“What?” Gerard said incredulously, and slumped over at the kitchen table with a moan. “Fucking… what, seriously?”
It was way too early. The sky had just the faintest hint of light, and his mother and brother were somehow dressed and showered and clearly had already been caffeinated. It wasn’t fair. Gerard had been dragged out of bed, still in his pajamas, and hadn’t even had his first cup of coffee. He wasn’t able to make the very rational, vehement protest to his mother’s request that he felt was necessary. Mikey quirked an eyebrow at him and took another sip of coffee. His mom was bent over the kitchen sink, rubbing her temples.
“It’s just a few blocks, Gerard. Don’t be a bitch, we don’t have time,” she said, and checked her watch again. “You can walk a few blocks, it won’t kill you.”
“It might,” Gerard said very earnestly to the tabletop. He could smell the coffee, but it was so far away. He made a noise of distress.
“Okay, let me put it this way. You walk a few blocks to school at 8 AM, or you get up two hours earlier every day and wait in the parking lot until school opens. Your choice.”
Gerard made a disgruntled noise in response, and his mom nodded, like it was some form of binding agreement. He wanted a do-over, but his mom was already shrugging into her coat and pouring some coffee into a travel mug and asking Mikey if he’d gotten everything, his iPod and shoes and overnight bag.
Mikey was hiding his face behind his coffee mug, but Gerard could tell he was smirking. Gerard scowled and flipped him off half-heartedly before staggering to his feet and lurching towards the coffee pot. Gerard fucking hated high school, and the only thing worse than high school in general was starting a new high school his senior year, when school had already been in session for four weeks, and then having to walk there. He hadn’t even been in this town a day and he already hated it.
They’d rolled into Glen Fell, Vermont, late yesterday afternoon with the sun sinking orange behind the hills and casting long, thin shadows on the streets. The town was forty-five minutes off the interstate, along a labyrinthine path of two-lane roads, and they’d gotten turned around at least three times, his mother getting increasingly pissy as Gerard squinted at the printout from Google Maps and offered helpful advice.
The plan had been to move in to their new home on a Saturday morning and have the weekend to get situated. This was doomed to fail for a number of reasons, but mainly because his mom had somehow been under the delusion that Mikey and Gerard were going to do anything but wait until the last minute to pack, to say nothing of cleaning their rooms for the renters. That and a flat tire and Mikey’s sheepish voice halfway through Delaware announcing that he might have left the toaster on back home, and Gerard figured they were lucky to have gotten there by Sunday.
The fact that Glen Fell was so far off the beaten path hadn’t helped matters. It felt like they were driving in circles, the same pattern of farmland-forest-hills-forest scrolling past like an especially dreary screensaver. There weren’t many other cars on the road; they’d passed a grey station wagon headed the other direction, but no one else. Gerard had been growing increasingly convinced that there was no Glen Fell and the whole thing was an elaborate hoax, but then they came to a ridge overlooking a river, and beyond it was the town.
It was fucking small, smaller even than he’d expected. They’d seen the whole of it from the hilltop, laying in wait amidst rolling farmland and stands of maple wood, backed against a dark stretch of forest. There was a white church steeple complete with bell, a main street called Main Street, a general store –a fucking general store—and, thank Christ, a coffee shop. Everything was edged in late afternoon shadow, and people on the sidewalks turned their heads and watched as the car went past. And then that was it. That was the town. Gerard could still see the church steeple and bell from the front yard of their new house.
It would have been nice, he supposed, if they had actually gotten there on Saturday, because now everything was happening too quickly. They’d tumbled out of the car into their rented home, barking their shins on the unfamiliar furnishings in the growing dark, before his mom realized they needed to trip a circuit breaker or something equally arcane. Even afterwards, half the lights in the house seemed to be dead.
Mikey had fallen asleep almost immediately after dinner, pale and obviously exhausted, but Gerard couldn’t get settled. He spent his first night there staring glumly out the window, listening to the absence of sirens and traffic white-noise. He normally fell asleep to talk shows and infomercials, but his new bedroom had no TV, just an empty bookshelf and a mirrored dresser. All he could hear were creepy countryside sounds and the hum of his brain running in mad loops.
It was somehow insanely quiet and impossibly noisy at the same time. The tree branches scratched like zombie hands at the window, which was, okay, kind of cool, but loud as fuck in the still room. The house itself creaked and moaned constantly, and the staircase groaned from time to time, like someone was slowly creeping up to the second floor. Maybe all houses shifted and sighed like this, but only in the eerie silence of small towns could you actually hear it.
It wasn’t just a creepy soundtrack, though. There was actual physical creepiness: flickering hall lights and drifting cobwebs, dark moldy patches on the living room walls. Gerard’d already tripped on three loose floorboards, slammed his thumb in a drawer, and scalded his hand in the bathroom—the faucet apparently had only two settings: cold as death and fiery hellwater. This house was just fucking unfriendly.
He wondered if their old house missed them, leaning a little forward and peering down the street with its window eyes, lonely, waiting for the Ways to come home. Maybe it rattled the cabinets sullenly at the new tenants, or refused to drain the shower, or…
And then apparently he’d fallen asleep, since his mom was suddenly pounding on his door and fuck, life was obviously not worth living. It was early, and he had to walk to school, and Mikey was going away, again, and Gerard couldn’t even complain properly because it made him feel like a complete asshole.
This should have been Mikey’s sophomore year at Belleville, and instead he was here, pulled out of school to spend the semester at a specialist asthma center, being poked and tested each week by a legion of creepy researchers. He’d left behind all his friends—Pete, and Gabe, and that weird hyper band kid that kept skulking around their house and babbling to Mikey about their pirated Disney DVD empire. So fuck it, Gerard would just be a cheerful little soldier. He’d fucking walk to school, and like it. Hell.
“Fuck,” he muttered, and resisted the urge to rub his eyes again. “Alright, whatever. Maybe it won’t be so bad?”
Mikey stared at him and Gerard managed an approximation of a smile. “Good luck with that new doctor, man. Xavier, right?”
“Ha ha,” said Mikey, still looking suspicious. “Funny.”
“I’m just saying,” Gerard said. “They said there’d be side effects of the new medicine, right? Side effects could include, I dunno, psionic blades.”
“Lame,” Mikey scoffed, but Gerard counted it as a win, because Mikey was smiling, just a little. Gerard shuffled over and leaned into him, careful not to spill his coffee. Mikey smelled warm and familiar, sleep and soap and bitter caffeine, and Gerard closed his eyes for just a second. Outside, the horn of their car blared, which, wow, the neighbors were going to love that this early in the morning. Mikey shoved him gently away and the coffee in his mug sloshed threateningly.
“Go back to bed, Gee,” he said, and then smirked. “Have fun walking.”
“Fuck you too,” Gerard said, and retreated into the kitchen. The door closed, and he watched through the window as the car pulled away down the street. The sky was still a dark, deep blue, and he figured he had another hour or two to sleep before Marche fucking Slav to the gulag. He laid down a few minutes, uneasy and jittery, but he couldn’t sleep, not now.
He unpacked and set up his bookshelves and posters and fiddled with the supremely obnoxious drawers of the antique dresser, which only opened if he heaved with both hands, and afterwards tended to fall out and squash his toes. By the time daylight started bleeding into the room, he was in an even worse mood than before.
And just in case he’d been thinking the day wasn’t totally fucked up from the start, he managed to do that terrible thing with the eyeliner pencil where he got distracted and stabbed himself. It was at least a billion years before it was remotely possible to even pry the lids back open, and then his eye was all watery and bloodshot and crazy. He’d even thought about not wearing eyeliner today, he really had. But when he’d looked in the mirror his face had looked young and unfamiliar, fragile, and he’d wound up just smearing coal-black around his eyes as usual. Which obviously had been the wrong choice, since now he looked like he had some undead disease—zombie pink eye, maybe.
And his day was only going to get worse, because he still had to walk to school. That was fucking inhumane, no matter what his mom said.
He sighed loudly to announce his general displeasure with the world—it didn’t count as complaining if no one could hear it, right?—and then set off on foot towards the high school, clutching his thermos of coffee.
He contemplated pretending he’d gotten lost and doubling back to the house, but it really was only three blocks. The school was just ahead, looming in the morning sun, squat and malevolent. There was a steady stream of cars being funneled in its direction, belching black smoke, mufflers rattling in the cold morning air.
The parking lot was filled with pick-up trucks and rusting sedans; a few Volvos and station wagons were scattered here and there. One spotless white truck was in a place of pride at the front, parked next to the school entrance, and Gerard had to stop and stare, because he’d never, in his entire life, seen anyone actually decorate a truck with dead animals. There were deer antlers prancing along the front bumper, a tattered foxtail flying from the elongated radio antenna, and a humongous rack of horns blocking most of the rear window. Gerard could feel his jaw drop open, and he reeled a few involuntary steps backward.
“Holy fucking shit,” he said, tilting his head to better take it in. Someone standing next to him made a threatening, throat-clearing noise.
“You got a problem with my truck, freak?” Oh, that just figured. The guy next to him was scowling down at Gerard from under the brim of his ballcap. “What the fuckin’ hell you wearing, anyway? Is that make-up?”
Gerard didn’t really feel he had to justify his sartorial choices to someone who used antlers as fashion accessories, so he just turned away to go into the school. He had to get his schedule, figure out where all his classes were, and somehow manage to avoid interacting with any of the denizens of this hellhole. Just seven hours, and then he could go home, visit Mikey, work on his comic strips. Barricade himself in his room and never come out. He was about to head up the stairs when a huge hand settled on his shoulder and yanked him backward.
“I asked you a question,” the guy said, getting in Gerard’s space and looming, practically bumping chests with him. The fucker was tall, at least six feet, with bulging biceps, and his cheap cologne was making Gerard’s eyes water. “You don’t just walk away when someone’s talking to you, faggot.”
It was fucking cold out, and Gerard just wanted to get inside and hunker down and not talk to anyone, especially not anyone wearing camouflage pants and a letter jacket. He wanted to go home, but he couldn’t, so he just shrugged noncommittally and tried to edge around the guy. But the asshole kept doing that annoying thing where he matched Gerard step for step, blocking his escape and grinning meanly.
“Fine, your truck is fucking ugly, that answer your question?” Gerard snapped, and the guy sucked in a breath and narrowed his eyes. There was already a sizable crowd of high school sadists forming around them, jostling to get a better whiff of schadenfreude. Great fucking way to start the day. God, Gerard had the worst fucking luck.
“It is not,” the guy snarled, and Gerard knew, just knew, that the fucker was an inch away from patting his truck comfortingly and cooing that he wouldn’t let the nasty fag get gay cooties all over his baby. “What the fuck do you know? You’re wearing pink shoes.”
“Pink shoelaces,” Gerard corrected him, crossing his arms over his chest and hunching his shoulders. Fuck, he really needed to learn to just shut his mouth.
“You need to learn some fucking manners, freak,” another guy sneered, and Antlers McBigot grunted in agreement, lip still curled in outrage over the insult to his vehicle. He reached out and shoved Gerard, a solid painful blow that left him staggering back on his heels and sent his coffee over his shoes in a wave of wasted caffeine. Laughter echoed though the surrounding crowd.
“I don’t think you understand how this town works,” the guy scowled, hanging over Gerard, face inches away like he was waiting for Gerard to back down. Oh, fuck this.
“Gosh,” Gerard drawled, looking up from under his lashes at the asshole and making a sarcastic moue with his mouth. “How lucky I’ve got a big strong man like you to teach me. You’re a sweetheart.” He batted his eyes for good measure, and Antlers promptly reeled backwards with a dumbfounded look, as though Gerard had just stuck a hand down his pants and grabbed his package.
“Oh, shit!” one guy in the crowd said, and another guy in a letter jacket had his eyebrows raised nearly to his hairline. Everyone was looking at the lead jock, who was still staring at Gerard as though Gerard might, at any moment, attack him with eyeliner and dye his shoelaces pink. Gerard managed to coolly raise an eyebrow, but inwardly he was already in a state of stark, pants-shitting panic. They were going to fucking crucify him. And then maybe set him on fire. And then, fuck, Gerard didn’t even know what they did out here. Probably beat him to death with a deer skull.
“What—what the fucking fuck do you think—” Antlers said, voice rising precariously, and then the bell rang, interrupting whatever threat of imminent death was about to be spluttered. In the rush of the rest of the student body to the door, Gerard was able to scuttle past him and his cronies and up into the school before anyone could really react. This was going to be the worst day ever. Gerard could already tell.
Once inside, Gerard was basically a Sesame Street episode on non-conformity. One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is wearing eyeliner and all black and has a bookbag embroidered with skulls and the others are all wearing denim and plaid and John Deere t-shirts and camouflage. Gerard kept his head down, but he could sense the brazen staring and raised eyebrows anyway. Fuck. He was so doomed.
Trying to navigate the crowded hallways and find the main office somewhere was basically impossible—there were absolutely no signs, just identical bleak doors and grayish walls, like a fucking labyrinth. The plaque next to the main office was almost maliciously small. He’d made three passes down the halls before he finally spotted it, although at least after the bell for first period had rung, the halls were clear and he didn’t have to dodge the crowds. Inside, there was a student working the front desk and a sleepy-looking secretary in the corner filing her nails and watching The Days of Our Lives, that weird episode with the Russian ballerina and the cross-dressing.
The student said in an unexpectedly perky voice, “You must be Gerard Way!”
“Yeah, that’s me,” Gerard said cautiously. The guy looked surprisingly un-evil. He was wearing a Ramones t-shirt and smiling, and he had a truly impressive head of hair.
“I’m Ray Toro! I’ve got you a schedule and a map of the school here.” Ray handed over the crisp printed sheets and beamed at Gerard. “Your first period is Geometry with Mrs. Hall, room 205 upstairs. Just go up the staircase on the left when you leave here and once you’re upstairs it’s the first door on your right.”
“Thanks?” Gerard said uncertainly. The guy kept smiling. Gerard was at a loss. Also, fucking hell, his first class was math, and he was going to have to walk in late and all those eyes would be glaring right at him. Okay, fuck. Fine. Mikey had been right. Possibly the pink shoelaces and Iron Maiden hoodie had been a poor choice today.
“I’m a senior, too,” Ray said, oblivious to Gerard’s complete despair and hopelessness, leaning back in his chair and bouncing one foot on his knee. He was still grinning. It was entirely unnatural for 8:30 AM. Gerard squinted at him suspiciously. “I placed out of Geometry last year, so I get to work the front desk this period instead. But I’ll see you afterwards in English. It’s room 207, by the way. Hey, have you considered joining the marching band? We totally lost like half the band last year when they graduated so we really need some new blood.”
“Hah,” Gerard laughed inadvertently with a terrible honking noise that he resolved not to make again for the rest of the day. “No, uh, you’d probably pay me not to join band.”
“Well, fuck,” Ray said sadly, and then froze, looking warily at the secretary in the corner, who according to the gold-embossed nameplate was aptly named Prudence Hawthorne. But she was in a soap-opera coma and oblivious to swearing students and the world in general, so Ray turned back to Gerard and beamed again.
“Well, I’ll see you later, Gerard! Nice to meet you!” he chirped, and waved.
“Bye,” Gerard said, eyebrow raised—seriously, that kid had to be on something—and felt marginally more hopeful about the rest of the day. At least one person in this town wasn’t a total asshole, even if he was bordering on Stepford cheeriness.
Turned out, though, that his optimism had been premature, because soon as he entered room 205, the class erupted into whispers and one douchebag in the back of the room whistled and said, loud enough to be heard three rows of desks away, “Damn, what the hell, we taking in she-males now?” Awesome. Then Mrs. Hall made him stand at the front of the room and introduce himself. Gerard was forced to downgrade her from ‘sweet little old lady’ to ‘the dark lord Mephistopheles.’ And then she immediately proved this decision to be correct by making him complete the problem on the chalk board, because she hadn’t reached her quotient of evil for 8 AM yet, or something.
Then he had to take the only seat open in the class, which of course was in front of fucking Antlers McJockstrap, who was staring up at him with loathing. The rest of the class period passed with Jocko flicking spitballs in his hair and hissing “Oh, pretty and smart too, city boy? Ain’t you special,” and other gems each time Mrs. Hall looked away. Gerard tried to ignore it and focus on doodling some dueling demon unicorns for Mikey in his notebook. In retrospect, a bad idea, since the asshole next to him spotted it and hooted with delight and called him Princess for the rest of the period.
At least the next class had Ray Toro, he thought, but unfortunately Mrs. Hall (tomorrow he was bringing a crucifix to class, seriously) kept him after the bell rang to discuss Gerard joining the math team and to give him his textbook and the homework assignments he’d missed. By the time he escaped, all the seats in his English class were full. Except, mysteriously, the seat in front of Jocko.
The rest of the day followed suit; most of the other students left him alone, but there were a few assholes in every class that shoved his desk and called out the requisite unimaginative insults. It wasn’t like he hadn’t heard this shit before, but at least he’d been home, then, in familiar territory. In Belleville he even had friends, sort of. Mikey’s friends Pete and Gabe had started sitting with him at lunch last year, and then they’d progressed to stealing his phone and invading his basement and watching movies with him and Mikey on the weekends. It had been nice. He was actually going to miss them, especially now that he was stuck here, in the high school from hell.
Luckily, the last class of the day was Art, with only four other students in the room—four girls set on ignoring him completely, which was fine by Gerard. He spent the time sketching the still life the teacher had set up and adding in tiny vampires and rabid monkeys clinging to the spokes of the bicycle wheel. Mr. Felts apparently wasn’t impressed.
“Unacceptable,” he said darkly, waving his pencil at the totally awesome vampire bicycle monkeys. “Draw it again, please. And stick to the assignment this time.” Because nothing beat art class with all the actual art and fun sucked out of it.
When the school day had finally, finally ended, Gerard found himself surrounded by a gang of guys with letter jackets in the parking lot, having decided, apparently, that the best way to re-establish their heteronormative masculinity was to knock around the new fag and steal his bookbag.
The lead jerk from that morning started off on some rambling monologue on respect and bitches and the baseball team, or something. His name was Ted Sikowski, apparently, and Gerard’d ‘better not forget it, faggot’— which, hey, no points for originality, there. Which possibly hadn’t been the brightest thing for Gerard to say out loud. Ted slammed him up against a truck, shoved his face against the hot paint hard enough that Gerard’s vision went crackly and dim. So that sucked, but once Gerard spit out blood onto the sidewalk, Ted apparently felt his honor was satisfied enough to let him go. Gerard bent gingerly to grab his bookbag, and fuck, his shoulder hurt, too. Fantastic.
He edged his way past the ring of self-righteous onlookers, then closed his eyes for a moment. He didn’t want to go home. His mom would fuss over him, the corner of her mouth pulling down and the skin around her eyes tight and upset. She made that face too often, lately. And he sure as hell didn’t want to wait around in the parking lot for those assholes to leave, and they were blocking off his exit anyway.
He wound up shuffling off through the few remaining cars, head down, towards the woods bordering the school grounds. The faint impression of a path wound through the tall grass, and he followed it absently, trying to staunch his bloody lip with the sleeve of his hoodie. He could hear laughter and raised voices from the parking lot behind him. He tried not to listen too closely, but he could feel his shoulders hunching miserably.
The grass rustled hollowly as he followed the overgrown path, shuffling his feet, head down and mouth dripping red from a busted lip. He was sure he made an epically tragic figure, sloping monstrous towards the shelter of the woods and away from civilization, the blue sky arcing overhead.
The bright, end-of-summer sun was hot enough now that his shirt had gone all sticky and damp, even though the wind had an October chill. Past the edge of the woods, though, it was actually pretty pleasant, and although he’d intended to collapse in the shade and watch the parking lot trolls mill around until they got bored and left, something made him want to keep plodding onward. Head down, trudging through the leaf litter to wander lost for all eternity. Dante’s wood of suicides, the Black Forest level for high-school misfits in make-up. Maybe there would be werewolves.
An ancient-looking flat stone wall bordered one side of the path, crooked and half-toppled. He had to grudgingly admit there was something appealing about the autumn woods, something intangible and deliciously spooky. When he looked up, the trees stretched overhead, arching like the bones of cathedral walls against the blue vault of the sky. The leaves were all red and gold, curling dryly at the edges, rattling when the wind blew.
He kept worrying his lip as he walked, re-opening the cut on his mouth. That was going to be a problem, probably—he was bad about about picking at scabs and prodding bruises. He held his sleeve against his mouth again until it clotted, then fumbled in his pocket for cigarettes, stumbling now and then over random tree roots poking up maliciously from the ground.
First cigarette of the afternoon—it almost, almost calmed his nerves. At least it gave him something to do with his hands. The smoke hung heavy in the air. Maybe if he got lost, he could follow the trail out; a modern-day Hansel, complete with lung cancer. He supposed he should turn back soon, before he actually did get lost. He took a last drag of the cigarette, and the cut on his mouth must have reopened because the paper stuck to his bleeding lip, clung sticky to his skin.
“Fuck,” he said ruefully to the empty woods, prodding his mouth with ragged, black-painted nails. “Smoking my own blood.”
“Kinky,” the empty woods said back, and Gerard jumped backward, windmilled his arms frantically, and fell on his ass into some intensely spiky unfriendly bush. He made an embarrassing tea-kettle-like noise, flailing.
“Holy shit!” the guy standing behind him on the path said, sounding alarmed and amused. “I didn’t mean to freak you out that bad, man.”
“Gnnaaahh,” Gerard wheezed, trying and failing to stand up. “What the fuck—what is your—where did you even come from!”
The random stealth guy stared at him as Gerard glared witheringly, or attempted to, and then burst into delighted giggles—which, whatever, it wasn’t funny, okay. The fucking bush was possessed or something. Gerard yanked his arm again and yelped as thorns dug into his shoulder, and then suddenly a cool hand was on his wrist, confidently lifting away branches and untangling things from Gerard’s hair and hauling him to his feet.
Gerard shook the dead leaves from his hair and spit out a twig, edging away from the bush just in case it decided to leap out at him again. Fuck, his heart was still going eleven billion miles a minute.
“So, uh… you okay, dude?” the guy asked, rocking back on his heels. “Still breathing? I’m Frank, by the way. These are my woods.”
“Your woods?” asked Gerard as he brushed hopelessly at the giant muddy stain on his jeans. Oh, his day just kept getting better. At least his pulse was slowly normalizing. Probably his heart wasn’t going to explode, but it had been a close thing. He slanted an accusing look in Frank’s direction.
Frank didn’t so much seem to notice, picking at a nail and staring at it intently. He flicked a glance at Gerard and looked back down again immediately. “I mean, uh, sorta? They are now. People… tend not to come here. You did, though!” he said, perking up. “Which is awesome. Clearly, you are awesome.”
Gerard was still picking thorns and twigs and other random forest paraphernalia out of his hair—what had he been thinking, coming into a forest, nature was fucking red in tooth and claw and leaf—but at this he looked back up. That… that was generally not the response he got from people. And now that he wasn’t dying of heart failure or premature death-by-tree, it was dawning on him that Frank was actually sort of attractive. Okay, really attractive.
Frank grinned at him, flicking his lip ring with his tongue. He was even paler than Gerard—pale like a china plate, almost luminous. Tattoos curled beneath the holes in Frank’s shirt and down the insides of his arms, and Gerard itched again for his sketchpad and ink. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed this guy at school, Jesus.
“Fuck,” Gerard laughed in surprise, wincing as his lip cracked open even more. “I thought everyone in this town wore polo shirts and plaid, man.”
“Nothing wrong with plaid,” Frank said, waggling his eyebrows, and then he laughed, high and delighted, and threw an arm around Gerard’s shoulders, squeezing. “This is so awesome! No one cool ever comes out here.”
“Um,” Gerard said, eyes popping open. He wanted to surreptitiously pinch himself, but no, he couldn’t, because his hands were pinned to his side by some random hot guy—who thought Gerard was cool—hugging him. He struggled to get his brain to reboot. “Uh. What?”
“Dude,” Frank said, leaning back and letting go of Gerard’s shoulders but still bizarrely and brain-numbingly close. Frank’s face was achieving Ray-Toro-levels of cheer; he looked like someone had just offered him the Nobel Prize or a backstage pass to Bonnaroo. Gerard shivered, rubbing his arms absently. “Seriously, so fucking awesome! C’mon, you have to hang out with me, you wanna walk a bit? You got a name?” Frank said, bouncing and beaming. “And oh, oh, can I bum a smoke?”