Of all the guys it was Jamie that Erin showed the most friendliness towards. His laid-back, easy-going demeanour meant he took to Erin better than any of the others did, and she responded in kind. She started to feel a little more comfortable around the rest of the guys as our junior year progressed but there was still some way to go for her to make the kind of connection with them I hoped would happen.
Predictably, all the difficulties we had in fitting in with the other's group of friends strained the relationship Erin and I had. There were times I accused her of not doing enough to vouch for me and help ease me into her group of friends. And there were times she accused me of not understanding her friends and not being willing enough to truly get to know them. She also claimed my friends and acquaintances had it out for her peer group, while I claimed she let a few jerks who really weren't my friends colour her impressions of the ones who were genuinely trying to understand and support Erin and I hanging out together.
All of these factors combined to make a potent brew, and it finally exploded into a huge blow-up argument in late June, just a few days after school let out for the summer. I said some things I still regret to this day. I cried myself to sleep that night, convinced I had tossed my friendship with Erin in the trash.
Thankfully, the bonds we had created were too strong to be ruined by one heated dispute. I called her the next day to apologize and we had a good talk over the phone. We continued to chat and rebuild our friendship over the next several days. Then before I knew it the calendar turned to a Saturday in mid-July. It was a very special day, my 18th birthday.
I was going to a big party my buddies had planned for me on Sunday night, but on that Saturday my parents had organized a small gathering for me to celebrate my actual birthday. Erin dutifully attended this gathering; I was pretty sure she would but I didn't take it for granted, I was very happy to have her there. Besides her I also invited Jamie and Cindy, a pretty young cheerleader who was a little shy but very friendly and more accepting of people than her cheer mates tended to be.
My parents prepared a wonderful barbecue cookout; my dad was a legend on the grill but this time he outdid himself. I had a great time with the closest and most important people in my life as I became a man, at least in the eyes of the law.
Two days later I got to return the favour and be one of Erin's guests at her 18th birthday party. Her mother had a tough job making dinner for all the attendees but she insisted on doing it without any help, and I must say she came through like a champ. Erin was enjoying the attention and the company but she was rather quiet and contemplative all night. I thought that perhaps turning 18 was a bigger deal to her than it had seemed to be for me.
At the end of the night Erin and I got a chance to sit alone on the back porch and talk some more, to say some things that needed to be said.
"Just wanted to apologize again," I started. "I said some terrible things the other day. I wish I could take them back."
"It's OK," Erin answered. "I've already forgiven you, remember? And I said a lot of awful things too. I'm very sorry."
I put an arm around her shoulder in a friendly gesture. "We'll consider it even, then."
"Yes. Let's do that."
We sat in companionable silence for a while. I snuck a few quick glances at Erin, like I had done many times in the past.
But this time, everything was different. It was as if I was looking at her with brand new eyes. It took me a moment to realize what this new feeling was, but when I did it hit me with the force of the proverbial ton of bricks.
'Erin is beautiful.'
That was the thought that kept ringing through my head, over and over. Somehow she developed into a sexy siren without me noticing. I'm not sure she even knew how beautiful she was, and that just made me covet her even more. I suddenly was having great difficulty trying to keep separate the pure intentions of the rational part of my mind and the lustful feelings in my libido.
After all, it wasn't going to happen. No way. I was surely in the "friend zone" with Erin. And everyone, even inexperienced 18-year-olds like we were, knows that once you step into the "friend zone", any thoughts or possibilities of love, lust, or even casual sex go flying out the window.
But even the passing thought of the word sex set my brain into overdrive. Visions of Erin naked popped up in my head, followed quickly by images of the two of us pleasing each other in various sexual positions. I daydreamed about what it would be like to kiss her, what it would feel like to have her lips wrapped around my...
"Garrett? You still with us?"
"Hmm?" I was so wrapped up in my thoughts and sexual fantasies that I didn't hear Erin at all.
"I said, my friends are starting to really take to you."
"Yes. They've told me that a couple times now. They're impressed with how you've stuck with this for so long. Most people in our school wouldn't have even tried, and the few who would probably would have given up by now. But not you. They respect you for that."
Her hemming and hawing gave away the answer. "Not yet. He can be a difficult person to get to know. Loyalty, trust and respect are very big with him. He thinks you haven't earned that yet. I'll keep trying to break him down, but in the meantime you need to stay patient with him."
Not much I could do except agree with her, though I did press my luck on one front. "Do you think you can at least convince him to stop calling me pretty boy?"
She shook her head in sympathy. "Believe me, I hate that he calls you that just as much as you do. I'll keep telling him until he listens."
"Thanks. And I really am glad to hear your other friends like me. It means a lot, especially since I know how much it means to you."
"That's very sweet of you to say, Garrett. Your friends are nice too. I think I might even be ready to forgive Ricky."
I shared a laugh with Erin. "They'll be happy to hear that."
We gave each other a hug before she left. I hoped she wasn't able to feel my cock awakening from its slumber as her warm little body pressed into me.
"Good night, old man," Erin teased, as she often did about my being a whopping two days older than she was.
I smiled at her sarcastic remark. "Good night to you, young whippersnapper."
The real turning point came early in our senior year, during the week of Halloween, which fell on a Wednesday this year. The week also coincided with our high school's homecoming festivities. Our school had always held homecoming much later than any other in the area, though nobody could remember or adequately explain why.
One of the traditions of homecoming week was the Monday elections by the student body of a homecoming king and queen. A couple of weeks before, my friends and some other teammates congratulated me on being nominated by the homecoming committee, but I didn't give it too much thought. I didn't know who else was nominated but I had a pretty good idea, so I figured I was an outside bet at best to win the vote. Either way I wasn't going to let my ego be affected by the result, no matter what it was.
In fact, I didn't think about it at all until the Friday before homecoming week. Not until Erin approached me on that morning with a piece of paper in her outstretched hand and a dark scowl on her face.
"Do you know anything about this?!" she asked in an unsteady, quivering voice.
Puzzled, I took the sheet of paper and read it. It was a poster created by the homecoming committee listing all the nominees for king and queen. Besides my name there were the other usual suspects; popular kids, jocks, cheerleaders and the like. Except for two people.
One was Craig Crocker, one of the "nerd" group; a very intelligent kid but extremely socially awkward. The other was Erin.
Alarm bells rang loudly in my head. Something definitely did not seem right.
"No, Erin, I don't know what is going on here."
She rolled her eyes at me. "Geez, Gare, really? You'd think you'd notice since your name is on there too! And these damn things are plastered all over the place, it's not like you could miss them!"
"I swear, I never noticed them. Someone told me I was nominated and that was all I needed to know. Besides, it really doesn't matter to me if I'm named or not so I had no reason to look for these posters or know how many of them there are."
It took a while before I was sure she decided to believe me. Still, she was obviously worried, and had every right to be. Someone was certainly up to no good.
"Gare, I don't know what to do!" she continued. "People have been asking me questions and looking at me funny all week! I never asked for this!"
"I know a couple of people on the committee. I'll ask them what's up," I said. I put an arm around her shoulder in a friendly, supportive way. As she sometimes did when she was upset, Erin remained silent. I knew I wouldn't see her over the weekend because she had to help her mother out with a few things. I hoped she wouldn't worry herself sick.
That night I went out to a house party with some cheerleaders and a bunch of guys from the football team. I wasn't real enthused about going but I was bored and didn't want to stay at home on a Friday night. Plus this might have been the best chance I had to uncover the mystery Erin confronted me with in the morning.
Sure enough, the conversation turned to homecoming in general, and specifically about the chances for the various candidates to be selected as king or queen.
"Of course, Gare here has almost no shot, he's way too ugly!" Brandon gleefully yelled. He always did love busting my chops.
"Much better chance than you, Brandon, your sorry ass didn't even get nominated!" Jamie high-fived me for that remark. I loved showing that I could dish it out as well as take it.
"But Brandon still has a better chance than that fuckin' nerd, Craig!" Dave Lewis said with a laugh. Dave was one of the starting cornerbacks on the team and was known to be terrible at keeping secrets. Interestingly enough, he was also on the homecoming committee.
"Yeah, what's with that anyway, Davey? Who nominated Craig in the first place?" I tried to play it casual with my question. I desperately wanted to ask the same thing about Erin but didn't want to tip my hand too soon.
Dave furtively looked around to make sure that no one else besides Brandon, Jamie and I were listening before turning his attention back to us. "OK guys, but listen, you can't tell anyone else about this, you swear?" he whispered conspiratorially. We all nodded in agreement and allowed him to spill the beans.
"Some of us on the committee were talking one night and we thought it would be funny to include a couple of gag nominees. You know, kids that would never have a shot and would be the worst possible choices. So the girls picked that little freakazoid in black, Erin what's-her-name, and me and the guys picked that sorry-assed nerd Craig!"
Brandon and Jamie both shot me a small sideways glance to make sure I didn't react when Dave said Erin's name. Thankfully Dave didn't seem to notice. I was still cool on the outside but inside I was furious and just this close to grabbing Dave by the throat and beating the hell out of him.
"But here's the best part, guys!" Dave could barely contain his glee while sharing the details of the plan. "At the assembly on Monday we'll have them go on stage last. They think they're going to do their speech or whatever but a bunch of us are going to yell at them, boo, insult them, make them feel like shit, all sorts of stuff like that! We'll just humiliate the shit out of them, and it will be so funny when everyone else at school starts in on them too! I'm telling you, it'll be hilarious!"
"Yeah, a real laugh-riot," Jamie said. He was a little too obvious with his sarcasm for me but I didn't have to worry. Once again, Dave was completely clueless.
At the end of the night the three of us met up with Torrey and Ricky and filled them in on what we heard.
"Man, that is messed up," Torrey said.
"Yeah, seriously messed up," Ricky concurred.
"What are you gonna do, Gare?" Brandon asked.
I shook my head. I had no idea. "Don't know, guys. I need to think about it."
"Well, if you need our help just say the word," Jamie said, and the others immediately agreed.
"Thanks guys." I was very appreciative of their support. We gave each other man hugs to say good night and went our separate ways.
The wheels were turning in my mind as I sought the right way to help Erin out of her predicament. It occupied my thoughts for the entire weekend, to the point that I had to apologize a couple of times to my parents for appearing so distracted while they were speaking to me.
Late Sunday night I finally landed on a plan that, while risky, had the best chance of getting Erin and Craig out of a difficult situation, while also achieving a couple of side objectives I had as well. With help from the guys I implemented the first phase of my plan. The rest of the morning was spent waiting for the noon-time assembly to take place so I could roll out phase two.
Everyone gathered in the gymnasium for the assembly, and there was a buzz in the air as most of the students discussed who they thought would, or should, win the titles of homecoming king and queen. I had not seen Erin all day. I was concerned for her and wanted to know how she was holding up. I was relieved to see her enter the room but before I could speak to her Jackson was there to guide her to the back with the rest of their group, and the stern look on his face warned me away from them for now.
So I sat with my friends and waited for my appointed turn to speak. It just so happened I was the last one scheduled before the unfortunate Craig and Erin. The speeches of the others ranged from earnest yet plodding to ridiculously self-promoting and vain.
The student council president, who was emceeing the assembly, finally announced my name. "Sit back and enjoy the show," I said to the guys. I made my way up to the stage, steeled myself against the podium and unleashed what I had to say to an unsuspecting audience.
"Good afternoon fellow students. I had some comments prepared for today, but I recently heard something very disturbing that has caused me to make some changes in my message to you. I learned that two of the candidates for king and queen nominated by the homecoming committee were never intended to be taken seriously. Instead, the goal was to bully and humiliate them. I find this to be deplorable, and the committee members should be ashamed of themselves for even thinking about treating their fellow students so poorly. I refuse to be associated with this election under these conditions, so I am withdrawing my name for consideration as homecoming king."
For a moment you could have heard a pin drop. Before the student body could recover from their collective shock, I gave a nod to Mr. Harvey, the school principal, who was sitting on stage observing the proceedings. He coolly and calmly stepped up to the microphone.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he intoned in a booming voice, "I confirm what this young man has just told you. He disclosed this situation to me this morning and a number of other students corroborated his story. I spoke to members of the homecoming committee, and eventually they came clean with the truth, that they had planned to act in the exact manner as this young man has outlined.
"I do not like to do this, but the actions of these members of the committee leave me no choice. As such I have disbanded the homecoming committee. The student council, in consultation with the teacher liaisons and myself, will perform the rest of the duties for homecoming, including selecting an appropriate king and queen from a list of approved candidates. We will notify everyone tomorrow during the morning announcements who the successful candidates are. This means, unfortunately, that the traditional vote for these positions will be cancelled this year. This decision is final. Thank you ladies and gentlemen, this assembly is now over."
The gymnasium erupted in an almighty din. Some students, particularly those with the "in" crowds, were irate that their fun traditions were being cancelled, but most everyone else was just surprised at how quickly things had unraveled right before their eyes. Several stares were aimed in my direction, some angry, a very few admiring, but most were curious. I suddenly felt very exposed and on display, so I made a break for it amidst the noise and confusion and headed for my locker.
I almost got there before I heard someone from behind yell, "Hey!" I turned around and saw Craig puffing for air as he ran to catch up to me. He stood there for the longest time, not knowing what to say, probably not quite believing that someone would stick up for him in this way.
Finally he gingerly offered his hand to me and I shook it. "Th-thanks," he stammered.
"Don't mention it," I replied. He then ran away from me, looking very much like he might throw up. 'Poor guy', I thought, and hoped that someday he could overcome his almost criminal shyness.
I turned back towards my locker and stopped, momentarily startled. Erin was there, surrounded by most of her friends. She was smiling, and at the same time looked almost ready to cry. The others looked at me in appreciation.
"That was a great and brave thing you did, Garrett," Scarlett said. "You should be proud of yourself."
"I don't know about that," I pleaded humbly.
"Oh, puh-LEEZE!" The unmistakeable sound of Jackson's sarcastic voice echoed through the hallway. "Don't tell me you're all falling for this crap!"
"Jackson, don't," Erin softly said, but he ignored her and kept going.
"Pretty boy here is a glory hog! If he wanted to he would have found a way to stop this quietly but that wouldn't have given him the spotlight he craves! Isn't that right, pretty boy?"
"No," I said in as calm a voice as I could manage. "You're wrong. I wanted to help Erin and Craig, and embarrass the idiots who came up with this dumb idea in the first place. This was the best way to do it."
"Liar! Helping them was a lucky break, just incidental to what your selfish goals were! You couldn't care less..."
"Jackson!! Shut up and stop this right now!!" Erin angrily and loudly yelled at her friend. "How many times do I have to tell you, Garrett's not like that! Grow up, already!"
Her words clearly wounded Jackson. He glowered and silently stormed off. Erin's friends looked at each other, perplexed and unsure what to do.
"Go ahead and catch up with him before he does something stupid," Erin told them. "I'll join up with you later."
Al, Kory and Kris left, but Scarlett and Mel remained. "The guys will be fine," Mel said. "Now, Erin, don't you have something you'd like to say to Garrett?"
The two girls stepped back a few paces. Erin tentatively stepped forward. She held my hand and held my gaze with her bright blue eyes. A hint of a smile crossed her lips and her face brightened and sparkled with life. Time seemed to stand still for a moment.
'Dammit! Now what?!" I thought angrily to myself. I looked over my shoulder towards the source of that voice.
I groaned in exasperation. Whatever was going to happen between Erin and I, if anything, would have to wait. The moment had passed.
"Go on Erin. I'll talk to you later," I said, not knowing at the time I wouldn't get a chance to speak to her again until Halloween, two days from now.
She sighed and nodded. On her way past she, Scarlett and Mel all gave Billy a cold death stare. He didn't acknowledge their presence. Instead he marched directly in front of me and glared, apparently believing he could intimidate me.