William R. Sturgeon, affectionately known as The Fish to his students, squinted out his living room window. "Mildred, something's going on in dormitory two."
Mrs. Sturgeon peered over his shoulder. "I don't see anything."
"Precisely. It's a clear night. Drimsdale should have his telescope out."
"Perhaps he's gone to bed."
Mr. Sturgeon did not appear to have heard. "And it was sloppy joe night. Hackenschleimer always sneaks out to the dining hall for leftovers on sloppy joe night."
"Now, William. I'm sure you're exaggerating. Elmer and Wilbur are good boys."
"Yes, but they're friends with Walton and O'Neal, who are not." He cast dormitory three a hard glance, but all seemed normal there; Trimble was reading by flashlight again, and a cigarette coal bobbed out the window of Johnston and Duffy's room. His attention swivelled back to the unnaturally well-behaved dormitory two. "I don't like it, Mildred."
"Nothing's going on except tired boys getting their sleep." Mrs. Sturgeon yawned. "Which is what we should be doing."
"I can't sleep knowing those boys are up to something."
"Then go over there and see for yourself."
Mr. Sturgeon stifled a sigh and rubbed at the crick he was getting from craning his neck. "I can't do that, Mildred. If I call an inspection, then this will be the one night that absolutely nothing is wrong."
Across the north lawn, something was indeed going on in dormitory two. Though it was past lights out, eight boys had crowded into room 204, where Bruno Walton was holding an emergency meeting. He was holding it in room 204 because room 306 was occupied by the subject of the current crisis.
"He quit the hockey team!"
"He's hardly ever around, and when he is he doesn't talk."
"Oh man, we're going to lose to York Academy next week."
"He keeps falling asleep in math class."
"I keep falling asleep in math class."
"He's not showing up to meals."
"That's because you ate his dessert, Wilbur."
"I asked first! He didn't want it."
"Gentlemen," Bruno said, and the other boys fell silent. "I think we all agree. There's something wrong with Boots."
"There is adequate cause for concern," admitted Elmer Drimsdale, pushing up his horn-rimmed glasses. "Lack of appetite, change in sleeping patterns... Boots is exhibiting all the signs of clinical depression. We should encourage him to speak to the school nurse."
"Miss Hildegarde?" Bruno snorted. "She smokes. What kind of health official smokes? And anyway, Boots isn't depressed."
"How do we know?" asked Sidney Rampulsky, still rubbing the back of his head, which he'd banged while opening the window for Bruno. "Boots is a quiet guy. He could be depressed and we wouldn't even know it. He could be suicidal."
"Maybe we should phone his parents," suggested Larry Wilson. "There's a staff meeting tomorrow and I can get their number while the office is empty."
"Boots isn't suicidal," Bruno said firmly.
"Then what's wrong with him?" asked Wilbur.
"That's what we need to find out, and to do that, we need to organize," Bruno announced, and the entire room groaned. "I hereby announce the formation of the Committee for the Preservation of Boots O'Neal." He tore a sheet from Sidney's notebook and scrawled his name at the top. "Who's next?"
"Do we have to have a committee?" asked Pete Anderson. "Last time we had a committee I flunked health class."
"How do you flunk health class?" asked Chris Talbot.
"Maybe we should just ask Boots what's wrong," Larry said. He was eyeing the signup sheet nervously.
"I can't believe you guys!" Bruno jumped up on the desk chair. "Boots would do anything for you. He'd let you cheat off his history test! He'd donate a kidney! He'd... he'd kiss Miss Scrimmage!"
"Why would we need to kiss Miss Scrimmage?" asked Sidney.
"I don't know. But Boots would do it for any one of us if we needed him to."
There was an uncomfortable silence, and then Larry reached for the pen. "If I get expelled for this..."
"The Fish can't expel you for helping a classmate," Bruno said. "Besides, we won't get caught. I never get--"
"Don't say it!" Sidney tried to clap a hand over Bruno's mouth, and knocked over a lamp instead.
Down the hall, a door banged open. "What's going on in there? Davies? Rampulsky?"
"Uh, nothing, Coach Flynn," Mark called. The boys scattered, ducking into closets and rolling under beds -- except for Wilbur Hackenschleimer, who wouldn't fit anywhere and rather optimistically ducked behind the curtain. "Sidney broke a lamp."
"Again? You two need to bubble wrap your room -- or bubble wrap Rampulsky. Clean it up and get to bed."
The boys heaved a sigh as Coach Flynn's footsteps retreated, and a door down the hall slammed.
"That was close."
"It's always close when Bruno's involved."
"Hey, I found five bucks."
"If it's under my bed it's mine."
"If it's under your bed it's mine since you haven't paid me the twenty bucks I loaned you last year."
"Guys," Bruno said, voice muffled by a row of sloppily hung clothes. "Focus. We need to figure out what's wrong with Boots."
"Before the hockey game, please," Mark said. "I have to print the story even if we lose, and everyone gets mad at me if they don't like the headlines."
"Observation is always the first step to forming a hypothesis," Elmer said from under Sidney's bed.
"Right." Bruno climbed out of the closet and brushed a sock out of his hair. "Wilbur, Mark, Pete, Larry, Sidney, Chris. Your first assignment is to observe Boots. Write down everything he does and bring it to Elmer for hypothesisification. I want at least three pages of observations from everyone."
"And what will you be doing?" Wilbur asked.
"Consulting," Bruno said blithely. "As Boots' best friend and roommate, I am the world's foremost expert on the subject of him."
Melvin O'Neal, known as Boots to everyone but his parents and teachers, former captain of the hockey team and specialty of one Bruno Walton, was having trouble keeping his eyes open. The diagram on the blackboard blurred, and he yawned.
"O'Neal, I realize cotangents aren't all that exciting, but could you at least pretend to pay attention?"
Boots snapped his head up. "Sorry, Mr. Stratton." He blinked quickly, trying to shake off his exhaustion, but months of restless nights had caught up to him. Glumly Boots copied down the equations and tried to remember the last time sleep had been a given instead of a vain hope. Sometime early in the summer, he thought. Before he'd gone and ruined his life through introspection.
Funny, Bruno had always warned him that thinking too much would be his downfall.
Since summer, it seemed the world was conspiring to keep him awake. First it had been Bruno, who still wore the same t-shirt to bed that he had their first year at Macdonald Hall. After that it was his gym class dilemma that had him lying awake and staring at the thumbtack holes in the ceiling. Last night he finally decided to talk to Coach Flynn about his problem, and then he spent the rest of the night agonizing over what he would say and how Coach Flynn would react.
Boots propped his head up with his hand, subtly tugging down on his cheek to keep his eyes from sneaking shut again. Trigonometry didn't care about him or his problems. Trigonometry expected him to solve its problems.
If X is the length of Bruno's shirt and Y is the rate of tossing over an eight-hour period, how high does Bruno's shirt ride up by morning?
Boots jerked and knocked his math book off his desk. "Sorry, sir," he muttered, not even trying to make himself heard over the snickering. He bent to collect his book, and almost dropped it again. For a second, he'd thought Wilbur had been staring at him while scribbling frantically in a notebook.
"What do I write?" Pete asked his roommate, Chris Talbot. He looked enviously at Chris's notebook, which was mostly sketches of Boots with a few notes in the margins. Chris had captured the air of withdrawal surrounding Boots, the way he turned his shoulders away from his friends when in a group.
"Just write what you see," Chris said.
"Easy for you to say," Pete grumbled. "You're not writing at all." He stared at his blank page. He didn't think writing in large letters would fool Bruno any more than it fooled their teachers. He thought back to lunch and what he had observed. Subject ate four french fries and then gave the rest of his lunch to Wilbur. He considered for another minute, chewing on the end of his pencil, and added, Wlbur ate it, plus his own lunch, plus my carrots, because I don't like them.
There. He had a whole paragraph already. He pictured the dining hall, and more details from lunch came back to him. Bruno was even louder than usual, because he was trying to act casual. Mark took notes at the table and pretended it was something for the paper. Sidney bit his tongue twice.
"Hey, this isn't so hard," Pete said. "I think I'm going to have more than three pages."
"When did Boots stop showering with the rest of the class?" Larry asked Mark after gym. He'd tried to hang back and help Boots put away the mats, but Coach Flynn had chased him off.
"Maybe he's being punished," said Mark.
"For what? Boots only gets in trouble when Bruno's up to something."
"Bruno is up to something."
"But Boots doesn't know about it. Bruno can't have gotten him in trouble."
"So write it down," Mark advised. "I'm going to."
"Hey! You can't write it down. It's my observation."
"I noticed it too."
"You did n--" Larry broke off as Boots trudged in without looking at anyone. He went to the farthest stall, and was still showering when the warning bell rang for next class. Larry and Mark exchanged glares, and both reached for their notebooks.
Over the course of performing his duties to the Committee for the Preservation of Boots O'Neal, Sidney Rampulsky had acquired eight bruises, two stubbed toes, five scratches, and one blister. He was on his third notebook, having dropped the first in the toilet and lost the second to an incident involving tuna salad.
He was determined to soldier on despite his wounds and the cold drizzle currently dripping down his neck, and huddled bravely in the bushes under the window of room 306. He was so intent on listening for any sound from Boots that he didn't hear Larry Wilson creeping up until Larry tapped him on the shoulder.
Sidney gasped and lurched headfirst into dormitory three's brick side.
"Sorry," Larry whispered as Sidney probed the lump and tried to decide if he had another concussion. "The Fish wants to see you."
"But I'm supposed to observe Boots while Bruno's in detention."
"Don't worry, you were my last message for the day. I'll watch him for you." Larry sounded almost eager, and he had a grim, manic look in his eye. "Go on. The Fish'll be mad if you're late."
Sidney extracted himself from the bushes -- getting a splinter in the process -- and bolted across the lawn to the faculty building. Outside The Fish's office, Mrs. Davis smiled kindly at him and moved all her breakables away from the edge of her desk. Once past the intimidating oak door, Sidney ignored the soft visitors' chairs and automatically made for the hard bench reserved for students in hot water.
"Rampulsky." Mr. Sturgeon pinned Sidney with the cold fishy stare that earned him his nickname.
"Mr. Flynn tells me you broke another lamp. That makes four this year."
"It's only October."
"Sorry, sir. It's just... how am I supposed to see the lamp to turn it on in the dark?"
"Which brings me to the other matter," Mr. Sturgeon said, and the light glinted off the steel rims of his glasses. "Lights out is at ten o'clock." He paused, perhaps optimistically hoping for a confession, but Sidney's throat had closed up and he wouldn't have been able to confess even if he wanted to. "I don't suppose your need for illumination at one in the morning had anything to do with Walton and O'Neal?" Mr. Sturgeon prompted.
Sidney's palms started to sweat, and he knew the headmaster could read the guilt stamped over his face. "I, um, had a nightmare. About... about Bruno!"
Mr. Sturgeon sat back. "I see."
"He was... staging a production," Sidney continued, warming to the idea. "Les Miserables. I was in the chorus, and there was dancing. Sir, please promise me you'll never let Bruno direct."
Mr. Sturgeon sighed. "That is quite possibly the most commendable request a student has ever made of me. You may go, Rampulsky. Try not to break anything else this week."
Sidney slunk out of the office; once he'd gone Mrs. Davis moved her photo frames back to the edge of her desk.
When Sidney returned to his post, he found Larry scribbling furiously in his notebook, but once Larry saw him he closed the book with a snap.
"What did I miss?" Sidney whispered.
"Not a thing," Larry said. "I'll leave you to it."
Wednesday afternoon found Boots standing outside Mr. Fudge's office. The door might as well have said HEADMASTER instead of GUIDANCE COUNSELOR; Boots certainly felt the same way he did when The Fish wanted to see him. Before he could talk himself into knocking the door opened.
"Melvin? This is a surprise. I don't believe you've ever visited me before." Mr. Fudge had his coat over one arm, and Boots suppressed the urge to use it as an excuse to flee.
"Uh, Coach Flynn thought I should talk to you." Boots had wanted the floor to swallow him up as he stumbled through his request to shower separately from the other boys, but it was worth it not to feel like he was going to throw up after every gym class.
Summer had been difficult enough, at home with the privacy to confront certain inescapable truths demanding acknowledgment. He'd known going back to school would be even harder, but he hadn't thought of how simple routines like showering after gym would make him feel. Especially when Bruno thought modesty was the science of programming VCRs. And if Boots felt horribly awkward and uncomfortable, he imagined the guys would feel worse if they found out about him. Which they weren't going to, but still. Boots could worry on their behalf.
"Melvin, is there something I can help you with?" Mr. Fudge was eyeing the clock. "It's almost three o'clock--"
"I think I'm gay," Boots blurted.
"Aw crap," Mr. Fudge said, sitting back down. "I'm going to miss Days of Our Lives."
"Seven pages," Larry announced, handing his notebook to Elmer.
"That's the spirit," said Bruno. He was poking curiously into Elmer's new terrarium. The rest of the committee had squished into Elmer's room, and were collectively trying to not knock over any of the experiments and projects cluttering the space. "Between your seven and Mark's nine, you two have done the best."
Larry glared at Mark, who gave him a wide, angelic smile in return.
"Pete, on the other hand... You were supposed to be observing Boots. Say, Elm, what do you keep in here?"
"That's Lucy. She's my new female Phiddipus audax," Elmer said. "Jumping spider," he added, and Bruno leapt back from the terrarium. "And I disagree. Pete's observations are perfectly valid."
"They are?" Pete asked. "I mean, yeah. They are."
"Environment and social interactions with peers are important factors to consider."
"We're his environment and social interactions," Bruno said. He was still eyeing the terrarium warily. "Except he's not interacting with any of us. So what's the hypothesis, Elm?"
Elmer pushed up his glasses and consulted the stack of notes. "Given the subject's age, the most likely stress factors are schoolwork, family instability, difficulty with peers, romantic entanglements, and -- if you'll forgive me, Bruno -- the risk involved in being your friend. Boots' grades are stable, and his brother reports no problems at home. He is well-liked--"
"Or was before he abandoned the hockey team."
"--so that eliminates the first three possibilities. His current chances for expulsion are actually down two percent from last semester, so that eliminates the last."
They all paused to digest this.
"Elmer," Bruno said, "are you telling us Boots is in love?"
"It's a strong possibility."
"I guess this is the end of the committee then," Pete said, relieved he still had a chance of passing history.
A very odd look had come over Bruno's face, and before Pete spoke he'd been staring at his sneakers like he'd never seen them before. His head came up at once. "Of course it's not the end," he said briskly. "The Committee for the Preservation of Boots O'Neal's Well-Being has been renamed as the Get-Boots-a-Girlfriend Foundation. Gentlemen, we have a new purpose. Find out who Boots likes and make her fall madly in love with him."
"Why can't Boots handle his own love life?" Wilbur asked.
"Because he deserves to be happy!" Bruno looked every bit as grim as he had when Macdonald Hall was threatened with bankruptcy or Mr. Wizzle. "And we're going to make it happen, even if it kills us."
The Get-Boots-a-Girlfriend Foundation went into action at dinner, when Sidney dropped his fork. It was the signal to begin, but they were delayed a moment as the fork had landed tines-down and become wedged in Sidney's shoe.
Once the damage had been assessed as minimal, Mark cleared his throat. "Did you see Scrimmage's playing croquet today?"
"Oh yeah," said Larry, a little too enthusiastically. "Wilma Dorf has great legs."
"Scrimmage's is across the highway," Boots said doubtfully. "How did you see her legs?"
"I've got good eyesight."
Mark elbowed Wilbur, who finally looked up from his plate. "Forget legs," he mumbled. "Give me a woman who can cook."
"Better stay away from Scrimmage's then," Boots said. "Did anyone get the pages Mr. Foley assigned? I fell asleep in English."
Bruno ignored him. "So who do you think has the best legs at Scrimmage's, Boots?" he asked, and everyone at the table leaned forward.
Boots froze with his fork halfway to his mouth, a wide-eyed deer-about-to-be-runover-by-Bruno-Walton look on his face. "Um," he said, and then shoved his fork in his mouth, mumbled something unintelligible around his food, and dumped his mostly-full plate on his tray.
"Wow," Sidney said as Boots fled the dining hall. "He's got it bad."
"He didn't even finish his meatloaf," Wilbur mourned.
"Guys, this is getting serious," Bruno said. "I think we need to consult the experts."
"I thought you were the expert," Larry said.
"On Boots," Bruno scoffed. "What do I know about girls?"
Outside the dining hall, Boots leaned against the wall, the cold brick digging into his head a suitable punishment for his stupidity. Why didn't I just pick a name? Or two, so they don't think I like anyone in particular? Hunching his shoulders, he hurried back to room 306. He still didn't know which pages to read for English class, but since he'd skipped most of dinner, he had time to read the whole chapter.
In the dark of night, eight figures darted across the highway, heading for Miss Scrimmage's Finishing School for Young Ladies. Two of the young ladies in question were hanging out their window in their pajamas, and waved when they saw the boys in the orchard.
Sidney fell from the drainpipe three times (he hadn't been far up the first two, and the third time Larry broke his fall), Elmer had to be threatened with Boots' eternal misery before he would voluntarily climb up to room occupied by girls, and Wilbur nearly pulled the whole pipe away from the wall.
"Boots had better marry this girl and have a million kids," Pete muttered as the drainpipe swayed under him.
"Hi there," said Cathy Burton, helping him through the window. "If we'd known we were hosting a party, we would have filched more food."
"You have food?" Wilbur asked, brightening.
"What's up?" asked Diane Grant. "How come Boots didn't come?"
"Boots has a problem," Bruno said solemnly. "He's in love."
"That's wonderful," Diane said.
"No it's not!" Bruno burst out. "It's terrible! He in misery."
"Yeah, love will do that to some people," Cathy said sagely. "They get all uptight and act like idiots."
"Well, we need to get Boots un-uptight before the game against York Academy," Mark said. "We can't lose to those turkeys just because our captain decided puberty was more important than Macdonald Hall's pride."
"You're a girl," Bruno said to Cathy, who rolled her eyes.
"What gave me away?"
Bruno waved a hand to shush her. "What do we do to make Boots irresistible to women?"
"That would depend on which woman you want to stop resisting him," Diane said. "Is she athletic? Smart? Artistic?"
"We don't exactly know that part," Larry said. "We tried to get it out of him but he turned all red and ran away."
"Amateurs," scoffed Cathy. "If you want information, leave it to us."
Boots felt better after talking to Mr. Fudge, though Mr. Fudge had done little besides look bewildered and say 'I see' a lot. Just voicing his worries aloud had slowed the whirlwind of panic that lived in his head in these days, helped him gain some perspective. So he was gay. Lots of teenage boys were gay.
Of course they all don't have crushes on their best friends, who are coincidentally their roommates at an all-boys boarding school...
His newfound equilibrium had completely evaporated by the time he returned to find room 306 empty again. Bruno was never in their room anymore, and while part of Boots was happy for the break from sweaty palms and nervous stomach, most of him was hurt at not being included in whatever it was that had caught Bruno's interest this time.
Boots set his history test on his desk. He'd managed a B, but only because the lack of sleep was offset by the lack of sneaking out at night. This was worse than the time Bruno had drawn a line down the middle of their room with tape; at least then Boots had known why Bruno was mad at him. Nothing like that had happened this year. Boots hadn't refused to participate in any of Bruno's crazy schemes, mostly because Bruno hadn't announced any new causes yet.
A cold chill shot down Boots' spine. Bruno was acting like he had a new cause. He seemed happier than usual, content the way he only was when their world was crumbling around them, and he'd marshaled the troops to counterattack. Yet he hadn't recruited Boots to help. He vanished after dinner, he stopped talking when Boots joined the group...
It could only mean one thing. Bruno knew. He knew, and was avoiding Boots. In fact, all the guys had been acting strange lately. Boots was sure Larry and Mark had been staring at him in the showers, and now he wondered if Wilbur really had been acting oddly in math class. His stomach clenched, and not in the almost-pleasant way it did when Bruno stood too close to him.
Just as Boots was convinced he was going to have to go to The Fish and ask for a new room assignment, Bruno burst in, all evidence of the distant politeness gone.
"Boots! Just the man I was looking for. Get your shoes on."
"Why?" Boots asked, flopping onto his bed as panic ebbed and took all the strength in his legs with it.
"We're going to Scrimmage's tonight."
Boots blinked, his relief quickly fading into trepidation. "... Why?"
Bruno scowled. "Do we need a reason? The girls are our friends and we haven't been over to visit lately."
"Bruno..." It was on the tip of Boots' tongue to ask what was going on, why Bruno had shut him out for the last month, but the words stalled; he didn't want to open himself to the same question from Bruno. He settled for expectant silence until Bruno caved and confessed.
"Miss Scrimmage hasn't shot at us once this year," Bruno said sheepishly. "I don't feel like school's properly started yet."
A smile of relief curled Boots' mouth. Bruno was just feeling nostalgic. He didn't suspect a thing.
"There's the signal," Cathy said. "Are you ready?"
"Why do I have to be the one to talk to him?" Diane asked.
"You're more approachable. If I had a crush on someone, I'd confess it to you."
Diane was touched.
"Places, everyone," Cathy called, though everyone was already in their places. "Aaaaaand, action!"
As if Bruno had heard her, a rock sailed out the darkness to plink against the window. Cathy flung it open, and in a few moments the boys were standing in their room. After a quick round of greetings, Cathy clapped her hands.
"Diane, we don't have refreshments to offer our guests. How rude of us," she said. "Bruno, come with me to the kitchens."
"What if you get caught?" Boots asked.
"I never get caught." Bruno leapt up and offered Cathy his arm. "Never fear, Milady. I will escort you."
"That's Milady Quarterback to you," Cathy said, and punched his arm. Boots rolled his eyes at Diane as they left, and Diane grinned.
"Have a seat," she said, patting the spot next to her on Cathy's bed. Boots eyed her warily, and then sat down. "I feel like we haven't talked lately."
"We haven't," Boots pointed out. "I haven't seen you since June -- that thing with the dog show and the riot police right after final exams."
"Oh yeah." They both sighed, and then Diane put on a chipper expression. "So, how was your summer? Did you meet anyone?"
Boots ducked his head. "Why does everyone keep asking me that?" His ears turned bright red, and Diane squealed.
"You do like someone! Tell me! Is she pretty?"
"I don't like anyone," Boots insisted. His voice had gone squeaky.
"Don't lie to me, Melvin. Did you ask her out? Did she say no? Is that what's wrong? Do you want me to shake her until she sees how wonderful you are?"
Boots stared at her, wide-eyed and helpless. "I... I haven't said anything," he mumbled at last, and Diane allowed herself a private cheer before she put on her sympathetic face.
"If you like someone, what's the problem in telling them? Is it Bruno?" she asked. She imagined a friend like Bruno would frighten off most girls, even among the hardier souls at Miss Scrimmage's. Her compassionate smile wavered as Boots turned deathly pale.
"Is it that obvious?" He raked a hand through his blond hair and stood up. "You can't tell him. He'll hate me worse than he did when I quit his anti-Wizzle committee. He'll want a new roommate. He'll want a new best friend."
"Why would he hate you for liking a girl?" Diane asked, completely lost now. "I know Bruno can be a bit demanding, but..."
"Oh shit," Boots said, and Diane blinked; she never heard Boots utter an impolite word in the entire time they'd been friends. "You meant... shit."
Being Cathy's friend, Diane was rather good at adapting to sudden one-eighties. "So you meant... you have a crush on Bruno," she said, quite proud that she hadn't jumped up and shrieked 'Oh my God!' at the top of her lungs.
Boots sat back down on the bed and buried his face in his hands. "It's horrible. You know what he's like, he's totally clueless and he's like a force of nature and I just can't get away from him. He's my best friend! Did you know he still sleeps in the same t-shirt he did when we were twelve? Do you know how much bare stomach that amounts to? We have to shower together, Diane, and Bruno has no concept of modesty. I had to quit the hockey team because I can't stand him jumping all over me after we've won and he's all sweaty..." Boots whimpered into his hands. "He smells so good."
"Well," Diane said, gamely trying to bring the conversation back around to the script, "have you tried finding out if sh-- he likes you?"
"Are you crazy?" Boots' head snapped up. "This is Bruno, King of Overreaction." He paused. "Or Underreaction. Oh God, what if I said something and he didn't care? That'd almost be worse than if he hated me."
"I'm sure Bruno would care."
"You're right," Boots said slowly. "He'd care enough to request a new room assignment."
Diane twisted the hem of her pajama top, biting her lip. "It'll all work out, you'll see. Bruno--"
-- came bounding in, Cathy on his heels. "We're back," he announced, staring intently at Boots. "Did we miss anything?"
"No," Boots and Diane said together.
"Oh well. Look at the time! We should let the girls get some sleep, Melvin."
On cue, Cathy yawned.
"But we just got here," Boots protested. "The food... where's the food?"
"I forgot we had liver and brussels sprouts for dinner," Cathy said blithely. "Sorry, but you'll have to raid your own kitchens tonight." She and Bruno hustled a very confused Boots over to the drain pipe. As soon as Bruno vanished over the ledge, Cathy shut the window and spun around. "Did you get anything out of him?"
"Oh. My. God," said Mark from the closet, and Diane hid her face in a pillow.
"You did! Tell!" Cathy flung herself on her bed, squishing Pete as he tried to crawl out from under it. Larry emerged from under the other bed, notebook dangling forlornly from his hands.
"Boots likes Bruno," Diane said into the pillow.
Cathy blinked once, twice. "Well. That complicates things."
"That's all you have to say? What are we going to do?" Pete moaned, and Cathy shrugged.
"We can't do anything until we find out what Bruno thinks."
"We can't tell him," Larry said. "What if he freaks out?"
"Bruno and Boots have been friends forever," Mark added. "I'm not going to be responsible for wrecking that."
"But he's trying to set up poor Boots with some imaginary girl," Diane said. "You know Bruno will never give up on it. He wants Boots to be happy."
Cathy's expression turned thoughtful.
"Oh Cathy, no," Diane said.
"What is it?" asked Pete, looking from one girl to the other.
"Bruno's been very insistent on Boots' happiness, but he doesn't seem very happy himself." Cathy paced the room, head down, one finger over her lips. She stopped abruptly. "Gentlemen, I propose a new committee. The Get-Boots-a-Girlfriend Foundation must continue, of course, but it will be a sham to occupy Bruno while we do the real job of the committee. The job of getting them together."
"Can't we just let them work it out themselves?" Pete asked plaintively. "This was hard enough before Boots was gay."
"We married off Mr. Wizzle and Miss Peabody, and they hated each other." Cathy tossed her head. "Like Mark said, Bruno and Boots have been friends forever. We'll just make them better friends. How hard could it be?"
"Welcome to the first meeting of the Society for Romance in Room 306," Cathy announced.
"I wanted to call it ScrimMatches," Diane told Chris Talbot, who wrinkled his nose.
"That's hardly better."
"Our mission is simple," Cathy plowed over them. "Force Bruno to fall in love with Boots."
Elmer cleared his throat, accidentally glanced at Diane, and had to clear his throat three more times before he could speak. "It's generally accepted that sexual orientation is inherent. Attempts to alter gender preference have produced dubious results at best, and severe psychological harm at worst."
"I don't think we need to alter anything," Cathy said. "When's the last time you heard Bruno talk about a girl?"
"Yesterday at lunch," Pete volunteered.
Cathy rolled her eyes. "Outside of trying to get Boots to confess. Remember the dance a few years ago? He was more interested in Jordie Jones than any of the girls."
"Maybe," Larry said doubtfully, "but even if Bruno does like guys, how do we make him like Boots?"
Pete shrugged. "Just lock them in a closet and don't let them out until they kiss."
"We can't do that." Cathy pursed her lips. "They need to go on a date. A romantic dinner."
"With each other?" Mark asked. "They'd never go for it."
"Well of course not," Cathy said, warming to the idea. "That's why Diane and I are taking them on a double date. We'll tell Bruno it's a plan to build up Boots' confidence. You know, get him some practice so he'll ask his mystery girl out."
"Hmm," said Diane. "And then we ditch them and watch the sparks fly."
"I guess," Mark said. "We can send them to Wilbur's uncle's restaurant."
Wilbur sniffed. "Fine cuisine would be wasted on those two."
"Bruno can't afford a place like Manny's anyway," Chris said.
"Why does Bruno have to pay?" Pete asked.
"Because Bruno owes Boots for all the trouble he's gotten them into," Cathy said. "Manny's is out. What's in Chutney?"
"Hamburgers or fish and chips," Larry said. "Not places I'd take a girl. Er, not that either of them is a girl."
"Seriously, how do two guys decide who pays?"
"Does it matter? They can both pay half."
"That's not a real date."
"If you're a Neanderthal."
"Nobody's paying for anything unless we find a restaurant."
"Uncle Manfred makes the best crème brûlée."
"What's wrong with hamburgers or fish and chips? I'd take a date for hamburgers or fish and chips."
"That's why you don't have any dates."
"Ixnay," Sidney hissed from the door. "Bruno's here." They fell silent as Bruno stalked in.
"Everyone's here already?" he asked. He didn't sound very happy about it. "Great. Let's get started."
"About that," Cathy said, grinning rakishly, "we've had an idea."
It turned out Bruno shared Mark's ideas on suitable places to bring a date for dinner.
"It's just a practice date," he scoffed when they asked him his opinion on the restaurant. "No need to go into Toronto when there are perfectly good places to get food in Chutney."
They wound up clustered outside Mister Halibut Fish and Chips on Saturday night, Cathy and Diane chatting happily while Bruno skulked along behind and Boots brought up the rear, dragging his feet and looking lost.
"Why are we here again?" he asked plaintively.
"Because I owe Dave Jackson seventeen bucks for some magazines, and he needed money for his bike and passed the debt to Lisa Preznyk, who traded it to Diane for a curling iron, and she pooled it with the fourteen dollars I owed Cathy to force us to take them to dinner," Bruno said, and Boots blinked once, slowly.
"Okay." After a second he opened the door for the girls. They smirked at each other, and their smiles widened further when Boots held the door for Bruno too. They squished into a booth, with the girls managing to sit on the same side. Bruno scowled at them, and Cathy smiled sweetly in return.
"Could we get a candle for the table, please?" she asked the waitress, who rolled her eyes and sauntered off with their orders.
"Why do we need candles?" Boots asked.
"Diane's allergies are acting up." Cathy waved her hand airily and Diane sniffled. "In fact, shouldn't you put in your eye drops now? Let's go to the washroom." She stood up without waiting for a response, and dragged Diane toward the restrooms. In the little hallway they met up with Larry and Sidney.
"We've already ordered so they can't leave," Diane whispered. "You guys keep an eye on them and report straight back to us once they leave."
"They'll be holding hands by then," Cathy crowed. "Ah, l'amour!"
Diane shushed her, and they slipped out of the restaurant to catch the bus back to Miss Scrimmage's. Once they had gone, Larry and Sidney found a table in the corner from which they could see the backs of Bruno and Boots' heads.
"Get you anything?" the waitress asked.
"Shh!" Larry hissed. "I mean... uh... Sidney, do you have any money?" After a frantic search through their pockets, they came up with a button, a band-aid, and four dollars and twelve cents. Larry sighed. "One order of fries with gravy, and two waters, please."
"It's going to be one of those nights," the waitress said. "Back in a minute with your waters. I have to go find a candle."
At the booth, Bruno was drumming his fingers and casting glares at the hallway to the restrooms. "Girls, sheesh. They're probably putting on makeup or something. It's not like we care what they look like."
"Be nice," Boots said without much hope.
"Here you go, boys." The waitress set down an empty salt shaker and wedged half a white candle into it; hardened globs of wax broke off and clattered to the table. She lit the candle with a match. "All set to impress your dates."
"We're not--" Boots started, flushing, and then he sighed. "Thanks."
Their drinks came, and then their food, and still the girls did not return. The candle burned down to a puddle overflowing the salt shaker.
"I wonder where they could have gone."
"I don't know," Bruno said darkly, "but if Cathy's not back in five minutes, I'm eating her food."
Bruno accepted the girls' excuse of running into their music teacher in the restroom and being marched back to school, but he was in a foul mood at their lack of progress. The 'date' had not gone well, especially after Sidney had tripped the waitress and been spotted, and Bruno and Boots had left right after polishing off two meals apiece.
"This isn't working," Diane said. They were gathered in the girls' room while Sidney kept Bruno occupied with a hunt for Boots' fictional diary. "Boots is just too skittish."
"Maybe we're going at this backwards," Cathy said. "Boots thinks Diane's the only one who knows he likes boys. He's never going to make a move on Bruno if he can't even tell his friends he's gay."
"Cathy! We can't out him."
"Of course not. But what if someone else was outed? And Boots saw that everyone was cool with it?"
"The pressure to conform is strongest among adolescents," Elmer squeaked. "A demonstration of acceptance would likely improve Boots' confidence."
"Great! All we need is a volunteer."
Everyone looked at Chris.
"You're a sensitive artist and you have impeccable fashion sense."
"I'm not that sensitive!"
"But you can't deny the fashion sense," Diane said. "We need to convince Boots."
"What if everyone's not cool with it? What if everyone hates me? What if the school calls my parents?"
"See, this is exactly what Boots has been going through!" Cathy chided. "He's worrying himself sick about what you'll think. You guys need to be more supportive of your friends."
The boys hung their heads, properly chastised.
"That's better. Now, your first assignment is to turn Macdonald Hall into the most fabulous gay-friendly school in Ontario."
Larry looked thoughtful. "If it's only us, Boots will suspect something's up."
"Forget Boots, Bruno will know something's up."
"We need to enlist some manpower."
"This part we can do," Wilbur said. "Bruno's always sending us to round up more guys for his projects."
"Perhaps it would be more efficient if we established a permanent roster," Elmer mused, and Larry clapped him on the shoulder.
"Elm, we are the permanent roster."
Larry rubbed his hands on his pants and fell in beside Dave Jackson on their way to chemistry. "Hey, Dave, your cousin's gay, isn't he?"
Dave curled his hands into fists, and suddenly looked just as menacing as he did in the rink, even without a hockey stick in his hands. "You got a problem with it?"
"No, no! Just, uh, could you talk about him more? Say, loudly, in the dining hall at lunch? The fate of our hockey season depends on it."
Dave eyed him suspiciously, but relaxed a fraction. "Is this one of Bruno's crazy schemes?"
"Absolutely not," Larry swore. Cathy was far worse than Bruno.
Wilbur plunked down next to Calvin Fihzgart in the library, and quietly arranged his bag so he could reach the crackers inside without the librarian seeing.
"The Beast should not be subjected to tests," Calvin moaned. "I can't understand why Mr. Wong isn't afraid to come to class when I'm there. Doesn't he know the Beast cannot be controlled with standardized testing?"
"I'm sure he's petrified inside," said Wilbur. "Cal, we need the Beast for a special assignment. We're looking for some guys to, I don't know, talk about gays and stuff. In a good way. Elmer called it opening a dialogue."
Calvin frowned. "But I don't know any gay people."
"How do you know?" Wilbur challenged, and Calvin opened his mouth, then closed it again. "See, any of the guys could be gay, even the one of the guys on the football team." Inspiration struck, and he punched Calvin on the arm, making him stagger. "Are you going to let anyone talk trash about one of the Warriors?"
"What? No way! The Beast is always there for his teammates! This is what I'm gonna do to anyone who says one word about the Warriors!' He leapt to his feet and bit into the cover of Readings in Canadian Geography, second edition, shaking it like a dog. The intended terror-inducing effect was lost when the book slipped from his teeth to fly across the library, where it struck Sidney Rampulsky in the back of the head.
Boots spent the next two days in an agony of paranoia. Suddenly, everywhere he went people were talking about gay people they knew, gay celebrities, gay culture, gay porn, gay, gay, gay.
Backpacks sprouted rainbow patches and pink triangles, and the maple leaf flying proudly from the flag pole suddenly had equally proud and much more colourful company. Boots would have sworn the entire school knew his secret, but none of the conversation seemed to be about him.
"...pride parade was fun this year," Fred Johnston said to his roommate, Jim Duffy, as Boots passed them in the dining hall. "It's one big water fight with music and not a lot of clothes. Plus you get a lot of free stuff."
"My sister's best friend likes chicks," Jim said around his mouthful of sandwich. He paused. "It's too bad. She's hot."
At the next table, Myron Blankenship was hopping from one foot to the other, while the guys seated there did their best to ignore him. "Hey guys, hey guys, did you know someone on the football team is gay? Also Ted Carlson's mom mails him clean underwear every month because his end up in a pile under his bed."
"For fuck's sake," Rob Adams burst out. "We don't care, Blabbermouth."
But Myron had already spotted a new ear. "Boots! Hey, did you know someone on the football team is gay?"
Boots decided he didn't want any lunch, and fled to his next class. He couldn't escape the new fever sweeping Macdonald Hall though; on Tuesday morning, the school woke to find someone had dressed the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in leather chaps and a ball gag.
"Mildred," said Mr. Sturgeon, as he peered out his window at the crowd gathering around the statue. "The Hall has gone crazy."
"I think it's wonderful to see them taking action."
"Action I would condone, even encourage. Defacing school property I will not."
"They're making a statement, William."
"Normal schools hold assemblies on tolerance. My school petitions the board to change our motto to In excellentia fabulous." Mr. Stugeon donned his red silk housecoat, and padded over the dewy lawn in his slippers. He surveyed the crowd and spotted the two heads he was looking for, one dark, one fair, both milling around in a perfect display of innocence.
"Walton, O'Neal. My office, ten minutes," he barked, and strode away to the faculty building in his housecoat.
"Nice one, guys," someone called from the back.
"We didn't do anything," Bruno said, rubbing his chin. "I mean, it's excellent work -- good concept, flawless execution -- but it wasn't us."
"Ah," Chris said as Larry elbowed him. "This might be my fault. I, er... um..."
"It's no big deal," Larry said, when Chris fumbled to a halt. "Chris let slip to Pete that he's gay, and Pete told Mark and Mark told me, and I thought we should show a little support. Some of the other guys must have had the same idea."
"How come no one told me?" Bruno demanded, outraged at being left out of mayhem.
"No offense, Bruno," Larry said as the groundskeeper arrived to strip Sir John of his fetish gear, "but sometimes you go a bit overboard with these things."
"This is a disaster," Bruno said as he paced back and forth in Scrimmage's orchard. Wilbur had refused to climb the drainpipe again, so Cathy and Diane had come down. "How is Boots ever going to ask this girl out when the whole school is talking about nothing but other guys?"
"This could be a good thing," Larry said. "Maybe he'll ask her out just to prove he's not gay."
"Boots isn't like that," Bruno snapped. "We need some new ideas. Diane, maybe you can talk to him again."
"I'll give it a try."
"And Cathy, you talk to the girls, find out if anyone likes Boots. If we can't find this girl he likes, maybe we can set him up with someone else. Someone who appreciates what a great guy Boots is." He ran a hand through his hair, making it stick up at the back. "He hasn't been to lunch in three days," he muttered.
"Don't worry, Bruno," Diane said softly. "Everything will work out."
Bruno sniffed. "Not with the way you're all playing around. It's like you want Boots to be miserable."
"Haven't you ever heard the phrase 'suffering for love', Walton?" Cathy asked. "You guys keep trying to find out who Boots has a crush on, and we'll work on Plan B." She caught Elmer's arm as they started for the highway, making him blush to the roots of his crewcut. "Stage One is complete," she whispered. "Macdonald Hall is prepped. We'll now progress to Stage Two: engage the targets directly. You all have your assignments."
"Good luck," Diane said.
"Guys, are you coming?" Bruno called, and froze as a light flooded the orchard, pinning him in a brilliant white circle.
"Halt, intruders!" Miss Scrimmage shouted, waving her shotgun in the air, and then she shrieked as the boys stampeded past her.
Once he'd finished washing dishes for his detention, Mark summoned the newspaper staff to go over the last-minute changes to that week's edition. He had to clear his throat several times while giving instructions.
How did Bruno manage to talk them into going along with his crazy schemes every time? Mark tried to picture Bruno in full orator mode. It was his confidence, Mark decided. It was hard to argue with someone who knew he was right, even when he was wrong. And Mark had the distinct advantage of actually being right.
"So we'll save the board story until we can interview Mr. Snow." He cleared his throat again. "Oh, and Doug, we need to fit in another ad. Chris and Pete are starting a gay-straight alliance club, to meet Thursdays at seven." Mark firmed his voice to Bruno-esque levels. "You're all joining."
"Mark, I know Chris is a friend of yours, but--"
"But what?" Mark snapped, suddenly angry. "What's wrong with supporting people who have to deal with hate and intolerance? Is that the kind of school Macdonald Hall is? No! We stick together, even when our world is crumbling around us! You guys are going to that meeting because the pride of the school depends on it!" He paused for breath, and realized his staff was blinking at him, awed. This is how Bruno feels all the time, Mark thought, and vowed to be the first to sign up to Bruno's next cause. No one protested further, and Mark swept out of the newspaper office, triumphant and just a bit giddy.
After he'd gone, Doug scuffed his foot. "I was going to say I have chess club Thursday nights."
"Quit," advised Martin Trimble. The incident had all the signs of a Walton scheme, and with Bruno, resistance only increased the chances of the school winding up on the six o'clock news.
"I've been participating in the most engrossing social experiment," Elmer Drimsdale said to his chemistry group. They were using his lab as it was better equipped than the school's. "It's been unexpectedly informative, despite the flawed premise."
"Does it concern those jock friends of yours?" Malcolm Brindle asked.
Elmer sniffed. "Clearly, stereotypical assumptions are not confined to the unintelligent. It just so happens that those 'jocks' of whom you're so disdainful are forming an activist club combining the interests of homo- and heterosexual students, in order to promote social evolution."
"The jocks are forming a gay-straight alliance?"
"Yes," Elmer said. He turned the bunsen burner down and opened Lucy's terrarium to feed her. "Although perhaps my point about conventionalizing roles--"
Malcolm whooped loudly, starling Henry into dropping a beaker. "Finally!" Malcolm crowed. "We have ammunition against those jerks!"
"--was lost." Elmer scratched his head as Malcolm and Henry started to discuss ways to end the jocks' 'reign of terror.' He didn't think anyone on the hockey team knew who either of them were. He closed Lucy's terrarium and decided not to invite Malcolm or Henry to the meeting, even if it meant facing that Cathy person's wrath.
"There they are," Perry Elbert whispered to Chris Talbot as Bruno and Boots emerged from the dining hall. With a swift elbow to Chris's ribs, Perry stepped out in front of the pair.
"Bruno! Boots!" he said, too loudly, and Chris winced. Perry waved the stack of pamphlets Larry had ordered from the Board of Education. "Are you joining the Macdonald Hall Gay-Straight Alliance? We're having our first meeting in half an hour."
Boots turned a pale greenish colour, but Bruno took a pamphlet without hesitation. "Sure," he said. "I'm always up for activism. Hey, maybe we could stage a demonstration. I'm sure the girls at Scrimmage's would help," he added with a significant look at Boots.
"No riots," Chris said firmly. He stuffed a pamphlet into Boots' unresisting hands.
"But I love riots," Bruno said. "We haven't had one all year."
"We've only been back at school two months! No riots."
"Bruno," Boots said quietly, " the last thing Chris needs right now is a riot." He gave Chris a shaky smile. "We'll be there."
"Thank you. I, er, hope anyone at Macdonald Hall who is gay would feel comfortable admitting they were gay. Because we're all okay with it. Being gay, I mean. Er."
"Huh," Bruno said as a red-faced Chris dragged Perry off. "What was that all about?"
"No idea," Boots said. "Bruno... are we really going to go?"
"Sure. It's our duty as socially conscious students and Chris's friends."
"You're not worried that people might... talk?"
"What, like the Blabbermouth? Who cares. It says here that most anti-gay violence occurs in schools. Schools, Melvin. We're just making sure Macdonald Hall never turns into one of those statistics they put in pamphlets. Besides, I'm certain the..." He trailed off, cocking his head. "Ah, right on time."
Across the highway, the PA crackled to life, and Cathy's voice boomed out, easily reaching both schools and a good number of the neighbouring houses. "ATTENTION, GIRLS. MACDONALD HALL IS TAKING ACTION FOR SOCIAL REFORM. THEY NEED OUR HELP SPREADING EQUALITY AND HOT GAY PORN TO THE WORLD. THE LOVE THAT DARE NOT SPEAK ITS NAME WILL BE SILENCED NO LONGER! AND IT IS SERVING CAKE AND GRAPE KOOL-AID IN THE REC HALL. FORWARD, MARCH!"
For a moment, nothing happened, and Boots wondered if for once the universe had taken pity on him. Then the front doors of Miss Scrimmage's Finishing School for Young Ladies burst open, and a tide of girls poured out. They stampeded across the highway, across the north lawn, past the cannon, to the walkway outside the rec hall, where they milled around on the grass. The boys of Macdonald Hall, always up for a riot and some free cake, joined the girls and the handful of people who'd actually come for the meeting.
In the headmistress's office, Cathy switched off the PA and grabbed Diane's hand. "Come on, Diane. The lesbians of Scrimmage's need our support."
"Are there any lesbians at Scrimmage's?" Diane asked, and Cathy shrugged.
"There's three-hundred girls at this school. One of them has to be gay."
Miss Scrimmage was standing in her trampled flower beds wringing her hands when Cathy and Diane reached the doors. "Girls, girls!" she cried at the stragglers. "This is hardly an appropriate topic for delicate young ladies."
"Oh, but Miss Scrimmage, we can't let those awful boys represent the gay community by themselves," Diane said brightly. "They'll make it sound like gay people only care about orgies and bondage and dildoes-- Miss Scrimmage, are you all right?"
When they reached the rec hall they found Pete, Chris, and Larry at the doors, surrounded by restless students. Ruth Sidwell had pulled out a kazoo and started a group of girls singing 'We Shall Overcome'.
"Uh, we weren't expecting so many people," Pete said. "I don't think we're all going to fit inside."
"That's okay," Cathy called from the crowd. "Hold it here on the lawn."
"Well, we had some quiet group discussion planned..." Pete looked to Larry for help, and Larry riffled through the materials the Board of Education had sent, but none of it covered what to do when seven-hundred people showed up to a first meeting, half of which did not actually attend the host school.
"Where's the cake?" someone shouted, and the chant of 'Cake! Cake! Cake! Cake!' began to drown out the singing. Ruth pinwheeled her arms, and girls redoubled their efforts.
"Just simplify," Mark advised from the sidelines, "but do it quick. Talk about the purpose of the alliance, read your mission statement, cut it short and feed them cake."
"Do we have cake for seven-hundred?" Pete whispered to Chris, who shrugged.
"Okay," Chris said. "Um. The purpose of a gay-straight alliance is to, um, establish a support--"
"We can't hear you."
"Oh, for crying out loud." Mark jumped up and joined Chris and Pete by the doors. "EVERYONE, SIT DOWN," he bellowed.
"But the grass is wet."
"I want my cake."
"Sit down, or no cake. Right. We're here because we believe that Macdonald Hall stands for equality and acceptance. Together with the girls--" He had to pause while the girls in question screamed at the tops of their lungs. "Together with the girls we're going to fight homophobia and make this school the best damn place to be for every one of us."
"Right!" Sidney pumped his fist in the air, and got his sleeve caught in Perry Elbert's book bag, which hit him right where Readings in Canadian Geography had.
Mark had taken to the spotlight, and was now pacing back and forth. "Our world is crumbling around us, and we're not going to take it!" he shouted, ignoring Bruno's shriek of outrage at having his line stolen. "We're going to stop hatred and give our friends the support they..." Mark trailed off, mouth falling open. The crowd muttered, looking at each other, and finally over their shoulders.
The CHUT-TV mobile unit was pulling up the long tree-lined drive. It stopped at the cannon and a reporter and a cameraman climbed out; they made straight for the mass of students sitting on the damp grass outside the rec hall.
"Someone called the station and said there was a fire or something, and they were evacuating a school," the reporter said. "We figured it was you guys."
"Hi, Mike," Cathy said, waving over her head. "How are Patty and the kids?"
"Just fine, Miss Burton. It doesn't look like a fire this time. What's going on? Bomb scare? Riot? Drimsdale blow up another sand pit?"
"Riot," Wilbur and Larry chorused.
"I'll tell you what's going on!" Mark howled. "Macdonald Hall is the most fantastic school in the country -- in the universe!"
"What is the meaning of this?" Utter silence fell as Mr. Sturgeon strode into their midst, scowling at being pulled from his dinner.
"Shit, it's The Fish!"
"Is he going to break up the meeting?"
"He can't do that. There're laws protecting gay-straight alliances."
"I never thought The Fish was homophobic."
"The Fish is a homophobe?"
In the midst of this, a blue car pulled up beside the CHUT-TV mobile unit, and a frazzled-looking couple emerged.
"Oh crap," Chris said. "It's my parents!"
Mrs. Talbot pushed her way through the crowd, clutching a rumpled newspaper. "Chris, sweetie, you know we love you no matter what, but why didn't you tell us?"
"This is all just a misunderstanding," Chris said. "How do you even know about it?"
"We get the school paper sent to us because they print so much of your artwork. It arrived this morning and we saw the ad, and came straight here to be here for you."
"Oops," said Mark.
"Why didn't you tell us?"
"I'm not gay!"
"Mr. and Mrs. Talbot, you must be so proud of your son," Cathy said, popping up out of nowhere. "He works so hard to fight oppression and inequality for gay people everywhere."
"I'M NOT GAY!" Chris tore after Cathy, who bolted into the crowd.
"What, so now Chris isn't gay?"
"Someone on the football team's gay."
"Make up your mind, Talbot!"
"I quit the chess club for this."
"Cathy! Cathy, I'm going to kill you!"
"Do we still get cake?"
"Do we still get free condoms?"
"Does anyone have a kleenex? I ran into the wall and my nose won't stop bleeding."
"Give it up, Talbot," Cathy shouted, dodging through the crowd, hurdling over those who were still seated. "I was the Warriors' quarterback! You'll never catch--oof!" She'd plowed straight into Mr. Sturgeon.
"Everyone will be still," he said, and the din subsided at once. "Ladies, you will return to your own school at once. Walton, O'Neal, this gathering is over."
"Oh, it's not our show, sir," Bruno said. "It's been very entertaining though."
The headmaster pinned him with a steely look that had no effect whatsoever -- always a sign that either Walton was innocent, or his actual misdeeds were too far down the chain of his convoluted reasoning to make an impact on his conscience. Despite experience, Mr. Sturgeon decided to believe the former. "Talbot, Anderson, report to my office tomorrow morning at eight." He held up his hand to silence the protests. "You may reschedule your meeting for next week when you acquire a faculty supervisor and permission to use the school's facilities, but for now you will clear everyone off the lawn and pick up after them. And kindly choose a venue more appropriate to your numbers next time."
He turned to Chris' parents. "Mr. and Mrs. Talbot, I'm sorry you drove all this way, but your son is not gay." Not to judge by the magazines the housemaster routinely confiscated from his room. "The students have been expressing an interest in activism lately, and decided to form a gay-straight student alliance. I suspect Chris simply filled in for the homosexual half of the alliance when no one else volunteered."
"Yes, sir," Larry said. "That's pretty much what happened."
"So, you've formed a gay-straight alliance even though you didn't have any gay students?" Mike the reporter asked. No one answered. "Wow. These kids are sure pro-active. Did you get all of that, Tim?"
"You." Mr. Sturgeon pointed at Mike and his cameraman. "Get off my campus; you're trespassing. Mr. and Mrs. Talbot, you're welcome to join my wife and I for coffee before you head home." He gestured toward his cottage, and the three waded through the remnants of the meeting.
"So, we're going to make the news?" Bruno asked, always happy to be in the center of publicity.
"Kid, this school keeps our station on the air." The reporter grinned to his cameraman. "Did you get a clip of The Fish for the morning show?"
"That dude spends way too much time here," Pete said.
They all stayed to help Pete and Chris pick up the litter that seven-hundred students could produce.
"What a waste of time," Bruno grumbled. "The girls didn't even stay to help, and most of this garbage is theirs. And we have a gay-straight alliance with no gay people. Great job, guys." He stabbed a container of lip gloss viciously, and swore when it glanced away into the grass.
"You know, if you needed someone, you could have asked me," Boots said quietly, and Bruno froze. Larry and Mark exchanged worried looks.
"We might have if you'd told us you were gay!" Chris snapped. "I mean. Um."
"You guys knew, didn't you?" Boots grimaced. "I had the feeling something was up."
"What?" Bruno demanded, going from stunned to outraged in an instant. "They knew and I didn't? How did that happen? I'm your best friend."
"Then why haven't you told me what you've been doing all week?" Boots said, dropping his bag.
"Because I was trying to win you the woman of your dreams, except you wouldn't tell me who she was!"
They glared at each other for a long moment, and everyone stopped to watch them. Finally Boots' lips twitched. "Thanks, I guess. I know you meant well."
Bruno sniffed and threw Boots' garbage bag at him. "Next time, you tell me things first. Got it?"
The twitch widened into a grin -- the first genuine smile anyone had seen from Boots since the year started. "I got it."
Bruno was still sulking a day later when Elmer knocked on their door. Boots answered, grateful for the distraction from an adorably pouty Bruno, who was sprawled on the floor reading comics and wearing his too-small shirt.
"It's Lucy," Elmer said, wringing his hands. "She's escaped."
"The spider? It's loose?" There was a clatter as Bruno leapt onto his bed.
"Yes. I've tried both of the other dormitories, but I can't find her anywhere. It's cold enough that she'll seek the indoors, so will you please watch for her?" He handed Boots an enlarged labeled diagram of a spider. At that scale, it was alien and gross.
"Is this another endangered species, Elmer?" Boots asked.
"No, Phiddipus audax is quite common, however I have grown quite attached to Lucy over the course of teaching her to distinguish coloured chips."
"So not only is the spider loose, it's a super-intelligent spider?" Bruno said. "One that will outsmart my every attempt to defend myself from its creepy-crawly attack?"
"She's more afraid of you," Boots assured him. "I'm sure Lucy will find somewhere quiet and out of the way to hide."
"Oh no," Elmer said, perking up. "Jumping spiders are highly inquisitive, and Phiddipus audax is particularly bold. Why, its common name is the daring jumping spider. They are one of the few arthropods that do not retreat from the human hand."
"Not helping," Boots hissed, but Elmer was on a roll and didn't hear him.
"Jumping spiders have excellent vision, and their mating rituals include the most fascinating visual display." He pushed up his glasses. He was speaking very quickly. "The male must approach in a very oblique fashion to avoid triggering a predatory response from the female, and their elaborate dancing is one of the most fascinating displays in nature."
"That's great, Elmer," Boots said hastily. "Good luck finding her." He slammed the door before Bruno could start hyperventilating, and dropped the diagram on his desk. "You can come down now," he said, smiling and probably looking like an idiot. "There are no spiders."
"Are you sure? These are Elmer's super-intelligent spiders."
"There's only one of them, and you're a million times bigger than she is. Stop being a baby."
Bruno made a face, but climbed down gingerly, and tip-toed across the room as though afraid to let his whole foot touch the possibly spider-infested floor. "Is that a picture of the-- OH HOLY MOTHER OF--!" Bruno leapt back, crashing into Boots, who caught him.
Boots bit his lip. Bruno was very solid and tense and was not stopping; he kept backing up until Boots hit the wall, and then he backed up some more. Boots let his eyes drift shut. The stress of the last few months was slowly letting go of him. He could hardly believe it, but Bruno didn't care that he was gay. Bruno was cool with it. Bruno was...
"Boots, are you smelling me?"
"Can I smell you?"
"Yes. No! I mean... what?"
Bruno wriggled around without pulling away, which made several areas of Boots' brain shut down at once. The threat of spiders had been forgotten. "Elmer said you had romantic entanglements. Cathy said you needed practice dating and then left you to a candlelit dinner with me. Everyone else knew you were gay but kept helping me look for your nonexistent girl. Therefore, the romantic entanglement is me."
"I... are you angry?" Boots searched Bruno's face, feeling raw and uncomfortable for doing so at such close range. "I don't mind if you want a new roommate. We can still be friends. Whatever you--"
Bruno kissed him.
"Oh," Boots said, and Bruno suddenly grinned.
"How's that for hypothesisification?"
"It's..." Boots gave up speaking and kissed Bruno back, cupping his face. He needed a shave, and Boots didn't care.
"See?" Bruno whispered, nuzzling his neck. "This is why you should tell me things. Fun stuff happens."
"Right," Boots said, dazed, and then shook it off. He narrowed his eyes. "So how come you didn't tell me, Mister But-I'm-Your-Best-Friend?"
Bruno waved him off, more interested in nibbling Boots' ears. "I hardly had time, what with trying to save you from eternal misery." He nibbled. "Mmm, do you like that?"
"Bruno," Boots said, suspicion tightening his voice, "just how long have you known you like boys?"
"That was two days ago!"
"I can see you're going to pass math. Let's make out."
"I don't understand why didn't you come out at the meeting," Boots said. "It was a perfect opportunity for you to dazzle a crowd."
"What, the alliance thing?" Bruno shrugged. "I was waiting for them to ask who likes both and they never did. Poor organization there. Hey, maybe we should join the board. Chris and Pete could sure use our help."
"... All right."
"Yeah? Hey, I like the new gay you. Seriously, let's make out."
"You've said that twice. Am I that irresistible?"
Bruno's eyes darkened. "Melvin, you have no idea."
In the bushes outside the window, the Society for Romance in Room 306 soundlessly high-fived each other, and Cathy solemnly returned to Elmer a jar containing one Phiddipus audax, commonly known as the daring jumping spider -- guaranteed to make Bruno Waltons everywhere fall into the arms of their true loves.
William R. Sturgeon squinted out his living room window. "Mildred, I do believe I've discovered the cause of last week's mayhem."
His wife peered over his shoulder, to where a group of boys were taking a break from raking their punishment leaves. "I don't see anything."
"Look closely at Walton and O'Neal."
"Oh! They're holding hands." Mrs. Sturgeon clasped her hands under her chin. "How wonderful."
Mr. Sturgeon, unexpectedly, nodded his agreement. "It is wonderful. Mildred, I have lived in terror of teaching long enough to see the next generation of Waltons and O'Neals." He chortled. "Do you know what this means? I am forever free of the spectre of their children. Once they graduate, I can look forward to an incident-free career until retirement."
"Oh, William. If this school was ever incident-free you'd be bored out of your mind within a week." Besides, she thought to herself, turning away so her husband wouldn't see her smile, Bruno and Melvin could always adopt.