First Chapter: The Order of the Poison Oak

By Brent Hartinger

I was surrounded by fires, angry blazes raging all around me. The flames hissed and crackled, their blistering heat searing my exposed skin. I desperately wanted to run, but there was no escape. I was trapped by the heat. Any step I might take, any direction I might turn, the flames would flare up and engulf me.

Then the school bell rang, and the students around me began bustling off to class.

I was standing in the hallway of Robert L. Goodkind High School in the moments before my first period. I was surrounded by flames, yeah, but not the kind you might think. No, the fires that threatened me were the flames of hatred and suspicion that flickered in the eyes of my classmates. Why did I feel like the hallway of my high school was some perilous corridor of fire, and that the looks in the eyes of the other students were the flames of that blazing inferno? There is a very short answer to that question: earlier in the year, some friends and I had started the Goodkind High Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance. And now the whole school knew I was gay.

Okay, so maybe I'm being melodramatic about the school being on fire. All I know is that ever since I'd come out, my high school had suddenly felt like a very dangerous place, and I had the defaced locker and anonymous emails to prove it.

"Move it, faggot," Nate Klane mumbled as he ambled by me in the hallway.

See? This was exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about. I'd put up with this kind of crap ever since we'd gone public with our Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance, and frankly, I was getting pretty tired of it. Yeah, yeah, sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me. First of all, anyone who thinks that words can't hurt you has obviously never taken Sophomore P.E. And second, did it ever occur to whoever wrote that stupid adage that hurtful words might be a pretty good indication that sticks and stones are on the way? It's not like it's an either-or thing. Words and sticks and stones can go together, and often do. All I can say is that the writer of that adage sounds pretty damn blasé about getting his bones broken.

Let's face it: being openly gay at age sixteen really, really sucks. (And if you're thinking, "Well, then, why did you come out?" it's not like being gay and closeted at age sixteen is some carnival in the cafeteria.) But since this is the first chapter of this book, I can't be all negative and overwrought, or you won't want to read any more (I'm not pointing fingers--I hate books like that too). So I'll say the only positive thing I was thinking at the time.

Summer vacation was only four weeks away.

* * *

That morning, in a break between classes, I met my friend, Gunnar, by his locker. He was sniffing the air.

"Hey," I said.

"Do you smell something?" he said.

I took a whiff. "Jerry Mason's gym socks."

"Not that."

"What do you think you smell?" I asked him.

"Aspergillus flavus."

I was afraid to ask what that was.

"It's a toxic mold," Gunnar said. "I think maybe our school has it."

Let me cut to the chase: my friend Gunnar was, in a word, weird. The fact that he was a hypochondriac was the least of his quirks. But he was also smart and creative and just an all-around great guy. Example: he wasn't gay, but he'd joined the Goodkind Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance out of loyalty to me.

"You ever hear of the curse of King Tut's tomb?" Gunnar said, and I shook my head no. "Well, in the years after they opened that tomb, almost everyone on the expedition died. People said it was the Mummy's curse. But now some people think that maybe the reason they died was because they were exposed to Aspergillus flavus when they opened the tomb."

As much as I liked Gunnar, I wasn't interested in toxic mold--even if the Egyptian-mummy connection was kind of cool. So I decided to change the subject.

"So," I said. "Looking forward to summer?"

"You know it," Gunnar said. There was a weary rumble in his voice that surprised me, even though it shouldn't have. Since Gunnar had joined the Goodkind Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance, he'd been on the receiving end of all the same crap as me. Only in his case, it was actually even worse. More than anything in the world, Gunnar wanted a girlfriend. He'd been trying to get one for years, but it had never worked out (being weird is not a plus when you're looking for a girlfriend, and being smart and creative aren't all that helpful either). But now, thanks to the Goodkind Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance, everyone also thought he was gay. We'd tried to tell people that he wasn't gay--"It's a Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance, remember?"--but no one believed us. So now the one thing he most desperately wanted--a girlfriend--was the one thing he could never have. Not as long as he was a student at Goodkind High School anyway.

"Hey," I said, "there's a stream clean-up the first weekend in June. You want to sign up?" The summer before, we'd volunteered for a stream clean-up and had met a couple of girls who we'd talked to all afternoon. I'd had no interest in them, of course, and it hadn't led anywhere even for Gunnar. But there'd probably be new girls this year. I figured helping Gunnar find a girlfriend was the least I could do for him, given that he'd joined the Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance for me.

To my surprise, Gunnar shook his head and said, "Nah."

He had obviously forgotten what had happened at the stream clean-up. "Remember last year?" I said. "We met those girls?"

He nodded. "I remember."

"They didn't go to our school. And they'll probably be other girls who don't go to our school." In other words, they wouldn't think Gunnar was gay.

"It's not that," he said. "I'm just not interested."

"In stream clean-ups?"

"In girls."

This took a moment to compute. Gunnar not interested in girls? It made no sense. It was like talking about a diabetic honeybee.

"Gunnar," I said. "What is it?"

He slumped back against his locker. "I'm tired of it, Russ." My name is Russel Middlebrook, but Gunnar always calls me Russ. "Every time I get excited about some girl," he went on, "I just end up saying or doing the wrong thing. I'm tired of embarrassing myself, and I'm tired of the rejection."

I don't mean to be mean, but Gunnar wasn't exaggerating. Somehow he always did seem to end up embarrassing himself around girls. And that was even before the Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance.

"So what are you saying?" I asked.

"I'm saying I'm giving up girls," he said.

I stared at him like he'd just said he was giving up pants. Or oxygen. (Have I made myself clear on the strangeness of the whole Gunnar-giving-up-girls thing?)

"It's not forever," he said. "I just decided that maybe I'm trying too hard. So I'm going to give it a rest."

I nodded, trying to be supportive. In a way, it actually made sense. Then again, since when did people start doing the logical thing?

"Besides," Gunnar said, "I think I got a summer job."

"No kidding," I said. "Where?"

"Camp Serenity. It's this summer camp up in the mountains. I'm going to be a camp counselor."

I glared at him. "And you were going to tell me this when exactly?" We were best friends. It wasn't like one of us to run off and leave the other alone all summer long.

"Give me a break," Gunnar said. "I just found out about it last night. And I still have to apply, but the Camp Director is a friend of my dad's. He says they're desperate."

As Gunnar was talking, I thought to myself, Up in the mountains? As in, Away from everyone and anyone who knew I was gay?

"What about me?" I said. "You think they'd take me too?"

Gunnar grinned. "That's what I was hoping you'd say!"

* * *

I was dying to tell my other best friend, Min, about our summer plans. She and Gunnar and I were all friends, and the only thing better than Gunnar and me going off to the mountains for the summer was the idea of Min coming with us. Min was a member of the Goodkind Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance too, only she had more of a reason to join than just loyalty to me. She was bi. She was also Chinese-American, which has nothing to do with anything, and which almost seems kind of racist to even bring up at this point. But her name sort of bears explanation.

I caught up with her in the hallway on the way to lunch. But before I could say a word, she nodded to a guy in front of us and said, "Tim Noll is so hot! I love the way the hair on the back of his neck is so neatly trimmed."

"Min!" I said. More than anything, I just wanted her to keep her voice down.

"Oh, come on," Min said. "Don't tell me you haven't noticed him."

I hadn't noticed him. Ever since I'd come out as gay, I made it a point not to notice guys at all. When the whole school knows you're gay, the last thing you want is someone catching you looking at another guy. I couldn't think of any better way to bring on the sticks and stones I mentioned earlier.

"Min," I said, changing the subject. "Gunnar has this idea about what the three of us can do this summer."

She ignored me. "Or Jason Gelrecht. You know he got his teeth laser-whitened? Not that I spend a lot of time looking at his teeth." Ever since I'd come out as gay and Min had come out as bi, she seemed to like talking about hot guys with her gay best friend, especially when we were in public. But I don't think it was because she really cared about hot guys. No, I think it was more so she could prove that she didn't care what anyone thought of her. But it always made me uncomfortable, which I think was also partly the point. Min was one of my two best friends, but she could be kind of competitive. On some level, all her talk about hot guys was kind of a challenge to me: could I be as bold as her? (I know this makes her sound like a bit of a bitch. But she was always interesting to be around, and often pushed me to do things I wouldn't otherwise do.)

"Min," I said. "I'm serious. This friend of Gunnar's dad runs this summer camp, and he--"

"Or Jarred Gasner," Min said, "even though that's kind of a cliché, him being Homecoming King and all. I bet you've seen him in the shower, haven't you? What does he look like naked?"

Min and I may have been talking, but we definitely weren't communicating. So it was time to fight fire with fire.

"You know who I think is hot?" I said.

"Who?" Min said. I'd gotten her attention at least.

"Jennifer Nance." Min was bi, but she never talked about which girls she thought was hot, which I thought was very interesting.

Min laughed. "Oh, touché! I wondered when you'd get around to trying that." One thing I appreciated about Min. She was smart--even smarter than Gunnar. She caught onto things fast, which always kept me on my toes. "Hey," she said, "we can talk about hot girls if you want! I think Amy Mandrake has a great tush."

Okay, I thought, Min had won another round, even if she had used an incredibly geeky word like "tush." But she had an advantage. She was a girl, and girls didn't have to worry nearly as much about sticks and stones and broken bones.

"Just listen to me a second," I said. "Gunnar is going to apply to be a counselor at a summer camp, and he--"

"I'm in," Min said.

"What?" I said.

"I want to go with you guys. I want to be a camp counselor too."

I knew Min was quick, but I'd never known her to be this quick before!

Min saw the startled expression on my face and laughed again. "Sorry. Gunnar told me all about it during Biology Lab."

In spite of her teasing me, I was pretty happy. I was going to be spending the summer in a place called Camp Serenity with my two best friends. I was certain it was going to be three months of the peaceful, completely non-gay R&R that I so desperately needed.

Looking back, I don't think I've been so wrong about anything in my whole entire life.

(Reprinted with persmission of the author)