I was surrounded by fires, angry blazes raging all around me. The flames hissed and crackled, their blistering heat searing my exposed skin. I desperately wanted to run, but there was no escape. I was trapped by the heat. Any step I might take, any direction I might turn, the flames would flare up and engulf me.
Then the school bell rang, and the students around me began bustling off to class.
I was standing in the hallway of Robert L. Goodkind High School in the moments before my first class. I was surrounded by flames, yeah, but not the kind you might think. No, the fires that threatened me were the flames of hatred and suspicion that flickered in the eyes of my classmates. Why did I feel like the hallway of my high school was some perilous corridor of fire, and the looks in the eyes of the other students were the flames of that blazing inferno? There is a very short answer to that question: earlier in the year, some friends and I had started the Goodkind High Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance. And now the whole school knew I was gay.
Okay, so maybe I'm being melodramatic about the school being on fire. All I know is that ever since I'd come out, my high school had suddenly felt like a very dangerous place -- and I had the defaced locker and anonymous E-mails to prove it.
"Move it, faggot," Nate Klane said as he ambled by me in the hallway.
See? This was exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about. I'd put up with this kind of crap ever since we'd gone public with our Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance, and frankly I was getting pretty tired of it. Yeah, yeah, sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me. First of all, anyone who thinks that words can't hurt you has obviously never taken sophomore P.E. And second, did it ever occur to whoever wrote that stupid adage that hurtful words might be a pretty good indication that sticks and stones are on the way? It's not like it's an either-or thing. I mean, has there ever been a case of sticks and stones that didn't also involve at least some words? All I can say is that the writer of that adage sounds pretty damn blasé about getting his bones broken.
Let's face it: being openly gay at age sixteen really, really sucks. (And if you're saying, Well, then, why did you come out? it's not like being gay and closeted at age sixteen is some carnival in the cafeteria.) But since this is the first chapter of this book, I can't be all negative and overwrought or you won't want to read any more (I'm not pointing fingers -- I hate books like that too). So I'll say the only positive thing I was thinking at the time.
Summer vacation was only four weeks away.
That morning, in a break between classes, I met my friend Gunnar by his locker. He was sniffing the air.
"Hey," I said.
"Do you smell something?" he said.
I took a whiff. "Jerry Mason's gym socks."
"What do you think you smell?" I asked him.
I was afraid to ask what that was.
"It's a toxic mold," Gunnar said. "I think maybe our school has it."
Let me cut to the chase: my friend Gunnar was, in a word, weird. The fact that he was a hypochondriac was the least of his quirks. But he was also smart and creative and just an all-around great guy. Example: he wasn't gay, but he'd joined the Goodkind Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance out of loyalty to me.
"You ever hear of the curse of King Tut's tomb?" Gunnar said. I shook my head no. "Well, in the years after they opened that tomb, almost everyone on the expedition died. People said it was the Mummy's Curse. But now some people think that maybe the reason they died was because they were exposed to "Aspergillus flavus." when they opened the tomb."
As much as I liked Gunnar, I wasn't interested in toxic mold -- even if the Egyptian mummy connection was kind of cool. So I decided to change the subject. "Looking forward to summer?" I said.
"You know it," Gunnar said. There was a weary rumble in his voice that surprised me, even though it shouldn't have. Since Gunnar had joined the Goodkind Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance, he'd been on the receiving end of all the same crap as me. Only in his case, it was actually even worse. More than anything in the world, Gunnar wanted a girlfriend. He'd been trying to get one for years, but it had never worked out. (Being weird is not a plus when you're looking for a girlfriend, and being smart and creative aren't all that helpful either.) But now, thanks to the Goodkind Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance, everyone also thought he was gay. We'd tried to tell people that he wasn't gay -- "It's the Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance, remember?" -- but no one believed us. So now the one thing he most desperately wanted -- a girlfriend -- was the one thing he could never have. Not as long as he was a student at Goodkind High School, anyway.
"Hey," I said, "there's a stream cleanup the first weekend in June. You want to sign up?" The summer before, we'd volunteered for a stream cleanup and had met a couple of girls we'd talked to all afternoon. I'd had no interest in them, of course, and it hadn't led anywhere, even for Gunnar. But there'd probably be new girls this year. I figured helping Gunnar find a girlfriend was the least I could do for him, given that he'd joined the Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance for me.
To my surprise, Gunnar shook his head and said, "Nah."The Order of the Poison Oak. Copyright © by Brent Hartinger. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from The Order of the Poison Oak by Brent Hartinger
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