I didn’t have much time. “Y-yeah—okay. Yeah, sure. Let’s go.” Tom beamed at me as I turned on my heel and began to stride away. He then laughed and began following me, chatting about Spanish homework I hadn’t written down.

FREDDIE

“Why the hell did you pull me away?!” I asked Sherry as she sat at one of the cafeteria tables. I slowly took my place opposite her. “And where the hell did Tom go?”

She shook her head, looking pretty put out. “He was heading toward Joey. Is he seriously just going to straight up ask him if everything is true?”

“Everything how? What’s true?”

“Well, he broke up with Courtney Bourne,” she said. I nodded as she ripped the clear plastic lid off the fruit salad bowl she’d purchased and licked it; I wasn’t all that surprised about that one after what he’d told me at the beach. “And I’m guessing they didn’t exactly end on good terms considering the fact that she’s going around telling everyone that he’s gay.”

My eyes widened, but I didn’t allow myself to show anymore surprise than that. “Wait…” So that was why Joey had looked so miserable earlier? Word on the grapevine was that he liked a little dick? It was almost funny.

Sherry nodded with a grin on her face, forking a raspberry from the mixture. Having eaten it, she paused momentarily, thoughtfully, then recovered. “Yup. Who would have thunk it?”

“You don’t really believe that, though? It’s pretty obviously not true. His girlfriend is spreading a rumour after being broken up with; anyone with a brain would think twice about taking that in.”

“Who says Joey broke up with her? She’s way above his league.”

“You’re serious?” Sherry shrugged. “Well, what has it got to do with me?”

“Well, she somehow knew about you two meeting at the beach too. And that you guys got home late and you stayed over. That got mentioned.”

Ah, well. Fair enough.

“But Ryan was there too—he knows nothing happened.”

Sherry shrugged and poked another few. She dropped them into her mouth and chewed nonchalantly. “Well. It would seem that he’s kept mum about it so far.”

I leaned back a little, finally looking down at the iced bun I’d purchased. “That’s kinda fucked up.”

“So is this fruit salad. Does this pineapple taste off to you?”

JOEY

As Tom walked, his head turned left and right almost more times that I could count, replying in kind to the greetings thrown his way. I kept my own ducked down, lagging behind him and trying to convince myself to just turn around and disappear around a corner or into a classroom, or at least come up with some reason to leave. Needing the toilet was as good an excuse as any other, I supposed, but just as I cleared my throat to call his name and announce my retreat, Tom grabbed a hold of my forearm as he pushed open the double doors leading to the outside tennis courts by the Games building.

“Uh, I need-”

“Tom! There you are.”

There was quite a group of people standing by the miniature alley that exists between the main school building and the Games one. I had always heard about how it had once been the place to smoke and make out, but had been swapped for the more secluded area by the old sports hall. Clearly, they—Tom’s friends—had adopted it as their own. They all lifted their heads, grinning at him and throwing one-lined greetings full of mirth. Tom walked closer, pulling me along. I struggled, but I wasn’t putting much of an effort in it, honestly speaking, not particularly wishing to draw more attention to myself. The blonde who’d interrupted me bounded forward to envelope Tom in a hug which thankfully meant he released his grip on me.

“Roy didn’t give us me an essay today, man,” she said. She spoke quickly, and her voice had a soft quality to it that I liked a lot. “So, you could totally come over tonight, if you want. We could read through that play for Drama.”

“Oh, God yes, Paige, or you could help me with that Media essay?”

Paige laughed. “You’re using me, Thomas!”

“Yeah, so, straight after school, or..?”

“Whatever, man.”

“Straight after it is,” Tom grinned.

“Uh, I think I need the toilet,” was what I then said.

Both of them turned to me, Paige obviously only just noticing my being there at all.

“Oh, yeah. Paige, this is Joey.”

She looked at me with a confused expression on her face for a moment before nodding. “Yeah. I’ve seen him around.” To me, “Hey.”

I nodded in reply, and that was it. For another moment they both stared down at me, and then Paige turned to another girl while Tom just smiled at me. I raised a hand to indicate that I was going to head back inside, and I shrugged, and probably opened my mouth to offer a repeat of the same bullshit excuse that none of us bought, but he continued to smile, and I felt like he understood. Almost. So I inched backwards, and then again. Tom waved at me.

“See you around,” he said. I waved back, and then left rather swiftly.


I was in Philosophy even earlier than usual. Chou watched me as I slunk in and took my place.

“Morning, Joey,” he said. He was hesitant, which wasn’t particularly new, but he looked at me the same way as he did earlier during registration; as if he was expecting me to do or say something, and he wasn’t particularly looking forward to whatever it was going to be.

“Morning, Sir,” I replied.

He watched me for another moment, and then turned his attention to his computer.

It was stupid of me to forget that when class started Kelsey would see me, and she wouldn’t be happy about it. Whatever Courtney had told her, it had done its damage because the seat beside me remained empty, and the made-up eyes watching me, accusing as Kelsey carried on past me to sit somewhere else.

“Personhood,” Chou began. “We spoke about it in reference to abortion last lesson-”

“Um.” All eyes turned to Taylor Winchester, in the row behind me, who clasped her hands together and cleared her throat. “We never really came to a conclusion, though.”

“There’s no reason for us to necessarily come to a conclusion together, Taylor. You are each free to decide what you believe-”

Matt Le Ray mockingly lifted a hand in a faux-request to speak. “Right, so we can come to the conclusion that certain people are not in fact persons, and thus can justifiably be sentenced to death – like they occasionally do, in some parts of the world, to homosexuals, for example.”

Chou’s face was stoic as the class erupted into discussion- split in sides; the ignorant assholes and the faghags. I kept my face forward, mouth closed, bristling even more when I felt balls of paper hit my back and peals of laughter soar through the classroom after them.

“Calm down, please- You are free to decide what you wish to believe,” Chou continued through the racket. His eyes slowly fell to meet mine then quickly darted to his desk, “So long as you can back it up. I— I really hope you meant that as a joke, Matthew.”

And it continued like that.


At the end of the lesson, I had begun packing up when Mr. Chou called me to his desk. I collected my things with an inward sigh and stood in front of his desk, staring at anything but his timid face, my fists balled up tight- tight enough that the salt-water that wished to ease itself out of my eyes as tears migrated to my palms and pooled there as sweat instead. I scraped my hands against my jeans in frustration as I watched Kelsey leave the room with a final disgusted look in my direction out of the corner of my eye. She shut the door with a slam behind her.

We were alone.

The paper balls aimed at me hadn’t stopped, and Courtney’s rumour had only begun to circulate the room instead, non-too quietly.

“You a fag, or a person, Joey?” someone had whispered from behind.

Fucker.

With who, was it?”

A laugh. “Freddie-”

Lewis! Queer of the fucking century.”

My mum used to say that ears itched when people were talking about you, but mine burned, and my heart was fucking stone in my chest, but no matter how much I’d wanted to get up and get out, I could not. If I could have simply ceased to exist, that would have been okay, but get up in front of the whole class and head for the door?

“Are you okay?”

My fists instantly clenched again as my eyes whipped up to Chou’s, fury leaking like liquid fire.

“Fine.”

My throat was dry, but somehow if I swallowed, I would cry. I tensed my hands again.

Chou’s twitching worsened. “I—I’d like to help, Joey,” were his useless words. “Whatever your problem is, I’m willing to help-”

“No. It’s nothing,” I retorted, turning my face away. My mind wandered back to the last hour. My chest was heaving with all the panic running wild in there, and rage was leaking from my eyes regardless of my efforts, leaving nothing but helplessness and self-hate, and fear inside. Mr Chou lifted a hand to his quiff and grabbed at the already mussed hair there, face creasing up.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered unhappily. It did nothing—was no good. “I am so sorry, Joey,” Chou stepped around his desk, closer to me, “I didn’t know.” He reached out to touch my arm but stopped in mid-air as I flinched away from him. His shoulders dropped. “I should have—I should have done more to stop them… But I didn’t think you- I didn’t know—God, you hide it so well.” A bitter laugh, and then he continued to say something else, but I wasn’t listening—I didn’t want to be there. How could Courtney actually have done that? Wasn’t it bad enough that she’d cheated? Repeatedly? And with my best friend—fuck him!

My head dropped, and then I was quietly crying in my Philosophy room, my teacher as a witness.

Pathetic had no better picture.

The door opened, and both Chou and I froze.

Freddie Lewis. Fuck it—everywhere I looked.

I used my shoulder to hide as I wiped tears away and adjusted my bag as I went, giving neither of them eye contact and ignoring the panic in Chou’s voice as he called my name.

A fucking fear that overwhelmed more than anything.

FREDDIE

“Okay, what the hell happened?!”

“Eh?!”

Tom dragged a wooden chair from under the cafeteria table and twirled it around so that he could successfully straddle it as he stared intensely into my eyes. Two more seconds of the staring and his lips cracked into an inevitable smile.

“Hey, Fredster,” he sang.

“Hey,” I replied with a smile of my own, grabbing a chip from Sherry’s tray. “What are you talking about?”

He scraped his chair closer and looked around the cafeteria as Paige sat on the chair beside him, closely followed by Jenny on his other side, ripping open the cellophane around her sandwich straight away.

“That Joey guy,” she said, and then she took a big bite.

My thoughts went to the image I’d seen after I’d gone looking for Mr Chou after Business. Mr Hyde claimed to have given Mr Chou my Business trip letter, and I had to get it back and return it by the end of the week—but found Joey crying- I swear he was crying- in the Philosophy room, being comforted by our form tutor. My throat had closed up, seeing that, and it did again, just then.

“Guessing you’ve heard the rumours?” Sherry asked, leaning forward. “Can you believe that guy?!”

“I really can’t,” I said. “It’s not true.”

“That’s what I’m asking,” Tom continued, resting an elbow on the table and his chin on his palm. “We just heard in Media that he got off with you at his house,” I blushed, eyebrows raised, “Like, where the hell do people get this shit from?”

I swirled my spork around my pasta. “Uh…”

“From Freddie being at Joey’s house,” Sherry said.

What?”

Lettuce hung from the roof of Paige’s mouth, and several bread crumbs dropped down her top. Jenny’s eyes were wide with disbelief, and Tom’s expression was so comically shocked that I couldn’t help chuckling into the sporkful I brought to my mouth.

“Did you guys fuck?!” Jenny whispered.

I choked, “For God-sake, no. It was a totally coincidental meeting that happened on the beach, and it got late, and he offered that I could stay over. He’s straight. That’s it.” And that was it—he was straight, but I was riddled with issues because, all of a sudden, I could not stop thinking about the guy. He was everywhere I looked, underlined in some way and impossible to ignore. His words and his touch at the beach—he feared everything. His laugh and his easy smile at his house—so relaxed. With his mum and best friend. His face when he’d flinched, and the hesitant shape of his lips as he pronounced la noche del estreno, or asustado, or labios agrietados.

That expression on his face that I so badly wanted to deconstruct and understand as he drifted out of the window and elsewhere in every Spanish lesson.

Three eyes looked at me, bewildered, while Sherry grinned to my left. “Still, he and his girlfriend break up not long after. Not so coincidental. You think he wants your dick?”

My gaze fell to my bowl of pasta. It was growing cold as quickly as my appetite was disappearing. “Shut up, Sherry.”

“B-but,” Paige stuttered, “What the fuck, isn’t he the one who did that thing on that day you found out, you know..?”

“Oh, yeah, ’cause that makes a lot of sense,” Jenny quipped, rolling her eyes, but I knew exactly what Paige was talking about.

“The day I found out about my dad, yeah.”

The five of us were silent. I pushed my bowl of pasta away and rubbed at my eyes.

“So, Media today was shit,” Jenny announced. Tom and Paige nodded.

“Until we analysed the Inception trailer,” Paige replied. Tom and Jenny nodded.

“Leonardo DiCaprio is fucking hot,” Tom sniffed. Paige and Jenny nodded, and then so did I, and Sherry released a sigh.

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