Come Monday morning I spend an extra thirty minutes on the phone with Zayne talking him down from an anxiety attack. Even with Conrad gone, he's scared to go to school after everything that's happened. He came over on Sunday to watch a movie with me and catch up on school work he didn't understand, he looked so stressed out. He woke me up an hour before my alarm when he called me.
"I promise it'll be ok, the whole week you were gone and no one said anything to me or Arri," I rub my eyes, "The most you'll see is some dirty looks."
"That was while I was gone, when it was only one of us, and admit it after everything with Conrad no one will want to mess with you," his voice is quiet, probably so he doesn't wake up his parents.
"Babe," I stretch out on my bed, "You're the one who gave him a bloody nose and knocked him flat in the cafeteria. If anything, no one will want to mess with you when you get back. Conrad is on the verge of expulsion, he won't do anything when he gets back."
I let out a long yawn that I had been fighting for almost ten minutes, "You're tired aren't you?" he sounds upset.
"No I'm ok, do you want me to come over and go to school with you? I can text my mom so she knows I wasn't kidnapped when she wakes up."
I hear a small smile in his voice, "No it's ok, maybe meet me there, but if you can you should sleep more. I didn't mean to wake you up so damn early."
"Yeah I always thought you were a little nuts because you are like the first person at school but you hate it the most. Why wake up at ass-crack-dawn when you don't want to be there?"
"I don't really know," I hear the faint creak of his mattress, "Maybe I'll try to go back to sleep with you, arrive barely on time like a normal teen."
I laugh, "Yes, please, sleep. It is calling to us, it draws me in," I act all dramatic and smile when I hear his laugh.
"Sleep well," I say as he hangs up, only now I can't go back to sleep. Instead I take my shower and get ready early.
While I sit there with all this extra time, I go get the big cardboard box out of my closet and dump everything out. Zayne's birthday is next week and I'm still preparing, every weekend of waking up to open Church's Chicken and stay until three in the afternoon is starting to pay off, what I don't spend on his birthday is now in a jar in my locked desk drawer for Christmas shopping.
I carefully handle each object and place them in the box, positioning them each in a special way to make it look nice. I still have more stuff I want to get but I wanted to finally organize this stuff instead of letting it sit unprepared in it's box.
Arriana walks into my room, pjs rumbled and her robe hanging off her, "Josh, am I dreaming, what are you doing awake?"
"Zayne got nervous about going back to school so I talked to him for almost an hour on the phone, I couldn't get back to sleep."
She comes up next to me and looks into the box, "What is all this?"
"Zayne's birthday is coming up next week, this is for him. I've spent the past month gathering this stuff."
She punches me in the arm, "Why didn't you tell me his birthday was coming up? When is it?"
"Ow! Jesus, you may be small but you are angry!" I rub my arm.
"When's his birthday?"
"November sixth, jeez, if you're going to do something for him you do still have a little over a week."
"I need my present to be better than yours. Tonight I begin!" She smiles and raises her pointer finger, she then plops on my bed next to the box, "What are we doing for Halloween?"
"It's this Thursday, we always dress up. So I had a couple ideas we can still order online, I kind of already have a few picked out that might include Zayne."
"Arriana, I don't even know if he's into Halloween like we are, I hadn't even thought about it. You can probably do whatever costume you want this year, I think I might just wing it."
She does a dramatic gasp, "How dare you? We aren't related anymore," she lifts her nose in the air and storms out.
I laugh as I close the box and push it under my bed.
I pass the rest of my time playing on my computer. When it comes time for me to leave, I'm packing my bag when Arriana barges in.
"He loves Halloween and you two are dressing up together, he and I like cop and robber," she points her finger at me with her phone still in hand.
"Arriana, what are we going to do Halloween night. We're gay, most parents here won't let their kids accept candy from us and we won't get invited to parties."
"We'll do scary movie night. Mom and me could make fun snacks," she smiles, "Now the big question. Should I be Little Red Riding Hood, or a Greek goddess?"
"Goddess," I throw my bag over my shoulder, giving her a look of endearment before walking out to the living room.
Her and I talk over breakfast while mom also preps a special breakfast sandwich for Zayne. I let her kiss my cheek before leaving to meet him at school.
I get there and he meets me at the door, looking relieved. I hand him the sandwich and take his free hand, "How are you doing?"
"I don't know, I'm nervous still," I pull him the direction of the door and walk inside. He tries to resist but I am stronger.
"It's ok," I whisper in his ear.
Walking into the main hall holding hands, we get lots of looks, most not nice. When Zayne looks scared I give his hand a squeeze of encouragement. No one says anything or does anything.
Arriana and Tempe join us quickly. Zayne relaxes into conversation and the day just flows naturally.
First period is calm and Mr. Roe almost seems to be in an ok mood for once. The day feels long when Zayne and I separate for our other classes, but that's what lunch is for. It creates a sense of relief to see him walk into the cafeteria still smiling, not scared or beaten up.
In a shocking turn of events, halfway through lunch Caira gets up from her lonely table and asks to talk to Arriana. After some major back and forth, they both sit with us. Caira and Arriana agreed that no one has to change their views but they both missed the friendship and will be civil for that. Hopefully Caira can be open minded and see we aren't that bad.
Conversation easily flows back to being lighthearted at the mention of Halloween. Tempe wants to join our movie night and Caira says if we're cool with it, she might make an appearance.
Zayne and her exchange uncomfortable glances every now and then, but after some pushes from Arriana and me, they discover they actually get along and agree on a lot of things. We all make the plans for Halloween, planning who will bring what movies, talking about costumes, food, even if we want to try and go out. Together.
Zayne seems tense and unsure but he and Caira both seem to be approaching with open minds. They're off to a good start building trust. Caira even apologizes for all the times she said mean things or laughed at him or encouraged Conrad's awful behavior.
Lunch ends and we all separate for class, but not before I take a little initiative and send Zayne off with a kiss on the cheek. He blushes, his cheeks as pink as his hair, as he walks down the hall to English. He's so flustered he almost trips looking back at me.
His smile makes everything feel good inside, seeing him confident makes everything feel even better.
I sit discreetly on my phone ordering my costume in my wood working class and get excited for Thursday, finally having a real group of friends who are willing to try and accept me for me is such a welcomed feeling.
Mrs. Jennings checks on us during last period, and is happily surprised things are going so well.
"I'll be sure to keep checking in but hopefully we can keep on this good path. Things are really looking up," she smiles as she shakes our hands.
The bell rings and the school starts clearing out quickly. Zayne comes home with me and Arriana to work on homework and maybe stay for dinner. He's actually spent a lot of time helping my mom cook, it's encouraged him to get in the kitchen with his mom too. He even had me try a pizza he made from scratch.
I've never seen him so happy, or looking so healthy. His cuts are still there, very slowly healing into scars but to me they've become a symbol of how much he's overcome. Each scar has become an obstacle he's defeated, his eating disorder, the fear of going to conversion therapy, fear of talking things out with his dad, fear of me coming out, fear of Conrad, it's all slowly moving behind him. It's all giving him more strength than I ever thought a person could have, he's gone through so much to earn the huge smile he has now.
I truly hope nothing can take it from him.
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