Richard's Redemption

Chapter 24

“Nuwanda...” I start to say, when I'm cut off by a right hook to the chin that knocks me into the wall.

“I always knew you were slime,” Charlie rants, his eyes cold and furious. “I can't believe I've been friends with a couple of faggots! We all fucking trusted you!” He swings at me once more, this time punching me in the gut and making me double over, gasping for breath.

Todd tries to pull him off me, but Charlie turns and throws him across the room. His head hits the iron bedstead and he drops to the floor.

Outside the door, someone whose voice I can't make out through the ringing in my ears apparently picks up the camera and the picture. “Holy shit!” I hear from the hallway. “Cameron was kissing Anderson... they really are fags!” Three or four others pile into the room, filling the air with curses and cries of, “Faggot! Filthy queer!” A couple of them are stomping and spitting on Todd while at least one, maybe two, joins Charlie in punching me in the head and stomach.

I try to fight them off. I try to get past them to protect Todd. He doesn't deserve to be hurt. But they outnumber me four or five to one. I break away and land on my knees by Todd, trying to push him under the bed, anything to get him away from them. But someone gets an arm around my neck and hauls me back, holding tightly enough that I have to struggle to breathe and my vision blurs. For a moment, I think I see Knox Overstreet's face peering in the doorway, looking deathly white. But then another fist lands in my eye and I can't see anything at all. I fall to the floor, brought down by flying fists and kept there with kicks. All I can do at this point is try not to scream or even groan. I don't want to give them the satisfaction.

“What is the meaning of this?!?” McAllister's Scots brogue has never sounded so sweet to my ears. “Dalton, Richmond, Carruthers, Smith, Yardley... explain yourselves. What possible excuse do you have for entering your classmates' room and ganging up on them?”

“They're a pair of lousy little faggots,” Charlie spits out angrily. “My uncle sent me a Land Camera and I decided to try it out. I saw their room was dark, so I figured I'd get a good joke picture of Anderson... Nei... well, I heard he tends to sleep with his mouth open, and I knew his bed was the one in view of the door. So I cracked open the door, pointed the camera at the bed, and took the picture. Only this is what I got out of the camera.”

I manage to get one eye partway open despite the swelling, enough to see the photo that Charlie picks up from the floor and hands to McAllister. It's not the greatest of pictures, being off center and tilted at an angle. But it's unmistakably Todd shirtless on the bed, a contented look on his face, with me straddling his hips, my hands on his shoulders and leaning over kissing his neck. That's it, I think. We're done. Caught. Screwed but good.

McAllister coughs a bit at the sight of the picture. I give him a lot of credit, though, he keeps his thoughts to himself and his teacher mask more or less in place. “Be that as it may, Mister Dalton,” he says, “you still intruded into their room and acted in a manner unbecoming of a Welton student and a gentleman. While the behavior you photographed is not to be tolerated, neither is brawling. Correct action would have been to notify the headmaster or another teacher, not ganging up five against two, especially when the offense was not directed at any of you. Now, go clean yourselves up and go to your rooms. I expect the headmaster will be speaking with you all in the morning. There is to be no discussion of what just took place, do you understand?” He pockets the snapshot.

“Yes, sir,” they chorus, their voices ranging in tone from vaguely ashamed to angrily defiant. Naturally, Charlie is the defiant-sounding one. They file from the room, then another figure steps into it.

“Are they okay?” Knox asks hesitantly.

McAllister bends over Todd. “Mr. Anderson has a nasty bump on the head,” he answers, “and they're both pretty battered. I'd like them both in the infirmary for the night, just to be sure. I'll have to carry Anderson. Mr. Cameron is conscious, but he'll likely need help on the stairs. Get another teacher to escort him, if you'd rather not be seen helping him, Mr. Overstreet. I know this is likely to get ugly, and I won't hold it against you for protecting yourself against the backlash.”

Knox shakes his head, though. “No, I'll help. Cameron's the reason I've kept my place on the honor roll this year, helping me with calculus. I owe him for that.” He offers me his hand, which I blink at stupidly for a moment before taking, and helps me to my feet.

“Thanks, Knox,” I mumble around a split and swollen lip.

“You're welcome,” he says firmly as he pulls my arm over his shoulders in the accepted manner of supporting an injured companion. “Besides, if anyone asks, I can tell them Mr. McAllister asked me to help, and save my social standing that way.”

McAllister gives a wry chuckle at that as he lifts Todd and leads us downstairs to the infirmary. As Knox helps me onto a bed there, I whisper to him, “You're a better frien'... than I deserve. Keep yourself safe from this. Don' let on that you knew.”

He clasps my hand in silent understanding. “Get better quick, the both of you,” he tells me. “For what it's worth, I am sorry this happened.”

“Not your fault,” I mumble as he and McAllister leave.

The nurse fusses over Todd first, diagnosing him with a mild concussion as well as assorted bruises. She gets him an icepack for the knot on the back of his head where he hit the bedstead and wraps his ribs with bruise salve. I'm glad to hear her say he doesn't have any broken bones.

Neither do I, thankfully. I keep still as the nurse gets me salved, iced, and bandaged. My entire face is puffed out of shape, and I suppose I'm lucky my nose didn't get broken. I will have a matched pair of black eyes, though, and my jaw is bruised badly enough that she warns me to stick with mushy foods for a couple of days as I likely won't be able to chew properly. She finishes, finally, and dims the lights for the night. Once she's gone, I let myself weep silently for the ruin of Todd's and my hopes.

Dr. Hager comes for us late the next afternoon. Neither of us have spoken much, beyond reassurances to each other that we're not hurting too badly. I'm actually a little surprised we weren't summoned earlier in the day. I discover why when we arrive at Dean Nolan's office to find our parents sitting there along with the headmaster.

“My God, Richard!” Mother exclaims, jumping out of her seat as she sees my battered face.

“I'm okay, Mother, it looks worse than it is,” I reassure her quietly. I can't meet Father's gaze, though, I hate seeing the disappointment and sorrow in his eyes. “Sit down, please... let's just get this over with, then we can talk.” She returns to her chair and Todd and I also sit, occupying the two chairs obviously left for us in the center of the office. I notice that neither of the Andersons has so much as looked at Todd since Hager ushered us here.

Nolan speaks. “I thought, in my years as headmaster here at Welton, that I had seen everything there possibly was to see. But this!” He tosses the infamous photograph onto his desk. “This has got to be the most disgusting thing I have ever had to deal with. Congratulations,” he says with heavy sarcasm. “You've just earned yourself expulsion, and with barely a week until commencement, too. I don't suppose you care to attempt to come up with some sort of excuse for this filthy behavior?”

Todd goes deathly white and I take a deep breath. “It might not have happened at all if you'd handled things better last year when Neil Perry killed himself,” I say softly. “It wasn't Mr. Keating's fault. And then pretending it never happened, that Neil never existed... that just made it harder for us, you know.” In for a penny, in for a pound, I think as I reach out to take Todd's hand. I'm not sure where this little speech is coming from, but I can't stop the words from spilling forth. “I... we both... had a crush on Neil. With him and Mr. Keating both gone, Todd was horribly alone and I was ostracized by everyone who blamed me for Mr. Keating's dismissal. Todd and I were roommates then, at your instigation as you may recall, Dean Nolan. And I can tell you now, he and I were both very close to... to following Neil. But we started talking instead, and mourned together and comforted each other. And as to that picture, well, whatever was happening, was happening in the privacy of our own room, and wouldn't have bothered anyone but for Charlie Dalton entering uninvited to first take that stupid picture and then to take the lead in beating us both senseless! That's what I would term the much more disgusting behavior. Sir.”

Dr. Anderson's face looks as though it could be carved from stone, his expression is so cold. Dean Nolan is gaping at me, I think as much in shock that I dared say anything at all, as affected by my actual words. And Father... Father is looking at me with a touch of reluctant respect in his eyes. “My son does have a point,” he says mildly. “In the immortal words of Mrs. Patrick Campbell, 'I don't care what these people do, so long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses.' They were attacked in their dorm room, so whatever they were doing, they weren't doing it in the street, so to speak. What's more, wasn't the Dalton boy expelled from Welton for attacking Richard last year?”

“Er... yes,” Nolan admits. “His family petitioned for his return... they're connected with the Overstreets, you know, a very old alumni family dating back to Welton's founding... you understand...”

“I certainly do,” Father says, his voice heavy with meaning. “Just as I'm sure you would understand if I should choose to go to the papers to question why a boy expelled for his hooliganism was reinstated and allowed to attack his previous victim once again. Which I would have to do, if you were to actually expel Richard and Todd.”

Nolan flushes beet red. “Are you threatening me, Mr. Cameron? These boys are guilty of perversion! I cannot let them contaminate the rest of the school! It would ruin us!”

Father narrows his eyes. “Yes, well, what proof is there of their actions? Just this one picture? Destroy it, then the proof is gone. Punish them if you must, but let them graduate, otherwise I will make an issue of this whole affair.”

Todd's grip tightens on my hand as we glance at each other, then look at Father, feeling a thread of hope for the first time since that picture was snapped.

Our files... mine and Todd's... are on Nolan's desk. He looks through them for a moment. “All right,” he decides. “Mr. Anderson was to have received the award for highest marks in English, and Mr. Cameron was to have been Valedictorian. Aside from this... aberration... they have been exemplary students. I cannot condone what has happened here, but I am willing to simply strip them of their honors and allow them to graduate quietly with the rest of the class. Is that acceptable?” His tone implies that it had better be.

Father nods. “Very well. The picture?”

Nolan nods, then stands and tosses the picture into the fireplace. We all watch as it curls up and turns black, filling the air with the stink of burning celluloid. He looks at me and Todd. “You two will remain in the infirmary where you can be watched except for graduation rehearsals. Fortunately as seniors you have already taken your final examinations. I think I need not remind you both to remain silent with regards to this matter. Dr. and Mrs. Anderson, Mr. and Mrs. Cameron, you are welcome to use this office for anything else you might have to say to your sons, but if you will excuse me, I have duties elsewhere at this time.” He stalks out, clearly less than pleased with the situation, but resigned to it.

Dr. and Mrs. Anderson stand as well. “There is nothing to discuss,” Dr. Anderson says coldly. “We have no son at this school.” He tucks his hand under his wife's elbow, and as he escorts her out he says, loudly enough to be heard, “Paige, I apologize for not having tried harder to find someone who would have done the abortion as you wanted back then.”

I instinctively wrap an arm around Todd as he gives a soft pained sound. My parents look after the Andersons, wearing identical expressions of disgust and disbelief. Mother recovers her voice first. “I can't believe anyone would be so cruel,” she says, shaking her head. “I... well, I can't... I don't like this one bit... but that doesn't change the fact that you're my child and I'll always love you, Richard, even if I don't approve of... of this.”

I blush and Todd starts to stand up. “I'll, uh, wait in the outer office... I expect you'd like some privacy...”

“No, stay, Todd,” Father says quietly. “I think you should hear this, too. As my wife says, I can't approve. But I do respect you both for... for making your choice and seeing it through, especially knowing the risks you were taking. If this had to come out in this way, at least it was the Dalton boy leading the bunch. If it had been anyone else, I don't know if I could have out-argued the headmaster. Todd, I can tell you honestly that my son has become more considerate as well as happier since meeting you. Thank you for helping him become a better person. Richard, is this the real reason you didn't want to go to Dartmouth and law?”

“Yes, sir,” I admit. “Because even if I wasn't taking my feelings for Todd into consideration, if I'd tried to join your firm or enter the FBI or go into politics, I'd always be afraid of having my secret revealed. As a medical researcher, I won't need to worry about that, not nearly as much, anyway.”

Father nods. “Reasonable. And as I'm sure you understand, I can't risk this hurting AJ's political chances. If this is truly what you want, I can't welcome you back to the family home again.” He holds up a hand to stop me from saying anything just yet, then continues, “I won't cut you off completely. You are still my son. You may write, and you may telephone on Christmas and Mother's Day. When I return home, I will set up a trust for you. The interest will cover your educational expenses. You'll receive half the principal when you turn 21, the rest when you turn 25. Believe me, I don't like having to do this. But I can't openly accept a queer son without hurting AJ and possibly even myself. At the same time, I can't ask you to give up your... your happiness... and pretend to be something you're not in order to keep you nearby. Besides which, you're right in saying the risk of exposure is too great. This is the best compromise I can come up with.”

“Thank you, Father,” I choke out. “I am sorry to be such a disappointment.”

Mother puts on a brave face. “We''ll get over it,” she says, wrapping her arms around us both. “At least Todd is a nice young man. We have to go now, but we'll see you next week at commencement.” Father shakes hands with both of us, then leads Mother out.

Todd looks at me dazedly. “You... you really will accept exile from your family, for me?” he asks uncertainly.

“Absolutely,” I tell him softly. “You're the one who gave me a chance to redeem myself. I love you, Todd.”

“I love you, too, Richard.”


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