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Mathew Figures it out

Chapter Eleven

"Well, we've got to do something. Poor Chris has to be terrified living with that man." Mom wasn't going to be content to sit idly by and do nothing.

There was a long uncomfortable silent pause as the helplessness started to set in.

"Matt, this is something that should be reported to the authorities. I'm afraid it's too big for us." There was defeat and sadness in my dad's eyes. He didn't want to break up Chris's family, poor excuse for a real family that it was.

In reality, my mom and dad were more powerless on this one than I was. Chris's dad wasn't the kind of man you just sat down and reasoned with, and this type of disguised and unreasonable violence wasn't simply going to go away on its own. Still, every action would bring a reaction and we had to choose our actions carefully.

"Chris won't go along with it." He had all but told me so.

For better or worse, it was still his family. There was more at work here than met the eye. Without Chris's admission and cooperation, there was little the authorities would do anyhow.

I continued. "I think in some ways he's protecting his mom. I think he's afraid she would be the one getting hurt instead of him."

My own poor mother grimaced with pain and fresh tears and the defeat in my dad's face deepened.

"You know what he told me? He told me not to worry because he `could take it'." I paused to give them time to fully absorb his bravery. I know he had to be scared, but he refused to be emotionally paralyzed by his dad's abuse.

"I don't want him to have to take it either, but I need to talk to him more. I don't want anything to happen that might make things even worse for him." New frustration and puzzlement seeped from their faces as I said it.

Still, I hadn't come this far to give Chris over to pain and abuse. There had to be some safe passage out of this treacherous maze. I had won a battle or two along the way so far, but my mission was still incomplete. I still had to win back the life of the boy I loved. The warrior was armed with fresh reinforcements, much heart and renewed determination. Now he needed a strategy.

We finally made our way back upstairs, but the time for pancakes had past. Pancakes didn't seem appropriate to the lingering concern that was in the air. Chris was now `home' and had at minimum taken a severe tongue lashing. I wondered if he was sticking to his original story. His dad hadn't appeared to be buying it on the phone, but it would be hard to prove Chris wrong for sure. In his mother's condition, she wouldn't be able to remember even if he HAD told her he was spending the night with us. At least, he had seemed confident that his dad wouldn't hurt him again soon.

The best thing I could hope for was that he might receive only the same type of verbal abuse I had witnessed on my first visit to his house. It hurt me to have to accept such low expectations for his well-being.

The atmosphere in the Jordan household had changed. The truth had been revealed and our adjustment with each other had officially begun. My mom and dad seemed to smile at me more. I welcomed that and needed their reassurances, but I also didn't want them to be too obvious or heavy with it. I realized it wasn't easy for them and I tried to support them in their efforts to support me.

Coming out to my parents was hardly the same as coming out to the rest of the world, though. I felt no need or desire to make that public declaration yet. First, it involved much more than just me. Second, it wasn't the most important mission in my life right now. One crusade at a time was still more than I could handle.

"Just so we understand each other, all of this stays between us, right? I mean everything, about me AND about Chris." We needed to be a tight ship. Any small leak could bring us down. I had no reason to think my parents would run out in the streets and exclaim it all, but I also needed to make sure we were in full agreement. This was the Deep South after all and rumors spread here at light speed.

They looked a little surprised at the formality of my request but nodded in agreement and my dad gave me a verbal "OK, Matt." I nodded back making eye contact with both of them before I went upstairs to my room.

The rest of the day crawled by in comparison to the rapid events of the morning. I mostly lounged around on my bed in idle thought, wishing Chris was there with me. I hoped he would call, but I was sure he wouldn't be able to. I feared that his dad would punish both of us and prevent him from coming over again anytime soon. At least basketball was about to start and we would have time there together, assuming Chris actually passed his algebra test Monday. We just wouldn't have any alone-time.

I took a deep breath and released it slowly. I needed him. I needed to touch him. I needed to hold him and be held by him. I needed his lips against mine. I also found myself needing and missing the things I hadn't even had yet.

I drifted off into a late afternoon nap. When I awoke, it was almost dark outside. The phone rang and I raced to answer it.

"Hey, Mattie." I wanted it to be Chris, but I was still glad to hear from Tommy.

"Hey, TJ." I had never called him that and he giggled when he heard it.

"I was calling to see if you wanted to come over and ride horses tomorrow afternoon. Chris can come too, if he wants." Tommy wasn't the chattiest of phone callers. He normally got right to his business.

"I'd love to. Chris has already gone home. Long story, I'll explain later. Let me make sure it's OK with mom and dad."

Of course it was OK. Who would deny their son the chance to ride a horse?

"What time, Tommy?"

"Around two would be good. That will leave us about three hours before it starts to get dark. My mom wanted to know if you could stay for supper too."

"I don't see why not. I'll see you at two. Oh Tommy, do I need boots? I don't have any that still fit."

Tommy giggled again. "No, you don't need a cowboy hat either. Just bring some old sneakers you don't mind getting muddy."

"Great. See you at two then."

As soon as I hung up the phone, my mind turned back to Chris. There was heaviness in my spirit. I had often felt alone in my early life, sometimes very alone. Now it seemed different. I didn't just feel alone. Now I was also missing someone I wanted to be with. This was a much more potent blend of loneliness.

After dinner, I spent the rest of the night studying for Monday's tests. Just before I was about to turn in, mom came to my room. I wasn't surprised. Most of the morning's drama revolved around me and dad. I knew she still had things she needed to say to me. She came in and sat down on the bed. This was going to be emotional.

"Mom, did you know? I mean, have you always known?" A part of me always believed she did. That same part of me always needed to believe she did, and that she had loved me just the same.

"Matthew, I always knew you were very, very special. I know you've suffered. You've done it quietly, but it was never unnoticed and you were never in it alone." There was love pouring from my mom's eyes. "And I always hoped that someone special would find you, that you'd find each other, someone who deserved you. I'm not at all surprised or disappointed that it was Chris. I think he needs you, son. I believe you need him, too."

This was a moment than transcended time, space, and life itself. My mom was acknowledging that I was starting to pass from her care and that I was now very early in my journey into adulthood. Her time of being first in my heart was passing, though my love for her would never diminish and never fade away. At some point, we all begin the process of separation from those who gave us life. My mother was determined to finish her watch over me with the same grace and care with which she started it.

"Mom, I was really proud of dad." At times, my mother and I had kept lonely company with each other as my dad advanced his career. I knew that he was mostly doing this to provide for us, but it also made me wonder at times where we stood with him. Though we had never discussed it, I think my mom and I both wondered that same thought sometimes.

"I was proud of him too, Matt. I was very proud of both of you."

By this point, I was squeezing her tight, not sure I would ever be ready and willing to let her go. No matter what happened, I always wanted my mom nearby in my life. If I couldn't give her the grandkids she no doubt wanted, at least I could give her another son.

We all finally made our way to bed. This day was like no other in our lives and it marked a turning point for all of us.

I had finally broken through and declared my love for Chris and exposing myself fully to my parents in the process. With their love and support, I could now someday be the full version of whoever I might become.

My dad had his own breakthrough and had finally started to come to terms with a pain that had held him in its grip for so long. He had also stepped up and now seemed fully committed to pouring himself into his family's life as much as his work life.

Then there was my mom: she who could always see the bigger picture, patiently watching the movements through time. She had come to a deeper acceptance than I could have ever fully understood and she loved me enough to start letting me go.

Our family seemed incomplete. I closed my eyes and tried to reach him. I imagined that he was here with us, safe and secure with the full benefits of love that I so enjoyed. My mind had almost convinced me that he was here, but when my hand reached out to touch him, reality snapped back into clear focus. The warrior would sleep with a heavy heart tonight.

On Sunday morning, we finally had our pancakes. It still didn't seem right and there was a quiet tension in the air with nervous eyes dancing around the table.

"I'm going to call him."

But what if Chris didn't answer? If I just hung up, it might be obvious who it was. If I spoke, that would be even more obvious.

I enlisted my mother in a deliberate act of deception, but an innocent one designed only to prevent any further irritation within the Briggs household. My mom would call and give me the phone if Chris picked up. If someone else picked up, she would say `sorry, wrong number' and hang up.

I nervously waited, looking her intently in the eyes as she listened for an answer. We waited, and waited. Finally, she shook her head and hung up.

Well, if they weren't at home, that was probably a good thing. I was happier knowing that Chris was anywhere other than inside that house. We tried again an hour later and still got no answer. I tried to maintain my optimism, but it was getting harder to hold onto. We tried again one final time before I left for Tommy's house. Still no answer and my nervousness was growing.

By the time we got to Tommy's, I was in major need of distraction. Tommy didn't disappoint me. In truth, he never did and I had a growing admiration for him in my heart. I really wanted us to be brothers. In the back of my mind, I knew I had to be careful not to make him think I wanted more. Whatever attraction he had for me could only hurt him because I belonged to Chris.

"Mattie, come with me down to the barn. I want to show you something." He was beaming like a proud new father, which in a way he was.

"Oh, man!" Beyond that, I was speechless at the amazing sight now before me.

In a small corner of the barn, inside a smaller section of boards that made a box-shaped frame the size of a small bed, were at least eight tiny chocolate lab puppies. They were nestled tightly up against their mother, constantly crawling over each other for better position.

"That's Molly." Just as he said it, Tucker - the real daddy - showed up, making sure to claim his doing.

"Tucker! You horn-dog, you!" Tucker looked at me with tongue and tail wagging, truly a proud dad.

Molly was the picture of motherhood in nature and I couldn't take my eyes off her pups. I had never seen puppies so young. If their eyes were even open, I couldn't tell, but they sniffed and snorted their way along, never losing contact for long with the source of nourishment they needed.

This was just the distraction I needed and I could have watched those puppies for the rest of the day.

"Tommy, what are you going to do with all these puppies? You sure are going to have a lot of dogs running around here."

"We usually keep one out of the litter and sell the rest. Heck, sometimes we give them away if it means they'll find a better home. My dad won't let just anyone buy them. If he gets a bad feeling about someone, he'll just say no."

I was happy to know that Tommy had a dad like that. It spoke volumes for him as a parent. I always thought people should have to safely raise a puppy before they could have a kid of their own. There would be a lot less kids running around if that idea ever caught on.

"Well, are you ready to get started?" As he said it, Tommy looked down at the old raggedy sneakers I had worn and he smiled. He had on a pair of riding boots and if he'd only had a big hat, he could have passed for a genuine cowboy.

"It's another first for me Tommy. The only other horse I've ridden had a pole through his back and went around in circles. You taught me how to drive a four-wheeler; I guess you can teach me how to drive a horse too."

Tommy laughed so hard I thought he was going to cry. I think even Tucker laughed at me.

"You'll be DRIVING Sky. I'll be RIDING Stryker." He was having a lot of fun with this.

Tommy tried to explain their Arabian heritage, but that was more information than I could absorb at the moment. It was enough for me that they were just simply such beautiful horses, and both had shiny brown coats.

He gave me the basics and assured me that Sky was quite gentle. "Plant, hook and pull" and I was in the saddle. My first reaction was surprise at how high up it seemed. My second reaction was pure awe at the realization of the full beauty and power that I was now stationed on. This was a dream come true for me, as I had always wanted to ride a horse.

We started a slow gallop. Tommy smiled, pleased once again to have educated me in the ways of his world. I felt all the better for the education and appreciated him more than ever.

I also learned that riding a horse slowly around the countryside made great opportunity for conversation. I got Tommy all caught up on the events of Saturday morning culminating in Coach Brigg's disturbing visit to our house. I tried to be careful to leave out things that might make either of us uncomfortable, specifically anything intimate between me and Chris.

"Coach Briggs isn't real well liked in my family."

"Why? What happened?" He had my attention. I was very interested in all things related to Chris's family and clues that might reveal the mysteries that stalked me.

"Well, you know how I was telling you my dad won't sell a puppy to just anyone?" He raised his brow and passed a frown my way.

"No way! Your dad wouldn't sell him a puppy?" Andy Johnson was quickly becoming my hero.

"This was several years ago. I must have been eight or nine, but I still remember it. Coach Briggs got pretty mad about it and called my dad some things he didn't appreciate being called."

"What did your dad do?" My fantasy was that he beat Coach Briggs to a pulp, but I couldn't really imagine affable Andy doing that.

"My dad is pretty laid-back even when he's mad, but let me tell you, my mom is a different story. She heard Coach yelling at him, and the shit hit the fan big-time!"

My mouth was wide open in anticipation. Mental note to self: Give Tommy's mom a big hug.

"She got really wound up and started screaming at him about how he wouldn't even help take care of his own son and such as that."

"Did he say anything back?"

"Not a word and it was the wise thing to do. You really don't want to see my mom get fired up like that."

It was hard for me to picture, but then the South was full of things that were hard to believe and understand. Betty Johnson had been so sweet and polite to me on my last trip to their home. She was not a small lady and I could only imagine what a ball of fire she could be when she got all of her wheels rolling in the same direction.

"What did she mean by that, Tommy: that he wouldn't help take care of his own son?"

"Honestly, I don't know. I think he's just always had a bad reputation around here. She said some more stuff too, but I could only remember that first little bit. She kept screaming at him even after he had pulled his truck down the drive and was out of sight. I was under the bed by then. She's really not mean, Matt. She can just get really wound up. My dad always says that if you do anything bad enough to get her real mad, then you probably deserved what was coming to you."

It was good to hear that somebody gave Coach Briggs what he `deserved'. Another mental note to self: Don't get Tommy's mom pissed off.

"His dad's been beating him. That's why Chris missed that day of school this week."

That statement was like a dagger to all who heard it. It always brought a painful grimace from the receiver.

"He had really bad bruises all over his back and ribs." Tommy's grimace was mixed with something else now.

"I know I don't have to say it, but don't mention any of this to anyone. As much as I would like for your mother to go kick Coach Brigg's ass, that might not be the best thing right now."

"She'd probably try if she found out about that." He conceded with a sigh. "I knew he was a real hard-ass, but I didn't know he was like that. How is Chris holding up?"

"He just amazes me. He's really tough, Tommy. He's really brave too. I don't know how he takes all the abuse he does, not just the physical stuff. It's always something at that house. Somebody is stumbling around drunk or his dad screaming and putting him down."

The beauty of the countryside had lost is powers of distraction for me. Why hadn't there been an answer when we had tried to call Chris earlier? Now that the full ugly truth was known to me, I would always fear for him anytime I knew he was there. I couldn't shield him from the abuse and I was destined to share his pain.

"I'm going to try out for JV basketball." I had been reluctant to mention this to him. It was a major time commitment that might leave less free time for him and would possibly join me with a group that didn't directly include him. I had feared that this revelation would hurt his feelings.

"I didn't know you even played basketball." He did seem surprised but not hurt.

"Chris has sort of been teaching me. We've practiced a few times after school. I probably won't even make the team."

"There's some other big news too. I told my parents about..about me." Tommy's eyes widened and there was genuine surprise in his face.

"It was really tough, but I'm glad that I did it. They took it very well. I don't think my mom was surprised at all. My dad was, but he's going to be OK. I found out that I'm not the first one in our family. My Uncle Heath, dad's brother, was gay too."

"Maybe you can talk to him about it, Mattie. It might be good to talk with someone who could understand everything you're going through."

"He's not alive anymore. I found out that he died from AIDS, before I was born." Tommy's face had fear written all over it now.

"Don't worry, Tommy. I'll be OK. All right?" There was far more to worry about than me.

Mainly, I just didn't want Tommy to worry about anything. I had leaned on him and taken much more than I had been able to give him in return.

It was getting almost dark and there was a wonderfully delicious smell coming from the house as we made our way back from the barn after putting the horses up.

Betty Johnson was in full Southern glory and there was a table filled with enough food for a king. Piles of crispy fried chicken, mounds of mouth-watering mashed potatoes, logs of corn on the cob, walls of home-made biscuits stacked a foot-high in the air, a giant tub of some type of cobbler, plus green beans, and sliced onions (Vidalia's, as I would be told later).

"Wow!" I flashed Betty a huge wide grin as I scanned the massive spread. "Who else is coming?"

Betty giggled like a little schoolgirl and blushed her way over to me apologizing that there were no fresh tomatoes or squash, as both of those were out of season. She had taken the corn and beans from her frozen home-grown stock from this past summer, along with the peaches that filled the cobbler.

As we dug in and the elbows started flying, I quickly realized that no other dinner guests would be required to quench this bounty of food. Andy and Betty were virtual carnivores and the fried chicken was going fast. The biggest surprise of all was wiry little Tommy. That boy could eat and eat and eat. My eyes rotated around the table in awe. Besides an occasional grunt or slurp, there was little in the way of verbal communication until we got to desert.

"Matthew, you are such a sweet young man. I bet the girls at school are just falling all over themselves to talk to you." Betty scared me just a little with the use of the word `sweet'. It wasn't safe to be mistaken for any form of desert in this house.

I smiled nervously. Tommy looked completely perplexed.

"Oh now, don't let her embarrass you, son." Andy was my hero again.

"Mrs. Johnson, this is a really wonderful dinner. I can't remember the last time I ate so much."

It was wonderful. Betty was an accomplished cook, probably many generations over. She lit up with joy at my words. She was the kind of woman who could devour a compliment too.

"We're afraid Tommy might have a case of the worms. Any boy that eats like him should way at least 300 pounds." Andy really was affable. His words were spoken with the delivery of a kind Southern gentleman who could probably say just about anything and get away with it.

I eyed Tommy and gave him a sheepish giggle before dropping my head. He was busy looking at his parents like he was trying to figure out who they were.

"So how'd you enjoy the horses, Matthew?" Andy had a gleam in his eye and he knew I was a city boy. I decided when in the South, do as the Southerners do.

"Well, sir. Mine drove real good. I didn't wreck him a single time." That one almost brought the house down. These were people that could laugh as heartily as they could eat.

"Oh, you are just so precious. Goodness gracious!" Betty was red with laughter. I think she was starting to take a real shine to me. My mind was always plotting and I decided that I would make a play for some valuable intelligence gathering, but not just yet.

The Johnsons were a very traditional style Southern family. Betty worked in the home and Andy was evidently the sole income provider, though I found out later that their huge farm was passed down from Betty's side of the family. As the men-folk moved into the living room, Betty lingered behind clearing dishes.

After a few minutes, I stood and made my way back to the kitchen. Tommy gave me a very curious `where are you going' look that I beat back with my own eyes.

I grabbed a couple of dirty plates and walked in unison with Betty toward the sink.

"Matthew, you get yourself back in the living room. Oh, you're so nice. Some young lady is going to be very lucky to latch onto you." She actually pinched my cheek when she said it. I don't think my cheek had ever been pinched before and it wouldn't offend me if it never happened again.

"Mrs. Johnson, there was something I wanted to ask you about, if I may."

"Why sure sweetie, you go right ahead."

For dramatic effect, I looked back in the general direction of the living room. It was around the corner from the kitchen and we couldn't see or easily hear Tommy and his dad there. I narrowed my eyes and lips and spoke softly to Betty.

"Ma'am, can we keep this conversation in confidence just between the two of us?"

Her ears and eyes perked up. "Well, son. I reckon we probably can."

That was a little non-committal for my taste, but such was the bargain in war.

"Well, Tommy and I were talking about the puppies and an old story came up about Mr. Briggs." I eyed her cautiously. "Ma'am, Chris Briggs and I are very close friends." I paused again for serious dramatic effect. The concern in my eyes was plenty real enough and Betty Johnson could see it clearly.

"He's not a very nice man, Mrs. Johnson." That was both true and common knowledge. I needed her to take my lead.

She did her own dramatic pause and dropped her voice very low.

"Matthew, he is certainly NOT a very nice man, but I have asked the good lord forgiveness for the things I said on that day. It wasn't fair for me to drag up old rumors no matter how much of a bully that man was being. I lost my temper, something I rarely do. It especially wasn't fair to that young lady and I regret ever having dragged her into it. I saw Chris's mother just a few weeks ago and she looked absolutely dreadful. That poor woman has been through so much. I don't understand how she has stood it all."

There was a wealth of information there, though the code would require some deciphering. It was time to get out before I got caught.

"Mrs. Johnson, can I ask you one more thing?" I took her hand this time and didn't wait for an answer. "Would you please pray for them?"

She gave me the hug that I owed her. My request was genuine. After the church-boner incident, I didn't assume any good standing with God at the present. But a lady as sweet as Mrs. Johnson was surely in much better graces and it might just take a miracle before all was said and done.

It was pushing eight o'clock before Andy and Tommy dropped me back off at my house. Andy had insisted that he drive me home rather than bothering my parents, since I was an invited guest to the Johnson house. He even got out and shook hands with my dad when we arrived, thanking my dad and mom for letting me come over.

Tommy and I stood just out of sight during the parental love- fest and I gave him a tight hug and thanked him for everything. I knew I had to walk a fine line with him and his emotions, but I also needed to express how much his friendship meant to me. I was ringing up a huge emotional debt to Tommy that I wasn't sure I would ever be able to fully pay back.

"That Andy is really a nice guy." My dad continued to be impressed with Andy Johnson.

I was well impressed with the entire Johnson clan and told them so before I left their house.

Back in the Jordan house, there were plenty of hugs and smiles, and stories of horses and puppies. Again, the distractions faded and a familiar concern returned.

We decided not to try calling Chris again tonight. It wasn't too late. It just seemed too risky now. I was really surprised he hadn't called and that now worried me most of all.

Once alone in my room, I began to concentrate on what Betty Johnson had said. Who was she referring to as the "young lady" that she regretted "dragging" into this? Not Chris's mom, I thought. She wouldn't have called her a `young' lady. What had she meant "not taking care" of Chris? Her run-in with Coach Briggs would have been at least 2 years before whatever happened between Chris and Jay. `Rumor' was a word that concerned me because it cast doubt on all of the other clues. This was truly a riddle wrapped inside a mystery.

Tomorrow was a big day. I needed to put my eyes on Chris. He needed to pass an algebra test. Then finally, basketball tryouts would begin and with some luck, I'd make the team.

My first priority was settled early in the new day. I found Chris and looked him over closely. He smiled in both appreciation and reassurance. His hand found my shoulder and his touch temporarily melted my fears.

"Are you OK? I tried to call you several times yesterday." It was so good to see him.

"My dad ripped the phone jack right out of the wall. I think he must have done it while I was on the phone with him at your house Saturday morning." He recognized the building concern in my eyes.

"But I'm OK, Matt. I gave him my story. He didn't believe it, but I don't care. I'm OK."

I couldn't say for sure, but I thought I saw hesitation in his face. I wondered if he was hiding something from me. He had hidden his original injuries and I had to discover them by accident. If he was hiding something, I'm sure it was to protect me from having to share his pain.

"You'd tell me, wouldn't you?" I searched his face hard for the answer that might not come out loud.

"I'm OK, Matt. Don't worry. I won't be coming over again for a while though because I'm seriously grounded" shaking his head in frustration. "You told your folks how much I appreciated them?" He gave me a familiar squeeze on the neck.

"Yeah, I told them. But they already knew." This day was getting off to a really bad start and Chris hadn't given me the answer that I needed. He was holding back on me.

"This is gonna be a big day. I hope I'm ready." He didn't sound sure.

There was now more riding on his algebra test than before. It was our key to spending time together for the near future, and it was his key out of his house for a few nights per week.

Just as he was about to release me, his eyes refocused on some movement to my rear and locked in an icy stare that sent shivers down my spine. I turned just in time to catch the figure of Jay Henson moving between buildings. When I turned back to Chris, his eyes were re-fixed on mine and out of their momentary trance. He looked a little shaken, but it might have only been a reaction to the discomfort on my own face.

"Wish me luck." He gathered himself quickly and was ready to take on the day.

"You don't need any luck. You're going to ace that test." With my words, he smiled and moved away.

Rattled myself, I made my way to homeroom and the solace of Tommy's company for a few minutes.

Later at lunch, Chris was nervous wondering if he had passed the test. He had asked Mr. Davis the favor of an early grade result and Mr. Davis had promised him an answer by the end of the day.

I didn't see him again until after the final period ended and I was making my way toward the gym. Along the way, I crossed paths with Coach Briggs. If looks could kill, I would have definitely died right there on the sidewalk. He wasn't going to scare me off that easy, but he scared me all the same.

Just a couple minutes later, I found Chris near the entrance to the gym. He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into the adjacent auditorium entrance and suddenly we were in a nearly dark passageway.

I didn't get a chance to ask him if he passed. My lips were too busy fighting to remain attached to my face as Chris had virtually swallowed them in a startling burst of passion.

"Thank you, Matt." My head was spinning and I wasn't sure what to claim credit for.

"OK. But for what?" Still spinning.

"I made a 72 on the test. I could have never squeaked by without you."

He really had cut it close. Seventy was the minimum passing score. Without Tommy's help, he would have definitely failed.

"Chris, you know Tommy deserves all the credit. But don't kiss him, please." Tommy had saved the day, again. I wished I could kiss him, but that would be a bad idea for lots of reasons.

"Yeah, but it was you who put it all together. You really pulled me out of the fire on this one. I can't tell you how relieved I am. Matt, I was really scared of not getting to play ball. We're gonna have a lot of fun together. It might be the only time we have until my dad eases up."

Sweetness and bitterness were all mixed together, but it was mostly good for now. I still had to keep my end of the bargain and make the team. The pressure had now shifted to me.

As it turns out, sixteen boys showed up trying out for twelve spots on the team. I had to beat out four other boys. Eight of the new boys were freshmen like me, so at least I had a fighting chance.

It was almost certain that all of the sophomore boys would make the team. Jeff Billups and Mike Rogers went out of their way to shake my hand when I arrived and I needed the extra confidence it provided me.

Coach Hill was in his early forties and new to this area. This would be all of the boy's first experience with him. He had supposedly been a very successful coach at his previous school in Indiana and had relocated here so his wife could be closer to her family. My first impression was that he was a very organized man. The tryouts didn't lack for structure and very little time was wasted for anyone.

He let us know up front that he would play no favorites and he didn't care who our "mommies and daddies" were. I don't think this was directed at Chris because there were several boys on the team whose dads were on the athletic boosters club and such. Middle-aged fathers could be very pushy when their vicarious athletic dreams ran into a strong-willed coach like Mr. Hill. I felt bad for some of those boys and the burdens they must carry from their fathers' hopes and expectations.

Chris was doing his best to support me. He made sure we were paired up in any drills and he never let me out of his sight. It was obvious to everyone that he was the real talent on this team and you could tell that even Coach Hill had an immediate appreciation for his skills. I imagined that a good coach had to sum up his players quickly, in terms of talent, attitude, and leadership.

For the remainder of the week, we ran though a variety of drills and skill tests. Chris's early assessment of me was right on the money. I more than held my own at anything that involved defense. On the offensive drills, I had a lot of room for improvement.

The rest of the week at school seemed to go by very slow. I found myself distracted often by thoughts of Chris and the short time with him at lunch each day was just enough to get me by until practice in the afternoon.

He had given Tommy an enthusiastic high-five and thanked him profusely for his tutoring success.

Next week was Thanksgiving, falling unusually late in November this year. We would find out Monday who made the team. Another long and lonely weekend loomed ahead in between.

Through the week, I had given my mom and dad the updates on Chris, but I didn't let them know that I feared he wasn't telling me everything. He was protecting me from that burden and I was trying to protect them the same way.

Though tortuously slow in arriving, Monday finally came. Coach Hill was talking with each boy on the team individually throughout the day as everyone's schedule permitted. He had sent word for me to drop by and see him when I could. I trekked up to the gym just before lunch, fearing the worst, but still trying to hope for the best.

His very small office was located in a chilly corner of the old gym. His small desk was decorated with three sets of pictures, presumably his wife and two young sons.

I was nervous and hadn't fully prepared myself for rejection. The consequences were just more than I could bear the thought of.

"Matthew, I know you told me you've never played organized basketball before. You do show very good footwork. You must have played some sports."

"Yes sir. We played a lot of soccer in California, though there weren't that many flat places to play where I lived."

"I have to be honest with you." Here it comes. "Your ball- handling skills leave a lot to be desired. I don't think you would get much playing time unless you showed some dramatic improvement in that area." I hoped he couldn't see my knees shaking.

"But, I'm a coach who believes in defense and if nothing else, I think you would make our practices better. That's an important part of being on a real `team' too, making your teammates work hard and improve. If you can accept a position as a role-player, knowing that you won't be getting much game time, then I'd like to have you on the team. If you can't accept that, I'd rather know now so I can give that position to someone else."

Oh Shit! I'm in!

"Coach, I was born to be a role player. I've been training for it my whole life. Do I still get a uniform?" This was pure enthusiasm speaking.

He looked at me and laughed. "Yes, Matthew. You still get a uniform. Welcome to the team." With that, Coach Hill reached out and shook my hand.

I sprinted from his office before he could change his mind and didn't slow up until I made a rather clumsy entrance into the cafeteria. So much for that good footwork I was getting credit for.

"I'm in! I'm in!"

Chris didn't look surprised at all, but he did look very proud. He threw an arm around me and almost lifted me off the floor. Tommy laughed and smiled, never seeming jealous.

I found out that our first game was next week. I was a little disappointed that it was a home game, but at least it would be a break out of the house for Chris.

The days were finding a certain rhythm. There were ups and downs but no new dramas formed for a while. This was a welcome respite since there were plenty of old dramas still cooking in the background. It helped to be near Chris so much, but it was a far cry from the intimate time I wanted alone with him.

Thanksgiving came and went and December was now here. Tommy and I never had our last camping trip before it got too cold, but he had been to my house on a couple of occasions now and I continued to ride horses with him when weather and time permitted. My parents adored him and my mom had found one more boy to adopt into our family, though Tommy didn't need a new family.

We won our first basketball game. Predictably, Chris was the star. Coach Hill was proving his own talent from the sidelines, but it was clearly Chris's team on the floor. When he needed to, he took the lead role, but he was also conscious of getting everyone else involved. I never got up off the bench, but it was still the best seat in the house and I was thrilled to have it.

I noticed Coach Briggs peak in briefly from the entrance to the gym, but he never actually came in to watch Chris play.

My mom insisted on coming to the game and she quietly enjoyed watching her `other' boy do so well. I managed to share a smile with her as I looked up at her in the stands. I had plenty of time to smile.

Our first road game was two days later and I was excited. We were traveling across the county to visit the defending conference champions. They had beaten our team pretty bad last year both times. Later this season, they would be traveling to our school to complete the season series.

The bus trip was a hoot. Chris and I sat together and we were never out of each other's company before or after a game.

This was so much different than being at school. It took two busses for the cheerleaders, girls' and boys' team, plus the team managers and coaching staffs.

For me, the best part of the night was just sitting with Chris and the guys waiting for our game to start. The girls' team always played first, so we had two hours to kill before our game. Some of our guys were pretty funny and we all bonded into a real team quickly. It was sort of like a big family of just kids.

I guess being conference champs commanded a lot of attention. The gym was packed and it was hard not to be intimidated. There were so many new faces and it was really weird stepping onto someone else's turf like this.

Chris was showing signs of restlessness and when he nodded for me to follow; we got up and walked toward the locker rooms. There was a back exit and we walked outside for some fresh air. Chris kept walking around the corner of the gym and for the first time in two weeks, we were completely alone. It was dark out except for the soft reflections of a night-light high up on a poll near the corner of the school property.

He looked a little edgy and I asked if he was OK. His response was to put his hand on my waist and pull me into him for a long, hard kiss. His hand pulled me further into him grinding our waists together. He was definitely hard and I now understand his edginess. I put my own hands on the sides of his waist and pushed into him. There was a mutual look of sexual angst in our eyes confirming the feelings that had started in my basement.

I knew that I was developing stronger urges for Chris. He had a sexual energy and charisma that matched his personality. I wanted more from him and he wanted more from me. It had occurred to me that his needs were even greater than mine, as he was a year older and had already attempted sexual explorations with Katie. For my part, I just wanted to please him and do anything that would bring him comfort or pleasure.

"Why don't you two just go ahead and fuck!"

In our carelessness, we hadn't heard them approach. Three boys from the other team had seen us sneak out the back exit. When they rounded the corner, they got quite an eyeful and there was no use pretending this wasn't happening.

Chris slowly separated himself from me and a look that I had never seen before took control of his face. It was some mixture of confidence, determination and anger. Calmly, he walked a few steps to meet them and I quickly joined his side.

Before any more words were spoken, more boys rounded the corner but at least these were friendly faces that I recognized. Jeff and Mike had been paying enough attention to realize something was up and their arrival was just in time.

"Everything all right, Chris?" Jeff asked.

The lead boy on the other side burst out "We found these two love-birds back here making out. You bunch of faggots might do that at your school, but don't bring that fucked-up shit around here!"

Jeff cut Chris a hard glance, but he found no apology or denial in Chris's eyes, only a firm look of resolve that communicated `you better stand with me on this one'.

While this was happening, three more boys from the other team gathered and we were on the verge of a full-scale war.

"Fuck all of you. If you want a fight, let's get at it." Jeff had chosen his side and he was now just inches from the nose of our main instigator.

I wondered if Chris would lose it and hurt someone. I didn't want to see that side of him revealed. What I saw instead surprised me and contradicted everything I feared.

"It's OK, guys." Chris stepped in between Jeff and the other boy. "We'll take this fight to the court. We got beat pretty bad here last year, but it's about to be payback time. You remember how I abused you last game?" The look on the other boy's face conceded that he did in fact remember. "You're gonna wish it was only that bad before this night is over."

Chris was cool and calm with the cold steely determination and confidence of a great leader going into battle. The other boys stepped aside as we walked right through the middle of their pack and back into the gym with Chris in our lead.

We really had been careless. I didn't want to hide my affection or outright love for him, but we had to, at least for now and maybe forever as far as I knew. It wasn't right and it wasn't fair but it was our reality.

"Don't let them shake you up. I lit Billy Jacobs up for twenty-four points here last year, but they still beat us by twelve. I'm gonna rub his nose in it tonight." Chris was fully focused and ready for action.

On the opening tip, he started delivering on his promise. After a dizzying display of ball handling, he backed Billy Jacobs down under the basket and left him grabbing at nothing but thin air as Chris scored our first two points.

I could see the level of intensity rise in my teammates and Mike Rogers made a steal near half-court before feeding Chris for a fast-break and another lay-up. It went back and forth like this all night. We would go up by four points, and then fall behind by three. It was a constant seesaw effect.

Chris really was abusing Billy Jacobs. No doubt, they had the better team and were much deeper in talent than we were. But we had one highly motivated and highly talented Chris and that was enough to keep us in it.

We also had serious foul trouble and when Jeff fouled out only five minutes after Mike had, we were moving deeper and deeper into a weak group of reserves.

With one minute left to play, we were down by four points. Chris had put up a heroic effort, but we just didn't have enough firepower. Just when we thought all was lost, that's when he reached back and found something I'm not even sure he knew he had.

I admired all of the great athletes of my time. Michael Jordan was the greatest, but Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were close enough. At the exact point that the pressure of competition brought confusion, chaos, and failure to others, they all found some place of calm within them that made them even better than before.

In spite of the hell that was his home-life and in spite of the pressures of being in a truly hostile environment, and even in spite of the burdens that might lie ahead for the two of us, he reached deep within himself and found his own calm place. It was a magical transformation.

When Billy Jacobs took the inbounds pass, Chris swarmed in and put his nose right in his face. He was so close, I was sure that Billy could feel the heat from his body, yet Chris didn't foul him. Obviously shaken, Billy tried to feed the ball off to a teammate, but Chris had seen that coming well before it actually happened. A steal and a lay-up added to the retribution being paid to Billy and brought us within two points.

He tried to wave off the next inbounds pass, but my teammates were playing inspired basketball and as soon as he caught it, you could see the panic in his eyes because Chris was all over him again. The panic led to frustration and when Billy gave Chris an elbow and the referee gave Billy a foul, we had a chance to tie the game with only sixteen seconds left.

Chris coolly canned both free throws, pausing to give Billy a taunting look between shots.

The good news was we were tied. The bad news was they had the ball. When their coach called a timeout, we all gathered on the sidelines for one last breather and words of encouragement from Coach Hill. Kevin Myers was holding his calf muscle as he came to our bench, grimacing with an obvious cramp.

Kevin was only playing because Jeff, Mike and another starter had fouled out. We were way deep into our bench but I didn't realize just how deep until I heard someone call my name.

"What?" It still didn't dawn on me that he wanted me to enter the game.

"Matthew. You see that skinny blond kid over there?" Coach was pointing across the floor and I nodded a nervous yes to him. "You keep him from getting the ball. Just stay between him and the ball. You can do this. And if the ball winds up in your hands, you get rid of it quick. Understood?" Another nod, even more nervous than the first.

Coach Hill had one last encouragement, but he wouldn't have the last word.

"Boys, just stay calm and play hard. That's all I can ask you to do." Coach's comments were calming but not inspiring enough for Chris.

Chris spoke up. "We ARE NOT going to lose this game. Everybody understand that?"

Eleven young heads nodded in unison.

As our huddle broke, a familiar and comforting pair of eyes found me. Chris eased over to me and rustled my hair a bit with his right hand. "Footwork, Matt. You CAN do this."

The opposing coach had been wise enough to work out a play that kept the ball away from Billy and therefore further away from Chris. As they crossed half court, the clock was winding down to nine seconds. All we had to do was hold them and then we had a chance in overtime, but the fickle winds of fate had other plans.

My feet were moving as fast as they ever had and I was determined not to let my kid ruin the day for us. The hostile crowd was counting down the clock. "Eight, seven, six..."

The count was interrupted at six because as my kid tried to break around me, a pass glanced off the back of my outstretched hand and deflected almost straight up into the air on the home side out-of-bounds line. It was a free ball and every athletic instinct in my body told me to go get it.

As I made my second step the ball bounced head-high in the air and I knew I couldn't catch it and stay inbounds, my momentum was too strong. I planted my left foot barely inside the out-of-bounds line and leaped as high as I could. Stretched in the air, I reached out and cupped the ball in my right hand before twisting my weight around and sling- shotting a wild pass back towards our end of the court. As the ball left my hand, I crashed into the stands and wound up flat on my back underneath several unfamiliar legs, my own legs draped over a row of seats. I hit the stands hard enough that it disoriented me and I thought I had gone deaf. In reality, it was the crowd that had gone stone silent.

The next face I saw brought joy to my heart. It was Chris and he was wearing a smile that only fits a winner. He grabbed my arms and lifted me up from the displeased crowd. Before I knew it, he had his arms around me and was practically carrying me around the court.

Billy Jacobs looked on in complete stunned disbelief. The earlier images of Chris and me grinding away behind the gym were probably less nauseating to him now than the new images of us victoriously dancing around his court. Our teammates were slapping high-fives and it was just one big moving pile of smiling boys.

For a lonely boy like me who had just moved here a few months ago to now be surrounded with delirious teammates AND to be in the arms of the boy I loved, well, it was simply the happiest moment of my life.

That it brought an asshole like Billy Jacobs such humiliation was just icing on the cake.

I never saw the play, but we talked about it all the way back home on the bus and for several days more after.

Great athletes always anticipate and always manage to stay a step ahead. Chris had made a break for our basket as soon as he saw me going after the loose ball. I never saw him and my desperate pass was even more desperate than it looked. When he caught my wild toss in mid-air and made the final lay-in before the buzzer sounded, it was truly a miracle.

I hoped it wouldn't be the last miracle to find us.

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