“Hi, Merkin,” says Tony in greeting.
The school’s black cat has jumped up onto the workbench we share in Mrs O’Reilly’s class and now settles down between us. She rolls over as if inviting us to rub her belly but I am not going to risk it. Not many cats like having their bellies stroked and Merkin has left her mark on both of us in the past. She probably wants one of us to put a hand close enough that she can rip it to shreds with her claws.
The bell goes for the end of the period but before I can pack up my work Merkin rolls again so that she is lying on it. I tug on a free corner hoping she will take the hint and move away. No chance. She just gives me that ‘stupid boy‘ look she does so well and starts purring. Tony mutters that I am a wimp for not pushing her off, but I notice he doesn’t take up the challenge either.
It is probably best that we don’t try as Mrs O’Reilly comes bustling over to our bench. She wouldn’t approve of us picking a fight with the cat.
“Thank you for staying behind,” the teacher says. “I’m sorry. I forgot to ask you to stay but I see Merkin has found you. Thank you, Merkin.”.
Merkin sits up, holding herself erect with the smug air of someone who knows they have done well. Mrs O’Reilly rewards her by gently stroking her hand across the cat’s head.
“I have had an email from my niece, Sam,,” continues Mrs O’Reilly,“She knows email is about the limit of my on-line abilities.”
We smile appropriately at her self-deprecation.
“Sam apologises for not keeping in touch with you but in the turmoil of her visit at the end of last term, she forgot to ask you for your contact details. She asked me for them as she expected them to be on the school system. They are, but I had to tell her: relative or not I couldn’t give out your details without your permission. So she has sent me what she was going to send you, asking that I forward it to you. Is that okay?”
Of course we agree. As Sam lives in Massachusetts, we don’t have a lot in common with her so I don’t think either of us expected to hear from her. It will be interesting to see what she has to say.
“I think you will find it interesting,” Mrs O’Reilly says as if she had read my mind.“I did after Sam said I should read it.”
She is interrupted by Merkin moving to jump to her usual perch on top of the cupboard signalling the imminent arrival of the next class.
“You two had better get off to your next lesson. I’ll forward Sam’s email after school.”
Dismissed, we hastily finish packing away our work and hurry out of the room.
When we get to my house after school, we shout ‘hi’ to Mum as we head upstairs to my room. I just have time to set my computer to boot up when there is a tap on my half open door.
“What’s your hurry?” says Mum.“You boys forgot your tea… and lemon bars. It’s not like you two to miss out on lemon bars. What gives?”
She stands there holding a tray with two mugs of tea and a plate with two lemon bars on it.
“Thanks, Mum,” I say as I make to take the tray from her, but she turns to move the tray out of reach.
“Oh, no! Not till you tell me whatever it is you are in such a rush to get onto your computer for?” she says. Then she gets one of her evil grins.“New porn site is it?”
Tony, who has got used to Mum’s weird sense of humour, dissolves into a fit of giggles. However, he does recover enough to back me up when I tell Mum we are expecting an email from Sam that Mrs O’Reilly said she would forward.
“What does she have to say?” Mum asks. She has seen me opening my email account as we have been talking but the message hasn’t arrived yet.
“Not there,” I reply.“Mrs O’Reilly can’t have sent it yet.”
“Too bad. You’ll just have to get on and do your homework without the distraction!”
Trust Mum to work that in.
We do actually finish our homework before we try again. This time the email has appeared. It is flagged as having an attachment that turns out to be a photograph when we open the message.
Sam starts by saying ‘Hi’ and explains why she has had to ask her aunt to forward her message to us and graciously thanks us for looking after her while visiting the UK. She goes on to say she enjoyed her trip and the flight back to Boston was ok and she was glad to get home and back to her friend Patricia.
“I thought you might be interested in the attached photograph that shows something that happened on the first day of the new school semester,” her message continues. “I was telling you how Patricia and I are careful not to attract unwanted attention to our relationship. It seems Carlos and Pepe have had something going for a while and spent most of the summer together. Pat says she had heard some snide remarks about them. They must have decided they had had enough of hiding and would come out. They did so at the first opportunity. Our grade had been told to assemble in the main school hall for the allocation of home rooms, so they started this make out session and kept it up long enough for everyone to get the message. Pat was near them and took the picture. She was also able to tell them to break off when she saw a member of the school staff coming into the room along the corridor that you can see behind Carlos’ head. PDA’s are not allowed in school.
“We managed to have a word with the boys afterwards, and they said part of their thinking was that it would silence the rumors by getting it out there and it would all soon blow over with other stuff going on in the new term, leaving only the core homophobes to put up or shut up. In fact, apart from a bit of fangirl screaming by the class blonde, the reaction was somewhat muted as if it was no big deal.
“Of course someone had to snitch to the staff about the PDA, so the boys were spoken to. However the teacher said that as he hadn’t seen it himself, and not wanting to start the year on a bad note, he would take no action on this occasion, but the boys should cool it in the future. We have worked out who reported them.
“When you’ve had a chance to study it, Pat and I want to know who in the picture you think is cute? Who you think reported the PDA to the staff? And who tried to hand out anti-LGBTQ propaganda the next day? We’ve got a bet going between us: $20 is riding on each question.”
Sam finishes off her message sending her greetings to our friends, saying we can show them the photo if we wish. She especially asks after the boys at the Indian Restaurant. We smile at that last bit. She knows Naveem will go all flustered when we tell him, giving his brother, Raj, a good laugh. She also gives us both Pat’s and her own good wishes.
I send back a quick email with our own greetings, saying we will answer her questions tomorrow after we have had a good look at the picture. I print it out so that we can share it with the others at lunch tomorrow.
It is a hot day and in the canteen at lunch time with our friends we manage to grab a table by one of the emergency exits that has been opened just enough to let some fresh air in without setting off all the alarms. We finish our meals and I stack our plates next to me. Donny likes his chips with loads of red sauce so his mucky plate is on top. Having cleared a space, I get the photo out so that we can all look at it.
I tell everyone that Sam says ‘hi’ and get the expected reaction from Nav for his special mention. As I explain about the challenges, Tony finds paper and pen to write down our guesses. It doesn’t take long for us to reach a consensus on the cutest boy in the picture. Even Paul grudgingly agrees.
“Okay, I admit I said he’s cute. That doesn’t mean I’m gay and fancy him,” Paul grumbles after he gets some quizzing looks from Mel.
The only dissenter is Donny who opts for the ginger half-hidden by the guy in the grey hoodie. There is no contest for the cutest girl. It is Sam herself. There are some light-hearted comments about her choice of a souvenir t-shirt — purple and printed with a stylised Imperial Crown — for the first day back at school.
There is no agreement on the other two challenges so Tony starts to list all the suggestions and their proposers. He is just about finished when I feel something land in my lap. It’s Merkin. She must have walked in through the open door. I hiss at her that she shouldn’t be in the canteen where food is being served. She just ignores me and stands up with her front paws on the table so that she can get a good look at everything. Then she reaches out with one paw and gently pulls the picture towards her. After studying it for a few seconds she appears to lose interest and turns her attention to the pile of dirty plates, presumably hoping for some tasty left overs. She is out of luck. There is nothing apart from Donny’s excess ketchup. The cat stretches her paw out again and dabs it into the red goo before curling it back for a careful exploratory lick. She shivers as if she finds it distasteful.
At this point the bell goes for the end of our lunch period. The cat hears it, jumps down and scampers off through the open door. As I go to pick up the photograph, I notice that Merkin must have put her paw on it as there is a small blob of ketchup neatly covering one of the faces. I wipe it off with a paper napkin. Unfortunately the acids in the sauce have softened the ink so there is only a white space left where it had been. No matter, I can always print off another if I need to.
After school Tony and I get our homework done then start on our reply to Sam and Pat. We send everyone’s greetings and tell them about Nav’s reaction to his special mention. Then we turn to discuss the photo.
“We were amused,” I type,“that the school authorities appeared to be supporting Pepe and Carlos with the banners hanging in the hall emblazoned with P & C and the words ‘Courage’ and ‘Good Judgment’. Tony had to spoil it by reminding us that your school is called Pilgrim College, hence the P’s and C’s. Still it took courage for the boys to come out like they did and hopefully they showed good judgment both in doing so and also in their mutual choice of partner.
“Moving on to your challenges. Although we both think Carlos is a hunk, the cutest boy is the guy on the left in the red shirt. Most of our friends agreed except Donny who thinks it is the red-head standing behind the guy on the right in the grey hoodie. FWIW you were nominated the cutest girl in spite of your tee!
“As for who mentioned the PDA to the staff, several of our friends opted for the guy with his hand to his face sitting in front of the grey hoodie. Tony and I think it might be the girl in the pink top at the back on the left. However she probably didn’t need to bother as we think that is a member of staff next to her in the white and he did see it but chose to ignore it in the interests of the greater good.
“Finally there was more agreement on the leafleteer—the kid in the blue top with the backpack, who looks as though he has already had some of his leaflets shoved where the sun don’t shine. However Mel thinks the answer to all three is the same kid, the one in red, on the grounds that anyone that cute must have a dark side. She wants to know if his name is Dorian Gray?”
To finish we ask that our congratulations be passed on to Pepe and Carlos. We also ask if Pat and Sam are going to follow their lead. Of course, we offer the girls our best wishes as well.
It is several days before we get a reply from Sam.
“I got your message okay; thanks. Sorry to be so long getting back to you, and you’ll have to forgive me for not answering in full, but things have been traumatic at school these last few days.
“One of the kids in our grade died on his way to school the morning you sent your message. He was seen falling to the sidewalk near the school gates by a truck driver making a delivery. Cause of death has been given as cerebral hemorrhage and time of death, pinpointed by the driver, as 7.40 am. All that is the easy bit.
“The difficult bit is the semi-automatic pistol and two spare magazines found in his jacket. Under 21 he can’t get a license to carry, and even if he could, he shouldn’t have been bringing them to the school.
“Although nothing has been said officially the word going round is that it is his father’s gun and that he left a note he was going to use it to on some vermin that he had seen around the school. Of course the father is going to deny giving him permission to take it.
“It is said he was also carrying an anti-LGBTQ leaflet apparently even nastier than those being handed out on the second day of term, one saying gays shouldn’t be allowed to live.
“We are all being questioned about him and why he might have had the gun, but I suspect they are just going through the motions and we shall never know the real answers. However the circumstantial evidence suggests Pedro and Carlos and possibly Pat and I have literally dodged a bullet with his death.
“I suppose you want to know who it is…”
Sam goes on to say where to find him on the photograph. I pull out the copy I had taken to school and look at where the face should be but there is only the white space where Merkin had put the ketchup.
“There!” I say, pointing at the void and then looking up at Tony. All the colour has drained from his face.“Tony, are you all right?”
“I think so,” he sounds far away.“When did the picture get damaged?”
“When Merkin put ketchup on it”
“No, what time?”
“It was when the bell went for the end of lunch. Since we’re on first sitting that would be twelve forty.”
“And the time difference with Salem?” his small voice asks.
Suddenly my room feels cold.
We hug each other for warmth and something more — security.
Copyright © Pedro December 2019
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