|Heart ofthe Beholden.
Chris’s class would be assigned their first romantic partners. It was an event they all looked forward to. For two months the boys would get to know their first girlfriends.
At least, that’s what Chris thought the plan was.
Sometimes things don’t go the way you expect. It’s just the luck of the draw.
|Author’s Note: This is not the usual transformation story I write. I decided to step out of my comfort zone for the contest. While I still hope you enjoy it, I would request additional feedback since this is a new style for me. Thank you.|
“Are you psyched, Chris? I’m hoping I get Cindy.”
“You wish, Tetsuo,” Chris responded with a grin, “With your luck you’ll get Betsy Kremmler.”
The two boys stood against their lockers and let the tide of students sweep past them. Chris was the larger of the two, though they were both smaller than most boys in their class. Tetsuo had a broad excited grin that stood out against his olive skin, but Chris didn’t smile at all. A worried frown creased his face.
“CR–” He stopped suddenly. He already had two points. At five points he’d go on probation. He couldn’t risk sliding out of school; just imagining his mother’s reaction made him break out in a sweat. “You’re going red, Tats. Gotta go.”
Tetsuo nodded. His SLA had to be giving him the same warning it was giving Chris. “Later,” he muttered. They weren’t assigned as friends this term so they could only talk for a few minutes without getting points.
Chris had to avoid that. Make it through the year. Next year will be better.
He used to get counseling sessions for spending too much time with Tetsuo, but they started getting points in high school. Enough points and you’d slide out, even if you were in your first year. That would mean no school, no company job, and no property protection. It would mean living in the underground.
The worst part was that Chris was a pretty good guy. On the first day of school they were assigned their new friends and he got Liz, a girl he fought with in grade school. A single curse and he got his first point. He blamed her and didn’t talk to her that day and got another. Two points on the first day - he was practically a school legend.
His mother flipped. He hadn’t gotten any points since then but she watched him like a hawk. She was probably watching the feed from his SLA.
He pulled up his schedule and it flashed on his eye. He had a double English today. Mr. Pemberton must have something planned. He was a tough critic and Chris wasn’t a good writer, but that meant he could use the practice. He watched the lectures at home but got lost in the differences between Thoreau and Whitman.
He’d prefer if he got double math but that pretty much never happened. He was too good at it already. Next year he should qualify for the technical track, where they relax some of the social rules. You could make your own study groups, a freedom he yearned to have. His course work was going well and he had an extra project at home. He just had to keep up on his few weak subjects and above all, avoid getting any more points.
Liz sat down next to him. She didn’t like him any more than he did her, so they found sitting together in class an agreeable way to pass their required time together. She dressed in black and talked about death like it was something no one had noticed before. “Another day closer to the end,” she greeted him.
“A fine morning to you too, Liz.” Being cheerful to a friend couldn’t earn any points, but he knew it annoyed her.
“Quiet down, class,” announced their teacher, Mr. Pemberton. “I see you’ve all been doing the reading and lectures on Romantic poets but are still struggling with the writing. So today you will all be attempting to write a poem in a style similar to Walt Whitman – no,” he grinned, “I do not expect any of you to do as well as he did. Just try.”
He continued, “I’ve chosen your subject in honor of the day. You will all receive your first romantic partner during this class. I want you to begin writing about your romance before you know who your partner will be, and complete it after.”
Gasps and titters flew across the classroom. Chris was in the first group, “How do you write about it when you don’t know who it’ll be?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Liz answered him, “we’re all interchangeable.”
That was the motto of their lives.
Some called it the Equality Movement, others called it the Technocrats’ Revenge. Officially, they were the Social Equality Laws. After years of trying to make opportunities equal for everyone regardless of race and sex, logic demanded they look at the role of social status and personal contacts. In a revolutionary movement, they passed a series of laws allowing the government to mandate your social circle. Chris grew up being assigned friends and playmates. Now that they were in high school they would start having romantic relationships, and those too would be assigned to them. They would have two this year, both lasting two months.
He started writing while his classmates scrambled for supplies. Mr. Pemberton insisted they write on paper instead of their tablets. Chris had no problem with that rule; his hobby was repairing mechanical watches, so pen and paper fit with his self image.
“When will I meet you,” Chris started writing. “I do not know you, yet you fill my mind. For tomorrow has not arrived, and it is there you reside.” It wasn’t Whitman, but he was happy with his opening. It was an exciting subject and it inspired him. He pictured being paired with the blond hottie Cindy Walker even though he’d never said more than two words to her, and for a moment dreaded being stuck with his seatmate Liz.
It was coming.
Next to him, Liz kept writing furiously, intently pretending she didn’t care.
Inside his eye he got the name.
His face fell. He dropped his pen.
Around him he could hear the reactions, gasps of surprise, a small cheer, a moan. He couldn’t bring himself to look at who was saying what. Next to him, Lizzie muttered “Damn it,” and slapped the desk before going back to pretending she didn’t care.
Chris knew the rules. Ten percent of relationships were homosexual and they were assigned randomly. Why’d he have to be one of the ones who got it?
Yes, the odds were highly in favor of everyone getting one same sex relationship during high school. Why’d it have to be his first?
He remembered the chubby little kid who was the other finalist in the grade school spelling bee and the way he cried when Chris spelled “equestrian” properly. Ryan grew half a foot over the summer and started playing sports. He kept pressing Chris to join in pickup baseball games just to get even with the chronically uncoordinated boy. After the third dropped ball Chris stopped taking the bait and just put up with the embarrassment of saying no.
They hadn’t been assigned as friends since then and Chris never missed it.
“Choices made for you are choices made wrong,” he wrote in one of his more rebellious acts. It was an assignment, part of the poem, he probably wouldn’t get any points for it. He hoped. But he didn’t care. It was the easiest way to keep his tears from flowing. “I can only take solace in knowing you feel the same, a strange pleasure in another’s misery. In shared solace we may yet find joy, for tomorrow has come too soon.”
“You are so lucky,” Chris’s mother cooed, “and you look great, honey.”
“Stop it, Mom,” he scowled, rubbing his shoe in the carpet while looking down.
“Really, sweetie, this is great for you. You get to experience something new and it’ll look great on your record. You need some good attention after getting two points on your first day. I don’t want to see you get any more, so you be good with this boy.”
Chris loved his mother, but he also knew she was the type of person they passed the Social Equality Laws to stop. She was a hard charging account executive who’d risen to corporate vice president by dint of talent and hard work. If she’d had her way, Chris knew, she’d never have married his father. She’d have chosen a high placed businessman rather than a chronic complainer and then she’d set her son up with every advantage she could to ensure his success. Even without the ability to get him into a top school or set him up with the right friends she was always there urging him on.
“It’s just a movie.”
“And dinner,” she answered cheerfully. “I put an extra twenty in your wallet just in case. Remember you’re not allowed to pick up the check, but you are allowed to split it even if your date has a more expensive meal. Now let me look you over,” she said and wiped the side of his mouth with a tissue.
“That’s them,” Chris said, glad to get away from his mother’s doting. Ryan’s father was picking them up and taking them to the mall, but of course they couldn’t leave immediately. His mother had to meet Ryan and get some pictures first.
It was their first date. Chris and Ryan had been spending their required time together by meeting before class and sometimes after. Chris’s SLA showed him that they were entering the danger zone nonetheless. His mother insisted he ask if Ryan wanted to see a movie and the boy agreed immediately. He was probably getting the same lecture from his parents.
Ryan got out of the car. He was wearing nice slacks and a button shirt with a sports jacket and looked a lot more comfortable than Chris did. “Hi there, uh, Chris,” he said while his father watched. “You look nice,” Ryan stammered and refused to look at his father.
“Thanks,” he answered while his mother watched him just as closely. “You too,” he added after she prodded him gently.
They stood together by the car while his mother snapped some pictures and Ryan’s father stood aside in silence. “Put your arm around him,” she called to Chris, “Look like a couple.”
“Sorry,” Chris muttered quietly to Ryan as he put his arm around Ryan’s waist. It wasn’t comfortable; he had to reach up, but his mother was pleased.
“It’s OK,” Ryan whispered back, “you do what you gotta.” He had an odd smile on his face and turned to face the camera.
When they had enough pictures to embarrass Chris at any time for the rest of his life the two boys got in the car with Ryan’s dad. Ryan opened the door for Chris and climbed in after him in the back seat. They passed the ride in awkward silence. Ryan left his hand across the seat and Chris pushed slightly away from it while trying not to make it obvious.
Ryan suggested going to see The Stars, Like Dust, a science fiction dystopia that had opened recently. Chris agreed without hesitation. He loved science fiction and hadn’t seen the movie yet. It had a romance subplot so it should satisfy their date requirements. It was the ideal solution.
Ryan’s father dropped them off at the theater. Ryan handed Chris some money, “If you get the tickets I’ll pick up some popcorn.” Chris agreed. He looked at the bill after Ryan left; it was enough for both tickets. He was annoyed. The whole point of this date was to avoid getting any points. Breaking the rules wouldn’t help. He’d make sure to return the change and get it all on the record.
“Hi there, Chris,” a girl said as he got in line. He turned around to see Cindy, the girl he and Tetsuo had both hoped to be paired with. Her long reddish blond hair swirled around her head like an angel on a good hair day. She wore a short skirt with a sweater that seemed modest while managing to show her every curve.
“Hi,” he answered back. “Are you two here to see Stars?” She was with her assigned date, an unreasonably lucky stoner named Jamal.
“No, we’re here for Seasons, but it looks like it ends at the same time as Stars. You’re here with Ryan, right? If you two are going to get dinner, how about you join us?” Jamal seemed less excited than Cindy, but he didn’t protest.
“That sounds great,” Chris tried to restrain his enthusiasm. “How about Ruby’s?” They quickly agreed on a time to meet up.
Ryan accepted the news and his change with equanimity. “Ah, that’s, well, that’s nice. Hey, they’ll be starting the previews soon, let’s get a seat.” He grabbed Chris’s hand to pull him along, and Chris let him but pulled his hand away once he got going.
They shared the popcorn after Chris checked it was under the allowable price point. He didn’t trust Ryan. After the ticket, he thought Ryan might be setting him up to get a point. Long delayed revenge for losing a stupid spelling bee? Chris really didn’t know why, but he’d be careful.
Ryan grabbed Chris’s hand when they both reached for the popcorn at the same time after the lights dimmed. “Let’s do this right,” the tall boy whispered to Chris and kept holding his hand.
“Mmmph,” Chris answered, unable to come up with any better response. It would probably help their standing, but it didn’t fit with his theory that Ryan was setting him up.
He wondered what kind of talk Ryan’s father gave him and if it was as embarrassing as his mother’s. The movie was not as good as Chris hoped; he wondered idly if holding Ryan’s warm and solid hand had distracted him. It didn’t seem to dampen Ryan’s enthusiasm.
They met up with Cindy and Jamal at the restaurant and got a table. “Hey Ryan,” Cindy bubbled, “It’s good to see you outside of school. Are you going to be on the baseball team again this summer?”
“Ahhh, I don’t know. If I can, maybe,” Ryan hedged. As part of the equality laws all sports had to be co-ed, but the girls had a hard time competing with boys in physical sports. Neighborhood leagues helped fill the gap by ignoring the rules but not getting official recognition. Ryan had to walk a fine line to avoid getting points. Chris sympathized.
“How can you commit to playing when they keep changing the rules, right?” Chris tried to pick up the conversation to give Ryan an out. “Like they did to you in Middle School when they made student council a rotating position,” he said to Cindy. Might as well try to impress her while he had the chance.
“Or to you,” Ryan piped back in, “when they got rid of the math leagues. You were good at them.”
Chris almost jumped up in surprise; he didn’t know anyone paid attention to the academic leagues. “Those were fun,” he admitted cautiously, “but I think they figured out that the competitors could keep score.”
They all got the joke and laughed. Ryan laughed the longest, eyes proudly on Chris. Chris was no longer entirely sure what to think.
“Come on in. You’re early.” Chris tried not to sound resentful. He didn’t want to invite Ryan over, but his mother insisted on it. She decided they’d have him over for dinner and that was the end of it.
“Got to impress your mother, don’t I?” Ryan smiled nervously and shifted from side to side until Chris stepped away from the door and gestured him in. “These are for her, by the way,” he said while holding up the flowers that had been making Chris so nervous.
“She’s not back yet. Let’s put them in a vase for her, I guess.” He led Ryan back to the dining room.
“So this is your boyfriend,” his father snapped. Chris groaned. Going through the family room was a mistake, but he hadn’t heard the television so he thought he was safe.
“Yes, Dad, this is Ryan,” he tried not to hear his father’s ire. Ryan lifted his shoulders but didn’t say anything. Chris knew he shouldn’t care but he hoped Ryan didn’t notice.
“Too many stupid rules, you don’t know…”
“Dad, we have to put these in a vase for Mom. Then we were going to– work upstairs. OK? Sorry. No time to talk.” He hurried along.
Chris suspected his father wanted to slide out, to deliberately stop following the rules, get enough points on his record, and live in the underground economy. He probably would have if he hadn’t been paired with Chris’s mother; his dad was one of the winners of the system. Sure, Chris knew they didn’t love each other, but his mother followed the rules so she could keep her job. His father reaped the benefits.
“What was that about,” Ryan whispered while he got a vase.
“Dad’s– not on board with everything we do. Let’s just–” He really didn’t want to say it, but couldn’t think of anything else. “Let’s go up to my room until Mom gets home.”
Ryan’s head rocked back and his eyes widened slightly but he nodded his head in agreement. He had an almost silly grin as the two of them went upstairs and shut the door behind them.
“Holy–” exclaimed Ryan. “What is all this stuff?”
Chris cursed. Not even Tetsuo had seen his collection; his hobby.
“Pocket watches. I fix them for fun. And practice. All mechanical, no power. It’s– well, engineering practice.”
“They’re cool,” Ryan exclaimed as he looked over the three completed ones still sitting on Chris’s desk.
“Be careful.” A dark cloth on the desk was covered in tiny gears and springs. Ryan was leaning over it to look at the finished pieces and Chris worried his shirt would sweep away the delicate gears.
“Do they work?”
Although he didn’t want to share his hobby with anyone, it was hard to resist showing off now that he had the chance. “Those two do. That last one keeps popping a spring. I can keep it working for an hour or two but it always breaks.” He laughed in self deprecation, “It breaks immediately if you do something stupid like, I don’t know, put it in your pocket.”
“That’s still really impressive,” Ryan gushed. “And they look so cool. When did you start?”
“Two years ago. I found one in a garage sale. It was cheap because it didn’t work, and I thought I could get it going again. I convinced Mom to get me the tools by telling her it would help with my qualifiers.”
Ryan sat down on the bed, leaving the desk chair to Chris. Ryan looked at Chris, didn’t say a word, and still pressured him to say more. How did he know there was more to it?
Chris thought about it. He didn’t want to talk but he didn’t want to stop either.
“My Mom– When I started this, she– At her office. She got selected to have an office affair. She hated it.” She didn’t want to be the subject of gossip, even if that’s why they selected people for office affairs in the first place. Her partner was senior to her and she was afraid it would ruin her career.
Chris was always surprised she kept the affair secret from his dad, even if she complained about it to Chris. He thought she’d have rubbed it in Dad’s face because she knew it would hurt him even though she didn’t have a choice in the matter. She never did.
“Well, I did some reading and engineers don’t have to go through that. They get some leeway on the Social laws, maybe because the things they do have to actually work. So I decided I was going to be an engineer, and I looked for something to practice on. Hey, what?”
He relaxed while he was talking. He’d never even told Tetsuo the reason he wanted to take the technical track. Then he realized Ryan had stood up and was rubbing his shoulders. It felt nice, but…
“You seemed tense,” Ryan said defensively.
“Yeah, of course I’m tense. No one’s seen my watches. Mom doesn’t want me to go into engineering so I usually keep the whole thing secret.” Maybe if he changed the subject back to the watches Ryan would forget he ever said anything.
“I’m glad you told me.” Ryan put his hand on Chris’s shoulder and looked down at him.
They stared at each other’s eyes.
Chris looked away. Uncomfortable.
Ryan slowly took his hand away and scuffed his foot.
With forced cheerfulness, he insisted, “Show me how you do it. The one you’re working on.”
Chris welcomed the change in subject. He sat down at his desk and pulled out his tools. Explaining what he was doing as he was doing it made him think about each step. He was trying to put in one of the gear springs, which was a sensitive bit of work. You had to get the tension exactly right or the watch wouldn’t keep time, but the spring was delicate and you could break it if you wound it too tight. If you slipped, it would spring out and could go anywhere.
Ryan watched appreciatively but his attention wandered long before Chris’s did. “Those gears are ceramic. That can’t be original.”
Chris smiled, “Saw that, did you? Yeah. I got the watch casing a few months ago and the old lady said it didn’t work. I figure someone tried to repair it and gave up. It was completely empty. So I’m doing my own design and figured I’d use modern parts. I can print up plastic gears to test my design but then I order the final pieces in ceramic. They’re more durable than the originals so I can use tighter springs and it should keep time for three days between windings.”
“Awesome. Hey, why don’t you make your own casing too?”
He paused. Thought about it. “I don’t– It’s the gears that make it interesting. I never really thought about–”
“But the casing drives the rest of your decisions,” Ryan enthused. “You can use bigger gears in a bigger case; you’d have to so you can use the side of the case to hold your springs. Thinner ones mean you can’t build out. I mean, you have to fit everything inside the watch; you should be thinking about it too.”
This was a new idea. He put his tools down carefully before turning around. “I guess I should–”
The afternoon passed much more quickly than he’d dared dream.
The Winter Formal marked the end of the class’s first relationship and Chris surprised himself by having mixed feelings about it. Ryan liked his watches. He’d helped design a new watch case and they printed a plastic copy so Chris could design the interior while Ryan was making a metal version. It wasn’t just the help Chris liked, it was having a partner who was enthusiastic about his hobby and helped him take it in new directions. It was exciting.
And he transferred that excitement to Ryan.
He almost didn’t want it to end. Almost.
Chris’s mother drove them to school and the two of them got out of the car together. Ryan looked almost as discomfited by his tie as Chris was and they shared a grimace as they both straightened them at the same time. He didn’t like wearing a suit, but he had to admit Ryan looked good in one. He hoped he looked half as good in his.
“Hey there Chris. Um, and Ryan,” shouted Tetsuo as he came over to them while dragging his protesting date Liz along with him.
“How’s it going, Tats,” Chris answered. You were allowed to mingle outside your assigned friends at school parties, so he could talk to Tetsuo for a few moments. He wondered how Tetsuo would react if he ever saw Chris’s watch collection. Would he be as enthusiastic and supportive as Ryan?
Tetsuo was dating Chris’s assigned friend Liz. She wore a black dress and heavy eye make-up and looked oddly attractive for someone who considered a funeral the high point of her month. She did not manage to smile, and Chris had seen her smile while chopping up frogs in Biology class so he assumed she was not getting along with Tetsuo.
“Let’s dance,” Ryan said suddenly.
Chris didn’t want to, but his two points were still hanging over his head. Ryan knew he had them - everyone knew. Was he taking advantage? It was close to the end of the year and Chris hadn’t gotten any more. Maybe playing along was the best bet. “Sure.”
Chris didn’t know how to dance. His mother never had time to teach him and his father didn’t care. Ryan was better, if only a little, and he made up for any lack of talent with enthusiasm. With arms flailing around and feet stomping everywhere Chris didn’t know whether to be more frightened of being hit or being the center of attention. After a few moments he realized people were watching more in amusement than anger and he tried to relax.
They stopped dancing a few times when Ryan’s friends came over; like Chris, Ryan had some assigned friends and some he actually liked. A basketball player Chris thought was another of Ryan’s friends shoved Ryan instead of saying hello, “Maaan, you like goin’ homo. Gonna screw that ass myself next time we on the court.”
That stopped both of them in their place.
The music should have come to a crashing halt while everyone watched the confrontation. It didn’t. Chris reddened and might have lashed out but Ryan just started laughing, “Is that the best you can do? Was that worth sliding out?”
It took Chris a moment to realize their antagonist was on their SLA’s and had earned at least a point. Was he out? His fifth point already? It sounded like Ryan knew him. Such a dumb insult, too.
And such a cool way of dealing with it. He looked up at Ryan with renewed respect. Well played.
Ryan pulled him off the floor and Chris followed until they were in the halls and could hear each other better. “I’ve got something for you.”
“Here.” Ryan pulled a box out of his jacket and opened it. The pocket watch casing.
It was black. Dark black. “Cast iron?”
“Anodized,” he answered, “It won’t rust.”
A silver fob stood out against the black watch. Ryan turned it over so Chris could see the etching on the front, “Holy– Where’d you get this?”
“You think I only play sports?” Ryan pretended to take offense. “I’ve been sculpting for a few years, this is different but I got some help.”
“It’s too much–” Chris didn’t know what to say.
“Take it.” Ryan paused, “I want you to have it. To remember– Look, I’m not dumb. I know this isn’t what you wanted. But… It is what I wanted. I’ve wanted to go out with you– It’s silly, but since you won that damn spelling bee back in fifth grade. Keep it. Let me know you’ll keep it.”
How had he missed it? Suddenly so much of what Ryan did made sense. He wasn’t trying to be mean or trick Chris–
What should he say?
What did he think?
Chris liked Ryan. He was fun to be with and a good partner and–
He took the watch.
While staring at the floor, he told him the truth. “You’re right, but not entirely. Ryan, I’ve got two things to say,” and he looked him in the eye. “First, yeah, I’m not gay. But if I wind up getting paired with a guy like you, I think I’d consider myself lucky.” He thought about his mother and father, and knew it was the truth. Ryan smiled back sadly.
“Second, we get some privileges after this is over, we can spend some time together even if we’re not assigned as friends. Use it. I want to keep in touch. Please.”
“You mean it?” Ryan was so much bigger than Chris, yet he looked small and pleading. So happy for so little. It was wrong to want so much and have the rules keep you from it. Chris knew the odds, Ryan was unlikely to be paired with another guy; his odds of getting someone who liked him back were even worse than Chris’s.
“You know what? I lied.” He only let his friend twist in the wind for an instant. “I have one more thing to say. For ten more minutes you’re still my boyfriend–” He had to reach up to pull Ryan down to him, but Ryan didn’t resist. They kissed, deeply, and for a moment Chris didn’t care who saw them or what they thought.
The happiness in Ryan’s eyes was enough.
20 years later
Chris was lead engineer placing a new bridge across the Mississippi. He pulled out his watch to check the schedule, an iron pocket watch. The cover was etched in chrome, a proper English gentleman on horseback, an equestrian. Chris would never explain why it meant so much to him, or why the rider looked just a little bit like him.
It was his secret.
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