The Masquerade




"Please Alex," said the voice of my best friend from childhood.

"You know how I feel about Storyville," I replied, twisting the phone cord with one hand while I stared at the calendar on my kitchen wall and dreading the date that was rapidly approaching.

"It's been six years, Alex," he said, and I could hear the pleading tone still in his voice. "I promise the party won't be bad, and you'll have fun. Have I ever let you down?"

"I don't even have a costume, Darry," I complained. "What did you say the theme was?"

"Super Heroes," he replied, and I loved the happy tone he used. He knew that he'd played the ultimate card on me, so I wouldn't refuse.

"I guess I can call Party World," I mumbled, thinking that I was crazy for agreeing to do this.

"You won't be disappointed, Alex," he said. "I promise."

For two weeks I was a nervous wreck. I'll explain why in a little bit, but for now I'll just tell you how I got a costume for a party that I would rather have died than go to. I did call Party World after I got of the phone with Darry. I told them what the theme was for the costume I needed, and I was told to come to their store to try on a few. They had costumes ranging from Bat-Man to Blade. So I made my way across Chicago to the story and browsed for nearly an hour before I found a costume that caught my eye. I even laughed out loud when I saw it.

When Darry and I were kids, there was a comic book that we loved. It isn't a hugely successful comic, and the heroes wouldn't be known to everyone. However, someone loved it other than us, because in front of me was a perfect costume of Aregon from "Time Spun Heroes". The costume consisted of a royal blue skin tight spandex body suit, crimson bikini briefs and cape and a black nylon belt with a golden eagle button. The finishing touch was the golden eagle on the chest. Matching crimson boots with royal blue laces completed the costume. I had to have it. For a little while, as I tried on the costume and proudly stood in front of the full length mirror outside of the dressing room, I forgot how nervous I was about returning to Storyville for a Halloween party.

I filled out the spandex suit perfectly. My body still held its muscular athletic look from hours spent working out. Seeing myself in the costume I decided to cut my hair to match the hero in the comic as well. I even found out that the costume was for sale. It seemed it wasn't a popular one in the rental category. I paid for it, chatted with the cute clerk and even managed to get his number before I headed back to my apartment. From there I called a salon and booked an appointment for my haircut and even dredged up a close up photo of Aregon's head from the internet to take with me to show them what I wanted.

In the days that followed my nervousness returned. Daily calls from Darry helped, but not much. However once my hair was cut I knew there was no backing out. I'd spent over a hundred dollars on the costume, and my hair was cut in a short crew cut, high above the ears. Plus there was the promise I'd made repeatedly to Darry. So for the next week I worked out as much as possible, buried myself in work and anything else I could think of that would take my mind off of what I was doing with my vacation time at the end of October and beginning of November.

Darry wanted me to come to Storyville Friday after work. I never worked weekends, and my vacation started that Monday, the thirtieth. I wasn't ready for that, though. I told him I'd leave Monday morning, but I wanted the weekend to try to convince myself that this was the right thing to do. He knew to back off when I said my mind was made up, so I sat alone in my apartment with my fish and my computer for the weekend, dreading Monday.

I got up Monday morning with the sun and a stomach that was churning like a turbulent sea. I showered and shaved, brushed my teeth and threw on my jeans and Gap sweat shirt. After packing the costume in a travel bag and filling my duffle with four changes of clothes, my toothbrush and shaving kit, I went downstairs to the parking garage and got in my car. I drove out of the city and took the interstate that would take me back to Storyville after six years. The drive was uneventful, and I spent it going over my reasons for hating Storyville and Halloween parties. I was so wrapped up in my thoughts that I nearly missed my exit. As soon as I drove into the city itself, my stomach started to really rumble, and I was a nervous wreck.

The street was nearly covered with fallen leaves as I parked my car behind Darry's. It had been almost a year since I left Storyville, and though I swore I'd never return, here I was again. Checking my reflection in the rear view mirror, I silently scolded myself for being a glutton for punishment. After the way and reasons I left this city, coming back was nothing but a mission of self punishment. It was then that I started to rethink my decision. Yes, I know, too late. But that's one of my faults. I often leap before I look.

Daryl "Darry" Watson was my best friend in the world. We had been friends since grade school when my family moved to Storyville just before we were both to start first grade. Our house was right across the street from Darry's, and the day we'd moved in I sat on the front porch of our house, moping about not knowing anyone and living in a new place. I was feeling sorry for myself because I missed my cousins and my grandfather. We'd lived with my grandfather all of my life, and now we were in Storyville.

Anyway, Darry was sitting on his own front porch, playing with his black lab puppy. Jade, the puppy, was probably the reason that we even started to talk to each other. All of my young life I'd wanted a dog, but living with my grandfather in a third floor Kansas City apartment meant that dogs weren't allowed. Seeing Darry across the street with a puppy made me jealous beyond description. I wanted to just go across the street and ask to play with the puppy too, but I didn't know Darry then.

Our friendship began with his suspicious glances at me and my hopeful glances at him, but I was really concentrating on the puppy. It took three days of that before I got up the nerve to walk across the street, looking both ways first of course, and talked to him. What did we talk about? Well the puppy. That's what started it all. Jade, the black lab puppy that both of us loved with all of our hearts in a time in our lives when we believed that the only love a boy had to offer was for his dog, or in my case the dog of his new friend.

Our conversations didn't always center on the dog. I mean, how long can two six year old boys talk about a dog? We talked about other very important things like matchbox cars, baseball cards, dump trucks and root beer. You understand that six year old boys are universal lovers of dump trucks, matchbox cars and dirt, right? Well that's how our friendship really got off the ground. We would spend hours in either of our back yards ripping up grass to make dirt paths for our matchbox cars, digging holes in the ground to set up dump sites for our dump trucks. Yeah, I'd say we gave our parents as much grief as any other six year old boys would give theirs.

Did I mention the baseball cards? Well that's where our friendship matured into the 'best friends" stage that it became. We started trading baseball cards, only with each other at first, it was summer after all. When school started we were ahead of the other boys, because we each had already found our best friend. Our baseball trading circle widened considerably as well. Collecting and trading baseball cards developed into a true love for the game. We joined the little league team the following spring.

Baseball, Jade and an uncommon understanding of each other carried us through grade school to middle school and beyond. By the time we were sixteen years old we were two of the most popular boys at Storyville High. I was the third baseman for the Storyville High Hawks, and Darry was the first baseman. He discovered girls at about the same time that I discovered that boys were good for more than baseball cards. I didn't have a long drawn out struggle with my sexuality, and being the best friend that he was, Darry didn't miss a beat when I told him that I didn't like girls the way he did. He didn't freak out when I told him that I was much more interested in the boys. He even had my back when certain compromising situations threatened to bring my private life into the public eye.

Six weeks after we turned seventeen, Barry Long moved to Storyville. When I first set eyes on the five foot, eleven inch athletic boy with blond hair and piercing blue eyes I was lost. Darry understood, and when Barry and I admitted that we both were attracted to each other, Darry welcomed the addition to the "gruesome twosome", making our group the "terrible three". We were young, athletic, popular and happy guys for a while.

Unfortunately my happiness didn't last with Barry. Half way through our senior year Barry became jealous and violent, and Darry had to come to my defense a lot more than I liked. On Halloween night, at a party at school, Barry made a public scene. In just three minutes of his ranting at me I was outed to the whole school. Needless to say things got really bad for me for the rest of the year. When it was all over, Barry blamed me for his loss of friends and social standing at school, and the violence got bad enough that he was arrested twice. The second time sent him to a juvenile detention center until he was twenty-one. That was the end of my terrifying relationship with Barry, and I was left scarred by it so much that I never even tried to find another boyfriend the entire time between then and college.

Going to college got me away from Storyville and away from the taunting and teasing of my classmates. I vowed when I left for college that I would never return to Storyville for any reason. My parents moved to Florida after I graduated, and they made it clear that I wasn't welcome to visit or live with them there. All I had in Storyville was Darry, and he was always happy to drive to Chicago to visit me. So for six years, I stayed away from Storyville.

In those six years I had a few fleeting relationships, an unhealthy number of one-night stands but nothing substantial. I made friends in  Chicago's gay community, but none of them were the kind of friend that Darry was. I guess it isn't hard to figure out that I had held on to a little crush on Darry for years, but I'd never told him. We never discussed my sex life after Barry was out of the picture, so there was no reason for him to know that I often wished that he and I would somehow get together.

Now here I was, sitting in my car behind Darry's Honda Accord, thinking that coming back was probably going to turn out to be the biggest mistake of my life. I'd promised Darry, though. I never broke promises to Darry for any reason, so here I was. Tomorrow it would be Halloween, and I'd agreed to attend a party with him. He was between girlfriends, so it wasn't like I'd be the third wheel. It was just that Halloween parties in Storyville weren't high on my list of great things to do.

I was actually thinking about just driving back to Chicago and calling Darry to apologize when I made it there. I even had the key back in the ignition when the front door of Darry's house (not the house on Market Street where we'd grown up, but a new one that he'd just paid off) and Darry stood on his front porch, smiling at me. He was a sight to see. His muscular torso was wrapped in a black sweatshirt, his legs encased in his black jeans and his red-gold hair was as messed as usual. His brown eyes sparkled with happiness, and my heart melted. My nervousness at being back in Storyville took a backseat to the love I felt for my best friend.

"You said you'd call before you left," he reminded me, walking up to the car as I got out. Then I found myself surrounded by his arms as he hugged me.

"I forgot," I said, hugging him back and inhaling the scent of him. God how I missed him.

His new yellow lab puppy (Jade had been laid to rest behind his parents house when we were fifteen) was barking and running around us as we stood there clinging to each other. I noticed two jack-o-lanterns sitting on either side of his porch, and there were poster board witches and ghosts taped to his windows.

"I'm glad you came," he said, letting go of me and opening the back door of my car to grab my duffle. He pointed at the garment bag hanging from the clip above the passenger side window. "That your costume?"

"Yeah," I said, smiling from ear to ear. I really was excited about Aregon.

"Cool," he said as I walked around the car to retrieve the costume. "I was just getting ready to order food. Hungry?"

"Starved," I replied, following him and the puppy, Spruce, to the house. I'd never seen the house in anything but pictures.

It was a modest one story bungalow type house. The front door opened on the living room. A small tiled inlay in front of the door marked the entryway, and then soft plush carpet the color of smoke extended through the room. A fluffy blue couch sat against the egg shell wall not far from the door, twin blue Barcoloungers sat across the room with an entertainment center filled with equipment stood along the wall between the couch and recliners. Pictures graced the walls, and I was surprised to see my face in a lot of them. There were pictures of the two of us in our tuxes before the prom from Hell, baseball uniforms after the championship game (we lost 5 to 3) and matching cap and gowns for graduation. There were pictures that I'd sent him over the six years that I was gone and even a few of us together in Chicago. I was touched that he'd displayed them.

The next room, through the large arch in the wall was the kitchen with its hunter and black tiled floor and very light rust colored walls. A knotted pine table stood in the center of the room with matching ladder-back chairs with rust colored seat cushions. The row of counter cabinets along the opposite wall were also pine stained with the same rust hew of the walls. The same was true of the cabinets that hung on the wall above the hunter counter. On the floor between the refrigerator and the back door was a wicker puppy bed with a hunter cushion. Spruce went straight to it, plopped down in the center and laid his head on his forepaws.

A door on the other side of the stove opened up to the sparkling white bathroom with its porcelain claw-foot bathtub. A light blue plastic shower curtain hung on a rod that curved around the entire tub. The toilet was across the room next to the pedestal sink with the huge mirror above it. The mirror was surrounded by lights that did their very best to light up the entire room.

He led me to the bedroom at the back of the small house where he placed my duffel on his queen sized bed. The room had soft white walls and a hardwood floor. A walk-in closet extended from the door to the adjacent wall, and he took my costume to hang it inside next to his own garment bag that I was sure held his own costume. I was curious to find out what his costume was.

"Come on into the living room and take a load off," he said as he walked toward the bedroom door. "I'll order a pizza. I've got beer if you want, 'else we have to make a liquor run."

"Beer's fine," I replied, following behind him.

Forty-five minutes later we sat at his kitchen table, eating pizza, drinking beer and talking about his job and mine. I worked in a gym in Chicago as a trainer. I'd gotten the job three days after I moved to Chicago, and I was happy to get it as my savings would run thin very quickly with Chicago's cost of living. Darry worked for his father in the lumber yard behind his father's home improvement warehouse. He told me that he was itching to find another job and leave his father's business behind, but he wasn't quite ready for the explosion it would cause from his father.

We'd talked about this a lot over the last year. I knew that Darry wanted to start his own business, and he'd even etched out his business plan for me at least a hundred times over the last year. I was sympathetic, but with my own parents not even speaking to me I was lost on how to help him deal with his dad. I was always available to listen when he wanted to vent, though.

"So how's the gym?" he asked. "You know they just opened a Bally's here in Storyville last winter."

"You've told me that at least a hundred times," I chuckled not wanting to get into the old "Storyville is different now" talk that we fell into more often than not on the telephone. "The gym is great. I got a raise last month so that's a huge plus for me. My apartment needs more furniture so maybe I'll be able to fill it up now."

My living room was furnished with an entertainment center that housed a thirty-six inch flat screen television, DVD player, stereo and VCR. The only other thing in the room was a recliner the color of sand and an end table that didn't match anything that sat beside it. I had a queen sized bed in the bedroom with a cheap chest of drawers and a nightstand in the bedroom. I didn't even have a table in my kitchen, but that was fine as I had a bar with stools that came with the apartment. One corner of the living room was devoted to my Soloflex.

"Don't go furniture shopping until I come after Christmas," he said before taking a bite of his slice of pizza.

For a straight guy, Darry loved to shop. He'd been with me to buy every piece of furniture in my apartment. I'd sat with the phone stuck to my ear to listen to him describe every piece of furniture that was currently in his house, and he's sent pictures as I mentioned earlier. Wanting me to wait to shop for furniture until after Christmas wasn't an unkind request. I had presents to buy after all. Most of my Christmas shopping was done already, but I still had things to buy for a few friends as well as my coworkers.

"I won't even be ready to start looking until after Christmas," I said after swallowing my mouthful of beer. "Don't worry."

"You know, you could come here for the holidays," he said, looking me in the eye as he spoke. He tried this every year. I knew that now that he'd gotten me to spend at least part of my vacation with him in Storyville and go to a Halloween party, he'd never let up.

"I don't think I'll do that, Darry," I said patiently, watching him let out a breath of frustrated disappointment. "I'll be working right up to, and after Christmas."

The phone interrupted the discussion, thankfully. I listened to him tell whoever it was on the phone that he wasn't in the mood to hang out, and I felt bad that he was ditching his friends to spend time with me. At the same time it made me feel good, too. I just wished that things had been different. If Barry and I had never gotten together maybe they would have been. He'd no sooner terminated that call when another one came in, and I listened to him talk for a few minutes before he turned his back to me and talked softer. I assumed it was maybe a girl that was interested in him. He hung up the phone and came back to the table without saying anything, though. I decided to let it go.

We talked about the dog for a while and then I helped him clean up the empty pizza box and put all of the empty beer bottles in the recycle bin. He excused himself to take a shower, and I sat in the living room. There wasn't much on television, but I gave it a good try. I was happy when Spruce came and hopped in my lap. I was scratching behind his ears when the phone startled me. I knew he had an answering machine so I let it go.

"Hey Darry," said a guy's voice when the machine beeped. "You promised to call when Alex got to town. Don't forget to call me, man. I really want to see him."

The machine beeped again, and I stared at it for a second. Who had he told I was coming? Why had he told someone? He'd promised that he wouldn't tell anyone that I was coming to visit. He knew how nervous I was about being in Storyville again. Damn him. I didn't waste any time. I put Spruce back in his puppy bed and went to Darry's room to get my duffle and garment bag. I was in the car, getting ready to turn the key in the ignition when Darry came running outside in a bath robe. He knocked on my driver's side window, but I shook my head and turned the key.

"Come on, Alex!" he cried, and I could barely hear him over the engine as I gunned it. "Please!"

His pleading pissed me off. I turned the car off and got out, shoving him out of my way as I did. He started in immediately, but I wasn't in the mood for excuses. He'd promised, damn it. He'd never broken a promise before, and I wasn't in a forgiving mood even though it was his first time. He knew how I felt about anyone knowing I was here.

"You promised, Daryl," I hissed, using his full name. That was something I hadn't done since we were ten years old, but it got him to shut up. "You promised you wouldn't tell anyone . How could you do it? You knew how much I didn't want to come here, damn it. You know what I went through, and you promised me. I can't believe you."

"Alex, please listen to me," he said, putting his hands on my shoulders, but I shoved him back a step. I was pissed, and touching me when I'm pissed off is never a good idea. I didn't want to fight with him, but he'd hurt me already.

"You fucking promised," I hissed, turning around to open my car door again.

"Alex, damn it, wait a minute," he cried, putting his hand on the door and holding it shut. "I didn't mean to tell Paul that you were coming. He was here the other night when you called and left a message. You said on there that you'd found your costume. He heard the message, Alex."

Paul. It had to be Paul Higgins. That was one of Darry's closest friends besides me, and the two of us had gotten along really well until Barry outed me. Then Paul stopped being friendly. He was never unfriendly, exactly. He just stopped having anything to do with me. I suppose his reaction was better than a lot of people's. The only person who continued to talk to me no matter who said anything was Darry. But why would Paul say he wanted to see me?

"Please come back inside," he said, looking at me with that pleading look in his eyes. "I promise you don't even have to talk to Paul if you don't want to. I won't call him back."

I stood there staring at him for a moment. I knew that if he didn't call him back, Paul would be on his doorstep before the night was over. I didn't want to see him after he'd ignored me for the last nine months I was in Storyville before leaving for college. It wasn't until I thought about that, that I realized I believed what Darry had said. Of course I believed him. He'd never lied to me even once in our lives. I suddenly felt stupid for being mad at him.

"I'm sorry," I sighed. "You have to call him back, though. If you don't he'll just show up here. Darry, I really don't want to see him."

"All right," he said. "Just bring your stuff back inside. Please, Alex. I'm happy that you came, and I don't want you to leave."

So, once again, he carried my duffle while I carried the costume back into his house. I was feeling more and more stupid. To deal with that I went straight to the kitchen where I grabbed another beer. He excused himself to get dressed, and I sighed as I held my beer. My hands were shaking, and my heart was pounding. Just thinking about Paul knowing I was in town made me remember what those last nine months of my life in Storyville had been like.

I thought about the day after Halloween when my parents found out that I was gay. I never did find out how they found out, but my father nearly killed me. I don't mean that he beat me nearly to death, though he did punch me in the face. The word "faggot" was painted on my locker that morning, too. I'd spent the day being made fun of, laughed at, shoved around and I'd had everything in my locker covered in honey. Then I came home and as soon as I walked through the door I got a fist to the jaw from my father. He declared that no fag was going to live in his house and threw me out with nothing.

Mr. and Mrs. Watson, Darry's parents took me in immediately. They even went to my parents' house to get my things. Darry stuck up for me at school and made sure that nobody touched me, but he couldn't stop them from talking and leaving things in my locker. I'd stopped using the locker the day after the honey incident, but that didn't stop them. They started to tape things to the front of it. I'd see them when Darry and I would walk by it every morning.

I started to get crank telephone calls at the Watsons', and they'd had to change their number. Then things started getting left on their doorstep. Little care packages from my so-called friends were left right in front of the door. Those that didn't tease or try to hurt me ignored me completely. Paul Higgins was among the friends that I used to have. Now, over six years later he wanted to see me. Well that was just too bad. I didn't want to see him.

I finished my beer as I heard Darry on the phone with Paul, explaining that I was in no mood to see anyone. He told him twice that I didn't want to talk on the telephone and then promised to tell me something. I turned back to the fridge to get another beer as he hung up. I didn't want to hear whatever it was that he wanted Darry to tell me, and I planned on telling Darry so if he even started to tell me anything about Paul Higgins.

Still upset in spite of learning that he hadn't told Paul that I was coming, I walked out of the room as he hung up the phone. I went into the living room and sat down again. Darry didn't come in for a few minutes, and then I realized he was on the phone again. I turned on the television to drown him out. I didn't want to listen in. After a few minutes he came in and sat in the other recliner.

"You're still upset," he said when the television show broke for commercials.

"I'll be fine," I replied not wanted to discuss it anymore. Thankfully he let it drop and was quiet again.

I thought about the Halloween party to the next evening, and I decided that I wasn't going. Darry would be disappointed, but I knew he'd get over it. I just didn't want anything to do with meeting people from Storyville. He knew my history with the city and its people, so I thought he'd probably understand.

"I have to go in to work tomorrow," he said when there was another commercial break. "I called Dad to tell him about something that happened yesterday, and he asked me to go in and take care of an order. Sorry."

"No worries," I replied, thinking that would be the end of the party idea anyway.

"I won't get home until right before it's time to leave for the party," he said, taking the wind out of my sails. "I'll just take my costume with me and change there. You haven't told me what your costume is."

"I'm not going to the party," I said without looking at him. "You go ahead. In fact, if you want to wear my costume you can. It's Aregon's suit."

I heard him sigh in frustration, but he didn't say anything. I didn't either. My mind was made up, and I wasn't going to that party. I hated that it was breaking a promise, but he just had to understand. I was in no mood for a party. His silence continued throughout the television show, and I started to get edgy about it. I decided that the entire trip was a mistake. He'd be angry with me, but I decided to head back to Chicago while he was at work.

"I'll just call Mary and tell her that we won't be going to the party," he said, getting up after the show ended. "Maybe we can rent a couple of movies or something."

"No," I said quickly. "You go ahead and go to the party, Darry. Just because I don't want to go doesn't mean you have to miss it. I'll be fine. I'm actually thinking I should probably just go home anyway."

"Alex, damn it," he said loudly, startling me. "You promised that you would stay until Friday. It's been six years since you left, and this is the first time I could get you to agree to visit. Every time we visit I'm the one that drives to Chicago. Can't you just stay as you promised? I know you had it bad here after Barry, but Barry isn't here, and no one has anything bad to say about you at all anymore."

I didn't say anything for a while. He made me think about how stupid selfish I was acting. He was right about me never having come to visit him in six years. He had been the one to always come to see me. Even his parents had come twice. They always sent birthday and Christmas gifts every year, and I hadn't come to visit them even once. I wasn't seventeen anymore, and all of the things that happened when I was were over now. I should just get over it. I knew that.

"Fine," he sighed, getting up. "You do whatever you want. I'm going to bed. There are sheets, a pillow and a blanket in the hall closet."

Stung, I turned off the television and got the kit out of the closet. As I prepared the couch I thought about what an idiot I was being. There probably wasn't anything for me to worry about after six years. I wasn't the same person as I was then. I'd taken on homophobes in Chicago, so why was I so afraid of facing any that lived in Storyville?

Still I'd made Darry angry. That in itself was reason enough to leave. I didn't want to spend a week with him if he was going to be angry at me the whole time. Darry was the type that held a grudge, and I remembered all too well how moody he could be when he was disappointed in someone.

I sighed as I made up the couch and crawled under the blanket. I hadn't even gone into his room to get my duffle so I could change into my sweats. I just took off my jeans and crawled in. I lay there thinking about how stupid I was for what seemed like all night, but I must have fallen asleep eventually. I woke up when I heard the front door shut. Darry had left for work.

I got up and headed for the bathroom, stopping to grab my duffel along the way. I showered, shaved, brushed my teeth and cleaned up after myself. In the kitchen I found bagels on the table. There was cream cheese in the fridge, so I cut two in half and covered them with cream cheese. He'd left half a pot of coffee, so I grabbed a mug and sat at the table to eat my breakfast.

I had the rest of the morning and afternoon to sulk, and I decided that I was staying for the week as I'd promised. I did want to visit with Darry, and acting like an idiot wasn't going to get me anywhere. Even refusing to go the party was selfish and stupid. I kept reminding myself that I wasn't the same person as I was six years ago, so where was the harm in proving it to myself.

At seventeen, I wasn't a scrawny guy by any means. Growing up with Darry kept me pretty athletic. We played baseball on the school teams and also on the park district league in the summer. By the time we were seventeen we both had lean toned bodies from the running and working out. We were never heavy lifters, but we learned the right combination of weights and diets to trim off the fat and pack on just enough muscle to make our bodies bulge in all of the right places. With my athletic build, coal black hair and green eyes, I was told many times that I was attractive. I could also defend myself even then. Karate classes three nights a week for ten years made sure of that.

It was never that I couldn't defend myself. I think it was more that I just didn't dare. I was always afraid that if I stood up to one, they would all come at me at once. Having Darry for a best friend kept most of them in line, but there was always an odd ball that wasn't afraid of either me or Darry. Anthony Marston was one of those odd balls. He was also the catcher for our school's baseball team.

Anthony decided that he didn't want a fag on his team. He told me that the day he tried to make sure that I couldn't play ever again. Mrs. Watson had picked up Darry early from school that day to take him to a dentist appointment. After the last bell, I walked out of my last class with everyone else, and I even made it almost to the main entrance of the school where I was to meet Mr. Watson when I felt a searing pain in my left ankle. Then I heard Missy Shannon scream. Before I knew what was going on, I was tackled to the floor by a teacher while another was trying to wrench the knife out of Anthony's hand. He'd tried to sever my Achilles tendon.

Mr. Watson drove me straight to the hospital after two teachers carried me to the car, and we found out two hours later that the cut wasn't deep enough to cut the tendon. Anthony had failed to cripple me, but he needn't have worried about not wanting me on the baseball team. While we were in the emergency room, Coach Rylan came to talk to me and told me that I was kicked off the team.

Just thinking about that day made me angry. It also made me want to go to the party just to show any of my former classmates that may be in attendance that I wasn't scared of them. I made myself lunch while I thought about who, other than Paul Higgins, would be at the party. Darry had promised me that there would be no problems with me going. He'd even said that the crowd at the party would be a pretty even mix. Straight and gay.

After rinsing my lunch dishes and loading them into Darry's dishwasher, I took another shower. I even took the time to get my costume out of the bag and lay it all out on Darry's bed, inspecting it for snags or wrinkles. With that done I watched a little television to pass the time. It was close to six-thirty when I stripped out of my clothes and donned the Aregon suit. I went into the bathroom and applied gel to my hair. I'd bought it specifically for this costume, because it was supposed to add just a tinge of blue to my black hair. The effect was amazing. I stood back and gazed at myself in the full-body mirror on the back of the bathroom door and smiled. I thought I looked great in the costume.

I heard Darry unlock the front door as I was folding the clothes I'd worn and put them on top of the hamper in his bedroom. He came into the room, pulling his shirt off as he walked through the living room and stopped when he saw me. His smile lit his entire face, and I smiled back.

"I thought you didn't want to go to the party," he said after a long moment.

"I decided that I was being stupid," I replied. "So I'm ready."

"Let me get showered and into my costume," he said, still smiling. "I got home early enough to change here."

I sat in the living room, being very careful with my cape as he took his shower. I realized then that I didn't know what his costume was. We'd talked about mine each time he'd called me, and I made sure not to tell him until I got here. In the process he'd managed to keep his costume a secret from me. Being the good friend I am, I didn't snoop to find out, either.

When he came out of the bedroom with that tight spandex body suit on I know my eyes bugged out of my head. It was the same turquoise, gray and white suit that Sway wore in the comic that my own costume had come from. He was holding the hard rubber mask that went with it as his brown eyes sparkled with laugher at my expression.

I know he thought I was just shocked because of the actual costume, but I was definitely checking him out. He filled his costume just as well as I filled mine, and the tight spandex left very little to the imagination. I raked my eyes over his body and had to will myself not to get excited. This was Darry! This was my best friend in the entire world, the one person who stood up for me when everyone seemed to hate me. I couldn't let him know that he affected me at all.

"Shocked?" he asked, smiling and deliberately flexing his muscles under the spandex as he turned completely around.

"Where did you find that suit?" I asked, smiling and trying hard not to look at his perfect ass.

"My mom made it for me," he replied. "I had no idea that you were going to even find an Aregon, but I wanted to be Sway."

"This is all wrong," I said after staring at him for a second. "You should be wearing the Aregon suit, and I should be Sway. You were always my bodyguard . . ."

"And forever in your shadow," he said with a soft smile. "I stood by and watched you fall for Barry when I was falling for you the whole time."

It took a minute for what he was saying to sink in, and when it did I thought I felt the floor tilt underneath me. Did he just say he was in love with me? Could it be possible? After years and years of lusting after him and feeling guilty about it, he was in love with me? I couldn't believe it, but what he did next pushed away any doubt that I had. He stepped closer and wrapped his arms around me, pulling me close, and as his lips met mine I saw stars.

"Maybe we'll be late to the party," he said, tugging me back toward the bedroom.