This story is being written as a response to a challenge set by Deirdre over at the Stealthy Stories forum (scroll down to see the guidelines set by Winnychan and the challenge set by Deirdre). It is my first, and will be my only, attempt at writing anything with slash. I was intrigued by the challenge, got an idea and decided to act on it. This will probably take a while to finish as I'm doing NANOWRIMO and Traffic as well right now.

Hope it pleases the slash experts!

Hero

"One… two… three…"

I can hear them around the corner, laughing and "talking smack" to each other, the strange hollow rubber sound of their ball as it bounces off the ground, the slap of it as a hand hits it, knocking it across to another.

"… four… five… six…"

They whoop and cheer if it's caught and passed on. If it's missed they groan and boo and tease whoever missed it as it pings off against the pavement, the failed catcher having to chase it and get it back.

"…seven… eight… nine…"

The ball rolls to a stop near where I'm standing, hidden from the view around the corner, and I hold my breath as one of them darts over, sneakers skidding over gravel, picks it up and gives it a mighty underarm throw back. It's Andy, in worn jeans and a red t-shirt, baseball cap jammed tight down on his head, his arm looking all lean and strong as he uses his body to propel the ball up, high into the air where it pauses for a moment, round and orange against the blue sky, before hurtling back to earth where Jim is waiting to catch it, full in the chest as though it doesn't hurt.

And though I'm at nine, I stop. I go back to one and start counting again. My knees have turned to jelly. My stomach is churning and I can feel the macaroni cheese I had at lunch flip once, sickeningly, threatening to come up. I swallow and will it down. If I'm sick they'll hear me. If I'm sick and they see it…

This is maybe the seventh time I've counted up to nine this time. Better than yesterday. Still not great. Even as slowly as I do it, as much time I put between each number, when it comes to ten I'm never ready. It's always a surprise. And I gotta start all over again.

It's getting late. I was due home ten minutes ago. If I don't go now, mom is gonna come out on the front steps and start singing out for me. That might save me today but tomorrow at school will be hell.

She just doesn't get it.

This time, when I reach nine, I go past to ten. And step out from where I'm hiding. I don't look at them. I stare beyond and above them, where my front steps wait. My breath is catching like I've been running, my legs feel all wobbly like the time in phys-ed when I passed out. But I keep my eyes on the front door and head straight for it.

At first they don't see me but I know that won't last.

It's Jim who catches sight of me first and with a grin elbows Tyson who looks up and sneers. Andy catches their looks and turns around, letting out a shout when he sees me.

"Hey check it out guys, it's little Frankie-Wankie!"

I want to turn and run but my front steps are just there so I keep on going as though I haven't heard them even though I can feel my underarms getting all sticky and my lips getting wet.

They're all calling it out now, the jeers getting louder the more my chin presses against my chest.

"Little Frankie-Wankie!"

"Hey it's Frank the Wank! How you doing today Frankie, dumped a load in your pants yet?"

"Hey look guys he's getting all red, think he's gonna come in front of us?"

I keep on walking. Only ten feet or so to my front steps. Just keep walking.

But then Andy's there in front of me, ball in both hands, staring at me with unrestrained fury.

"Where do you think you're going, faggot?"

The others crowd in around me. I got no choice but to stop. I'm there in the middle of this circle of boys, five of them, all lean and strong and tough.

And they hate me.

I don't say anything. I know Andy doesn't expect an answer.

The ball propels outta Andy's hands, hitting me hard in the chest and I wheeze while they laugh, the ball bouncing back to Andy. "Huh?" he enquires savagely.

I'm winded, coughing and wheezing as they titter, looking from me to Andy, waiting to see what he does next. His eyes are burning with hate as he stares at me, and I can't do anything. I know I'm shaking. I know my face is red. I know my eyes are fearful and small and my face is stricken. And I know that all of this is giving him more reason to hate me. But I can't stop.

He steps forward and though he's only a few inches taller than me he seems to tower, like a giant. And when he speaks his voice seems to boom.

"Let's take off the little homo's pants and see if he's got a hard-on."

And around me they all cheer and I feel the pull and push as they lay hands on me and all I can manage is a whimpering, stuttering 'n-n-n-noooo", feeling my head spin, my lunch leap up to my throat and then. Then I'm sick.

Partly digested macaroni and cheese goes splashing off the pavement and they all back up letting out a long "eewwwwww" in one voice at the same moment my front door opens and mom is on the steps ready to sing out for me.

"Oh my goodness, Frankie, are you sick?"

I hear her voice, the beat of her feet as she runs down the steps and over the pavement to me. There's spots dancing in front of my eyes and I feel like I'm on fire.

I hear Andy's voice.

"I don't think Frankie's feeling too good, Mrs Murphy, we were just helping him back home." So polite. So quiet. Mom buys it.

"Oh thank you, Andrew dear, so good of you. Thank you boys, thank you. Oh Frankie, come on now, come inside, oh my poor baby!"

I'm hustled over the pavement, limp and sweating in my mom's arms, aware of nothing but gratitude even though I know I'm gonna pay dearly tomorrow.

Mom makes me sit down in the kitchen while she takes my temperature, sponges my forehead, gets me a cold soda from the fridge, fussing and yammering, not letting up for a second. I don't have the strength to protest. After a while the dizziness goes away and when I don't have a temperature and I show mom I really am feeling okay by finishing off an extra big slice of my afternoon chocolate cake, she lets me go and I drag my self upstairs, feeling even heavier than I am, my head dangling forward, chin cushioned against my chest.

I go into the bathroom and shut the door. It's my afternoon ritual. Every day. I can't go into my bedroom until I've spent some time in here. Usually I have to patch myself up a bit, clean off the gravel, stick on the bandaids. Andy and his pals are always careful never to hit me on the face. They're not stupid. And mom thinks I'm still at the age where I'm gonna get skimmed knees and elbows. She just doesn't get it.

Today I have nothing but the sour taste of vomit in my mouth, despite the chocolate cake. I brush my teeth and gargle, rinse my toothbrush and stick it back into the mug.

Then I slump on the side of the bathtub and stare into the mirror above the basin.

My face is round and fat, a double chin sagging below it, my cheeks squshing my nose between them, my eyes sunk into pockets of fat. If that wasn't bad enough, I've got acne. Everywhere. Great red clustered clumps of it all over my cheeks and chin and nose and forehead. The doctor says if I just cut back on all the junk it would help clear it up. Mom says he's a nitwit, that it's just a normal part of puberty. My hair is mouse brown and clumpy, sticking up all over my head. I continue to stare, my lower lip hanging slackly open, showing my front teeth with their big gap. I'm feeling sick again but I have to do this. Every day I have to do this.

I have no neck. My body squats below my head like a toad, huge and gross and smelly. My striped shirt is stretched tight across my chest, uncomfortably tight, displaying the two soft squishy flabs on either side, the ones Andy likes to constantly remind me of, pointing to them as I walk down the corridors to class: "Check out Frankie's titties bouncing!". Below them my gut protrudes, forming a hanging shelf over my jeans, my new jeans just two months old and already getting too tight.

I stare and stare and hear the thoughts begin:

"No wonder they hate you. You're disgusting. Look at you. You're gross. You're fat and ugly and gross. That's why they hate you. They should hate you. How can you blame them?"

Around and around the thoughts go, repeating themselves over and over as I stare and the sky outside the winter grows darker until mom raps on the door and her voice, anxious and high, floats through the wood.

"Frankie? Frankie honey, you've been in there a long time. Are you sick again?"

I get up, feeling like I've got lead in my shoes, wipe my face dry from the tears that have been running down my cheeks, feeling the swollen globes of pimples beneath my fingertips, then reach for the door handle.

"Naw mom," I almost manage a smile. "I'm okay." I push past her, head to my room. She follows behind me and I can imagine her face, stretched and lined with worry, her eyebrows knitting together. "Are you sure honey? You'd tell me if you weren't wouldn't you?"

I reach my bedroom and pause, turn to face her with a smile, look her in the eye. There are sprigs of grey in her hair and her hands are red and rough-looking, one of the straps on her old stained apron pulling apart. "Of course I would, mom. Don't worry about me. Everything's okay."

And I shut the bedroom door.

I stand with my back against it for several long moments, breathing deeply. My room is dark, everything in it great shadows. I don't switch the light on. I don't need to. I know where everything is. To the left of me is my computer on its desk, right next to the window. On the other side of the window is my bed, at the foot of it a chest. Against the opposite wall is my chest of drawers and my bookcases and the closet. Along the wall above my bed are some shelves. They're bare. They used to have toys on them but I put all those in the closet a few months ago. Everything is neat and quiet and clean. No clutter. No dirt. The curtains by the wind move a little, lifted by the breeze. I push off my sneakers and bad silently across the room to my bed, where I roll onto my back and lie, stretched out, cheeks still feeling hot and eyes raw, staring at the glow-in-the-dark moons and stars patterning the ceiling above me.

"Why do you let them do that to you?"

I jump, moving quicker than I ever have in my life, sitting upright and looking about me in a blind panic. There's someone in my room…someone in my room!

"Who's there?" my voice sounds thin and weak to my ears, cracking in the middle. I can't see any strange shapes in the dark.

"Take it easy. I'm just a kid too."

I whirl to the window. That's where it is. There. But I can't see anyone there, not between the gap in the curtains. I swallow, trembling.

"I'm gonna call my mom!" I manage to say and the voice makes a snorting sound.

"Go ahead. I'll be gone before she gets here. I just wanted to talk to ya for cryin' out loud."

Through the fog of my fear I've become aware it is a kid's voice out there, even raspy and rough as it is. A kid… around my age I think. Still shaking, I take a step to the window.

"Wh-what are you doing out there? Who are you?"

There's a pause. Then he replies.

"I'm from the neighbourhood."

"D-d-o I know you?"

Another pause. "Nope. I, uh, I'm not allowed to hang out on the street."

"Do you g-g-go to school with me?"

"Uh, no. I go somewhere else."

More silence. "What are you doing out there?" thoughts of danger have gone, I'm just curious now. He makes a noise that might be a laugh.

"I was watchin', before. Watchin' those kids pick on ya. And I wanted to know why ya let them. That's all."

The memory of throwing up in front of Andy and those kids returns, the humiliation of it and I feel my hands ball into fists.

"Why do you care?"

"I don't. I just, well, I've seen it happen a few times now and I don't get it. Why do ya let them?"

Is this kid for real? "What else am I supposed to do?" I cry back at him. "You think a kid like me can stop them? You think I can take them all on at once?"

"Why don't you stand up to 'em?"

"Yeah right!" Without warning my foot goes flying out, kicking against the wall below the window. "Then they'd beat me up even worse!"

The kid is silent a few more seconds as though he's thinking this through. Then he speaks. "But they know you're scared. That's why they pick on ya. You make 'em angry by bein' scared. If you stand up to 'em, they'll quit."

This kid is obviously off the planet! "Look I don't know what the kids at your school are like, but I may as well kill myself if I do that, cos if I don't, they will. Trust me." I finish, panting a little and he says nothing. Just who is this kid anyway? I take another step towards the window and he startles me by speaking.

"Why were they calling you that – that word." I know which one he means.

"I don't know." I do know. "Because they think it's funny."

I couldn't tell this faceless kid about what happened a few months ago. About how I'd stacked things up in my locker too high and when I opened it before first period everything came spilling out, scattering over the floor. It had made such a terrific sound everyone around me turned to look. And there, poking out between folders, Andy had seen it and bent over to pick it up, holding it up for everyone to see.

"Hey check it out guys, Frankie-Wankie's got a boyfriend!"

It was a poster, of a guy, a jeans advertisement. He wasn't wearing anything but the jeans and his muscled arms and chest and abs were on display, long hair messy and in his eyes, staring at from behind it with a fierce, fixed gaze.

Everyone had laughed and then it had begun. "Faggot!", "Homo!", "Fairy!", "Queer!"

If it had been hard before, from then on it was unbearable.

I knew, even then, there was nothing I could say to make it any better. They couldn't understand. They wouldn't understand it. Yes, I liked to look at pictures like that. Liked to look and imagine my face where theirs were. Imagine myself tall and lean and strong, with a powerful body. Imagine myself beautiful.

The kid didn't say anything and I think he knew I was lying.

When he spoke again his voice was low.

"Tomorrow, when they come after ya, don't go for the front door. Head into the alley on the other side, go right to the end. Got it?"

It takes me a few moments to answer. To understand what it is he's asking me to do. But eventually I respond.

"Got it."

He doesn't say anything else. I think he's already gone.

The next day I wake up thinking it was a dream. It's all that makes sense.

I shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush my teeth and go to school

School is the same. I sit alone in class up the back, alone at lunch. I can see Ms Parkinson wants to give me another lecture about not fulfilling my potential when she hands back my paper in history. I been getting a lot of those lectures from teachers these days. When the bell rings I escape though, heading straight out of the class, trudging my way to my locker. Around me the kids all move, chattering and laughing with each other, none of them taking any notice of me. I shove my books back in, take out what I need for homework and pause, my hand hovering over my diary. I know I shouldn't. I know it will only hurt. But then I do it anyway.

On the inside back of the diary, tucked into a plastic slip, is a photo of me and Andy taken last year. I'm still chubby but not as fat. My skin isn't so bad. I'm smiling. Andy has an arm around me and is looking at me with a big grin on his face, open, friendly, sincere. It was at my birthday. We've both got pointed paper hats on and I'm looking directly at the camera for my mom. I stand there for several long moments, the noises in the corridor fading out, staring at the photo.

There's a crashing, clanging sound nearby, it startles me so I nearly drop the diary. It's just another kid, rattling the lockers, laughing as he walks off with his friends. "See ya, Frankie-Wankie!"

I jam the diary back in and lock the door.

They're waiting for me when I reach my street. Andy's face is a sullen, cold mask and I know I'm really in for it. Gulping, feeling my palms begin to sweat, I pick up speed, moving as quickly as I can toward my front steps. But then Jim and Tyson are there, cutting me off. None of them say anything. I move to go around them but then step, faster than I can, cutting me off again. The others are approaching now too, and Andy's fists are tight, hard balls. I can feel my breath beginning to come quicker and quicker, my stomach beginning to churn. I don't know what to do. They stand around me, still and silent, the setting sun casting their shadows long and thin in front of them.

I break into a run.

"Get him!" Andy shouts, his silence broken and they all move after me. I run, faster than I ever thought I could, blind and blubbering, not knowing where to go. Briefly, the events of last night flash back to him, the strange kid's words and I see the alleyway open to my left, dark and cool and I rush for it, without thinking, without even pausing to consider… I just make a break for it, hurtling into it and over its dank, mouldy ground, heading towards the end.

It's a dead end. There's nothing up against the back of the alley but a big dumpster, stretching against the whole wall, so crammed full of trash its lid sits slightly open, as though it's laughing at me.

In a panic I turn around, to where they're approaching on me, no longer running. They've seen I'm trapped and they're laughing and ribbing each other, advancing on me with malicious slowness. Andy's teeth are bared, his eyes like stone.

There's a high-pitched whimpering sound near my ear and I realise it's me. They can hear it and they're laughing harder.

All of a sudden, everything goes black.

Something's been dropped over my head, something slightly damp and smelly and rough. I just have time to think I've been set-up, that the strange kid is in on it all, when I'm knocked off my feet, thrown roughly to the ground and I can't even struggle, can't even dare to move, just lie there and wait for it to happen.

I hear Andy exclaim in a high-pitched shriek: "What the fuck?" and then there's nothing but a series of grunts and whufs and the thick muffled sound of fists hitting flesh. I know that sound. I curl there on the wet, gritty corner of the alley and wait. But my body is not touched. They're not my grunts. There's one long agonised moan and the noises stop. I do nothing. Don't move. You won't be seen if you don't move.

There's a moment of long silence and then Andy whimpers and I hear the kid's voice, still low and rough.

"You ever lay hands on him again and I'll be back, got it?"

Andy only whimpers some more and then shrieks.

"Got it?" It's repeated with a savage brutality Andy can only dream of.

He stutters as he replies. "G-g-g-g-ot it"

And somehow, with that, I'm unfrozen. I struggle to sit up, kicking against the ground and rolling onto my stomach to push up, fighting with the sack over my face to get it off. The big trash dumpster makes a sound, a metallic echo as though someone's kicked it and I hear the kid say his final words: "I'll be watching." Just as I get free, as I tear the sack off to see Andy and his pals crumpled up on the ground, bent double or clutching their heads and I whirl to the dumpster where there's nothing. Nothing at all.

There's movement in the corner of one eye and I turn again, look up to catch just a quick flash of something disappearing over the edge of the roof.

Did he just…? Whoah.

I turn back to the others. There's little moans and whimpers coming from them. Jim has his arms wrapped tight around his middle and is rocking back and forth and groaning. Andy's baseball cap has been knocked off and his hair is stuck up all over the place like someone grabbed hold of it. I can see the swelling on his face has already begun. I can do nothing but stare silently. He looks up at me and I flinch but the look in his eye is different.

It's scared.

Though he doesn't take his eyes off me as I walk through them and head for home, not a one of them says anything.

Back in the cool darkness of my bedroom I wait until I can't keep my eyes open any longer for the strange kid to show up.

But he doesn't.