This post is part of a series that contains strong language and heavy subject matter. Click here to start at the beginning or consult the table of contents.

A few weeks after Christmas break, my mom brought me a surprise: the King's Quest Collection. She told me that Dwayne had given her the money to get it for me. He was trying to buy my silence. A further insult was that he thought it was only worth fifty dollars.

I wasn't going to tell anyone, but it had nothing to do with his "gift." I had a new mask that I never took off, not even when I was alone. It sat underneath all the rest and let me pretend that nothing had happened. Games made that easier: I had fantasy worlds to immerse myself in, to help me escape the thoughts that always tried to pry off my layer of protection.

I woke up in a cold sweat. I knew what was coming, what always came, but I couldn't do anything to stop it. Five enormous domes of flesh emerged from my bedroom wall. Swirling valleys and plateaus of skin covered them: fingerprints. After only a few seconds, they came out enough to see their first joints. Just a few more and I could see where the fingers connected to the ghostly, disembodied hand that haunted me every night.

I jumped from my bed, ran out my door to the living room. Everyone I loved was there: my mom, my sisters, Mr. and Mrs. Green. When I saw them, I began screaming, "Help!" as loud as my lungs would allow. No sound left my lips. No matter how hard I tried, no matter what I did, I could never get anyone to see me or the phantasmal hand that was coming for me.

My throat was raw; tears streamed down my face; the fingers of the hand closed around me, squeezed the breath out of me, broke my bones. Once I was completely enveloped in its grip, the hand retreated back into my room. The door slammed shut. The lock clicked.

I had this dream almost every time I slept after the night with Dwayne. The hand was there, waiting for me. Even on weekends, I was only allowed to stay up until about midnight. Ian's house had no such restrictions.

We spent even more time around each other than before. Ian thought that I was beginning to "lighten up," but I just wanted a bastion from my nightmare. Even so, it was only a matter of time before he decided to say the word again. I don't remember how long it took or even what context it was in. One day, he directed the word at me again: "faggot."

Instead of insulting him back, instead of telling him off, instead of ignoring him, I began to weep. Was he right? First my father, then Dwayne. Were they just giving the little faggot what they both knew he wanted? I deserved it.

Seeing my reaction, Ian said, "Fucking pussy."

Ian was awful to me, but I knew where I stood. If I said something he thought was stupid, he was quick to call me stupid. If he was angry, I knew. If I did or said something he thought was funny, I knew. He was often mean, but I could trust his meanness.

It was kindness that I couldn't trust. If someone did something for me, they had to have an ulterior motive. Dwayne had taught me that.

At church, I stopped helping with the kids' class. Without realizing it, I had begun to flinch when Mr. Green would come near me. If he tried talking to me, I would give one-word answers. I declined every invitation to spend time with his family. I had loved it when Mr. Green would put his hand on my shoulder, pat my head, hug me. He had never been anything but kind to me, but how could I know for sure that he wasn't just biding his time? Maybe he just hadn't had an opportunity, yet. Maybe we would be alone one day and he'd...

A little while later, we started attending a home church for unrelated reasons. I never saw Mr. Green again.

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