FLIP

By: Jess Mercer
( 2008 by the author)
 

  The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent. Comments are appreciated at...

 

For two weeks I endure a hell only a high school junior can appreciate - a total grounding. I can go to school but nowhere else unless my dad is with me, which means I go nowhere. Not five minutes after I'm home from school every day the phone rings; it's my dad checking to see I'm home. It'll ring again several more times before he leaves work, just to check. I mean you'd think he would take my word for it that I'll come home and not go anywhere, but after all the yelling he's done at me I don't guess I can expect any better. It's not like I don't already feel guilty as hell. It's when I think of Brad, who used to be my best buddy in the world, I get so depressed I want to off myself and end my misery. I know Brad hates my guts now and will for the rest of his life, so in a way I'm glad to be grounded because it keeps me from having to see him and what they say I caused.

 

Only a month ago I got my drivers license, the happiest moment of my life, topped only when my dad said because of my high grades and never causing him any grief he would buy me a car. Brad and I spent several days looking at used cars on the dealer's lots, cause I knew dad couldn't very well spring for a new one. No matter how many we looked at, I always returned to a two year old Firebird. It was originally a demonstrator, so it was loaded with extras, including a mind blowing audio system with a CD player. It was an awesome black with red striping and a large red Firebird emblem on the front, like totally cool.

 

I finally talked my dad into looking at it and driving it, surprised when he approved. I thought he'd make me settle for something like the Buick he drives. Anyway, it was Monday before all the paperwork was done and I could have it. Soon as school was out, Brad and I bladed two miles to the dealer's for me to pick it up. I was a mile high when I drove it around town for a while before dropping Brad off at home and going on to mine.

 

Two days later Brad and I were headed to meet some of the guys for extra swim practice because of the meet coming up soon. A block from school there's an intersection where the ramp from the interstate crosses the boulevard. I saw the light turn green so I drove on. That's all I remember until I come to in the hospital.

 

My dad's in the room with me as the doctor checks me out. My face is sore from the airbag and my chest hurts from the seat belt. I have a few little cuts and some big bruises, nothing more, so the doctor tells dad to take me home and make me stay in bed for a couple of days. My head clears enough by the time we're home that I remember Brad was with me.

 

"How's Brad?" I ask.

 

Dad shakes his head. "He's badly hurt," he says then launches into a lecture about how he thought he could trust me, that I was responsible enough to have a car, and how disappointed he is in me. That hurts more than what I feel from the accident because dad and I have had a special relationship since my mom ran off with some other man a year ago.

 

"Im sorry, dad, but it wasn't my fault. Honest. I had a green light and I never even saw another car."

 

"I'd like to believe you, Flip, but the officer told me the driver of the truck says you were driving fast and went through a red light."

 

"He's lying, dad. It wasn't that way."

 

"I hope so, but until there's evidence otherwise, the police are assuming you're at fault. Except for school, you're grounded."

 

"Can't I even go see Brad?"

 

"Especially not him. His parents are very upset with you, and at me for buying you that car." He shakes his head. "If they sue as they have every right to, we'll probably lose this house and everything else."

 

"Oh, God, dad, I'm so sorry."

 

"I am, too, but more for Brad than anyone else. He's ruined for life."

 

I start to sweat. "How?"

 

Dad shakes his head again, looking down at the floor. "He has a bad cut down the side of his face that's going to leave him scarred for life, and he " my dad's almost in tears, "they had to amputate his leg."

 

When I start to cry my dad looks at me. "I'm sorry you had to learn a lesson like this at your age," he says and leaves me alone.

 

Brad and I have been closer than brothers since we were little guys. I'm so tormented by the thought of what I've done to him I cry until I fall asleep. When I wake up there's a woman quietly cleaning up my room.

 

'Who are you?"

 

She puts the last of my dirty clothes in the laundry bag and straightens up, giving me a smile. "I'm Mrs. Sims. I'm a practical nurse and I'll be staying with you until you're better."

 

"I ugh, I gotta go."

 

"Let me help you. You're going to hurt." 

 

"I'm okay." I throw the covers back then realize I habitually sleep in my bikini briefs. She sees I'm embarrassed and smiles. "My son sleeps the same way, nothing to worry about."

 

She puts her arm around me and helps me stand. I think for a moment I'm gonna pass out it hurts so bad, but it eases off a little when I start moving.

 

"You going to be okay now?" She asks when I lean against the cabinet in the bath.

 

"I think so. I'll call you when I'm done."

 

She's easy with me and stays until I only hurt a little when I move and the doctor tells my dad I'm ready to go back to school. I don't have any real friends at school, 'cept a few guys on the swim team and they aren't friendly any more. A few of 'em just look at me when we pass in the halls, if they do that much. I endure my classes and sit alone on the school bus.

 

Today I'm hardly in the house before I hear my dad's car pull up in the drive. He comes in with a smile, the first one I've seen since this all began. Before I can say anything he grabs me in a hug that hurts, but I don't care.

 

"Sit down, Flip," he says in a happy voice. (Flip is my nickname. It's actually Phillip, but it always came out Flip when I was a little kid. Only dad and Brad call me that now.)  He sits next to me on the sofa and puts his arm around my shoulders like he used to. "I have to apologize, son. The police called the office a few minutes ago. You were telling the truth. The driver of the truck was completely at fault and has been charged with driving improperly maintained equipment and reckless driving." He squeezes me a little. "I'm so sorry I doubted you, but with the police convinced it was your fault I could hardly do otherwise."

 

"I'm not grounded any longer?"

 

"No. All charges against you have been dismissed, thank God."

 

"Do Brad's folks know? I want to see him so bad." I hug dad, tears flowing. "I love Brad. I'm so glad I'm not to blame for him getting hurt."

 

Dad hugs me back. "I know Brad's your best friend, Flip, and I'm glad you won't have that on your conscience. But his " The phone rings and dad gets up to answer. He's so long I ease up and get a soda from the fridge. I've finished it by the time he comes back. "Sorry, son, that was Brad's mother and father. The police have just called and told them what they told me. They want us to know how sorry they are they blamed you for the accident. Brad will be coming home tomorrow morning and they want us to come to dinner so you can see him and they can apologize in person."

 

 

The minute Mr. and Mrs. Saunders open the door the next evening they hug me. "I'm so glad you weren't seriously hurt, Phillip," Mrs. Saunders says. "Brad's waiting for you in his room."

 

I race down the hall and slowly open the door. Brad's sitting in a wheelchair. One side of his face is covered in a white bandage. The robe he's wearing covers everything else. I'd love to hug him, but I'm afraid to, so I hold out my hand.

 

"Brad."

 

He takes my hand and pulls me closer. "God, I want to hug you, Flip, but I can't. Lean down." I do and he kisses me on the cheek.

 

I plant one on his forehead then sit on the edge of his bed. "God, I've missed you, Brad. I'm so sorry about everything."

 

"It wasn't your fault. But " I see his lips quiver, tears in his eyes. He looks at me. "I guess it's over between us now."

 

"Why?" I grin. "I'm just waiting 'til you're well enough for me to make indecent advances on your bod, buddy."

 

His tears run over. "I've only got one leg now, and I'm gonna look like Frankenstein's monster when they take this bandage off my face. How can you want anybody's gonna look like me? I won't blame you, but I'll always love you."

 

I kiss him again. "You think I only care what you look like? We've been buds too long. I know you, Brad, and I love what you are. You're the only one knows all my secrets, shares all my feelings. Hell, you wouldn't leave me, so I sure as hell ain't leaving you." I grin. "Get well enough so we can get back in action. I've missed our loving, Brad. I sure hope that didn't get hurt."

 

He wipes his tears. "It didn't, but I thought I was gonna die when they pulled that catheter out of it." He tries to smile, but it's one-sided. "Had a dream that night. Embarrassed hell out of me when the nurse came in next morning."

 

"Hope it was about me."

 

"Who the hell else?" He says. "Hey, how'd the team do at the meet?"

 

I shake my head. "Heard they lost. I didn't go cause they're gonna kick me off the team and none of 'em will talk to me."

 

"How come?"

 

"Cause they blame me for getting you hurt and they knew they couldn't win without you."

 

"I get back to school I'm gonna kick some ass. They can't treat my buddy like that and get away with it."

 

"Not their fault. Everybody thought it was mine until yesterday." I reach over and hold his hand. "They had me so convinced it was my fault you got hurt I almost offed myself."

 

His surprise is real. "Damn it, Flip! Don't you think I love you, too? What'd I do without you now? Shit! I'm gonna have to depend on you a lot."

 

"I'll do anything for you. I wish I could be with you every minute, but I gotta go to school. I'll bring your assignments over here every day and we'll study together like always."

 

"Really gonna need you for that. Two and a half weeks is gonna be hell to make up."

 

"Dinner's ready, Brad. You boys come on," Brad's dad calls.

 

I push Brad's chair down the hall to the dining room. There's a place set with no chair, so I push him to it. "Like the taxi service, bud?"

 

"I could get used to it." He looks down at the plate his mother sets in front of him. The chicken is cut into tiny little pieces and the veggies are mush. "I'll sure be glad when I don't have to eat this baby food any longer," he growls. "I want a damn big burger all the way." His mom makes the best burgers I've ever eaten.

 

"As soon as the doctor says you can eat without pulling the stitches I'll fix you all you want. That's a promise."

 

Dinner's great as always, though I watch Brad and feel his pain each time he tries to chew and winces. For dessert she's made a chocolate chiffon pie he can eat with no trouble long as he leaves the crust, which he does.

 

"I'm sorry you're missing so much school, Brad," my dad says.

 

"That's okay. Flip's gonna get all my assignments and help me catch up."

 

"We're gonna start tomorrow, dad, if that's okay."

 

"You know it is, Flip. I'm proud of you for wanting to help Brad."

 

"He'd do it for me. I may be late getting home."

 

"Don't worry about it, Flip. You can eat dinner with us and I'll take you home if it takes that long," his mom says.

 

"That's too much trouble for you, Ellen," my dad says.

 

"Not at all. We owe it to Flip. If we hadn't been so upset and blamed him, he could have brought Brad his assignments before this and he wouldn't be so far behind." She looks at me. "We're so sorry, Flip. As long as we've known you we should have recognized how responsible you are."

 

I feel myself blush. "That's okay."

 

 

The next morning at school I get a lot of odd looks, but nobody says anything to me. Suits me, I'm used to it now. The teachers all smile at me when I ask them for Brad's assignments and tell me they're happy that I'm helping him.

 

At the end of school, I get Brad's books from his locker and carry everything out to wait for my dad to pick me up. Two seniors on the swim team I don't think much of walk by. "Heard you beat the rap, Flop," one of 'em says. "Guess you had a good lawyer."

 

"Figured you'd be the big man after you got Brad out of the way, didn't you? Getting' thrown off the team sure fucked that, so what'cha gonna do now?" The other one says.

 

I see purple and wade into 'em, not caring if they're bigger than me. I manage to land a couple of good punches before I'm grabbed and almost pounded into a pulp. The principal breaks it up, just as my dad runs over.

 

"Flip! What's going on here?" Dad yells.

 

 "I saw and hear it all, Mr. Hanssen," the principal says. "Take Phillip home. I'll deal with these two in my office." 

 

"He started it," one of 'em whines.

 

"With provocation, Davis," the principal snaps. "You and Simpson in my office now!"

 

Best as I can with hurting, dad and I pick up my books and Brad's and take them to his car.

 

"What was that all about, Flip?" Dad asks when we're on our way. "It's not like you to fight."

 

"They said I hurt Brad so's I could be top man on the team, and said I beat the rap cause I had a good lawyer."

 

"Damn!" My dad mutters. "I don't approve of fighting, especially at school, Flip, but there are times a man must defend his honor. I think you were doing just that, Brad's honor, too." He reaches across and pats my shoulder. "Try not to get into it again, okay?"

 

"Thanks, dad. Can we go home so I can clean up before I go to Brad's?"

 

He smiles. "Considering the way you look, I think you'd better."

 

I'd love to go further than just a kiss and a light hug, but I know Brad's in no condition and I'm hurting from the beating so that's it. We keep the BS to a minimum and really make progress toward getting him caught up with his work.

 

The next morning at school I'm aware of as many evil looks as before and wonder until one of the seniors on the team follows me into the restroom and says, "Davis and Simpson got suspended for two weeks. What were you guys fighting about?"

 

I tell him, because he's a good guy.

 

He grins. "Those assholes deserve it." He looks around and says, "You're a good guy for a gay, Flip. Don't let 'em bust you because you've got the hots for Brad."

 

"Aaah " I say.

 

"Don't sweat it; I'm not telling. What you and Brad do on your own time's cool with me."

 

"But "

 

He winks. "I've seen how much you care about him, always cheering him on and giving him all the credit, even for some of the things you do. Look, don't blab this, but I don't mind making it with a guy myself. I like the broads, too."

 

"Thanks, Peterson, you're the only one hasn't given me a lot of grief."

 

"How's Brad?"

 

I can't help the tears that come up. "Awful bad, but we're studying together so he won't lose this year. I don't guess he'll do any more swimming when he comes back."

 

"They really cut off his leg?"

 

My tears run over. "Yeah."

 

"Bummer, man! That sucks big time." He puts his hand on my shoulder. "You've got guts, Hanssen, standing up to the crap's been thrown at you; I'm not sure I could do it. I gotta go, but tell Brad I asked about him and if you get anymore grief around this dump, let me know."

 

"Thanks, Peterson. You're okay."

 

I still kind of stunned when I tell Brad about it that night. Peterson's top dog in varsity swimming and soccer, too. He's never talked to juniors much, sticking to his own crowd of seniors.

 

 

The visiting teacher comes by once a week or more to give Brad tests from his classes. His mom's delighted when he pulls his usual Bs. After two weeks, he goes back to the hospital for a day of checkups and tests. He's just home and sitting in his chair sideways to the door when I come in from school. There's a pair of crutches leaning against his bed and a big bandage is no longer covering half his face.

 

"Hey, buddy," I say and bend to kiss him, but he pulls away. "What?" I ask.

 

He wipes his eyes. "Don't."

 

"Why?"

 

He turns his head so I can see. The lobe of his right ear is gone and a dark red puckered scar runs from his ear to his chin. It's ugly as hell. I gulp, then kiss him on his forehead. "I love you, buddy. I don't care."

 

He's crying softly. "You you sure?"

 

"Yeah. It's gonna take some getting used to, but I love you and always will."

 

He hugs me as best he can. "You're so special, Flip."

 

"Naaa. Hey, Peterson said tell you hi. He's a great guy."

 

"He talked to you?" He's as surprised as I was.

 

"Yeah. He knows about us."

 

"Oh, hell. He gonna tell?"

 

"Not a chance, he's cool. He likes guys, too."

 

"A stud like him? I mean he's always with some chick."

 

"He said he likes both."

 

Brad shakes his head. "I ain't believing this." I can understand cause Peterson's always been the kind of guy we wanted to be.

 

"Hey, they got you walking now?"

 

"Yeah. Been doing it over a week now." He grins. "Wanted to surprise you, but I'm not too good yet."

 

"That's great. Let's see you." I haven't even seen how much stump he has cause he's always wearing his robe when I'm there.

 

He sets the brakes on his chair and holds out his hands for me to pull him up. I do and steady him while he sheds the robe. The right leg of his jeans is folded up and tucked in the back. It looks like they took it just above the knee. He picks up his crutches and stands there.

 

"Wow! You look great, bud."

 

He grimaces. "Wish I did."

 

I hug him. "You do. Damn, it's good to see you standing up again. When you coming back to school?"

 

"They put some kind of plastic thing on my leg today so it won't get hurt and told me I can go back Monday, but I don't want to."

 

"You gotta. I miss you."

 

"Looking like this?"

 

"Yeah. I know it's gonna be hard, but you can't hide from everybody forever. I'm not gonna let you, cause I want us doing things like we did before and we can now."

 

"How?"

 

"I'm getting a new Firebird Thursday. The insurance company kicked in for a replacement and I held out for one exactly like I had. I can pick you up for school and all."

 

"That's good. Kind of a bummer getting it wrecked three days after you get it."

 

"Yeah. Let's get our work done."

 

The next afternoon I pick Brad up and we drag the streets. "Oh, man, it's good to be out. I was about to go nuts being stuck in my room all the time." He looks at me wistfully. "Wish I could get back in the water. I think I've missed that more than anything."

 

"Aaw, and I was hoping it was me."

 

"I gotta tell you that? Hell, you know you're number one."

 

"Yeah. So when can you go swimming?"

 

"Two more weeks, the doctor says. But I've build up slowly." I see tears in his eyes again. "Won't be on the team no more. I'm gonna miss that."

 

I grab his hand and squeeze it. "That's okay, bud, I'll ask coach if we can use the pool in private, cause I'm gonna be with you. I quit the team."

 

"Why?"
 

"Cause they didn't want me no more and I'm tired of their shit."

 

"Don't quit cause of me."

 

"I'm not, buddy. It just ain't the same any more. Fuck 'em."

 

Monday I pick Brad up and drive us to school. He's dressed in a new shirt and cargo pants. The right leg is pinned up neatly and he looks sharp.

 

"Wish I didn't have to go in," he says when I open the door for him and pull him up so he can get his crutches under his arms.

 

"Hell, you're looking extra sharp today, gonna get you a lot of looks."

 

"That's what I'm afraid of, and it ain't the clothes they're gonna be looking at."

 

"So let 'em look. I'm with you all the way." I put my hand on his shoulder. "You're still the best lookin' dude in this place. Let's get in before the rush for class."

 

He gives me a little smile. "Gotta get your eyes checked, man. You want pretty  you should look at Peterson."

 

I shrug. "He's not bad, but he ain't mine. You are. At least he's a good guy."

 

"Yeah. He even sent me a card." 

 

"No shit! You must rate cause I didn't get one."

 

"You know how it is, some of us have it " I see his face fall, "I mean aw hell."

 

"You still got it. Let's go."

 

We have the same class schedule, so I carry our books. On our way in a number of teachers welcome Brad back, but soon as he passes I look back and see their expressions of horror. That makes me doubly protective of him. I'm prepared to kick ass if necessary.

 

Our first period teacher is older and we both like her. "Oh, Brad, I'm so sorry about your accident but it's nice to see you back in school." After he's in his desk, she walks over with a smile that doesn't change and hands him a pile of papers. "You made up your work nicely and your grades show it." Then she looks at me. "Thank you for carrying his assignments to him and helping him, Philip. I know you worked together because your grades came up too."

 

I smile.

 

The bells ring and the stampede begins. There's a pile up at the door when the first ones see Brad and stop. I see some of them look at Brad and wince then look away, but he's looking at the floor.

 

"Are you coming in or not?" Mrs. Barnes snaps at them. They come in with none of the usual chatter.

 

We wait until most of 'em are out of the room at the end of the period before I help Brad up. "Philip, if you boys are late to your next class, tell Mr. Smith to see me," Mrs. Barnes calls.

 

We make it by the last bell because Brad's still slow on crutches, but Mr. Smith doesn't say anything, nor do any of our other teachers if we're late.

 

Nobody pays much attention to us in the cafeteria. I help Brad to a table and go for our lunch. Peterson is in line just ahead of me.

 

"Damn! You weren't kidding. Brad really got hurt bad."

 

"Yeah. He's afraid nobody's gonna like him now."

 

"Shit, " he says looking down the line, "mystery meat again." 

 

I shrug. Our cafeteria isn't noted for haut cuisine, hell, cuisine of any sort. More like pig slop. When I reach the end of the line Peterson's already half way across the cafeteria. He passes the table where the seniors on the swim team usually eat and, though they all yell at him, goes on and sets his tray down directly across from Brad. He smiles and says something.

 

Brad gives him his one sided smile. His mom told me some of the nerves in the right side of his face were cut, so it's partly paralyzed. They're talking about the meet our team lost when I get there.

 

Brad looks up as I push his tray to him and sit down. "This asshole says he's quitting the team," he tells Peterson.

 

"Why?" Peterson asks me.

 

"The guys don't want me and I'm sick of their shit. I only did it cause it was something Brad and I could do together. He's a lot better than I'll ever be."

 

"Bullshit! You guys were evenly matched and you've got what it takes to be a winner, Hanssen. You quit and I'm gonna kick your ass." He looks at Brad. "You'd better get your ass in shape, too."

 

"You blind? How the hell you think I'm gonna be swimming competition with one leg."

 

"Cause you can. You got a computer?"

 

"Yeah. So?"

 

Peterson rips a sheet of paper from my notebook and writes something down then hands it to Brad. "You get home, you look this up and see. And, yeah, I'm in charge of the pool, so you guys come down next Monday ready to swim. Nobody's using it then."

 

"It'll be another week before I can," Brad says.

 

"Whatever. Just let me know." Peterson pokes at his lunch a little then picks up his tray. "Who can eat this crap? Burger King for me. See ya 'round."

 

"Damn," Brad says.

 

"Told ya he's okay."

 

Soon as we're at Brad's after school, he brings up his computer and puts in the URL Peterson gave him. A few seconds later and there is a set of pics of amputee swimmers. "Damn!" Brad says. "Look at those guys."

 

I have to tease him. "Why? You're a damn lot better looking than any of them. Bet you can out swim any of 'em, too."

 

Brad grins. "Like hell."

 

"Ya just gotta get back in condition. I'm going with you and I'll bet Peterson's gonna run your butt ragged."

 

"Wonder why he even cares? It's the first time any senior's ever said anything to us outside training or a meet."

 

I shrug. "Just cause he's a good guy, I guess. Maybe he'll tell you when you go back."

 

After another couple of days nobody seems to notice Brad, so he relaxes and things get pretty much back to normal. I'm glad for his sake. I do notice he still tries not to look at his reflection any more than he has to when he shaves, which isn't very often, and he's still reluctant to go to the mall or other public places with me.

 

The next Monday after classes we go down to the locker room to change for our swim. It's the first time I get a close look at his stump. It's still swollen some, but it's gonna be neat when it shrinks like the doctor told him it would. To me he looks as beautiful as ever, I've come to like his cute crooked smile, and the scar on his face is beginning to fade a little.

 

We're about to go out to the pool when the door opens and someone says, "Little fag ain't so pretty no more. Ya can't swim neither, so what ya doing here?"

 

"Shut the fuck up, Davis!" I yell.

 

"Ya gonna make me, fag? Come on, ya got an ass kicking coming for getting' me thrown off the team."

 

I start for him, only to see him yanked back through the door and hear a voice snarl, "Your ass is out a here! I see you around here one more time and you're dead meat. That goes if you fuck with my buddies, too. Got it?" It's Peterson.

 

"What'cha takin' up for them fags for?"

 

"They aren't fags, and who I like is none of your business. Get out!" He shoves Davis roughly.

 

"You fags ain't seen the last of me," Davis yells over his shoulder.

 

"Fuck 'im," Peterson says. "Come on and let's see what you can do, Brad."

 

I help him to the pool and steady him until he's in the crouch. "Go!" Yells Peterson holding a stopwatch.

 

We take off together, but by the far end of the pool I'm a good lap ahead. I make my turn and swim back, stopping to help Brad when he swims up.

 

"Not bad," Peterson says. "You feel okay?"

 

Brad moves his stump a little. "Hurts a little, but it's okay."

 

"I saw you using it. Way to go. You know, if you spent a little time developing your arms to compensate, I'll bet you could come damn near your old time."

 

"Really?" Brad looks amazed.

 

"Yeah. You really looked great. Start lifting some weights at home. You need to get back in shape, too, Hanssen."

 

"Why? Told you I quit."

 

"And I told ya I'd kick your ass, too. You better be here tomorrow for practice. You can come swim, too, Saunders."

 

"Not with the guys around. I'll watch Flip."

 

"'Kay. You want to swim some more?"

 

"One more time."

 

"Go for it."

 

We do our lap and I help Brad out of the pool. Peterson steadies him until I'm out and we go to the locker room supporting Brad between us. "Should have brought my crutches," he says.

 

"You don't wanna get 'em wet. Flip and I don't mind helping you."

 

I support Brad while he showers then Peterson and I get ours while Brad sits on a bench.

 

We help him to the locker room and while we're dressing, Brad asks, "Why're you doing all this for me, Peterson."

 

"My name's Don." He sits down on the bench facing Brad and me and drops his voice. "Flip tell you what I told him about me?"

 

"Yeah. So?"

 

"If you and Flip weren't so tight, I'd make a play for you. With one leg you're the sexiest thing I've ever seen." He blushes. "I can't help it, but every time I see a good looking amputee I pop a boner. I want to hang with you guys cause Flip's got the guts I don't and you're so perfect, Brad."

 

For a few moments neither of us can say anything, then Brad manages to say, "You like me this way?"

 

"You don't know how much. You're beautiful. I mean you're the first amp I've ever known. I thought maybe you'd catch on when you saw those pics on that site I gave you. Shit! I guess you don't want nothing to do with me now." He looks at the floor.

 

Brad looks at me. I know what he's thinking so I nod. "Don, you're a great guy I never thought would even talk to me and Flip. We've both admired you and wished we could get to know you. If you wanna hang with us, it's cool."

 

I reach over and put my hand on Don's shoulder. "That goes for me, too."

 

He looks up at both of us with a big smile. "You guys are the best. Thanks."

 

I look up at the clock. "We gotta get going, Peterson. What about doing something Friday night?"

 

"Yeah! Talk at you guys later."

 

The next day at practice most of the guys are speaking to me again, looking kind of embarrassed when they do, and all but a very few stop and talk some trash  with Brad. I figure Peterson's talked to some of them or they read the accident report in last night's paper.

 

Friday, Peterson asks, "You guys still wanna hang tonight?"

 

"Sure. What we gonna do?" Brad asks.

 

Peterson shrugs. "I dunno. Whatever. Catch a flick then cruise the mall."

 

"My dad's out of town. If you want we could rent a couple of movies and crash at my house." I say.

 

"Sounds good to me," Brad says.

 

"Got any beer?" Don asks.

 

I shake my head. Dad has some but he'll raise hell is any of it's missing. He says I'm too young to drink.

 

"I'll pick up a six-pack of light. No need to get smashed."

 

"'Kay. I got plenty of popcorn. You wanna come early enough for us to grab a burger somewhere?"

 

"Kewl. See ya 'bout six. We'll stop by and get the videos after." 

 

Don drives and we go to a place makes the best burgers in town. There's no takeout, so we have to go in. We find a table, place our orders, and are talking when four girls I recognize as cheerleaders for the football team come in. We swimmers don't get that kind of recognition at school. One of them makes a beeline for Don, but when she gets a look at Brad's face she backs off and rejoins the others.

 

Brad looks down and sadly shakes his head, but Don reaches over and grabs his hand. "Gotta hang with you more, Brad. Thanks, buddy."

 

He looks up surprised. "For what?"

 

Don grins. "For savin' me from motor-mouth. She's been buggin' me ever since school started. Damn! If there was a medal for non-stop yackin' she'd win hands down and that voice is like fingernails down a blackboard."

 

I wince at that, cause we can hear her clear across the room and he described it perfectly.

 

"Glad my looks didn't bust up anything you had goin'," Brad says.

 

"Naa. Stopped it before it got started, like I wanted anything goin' with her. Geez!"

 

At the video store Don goes directly to one shelf in the back and picks up a couple of tapes, holding them out. "You guys seen these?" One is In and Out and the other is A Beautiful Thing.

 

"No," Brad says. "Good?"

 

"Oh, man. In and Out cracks me up. I haven't seen Beautiful Thing yet."

 

"Suits me," I say.

 

At my house I put the beer in the freezer to cool down fast, put popcorn in the microwave, and get out some wooden bowls to put it in. Don comes in to get the beer and I carry the popcorn. We settle back and I start In and Out.

 

Brad howls when the kid outs his teacher on national TV. "Can't you see Smith throwing a hissy if anybody did that to him?"

 

Don and I laugh at the idea. Smith's prissy enough a lot of students think he's gay but he's a raving homophobe.

 

After laughing so hard through the whole flick, we take a break while I make more popcorn and Don sets the remaining beers out.

 

When Beautiful Thing starts we have to concentrate to understand the British accents. There's not much to laugh at in this one but it's so tender Brad and I have our arms around each other's shoulders. It's not long before I see Don reach up and wipe his eyes.

 

When it's over, Don looks at us sadly. "You guys are lucky. Wish I had someone thought so much of me."

 

"But you like girls, too," Brad says.

 

Don nods. "Yeah, but it ain't the same. I've watched Flip and you're the only guy in his world, Brad. After you got hurt," I look at him and shake my head, but he continues, "he took a lot of shit from the guys and went head to head with Davis and Simpson at the same time. He never gave a damn how you looked; he just loved you more."

 

Brad looks at me with tears running down his cheeks. "Why didn't you tell me?"

 

"No reason." I shrug. "Weren't that much."

 

He grabs me and kisses me hard. When he turns me loose, Don says, "That's what I mean. I'm big, but I couldn't have done it."

 

"You are doing it, Don. I mean you've been with us tonight," I say.

 

He sighs. "I guess. Look, Brad, I'm sorry 'bout your face and leg, but it don't make no difference to me now I'm used to it. Ah, shit! I'm making a mess of this."

 

"You're the only one even bothered to send me a card, Don. It meant a lot cause I didn't think you knew I existed. It's cool you want to hang with me and Flip. I know what I look like so it ain't like you're hurting my feelings or nothin'. What were you going to say?"

 

"I know I ain't got a chance with you, Brad, but I I wish I knew Parks. I could go for him, but he don't like nobody."

 

He's just named the best looking stud in the senior class. Parks is to drool over in the looks department, getting as many long looks from guys as he does girls.  He's a lone wolf, doesn't have anything to do with anybody and never has. I know him only cause he lives just down the street. He speaks if I pass him on the street but just nods if anybody else's around. I figure he's gay cause I saw him looking at Advocate in the newsstand one day. When he saw me he put it back on the shelf and left.

 

"Always wondered why," Brad says. "He's beautiful but not like Flip."

 

"You're just prejudiced," I say and get kissed.

 

"Damn straight."

 

Don laughs. "Get a room, guys."

 

"You proposing a threesome?" Brad asks.

 

"Only if I get to play with your stump."

 

"No way. That's mine," I tell him.

 

"Some guys get all the luck."

 

Brad giggles. "And I don't share Flip."

 

"I can always hope," Don says and looks at his watch. "I gotta go. Thanks for a great time, guys."

 

"Any time you wanna hang with us," Brad tells him.

 

"He's really cool," Brad says after Don has gone, "and he makes me feel good about being gay. I feel sorry for a good guy like him who can't get close enough to anybody to love 'cause he's thinking about who he's not with when he's with them."

 

"Whoa, buddy, you lost me."

 

"I mean say he's out with a girl and he sees a guy he likes. How's he gonna think only about the girl? And if it's a guy and he sees a girl he likes the look of Get it now?"

 

"Yeah. I'm glad we just think about each other. You do think only about me, don't ya?"

 

"Weeell, Don's kinda cute," Brad says and gives me an evil grin.

 

I grab him. "Then maybe you need reminding who loves ya."

 

"I could go for that."

 

The next morning I drop Brad off at home cause his mom wants him for something and head toward the mall to return the videos Don forgot to take with him last night. I happen to see Parks walking that way. Funny, cause he usually drives.

 

I pull over to the curb and offer him a ride. To my surprise he's gets in. "You going to the mall?"

 

I nod. "Yeah."

 

"Drop me off at the Lexus dealer, then."

 

"Sure." I decide to say what's on my mind. "You know Don Peterson?"

 

Parks looks at me in surprise. "See 'im at school. Why?"

 

"He'd sure like to get to know you."

 

"How would you know that? You're just a junior, aren't you?"

 

"Yeah, but I know Peterson real well. He told me."  

 

Parks doesn't say anything else, so I'm glad I didn't mention the way Don feels about him.

 

He says, "Thanks." when he gets out of my car and walks off.

 

Monday, Don works our butts off. Brad has improved so much he now hops from the bleacher to the edge of the pool and gets into the racing crouch without any help. His mom found an old pair of wooden crutches at a thrift store and bought them for him to use at the pool.

 

Don's grinning when we get out of the pool. "Brad damn near had you there a couple of times, Flip."

 

"Yeah. It's getting harder for me to stay ahead of him."

 

"I want you guys here Wednesday. There's a meet in two weeks and I'm not happy with a couple of the guys, so I want you in the water, Brad."

 

"No way I can compete with guys got two legs."

 

"We'll see. Flip's our strongest junior swimmer and you're giving him a hard time. You've done good."

 

I start to snicker.

 

"What's do damn funny, Flip?" Don asks.

 

"You."

 

He looks surprised. "What'd I say?"

 

"Brad gives me a hard."

 

He looks blank for a minute then catches it. He pushes me in the pool and says, "I said hard time, smartass," when I come up.

 

With nobody else around on Mondays, the three of us horse around and enjoy our showers, but I feel sorry for Don. He can't help looking at Brad's stump without an immediate reaction. Poor guy seethes with frustration but, to his credit, never makes a move on Brad.

 

Friday at lunch he tells us he's busy that night, but maybe we can hang together Satrurday. He looks so happy I wonder what's up, but he doesn't say.

 

Brad and I sleep-in Saturday morning, so we've just finished breakfast when Don comes by. Soon as he's in the kitchen he hugs me, grabs a cup of coffee, and sits down at the table with us, looking at me.

 

"Flip, you're the greatest!"

 

"What did I do?"

 

Don's smile gets even broader. "Parks."

 

"What about 'im?"

 

"He invited me over to his house last night. His folks weren't home so he talked. You know why he doesn't hang with anybody? He's gay! He likes me, too! Tonight he's taking me over to Salem to a gay club he goes to a lot."

 

"Cool!" Brad says.

 

"Yeah. He said he's been wantin' to know me since he transferred to school last year, but was scared cause he thought I was totally straight. I was into girls then, but you timed it perfect, Flip. Man, I owe you big time!"

 

"Just luck I saw him walking."

 

"He said. Boy was he surprised when I told 'im about you guys. I get to know him better and I'll see if he'll let you hang with us."

 

This is unheard of. In our school seniors, 'specially two of the biggest guys on campus and definitely the best looking, just don't hang with juniors.

 

Everybody's surprised on Wednesday when the coach shows up at practice. He's the assistant principal so usually leaves the junior swim team up to some senior, this year, Don.

 

"Juniors first," he yells. He just looks at Don without saying anything when Brad hops over to the edge of the pool.

 

Don hits the bell and we're in. Brad swims in the lane next to me so I know he's just half a length behind me. We do 500 meters freestyle and hang on the edge of the pool to rest.

 

Coach looks down at the smallest guy in the group. "Torens, you're backup. Saunders is taking your place."

 

The kid scrambles out of the pool looking pissed and looks at the Davis sitting with the senior team waiting for us to finish. I see Davis nod at him. Coach calls the seniors up and tells us to watch.

 

Davis and Simpson are the two weakest swimmers on the team. When they've finished their laps, the coach looks at them shaking his head.

 

"Damn it, where's your strength? Davis, you and Simpson are pitiful." He stops and looks around. "Peterson, you're taking Simpson's place." A surprise because Don's our unofficial coach. "Wish I had one more good as you to put in Davis' place because this match is one of the preliminaries for thr regional."

 

I hear someone say, "You do," and see Parks move out of the corner where he's been watching.

 

"Who're you? You not on the team."

 

"Parks, sir."

 

"Can you swim?"

 

"Would you care to see me?"

 

"Damn, right. Get your suit on and get back here."

 

Don goes into the locker room with him and they're back quickly. Parks has a great swimmer's build, so I'm wondering. Coach lines them up and hits the bell. I can't believe Parks is ahead of everybody, taking Don by a few inches on every lap. Seeing him seems to make the others swim better so their time improves drastically.

 

"Shower and get dressed then come back out here," coach says.

 

Soon as we're all dressed and sitting on the bleachers the coach announces his decision on team make-up. "Junior team, Saunders in, Toren alternate. Be here Saturday morning for practice."

 

They leave except for Brad and me; we're waiting for Don. The coach looks at the seniors. "Parks, you and Peterson are in. Davis, Simpson, out," coach says and turns to leave.

 

I see trouble coming but it's so fast I'm not really sure what went down. Davis pushes Brad so unexpectedly Brad's crutches slip and he falls, hitting his head on the edge of the pool as he goes in. When he doesn't come up immediately I dive in and pull him out as Simpson goes for Don and Davis turns on Parks.

 

"Help!" I yell.

 

The coach is suddenly leaning over me, checking Brad's pulse. "Go call 911, Hendricks, and get the principal. Move it!" He yells at one of the janitors who's started mopping the place up, then turns and yells at the senior team, "Get Davis and Simpson."

 

They move and a minute later Davis and Simpson are on the deck, held down by the others. The principal runs up and looks at Brad, then the coach. "Rescue's on the way. What happened?"

 

"Tell you after they've gone," coach says.

 

The principal points to Don, Parks, and two others. "Take those two," he points to Davis and Simpson, "to my office and keep 'em 'til I get there."

 

I'm sitting on the deck cradling Brad's head in my lap, tears in my eyes. Davis spits on both of us when Parks pushes him past us. I pull my wet handkerchief out of my pocket and wipe Brad's face, then mine.

 

Brad begins to stir. His eyes open and look into mine. "Wha wha' hoppen?"

 

"Don't move, son. Rescue Squad is on the way," the principal says.

 

"Lay still, buddy," I tell Brad who's trying to sit up.

 

"Damn! I'm all wet." 

 

"Don't sweat it." I look at him and whisper in his ear, "I love you wet or dry."

 

A young guy in a white jacket squats down and supports Brad's head, motioning for me to move back, while he puts a restraining collar around his neck. Then the others put a stretcher down and shift Brad to it.

 

"He hits his head on the pool," I tell him. "Knocked him out for a few minutes."

 

His fingers go over Brad's head carefully. I see Brad wince when he touches one place. "Hurts," Brad says.

 

He finishes examining Brad then stands. "You're lucky. Nothing serious far as I can tell. You have somebody can take home?"

 

"Me," I say.

 

"Good. Take some extra strength Tylenol and stay in bed until tomorrow." He smiles. "I don't envy you the headache you're going to have. If you have any trouble of any kind go to emergency. I'll be there."

 

"You're not taking him to the hospital to see a doctor?" The principal asks.

 

"I am a doctor. This is my last week of residency in emergency medicine," the guy says. "Be glad this isn't really serious."

 

The other guys help Brad up. The coach gets a dry blanket to wrap around him, then tells me, "Take him home, Hanssen."

 

I get Brad dried off then in bed after giving him the Tylenol and stay with him until his mother gets home. He's sleeping, so I tell her that he fell and hit his head at the pool then go home.

 

Dad has beaten me home and wants to know why I'm damp and my clothes are wrinkled, so I tell him what went down.

 

"Damn it! Enough's enough. You and Brad don't have to put up with that kind of shit at school!" He yells, his profanity shocking me. "I'm going to call the principal right now."

 

While he's looking up the number, the phone rings. He answers and listens for a minute then says, "I was just about to call you. And, yes, I'll be there."

 

He hangs up and looks at me. "You, me, Brad and his parents are meeting with the principal tomorrow afternoon right after school. I'll meet you at his office so be there the minute your last class is out."

 

"Yes, sir."

 

Brad's head is still sore, but his headache is gone so I pick him up for school. We don't see Davis or Simpson until we go to the principal's office after school. They're waiting outside with two men I guess are their dads. They give us hard looks as we join my dad and Mr. and Mrs. Saunders.

 

The principal comes out of his office and waves us into a room with a long table and chairs, telling us to have a seat. Before anyone has a word, he tells us what went down at the pool and about the time I fought with Davis and Simpson.

 

"Davis, you and Simpson have been tormenting younger students and it ends as of now. I've consulted the board and you're both expelled unless you can give me adequate reason not to." He looks at both of them expectantly.

 

Davis' dad, I guess it is, jumps up and grabs Davis by the ear jerking him up. "Damn it, I've had enough of your shenanigans. You're off to military school tomorrow. Maybe they'll straighten you out."

 

"Aaw, dad "

 

"Shut up. We're leaving." Without another word he drags Davis out by the ear.

 

I look at Simpson and see him cringing under his father's stare. Mr. Simpson looks at Brad and says, "I'm so sorry Will caused you to get hurt. His momma and me tried to teach him right from wrong, but we both have to work and we don't know what he's doing half the time, cause he lies to us." From the way he's dressed, it's very obvious they don't have a lot.

 

I'd swear there are tears in his eyes when he looks at the principal. "Ain't there no way Will can get his diploma? It's only a little more time and it's likely all the education he's gonna get."

 

"There's the alternative school, he can get a GED diploma."

 

Mr. Simpson shakes his head. "I heard 'bout that. They don't got teachers make kids study like they do here."

 

I feel sorry for him, thinking he must be as humiliated as my dad would be if I were in Simpson's shoes. I look at Brad and see he's feeling the same. It was Davis, after all, who roughed us up. I look at dad and see him slowly shaking his head in pity.

 

"Sir," I say.

 

"Yes, Phillip?" The principal says.

 

"It was Davis who got physical, Simpson mostly watched. Would you consider giving him another chance?"

 

Every eye in the room is on me. Mr. Simpson is looking surprised; my dad, proud; and Brad's parents, I can't tell." 

 

"If you does," Mr. Simpson says, "Will's gonna get the beatin' of his life when I git 'im home. I git through, likely he won't ferget I ain't gonna have 'im hurtin' other people, 'specially them with just one leg."

 

I see Simpson start to shiver when his dad says beating and realize where the scars on his back came from, why there are a few days he won't dress out to swim. I can tell Brad sees it, too.

 

"Please, sir," Brad adds, "don't beat him, Mr. Simpson. He really didn't do anything to hurt me."

 

"Are you and Phillip serious?" The principal asks.

 

"Yes, sir. With Davis gone we need Simpson on the team, because I'm not sure I can swim well enough," Brad says.

 

My dad looks at the principal. "I'm willing to go along with whatever Flip and Brad want."

 

"We are, too," Brad's dad says. "It looks to me that the most Simpson's guilty of is being weak enough to follow Davis' lead."

 

The principal looks at us, tapping his pen on the table. "You boys are more forgiving than I would be, but I'll permit Simpson to finish school with the warning that one more infraction of the rules however slight and he's out."

 

"Thank you, sir," Brad and I say in unison.

 

"You may go then, but I want a word with the Simpson."

 

Brad and our parents go out in the hall where Brad and I get hugged by our parents.

 

"I mean it, Flip, I've never been more proud of you," my dad says. "You, too, Brad."

 

"I saw that poor boy when his father said he was going to beat him. I expect that's half his problem. Your father and I love you so much, Brad. You, too, Flip," Brad's mom says.

 

The door opens and Simpson and his dad come out. Mr. Simpson grabs Brad's hand and wrings it. "I gotta thank ya fer being such a fine young man; I wish Will was like you. I want 'im to finish school so he can find work and maybe make a better livin' than I done. I jes wish I knowed how to thank you proper."

 

"Will you do something for me?" Brad asks.

 

"Anythin' I can."

 

"Don't beat Will. He doesn't deserve it and he can't swim well if he's hurting. We need him on the team to take my place."

 

"If that's what you wants, I can promise you that much."

 

"I do. And maybe Flip and me can help him some with his homework."

 

Will's eyes get big as saucers, but he doesn't say anything until after his dad has apologized to my dad and the Saunders again. When they turn to leave he looks at Brad and me and whispers, "Thanks, guys." 

 

My dad looks at his watch and says, "It's almost time for the office to close, so if you've nothing planned, I'd like to take you all out to dinner. The boys deserve it."

 

"How nice and I agree. Seven at the Lakeside? We'll pick you and Flip up at home," Brad's mother says.

 

At our car, dad hugs me tightly again. "I not only love you very much, son, but I couldn't be any prouder of you than I am now. You've behaved like a real man. No, better than most."

 

"Thanks, dad. I love you, too."

 

The next morning Will is waiting for me and Brad at the school door. We stop and he says, "I'm real sorry 'bout fightin' you guys and callin' ya fags and all." He holds out his hand.

 

I can tell he means it and not because his dad told him to say it, so I shake with him as does Brad.

 

"Did your dad " Brad starts to ask, but Will shakes his head. "You done saved me from a beatin' too."

 

"We'll see you at the pool after school," I tell him.

 

We get to the pool first. While we're changing, Peterson comes in holding a slip of paper. "What the hell's going on?" He demands.

 

"About what?" I ask.

 

He waves the note. "This! Principal's telling me to put Simpson back on the team. Thought I was rid of that troublemaker. He can't swim worth a damn anyway."

 

I look around and don't see anybody. "How good would you swim if you got your back busted open from beatings as much as he has?"

 

Don looks then slowly says, "Shit! His old man beats him that bad."

 

Brad nods. "Yeah. Take a look at his back sometime. Anyway, Flip and I asked for him yesterday. Flip and I'll help him."

 

"Okay, but he'd better shape up."

 

"I'm gonna try." Will has just come through the door.

 

"Get your suit on, Will. Brad and me'll show you some things before the others get here."

 

We get Will to the last lane and Brad tells him what he's been doing wrong as I demonstrate. "Think I got'cha," Will says, "Let me try it."

 

He does and moves better and faster. "Way to go, Will," we tell him when he stops.

 

He smiles up at us and hi-fives Brad and me. "Ain't nobody never gave me no help afore. Thanks."

 

"Just do that well in practice." Don's come up.

 

"I'm shore gonna try."

 

The rest of the team can't believe Will's here, but they don't say anything until after practice. "How come you haven't swum like that before?" One of the guys asks.

 

Will smiles. "Ain't never nobody cared afore this. Brad and Flip showed me whut I was doin' wrong."

 

There's a lot of head shaking and Brad and I get some strange looks while we shower and change, more when we walk out with Will.

 

"Will, Brad and me are going by the soda shop for a Coke. Come on with us. I'll take you home after," I say.

 

He shakes his head. "Ain't got no money."

 

"Our treat," Brad says quickly.

 

"How come?"

 

I slap Will on the shoulder. "Gotta celebrate the way you swam today. Keep it up and you'll be good as Peterson."

 

He blushes. "Ain't never gonna be good as him, but thanks."

 

He gets in the back seat of my Firebird. It's cramped, but Brad has to sit in front. "Man, this is nice. I seen it was yours, Flip, but I never thunk I'd be ridin' in it."

 

"Any time, man."

 

Brad and I have a weakness for malted chocolate shakes and the shop makes them thick with ice cream, not with frozen base, so that's what I order. Will shakes his head. "No, man, a Coke's fine."

 

"Come on, you need the calcium in the milk, and after the way you swam you need the sugar, too," Brad tells him and nods at the waitress.

 

Will's eyes open wide at the first taste. "Man, I ain't never had nothin' this good afore."

 

With the hour for practice and almost an hour talking over our shakes, it's after five when we pull up at Will's house. It's small, the paint's flaking, and the yard's a mess.

 

Will's hardly out of the car when his dad comes out yelling. "Where ya been, boy? I done told ya to git home and clean up some o' this mess."

 

I see Will cringe, so I get out quickly and help Brad out. Mr. Simpson looks at us surprised.

 

"It's our fault. Mr. Simpson," Brad says. "We were showing Will how to swim right, and he did so well we went to the soda shop to celebrate. I'm sorry if we kept him from doing something he was supposed to."

 

"I guess it ain't nothin' can't wait. I didn't know he was out with you boys. He ain't never hung 'round with nobody 'cept that Davis trash."

 

"I hope you'll let Will spend some time with us. He can swim really well with a little help and we might get a soda or something after. Maybe catch a movie together sometime," I add.

 

He finally smiles a little. "Think ya got some good friends now, Will. You go with 'em any time you's asked and do what they say."

 

"Yes, sir. I'll get cleanin' up the mess 'til it's dark."

 

We work with Will every day. He may not be as swift at his books, but he learns proper swimming technique fast. He beats me nearly every time we get in the pool. Two days before the meet we go down to find Don ready to swim.

 

"I'm taking you on, Simpson, get ready." He hands Brad a stopwatch. "Time us. You start us, Flip."

 

I don't believe what we see, even after they do five time trials. Parks is the only one on the senior team can beat Don, and Will's never more than a half lap behind him.

 

When they get out, Don looks at us. "I don't believe this! You sure, Brad?"

 

Brad nods. "Told you he was good."

 

"Good, hell! Simpson, you're in number three spot at the meet tomorrow. We'll have a short practice tomorrow then I want you to get plenty of rest."

 

Will shakes his head. "Ain't it out of town? I ain't got no way to git there."

 

"You can ride with Parks and me, but we're going early."

 

"He can go with us," I say.

 

"You guys aren't in the meet."

 

"No, but we gotta be there to cheer you guys on."

 

When we go out, Will says, "My dad ain't gonna let me go."

 

"Why?" Brad asks.

 

"Cause I can't go nowhere cause o' what I done to you."

 

"He said you could go with us when we asked you," I say.

 

Will shakes his head. "Not out o' town though."

 

"He home?" I ask.

 

"Likely."

 

"Let's go."

 

Will's dad at least listens to us tell about Will's swimming and the meet before saying, "I dunno."

 

"Please. Will's made third place on the senior team and without him we may get beat. This is the biggest meet of the year," Brad tells him, "and everybody's counting on him."

 

"He done that good?"

 

"He sure has. Brad and I aren't swimming, but we're going if Will swims. He can ride with us."

 

"That ain't gonna be no bother? I mean you ain't going just so he can ride with you."

 

"No. The coach of our team offered him a ride, but we're going to see how good we taught him to swim and cheer him on."

 

He looks at Will. "You really done so good they's all countin' on ya? Iffin that's true and these boys take you, you can go."

 

Will looks dumbfounded. "Thanks, dad."

 

"Remember what coach told you about resting tomorrow," I tell him.

 

"What were that?" His dad asks me.  

 

"There's a short practice tomorrow then he's not supposed to do anything until the meet."

 

"You listen to Flip, boy, and do what he tells ya," his dad says to Will. "Ya can ferget them chores you was s'pposed to do 'til after."

 

"Yes, sir."

 

Will doesn't have a lot to say on the drive up. Don takes him in hand and Brad and me find good seats. Hillcrest has a great team and our guys work, but with Parks, Don, then Will placing one, two, and three the win is ours. Brad and I will never forget the look on Will's face when he's hoisted up on the shoulders of some of the guys like Parks and Don are. There's a newspaper paper photographer there and he gets several shots of them and the whole team.

 

Will's so quiet on our trip back home I have to ask. "Anything wrong, Will?"

 

I see his big grin in the rearview mirror. "I ain't believin' I come in third, man. Not 'gainst guys like swim fer Hillcrest. I thought that guy had me fer sure."

 

"I'm glad they had that electronic timer, cause you beat him by just a half second. The call would have gone against you if it had been visual."

 

Will's shaking his head. "The guys treated me like I was one of 'em, too."

 

"You are, Will," Brad says. "The team's just that, a team."

 

"I thought they all hated me." He reaches over the seat and pats Brad on the shoulder. "I ain't never gonna ferget what you and Flip done fer me. My old man ain't beatin' me no more either."

 

"He shouldn't have ever done that," Brad says.

 

"It's in the Bible."

 

We stop at a Hardees for burgers and a drink on the way home, so it's after midnight when we drop Will off at home and go to ours. When I go down for breakfast the next morning my dad hands me the sports section of the paper with a big smile. "Looks as if you and Brad have made a silk purse out of a sow's ear."

 

There are big pictures of Parks, Don, and Will holding their medals, and Don's holding up the trophy, too. The headline reads: Two recent additions to their team sweeps Elmdale to victory. I read a bit further and see the coach has said that the amazing recent progress of Will Simpson was a major factor in our win. I almost bust with pride.

 

I rip out the entire page to give to Will and gobble down my breakfast.

 

"You see the paper?" Brad says getting in my car.

 

"Yeah. Got it for Will, cause I don't think he gets it." I reach across and hi-five him. "We done good, buddy."

 

Like he always does, Will is waiting for us at school.

 

"Will, you see the paper this morning?" Brad yells as he gets out.

 

"Don't get one."

 

When we get to him, we both hand him the sports page we tore out. He just stares at his picture.

 

"Look what the coach said about you," Brad says, and points to the line the quote is on.

 

Will reads it and drops down on the concrete steps shaking his head. "I I ain't believin' it." When he looks up his eyes are wet. "He hates my guts. Told me lots of times I were worthless as shit."

 

"Worthless, hell! You're a good man, Will Simpson!" I look up to see Don and Parks standing there. "Your win's what got us the trophy," Don says. "You sure made a change for the better and I'm damn glad to know you now."

 

Will's tears are running when he stands and faces Peterson. He points to us. "It was them guys."

 

Don winks at us. "They ain't fags no more?"

 

"They ain't never been, but even if they was wouldn't make no difference to me. But I tell you one thing, anybody gives 'em any shit's gonna have to whup my ass first."

 

"Mine, too." Parks puts his hand on Will's shoulder. "You can call 'em what you want, but they're the best."

 

"Enough already," Brad says. "You're giving Flip and me swelled heads when we haven't done anything."

 

"Bullshit!" Will yells. "Ya done helped me when nobody else would."

 

The first bell rings so we start in with the crowd. Some kid shoves against Brad and he almost falls. Will grabs him until he's steady then reaches out and grabs the kid by the collar and hauls him back. "What'cha doin' shovin' my buddy," he growls.

 

"I can't help it if he's slow." Brad's still using crutches and in no hurry to get a leg.

 

"I see you shovin' anybody got one leg agin an' I'll kick your ass so hard you'll wind up in next week. Now get outta here." Will shoves him forcibly into the crowd.

 

"There's Simpson!" I hear someone yell and the football team comes running over, slapping him on the back and congratulating him. Brad and I slip away.

 

During homeroom the intercom clicks on and the principal says, "I know all of you join me in congratulating the senior swim team on their win of the regional championship meet yesterday. I want to take this opportunity to thank them for a job well done. You've made us proud, men, and we're proud of you."

 

When Brad and I get to the lunchroom we hear applause and see the senior team at their table, Will with them for the first time. Brad starts toward a table while I get our trays, but the seniors pull another table up to theirs and point to a chair. They call me soon as I have our lunch in hand.

 

"What's this for?" I ask Don.

 

"Cause Will told 'em why he worked so hard to win."

 

Brad and I get included in the conversation and have a good time. "See you guys Monday," several say when Brad and I get up to leave.

 

Brad and I sort of float through our afternoon classes without being too aware. Seniors don't ever pay juniors any attention 'til the last week of school. Will says he's gotta help his dad, so can't hang with us on Saturday.

 

It's just as well, cause Parks tells us to dress cool and come to his house Saturday night. Don will be there, too. We go by Brad's for him to pick up some clothes cause he's spending the weekend with me.

 

Saturday night, we dress in crisp Dockers, our coolest shirts, and loafers. I pin up the leg of Brad's pants neatly and wipe down his aluminium crutches 'til they shine like new. "Sharp," I tell him.

 

"Not so shabby yourself. Let's go."

 

"You're prompt, I like that," Parks says when he opens the door. "Come on in."

 

Brad and I look at each other. Parks has got on the coolest clothes I've ever seen and with his looks I wish I had a picture so I wouldn't ever forget what I'm seeing. Don looks great, too. He smiles when we go in.

 

Parks hands us some kind of drink that tastes fantastic, but it doesn't taste like there's any booze in it. "'Kay, guys, here it is up straight." He sits next to Don on the sofa and kisses him. "Don and I are celebrating our anniversary and you're here cause you made it happen, Flip. Four months ago today you told me Don wanted to meet me and I got up guts enough to speak to him. Don thinks you guys are special and I know damn well you are, because I've never been so happy in my life. We're taking you guys out to dinner and then to a gay club I belong to. How's that sound?"

 

"Great, but they gonna let us in the club?" I ask.

 

"It's private so they don't ask. Besides, you both look old enough, specially you, Brad."

 

I guess it's the scar and having one leg because until the accident everybody thought I looked older, which I am by a month. Brad and I look at each other ready to try anything with guys cool as Don and Parks.

 

Brad and I talk over the evening after we've gone to bed. Dinner was fantastic in a fancy little place in the city we went to in Parks' Lexus. Parks (he told us his name is Anthony) stopped at a gay bookstore to pick up a book he had ordered. Brad and I look at quite a few, and I buy two and he gets one. The club was dark and quiet with soft music for people to dance. Parks and Don danced several times, but I didn't because Brad can't and I've never learned. I don't care cause seems unreal I can hold his hand and talk freely in public. I love it. I even stroke his stump a couple of times 'til he slaps my hand away playfully.

 

On the way home Anthony asked if we were going to come out to our parents. We both said not until we're in college. That's when he told us we could hang at his place and do what we wanted, cause his folks are away on an extended trip of some kind. He says Don is there a lot now.

 

At school Monday morning, Will comes running over to my car instead of waiting for us at the door like usual. I've never seen anybody looking so happy.

 

"On, man, you won't believe what happened! My old man framed that page from the paper and he's bragging to everybody how great I am. Even the preacher said I was a good example of how somebody could turn their life around and make good. I mean that's the first thing he ever said good about me. My mom's happy, too. My life ain't never been so good before."

 

We both hug him. "You deserve it, Will. We're glad it finally happened," Brad says.

 

"You know what made my old man happiest? He got a call from some college I never heard of 'bout a swimmin' scholarship. I know I ain't got grades good enough an' we ain't got the money fer it, but he can't believe some school really wanted me. He treats me like a man now, 'stead of a kid."

 

"You earned it, Will," I tell him.

 

There's no practice now the season's over, but Brad and I still do laps on Monday with Don and Anthony. We seldom see Will after school now that he's hanging with some of the team, but he's still waiting for us every morning, still happy.

 

On Thursday afternoon as we're leaving school I see Will and his dad come out of the principal's office. I stop Brad when Will's dad waves at us. He looks happy, but Will looks worried.

 

"I done gotta tell you boys I weren't too happy 'bout Will hangin' 'round with you  cause I thought you was fags, but I was wrong and I'm admittin' it, specially what you done fer Will. I ain't never been so proud afore in my life but they's a coach in there, "he points to the principal's office, "done said Will can go to his school cause they got money fer guys can swim like him. The principal done told that coach feller he'll give Will a good recommendation cause o' the way you done he'ped him turn good. An' they's got special teachers'll help Will make up his books 'til he can do it hisself. All we gotta do is come up wid enough money fer Will to travel to school on and he's gonna be in college. First in my family ever got near a college. I jus' wanna shake your hand one more time and tell you what good folks you be an' I ain't fergettin' it."

 

We shake hands with him. "Will did most of it himself. We only helped a little when we could," Brad tells him.

 

He shakes his head. "I don't never call a man a liar to his face, son, but that sure ain't the truth."

 

"Yes, it is, sir. If Will wasn't a good man to begin with it wouldn't have made any difference what Brad and I did. If you ask your preacher I think he'll tell you the same thing."

 

He smiles. "Maybe you right, cause he said somethin' 'bout that Sunday last." Brad and I are both surprised to see him slip his arm around Will's shoulders. "I know I ain't never been so proud of Will afore, an' I saying thanks to you fer helping 'im."

 

"Our pleasure, sir."

 

We're all eating dinner together at Brad's that night when I happen to think of what Will's dad said. "Dad, doesn't that club you and Mr. Saunders belong to help students on scholarships?"

 

"Yes. Why?"

 

"Will's been offered a full swimming scholarship at some college up north. All he needs is some money to get there on and some decent clothes, everything else is paid for, and they have tutors to help him until he can do the work on his own. Think your club might help him out a little?"

 

Brad's dad clears his throat and looks at me. "Flip, every time I think you and Brad can't surprise me more, you do. I'm president of the Men's Club and I think helping Will might be a worthwhile project for us. The principal is a member of our club and if he agrees consider it done. Don't you agree, Roger?"

 

Dad nods. "Absolutely. If ever anybody we've considered needed it, Will does. From what Flip tells me, I think he'll try his best to succeed. Especially with the help they appear to be offering him."

 

Final exams come up so fast it's a surprise to Brad and me because we're so happy at school now, and have some fun weekends with Don and Anthony. I'm really surprised when Don says the team is going to study for exams together so they can help Will. Brad and I buckle down for ours, too.

 

The morning after exams are over, Brad and I go to check our final grades. When we get to school, Will grabs my hand and pulls me in. He'd of done it to Brad, too, except for Brad's crutches. He's pure excitement. "Look at that!" He points to the bulletin board where grades are posted for the seniors. By his name are four Cs and a B. "Not a single damn D ner F," he says proudly. "An' I got a summer job at the building supply house. I can't hardly wait fer college to start, cause now I'll have some money to git there. Dad's making my li'l brother do stuff 'round the house and he don't beat him no more neither."

 

We hug him. "We're happy for you, Will. Good luck," I say.

 

"Yeah. You're a good man," Brad echos.

 

Because Don and Anthony ask, Brad and I go to graduation. The auditorium is packed, but I spot Will's dad sitting not too far from us. He's gotten his hair cut and is wearing a suit and white shirt with a tie. I'm guessing it's his Sunday best. When Will's name is called and he walks across the stage to get his diploma, I see his dad wiping his eyes.

 

After it's over, Brad and I are waiting for the crowd to thin a little so it's easier for Brad when Will and his dad walk over to us.

 

"Glad I done seen you, these here is for you boys fer helpin' Will. It ain't much, but I made 'em myself." He reaches in his pocket then holds out two small pieces of crinkled tissue paper.

 

I unwrap mine to find a small cross hand-carved from black walnut and highly polished. There's a brass ring at the top for a chain. Brad's gift is the same.

 

"It's beautiful, sir, but we aren't graduating."

 

"But Will did cause of you. I wants you to have 'em to 'member what helpin' yer fellow man can do cause you done it fer Will. My preacher done said you had to be good Christian boys to do it even iffin you don' go to our church, and it was fittin' to give you these."

 

"Thank you, Mr. Simpson. Flip and I don't deserve anything this beautiful, but we appreciate your kindness more than you can know. We're proud of Will, too. He's a good man." Brad says.

 

To our surprise, Will hugs us both. "I'm gonna miss you guys."

 

Our surprise is even greater when Will's dad says, "Now that's a fittin' hug o' brotherhood, Will. I'm proud you done it."

 

They walk off with Will's dad's arm around his shoulders. Brad and I put the crosses on the chains we gave each other for our birthdays and go back to Brad's. Dad and I ate with them so I know he's still there.

 

"Oh what beautiful crosses!" His mom exclaims when we come in. "Let me see them."

 

Brad takes his off and gives it to her. "Just look at the delicate carving. The design is gorgeous."

 

I look at mine and see the tiny figure of Christ cut lightly into the wood. My dad holds out his hand and I give it to him to see.

 

"Where did you get these?" Dad asks.

 

"Will's dad made them for us because we helped Will."

 

Dad shakes his head. "It's hard to believe a man who abuses his children could do something this exquisite."

 

"He's stopped, dad. Will said he hasn't beat him or his brother since their preacher said Will had turned his life around and was doing good."

 

"Yeah. You should have seen him tonight. He was crying when Will got his diploma and when they left, he had his arm around Will's shoulders." Brad says.

 

"I hope it continues," Brad's dad says. "The man's a real craftsman. Maybe we don't go to church as much as we should, but it's better than an overdose of fundamentalist religion like he has."

 

I look at Brad and he looks at me and nods. We'd decided earlier we'd tell our parents tonight that we're in love.

 

"Dad, Brad and I want to tell you and Mr. and Mrs. Saunders something serious, okay."

 

"All right, son."

 

"Dad, Brad and I don't want you to hate us or anything but we're going to tell you the truth. We're gay and we're in love."

 

Dad raises one eyebrow. "So what's the serious news?"

 

I fall back in my chair and look at Brad whose mouth and eyes are wide open.

 

"You you knew?"

 

"I've known for some time now. I was just waiting for you to tell me. Who else knows?"

 

"Just Peterson and Parks. They've talked a lot about being gay to Brad and me. It's helped a lot."

 

"Then let's keep it that way. You remember how the kids at school acted when they thought you were."

 

"Mom? Dad?" Brad asks.

 

"That's one of the reasons we asked Roger to have dinner with us. We talked about it while you and Flip were at graduation."

 

"You aren't mad?"

 

"I'm not pleased because of the difficulty you and Flip will have in life if people know you're gay, but our love for you hasn't changed a bit. You're both sons to make us proud. We love you both very much and close as you and Flip have been all these years, we know you'll be faithful to each other. We're glad you haven't fallen for some stranger but someone we love as much as we love you."

 

"I am, too, Flip," my dad says then looks at Brad's parents. "Ellen, Bill, I suppose we're all going to have both boys together in our homes a lot more than they have been."

 

"Might as well. I think half of Flip's stuff is up in Brad's room and I suspect half of his is at your house. Brad, I hope you and Flip will try to split your time evenly between us so Roger and us know we have a son."

 

"We will, mom. Thanks."

 

"Brad, now that you're out of school for the summer and have the time to learn to use it don't you want a prosthesis?"

 

"Not really, I don't mind my crutches. What brought that up?"

 

"Mr. Simpson called me the other day and said he wanted to make a peg leg for you to help you out for helping Will. I told him it was your decision, and seeing those crosses, it's obvious the man knows how to work wood. But I'd much rather you have a well made leg."

 

Brad looks at me and I shrug, I'm hoping he'll stay with crutches though he'd look cool on a peg."

 

"I'll think about it, dad, but it's no big thing.'

 

"You don't mind, Flip?" Brad's dad asks me.

 

"I just want him to be happy. I don't see anything wrong with him like he is. He's beautiful."

 

"You are, too, Flip. I love you."

 

Our folks smile when I pull him up and give him a long kiss. 

 

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Posted: 05/30/08