Free Me

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Baby Steps

I wake up to my alarm and look over to see the clothes I picked out have been switched for others. I check my phone and see Arriana has texted me nonstop for the past hour.

That shirt wouldn’t match those jeans.

How are you still asleep???

I still want to know where you were last night

OMG How late does your alarm go off??

I drop my phone on my nightstand and roll out of bed to hop in the shower. I step in before the water heats up hoping the cold will wake me up all the way. No such luck.

Fumbling into my clothes and shoving stuff into my backpack, I feel like a slug dragging on through honey. I slept wonderful, I got to bed late but it was the best sleep in a long time.

I put my backpack on the bed as Arriana slips into my room.

“Ok, spill your guts. Where did you go? I was going to stay up and grill you but I fell asleep. When did you get home?”

“Arriana, I’m still waking up, give me a bit. And keep your voice down,” I slap my hand through the air at her and sit down.

When I see her my heart sinks a little. Again, she’s planned her outfit very carefully. Her skinny black jeans and pastel pink blouse, everything from the flower in her hair to her black flats is perfectly coordinated. But all I see is the pink.

“Zayne.”

“‘Zayne’?” she echos, surprised.

My mind goes back to last night and suddenly I’m wide awake. Even more so knowing I’ll see him in first period. I think of how soft his hair looked, and how badly I want to feel it.

Arriana’s eyes go wide, “No way!” she softens her voice to a whisper, “Do you like Zayne?”

“I don’t know, we hung out last night and it just felt good, like I had someone who really understood. Someone who understood in a way no one else can, not even you.”

She starts clapping and hugs me tight, and starts going on and on about how I should ask him out or get his number. I roll my eyes and head for the door, I smell breakfast and honestly all I want is to stuff my face.

Arriana huffs as she follows me into the kitchen. Her frustration dissipates when she sees my mom putting out plates of biscuits and gravy. We sit next to each other at the counter and praise our mother with our mouths half full.

She laughs and hugs us both, “I remember when you two were still in elementary school. You would always eat biscuits and gravy, ever meal if you could. Now look at you, so darn big.”

My plate is empty before she lets us go. I leave to brush my teeth and give my mom a quick kiss on the cheek before darting out the door.

I mount my bike, taking off and getting to school faster than I ever had before. Even if I don’t talk to him, I at least want to see Zayne, give him some subtle clue that I enjoyed last night and appreciated getting to talk so openly with him.

I walk through the door, half an hour still until class starts, looking over the mostly empty halls trying to find him. I dart to my locker and shove my backpack in there so I can go roam the halls looking for him.

Part of me wonders if I’m reading too much into all this, part of me wonders if he didn’t care about seeing me again or not. It was just a conversation, just us talking through how we got here. It’s not like we kissed or were on a date.

As I get closer to the Physics classroom I see him at his locker. He looks exhausted and like he’s getting sick. He rests his head on his arm against his locker door, I want to ask him if he’s alright but then I see people walking down the hall behind him. I start walking, to avoid suspicion, when I see who exactly is walking by.

Conrad.

As Conrad walks by Zayne he takes a chance and drags his foot under Zayne, knocking him onto his side on the floor. Zayne starts coughing.

“Uh oh boys, don’t get too close,” Conrad laughs, “The fairy is sick. Probably got HIV while he was out with the other sickos of the world. Be careful, he might give it to you.”

They all laugh as Conrad grabs Zayne’s backpack and throws it down the hall.

I kick myself, I tell myself to keep walking. But I can’t.

Zayne starts to stand and tries to hold his ground, but Conrad starts building up to punch him. Before he throws the punch I step between them. I stretch out my arms to get as much space as I can between them, pushing Zayne ever so slightly into his locker for effect.

Conrad drops his fist, “What are you doing?”

“Dude, it’s the second day. Can we have one day without blood shed?”

He chuckles, “If the freak would defend himself and be a man it wouldn’t happen as often.”

I fight the urge to punch him, instead think about punching myself as I sit there with the perfect way to shut him up in my head.

“You know Conrad, if you’re really worried about HIV then getting his blood on you isn’t a good idea. But it’s your choice.”

His face pales as he and his friends take a few steps back.

“You should go before any teachers show up. Keep an eye on your health,” I fight a smile.

He and his friends take off. I turn to Zayne who has his head hanging low.

He’s sweating, “Zayne? Are you ok?”

He shrugs, “Didn’t feel well this morning. You didn’t have to do that, you’re lucky they didn’t beat you up too.”

“Stop, I’m not going to just let them attack you every day, especially when you look like you can barely stand up as it is. I’m taking you to the nurse, and I’m calling your mom because I know you won’t. What’s her number?”

“Josh, seriously, I’m alright. It’ll pass by the end of the day, it was just a rough night when I got home, I probably just ate something bad.”

“Please let me take you to the nurse.”

He looks up at me and sighs. Finally he agrees, I go to pick up his backpack with him hobbling behind me.

I get him to the nurse without incident, as Zayne insisted on the long, isolated path. The nurse greets us wearily, she was expecting this visit to be about a fight. I explain to her how sick Zayne is feeling and looking while he lays down in her office.

After taking his temperature, which was at 101.8°, she goes to call his mom. While she’s on the phone I take out a pen and write my phone number on his hand.

“Text me, ok? I want to make sure you’re alright.”

He smiles and nods. I leave to let him rest before his mom comes, right as I walk out of the office the bell rings.

I don’t want to be late so I book it to Physics, making it to my seat with maybe two minutes to spare.

Conrad and his pals come in and see me sitting by myself, to them it’s a field day.

“Lucky you, you got spared the torture and risk of sitting next to that creep for an hour.”

I fake a smile and nod as I pull out my journal.

More like I’m being spared the torture of having to watch him get bullied by you while sick.

I feel my backpack buzz in my lap; I pull out my phone and see a text from an unknown number.

Thanks for your help today. I want to make it up to you, I’ll call you later :)

I let the smile form on my face as I save the number into my contacts. Mr. Roe comes in and starts talking about our first unit and asks to collect the syllabus. I spend most of the period texting Zayne and trying to make him feel better.

My mom makes some bomb cookies, I could bring you some tomorrow?

My mom has always loved to bake and cook, so it’s very rare we don’t have home cooked meals and home cooked bakes in the house. Usually my dad could eat all her cookies in an hour but with him gone, the rest of us can get to them.

You don’t have to, I’m probably going to be at school tomorrow. It’s just a fever

Until it’s broken and you’re feeling better you should stay home. I’ll sneak out tonight and bring you cookies, sweets help everything

Thats no joke :)

My heart skips a little as I put my phone away; I can’t focus at all through the day.

At lunch I pull Arriana away to tell her everything and to beg her for help in covering for me tonight. She gives a big grin and agrees excitedly. I, like her, can’t stop smiling.

I spend the rest of lunch using my excitement and energy to do homework. The more I get done, the sooner I can “go to bed” and check on Zayne. Nothing can bring me down, until I see Conrad sit across from my sister and her friends.

Putting my stuff away I make my way over to them. The look she gives me tells me that she needs help but doesn’t think it’s a good idea for me to be there. I don’t care

I sit next to her and hug her, “What’s up?”

She doesn’t get a word out before Caira speaks up, “Conrad says you helped save him from catching something from the Cupcake. Is it true?”

Arriana looks like she’s going to cry of embarrassment.

“Yeah actually,” I say proudly, “He has a really bad fever and ended up going home, hopefully he’ll get better and no one else will get sick in the process.”

They all look shocked by my response, I knew what they were talking about, and they knew I knew. They can push if they want but I’ll be damned if I play their game.

“I don’t know, maybe he’s not so bad,” Tempe stares at Conrad, seductively licking a lollipop, “Maybe he just needs the right girl to... Set him straight.”

They all laugh, except me and Arriana. We sit there for all of lunch deflecting their commentary. It gets hard to hold my tongue and I start to feel my cheeks get warm. Arriana reaches over and holds my hand under the table, giving an understanding squeeze.

I spend the day on edge, but the knowledge of my trip to Zayne’s place makes it better.

Coming home I sit with my mom and help her clean the kitchen after dinner. She insists on going to bed early as she seems to be feeling unwell. I help her as much as I can before she heads for her room around seven.

I wait two hours before getting a bunch of cookies and telling Arriana to cover for me. She asks me to say hi to Zayne for her before I head out.

He sent me his address late in the day and it isn’t super far, a little ways past school at the Sandstone Apartments. I try to keep calm and not rush, but I want to see him and know how he’s doing. My mind keeps thinking of his texts and his face when I gave him my number, my heart beats in my teeth as I force myself to peddle slower.

It takes a little longer than I originally planned given I tried to slow myself down to not look overly eager. I put my bike by the stairs to his unit when I suddenly feel sick.

I’m meeting his parents, I’m at his house. I think I might get sick. I know I’ll get sick.

I build my courage and walk up the stairs, hesitating to knock on the door. Taking my chance with the split second I have of confidence, I ball up my fist and knock on the front door.

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