Short Story for Demon’s Covenant

This is quite a week for short stories for you guys!

This is my present to you guys to celebrate the release of Demon’s Covenant in paperback in the US. If any of you guys have been waiting for the paperback – it’s out! And if you want to get it or ask for it in a shop or anything, that’d be awesome.

Whether you’ve got it, you’re getting it, you took it out from the library, loaned it from a friend or you’ve never read anything of mine at all, I hope you enjoy this.

This story is set immediately before the events of The Demon’s Lexicon, no actual spoilers but some heavy hinting at spoilers in Lexicon and Covenant. Containing some major, some minor, and some only-mentioned characters in the series. This one’s also dedicated to the real Mark Skinner, who is much more awesome than this version. 😉 Title stolen from Oscar Wilde.

“Well,” Jamie said. “This was just like that film the Breakfast Club, except weirder, and also without anyone reforming, any touching heartfelt moments, or any soundtrack to speak of aside from glass breaking.”


The Coward With A Kiss

The two things Mark was most scared of in the world both involved Jamie Crawford.

The first was that someone would find out that he and Jamie used to kiss behind the gym when they were fourteen.

It had only been a handful of times, or maybe more than that. Sometimes Mark closed his eyes and remembered it with appalling vividness, as if it was a crime he had committed and could not forgive himself for.

That was how it had felt sometimes, shaky with excitement and guilt, his palms sweating and the tree branches blurring in the sky, brown brushstrokes wavering and mingling into grayness as he closed his eyes and felt Jamie’s body against his, never pushy, lips rough but shy, thin chest flat against Mark’s, unmistakably another boy.

He didn’t know why he’d done it. Even now, he couldn’t work out what had been wrong with him. Maybe once would have been acceptable, a mistake, boys will be boys his dad said, though never about things like this. But he’d kept doing it, kept coming back even though sometimes his heart drummed so hard in his throat it felt like it was going to choke him, even though he still looked down Ms Sturridge’s blouse in English class. He couldn’t decide if that meant he was normal, or even more of a freak than Jamie.

He used to wake in the night, shaking in his sweat, absolutely terrified that somebody would find out.

When he was fourteen, it was the thing Mark had been most scared of in all the world.

Now he was sixteen, there was one thing he was more scared of, and that was that people would remember he and Jamie used to be best friends.

It hadn’t been a secret at the time. Everyone had known, from the first day of school until they were fourteen. They had walked to and from school together, Jamie’s big sister herding them when they were younger as if she was a responsible adult when she was barely a year older. They had gone to football games together, one or the other of their dads taking them, until Jamie had a talk with his dad about—about how Jamie was, when he was thirteen—and then Jamie’s dad stopped taking him.

That was the kind of thing that made Mark sweat. The prices you’d have to pay, every day, for not being normal.

So they’d had a fight and stopped being friends. That was normal, Mark told himself. It happened every day. That was what he’d told his mum and dad. He hadn’t had to go into the details of the fight. Just: he’d made some new friends, and Jamie hadn’t taken it well.

Which was more or less the truth.

When they were fourteen, Mark and Jamie walked in a bit late to their first class because they’d been—behind the gym.

There was a new kid in class.

There were two kinds of new kids: the kind who sidled in, apologetic about their newness and hoping to melt into a group as soon as possible. And there were the kind who seemed to shine with their newness, and collect new groups with themselves as the focus.

Seb McFarlane was definitely the second kind. He didn’t even have real parents at all, he had foster parents, an altogether more dangerous and temporary arrangements. He was taller than most of the other guys, and he’d lived in Cardiff and Manchester and all sorts of places, and he wore his dark hair in a brilliant haircut that a lot of the other guys gradually copied, one by one, in the following weeks.

But on the first day, the first thing that Mark noticed was how Jamie reacted to him. Jamie went suddenly perfectly still, and stared. His face actually went white.

Seb stared back for a moment, just as still, then erupted from his desk like a tidal wave.

“What are you looking at?” Seb sneered, and Jamie, who never seemed to know a thing about saving face, stammered out: “Nothing – sorry-” sounding lost, and everyone else laughed.

Then Seb pulled his angry green gaze away from Jamie, and it fell on Mark.

“Coming, then?” he asked, and jerked his head toward the back row of seats.

Mark went after him, and so did Tim Graves, who was a bit of a thicko but the biggest guy in class and pretty hard, and Dave Liddell whose older brother was known to occasionally sell drugs now and then, and Guy Ferrell who’d got into three fights.

He didn’t know any of them very well, and he was a bit uncertain what to talk about at lunchtime, but Seb managed the conversation with easy confidence. He called them all Graves, and Liddell, and Ferrell, and Skinner.

He propped his elbows on the table and said: “So, that guy Crawford,” and his mouth twisted. “Be a bit more obvious.”

Mark held the spoon for his yoghurt so tight it felt like it was going to cut into his palm. But nobody looked at him. Liddell told a story about Jamie, about how you never saw him at football games anymore, he guessed because all the guys in shorts got him excited, and Mark didn’t say that wasn’t fair. He laughed louder than anybody.

He repeated Seb’s words to Jamie, behind the gym after school, with Jamie asking where he’d been at lunch even though Jamie knew very well where he’d been.

“Well, the new guy was hardly going to want to sit with you, was he?” Mark demanded, his voice coming out scathing. “Not after the way you couldn’t take your eyes off him. Be a bit more obvious.”

Jamie looked startled and hurt, dark eyes going wide, and then he smiled, sudden and sunny, as if he’d worked out a way to explain this.

“I wasn’t staring at him because he’s cute,” Jamie said, and it made Mark’s stomach actually twist with panic, hearing him say those words so casually, as if there were no consequences. “Hey,” Jamie added, his voice soft, with a note to it like—like he was talking to a girl. “I don’t like him. You know who I like.”

He reached out and touched Mark’s wrist. Mark looked down at him, felt his heart stutter in his chest, and thought about how Seb had just looked at Jamie and known. How long before that rubbed off on Mark, how long before everybody knew?

“Don’t say things like that,” Mark snapped, pulling away. “Just leave me alone.”

Every time Mark had kissed Jamie, he’d told himself it was the last time.

He’d had no way of knowing, the morning Seb came to school, that it really had been the last time. But it was. He never kissed Jamie again.

He did push him, more times than he could count, to make him drop a book or have to grab at a banister. He made jokes about him while they were changing for gym, and he laughed at everyone else’s jokes.

And slowly, Mark’s greatest fear changed. He was still scared people would find out about him and Jamie behind the gym.

But he was even more scared someone would think back, remember the way he and Jamie had shared crayons back when they were little, gone on camping trips together, pushed their desks together and bent their heads together and laughed, for years. He was scared someone would think of all that, and look at Mark and how he behaved now, and think—what kind of person treats someone who used to be a friend like that?

He was scared of what Abby would think.

And he was still scared of what his friends would think. They were the only friends he had. Seb wasn’t the untouchably cool idol he’d been to Mark when he was fourteen, but Mark still cared about his opinion.

So when Seb asked him to cut school after lunch, of course Mark did.

And of course Mark and Seb both wound up in detention the next day. That was no surprise.

The surprise was who else was there when Seb and Mark walked in.

*

The room contained Ms Sturridge, who after her divorce had thinned down until she was roughly the shape of a pencil, her features all coming to a point. Nobody looked down her blouse anymore.

It also contained Tim Graves, who was their friend, Nick Ryves, who was technically their friend, and Rachel and Erica, two girls in the class above them who were crazy Mae Crawford’s crazy friends.

“Graves,” Seb said, his voice low, as he took the desk beside Tim’s and nodded for Mark to take the one beside his. “What’re you doing here? If you had something planned, you could’ve let us in on it.”

“Uh, no,” Tim said, his eyes shifty. “I was, uh, I was caught smoking.”

Mark and Seb both stared at him.

“Er – you don’t smoke,” Mark reminded him, trying to keep his voice tactful. Tim could sometimes be this way.

“I was trying it out!” Tim exclaimed. He eyeballed his own desk wildly.

Sometimes Mark wondered how on earth they’d all managed to hang onto their reputation as the dangerous troublemakers of the school.

Seb’s voice became significantly cooler. “How about you, Ryves?”

Nick Ryves shrugged.

“What did you get detention for?” Seb pursued. His voice got colder and edgier with every word, like someone sharpening an icicle.

Nick didn’t even look at him. “I don’t know.”

Seb’s voice was incredulous. “You don’t know?”

“Could be any one of a number of things.”

Sometimes too, Mark wondered why they wanted a reputation like the one they had. The reality of it, of someone who did not care about anything or anyone, who might actually be dangerous, was Nick Ryves.

The guy who had taken one look at them and known they were the group he belonged to. Look at your life, Mark Skinner, Mark said to himself, like he had Abby Curtis’s voice in his head. Look at your choices.

Frankly, the guy gave Mark the creeps. Even being in a room with him was unsettling. It wasn’t just that he was big, though he was, his muscles and height making him look older than all of them, but that there was a sort of unpleasant cold feeling he dragged around with him.

Also, the guy was a jerk.

Mark didn’t want to be anything like Nick Ryves. And he didn’t know how to tell Seb, who so obviously did want to be just like that, to be so cold nothing could ever hurt him, that Mark preferred Seb the way he was.

It would sound totally gay if he tried.

“Skinner and I cut and got caught,” Seb said, trying hard to sound offhand.

Nick Ryves had that effect on Seb: made him try too hard, which made all his failures more conspicuous. All he had to do was sit there and stare with those empty black eyes, and he won. Without even trying. Without even caring enough to try.

“Who’s Skinner?” asked Nick.

“I am,” Mark snapped. “I’ve had the same name for the past three weeks, every day of which you’ve been hanging out with us.”

Nick glanced at Mark over his shoulder. The look was chilling, but that was pretty much Nick’s normal look.

“Well, good for you,” Nick drawled, sounding extremely bored, and turned away.

Mark rolled his eyes and took the desk between Seb and Rachel. He caught her eye and offered a smile.

“Don’t even think about it, you miscreant,” Rachel said, and stabbed her compass point into the surface of her desk.

Mark really just knew her as Mae Crawford’s sulky dark satellite, while Erica was the smiling blond one. He hadn’t realized she was actually insane.

He transferred the smile to Erica. “What’re you in for?”

“What is this?” Erica’s voice went high. “An interrogation? Stop acting like you are a member of the FBI, Mark Skinner! You aren’t even American! Or Canadian. Can you join the FBI if you’re Canadian?”

“I think so,” Tim said thoughtfully.

“Don’t talk to any of these guys, Erica,” Rachel said. “If you had been unjustly imprisoned in a rubbish bin, would you strike up a conversation with the rats?”

“Settle down,” Ms Sturridge said in a warning voice.

Mark was done talking anyway. He should’ve realized any friends of Mae Crawford were bound to be insane.

He opened his book and tried to concentrate on maths. He wasn’t going to be able to make it to study group, again. He could at least get his homework done, so Abby wouldn’t think he was a total loss.

Mark had basically been forced to join Abby Curtis’s study group because he was failing maths, and it was that or a tutor. He always made a big production out of what a pain it was, having to go be cooped up with a bunch of nerds every Tuesday and Thursday.

He’d never have dared confess that he had more fun there than with his actual friends. Especially since Nick Ryves came to school.

Everyone was nice. Some of them followed football the same way Mark did. Eric always brought great snacks. It was all just—really nice.

And Abby was the nicest thing about it. She’d really tried to help Mark with his homework, not in a boring teacher way or a patronizing nerd way, but as if she really wanted to, and was genuinely pleased when he got it. She always helped everyone the same way, Abby did.

There was a girl in their group called Sophie who stammered, and Mark had made a joke about it. Not in front of Sophie – he wasn’t being a jerk about it. Just to Abby, while he was packing up his books, maybe trying to make her laugh a bit because she had a nice laugh or whatever.

“Don’t be a loser, Mark,” she said, and he’d thought, what a bitch. He’d just been joking around. She didn’t have to take things so seriously, and if she was going to hold it against him when he’d done nothing wrong, then to hell with her.

Only next study group, she’d acted just the same as she always did. And he saw her talk that way sometimes, to the others or about something, and he’d started to think—well, that he wished he could do that. Whenever he got that uncomfortable feeling, like something was a bit of a lousy thing to do or say. He wondered what it would be like to just say ‘Cut it out’ like Abby did, and not care what people thought of you for saying so.

And he started to notice stuff besides the fact that the buttons on her shirts strained when they were bending over their homework. Like the way her hair smelled like vanilla, and how she liked to wear penguin jewelry.

There was even stupid daydreaming about her and hanging around in hallways in case she might walk down them and say ‘Oh, hey, Mark.’ Because that was so useful.

Mark had been kind of happy to realize he really liked her, at first. Because that meant, well, that he didn’t have to worry about the other stuff. It didn’t matter if occasionally he’d hung around the bookshop and noticed that the new redheaded guy who worked there had amazing arms. It was Abby he wanted around, all the time as well as for—stuff, and she was a girl.

He was hanging around a shopping centre and saw a set of silver studs in the shape of penguins, and he’d bought them. Which was a totally ridiculous thing to do. He’d told the saleslady that they were for his little sister, like she cared.

That was before he realized something else.

He hadn’t given the earrings to Abby. She’d probably never go for him anyway: she was smart, and it wasn’t like he had a lot going for him.

Even if she did, if she got to know him better, and she heard all the jokes the guys made, or how they talked to Jamie—if, God forbid, Mark ever let anything slip about the stuff behind the gym—oh, Jesus, she’d just hate him. It wasn’t any use.

And Seb and Tim and everyone, they were his friends. They were his only friends. Abby wasn’t anything like the kind of girls they talked about, the kind of girlfriend Mark knew he should want. Mark didn’t want to think about how they’d talk to her, or about her. He didn’t want his friends to think any less of him.

So he couldn’t give her penguin earrings. He couldn’t even send her a text message telling her he had detention.

But he could do his maths homework. Mark bent his head over his book, and willed detention to be over soon.

*

Detention was finally over, even though Mark felt like an ice age or two had passed during it. Apparently Ms Sturridge felt the same way, because she basically bolted while they were all gathering up their books.

“Well, that was an enormous waste of my time,” obviously crazy Rachel said, shoving her books into her bag as if they had personally offended her. “And an infringement of my right to free speech. All I did was point out that our gym shorts are too short.”

“So short that it made you think someone on the school board was either a misogynist or a pervert,” Erica reminded her gently.

“Mae said it first!”

“Not in front of our gym teacher,” Erica pointed out.

Rachel sniffed. “You still haven’t told me what you did.”

Erica blushed a deep red. “I’m just late for class so much,” she said. “I’m just so so late.”

“You’d have to be pretty late for a lot of classes to get a detention!”

“I forget where the classrooms are,” Erica claimed. “I get lost all the time.” She laughed weakly. “I just wander – around and around.”

Nick was first out of the classroom, not even looking at anyone else and shutting the door with a bang. Not to be outdone, Seb followed almost immediately, and Mark and Tim went after him.

When Mark saw Jamie standing at the bathroom, facing Seb and looking prickly and helpless as a hedgehog in the face of an oncoming car, Mark wished he’d stayed and talked to the crazy girls.

He felt a sharp stab of guilt. Looking at Jamie from a little way away, just him and Seb standing together, it was obvious how short and skinny Jamie was.

And it was obvious what he’d been doing. Mark was in the kind of group kids did their homework in bathrooms to get away from, waiting around just so they wouldn’t be hassled as they went home.

Mark prayed for a distraction.

It was extremely unexpected when Nick Ryves answered his prayers.

He rattled the front doors of the school, and observed in his flat voice: “These are locked.”

*

“What?” Seb said. “That’s ridiculous. No they’re not.”

He strode over and pushed at the doors impatiently. Nick leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms as Seb pushed at the doors again, and then set his shoulder to them.

“Oh, you’re probably right,” Nick said as Seb shoved. “How embarrassing for me.”

“What the hell?” Rachel said, and Mark turned around to see her and Erica at the classroom door. “Ms Sturridge knew we were still inside! This is teacher brutality.”

“Not really brutality,” Erica pointed out softly. “I mean she didn’t like, throw rulers at us.”

“Well, it’s unlawful imprisonment!” Rachel said. “I’m calling my father. Who is also, I might add, a lawyer. I need his legal advice as well as his fatherly aid.”

She whipped her phone out of her pocket, but instead of stabbing at the buttons as Mark had expected she just stared at it.

“I’m not getting any signal,” she said, and her voice faltered, sounding as young as she was and not angry for the first time.

Mark dug in his pocket for a phone, as did everyone else around him. Even Nick Ryves put his hand in his pocket, though he did not take his phone out.

Mark stared at his phone blankly for a moment. He did not look up until Jamie spoke.

“Uh,” said Jamie. “Well, we’re trapped somewhere that our phones won’t work. Does this seem unsettlingly like a horror movie to anyone else, or is it just me?” He paused for a brooding moment. “I always hated horror movies,” he said finally. “I’m sure I’d die before the opening credits. Especially the ones with monsters or zombies in them. I am certain I would die straight away in the zombie apocalypse. Well, first pee myself and then die.”

There was a silence after that. There often was when Jamie spoke. Jamie just kind of nodded his head at himself, earring flashing in the dim light, tucking his hands in his pockets and tilting a smile over at Erica and Rachel. They both smiled faintly back at him.

Mark saw, with a gathering sense of dread, Seb’s shoulders bunch.

It was not a huge surprise when he wheeled on Jamie, green eyes narrowing, and said: “You’re doing this. Aren’t you?”

“Er, are you perhaps paranoid and delusional?” Rachel inquired. “How could Jamie possibly-”

Jamie laughed, the sound swift and cutting, not like Jamie’s usual laugh at all. Not that Mark had heard Jamie actually laugh in years.

“Oh yes,” he said. “It’s totally me. I’m dying to be cooped up here with all of you people. Sorry, Erica and Rachel. You know it’s always a pleasure. And okay, um, new guy, Nick, right? I don’t really know you, though given the company you keep-”

“Are you in our class?” Nick asked.

Jamie looked at him for a moment. “Yeah,” he said at last. “So I don’t see us ever getting on.”

“Good call,” Nick told him.

Jamie shook his head fractionally and transferred his attention back to Seb.

“I have a point!” he announced. “And it is this. A desert island. A closet in which I am playing seven minutes in heaven. A party to which I am inviting people. My ideal life. Do you know what the common factor in all these scenarios would be, as far as I’m concerned? The fact that you would not be there, McFarlane. So if it involves you and me in a room together, you can be pretty sure it’s not my idea.” Jamie hunched his shoulders defensively, always trying to make himself look even smaller than he actually was, and added: “Are you doing this?”

“No!” Seb snapped.

“Pardon me,” Jamie said. “Something happens to make my life miserable and I automatically think of you. It’s like Pavlov’s dog and the bell.”

“Sorry, I don’t know Pavlov,” Tim said. “Is he in, like, the year above?”

“I don’t think so,” said Erica. “I’m pretty sure I’d know him then.”

“Erica!” said Rachel.

Erica blinked. “Sorry, do you know him?”

“Yeah, um,” said Mark. “Look, I don’t mean to interrupt you guys or anything, but do you think it might be an idea to find a way to get out of here?”

The longer they stayed cooped up, the better the chances were that something really bad might happen. Seb and Jamie were both already wildly accusing each other of messing with people’s phone signals.

It wasn’t just that Seb got really angry sometimes, angry enough to make Mark worry.

It was the fact, which was really obvious and which nobody else ever seemed to realise, that Jamie Crawford was a crazy person.

*

The whole family was crazy. Crazy ran in the blood.

Well, not Jamie and Mae’s dad. Mark supposed that was why he’d got out when he did.

Mark always remembered a garden party they had gone to when Mark and Jamie were six. They’d brought Mark along so the children could all play together, and it had been a huge house, way bigger even than Jamie’s, which previously had been the biggest Mark had ever seen. Mark had been pretty excited. There was a marquee, which at the time he just thought of as a huge party tent, and a ton of the grown-ups were so fancily dressed Mark kept thinking this must be a wedding and looking out for the bride.

It was just a party. The Crawfords were rich, and so were their friends. After a while of hanging around the sides of the marquee and watching Mr and Mrs Crawford, both wearing white linen, wander around shaking people’s hands and laughing at stuff that wasn’t funny, Jamie and Mark got bored and wandered off to explore the garden holding hands, because you could still hold hands when you were six.

There was an ornamental lake, a weeping willow trailing its leaves on the crystal surface and goldfish surfacing occasionally from the depths. They were both fascinated. Mark just knelt at the edge, watching.

He looked up only when Jamie said, “I’d like to go swimming,” held out his arms and, with a beatific smile, fell deliberately backward into the water.

He disappeared and Mark froze. He didn’t have any idea what to do—they would get in trouble—everyone would look at them—

It was Jamie’s big sister Mae, who had been wandering around the party as aimlessly as they were, who sounded the alarm. She charged across the water-smooth lawn, a small fury of dark hair and dungarees, and howled like a dungaree-clad banshee.

Then all the adults were pouring out of the marquee, a terrifying army in pale linen and fancy hat uniforms, and suddenly with longer legs and the same concentrated ferocity as Mae came Mrs Crawford. She kicked off her high, high ivory-colored heels with strange daintiness as she went, and dived into the pool, a perfect swimmer’s dive with her hands over her head.

She emerged from the pool with Jamie clasped firmly to her, flicking her drenched blond hair out of her face with an economical little movement of her head. As she climbed out of the pool, her dress was dripping and streaked with green slime.

She did not look in the least concerned by anything, until Jamie started to cry and clutch at her. Then she looked discomposed, and looked to her husband.

He was staring at her, looking appalled by the scene they had created. He looked even more appalled when Mrs Crawford slid her heels back on, strode over to him and deposited Jamie in his arms.

Then she swanned off to change her clothes. She returned some time later looking cool and immaculate.

Mr Crawford looked around at the other people at the party, and awkwardly, half-heartedly patted Jamie on the back. He whispered “Hush!” into his ear with far more force than he put into comforting him.

And Mae’s eyes narrowed. She sat on the ground, a big girl of almost eight, and howled her head off, drowning out Jamie’s piteous sobs, embarrassing Mr Crawford completely.

The other guests remembered the Crawford girls making the scene, mostly. But Mark, still frozen with terror by the lake, remembered that Jamie had caused all the trouble in the first place, falling back fearless into the water as if drowning was not a possibility.

Jamie would never talk about it afterward, avoiding the subject as if he’d committed a crime.

Jamie was afraid of a lot, but never the things he should be afraid of.

And he just made things worse for himself.

When they’d been fourteen, Jamie had spent the first couple of weeks looking confused and hurt about how Mark was suddenly ignoring him. Then one of the comments one of them had made tipped him off, and he stopped looking confused, and tried to stop looking hurt.

But he didn’t just do that. He started to dress differently. Nothing major, but—some of his shirts were purple now, or had purple in them. Sometimes they were made of different material, material like a girl might wear.

“You’re just giving Seb the finger now,” Mark said in a low voice to him, the day Jamie wore the purple thing with the buttons.

Jamie looked at him, that bright complicated upset-but-still-something-else look that Jamie used to have around him, the one that made Mark feel bad but angry too.

“I can wear what I want,” he said. “That’s the point. The other thing? That’s just a bonus.”

He gave Mark a small smile, crooked and upset and hopeful, and Mark hit Jamie’s shoulder on purpose a little too hard going in the door.

It might have all been okay, if Jamie wasn’t so stubborn.

A few months later, just after Mark’s fifteenth birthday, when Mark hadn’t—done anything weird in ages and he was starting to feel a bit more settled and calm, and a bit more horrible about the way Jamie looked sometimes, off by himself listening to music with his shoulders hunched in that way, Seb said at lunchtime in a very neutral voice: “You and Crawford used to hang out a bit once, right?”

Mark thought of how weird it had been, not having Jamie there to celebrate his birthday, and he swallowed down the instinctive denial and answered, desperately casual: “A bit.”

Seb made a noncommittal sound, and he and Mark both busied themselves lighting cigarettes. Mark offered Seb his lighter and Seb took it, the light cast by the flame leaping from his cupped hand to lick at his dark lowered lashes and the caramel-tanned curve of his cheek.

Mark never really let himself acknowledge he’d had a bit of a crush on Seb, until it was gone.

“He seems an all-right guy, if he wasn’t so, you know.” Seb looked at Mark and rolled his eyes. They didn’t need to say it. They understood you shouldn’t.

Mark rolled his eyes as well. “Yeah. Bit of a laugh,” he offered, very cautiously.

Seb shrugged, but not in a hostile way, and the next time Mark was passing Jamie in the halls—entirely coincidentally, he hadn’t been looking for a chance, and it was when the halls were mostly empty so nobody would have to see—he said, quietly but fast so he’d be sure to get it out: “You know it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Jamie blinked about four times very quickly. “Be what way, what?”

“We could all hang out, maybe, I don’t know,” Mark said, still low and rapid. “If you weren’t so-”

“Gay,” Jamie said, and the word cracked out, like the sound of someone slapping someone else’s face. Mark winced.

“No. I mean there’s nothing wrong with it. But why do you have to shove it in people’s faces? That’s all, that’s all I’m talking about. Like the shirts and stuff.”

“We both like football, am I right?” Jamie asked.

It was Mark’s turn to blink. “Sure.”

“And sometimes people who like football will wear football shirts, and sometimes they won’t, and it never matters because nobody ever complains about someone liking football in public, or shoving football in their faces. Because people actually believe there’s nothing wrong with that, nothing harmful or disgusting. You’re right, there’s nothing wrong with it. And that’s what the shirts and stuff are about. Except it’s way more important than football.”

Mark had just been trying to point out a way to make life easier for Jamie, a way to make life easier for all of them. He’d basically said he wanted to be Jamie’s friend again, and Jamie was getting angry with him about the way the world worked?

“Sorry, I hadn’t realized you like being a freak with no friends,” he muttered, and began to walk down the hall, turning his back on Jamie.

“Sure,” Jamie said to his back. “If the alternative is being friends with Seb McFarlane. We could all hang out? Not in a million years.”

The next day, Jamie came to school with an earring. He gave Seb and Mark both a bright smile as he walked in the classroom door, and honestly Mark thought Seb might explode.

One day someone was going to actually hit Jamie, and Mark didn’t know what he would do, and some days Mark was afraid it was going to be him, because Jamie kept riling them up on purpose for no reason at all and there was always the abiding fear Jamie might tell someone about Mark, about the mistakes he’d made. Abby might believe in being honest, but what would she think of Mark then?

Everyone in school altered themselves in some way, to fit in better with your friends, to get along with people. There was no reason for Jamie to make life harder for himself and everyone else. He was crazy.

Click here for Part Two

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