On the last Monday in August, Principal Martha Edwards stood in front of the entrance to School Without Walls Senior High School greeting her students on the first day of the new school year. CJ smiled when he saw her, remembering his own first day at Walls twelve months before when Papa Brett had dropped him off and he was accosted by Harley. The kid who ended up becoming his best friend was impressed by the marine's Harley-Davidson Road Glide motorcycle. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
This year there was no Brett and no Hog. Instead, CJ rode the bus with Chipper, Bradley, and Patrick. He and his buddies were met at the stop by Harley and Thiago and together they walked towards the front doors and Mrs. Edwards. The principal looked at the approaching band of teens and smiled while rolling her eyes. She had words of greeting for them collectively, before spending a few moments talking to the Kennedy brothers individually.
The six boys and the educator had seen each other the previous Sunday at CJ's home, but no direct references were made to the social gathering. CJ had warned the newbies not to bring it up in front of other students for fear they might start calling them her pets. Walls had an enrollment of less than 600 students and the gang of six―a freshman, four juniors, and a senior―constituted a good sized group by school standards.
The returning students greeted friends they'd not seen since classes had ended in June and introduced the newcomers. CJ knew he still had a reputation as a badass after his confrontations with a couple of bullies the previous term and made certain to mention Bradley and Patrick were his neighbors and very close friends of his. He was going to make sure no idiot decided to pick on the new boys and the implication was if anyone did, they'd have to deal with him.
When he reached his homeroom, CJ didn't recognize the older man standing in front of the class; he guessed it was a new teacher and his assumption was confirmed when the man introduced himself.
"Good morning. For those of you who might be new to the school as I am, welcome to Walls. My name's Lawrence Burke, I'm a science teacher here, a sergeant in the National Guard, and I tend to like the discipline the army has taught me. I'll expect you to behave while in this room. We'll be spending time together every morning and the routine will be fairly simple. You'll get used to it. Now please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Gentlemen, you'll remove any sort of hat you're wearing and keep it off during the entire period."
Once the students had sat again he began the roll call with CJ being the first name he read. "Cesar Abello." He pronounced the double L as a single one and placed the emphasis on the E.
"Excuse me, sir. I go by CJ and my last name's pronounced ah beh yo. With the accent on the O. It's Spanish."
"Well, boy, this is the United States of America and we speak English in this country. So I'll pronounce your name in the proper language. I didn't spend all those years in the military defending my country to have it taken over by foreigners."
A soft murmur spread amongst the students as they glanced at the teacher with surprised expressions. Many turned around to stare at CJ with questioning looks.
"SILENCE!" The shout made everyone look towards the front of the room as the man resumed reading the list of students.
Harley sat behind CJ and leaned forward to whisper in his ear. "What the heck's wrong with him?"
"I asked you to be quiet. What's your name, young man?" Mr. Burke took a couple of steps around his desk and stared at CJ's best friend.
"Harley Wilkinson, Sarge. We all call CJ, CJ. And his last name's not hard to say the right way. I think―"
"I don't quite care what you think, Mr. Wilkinson. If you and your friend feel the need to talk after I've asked for quiet, I can arrange a visit to the principal's office. I expect no further interruptions."
CJ shook his head in disbelief. He'd corrected teachers the previous year and none had reacted the way the African-American man had. His gut feeling was to snap back at the xenophobic comment, letting the man know he was born in the United States as were both his parents, but decided to ignore the remark. This was homeroom and he would only have to put up with the guy for a few minutes each morning. His theory was proved wrong when later in the day he found out Mr. Burke would be his chemistry teacher too.
* * *
"What you gonna do about your homeroom teacher, homie?" Thiago and CJ had volunteered to sit at the GSA recruiting table early in the morning. They had pamphlets about the organization, a sign-up sheet, and talked to anyone who approached them.
"Harley told me what the guy did yesterday. He sounds like an ass. And there were people talking about it. Haven't you noticed some of the students staring at you?"
"Nah. And I'm not doing anything. I don't want to rock the boat. I did that enough times last year. I'm happy with who I am and where my life's at. I don't need to prove anything to anybody. Why do you think I didn't run for Student Government this year? I want to concentrate on classes, my friends, and really get into some volunteer work. Sergeant Burke isn't worth getting upset over. There's always gonna be people like him. I'm going to ignore the shit out of him."
"Drop it, bud. He ain't worth the aggravation. And the last thing I wanna do is run crying to the principal. I'd still have to deal with him in Chemistry and I don't want to piss him off. Thanks for caring, but I'll be fine."
* * *
Barely after dawn on Saturday morning, CJ stopped his father's Cadillac Escalade in front of Harley's house and texted his friend, letting him know they were outside waiting. He'd decided not to use the car's horn in case Harley's parents or sisters were still sleeping. César and Brett had gone to New York the previous afternoon to spend the weekend in the city and had given CJ permission to use the Caddy. The boy already had Owen, Bradley, Patrick, and Chipper riding with him and their next stop would be Thiago's.
Harley came bounding out of the door moments later, wearing flip flops, board shorts, a t-shirt, and his signature backwards cap. "What up, bruh? Hey, guys." He climbed into the back section of the car, threw his backpack into the rear space, and sat on the bench seat next to Chipper.
"G'day, Harley. You're awfully happy for being up so early." Owen sat in the front passenger seat, sipping coffee from a travel mug, and turned around to look at the lanky kid who was bumping fists with the Kennedy brothers.
The procedure was repeated when they stopped to collect Thiago. All the young men wore similar outfits, but the black guy's neon green shorts drew hoots and hollers from his friends.
"Fuck you all! You're just jealous 'cause you know I'm styling. Hey, CJ, Mom sent a batch of Snicker Doodle cookies she baked last night. I can't believe she remembered you like those."
"Dude! Your mom rocks. I'll call her a little later to thank her."
"Cough, kiss ass, cough." Bradley's snide comment earned him a slap to the back of the head from his brother.
"Shut up, Brad. It'll serve you right if CJ doesn't share his cookies with you."
"Thank goodness for that. I don't want his cookies. Ozzie can keep those."
The Kennedy brothers had been at Gangplank Marina the previous day with their father; they'd provisioned and readied the catamaran so the seven youngsters wouldn't have to worry and rush in the morning. Although Brad and Patrick had learned how to sail over the summer, Detective Kennedy made it clear CJ was to be considered the captain and would be in charge. His word was final at all times. CJ had grown up around boats in Miami, was familiar with maritime conventions, and had learned how to sail the previous year. Since then, he'd gained experience handling the Lagoon 42 catamaran.
They motored out of the inlet before unfurling the sails and allowing the wind to power the vessel south on the Potomac. They spent the morning swimming, jet-skiing, and fishing, before breaking for lunch and docking at the U.S. Marine Corps Base Quantico Marina. The afternoon was spent at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, a place CJ had visited with his father, and a recipient of annual contributions from his family.
Standing outside on the main plaza, the guys stared at the imposing structure. The triangular shape, with a large mast rising from its apex, evoked the Iwo Jima Memorial. It appeared to lean to one side, much like the statue of the soldiers raising the flag during the war did.
"Let me guess, mate. You love the architecture." Owen draped an arm over his friend's shoulder and gave him a friendly shake.
"Hey! Leave him alone. I kinda like the building too. It's pretty cool." Harley's quick defense of CJ brought chuckles from the rest of the group. "I learned a lot about buildings when I took my trip with CJ. First it was the Rock and Roll Museum and this place sort of reminds me of it. Both are like triangles. And in Chicago he pointed out all these cool high-rises and all the different type of houses around where his cousins live. But the best was in Milwaukee. He took me to this museum that had wings on top and they―"
"Oops, sorry. But he does know his stuff. He's got me paying attention to buildings now."
CJ listened to Harley's monologue, impressed his friend had cleared space in his technology crowded brain to appreciate the art of architecture. "Come on guys, let's get inside. You're gonna love this place. And wait until you get to the area about Viet Nam. They have the back of a helicopter and they play this soundtrack with all these jungle and war noises which make you think you're out there. When I came here with Papa, he told me it was pretty similar to what he experienced in Afghanistan."
When they stopped at the gift shop on the way out, CJ let his friends know he was a member and was entitled to a ten percent discount if they wanted to buy anything. CJ bought a few items, including a surprise for Papa Brett.
Sunday was spent in a similar manner, they'd sailed away from populated areas and ditched the swim suits as soon as they felt they were in no danger from prying eyes. By the time they returned home late in the afternoon, the boys were in good spirits, giving Bradley a hard time because he had failed to use sunscreen on his ass, which they claimed was now as red as his hair. They were ready for the upcoming return to Walls while Owen fretted over his first day of classes at George Mason University School of Law.
Since Monday was Labor Day, Owen spent the night with CJ on Sunday. They'd shared a cabin aboard the PP but fearing intrusions in the middle of the night, they'd kept their hands off each other. "Mate, your friends are great. I had a great time this weekend. Thanks."
"You're welcome but I didn't do anything special. And yes, they're a great bunch. I got lucky meeting them all."
"I think they probably feel lucky they met you. I sure do. You have this thing about you that makes those guys wanna follow you no matter what you suggest. They look up to you as their leader."
"You're imagining things, Ozzie. Now get out of your clothes and come to bed. I have plans for your ass."
"Sir, yes, sir!" Owen saluted but followed the instructions he'd been given without complaining and with a smile on his face.
* * *
"Welcome to the first meeting of Walls' Gay Straight Alliance for the year. My name's Thiago Baravento, one of the co-chairs of the organization." Thiago sat at the front of the room and smiled at the crowd in front of him. "This is my last year at Walls, and my second one in the organization."
"And I'm Janelle Tu," added the girl sitting next to him. I'm also a senior and I've been a member since I started at Walls as a freshman. One thing I'd like to do this year is make the meetings run smoother and faster. So we'll leave introductions for after we get done with the business part.
"I have a list of our planned activities for the year which I'll pass out in a minute so it can be approved. I want to have the organization do at least one a month."
While Janelle spoke, Thiago took one of the sheets of paper stacked in between him and his co-chair and glanced at it; he appeared confused as his eyes scanned down the list. "Excuse me, Janelle, where did this list come from? We talked over the summer but I don't remember agreeing to anything like this. Plus, I don't see a couple of things we talked about on here."
"I know, I talked to you and the other officers and then summarized the ideas you all had. I ignored the ones I didn't think would be good for us."
"Really? So you didn't think my suggestion of doing something at Arlington around Veteran's Day was appropriate?"
"That one was just plain stupid. Typical breeder thinking. Why would we want to do anything related to the military? Who cares about them? They don't even let women fully participate."
Hearing the comments made CJ's face go slack, his eyes as wide open as they'd ever been. "Excuse me? I think we need to talk about this."
"Later, CJ," Janelle replied. "I'll answer your questions after we get done."
"Oh, I don't think so," the boy replied, standing up before sitting again, this time on the edge of the chair's back with his feet on the seat. He took a deep breath trying to calm the anger rising in him. "We're going to talk right now. And we're going to start with you calling my friend a breeder. Does that mean we get to call you a dike or a cunt?"
"CJ!" Mr. Rupple shouted from the side of the room where he'd been leaning against the wall.
"Sorry, Mr. R. She has me a little hot under the collar right now. I'll try to keep the language clean. So Janelle, GSA stands for Gay Straight Alliance and it's supposed to encourage us to work together regardless of orientation. By calling Thiago a breeder you just went against everything the organization is supposed to fight for."
You could have heard a fly buzz by in the silence. CJ was irate, Janelle looked disturbed by his challenge, and Thiago smiled while crossing his arms, extending his legs and leaning back in his chair.
"As I said, let's get this approved and you and I can speak privately after."
"WRONG! Nothing's getting approved here until you answer my questions. This organization's run like a democracy. Who the fuck died and left you king?"
"Sorry, Mr. R. Sorry." CJ raised his hand and bowed his head towards Mr. Rupple in a sign of apology before turning his gaze towards the imperious acting girl. "But I'm ticked off and I'm not going to accept this crap. Just so you know, Ms. Tu, I happen to think showing support for those who serve our country's a good thing. My father was in the Marine Corps for years. I'm proud of his service, and of the men and women I've met because of him. And honoring those who gave their lives so we could be free to hold our meeting is very important. Tell me something, have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Do you have any idea what it stands for?
"You also seem to forget Thiago's your equal and you just dissed him in front of everyone. Before we do anything else you need to apologize to him. And you need to do it in public. The same way you insulted him."
"I don't need to do anything." Janelle sounded frustrated; her voice turned shrill. "And if you don't like it, you can just quit right now. We don't need you. The rest of us can handle it without you."
"Then that's what I'll do. Later, guys," CJ said to his close buddies, all huddled around him, while he stood and reached for his backpack. "I can't be a member of a group that disregards the wishes of its members or acts against what it's supposed to stand for. I'm out of here. Maybe we'll just have to do what we want to on our own." His gaze settled on Janelle showing disdain for her. "Let me know when you come to your senses and realize you can't do this alone."
Harley was the first one to stand. Bolting out of his chair and overturning it in the process. "If CJ goes, so do I."
He was joined by Chipper. "Me too."
"The reason I showed up today's 'cause of CJ and the rest of my friends. Count me out as far as becoming a member. Patrick?" Brad asked his brother who'd not been very enthusiastic about attending to begin with. The younger Kennedy stood and started walking out the room following the older boys.
"Wait up, homie," Thiago called out. "Sorry, Mr. Rupple but I have to resign. I'll put it in writing and drop it off in your room tomorrow." As he walked out, so did most of the other students. Janelle's mouth hung open as she watched the classroom empty.
CJ watched from the door, noticed their faculty advisor's barely perceptible head shaking, and thought he detected a smirk on the man's face.
"Bruh, major laser, all day!" Harley exclaimed once they were all outside the room.
"Respect, man. Rees-pect." Chipper added, bumping fists with CJ.
Thiago came up to CJ and gave him a quick but effusive bro hug. "Thanks for standing up for me, bud. But I hope you know what you're doing. You just made an enemy out of Janelle."
"Are you going to get in trouble, CJ?" Patrick asked, worry etched on his face.
"I doubt it. I'm sure I'll have to talk to Mr. Rupple later. And maybe to Mrs. Edwards. But I ain't worried. I'm not going to put up with that kind of bullshit. And do you think I care if I made an enemy, Thiago? I'm so pissed at the bitch right now I could hit something."
"Damn!" Bradley exclaimed. "That was awesome. Nothing this much fun ever happened at my old school."
* * *
"So what do you think?"
"You know something, Jarhead? I hate it when you play dumb." César was frustrated, his son had once again blown up at somebody and his husband was all but ignoring the events of earlier in the day. "About CJ's story of course. I thought we were over the anger bullshit. Aren't you worried?"
"That's it? Nope? That's all you have to say? We may have a loose cannon running around again and you ain't worried?"
"Fuck you, César. What the hell do you want me to say? I happen to agree with what he did one hundred percent." Brett's volume had risen in response to César's continued prodding. "The little bitch insulted his friend and the US military. She deserved what he said to her and more. Maybe his cussing wasn't so smart, but he was provoked and his reaction was appropriate for a sixteen-year-old. Even fucking Patrick, who I happen to think is the most thoughtful out of the bunch, said CJ did good. I talked to him when he, Brad, and Ozzie came over to play pool."
"Yeah, that's what all the boys are calling him now, Ozzie the Aussie. Don't change the subject. You wanted to talk about our son so let's talk about him. He defended his friend and me! He stood up for what he believes in. Isn't that what we've tried to teach him? Fuck being politically correct. I would have called the twat worse things than cunt or dyke."
"Jarhead nothing. You started this conversation, I'll finish it. CJ stood up to a bully once again and I say good for him, his colorful language notwithstanding. He avoided a physical confrontation, which is unfortunate because the bitch deserved to get slapped. I may be a cocksucker but I'd never consider calling someone a breeder as an insult. Isn't that what we've been fighting for? Equality? What if she had called Thiago a nigger? Would it have been okay for our boy to be upset then?
"I controlled myself and kept quiet during dinner 'cause I could tell you weren't real happy with what we were hearing. But let me tell you something, I was ready to give him a high-five, dance, and cheer. And I'm warning you right now, if you give him shit about this, I'm going to fight you on it. I'm taking his side on this one.
"I'm damn proud of our son. He's going to make a great man. And I hope he'll give us grandchildren. Lots of them. Those kids are going to be awesome growing up with CJ as a role model." The smile creeping up on Brett's face did nothing to diminish his consternation or earnestness of his words as he poked his husband's chest. "You stay the fuck away from him on this one."