|Primary Characters:||Peter, Zeke|
|Warning:||m/m non-consenting sex, m/f sex, violence, some strong language|
|Description:||Zeke talks Peter into going to a party, but the evening isn’t a success for everyone. Something happens that might seriously affect the careers and lives of more than one ASCAN.|
Zeke Beaumont shook his wet hair, and began to dry it with the towel he picked up off the bench in the locker room. Today’s strenuous tests had left him physically exhausted but mentally alert. He really was getting there. If he was selected for a space run, he’d be ready.
As he was finishing off, Peter Engel walked out of the shower.
“Hey, Pete. Good workout today?”
Peter smiled and nodded.
“I think so.”
“You’re coming to the party, right?”
“I don’t know. It’s not really my thing.”
“Oh, come on. You have to come. Everyone’s going to be there. Don’t miss out. It’s going to be really cool.”
“Well, I guess I might -“
“Great. Friday night, at the Moonshot.”
“Ok. But I’m not staying long.”
“You know it’s practically compulsory. I mean it. Andrea told me Bull wanted this to be a sort of semi-official thing.”
“I’m afraid so. But that won’t stop us from having a great time. Don’t look like that. It’s not an exam, it’s a party.”
“I know. I’m just not into parties much.”
“We’ll have to change that. Be there. I’ll make sure you have a great time.”
Zeke took a closer look at his fellow ASCAN. Peter wasn’t such a nerd as some of the guys liked to say. He was a nice guy and Zeke for one didn’t judge people on their coolness. And Peter had a good head for studies, which would always earn him Zeke’s admiration. It wasn’t that Zeke had been a bad student. He had just had to study a little more, to get as far as the others. Someone like Peter obviously didn’t have to work as hard.
It was Wednesday evening. The party wasn’t until Friday. On Thursday the ASCAN training went on as usual. Towards late afternoon there was an ugly episode that would afterwards stick in Zeke’s mind. Prince Alfazz had a difference of opinion about a particular exercise. That wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was the way the arrogant man seemed to take it for granted that his way was the right way.
He tore into Barbara Santos, who was after all just a lowly female. Zeke was busy at the other end of the room, and just then he had no way of leaving his work. He shook his head. It might not be politically correct, but he for one, liked to treat ladies politely. Other men too, naturally.
DB Woods did his usual impersonation of a robot. He didn’t see anything. Impartiality, that appeared to be his predominant character trait. If no one did anything, Zeke would – But Peter Engel had apparently had enough. With his usual gentle politeness, he tried to point out to the prince that everyone was entitled to his opinion. That was about as far as he got.
The Prince’s sharp eyes bored into Peter, appearing to forget all about Barbara. From Zeke’s position it was hard to tell what went on, and what was said, but it seemed as if the prince abandoned the argument. Zeke was puzzled. For a second it had looked as if the prince had been about to physically grab Peter. The last thing they needed was that kind of diplomatic incident.
Even what had already occurred was bad. The public eye couldn’t be allowed to fall on the astronaut training program. If there was any hint there was a problem funding could be cut in the blink of an eye. And having a foreign prince with diplomatic status there was unusual in itself. If the incident came to Bull Eckert’s attention he would almost certainly be forced to side with the prince.
Afterwards, when everyone was leaving, either for home, or the Moonshot, Zeke saw Jack Riles bar Peter’s way. There was something about Jack that Zeke didn’t like. Personally, he’d never had a problem with the guy, but he knew that some women found him a bit sexist, and guys who weren’t as physically active as Jack would be – if not harassed, then at least treated to a bit of rough horseplay, or the cold treatment.
Peter wasn’t a weakling, but Zeke knew that Jack found him a bit of a wimp all the same. At times, Jack and Reggie Warren would sympathize over things like that. Zeke didn’t like the attitude, but since he had never been exposed to the boys’ club treatment, he didn’t want any confrontation.
“You really should learn team work. Up there your life will depend on that. If you’re not part of the team, you’re not pulling your weight.”
“I was only -“
Now Jack treated Peter to a condescending grin, that rankled Zeke too. The tall athletic man put an arm around the slighter teacher, obviously pretending to be acting in his best interests. The prince, who had started the entire altercation was nowhere to be seen.
Zeke was about to go over and have a talk with Jack, but decided against it. Peter wouldn’t want him babysitting him, and anyway, Jack let go and walked away.
Without showing any undue concern, Zeke walked over and joined Peter anyway. The teacher was a bit subdued, and didn’t have much to say.
As they were leaving, Peter and Zeke ran into Barbara. She smiled at the men. Turning to Peter, her face got a more somber look.
“I wanted to thank you for stepping in earlier today. Sometimes – Anyway, I just wanted you to know I appreciated your help.”
“I hope you’re coming to the party. Both of you. Tamara is great, and DB’s nice too, but -“
“Oh, we’re coming. Count on it. I’ll make sure Pete’s there too. Right?”
“Right. See you then, guys.”
The night of the party, Peter was uneasily rifling through his closet. What would he wear? When he had told Zeke he wasn’t into parties ‘much’, he hadn’t been entirely truthful. Actually, he hated parties. On the few occasions Violet tried to insist, Peter always used the excuse of working late, or studying or anything that would get him out of going.
He couldn’t think of anything more boring than standing around among a bunch of strangers or colleagues, awkwardly balancing a glass and plate, while making conversation. If the music was good, fine. But why couldn’t he listen to music at home? He was a people person, but he was always at his best when he interacted with others one on one. In a crowd he tended to get lost.
At last, when the clock on the wall told him he risked being really late, not just fashionably late, as Violet put it, he unenthusiastically grabbed a suit. It was the one he used for funerals and meetings with the principal, or for talking with parents whose kids weren’t doing well in school. He hated that suit, and would much rather have worn his jeans and his old college sweatshirt, washed out as it was.
Still, if the party wasn’t optional, he might as well make the effort. It was little things like this that could tip the scales one way or another. Get a reputation for being a loner, or an outsider and you weren’t picked for the next space assignment. And he couldn’t let his students down.
Half an hour later, Peter walked out of his house. Zeke had promised to pick him up, and there he was. Secretly, Peter suspected that Zeke had offered so he could make sure there were no last minute excuses.
“Hey. Cutting it a little close, aren’t you?”
“I know. Violet keeps telling me that.”
“Funny. It’s usually the girl who’s always late.”
“She is too. I just tend to be a little later.”
“Oh. Well, no problem. The later the arrival, the more important the guest. That’s what one of my girlfriends told me.”
Peter laughed silently. Zeke was a great guy. Always full of jokes and a low key sympathy that everyone appreciated. Almost everyone.
“So why isn’t Violet here? Doesn’t the New York schools break off for the summer about now?”
“Sure. But she’s doing a summer course at Columbia. And I’m pretty much tied up down here. When I get a chance I’ll go and see her.”
“You’ll have to bring her over to my place so we can meet at last. Aren’t you guys getting kind of serious?”
Peter smiled. Yes, it didn’t get more serious than this. If Violet had only believed in marriage – But she wasn’t into any other guys, and Peter wouldn’t question his luck.
“Yes. We’re engaged.”
“What? And you’re keeping all this to yourself. If I’d been engaged to anyone I’d tell you and the guys.”
“What about Barbara?”
“Barbara? Yeah. What about her? She’s dating Reg.”
“No. Not anymore. And anyway, he can be such a -“
“Hm. Well, if she asks me out, I won’t turn her down, that’s for sure.”
Zeke laughed at his own joke. Barbara might be a modern girl, but she would probably appreciate being asked at least the first time. Yes. Why not? If Barbara was through with Reggie, then Zeke wouldn’t mind at all. Good idea. Dating colleagues might not be a good idea, but on the other hand, neither he nor Barbara were ready to settle down anyway.
And why shouldn’t he try tonight? He could at the very least ask Barbara to dance and they could take it from there. Like most guys, Zeke wasn’t wild about the idea of dancing, but there was no denying that it was an excellent opportunity for putting his arms around a girl and getting a little closer than your every day work allowed for.
“Thanks, pal. Great idea. I’ll think about it. Barbara’s a great girl.”
They arrived at the party in quite a good mood. Zeke was always up to a party. And Peter was beginning to think he’d been silly. He’d be ok. One party wouldn’t kill him. There would be drinks, his friends and colleagues and some good music. If he wanted to he could always sneak off after an hour or so.
The place where they’d be holding the party wasn’t quite as nice as the Moonshot, in Peter’s opinion, and in fact, Zeke agreed with him. Still, this place was good and more suited for a larger party. There was even a band. Bull and Andrea must really be playing for some media exposure, if they were willing to spend so much on a party.
But it was too late to worry about that. Inside the large room Peter could see several of his colleagues. Jack had a blonde clinging to each arm. Tamara had brought her husband. They didn’t see Barbara or DB anywhere. Bull with wife but no children was standing one step behind Andrea, and both were doing their best to smile at the photographers.
Zeke decided to find Barbara. He turned to inform Peter of his decision and caught sight of his friend’s face. Maybe he’d better stay and get a few drinks into Pete first. The way Pete looked, Zeke wouldn’t be surprised if he’d try to make a run for it. No one liked the media exposure but if they wanted to be astronauts they just had to make the best of it.
“Come on. I know where the bar is. Let’s have a few.”
“You’re reading my mind. You don’t think we’d be expected to -“
Peter indicated the media posse crowding around Bull and Andrea.
“No way. If they want to talk to one of us mere mortals why don’t they pick Tamara? She’s the big star, not you and me. Uh oh. Speaking of stars.”
Prince Alfazz had just entered the room, making a big show out of his late arrival. He was surrounded by tall men dressed in Arab outfits, most likely bodyguards, a supermodel and an old man who might be anyone, including a family member. Looked like their VIP ASCAN was trying to steal the show from Bull. Judging by Peter’s look, the teacher wasn’t any more thrilled with the Prince than Zeke was.
“That’s our cue. While they descend on His Royal Highness we’ll make our escape. With any luck we’ll find Barbara at the bar. That’s a girl who’s got her priorities straight.”
Zeke was right. Barbara and DB were sitting at the bar, calmly sipping their drinks. The two newcomers joined their colleagues and soon the party mood was back. After only about ten minutes of pleasant conversation, Zeke had put an arm around Barbara’s shoulders and was leading her onto the dance floor.
The last thing Peter saw of his friend was Zeke’s boyishly happy grin, as he looked back over his date’s shoulder. Good luck to them. That smile got Peter thinking of Violet. If they had a bit of luck, they might be able to snatch a few days in the Keys or Bermuda or anywhere. Cape Cod with Violet’s relatives would do. As long as he got some time alone with his fiancee.
He hardly noticed how Andrea showed up, asked DB to dance and how they both disappeared onto the dance floor. With the bouyant music in his ears, Peter at first didn’t hear his name called from the recently vacated bar stool on his right. The name sounded a bit strange, spoken in Alfazz’ Arab accent.
“Oh. Sorry. Didn’t hear you. I was deep in thought. Hello.”
If Peter’s lack of enthusiasm bothered the Prince he gave no sign of it. He just ordered a glass of mineral water, which he left untouched.
“What are you drinking, Peter?”
The look in Alfazz’ eyes might have been contempt. They were so dark, Peter had a hard time finding any expression in the cold depths. Not that he really cared. Usually, he liked every one he met. Even when he didn’t, he could use his interpersonal skills and get along fine with whoever he came into contact with. But there was something a bit unsettling about Alfazz’ intense stare. Peter never knew if it hinted at contempt, anger, interest or what.
At college he’d had many friends who were from abroad, even a Syrian girl. On the other hand, this was the first royalty he’d ever run into. The experience hadn’t been pleasant so Peter was in no hurry to meet even someone like Fergie. Besides, if he wasn’t very much mistaken, the lady was already spoken for, and for that matter, so was he.
Alfazz didn’t bother facing the bartender as he gave his order.
“The same again for my friend.”
Was it Peter’s imagination, or was the man putting a little too much emphasis on the word friend? Suddenly, Peter had an idea the Prince might be trying to settle a score with him. The other day when he had intervened in Barbara’s favor – Had that incident caused the Prince to view him with disfavor?
As long as it didn’t affect their work, Peter was prepared to live with that. But what if an Arab prince’s honor demanded some sort of satisfaction? No way. This was the US. What could Alfazz do? Challenge him to a duel? Hardly. Even a conversation might be unpleasant, but Peter prided himself on his ability to get along with people, and he didn’t see any real difficulty.
Peter finished his soda, but wasn’t particularly thirsty. He ended up just nervously fiddling with the new glass. Hopefully he hadn’t further offended His Royal Highness by his lack of appreciation of the drink.
“Listen, Peter. I would like to discuss something with you. If you have a moment.”
There didn’t seem to be any choice.
Peter turned his full attention on the Prince, prepared to produce something polite non-committal which would hopefully satisfy the Prince.
“Not here. Outside.”
Outside? A shiver went down Peter’s spine? Would there be a duel after all? His eyes began to roam around the room. Where were his friends? Would the four bodyguards be waiting for him outside?
“Is that really necessary?”
But Alfazz’ look made it clear to Peter that here was a man who wasn’t used to being contradicted. With a shrug, Peter got up to follow the Prince outside. There was no way he was going to fight a duel. The Prince could call him a coward if he wanted. This simply wasn’t done. Not in the USA.
A puzzled frown formed on Tamara’s face when she saw her friend and colleague Peter Engel disappearing outside in the company of the arrogant Prince Alfazz. What was that all about? But her husband returned with her drink and she forced her mind back to the party. Making an appearance was important.
Zeke escorted Barbara back to the bar, wondering where Peter had gone off to. Knowing his friend, he knew that Peter wouldn’t be on the dance floor.
“No. That was great. Want to go again?”
“In a minute. I need the ladies’ room. Back in a moment.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
This really had been a good idea. When Barbara got back from the rest room, Zeke got her another drink, and then they danced again. They were having such a good time, it was a couple of hours until Zeke remembered to look for Peter. He was beginning to feel a little guilty. Here he was having such a great time, and Pete must be bored stiff. And he had promised to make sure Pete had fun too.
“I’ll go look for Pete. Have you seen him at all tonight?”
“No. Just at the bar when you guys came in.”
“Maybe he’s gone home? That’s where I’m going.”
“Want a ride?”
“No, that’s ok. I’ve already got a ride. Tamara said they’d drop me off. Her husband promised he wouldn’t drink anything so she could have a good time. Lucky for me too. Besides, you shouldn’t be driving.”
“I know. If I find Pete I’ll let him drive me. I didn’t intend to drink this much. But I had such a great time.”
“Me too. Thanks.”
“Can we do this again some time?”
She knew exactly what he was asking. And after a few seconds she had her answer ready.
“Any time. Call me. If you don’t, I’ll call you.”
“Please do. But I’ll call you first.”
“Good. See you Monday.”
“Looking forward to it. And Barbara -“
“Thanks. You’re not so bad looking yourself. Now run and find Peter. And if you don’t, catch a ride with DB. I noticed that he was only drinking mineral water.”
But Barbara had had enough of small talk. Now she wanted her bed and it would be a while before Zeke was welcome there. Besides, she couldn’t keep Tamara and her husband waiting.
On his way back to the bar, Zeke at last ran into DB. To his surprise, DB was holding a quite good looking girl in his arms. No chance of a ride there. But it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
“You haven’t seen Peter around?”
“No. I thought he might have sneaked off home.”
“Yeah, me too. Well, I’ll just look for a little longer and then I’ll be off home too. Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”
Was DB blushing? This was interesting.
“Uh. Sure. This is Tina. Tina, this is my friend Zeke.”
Tina gave Zeke the ‘oh, my god, how cool this is, another astronaut’ look. It even seemed she was considering making a change. Poor DB. Maybe the girl wasn’t such good news after all. Jack might be more up her street. And Zeke had a feeling that one more girl wouldn’t exactly put a damper on Jack’s night.
“Hello. Now, if you’ll excuse me – I’ll just go looking for Pete.”
To Zeke’s acute embarrassment, the girl’s voice was loud and carried far.
“What a shame your friend’s gay. He’s so cute.”
Still, under the circumstances, one less groupie on his back wasn’t such a bad idea. And Peter would never know about the misunderstanding. If the teacher was nowhere around, Zeke decided to risk driving, despite the drinks he’d had. He knew that the cops were lenient on the ASCANS.
Jack had gotten away with drunk driving at least twice. And once, Jack and a groupie had created a disturbance in a public place. Which was a nice euphemism for having sex, naked in an open car… But no one wanted to be the one who pulled in one of the dashing young space heroes. Zeke was pretty sure he’d be able to talk himself out of any police control.
As he walked through the room that was rapidly emptying out, he looked for his friend and asked a few people. No one had seen Peter. Funny. You’d think that among all these people who knew Peter by sight someone would have seen him. Zeke couldn’t see any of his closest friends. Bull and Andrea appeared to be gone too, and there was no trace of Reggie Warren either. Jack, naturally, would have made his escape a lot earlier, on the pretext of showing the blondes his trophies. Zeke had heard the talk in the locker room.
Well, it was no use running around searching. Pete was a big boy and could look after himself. It was time to go home. And that was most likely where Pete was, and had been this past hour or so.
Saying goodbye to a few acquaintances on his way out, Zeke found his way back to his car. It was dark over by the edge of the parking lot. In the shadows besides Zeke’s car, he thought he saw a darker shadow but didn’t think much of it. His mind was still dwelling pleasantly on his evening with Barbara.
He stumbled across something – Something alive. He heard a whimper and the person or animal he’d bumped into frantically trying to get away from him. Zeke hurriedly unlocked the door to his car and turned on the light. To his shock and horror he now recognized the pathetic wreck who was curled up at his feet.
What could have happened in a mere two hours to change his friend Peter this way?
“Pete, take it easy. It’s me, Zeke. What’s wrong?”
The incoherent whimpers didn’t tell Zeke anything beyond what he already knew. Peter had had a bad shock, and he was in a terrible state. His face was a ruin. In fact, it was hard to even recognize Peter’s pleasant features. The bruises and blood covering his face made Zeke wince.
Zeke got down on his knees beside his friend, trying to better assess the damage. What was this? Pete’s clothes seemed to be torn and – No. Not possible. Who – But this was no time for guesswork. Now all that mattered was getting Peter away from here and to calm him down.
“Hey. It’s ok. No one’s going to hurt you. It’s me. Zeke. Look at me, buddy. You’re safe now.”
It seemed to take forever to get through to Peter. He shunned the other man’s touch, in a way that gave Zeke grave misgivings. But he decided to focus on getting Peter away to safety. And to see a doctor. That stopped Zeke in his tracks. If this was what it looked like – Who could he approach? There was Peter to consider, as well as the entire Astronaut Training Program.
But first things first. He had to reach Peter, get past the other man’s terror. By the time Zeke was beginning to despair, desperately wishing for Barbara’s or Tamara’s help, Peter seemed to give up his desperate struggle and he just slumped down. Without too much trouble, Zeke was able to get his friend into the car.
Now Zeke needed to make up his mind about where to take Peter. The hospital’s ER might not be such a good idea. Zeke searched his now suddenly stone sober mind for a solution. And finally he thought he saw it. Ella, his friend, and one-time date from high school, now in med school. She’d know what to do.
At this time of night, it took Zeke only about 15 minutes to drive over to Ella’s place. The question was, would she be there? She might easily be over at the hospital. Whenever he ran into her, he could hear her bitterly complaining about the seemingly endless working hours an intern put in. But he was in luck. She was there, and the lights were on. Either she was entertaining, in which case he’d be in trouble, or studying.
“Zeke? What are you doing here at this hour? I was just thinking about going to bed.”
Definitely not entertaining. She was wearing a baggy sweatsuit and her hair was in disarray, exactly like when she was cramming for the finals, back in high school.
She appeared to read the look in his eyes and he could see a worried frown forming on her face.
“It’s my buddy Peter. He’s out in the car. Could you – I know you’re not a doctor yet -“
“Close enough. Were you guys in a car crash?”
“No. Can I bring him inside? In fact, if you could help -“
That was one thing Zeke loved about Ella. No unnecessary questions, no arguments. She took things in stride. At least when she saw the seriousness of the situation.
When she caught sight of Zeke’s friend, Ella drew in breath as if she was about to comment, but appeared to think better of it, and focused on helping Zeke get his friend inside, before the entire neighborhood came to stare.
They brought Peter into Ella’s living room, and put him down on the couch. In the sharp light his injuries stood out even more clearly, and Zeke found himself wanting to look away. He didn’t want to know the extent of the injuries, he didn’t want to know what they most likely implied.
After making sure her patient was comfortable, Ella dragged Zeke along towards the kitchen.
“Ok. What happened to him?”
Zeke felt the words catch in his throat. He didn’t know, and what he suspected was far too horrible to put into words. But Ella needed an answer, and he had to put his own feelings aside if he wanted to be of help to his friend.
“I – I don’t know, but I think – maybe -“
“Yeah. So do I. You don’t know anything about it?”
“No. I was – dancing. And when Barbara had to leave, I went looking for Peter but he was gone. No one knew where he was. So I decided to go home. When I got to my car, there he was. On the ground.”
“Ok. I can see why you wouldn’t want to go to the hospital with this. He’s one of your astronaut friends? Right. I’ll see what I can do. But Zeke, if he’s really badly injured, this might be too much for me to handle on my own. And then we’ll either have to go the hospital anyway, or I’ll have to twist someone’s arm to come and help me.”
“Let’s hope he isn’t as badly hurt as he looks.”
“Yes. Zeke -“
“You won’t want to be around when I start examining him. Stay here, and I’ll call you if I need you, ok?”
She wouldn’t get any argument from him. Nothing in the world would make him enter the living room before she called him.
Unfortunately, Ella called for him right away.
“Zeke, could you get in here, please?”
What could it be now? At the moment, Zeke felt weak and helpless and only wanted to go back home and hide in his bedroom. Things like this shouldn’t happen. Not to anyone, but certainly not to a decent, good guy like Peter.
“What’s the matter?”
“Please tell your friend I just want to help him. He won’t let me near him.”
“Pete, old buddy. Ella’s a friend. She won’t hurt you. Let her help you, please. She’s a doctor.”
Or would be in a year or two.
Zeke’s words didn’t seem to have much impact on Peter, so he relucantly walked closer to his friend.
He could see that Peter recognized him, but if this made him feel any better was harder to tell. Still, something of the terror appeared to have gone out of Peter’s eyes.
“Try again. I guess I’ll stay here.”
Zeke hoped that no one would ever know how much that cost him. He had to stop being so selfish.
And it really seemed as if Zeke’s vouching for Ella had done the trick. Peter gave up trying to get away from the gentle hands moving across his body.
When finally Ella was through with her examination, Zeke knew that his worst fears would be realized. He didn’t want to know, but he forced himself to ignore his own feelings. The look in Ella’s eyes told him exactly how she felt. Sick. Shocked. Just like him.
“Ok. You’ll be ok, Peter. I just need to -“
Exactly what she needed to do, she wisely kept to herself for the time being. Again, she dragged Zeke out into the kitchen.
“I think – I’m not sure, but I think I can deal with this on my own. If I’m wrong – But I’m guessing your friend would prefer to keep this private. So I’ll go ahead and do what I have to do. Fortunately, I’ve got some stuff here that I can use. It’s ok, Zeke. You can stay here now. He’ll let me work on him. If you’re tired you can crash in my room.”
“No. I’ll be ok. Just call me when you’re done.”
“Will do. Just one thing -“
“I can only deal with the physical injuries. Someone else will have to hold his hand through this.”
“I see. Should I call his fiancee?”
“That would be a good idea. But I meant professional help. This isn’t my field, so I don’t know for sure, but I have a cousin who works at a shelter for abused kids. I know, your friend isn’t a kid, but still – Some professional help would probably be useful. Never mind. Think it over. And his fiancee can make that decision. He’s very lucky to have you, though. Not that it’s any news to me that you’re a great friend.”
“Try not to worry. We’ll get him through this one way or another.”
It was a very long night. When the sun finally came up over the rooftops, Zeke had dozed off slumped down over the kitchen table. A noise from behind him made him jump and turn abruptly to face whoever had entered the kitchen. When he saw who it was he relaxed a little. Ella’s face was white and lined with fatigue.
He felt ashamed of himself. His friend was going through hell in the other room, and Ella was working overtime to help Peter, but here he was, Peter’s friend, fast asleep, as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
“Hey. Want some coffee? I’m making some for myself.”
“Thanks. I could use it. What about -“
“Your friend’s asleep. I gave him a shot of something to help him with the pain and trauma.”
“Is he going to be ok?”
“Yes, I think so. Physically. But he looks like some boxer used him for a punching bag. What happened to him, Zeke?”
“I told you, I don’t know. Didn’t he say?”
“No. I couldn’t get much out of him. He just begged me not to tell anyone. As if I would.”
“Thanks. You’re the best.”
“I know. So are you. Well, I have to get a shower. I’m due at the hospital in less than an hour.”
“You’re going in to work today, after all this?”
“Sure. Doctors don’t need sleep. Didn’t you know? We just take a few drugs and keep going. Honestly, it’s ok. A bit of caffeine keeps me running until the evening. Go on, you can sleep in my bed. But leave the door open, in case he needs something.”
“I think I’d better call Violet first.”
“Oh. Yes, you’d better do that. See you later.”
If last night had been tough, Zeke was dreading the phone call even more. How did he tell Violet about what had just happened? Come to think of it, how did he reach her? All he knew was that her name was Violet, she lived in New York, worked as a teacher, and she apparently loved Peter a whole lot.
Maybe he should try to find Peter’s wallet. Not until now did it occur to Zeke that his friend had lost a few garments along the way. At least the suit jacket. If his wallet was in that, there was no way he could get Violet’s number.
He sneaked into the living room to take a look and found that Ella had somehow managed to undress Peter. Feeling like a thief, Zeke rifled through the pants pockets and was relieved to find the wallet.
Though he was far from comfortable about doing it, he forced himself to search through the contents of the wallet. He found a picture of a smiling young woman that Zeke assumed was Violet. Finally, he found a list of phone numbers, one of which was Violet’s. Now all he needed to do was brace himself for the coming ordeal.
After some more debating with himself, Zeke dialled the number, listening to the signals ringing. With something like relief, he decided that Violet wasn’t in, and he’d have to try again later. Just when he was about to give up, someone picked up.
“Is this Violet – Peter Engel’s fiancee?”
“Yes. Who is this? Where’s Peter? Is anything wrong?”
Zeke hesitated. He hadn’t given much thought to how he would tell Violet what had happened. But he knew he was causing the girl on the other end of the line unnecessary worry with his silence. There had to be something he could say.
“He – He’ll be ok, but it would be best if you could come down here right away.”
“What happened? Has he been in an accident?”
“Who is this?”
Her voice was still calm, but he could detect an undertone of panic, waiting to burst forth. He had to get a grip.
“I’m a good friend of his. Zeke Beaumont.”
When she spoke again there was a bit more warmth in her voice.
“Zeke? I’ve heard a lot about you. Can you tell me what’s happened?”
Could he? Zeke’s mind rebelled from even mentioning the word out loud. But didn’t Peter’s fiancee deserve the truth? So he tried, but the words seemed to stick in his throat, and suddenly his voice broke and he was crying. Crying? Last time he cried was when he had a bad case of toothache at the age of 9.
“Excuse me? Did you say -“
Swallowing hard, Zeke managed to get himself under control.
“Yes. I’m so sorry.”
“Have you any idea who – Never mind. I’ll get down there and take care of things myself.”
From the way she sounded, she would too. Take care of everything.
Zeke wished he had a fiancee like that himself. Someone like – No, not Barbara. She was a great girl, but somehow – when Zeke imagined his future wife she was more like Ella. It really was a bad idea to marry someone at work.
Mission accomplished, Zeke decided to try and get a little sleep on Ella’s bed. Who knew when Peter would wake up and need him again?
Violet’s arrival really made a difference. It seemed to both Ella and Zeke that Peter came back to life when he saw his fiancee. Again, Ella and Zeke vanished into the kitchen, to allow the stricken couple some privacy. This was really getting to be a habit. And Ella’s kitchen was a pleasant place to spend time in. But they weren’t left in peace for long. Only about ten minutes after Violet’s arrival, she burst into the kitchen, seeking more answers than Peter was able to give her.
“Ok. I’ve seen him, and I want you to know I really appreciate your help, both of you. But why hasn’t the police been informed? What’s going on?”
Zeke knew there was no help to be had from Ella. She was merely acting out of concern for her patient’s feelings. But he and Peter had to consider the greater picture. And the truth was, NASA couldn’t afford this kind of bad publicity.
Zeke suspected that faced with this unpleasantness, NASA wouldn’t hesitate to get rid of Peter. Anything to avoid being associated with something like this. He couldn’t imagine Bull or Andrea sticking their necks out for anyone, especially not a guy who wasn’t going to be a ‘real’ astronaut anyway. And if what had happened to Peter became known, would he even get to keep his teaching job?
“I’m just looking out for Peter’s best interests.”
“You are? I guess I’m a bit slow, but I really don’t get it. Why would not going to the police help Peter?”
“His position -“
“I know all about his position. You’re talking like he’s the one who’s guilty of a crime. He’s the victim here, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“And Zeke’s the guy who saved your fiance, in case you haven’t noticed. He’s not the enemy. Think about it. Peter’s a teacher, right? And he’s an ASCAN. Can you imagine what would happen to him if this became known? What people would say?”
That silenced Violet for a while, but she soon rallied and turned on Ella, seeing her as the main opponent.
“Ok. You may be right. But have you forgotten that the pervert who did this to him is still out there? What if he does this again?”
Which was only the truth, even if it might not change as much as it ought to in an ideal world.
“You’re right. But if this becomes public knowledge, Peter’s career will be over. Both of his careers.”
“So what do you suggest we do? The way he is now, I don’t see him doing any work, maybe not for a long time.”
“I don’t know. Zeke? Can you try to find out who was last seen around Peter last night? Is there anyone you can trust with this? Someone who might help find out what happened.”
Was there? Barbara sprang to mind, and possibly DB or Tamara. But Zeke recoiled from the thought of taking anyone else into his confidence. What if he had been the one lying out there on Ella’s couch?
“Maybe. But Barbara didn’t seem to know anything last night. Still, she might be able to dig up something.”
“Good. In the meantime, maybe we should think about moving Peter over to his own place, so Violet can take care of him herself.”
“Right. Do you need my help?”
As he said so, Zeke knew he was hoping they’d say no, and he wasn’t disappointed. The women clearly intended to deal with this themselves, leaving him to contact Barbara and whoever else might be of help.
Not surprisingly, Barbara wanted to know everything, but Zeke was able to convince her that though Peter had been attacked and quite badly beaten, which was all true, after all, nothing else was wrong. The need for secrecy was simply the same as all the other times. Protecting NASA’s public image. She also suggested enlisting DB’s help, as well as Tamara’s.
For some reason, Zeke didn’t want Tamara involved. She was so high up in Bull’s and Andrea’s hierarchy. That didn’t necessarily mean she couldn’t be trusted, but at least they could wait a while before dragging her into things. In the end, Barbara agreed, but he could tell she sensed he was keeping something from her. There was nothing he could do about it, so he kept quiet, thanked her and hung up.
The Prince? Why hadn’t he suspected something like that before? Zeke felt like an idiot. Of course. Now he vividly recalled the incident some days earlier. But that only explained the beating. The other thing – But it really didn’t matter why. On the other hand, in this special instance, who didn’t seem to matter either.
If anyone was beyond the reach of the law, it was the Prince. He held diplomatic immunity, and even accusing him of a crime could lead to an international incident. So even if going to the police had been an option for other reasons, this made it totally out of the question.
What really got to Zeke was that Peter really only had two choices. He could give up one or both of his careers, or – and this Zeke could imagine would be at least as painful – continue working alongside the Prince. Could Peter really pretend to ignore what the sick bastard had done to him? Would he be able to present an unmoved face to the world, despite the pain he must be feeling inside?
Zeke didn’t know. He hadn’t had a real talk with his friend for ages, and he was beginning to think Peter would never be the same again. Violet kept telling him his friend was ok, but it was hard to tell if it was the truth. It might as well have been Violet’s wishful thinking.
Zeke found himself hanging out a lot more with Ella, though he knew that Barbara must have wondered at his change of heart.
One day, Zeke discovered that people were talking about Peter. Rumors were going around, speculating on the cause of his ‘sick leave’. He did his best to keep things quiet, but he knew it was only a matter of time before the talk reached Peter’s ears. And soon he wouldn’t be able to stay at home, without running the risk of being expelled from the program.
That afternoon, Zeke drove over to Peter’s place, hoping to find his friend in a better frame of mind than the last time.
Violet let him in, subjecting him to an intense scrutiny. He could understand her concern, and she was right, he wasn’t bringing any good news.
“Is Peter in?”
As if he’d be anywhere else these days.
“Yes. He’s out on the patio. Go right ahead. I’m sure he’ll be pleased to see you.”
“Yeah. Is he -“
Ok? Zeke doubted that his friend would ever be what might be termed ok, but he couldn’t help hoping for the slightest sign of improvement in Peter’s condition.
“Yes. He’s doing much better. The other day he was asking about you.”
“Zeke, what’s wrong this time?”
“Nothing, I hope. But there’s been some talk. Some speculation. Violet, he really needs to get back, before Bull decides to have him thrown out of the program. Do you think he might be well enough to -“
“Yes. He’ll have to be. We’ve talked about it, and he doesn’t want to give up his chance to be an astronaut. The teaching job is different. If he has to, he can apply for a new one later. But the training program – It’s his life. He can’t lose that.”
“I see. Ok. I’ll go and talk to him then.”
“Yes, you do that.”
Peter turned and faced his visitor, and it really seemed to Zeke as if his friend was pleased to see him.
“Hey. Have a seat. How are things?”
“Good. What about you?”
“Oh, you know. Violet’s great.”
“Yes, she is.”
“The other day we were talking about asking you and Ella over for dinner.”
“Sounds good to me. Any time. Look, Pete, there was something I wanted to talk to you about -“
A wary look crept into Peter’s eyes and Zeke could see the muscles around the mouth tightening.
“Relax. Nothing’s wrong. But I think it’s time you got back in the saddle. It won’t be long now until Bull has to throw you out. You wouldn’t want that to happen, would you?”
Peter took a deep breath, and seemed to steel himself.
“Alright. I guess I could – How about tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow would be good. You’ll be back in shape in no time.”
“I don’t want to alarm you, but people have been talking a bit. Wondering what’s wrong. So if you show up tomorrow and they can all see that you’re alright, that might -“
Alright? What a joke. But in a way, getting back with the program was everything that could be done.
“Yes, I see that. Zeke -“
“For being there for me. And I’d like to thank Ella too. Without her help, I don’t know -“
“Yeah. I’ll tell her. Would you like me to pick you up tomorrow?”
“No, that’s ok. I can drive myself. After all, I’m not an invalid.”
“Right. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow then, buddy.”
There didn’t seem to be anything else to say, so Zeke decided to get back home. The following day, he intended to make sure Peter didn’t have to run into the Prince any more than was necessary.
But what he hadn’t bargained on was the solid unity between the ‘boys’ club’ gang. When Zeke walked in the next morning, he noticed that Jack Riley was staring at him pointedly. Zeke couldn’t at first figure out why, so he just shrugged and ignored it. While he was undressing to change into his workout clothes, he again noticed something out of the ordinary. Jack and Reg were standing over in a corner, whispering about something.
Zeke decided to ask DB if he knew anything about what ‘the boys’ club’ was up to.
“What do you mean?”
Nodding in the direction of Reg and Jack, Zeke tried not to draw attention to himself from the rest of the locker room.
“Oh. I have no idea. You’d better hurry. The tests will begin in just five minutes.”
“I’m coming. Did you see Peter anywhere?”
“No. Is he coming back? That’s great.”
Yes. Really great. At least Prince Alfazz was nowhere to be seen. The whispers from the corner were abruptly silenced as Peter walked in. DB met the newcomer in the doorway and smiled and waved, but didn’t stop to chat. To Zeke’s surprise and shock, Reg scowled and stalked out of the room, glaring angrily at Peter, who appeared totally crestfallen.
He entered anyway, spotted Zeke and walked over. At least one friendly face. Zeke made a big show out of welcoming his friend back.
“What are you doing today?”
“They’ve got me on some kind of get-back-in-shape program.”
When Peter disappeared into the shower, Zeke couldn’t restrain himself any longer. He had to confront Jack Riley about his behavior.
“What’s your problem?”
Jack treated Zeke to his most condescending look, which infuriated Zeke further. The reply came slowly in an intolerably lazy drawl.
“My problem? I’ll tell you what my problem is. You must have heard the talk about Peter and the Prince. Who would have thought that little wimp had such a dirty mind?”
“No. I haven’t heard the talk. Why don’t you enlighten me?”
Jack appeared a little taken aback by that response to his bullying. But Jack Riley wasn’t the type of guy who let unnecessary thinking stand in his way.
“I’m surprised you haven’t heard the rumors, but fine. Turns out our own teech has a bit of a crush on the Prince and when Alfazz wasn’t into that stuff, Peter went on to tell the world that Alfazz had – uh – you know – jumped him – the night of the party.”
“Peter never said anything like that.”
“Really? That’s not what I heard. But it’s common knowledge that the little wimp doesn’t know the meaning of team work or team spirit. Always questioning orders, always trying to discuss things. I mean, I’m asking you, buddy, do you think we can have a bloody democracy up there? While the crew takes a vote the oxygen leaks out into space. Zzz. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a patriot. How would it look if we didn’t vote? We ASCANs need to set a good example to the rest of the country. But we can’t have one of those bleeding-heart liberal fags running around undermining the program, now can we? You’re not one of those – perverts – you have to understand where I’m coming from.”
“Oh, I understand perfectly where you’re coming from. Your parents were a bit too closely related, weren’t they?”
Again Jack stared dumbfoundedly at his colleague. It was as if a team mate had just turned right around and scored one for the other team.
“What’s your problem, man? You and that teacher aren’t getting a little too close, are you? That would explain a thing or two.”
A noise from the direction of the showers made Zeke turn but he saw nothing, and as he remembered the object of the discussion was nearby, he cursed his own insensitivity. How could he have let himself get drawn into this argument? What if Peter heard them?
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. But if I catch you harrassing Peter, I’ll -“
“Yeah? What will you do?”
For a second, all Zeke wanted was to smash his fist into the smugly grinning face, but he restrained himself. Picking a fight wouldn’t help anything.
“I’ll report your behavior to the appropriate authority. Peter is a fellow ASCAN and if you can’t treat him with normal decency, I’ll at least expect you to leave him alone. Is that clear?”
“Uh – what’s with you, man? Oh, forget it. I don’t have time for this.”
Zeke wasn’t naive enough to think that the fight was over. It had only begun. How in the world had the rumors started? He knew he hadn’t said a word about it. Ella and Violet wouldn’t either. Naturally, Peter hadn’t spread the rumor himself. It was hardly likely that Barbara and DB had guessed the truth. Not by themselves. Surely Alfazz himself couldn’t be vile enough to use this means to get at Peter once again?
Peter. Hadn’t he been inside the shower for an awfully long time? Zeke didn’t want to go in there looking for his friend, but he sensed that something was wrong. The locker room had emptied out completely during his quarrel with Jack. No one was looking at what he was doing.
Casually, Zeke looked inside. He couldn’t at first see Peter anywhere. But the water was still running, so maybe Peter was still having a shower absentmindedly forgetting the time. He must have a lot on his mind. But you can’t go on having a shower for any amount of time. Zeke decided to take a closer look. What he found stunned him.
Peter was sitting on the floor of the shower, the water drenching him, but he appeared oblivious to it. Still, he was shivering all over so the hot water must have run out a long time ago.
“Hey, man. What’s wrong?”
Zeke reached in and turned off the water.
It was a long time before his friend looked up and faced him, a look of something like recognition in his eyes.
“Zeke? I’m sorry. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine to me. Come on. Get up. You’re getting cold. Where’s your towel?”
“This was a mistake. I shouldn’t have come back. How could I ever have thought someone like me could compete with guys like you?”
“What are you talking about? You’re as qualified as anyone. Let’s get out of here.”
Zeke was uncomfortably aware of what someone like Jack would say if he caught two guys together like this in the shower. Before the end of the day the story would have acquired epic proportions, not to mention all kinds of kinky details. To his relief, Peter let himself be led back to the towels and clothes inside the actual locker room.
“You heard them. They know. I’m finished.”
So that was it. Again, Zeke cursed himself for getting into that argument with Peter so close.
“They don’t know anything. This is exactly the kind of story guys like Jack like to spread around about anyone that doesn’t fit into their narrow minded little boys’ club. Forget about him. The next generation of astronauts can’t just be flyboys. We need a lot more than muscle up there. Tamara, you, DB. Peter, you can’t let a Neanderthal like Jack stop you. Think about all the work you’ve put in already. Would you have been accepted into the program if you weren’t qualified?”
“It’s no use. I appreciate your support, but I have to go. Maybe if I moved up to New York I could still go on working as a teacher. If not, I don’t know -“
“Hold it. Ok, maybe it was a little too soon for you to get back to work. But I won’t let you throw everything away. Violet won’t either.”
“I hate to let her down. And you. After all you’ve done for me. But if Jack and Reg are reacting this way, can you see me working with them? Up there, when your life depends on team work.”
“You are a great team worker. Jack’s just -“
“A really good ASCAN.”
“Yes. You know he is. So is Reg. You’re all great. And you’re all going to be real astronauts. I’m just some kind of publicity stunt. If it isn’t working out, they’ll just get rid of me. You know I’m right.”
“This time you’re wrong. I could talk to Bull about Jack.”
“And what do you think he’s going to say? He’s just like Jack and Reg.”
“He can’t side with them. As the -“
“I know. You’re a great friend, but I don’t think you can win this one.”
“Peter, don’t do anything rash. Go home to Violet. I’ll tell them you were feeling sick and had to go back home. Then I’ll go and see Bull and talk this thing through. Don’t worry about it. I won’t tell him anything. But he can sort those bullies out.”
“Thanks. I’ll go home. If you can do anything, I’ll be really grateful.”
Judging by Peter’s voice, he didn’t have any faith in his friend’s ability to save this situation, but Zeke was determined to try anyway. And he would succeed. He wouldn’t accept anything less.
After the first workout of the day, Zeke decided to skip lunch and head over to Bull’s office. To his surprise, Reggie Warren was already there. The door wasn’t as soundproof as it might have been, and Zeke could hear Reggie’s otherwise so calm voice raised in anger. Bull’s lower tone was almost drowned out. Who would have thought Reg would take the incident so personally?
Despite his earlier enthusiasm, Zeke was beginning to feel as if poor Peter was right. His career might be doomed. That Zeke’s own might be shot too, for siding with Peter was something he refused to dwell on. What kind of friend would he be if he turned his back on Peter now?
At last, Reg appeared to be done, and the door opened to let him out. Again, he subjected Zeke to an angry glare, but didn’t say anything. Zeke did his best to ignore the other ASCAN and stepped up to the door and knocked.
Bull looked as if he’d much rather have taken a walk in space than face this kind of situation back on Earth.
“I see. Reggie Warren and Jack Riley claim to have had problems with Peter Engel. They say he’s not a team player and that he isn’t pulling his weight on the program.”
“That’s not true, sir. Peter’s doing excellent work.”
“That’s what I thought too. Until I heard about this – uh – rumor.”
“I can assure you, sir, that whatever these rumors are about, Peter is not behind them. He would never spread discontent. There’s no one more loyal to the program than Peter.”
“I hope you’re right, Zeke. I really do. Because I hope I don’t need to remind you about the consequences for the entire space program if any of this – nonsense was leaked to the press.”
“No, sir, you don’t need to tell me that.”
“Good. Then we’ll say no more about this.”
“But sir, I really have to ask you to talk to Jack and Reg about this. Why can’t they just leave Peter alone? He’s done nothing to deserve this kind of treatment.”
“Well, yes. Certainly. In the meantime, I’ll make sure Peter is put on some less strenuous work. Away from Reg and Jack. Can’t do any harm. You and the others don’t seem to have any problems cooperating.”
“Neither does Peter, sir.”
“What about Prince Alfazz?”
“Are you asking me about his Royal Highness’ interpersonal skills, sir?”
“No, Zeke, I’m not. And you know exactly what I’m asking. Is Peter getting along with Prince Alfazz?”
“I don’t think so. And neither does any of the women. He’s arrogant, rude, self centered. There’s a man who doesn’t know the meaning of the word team work.”
Bull nodded thoughtfully. That foreign prince was a problem. Personally, Bull wouldn’t be at all surprised if something really had occurred between Alfazz and Peter, but the sad truth was that if it came down to a choice between Peter Engel and Prince Alfazz, Bull’s hands were tied. There could only be one outcome. The teacher would have to go.
“Ah, yes. I’m aware of the problem. Well, I’ll do what I can to sort things out temporarily, but unfortunately, in the long run, there’s only one thing to do and that is to ignore your differences and continue working together anyway.”
“I know. Thanks. I’ll bear that in mind. But you will tell them to go easy on Peter, won’t you?”
Bull’s reassurances weren’t very convincing, but at least he hadn’t come right out and accused Peter of spreading slanderous rumors about His Royal High-and-Mighty-ness.
Out in the parking lot, Peter was sitting in his car, ostensibly staring out the window, but really not seeing anything at all. He had heard part of the argument between Zeke and Jack, and he wasn’t surprised at all. Jack had never been a friend, and now –
He should have known he could never hope to keep something like this a secret for long. It was a small community, and everyone knew everyone else. And though the attitude shown by Jack and Reg didn’t exactly help, nothing could really cut through the real problem. In Peter’s head, the night of the party kept playing back, over and over again.
Alfazz, asking him to come outside. The bodyguards. How they beat him, until all he could do was curl up into a ball on the concrete, begging them to stop. But they wouldn’t stop, not until their boss, the Prince told them to step back. By then, all the fight had gone out of Peter. Whatever the Prince told him to do, he did, without question. And whatever the Prince did to him, he was forced to submit to. There was nothing else he could do.
He was surprised he didn’t suffer a concussion. His head felt like it had been used for soccer practice. Some teeth felt loose, but Ella, the doctor, had told him they would be ok. As for the broken ribs, he felt them every time he forgot himself and took a deep breath. Still, the pain was nothing, compared to the empty feeling inside.
Not a real man. – This is what we do to your kind in my country. – A great honor for you, infidel. – Do it. – Ah, that’s right. – At least you’re good for something.
There wasn’t much chance he would ever be able to forget. Ella had managed to get him some medication. At first he had only been too grateful to be able to numb the pain, physical and emotional, but he knew he couldn’t rely on something like that in the long run. His work would suffer, and if he lost that, what would he have left? Violet. Yes. Violet was the only thing keeping him sane. Violet and Zeke.
And now he would have to let Zeke down. There was no way he could face those Neanderthals again. Besides, one day, soon, he would be standing right next to Alfazz again. He had no idea how he would be able to accept that. The man still haunted him in his dreams, every single night. His scent. Noises he made. The contempt in his eyes. The cruel smile.
Peter had no idea how long he sat in his car, frozen in his seat, reliving the memories. Eventually, he shook his head to clear it and forced himself to start the car. He might as well go home. If he stayed much longer, he’d run into Jack or Reg or –
He should have known he couldn’t keep anything from Violet. The minute he walked in, she noticed something was wrong.
“What happened? Did you run into that – Prince?”
“I can’t go back. They know. Somehow they know.”
“Are you sure? You’re probably just imagining things.”
“Even if I am, Jack and Reg can’t stand working with me. And in a way, they’ve got a point. Is it fair for me to keep someone else out of the program? Someone who will be a real astronaut.”
“You are going to be a real astronaut. Stop thinking that way. What happened?”
“Reg and Jack were saying -“
But Peter couldn’t bring himself to continue and Violet wisely accepted that. She swept him out onto the patio, brought him a drink and sat down beside him, offering her silent support. There was no point in making Peter talk about what had happened. Unless he chose to bring up the topic himself, she would let him set the pace.
Violet had dropped out of her summer course and moved down to Florida to look after her fiance. If he hadn’t been involved in the training program, she would have persuaded him to come north with her. But she knew that if he was allowed to drop out of the program, he’d lose everything he’d worked for for so long.
In the afternoon, Zeke tried to sound out the other ASCANs. Not surprisingly, Barbara was whole-heartedly on his side. That made Zeke feel guilty. He had promised he would call Barbara, but by now she couldn’t be in any doubt that something had changed between them. DB didn’t appear to have sided with Jack and Reg, but as always, the guy wouldn’t commit himself one way or another.
In the end, he dared to approach Tamara. Knowing how close to the management she was, he wasn’t hopeful about her reaction. But it turned out she was wrong. He thought he could detect a hint of sympathy in her eyes.
It seemed everyone knew, or thought they knew what had happened. That didn’t bode well for Peter’s future in the program. Whenever he could, Zeke did his best to dispel the rumors.
After some persuasion, he was able to get Peter to come back. Bull kept his word, and put Peter on some easier work, away from ‘the boys’ club’.
While unable to vent their irritation on the prime target, Reg and Jack contented themselves with picking on Zeke. Reg treated him to one of his ‘obeying orders without question’ lectures. But Reg certainly didn’t frighten Zeke, and he let the lecture slide by him without leaving much impression.
Despite Zeke’s efforts, Peter was subjected to much talk behind his back, and some confrontations. It was obvious what a strain it all was on the teacher, but Zeke was pleasantly surprised to see that Peter made a tremendous effort to ignore the harassment and carry on with his work. Maybe the talk would die down as time went by.
Peter got through the days, his mind numbed to everything outside himself. People were wondering if he was on some kind of drug, but most hesitated to ask, so he was mostly left alone.
At the end of his first week, the inevitable confrontation with Alfazz occurred. Peter had hoped it would be a while longer, but he had known all along that he couldn’t keep avoiding the man indefinitely. All the ASCANs shared the same locker room, many of the workout facilities were the same, and either way, it was all a very small community.
Peter didn’t even see Alfazz, until he was partially undressed after another painstakingly slow workout. At times he was impatient to get back to where he was before – any of this happened. On other days, he couldn’t understand how he had ever managed in the first place.
But on the day he ran into Alfazz, it had been a really good day. He had even thought he might one day get his act together and finish the training, like everyone else. And suddenly, a hush fell over the room. The moment the silence fell, he just knew. When he turned around to see for himself, he looked right into the Prince’s eyes.
For a second, it wasn’t real. How could he be standing here, staring at the man who had nearly cost him everything? But there was no mistake. He wasn’t stuck in a nightmare, like almost every night every since the incident that had taken away all his self esteem, all his belief in himself.
“Hello, Peter. It’s been so long. Where have you been hiding yourself?”
Peter’s mouth felt dry, and his eyes began to dart back and forth, searching for an escape route. In that split second, the other men in the locker room didn’t exist. He fully believed that the pain and horror would begin again.
The Prince’s smile was exactly the way it had been on that night. Cruel, filled with a smug self confidence. He took one step forward, and Peter knew that in a second, his legs would give out under him and he would begin sliding to the floor.
His tormentor’s smile widened and the Prince reached out and placed a hand on Peter’s shoulder. All color drained from Peter’s face and he could feel himself blacking out. Then it was over. The Prince backed off, with a few words, that Peter at first didn’t catch.
No one else appeared to have noticed anything out of the ordinary. DB was only a few feet away, but as usual didn’t say anything. Zeke had been in the shower, and when he got out, he noticed the difference in Peter’s expression.
By then, almost all the others had finished dressing and were on their way out. The day was over, or almost, and everyone was anxious to get back to whatever they had planned for the evening. But Peter’s mind wasn’t on the future, he was locked inside himself, reliving the nightmare again and again.
“Hey, man, what’s wrong? Peter?”
His friend didn’t appear to have heard him.
“DB? What happened?”
“I don’t know. Peter was just getting dressed, and the Prince walked over to say hello, welcome back, things like that.”
“The Prince? I see. Why didn’t you do something, DB?”
“What? He didn’t do anything. It was only about 30 seconds or so. He said something like keep up the good work and left.”
DB was a good guy, but there were times when Zeke wanted to take him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. What was with the man? Couldn’t he see that Peter had had a bad shock? Apparently, there were some ASCANs who didn’t know about what had happened. Or didn’t want to know.
Three little monkeys. DB could certainly do a great impression of them. But Zeke swallowed his sharp remark and turned to Peter, ignoring DB. At least there was one thing to be said for the guy. He and Peter might have been making out in the shower and DB would never know even if he was right next to them.
“Peter? It’s ok, buddy. He’s gone.”
In retrospect, Zeke knew it had been a mistake, but at the moment, all Zeke wanted was to jolt Peter out of his nearly catatonic state. So he reached out a hand, and put it on his friend’s shoulder. Not knowing that his hand rested on the exact same spot, Alfazz’ hand had touched only minutes earlier. Peter’s reaction was startlingly quick, and violent. His hands shot out and pushed Zeke away.
“It’s alright, Peter. Peter? It’s me, Zeke.”
“Zeke? I’m sorry. He -“
“I know. But it’s ok. He’s gone. You’re alright. Come on. Let’s get you back home.”
“What? Oh. Sure. Sorry about this. The other guys must think -“
“No. That’s ok. DB wasn’t thinking anything, were you, man?”
DB was over by the door, getting ready to leave. On hearing his name mentioned, he turned around and looked at the other men.
“Have a nice evening.”
“Thanks. Actually – Zeke – I was wondering – Barbara and I were -“
“You and Barbara are going on a date?”
“Uh – sort of.”
“Great. She’s a fantastic girl.”
“Thanks. Zeke -“
“Nothing. See you later.”
Peter hurriedly got dressed, clearly intent on recovering himself. Would he ever get back to normal? How could he expect Zeke to come running to watch his back every time someone who didn’t like him decided to drop by?
Since Violet had needed the car that morning, she had dropped him off, and Peter found himself in need of a ride. So Zeke took him over to the house. The silence began to seem oppressive by the time they pulled up on Peter’s driveway. Peter got out and seemed about to disappear inside the house with no more than a thank you.
“Want me to come over tomorrow and pick you up?”
“No, that’s ok. I’ll drive myself. Violet doesn’t need the car tomorrow. Her own is back in New York, so I thought I’d let her use mine.”
“Right. Well, see you tomorrow.”
“Zeke? I’m sorry about today. I mean, I may not show it all the time but I really appreciate your help. One these days I’d like for us to go out fishing or something, so we can talk.”
“Sounds great. Looking forward to it. Hang in there, buddy.”
“Ok, I’ll try.”
For a second, Peter almost wished Violet wouldn’t be in. He knew she could read his face like an open book, and she’d want to know what was wrong. It was getting more and more difficult to maintain a cheerful front.
This was his fiancee, the girl he loved, but at times, he wished he didn’t have to be this weak, pathetic creature. Any guy liked to be strong and selfreliant. Instead, he found himself increasingly dependent on his fiancee and his best friend. Like a little kid. Not a real man. Peter bit his lip to shut out Alfazz’ words.
Violet was making dinner in the kitchen, which at least gave Peter a respite, before he had to face her, and think of an explanation for what he knew from experience would be a haunted look in his eyes and a very pale face.
“Peter? Dinner will be ready in a few minutes. Why don’t you come out here and talk?”
“In a minute.”
Peter dropped his sports bag on the floor in the hallway, and retreated into the bathroom. He stared disgustedly at his own reflection in the mirror. What a pathetic loser. Could any other guy have ended up in the same situation he had? He didn’t think so. Zeke? DB? Jack or Reggie? The thought was ludicrous. At least now. Back when they were kids – maybe.
But he wasn’t a kid anymore. So why did he feel so helpless? Why did he feel as if all he wanted was to find a safe little corner and hide out there. Like an animal in a burrow. But he couldn’t allow himself that luxury. He had a life to live, work to do. If he lost that, the Prince really would have won.
He’d been in here for too long. Violet was bound to wonder.
After all, there was nowhere he could hide. The world he was trying to leave behind was still out there, waiting for him, expecting things from him, asking too much, too soon.
And he’d been right. Violet knew right away something was wrong. He might as well get it over with. Why bother hiding anything from her? She wasn’t the enemy.
“Nothing’s wrong. I just – I ran into Prince Alfazz in the locker room.”
“Are you ok? I can’t believe they let him run around like nothing’s happened.”
“As far as everyone’s concerned, nothing has happened.”
“Didn’t anyone do something? Your friends, what did they do?”
“It was in the locker room. Barbara and Tamara weren’t there -“
“I know that. But what about Zeke or DB?”
“Zeke was in the shower. He didn’t know the Prince was there. And DB – what could he do? It wasn’t as if the Prince was attacking me. He just – I don’t know. As far as everyone else was concerned he was just welcoming me back.”
“I really think your ASCAN friends could do more. Whose side are they on anyway?”
“Zeke’s on my side, you know that.”
“But what about the others?”
“Violet, I don’t think it’s fair to ask them to take sides. Their future careers are on the line here. If they get a reputation for being trouble-makers, it might affect decisions about who gets picked for a space assignment.”
“I can’t believe this. Are you defending those selfish bastards? Next you’ll be telling me that you can understand Jack Riley and Reggie Warren too?”
“In a way, I can. To their kind this sort of thing must be totally – Something they want to stay as far away from as possible.”
“They can’t stand to be near something like this? Then why are they still such good friends with His Charming Highness?”
“I don’t know. Violet, can we not talk about this right now? I’m tired and -“
“Fine. You know what? I’m getting fed up with this. We can’t bring that pervert to justice. Heaven forbid that NASA should be associated with ‘something like this’. Peter, it’s not just ‘something like this’. What we’re talking about is a crime. A felony. But the person guilty of this crime, this felon, he’s beyond reach.
Ok. I’m beginning to see that if you want to keep your career, we’ll have to do things NASA’s way. Fine. But your so called friends don’t stand up for you and – I’m not the enemy, Peter. At least I thought not. What about us, Peter? What about our future together? Do you want me in your life? Or should I just go home and get on with my life?”
“Please. How do you think all this makes me feel? Do you think I like being dependent on my friends? I want things back the way they were. If I could just feel the same I did only three weeks ago -“
“I want that too, Peter. But that’s not going to happen so – Never mind. Are you hungry? Dinner’s ready.”
“I really appreciate what you’re doing, Violet, but I’m not hungry. Maybe I’ll feel better if I get some sleep. I’m not sleeping very well either.”
“I’ve noticed. Ok. Go to bed. I’ll put dinner away for later. You’re right. Some sleep might do you good.”
Peter went into the bedroom, stripped off his clothes and lay down on his bed. His and Violet’s bed. What a joke. Only two months ago they’d – Now he pulled back violently every time Violet turned over in her sleep and bumped into him. He was afraid he’d lash out and hurt her.
If he wasn’t quite awake, even though he wasn’t quite asleep, there was always a moment of disorientation, and he might push her away, roughly, the way he had only this afternoon. And it was only Zeke, his best friend. Without Zeke’s help – he might not be here right now. If anything happened to Violet because of him –
Lying down didn’t help. There was no rest to be had here, and he considered getting up and going out for a run. Maybe if he exhausted himself physically he’d be able to sleep. But he’d be alone. There would be other runners. Men. Strangers. Their faces blurred into one. A leering, triumphant, menacing mask of horror. Prince Alfazz.
He heard Violet pick up the phone and call someone. Was she calling home? Peter turned over so he wouldn’t listen in on the conversation. Sleep? Run? Something else? He couldn’t make up his mind. Suddenly he heard Violet say something that told him she was talking to Zeke. What was this? She was commenting on the incident in the locker room. Was she accusing Zeke of not watching his friend’s back?
That wasn’t fair and it made Peter feel small and helpless. Like a little kid. Not a real man. And in a second his confusion and pain turned into blinding, red hot anger. The anger wasn’t directed at Violet or Zeke, but somehow they were caught up in it. Right in the middle of everything that haunted him, pursued him day and night.
Peter hardly noticed how he got out of bed and ran towards the phone, and his fiancee.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m just talking to Zeke -“
“That’s what I meant. I don’t want you to. I’m not a kid. I can take care of myself. Leave me alone.”
“Zeke, I have to hang up now. We’ll talk later.”
“No, you won’t. You and Zeke can stop babying me. I’m not a child. Stop protecting me, stop trying to shield me from the world. If I can’t take care of myself maybe I deserve to be -“
“Yes, Peter, what? What do you deserve?”
“I can’t do this anymore, Violet. It isn’t working. We’re never going to get back to where we were before this happened. I’m sorry. You deserve a better man. A real man.”
“What? What did you say?”
“I think it would be better if you went back to New York.”
She was staring at Peter as if she didn’t know him. What was he saying? That he didn’t want her anymore? Had all her hard work been for nothing? She could see that there was no reasoning with him in this state. And she had been telling the truth earlier. This walking on eggshells was wearing her down. Things she couldn’t say. How everyone pulled together to protect the perpetrator of this heinous crime.
And with all that, Peter could still tell her he understood how the minds of his ASCAN colleagues worked. It was ok to turn their backs on a colleague, a friend. She was fed up with their male code of honor. If that’s the way he wanted it, fine. He could take care of himself. She didn’t think so, but if she wasn’t wanted she would go.
“Maybe you’re right. Alright. If you’re sure. I’ll pack and go. If there’s no plane back, I can stay at a motel tonight. Or maybe I’ll catch a bus. I’m sorry this isn’t working out. I did my best, but it obviously wasn’t enough. Good luck, Peter. I really mean that. I hope you become an astronaut.”
He didn’t reply. The enormity of what he’d just done was only now sinking in. He’d told the only person who really mattered to him to get lost. In fact, he’d pretty much told his best friend to get off his back as well. After all they’d done for him. Though he knew it was too late to take back his words, he wanted to try anyway. Please, Violet, don’t go. I need you. I love you. But he found himself watching her pack her things, calling a cab, disappearing out the front door.
Her last words of goodbye kept ringing in his ears, long after the sound of the cab engine had died away in the rapidly falling darkness. Good bye, Peter. Take care. I – I have to go.
And that was it. Violet was gone. He’d probably offended Zeke too. It was all wrong. Maybe he didn’t like being babied by his friends and his lover, but at least having friends, people on his side had helped a little. Now he was on his own. How could even dare to face the other ASCANs now? Jack Riley. Reg Warren. Alfazz – No. It was no use kidding himself. He wasn’t cut out to be an astronaut. He wasn’t made of the ‘right stuff’. Never had been. Maybe he was no good as a teacher either.
He’d made a mess of everything. His careers. His relationship with Violet. What kind of a friend was he? Zeke had put his career on the line for him. Stood by him when no one else would. Peter could just imagine what Jack would have to say about their display of friendship in the locker room, in the shower.
He was a failure at everything, as a teacher, an astronaut, lover, friend, even as a man. No wonder people like the Prince saw his weakness and didn’t hesitate to exploit it. Maybe he did deserve it. Maybe it was a great honor being bestowed on him. And he had been right to thank the Prince for what he’d done to him.
NO. Whatever else he was, he wasn’t quite deluded enough to buy Alfazz twisted reasoning. As he had told his students time and time again. If both of you isn’t enjoying the game, it isn’t fun. The Prince was a sick pervert, and unfortunately, his position in life made sure he could indulge himself with all his sick little games. But that didn’t make it right. On the other hand, just because the Prince was wrong, didn’t mean there was any chance he could make his life work out.
Peter couldn’t remember for how long he paced around his living room, the kitchen where still the appetizing smells of Violet’s cooking lingered, the bedroom and the hallway, thinking things through. Trying to find a solution.
He didn’t know how he ended up in the bathroom, but eventually he found himself back in front of the mirror, a razor in his hand. He pressed the cold steel against the side of his neck, facing the possibility that had been lurking just out of reach in his mind ever since that night. Yes. He could do it. One cut and it would be all over. No more struggle, no more pain. Peace at last. But no. He wasn’t a coward. If he had been, he would never have come as far as he had.
The clink of the metal as it struck the tiles of the bathroom floor sounded final. And it was. No more thought of suicide. That wasn’t a solution. If he had used that resort, the Prince would have been right about him. But he wasn’t. Violet, Zeke, Tamara, Barbara – they all believed in him. And maybe they had some reason to.
He had to start over again. Start at the beginning and work his way up again. And everything began and ended with Violet. He had to get her back. How could he have let her believe he didn’t love her? It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate all she’d done for him. He just hated to be weak, to be the one in need of help.
But she did too. She was so strong, but when she’d been in a car crash two years ago, he’d been there to help her get back on her feet again. Literally. He’d helped her through the painful strenuous physical therapy. Helped her believe that she would be able to walk again. And eventually she had. There wasn’t a trace of a limp and they could tell the doctors were impressed.
They hadn’t expected Violet to make a complete recovery, yet she had. And while getting there, she’d forced herself to accept his help. Though he knew that her pride had made it almost impossible for her. But she loved him and trusted him, and he loved and trusted her. It was ok to show weakness to the ones you loved. To your best friends. After all, you were there for them when they needed you.
She had managed to get on a plane that evening. And towards dawn the next one left, and Peter was on it. He knew he’d find her in her apartment, and he was right. She was lying on the bed, still fully dressed, but she’d kicked off her shoes, and he could tell that she’d only just dozed off. He didn’t want to wake her, so he sat down in the chair by the window and watched the city going about its business.
Despite the congestion, the pollution and the milling crowds, there was something reassuring about the scene. No one cared about his problems. He was just a little speck in a sea of people and their busy lives. One day he might be an even smaller speck far more distant than the 7 floor of an apartment building in the Village. That really brought things back into perspective.
From out there, the Earth wasn’t just a mass of people and their complicated lives. It was just a pretty bauble, a child’s toy, a blue and white jewel set in the black velvet of space. And he’d be an astronaut. No one could take that away from him. Not Alfazz, not Jack, not Reg. He was the only one who could and he wasn’t going to give up.
“Sorry. Did I wake you? I didn’t mean to.”
“I wasn’t really asleep. But I thought I was dreaming that you were here.”
“I couldn’t let you go. Violet – can you forgive me for acting the way I did? I know you were only trying to help. It’s ok. I can accept your help. And Zeke’s. You both know I’d do the same for you. Any time.”
“And you already have. Did you think I’d forgotten?”
“No. But I forgot about that for a while. I was so full of my own problems, I forgot about what we have. About you and me. That’s far more important than anything else. And the rest – I’ll deal with it. With your help. And Zeke’s. Who did I think I was? Superman? Everyone needs help once in a while.”
“I know. Supergirl too. Welcome back. Come here.”
And she held out her arms to him, and he closed the distance between them, ending up stretched out beside her, holding her close. Like before. Almost like before. Her lips felt just the same and –
Later, Violet opened her eyes and looked at him.
“Can we talk?”
“Anything you want.”
“I was thinking about quitting my job -“
“No, you can’t do that. I’ve never asked you to give up your job.”
“Let me finish, silly. I just meant quitting this job and moving down to Florida. Why shouldn’t I work down there instead? It would give me a chance to be closer to you and -“
“If you’re sure. I’d love to have you in my house.”
“Yeah. I know. But I’d really like for us to get something bigger. Something that wouldn’t just be yours but ours.”
“Oh. I never thought that far. Of course. Stupid of me. We’ll get a new house. Violet -“
“Never mind. It will be great to have you there all the time. Where are you going?”
“I’m going to pack some more stuff. Why not get started right away. This is a good place, but I’m sure we can get something better down there. Don’t get up. You need your rest. I slept on the plane. Go on. Get some sleep. I’ll wake you later. Do as the teacher tells you now.”
“That’s more like it.”
And for the first time in nearly a month, Peter managed to get some real sleep. He didn’t even remember any dreams.
They were going home, and this time, he wouldn’t let anything stand in the way of making his dreams come true.
“Did Tamara say if she and her husband could make it?”
“Yes. She said she’d love to.”
“What about DB and Barbara?”
“Oh, they’re coming too. And Zeke and Ella will be here in half an hour. I thought it would be nice if we got a chance to talk before the other guests arrived.”
“Great. Ella’s really nice. We can sit on the patio while you and Zeke make dinner for us.”
“Ok. Zeke’s in for a surprise, but I’m sure he’ll be great in the kitchen once he realizes what’s in store for him.”
“If you need any help, just ask.”
“I’ll remember. But I really think I can handle dinner. Haven’t had any complaints so far. Violet?”
“You weren’t just humoring me all those times I made dinner for you?”
“No, of course not. You know me. If I don’t like something, I speak my mind.”
The night’s dinner party looked like it was going to be a success. Everyone got along great.
After dinner, which turned out even better than the women had expected, Barbara and DB found some secluded spot in the garden. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what they were doing. But no one minded. Zeke and Tamara’s husband were deep in discussion about something. It seemed Ella had engaged Peter in conversation, which left Tamara and Violet alone together.
It seemed to Violet that Tamara had something on her mind. Violet hoped it wasn’t anything to do with the training program, because she was still dreading some last minute disaster. Things did seem to be going ok for Peter, but she could never stop worrying about him.
“I was wondering if I could ask you something, Violet.”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
“I’ve been on a few space assignments already and -“
“I know. My students are big fans of yours.”
At that, Tamara smiled.
“I’ll send them my autographed photo if they like.”
“Are you kidding? They’ll love it. Thanks. You were saying -“
“Yes. My husband -“
Tamara sneaked a look in her husband’s direction but he appeared deep in conversation and didn’t glance back.
“He wants me to quit so we can start a family.”
Violet hesitated. It was never a good idea to give other people advice, but in this case, she couldn’t resist.
“Ok. If you really want my advice – Tamara, don’t give up this opportunity. Any woman can have kids. So can any rabbit. What you’re capable of is way beyond what most people can dream of. Don’t throw all that away. Besides, if you had a kid, why shouldn’t your husband do his part? This isn’t the middle ages.”
“But Reggie said -“
“Reggie Warren? I see. Don’t you know what he’s about? He wants to get up there too. But if they picked you, it’s because you’re better. Don’t let his envy stand in your way.”
“My husband’s waited so long and -“
“Look, I can’t tell you if your relationship is worth it or not. All I know is that if he loves you he won’t expect you to give up your career. Peter and I have discussed this extensively. Of course, my work doesn’t require me to fly to the moon or wherever. So I guess I’m not in the same situation. But anyway, if going into space is what makes Peter happy, then that’s what I want for him too. No matter how much I’ll worry about him. And he’d never demand that I give up my career. A guy who loves you won’t do that. You know that too, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I know. Thanks, Violet. That really helped. I really appreciated having this talk with you. No one else understands. Not even Barbara. Her situation isn’t similar. Violet – I’m so sorry about what happened. If there’s anything I can do -“
“Thanks, but we’ll just have to take one day at a time. I’ll get him through this one way or another. But I don’t mind telling you, that I’d like to kill that -“
Leaving the rest of the sentence unfinished, Violet decided to change the subject. The rest of the evening passed pleasantly, and she was happy to see that Peter seemed to be almost back to normal. Maybe he would be ok after all.
A few weeks later, Peter ran into Reg Warren in the parking lot. As always, Reg looked away, as if the sight of someone like Peter might somehow cause him to lose his foothold in life.
It was clear that the last thing Reg wanted was to be dragged into a conversation with Peter Engel. But this time, Peter had had it with Jack and Reg. If he wasn’t good enough for this program, the least they could do was tell him to his face. They might let him know exactly what it was he was doing wrong.
“What’s your problem? What did I ever do to you?”
At first, Peter didn’t think Reg would bother replying, but in the end, the older man appeared to make an effort to be polite.
“Nothing. This isn’t personal. We just don’t want people like you in the program. Civilians.”
Obviously, Reg had intended to go on. Civilians and weaklings? Civilians and –
“It seems you do. Scientists, educators, engineers. Back in the old days, I know there was more call for military men. But nowadays things are different.”
“Maybe. But it takes more than just an education to pull your weight up there. Team work.”
“And I don’t know the meaning of team work?”
“You said it. Not me.”
“In what way am I a bad team player? Can you tell me that?”
“Alright. Since you insist. What about Alfazz? He’s a team member, and you persist in spreading vicious rumors about him. Trying to ruin a man’s good name.”
“What? Who told you I’m spreading rumors about Alfazz? I’ve never said one thing about him.”
He could tell Reg didn’t believe him. And the older man went on as if he hadn’t heard Peter.
“It’s so easy. One word is all it takes and a man loses his good name.”
“But I never said anything.”
“No. But how do you know Alfazz is such a great guy and I’m not?”
Reg stared at Peter as if he’d never seen him before. Pressing his advantage, Peter went on, before Reg interrupted him again, with his contempt and his superiority.
“I mean it. What makes you so sure I’m the villain and he’s the good guy?”
Now Peter could almost see how Reg’s mind was working. So at least he’d managed to sow a few seeds of doubt.
“Fine. Maybe you didn’t spread those rumors. Look, I really don’t have time for this. If you keep on doing your work, you’ll get no trouble from me.”
To Peter’s astonishment, Reg appeared seriously disturbed by the entire incident. And Peter didn’t feel as if he’d had any satisfaction from the confrontation either. He knew that Reg didn’t like him, didn’t even respect him and that grated on him. What was it about him that made men like Reg and Jack think so little of him? Without thinking, Peter got in front of Reg, blocking his way.
“What are you doing? Get out of my face.”
“Not until you tell me what it is about me that you hate so much. What are you scared of, Reg? Can you tell me that?”
“I’m not scared of anything. Least of all you.”
“Then what’s your problem? Come on. Tell me to my face for once.”
“Do you really want me to tell you? Alright. You asked for it. Just who do you think you’re kidding? Someone like you – How do you think it makes us feel, having you in the locker room with us? In the showers. Staring at us.”
“What? Why would I be staring at you? You can’t be serious.”
“We can’t all be bleeding-heart liberals like your bosom buddy Beaumont. Some of us just can’t be expected to take your kind to our hearts.”
“My kind? What kind is that? Teachers?”
“You know what I mean.”
“No. I don’t. Tell me.”
“Just get away from me. Mind your own business.”
At that moment Peter had a sudden inspiration. He thought he finally saw what it was about him that Reg couldn’t stand.
“You think I’m gay? Why? I really don’t know what it is that I’ve done to get you this jumpy. Tell me what it is.”
“That story going around about you and Alfazz.”
“I thought I just told you that I never said anything about him.”
“So maybe you weren’t the one who said it. Someone did. Are you denying you made a pass at him?”
“What? Of course I deny it. I never did anything like that. And though it’s none of your business, I’m engaged. To a woman. If that means anything to you.”
“Really? But Jack said -“
“I don’t care what Jack said. This is the truth. And while we’re talking slander, I guess I’m in a position to sue both of you. But I don’t want to do that. Team work, remember?”
Reg still appeared shaken and confused. He was shaking his head, trying to make sense of the new information.
“If this is true, I owe you an apology. I – when I was in high school, a white girl accused me of raping her. Or maybe she didn’t say so herself, but someone did. The rumor went around that I had assaulted her. Me – the captain of the football team. And someone, I still don’t know who, claimed that I was using my position to bully her into silence. It wasn’t true. And in the end, the girl said so herself. But the stigma stuck to me, until I moved away from home. I guess I was thinking that somehow – But that wasn’t fair.”
“No, it wasn’t. And I’ll tell you another thing. Even if I was gay, I’d still have the right to be here. I have just as much right to be here as any of you.”
“I’ll talk to Jack about this. You must forgive me. Maybe – you civilians are needed after all. Takes all kinds, right?”
“I think so.”
As Peter watched Reg vanish into the building, he experienced a sense of exhilaration. He’d managed to get through to one of the bullies. Finally, one of them had been made to face him and say what was on his mind. Peter wasn’t surprised Reg had automatically jumped to the conclusion that he was gay. Anyone who didn’t see the world the same way as Reg or Jack did, would be labeled something or other.
It was with a sense of relief Peter followed Reg inside. He felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Jack might not see things the same way, and someone like Alfazz wouldn’t change either, but slowly, day by day, Peter felt as if he was taking back his life anyway. He’d be an astronaut. One day soon he’d be up there, looking down on the Earth. This was his future, his life. The sky. All it would take was some more work.