THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 27

BRIAN

 

I REMEMBER the last normal day of school so perfectly. It’s like it happened yesterday. Like it’s still happening somewhere, in another place where we were all innocent forever. Before the blood. Before I became afraid to open my own damn curtains.

That last normal day at Jefferson Waller High School, aka “The Wall,” was an ordinary Thursday. It was warm for late September in Missouri. The sun was shining. I was in the second lunch period, Lunch B. I sat in the cafeteria with Jake, Cameron, and Gordo, like I always did.

The four of us were on the football team, and we’d hung out together since freshman year. We always sat at the same table near the wall of windows. That was our spot, and if any clueless individual dared sit there in Lunch B, they soon scrambled out of the way when over seven hundred pounds of all-American football players came walking toward them with loaded trays. Cameron’s ugly mug probably helped chase them off too. Sometimes girls sat with us. Jennifer and her friend Kat, when I was dating her. Rachel, when Jake had been dating her. But on that last normal day, it was just us four.

There’s a video game where you roll a ball around a landscape and things stick to it, making the ball bigger and bigger. A lot of things in my life felt like that, like they’d gotten stuck to me by sheer proximity, rather than being a deliberate choice I made. My man Jake, though, was a choice. We’d been best friends since sixth grade. We’d been on baseball, football, and basketball teams together for ages, always watching each other’s backs.

Jake had gotten big over the years. He was a defensive linebacker for The Wall, four inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than me. He had way more dark stubble and chest hair and stuff than I had too, even though we were both seventeen. I gave Jake shit, calling him Neanderthal Man. But then, he called me Baby Face, so we were even.

Cameron and Gordo, though—they were like the things that stick to the ball. Because we were all on the football team and in Lunch B, we started sitting together. And sometimes I’d show up at Jake’s house to play some b-ball in his driveway, and Cameron and Gordo would be there. Wouldn’t have been my choice to hang out with them, but whatever.

Cameron was big too, only he wasn’t exactly a chick magnet like Jake. Cameron’s face was squashed in, like he’d been hit by a fist while in the womb. His buzzed blond hair and flat face made him look like a bulldog. He had a mean streak, which he used in force as an offensive lineman.

Gordo was smaller than Jake and Cameron, though still bigger than me. He had red-brown hair and lots of freckles and zits. He was the sort of guy you didn’t notice. He never said a whole lot other than to agree with Cameron. About everything. And he was an offensive lineman because Cameron was. I kept that opinion to myself.

I got along with Cameron and Gordo fine when we played ball. But sometimes when Cameron got on one of his rants, it was all I could do not to smash his face in some more. He could be a bigoted asshole, and God knew, I got enough of that at home. That Thursday, as we finished scarfing our lunch, Cameron started going off on this black girl, Simone Lawrey, from his Calculus class, calling her a stuck-up cunt because she wouldn’t let him cheat off her homework. I stood up and shoved my chair back.

“I’m gonna go toss some ball,” I said.

Jake grabbed the idea like a lifeline. “Hell yeah, let’s get out of this building for ten minutes. You coming, or you just wanna sit here and whine like a little bitch?” he asked Cameron.

“Fuck you,” Cameron said without any heat. He crammed the rest of his burger in his mouth and Gordo copied him. They grinned at each other with pieces of bun sticking out of their mouths, like it was funny.

It was sort of funny.

The four of us headed out. The cafeteria, main entrance, office, auditorium, and gym are in the center of the school. A, B, C, and D wings come off the center like spokes and have most of the classrooms. We cut down D-Wing since it was the fastest way to get to the football field. A group of girls passed us, and they giggled and flirted with Jake and me. I gave them a smile and a “Hey, how’s it going?” I mostly did this because it pissed Cameron off that girls liked me and Jake but not him.

Revenge is sweet, however small and petty.

When we burst out the doors, the day was so fine, I immediately felt better. I got the football out of my backpack. That ball was my own personal happy place. There’s a whole thing about living in the moment, right? When I played ball, I lived in the moment. In that moment, no one was lecturing me, trying to get something from me, or talking smack. There was only the ball and my body and movement. Strategy. A goal. Teamwork.

When I played ball, I was what my dad and everyone else wanted me to be, and at the same time I was 100 percent myself, because I loved it.

No surprise that I played ball as much as I could. Football in the fall. Basketball in the winter. Baseball in the spring.

Of course, all of that was before.

We walked under the portico toward the football field, the big north parking lot to our left and the school’s front lawn to our right. I tossed the ball up in the air and caught it, over and over. Jake was talking about Friday night’s game against Kennett. There was a rumor their quarterback had taken a bad hit a few weeks ago and his knee was bruised. It had slowed him down.

I half listened, stoked that Kennett’s kickass quarterback would be weakened for our game.

Karma, man. It’s a bitch.

I tossed up the ball, and it hit the portico roof and bonked to the right. I dodged out of the portico to catch it and saw him.

My heart bonked in my chest just like the ball. Three students sat on the grass about twenty feet away—Landon Hughes, the redheaded chick named Madison he hung out with, and that Josiah kid. They were eating lunch and talking.

Landon looked over and, for a millisecond, his gaze met mine. Then he looked away again.

I was the Tigers’ star quarterback, for fuck’s sake, and all the girls thought I was hot, so it was annoying that Landon hardly noticed me.

I jogged a little way on the grass, tossing and spinning the ball. Yeah, I was showing off. Why not? It was a beautiful day, and I felt fine. This also gave me a few seconds to watch Landon.

He was one of the few openly gay kids at our school. There was him and his bro Josiah, a scrawny sophomore named Bradley, a badass lesbian named Claudia and her girlfriend, another girl with blue hair who told everyone she was pan like Miley, and a quiet and nerdy senior guy named Troy, who’d recently been outed. The red-haired girl Landon and Josiah hung out with was probably a lesbian, but I didn’t know for sure.

Even if you counted her, that was only eight. Statistically speaking, there should have been more. Statistically speaking, with four hundred students at The Wall, there should have been forty gay kids. And I’d heard it was even higher than 10 percent for my generation.

Whatever. Jefferson Waller High School in Silver Falls, Missouri, surrounded on three sides by cornfields, forty minutes south of St. Louis, was not exactly on the cutting edge of any trend whatsoever. Especially not these days, when the roads around here were a minefield of MAGA signs. But even if you figure only 10 percent, there were thirty-two missing gay kids. Thirty-two of my fellow students either hadn’t figured it out, played it close to the vest, or were too chickenshit to say.

Landon Hughes was not chickenshit. He was out, and he didn’t take shit from anyone about it.

He sat there on the grass, legs crossed, leaning back on his arms, his baseball cap facing backward, and he listened to Madison talk. He looked so serious and earnest. Landon Hughes always looked serious and earnest.

He was tall and skinny as fuck, though not in an anorexic kind of way, but in a lucky gene pool kind of way. He had brown hair, which he wore short on the sides and back but long on top. There was a clump of bangs that flopped in his eyes when it got too long.

Last year, his bangs were blue. But now they were an ordinary brown.

He was a senior, one year ahead of me. Maybe he was applying for colleges or a job and needed to look more clean-cut? Maybe that’s why he gave up the blue hair? Or maybe he just got tired of dyeing it.

He did look serious and clean-cut, though. Even wearing jeans, a hoodie, and a baseball cap. Like, if we were in a movie where there was an FBI agent sent into a high school to pretend to be a student, that guy would be Landon Hughes. He seemed more mature than everyone else. He was also supersmart, like valedictorian material, and a nice guy. If you said hi to him, he looked you right in the eye, nodded his chin, and said hello back.

Okay, so that sounds completely lame. What else was he supposed to do? Whip out chains? But there was something about the way he did it, like you were important. Like he was greeting you before sitting down to negotiate world peace.

Across the lawn, Landon glanced at me and saw me looking at him. I jerked to look away. Which made me miss the ball I’d tossed up that was now plummeting to earth. It bounced off my fingers and went sailing sideways—right at that Madison chick.

Shit.

I ran for it, hoping to catch it before it hit her, even though I knew I’d be too late. But, easy as pie, Landon got to one knee and snatched the ball as it sailed past him. He gave me a death glare.

Behind me, Jake and the guys hooted and shouted, ragging me for fumbling the ball.

By the time I got to Landon, my face was burning. God, I looked like such a loser. Worse, the ball could have really hurt that girl if Landon hadn’t caught it.

“I’m so sorry!” I said.

Landon studied my face for a moment, like he was about to rip me a new one. And I probably deserved it. But then he relaxed and gave me a mocking smile. “Hope you hang on to the ball better on the field, O.J.,” he said, handing me the ball with a firm thrust.

I blinked at him, confused. Was he talking about orange juice? I attempted a lame smile and jogged back to my friends.

“Did you jack off before lunch and get lube on your hands?” Jake teased.

“Shut the fuck up,” I said, and I went past them, running now, wanting to get as far away from the scene of my humiliation as possible.

The four of us ran across the entrance road to the football field. Once we hit the green, Jake was all about playing ball.

“Go out! Go out!” he yelled, pulling back his arm.

I ran down the field as fast as I could, which was damned fast on that last normal day. I turned to look at him, showing him I was ready to catch the ball.

He threw it.

It thwunked when it landed in my arms, and all was right with the world. That thwunk was the most satisfying burn I knew. There was nothing like it, when a fast-spinning ball landed perfectly between your two hands and your stomach, where it was safe and completely under your control. Solid. As quarterback, I threw the ball more often than I caught it these days, but I still liked that feeling better than anything.

I sprinted to the end zone and spiked the ball. I whooped and shook my ass.

“Dude, come on!” Cameron held his hands up, impatient for the ball.

I picked it up and lobbed it at him.

We goofed around, throwing and catching passes. Gordo tried to block Cameron, and they went down in a laughing heap. Jake tried to get the ball, but I hung on to it with fingers like iron claws, so Jake picked me up over his shoulder and ran over the goal line with me, screaming like a warrior.

It was a good day, that last normal Thursday. My last day with Jake. My last day with a lot of things.

We never see the train wreck coming.

Is that a blessing or a curse?