“He’s a chicken. My mom is too. So I guess they go together. What about your parents?”
“They’re mental. My dad left but he turned my mom into this weird valley girl.”
Riley didn’t feel like responding to a grunt, so he laid down and watched Jack lean against the dorm window and flick his zippo. Most of Riley’s conversations this past October have ended with the same “hmm.” He’s been at his new boarding school less than a month and he was tired of fake sympathy. No one attends this school voluntarily, so most students had hostage body language. Their bleak reality for the new 1982 school year is that their parents couldn’t tolerate their kids’ preferences. The St. Michael’s Institution for Reparative Therapy was made to convert homosexuals to something their mothers and fathers could agree with. This was guaranteed and promised through the use of daily religious teachings. It didn’t help with a counselor straight out of Hell. His name was Mr. Wyler and he resembled the gargoyles on the building. Riley and Jack had five minutes until Wyler’s introductory assembly, so they waddled through the trash on the floor, ignoring the stench.
* * *
Mr. Wyler stood at a walnut podium and held a frigid gaze that terrorized the teenagers in the bleachers. After two taps of the microphone and one long cough, he spoke through heavy mucus.
“Alright, some of y'all think of this as a punishment. Like you’re in trouble. Truth is, it’s not any of that, alright? Look at this situation as an opportunity. Your chance to listen to God and reconcile! Make room in your life for the words of the Lord. Truth is, this isn’t a “game over,” this is a “restart,” right? Y’all go to arcades? Donkey Kong? No? Alright, I'm gonna need some more participation than that! You in the front, yellow-shirt; tell me why you’re here.”
The thin, expressionless girl he was addressing opened and shut her mouth before speaking. “My airhead mom sent me here.”
“Alright, let’s clean up the language. There is a reason she sent you here, right?”
“Her reason is to straighten me out before my dad comes home. He’s deployed.”
“Well, you tell him that Mr. Wyler thanks him for his service. Truth is, a part of me always wanted to serve my country. But God had greater plans for me!”
“I think I’ll tell him to bite me.”
“Alright, that’s enough from you. I got off track here.” Wyler pursed his lips and shook his head. The girl was escorted out by another counselor.
“This is a good transition for me to bring up a very important concept that we enforce here - respect. There are rules, which you will read in the handouts. I’ll cover my favorites here, let’s see. No smoking, no drinking, no skirts, no leaving the grounds without approval, and no going outside your dorm room past curfew. You will be allowed one phone call a week - the schedule for that is on the bulletin. The only music that’s allowed is on the “approved music” list on the bulletin.”
Wyler interrupted himself with a cough, which Riley thought was the most interesting thing he heard so far. Nearly everyone in the audience rolled their eyes at least once during his list, which did not affect Wyler. He cleared his throat and looked at the crowd proudly.
“All that might sound like nagging, but it’s meant to help you with your confusion. Truth is, I know a lot of you are confused. You’re poor, lost children who don’t respect yourselves. You kick God out of your life and wonder why you have to end up here. Here at St. Michael’s, you’ll have all the time in the world to find the Lord. Let me say, in conclusion, you will leave this place sharper and smarter than when you first walked in. Let us help you and cure you. And why not have some fun while we’re at it?
He put the mic back in the stand and smacked the boombox to play “The Home of the Lord” and half-danced off the stage.
“Now it feels like Halloween. Shit.” Jack’s assessment of Wyler had Riley smiling, which had been rare lately. Counselors ran around handing packets that Wyler was yelling about to the dispersing students. “Read these! Study! This will be your best friend! Alright, let’s get to it!”
Jack stood and pulled out his schedule and looked from his to Riley’s, back to his.
“Looks like I got gratitude exercises. Outside. What about you?”
Riley scoffed, “Something called passage practice. Harsh.”
“Alright, man, catch you later.”
Jack turned around and walked down the seats as Riley silently debated if he should tell him about the pipe sticking out of his pants.
* * *
“Okay! I’m so excited to be hosting your guys’ passage practice today! You can call me Sister Peggy, and you can all pull out those wonderful papers under your desks”
Riley was not in the mood for this instructor’s enthusiasm, and neither was the rest of the kids packed into classroom 3-A. He glanced at the clock above the chalkboard and realized there was going to be another whole hour of this. He grabbed the papers from under his seat as Sister Peggy clapped her small hands together.
“Exciting! One paper should have a list of verses and the other should have a big, huge, happy heart on it! Does everyone see? Wonderful! We’re going to be going over a whole bunch of wonderful quotes from the scripture that can give you perspective on your illness. But before we get to all that good stuff, we’ll do a quick little exercise, just to warm up.”
Her words sounded like distorted static to Riley, whose head was already slumped in his hands. He looked over and noticed everyone either at or past his level.
“Okay! The exercise is to help you get more organized with your relationships. I want you to write down inside of the heart on your paper three things that you’re thankful for. Outside of the heart, I want you to write down three bad habits you have. Okay? Inside the heart, three things you’re thankful for. Outside the heart, three bad habits. You guys get two minutes.”
Riley stared at the blank heart on the page and couldn’t think of anything to write down. He saw the girl next to him scribbling away whole paragraphs which annoyed him. Focusing back on his paper, he hid it behind the shoulder of the person in front of him.
“Okay! Time’s up, little stars! Let’s see what we have. Would anyone like to volunteer?”
“Over here, Sis” came from the back of the classroom.
Riley instantly recognized the voice and turned in his chair to see Jack, his desk balancing on two legs with his feet in the air.
Sister Peggy said “Okay! A volunteer! Let me walk over- excuse me, excuse- ah! Let’s see what you came-”
Jack shoved the paper in her face and waited for whatever he deserved.
“Okay, what’s your name, young man?”
Jack smiled at Riley as he lied, enjoying it all a little too much. Jack really ditched his first-ever activity to crash Riley’s class. What a ditz thought Riley.
“Let me see your paper..”
“Here. Sorry about the Hubba Bubba.”
Sister Peggy unwrapped the paper that Jack used as a napkin and gasped.
“This isn’t wonderful at all! What you wrote in your heart is completely unacceptable! We are trying to help you, and if you don’t want to cooperate, fine. You can go see Mr. Wyler and he’ll be happy to take care of your attitude. No more writing anything like this. Goodbye.”
“Awe, don’t be bogus, sissy.”
Jack got up before she was done talking and sneered at Riley. When he slammed the door, the vein on Sister Peggy’s neck started to throb. Looking down at Jack’s heart exercise, she said quietly, “Unbelievable. Unbelievable.” She discarded it in the trash bin.
“Let’s see a real answer.”
The students then took turns sharing what was in their heart exercises, most of which Riley knew were made up. People were admitting that they had diseases and shame just because of who they were attracted to. Riley couldn’t believe how quickly they sold out. That only took up ten minutes. The rest was spent on Sister Peggy’s favorite excerpts from the Bible, a word Riley was tired of hearing. Riley would immediately forget what Sister Peggy read out loud and spent most of the lecture fiddling with his pencil.
After another hour of this, she didn’t seem to lose any energy. How she kept herself awake was a miracle to Riley. Right about this time last year, he would be walking around his old neighborhood and looking at all of the Halloween decorations. Now at St. Micheal’s instead, he felt like he was in a haunted house with no exits or end time. Sister Peggy dismissed everyone after a concluding prayer and the class, all except for Riley, poured into the hallway.
Sister Peggy gathered her materials and followed them as Riley stayed behind. He went over to the garbage to see what it was Jack wrote that made Sister Peggy so frustrated. He took the page out and unraveled it to see. Next to the dried gum, inside the heart shape were only the words fuck this place.
* * *
Riley had a chance to catch up with Jack at the staircase next to their dorm shortly after.
“Aye, Riley man, what’s up? Sister Peggy seems chill. How’d you like our duet back there?”
“Yeah, it was great. We wanted an encore.”
Ignoring the sarcasm, Jack put his hands in his pants and looked around.
“You know, it wouldn’t kill them to put up a skeleton or something. A couple bat decorations, you know? Or you ever see those inflatable pumpkins?”
“I think there’s something in the Bible against inflatable pumpkins,” Riley said as he pulled out his schedule. “Looks like I get to call home now. Wicked.”
“Cheer up, man. At least you didn’t have to do gratitude exercises all morning.”
“Oh, yeah, how’d that go?”
“We stood outside and went over all of our blessings. Then we held hands and called for God. I kid you not, I was about to slam my head with the nearest rock.”
“They should just have a little Halloween party to lift our spirits. They could even make it all about Jesus, I don’t care.”
“Totally. You know refraining from Halloween is bad for a chocoholic, right? I’m going crazy here. I don’t get how you’re not bouncing off the walls, man.”
“Yeah, well, I might get to that point after this phone call. What kinda family sends their kid here?”
“Tell me about it. My folks would get a kick out of it, though, watching me suffer and all.”
“Only one more, year, right?”
* * *
Riley approached the payphone with sweaty wrists, not prepared to face his mother. His stomach swelled with every number he dialed. There was only a second of ringing before the other end picked up.
“Riley? Riley, can you hear me? I have some news, sweetie.”
Riley couldn’t get a single word in. He closed his eyes and persisted through her screeching voice.
“Honey, I ran into someone at Power Yoga. It was Melissa, and you know her daughter, Brandi? She asked about you. What do you think of that, hon?”
Avoiding the obvious trick, Riley responded with “You don’t have to do that. I’m not interested in her or any other girls you know. This school isn’t going to change anything.”
“No, listen, you’re not listening, this is Brandi! She cheers for North Rivers High, maybe I should mail you a picture? Hmm?”
Jesus Christ Riley muttered to himself, the only time his conscience acknowledged Him. He regained his thoughts and responded slowly.
“You know what? ...maybe I’m being too mean. I guess I could take her out or something.”
“Yeah, we could catch up and I can take her to dinner.”
“OH! I love that!”
“Then we would take a walk in the park. At sunset.”
“I’m so happy to hear that, honey. Relieved.”
“Yeah, then after that I could ask her if knows any guys that would be interested in me.”
The moment of silence that followed ended with his mother saying sternly, “This isn’t funny. You have a sickness.”
“The only sickness I feel is when we talk.”
With her voice breaking, she said, “Call me when you’re my son.”
His mother hung up and Riley bit his tongue. This was their way of communicating, and he always remembered it that way. Especially around Halloween, her remarks were never forgettable. “You don’t even need a costume” and “no one’s gonna give an ugly kid candy.” He made his way back towards his dorm and wondered what Jack was doing. Riley needed to relax a little after the call and knew only Tom could help him.
* * *
Riley opened the door to find Jack leaning out the window smoking out of his pipe, which had a lot of mileage since his time with Riley began.
“Just called my mom.”
“Lucifer herself? And how did that go?”
“You gotta clean that pipe. But yeah, she wanted to hook me up with this girl Brandi.”
“Heh, I could use some Brandy. Goes good with cancer. You want one? I traded my Police record for a couple packs.”
Riley motioned away the cigarette that was stretched out towards him.
“No, man. I thought that was your favorite record?”
“No, they’re not enough for me. I need something more masculine.”
“Should tell Wyler that, he’d probably give you a solid meal. At least one that’s edible.”
“Speaking of edibles, what are you doing for Halloween?”
“What do you mean? You can’t do shit. You read the rule book.”
“I didn’t actually, but I heard someone’s getting a bottle. Grass, too. We just go to the pumpkin patch outside at night. It’s not exactly Fort Knox up in here.”
“Yeah? Then what?”
“Look at the sky. Try to carve a pumpkin that looks scarier than your square ass.”
“Be serious. I don’t feel like dealing with consequences. Not from my mom. Definitely not from Wyler.”
“Look around, man. This school is a consequence. Make the most of it. Remember if you die of boredom, it’ll be me who has to clean it up.”
“Fine, just get rid of this smell.” Riley waved around his hands as Jack laughed into the windowpane.
“Well, I’m glad you’re excited, Rye. It’s a good look on you.”
* * *
Halloween night came around on a Sunday this year, not that anyone could have guessed due to the lack of decor and traditions at St. Micheal’s. Riley had been skeptical of Jack’s plan to leave the grounds, but it was worth it for him. No such hesitance crossed Jack’s mind, since his eagerness outweighed his nerves. They were both in their dorm room, dressed in all black counting out their cigarettes.
“We deserve this.” Jack took off his shades to say this. “You’re not gonna freak out, are you?”
Riley responded, “No. I bet Wyler has this place extra locked down tonight, though.”
“That would be lame. But, look, you’ll still be stuck here whether we go or not. Nothing to lose.”
“How do you stay relaxed all the time, Jack?”
“I read the Bible.” His bright smile juxtaposed his clothes as he locked his fingers together and looked up. “Dear God, look over our drunkenness. Guide us through whatever clouds we end up blowing out. Give us the strength to go for another round and get stupid buzzed. Provide any and all hangover remedies for tomorrow morning. Amen.”
Riley scoffed and knelt to tie his shoes. He double-knotted his Converses and cuffed the bottom of his jeans. He needed to look his best since he didn’t know who would be there.
Jack was busy practicing his swagger in front of the mirror when three loud knocks banged at the door. Riley and Jack looked first at each other then to the rattling doorknob.
“HEY!” came from outside their room. “Open this door immediately!” Jack and Riley could tell it was Mr. Wyler on the other side, but neither dared to let him in. Riley gently sat down and rested his head on the wall. As Jack tried to climb out the window, the sound of a key grew louder. Jack looked at Riley and jumped back inside. The door swung open, striking the wall, startling both students.
Mr. Wyler walked into the room with a disturbing grin that ended with a cough. “You boys think you’re smart? Nothing happens at St. Michael’s that I don’t know about. Your little party with the others isn’t happening. I know you guys read the rulebook so you know what happens now.”
He looked from the teenagers to the counselor he brought with him. “Isn’t this fun? I’m loving this. Watch.”
Mr. Wyler took Jack’s handbook from his desk and flipped the pages. He arrived at the page with the rules.
“Alright, here, what’s this word say? Says conspiracy, and we tolerate no such thing at this fine institution. I was going to call your parents but that’s not fun. Both of you are hereby expelled from St. Michael’s. You will pack your bags and head out immediately. You can explain your situation and misbehavior to your parents back home. I’ve taken enough disrespect. Maybe this will set an example for everybody else. God willing. Make sure there’s no funny business. I want them out of here.”
The counselor he brought nodded his head and focused his attention on the two delinquents. “I bet you feel stupid right now. How do you feel, now?”
Riley looked at Jack with a wide smile. He answered with one word.