Returning to school wasn’t as terrible as I thought it would be. For two days, I was fine. Teek had mercifully dropped the Ken-subject for now and we were back to being lunch buddies; Mr. Bodoni did not suspect that I’d faked sick and let me postpone our meeting til next week. Best of all, I realized I was a lot less worried about Adam.
I was a lot less worried about Adam until Friday rolled around, school let out, and it was time to go to Community Service Club.
When I boarded the bus that would take us to the church site, Adam was already there in one of the back rows, headphones on and sweatshirt hood pulled down to his eyebrows. He'd been without his driving privilege since that first day we'd gone to Taco Bell. I had to pretend not to notice him as I slid into my seat. Jenny Perez, a senior, plopped down next to me without looking up from her phone. I leaned my head against the window glass and stared out at the Courtyard parking lot. I would look out the window until we reached the site.
At the Unitarian church, we'd finished the walkway and were moving on to complete the last phase of the project: a wood fence that would surround the yard. The materials had just been delivered and a few people were deputized to go unload them. The yard had already been marked for the fence posts, so all that was left was the manual labor. Mrs. Harold picked Dan Wilkshire, Brian Hynd and Adam to man the post-hole diggers. It was easy to imagine she had grudges against all of them.
"Who's done this before?" she asked, as she and Mr. Summersall handed out the tools. Only Brian raised his hand.
"Dillon," Mr. Summersall said, surprising me, “you know how, right?”
"Uh, yeah," I said—I'd helped with a fence on a previous service project, and unfortunately, Mr. Summersall had also been there. But what I thought was, oh no.
"Fantastic," Mr. Summersall said. "You can show Adam how it's done while I show Dan. I'll be over shortly to see if you need any help."
I looked at Adam. He immediately looked away. I thought about saying my back hurt or something, but the Community Service Club advisors were basically known for not taking those kind of excuses. Convincing them there was actually something wrong with you was no mean feat, and I suspected nothing short of maybe puking on my boots would get me out of this. Unfortunately, being able to vomit on command was not in my skill set.
"Okay," I said.
"Please be careful," Mr. Summersall said, as he handed me the post-hole digger. "We don't want anyone losing their toes."
My toes were safe inside my second-hand work boots, but when I glanced at Adam's feet, I saw he'd missed the memo on proper attire. He was wearing sneakers. I would not drop the post-holer on his foot, I decided, even though I sort of wanted to.
"Come on," I said to Adam, and he had to follow me.
We walked out to the south side of the church yard, where Mrs. Harold had pointed us and put on our work gloves in silence. I showed Adam the basic motion of getting the post-holer into the ground and lifting out the dirt by pulling out on the handles, and he watched me with this look that could only be feigned disinterest. It wasn’t genuine; he was trying too hard.
"So once you get the hole started, you should do it like…" I adjusted my grip on the post-holer's handles, raised it above the hole, then brought it straight back down. I released the handles before it hit the ground, the way Mr. Summersall had showed me last year. "Like that."
Adam raised his eyebrows. "Why do you let it go?"
"I dunno. I think it's better for your back or something." I emptied the dirt and gave the post-holer another hard chuck into the soil. When I looked up, Adam had crossed his arms.
He was avoiding my eyes when he said, under his breath, "It looks gay."
"Excuse me?" I said, though there was no doubt I'd heard him correctly. I just wanted to see if he'd say it again.
But he didn't, of course—he wouldn't. He turned away instead, his hands in his pockets.
Adam had the chance to take one step away from me, before I threw down the post-holer and reached out to grab a handful of his sweatshirt.
"Hey!" I found myself yelling. "What's your problem?"
He whipped around, his face angry like I'd never seen it before. "You are! Stop trying to touch me!"
And before I even had a chance to release his sweatshirt, he had shoved me. His hands caught my chest and sent me stumbling backwards, almost tripping over the fallen post-holer. I caught my balance again, and I was pissed. All I could think about was how much I hated Adam, what a shithead he was being, and how disgusted I was with myself for ever thinking he was my friend.
Before I could second-guess it, I took two steps forward and punched Adam in the face.
Well, okay: I tried to punch Adam in the face. I swung hard, but my aim was off, and I felt my fist graze his cheek instead of making a solid connection. But it was enough: enough to make him stumble backwards, enough to make him cry out in surprise, and enough to alert the teachers.
"Hey!" I heard Mr. Summersall's voice boom from behind us. "Hey, break it up!"
Adam had a hand to his face, but he was staring me down, and I was sure for a second he was going to charge me. I stood my ground.
"Hey!" I could hear Mr. Summersall's footsteps behind us now, his voice getting louder. "I mean it, break it up!" I glanced over my shoulder in time to see Mr. Summersall reach out and yank me backwards. He stepped in between us, his arms spread and his eyebrows furrowed above his wire-rimmed glasses. “That is enough.”
I looked at Adam, over Mr. Summersall's head. Adam was glaring back at me.
Mr. Summersall’s hand held tight to my t-shirt sleeve while he kept Adam at arms-length. “Tell me," he said drily, "What in the world is going on over here?"
"He punched me!" Adam said, a hand still clamped to his face.
"He started it!" I said. He had!
Mr. Summersall glanced between us. "I think you boys better take the rest of your time here to cool off," he said.
And he marched us back to the parked bus where we were instructed to stay in our seats until it was time to head back to the school.
Mr. Summersall pointed Adam to the back of the bus and made me sit in the seat just behind the driver's.
"If I have come back," he warned, "there's going to be trouble."
I yanked my messenger bag over the seat behind me and into my lap. I had no desire to study, but I figured if I cracked open a textbook, it would be easier to ignore Adam. I'd be less tempted to turn around. I was still angry, but I'd calmed down enough to start thinking of all the things I wanted to say to him. There was my public confrontation fantasy of course, but once I'd started thinking I realized I could tear him down in other ways.
I could taunt him about how he'd secretly wanted to kiss me the whole time, how he'd only wanted to hang out with me because he'd heard I was gay. I could laugh about that—how he wasn't worth the gum scraped off the bottom of my shoe in the first place, how his only choice now was to crawl back to Casey, who was probably just humoring him. Who already suspected he was a closet-case. Maybe that would be all I'd have to say, closet-case. To remind him that I knew, to remind him that he couldn't take it back.
I was sitting there, stewing in these mean thoughts while pretending to study French, when I heard a metal screech behind me. I turned to look before I realized it was just Adam opening the window and our eyes met for the briefest second.
“This bus smells like ass,” Adam said. “Open yours too.”
"Fuck off," I said. Then I slammed my textbook closed and turned around. There were a million things I wanted to say to Adam, but when I found myself looking straight at him—across a short-bus worth of seats—what I actually said was, "You know, I only ever wanted to be your friend." I spat it out, as if it had been something meaner. But it wasn't even mean, just truthful.
I watched him blink at me, silent. He didn't even look angry, just blank, and somehow this bothered me more.
I rose up to my knees so I could really stare him down. "I did nothing to you," I said. "Nothing."
Adam was slouched against the seat, unmoving, his hands in his sweatshirt pockets. More blankness, more silence. I couldn't believe this. I turned back around again, let my butt plop back on the vinyl seat. My textbook was open beside me, waiting for me to pretend to étudier français again. But I felt a little too sick for that now. I could feel Adam looking at me, staring holes in the back of my head.
I was starting to wish I hadn't said anything, when I heard the sound of a backpack zipper and the rustling of some papers behind me. Then more silence. Then Adam's voice again.
"I should tell you something," he said.
"What?" I called back, not turning around.
"I, uh…took something of yours."
For a second, I wasn't sure I'd even heard him right. I turned around, not bothering to hide my confusion. "What are you talking about?"
Adam looked down at something I couldn't see, and I heard a paper-rustling sound again. "But I don't want it anymore. You can have it back."
"Have what back?"
As if in response, Adam stood up and leaned as far over the seat in front of him as he could. He had something in his hand, between his thumb and forefinger, and he flicked it towards me like a frisbee. The thing flew through the air over two rows before losing momentum and fluttering into the aisle. And I guess Adam expected me to go get it. I shot him a look before sliding from my seat and scooping it up in what I hoped was a stealthy move.
Then I slid back in my seat to look at what he'd thrown me, and my heart leapt into my throat.
It was a Polaroid of me, from almost three years ago. Me, on a bed, with a stupid-surprised look on my face.
It was the Polaroid that Ken had taken.
I turned back to Adam, frowning so hard I felt a stabbing pain in my forehead. "How did you—" I started to ask, and then it hit me.
Ken's letter. The open envelope. Please accept the enclosed as a peace offering. Adam alone in the room. Adam's leftover twenty dollars. I clapped my hand to my mouth, suddenly afraid I might cry out or throw up. But I didn't; I just sat there, stared at this picture of myself that was just as stupid as I'd remembered it being and had no idea what I was supposed to be feeling. I looked back at Adam.
"Why did you take it?”
He shrugged a shoulder. "I dunno." Once I'd turned back around, he added, "So the guy who sent the letter. He was your boyfriend?"
I turned around again, just so Adam could see the look on my face. It was not a nice one.
Adam looked away from my death-glare, towards the window. "I thought so," he said.
I had a lot of reasons to be mad at Adam. I was mad at him for stealing the Polaroid and reading the letter. I was mad at him for ignoring me all week and for kissing me in the first place if he was going to be such a fucking baby about it. I was mad at him for getting us stuck on this stuffy bus for the remainder of Community Service club. And all of this anger felt pretty damn justified. Rather than face the truth, Adam had convinced himself I'd somehow tricked him. That I'd been—I don't know—slowly seducing him the whole time we were friends. That the kiss had been my idea. But, I realized, when I really thought about this whole mess, it just made me sad. The worst part was knowing that, at one time, Adam was someone I thought had understood and accepted me. That was laughable. He couldn't even accept himself.
"You know what?" I found myself saying, "I feel sorry for you."
He snorted. "What? Why?"
"Why do you think?" I asked, but it wasn't really a question. I turned back to face the front of the bus. This was over. I didn't need to look at Adam again, not today.
"I'm not like you," Adam called, to the back of my head.
"You're right," I said. "I don't hate myself."
Looking down at the Polaroid that was still in my hand, I realized something: You can blame yourself or you can blame someone else, but in the end, neither is going to make you happy. Eventually, you have to forgive.
Up next Thursday, the last chapter!! Chapter 30 and the epilogue.