What happens when two lonely boys meet in a shopping mall food court?
Josh was looking at Bryan, spellbound.
Bryan yawned. “Well, that’s enough for tonight, I think. It’s time for bed, Josh. I’m whipped. It’s going to be great, going to school with you in the morning. You still set on riding your bike?”
They’d discussed it while practicing with the basketball earlier. Bryan had thought maybe riding the city bus might be better, but Josh wanted to ride his bike with Bryan. Somehow, he seemed to think it would be an adventure or something akin to that. Bryan told him they’d have to get up earlier if they rode because it would be new for Josh and a long ride, but Josh had been adamant. He wanted them to ride bikes.
“You’re not going to go on with the story?” Josh asked. He was entirely wrapped up in it and wanted Bryan to continue.
Bryan grinned. “Hey, it’s getting late, and you’re going to a new school tomorrow. You need to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Besides, I love leaving you in suspense.”
Josh grunted. “You’re sure doing that. You know revenge is sweet, don’t you? You’re going to pay for this, leaving me hanging. Big time.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows? You’ll probably forget about it before you get around to avenging yourself. You’re going to be busy, you know, what with learning all those new names tomorrow, meeting all those new people. And if you’re not nice to me, I won’t tell you whom to avoid. I think I’m in control here.”
Bryan was grinning at Josh, but then as the words sunk in, Josh suddenly lost his smile. For the first time, it fully dawned on Josh that he was starting from scratch the next day, meeting a whole new bunch of kids. He’d never been successful at that in the past, and realizing what he had to face killed his mood. As he started thinking about it, the happy smile that had been on his face disappeared.
Bryan was watching him and saw the change. Josh went from happy to worried, from confident to anxious in no time at all.
“Hey, Josh. I’m sorry. I was teasing. Look, tomorrow’s going to be fine.”
Josh looked down at the floor. “No, it won’t. I’m terrible with new situations, meeting people, introductions, small talk. I freeze up, and the more I worry about it, the worse it gets. It’s just the way I am. Look, I’ll get through it. Don’t worry about it. Why don’t we go to bed now? You want to take a shower first or second?”
“Josh! You’re doing it again. You’re changing the subject. Let’s talk about this.”
“I can’t! It won’t make any difference. I’m going to take a shower.”
Josh started undressing as he was leaving the room for the bathroom. His shoulders were slumped and there was no life in his step. Bryan watched him leave, feeling terrible for what he’d said and how he’d brought Josh down. He mentally kicked himself. He realized, from the time he’d spent with him, Josh had to be treated carefully with some topics. His self-esteem, fragile at any time, always bordering on deconstructing, didn’t need much to utterly crumble.
While Josh was showering, Bryan sat on the bed thinking. By the time Josh was finished and back in the room with a towel around his waist, Bryan had made a resolution. Tomorrow, he was going to see Josh didn’t have to go through the sort of thing he’d had to put up with in the past.
When Bryan had showered and was ready for bed, Josh was already in bed, reading. Bryan looked at him, and Josh slipped a bookmark into place and laid down his book on his bedside table. Bryan clicked off the overhead light, leaving only Josh’s reading lamp on. Bryan crawled over Josh to his side of the bed and then Josh turned out his lamp. Nothing had been said between them since Josh had left the room for his shower, Josh being entirely preoccupied with his thoughts about the next day.
When the light was off, Josh rolled over on his side, facing away from Bryan. Bryan looked over at him, and in the dim light remaining in the room saw a small, forlorn looking boy, huddled into himself in the bed.
“You’re worrying about tomorrow, aren’t you?” Bryan asked softly.
“I’ll be okay, Bryan. I’m just tired.”
Bryan lay still, watching him a few moments, and then rolled over. He rolled over and cuddled up against Josh, gently, tentatively spooning him the way Josh had spooned him the night before. He could feel Josh’s body, rigid and unresponsive. Bryan draped his arm over him, then said softly, “Josh, it’ll be okay tomorrow. Just wait and see.”
Josh didn’t reply. But after a few moments, Bryan could feel his body relax a bit, and then a bit more. It was in that position that they both fell asleep.
----  ----
When they locked their bikes in the bike rack the next morning, Josh was in a better mood. At least he was talking again, so Bryan was hopeful. At breakfast, he’d been unable to get more than one word responses from Josh. He still seemed nervous now, but at least he wasn’t as withdrawn. Perhaps the exercise of the bike ride had helped.
“You don’t need to go to the office, do you?”
“No, Mrs. Betchmeyer gave me my schedule and said to just follow it, it was all set. I’ve got a Mr. Cunningham for Homeroom. Room 309.”
“That’s right next door to where I’m going. Come on, I’ll walk you. I know a couple guys in there I can introduce you to.”
They walked into the school together and up the stairs. On the third floor the hall was crowded with kids opening and closing their lockers or standing in groups talking. Bryan walked with Josh down the hall, then asked him to stop a moment. He opened a locker, dropped in his backpack, then took out a textbook and a notebook and closed the door.
“Your room is the next one. Mine’s right here. Come on, I’ll introduce you to a couple of guys.”
They entered Room 309. It was about half full of kids at that point, about ten minutes before the bell. Bryan looked around, then got a grin on his face.
He grabbed Josh’s arm and led him over to a boy standing alone and looking out the window. As he turned around, Josh realized it was the guy Bryan had been talking to at the mall.
“Josh, this is Eric Meadows. Eric, Josh Warren. This is Josh’s first day here, Eric. He’s transferring from Kennedy. He doesn’t know anyone here but me. Do you think you could maybe introduce him to a couple of guys in here? And see he’s headed right for his first class?”
“Sure, Bryan, no problem. Hi, Josh.” Eric had a friendly smile on his face. Josh had noticed he seemed to have lots of personality when he’d seen him talking to Bryan that day in the mall, and he showed the same thing now. He was enthusiastic without being hyper, his eyes flashed when they were introduced, and he seemed very pleased to be meeting Josh.
Josh wasn’t pleased. This is what he hated. He looked at Eric and then looked down. Then he realized Eric had said hi and he had to respond, so he looked back up, said a weak, “Hi,” and then blushed and looked down again.
Bryan saw all this, and looked at Eric, a silent plea in his eyes. He mouthed, ‘very shy’ to Eric. Eric took this in, gave Bryan an almost imperceptible nod, then said to Josh, “Hey, Mr. Cunningham just came in. Let me introduce you to him. But Josh, can I speak to Bryan alone for just a second? Then I’ll introduce you.”
Eric took Bryan’s arm and pulled him a short distance away. He looked him in the eye and said, softly so as not to be overheard, “How are you doing? Anything I can help with?”
Bryan smiled at him. “Everything’s so much better at the moment. So, so Much. I’ll have to talk to you about it soon. You really helped me, Eric, when I needed it desperately. Look after Josh, will you? He really needs a lot of support right now, too. That’ll be a help to me as well.”
Eric looked at him without replying for a moment or two, then said, “No problem. But we need to talk. I want to be sure everything’s really okay with you.”
“It is, now. Hopefully, it’ll stay that way. I’ve got to run. Thanks, Eric. I really mean that.”
Bryan and Eric walked back over to where Josh was waiting for them. Bryan spoke to Josh. “I’ve got to go, Josh. I’ll see you at lunch. Thanks, Eric. Oh, there’s Frank. Introduce him to Josh, will you?” Bryan then tried to meet Josh’s eyes before walking off, but Josh was still looking down.
Eric put his hand lightly on Josh’s arm and started toward the front of the room, letting go when he felt Josh following him. They stopped at the front desk, and Eric introduced Josh to Mr. Cunningham.
“Oh, yes, nice to meet you, Josh. Thanks, Eric. Josh, I got your papers from Mrs. Betchmeyer. You’ll only be in here for ten minutes in the morning. I just take roll and read any announcements. But welcome to my homeroom, and if I can ever be of any help, let me know. You can sit anywhere you’d like.”
“Thank you, sir,” murmured Josh. Then he turned, looking for an unoccupied seat, and saw Eric beckon him. He walked to where Eric was standing next to a boy who was more than a head taller and a lot heavier than either of them. They were talking, and the large boy looked at Josh and smiled at him.
“Josh, this is Frank Bientanotto. Even though he’s a freshman like us, he’s on the varsity football team. He’s the second string center. Everyone tells me the center has to be really smart. Well, actually, Frank tells me the center has to be really smart.”
Frank grinned at Eric and stuck his hand out to Josh. Josh took it, and saw his hand swallowed in Frank’s, which was surprisingly soft and gentle.
“Don’t mind Eric, Josh. He likes to kid around a lot and thinks he’s funny, and every now and then one of his betters, people like me actually, have to knock him around a little so he learns the proper respect and how to treat the gods in this school. By that I mean the football players.” Frank had a large smile on his face.
Josh always was intimidated, meeting new people, and never could quite figure out what to say, but something in Frank’s demeanor, perhaps his very size and his smile but also his gentleness, put Josh at ease. He just seemed friendly. So Josh surprised himself by volunteering, rather easily, “It’s nice meeting you, Frank. If Eric gives me any trouble, I’ll know whom to call.”
All three of them grinned, and Frank gave a little wave as he left to go to his seat.
Josh followed Eric to his seat and slid into the empty desk next to him. Eric asked to see his schedule, then studied it.
“We have several classes together. You’re in all advanced placement classes. I’d tell you you’re a brain, but I’m in some AP classes too, and I don’t want to pat myself on the back or anything.” He grinned, and Josh couldn’t help but grin back. He was finding it easy to like Eric. And, surprisingly, easy to be with him. Eric wasn’t asking him a lot of personal questions or making him talk much.
Mr. Cunningham took roll after the bell rang and introduced Josh to the class. Luckily he simply had Josh stick up his hand and didn’t make him stand and talk about himself, one of Josh’s least favorite activities on the entire planet and the source of much teasing he’d had to endure when it had happened in the past. When Mr. Cunningham skipped that small torture, Dr. Collins’ comment about intentionally trying to rid the curriculum of as many embarrassments as possible came to Josh’s mind. Could it really be true, and extend this far? He couldn’t help but smile at the thought.
Eric saw the smile, and remarked, “You look happy. Something funny?”
“No, just a private thought. But I think I am happy, which is surprising. I usually hate a first day. It’s one of my worst things, meeting a lot of new people, and I’ve been nervous, thinking about it.”
“This is a pretty awesome school, Josh. I know that at some places the smarter kids get picked on a lot. The smaller kids, too. You’ve got both those things working for you, so I can imagine you might have had some problems. I don’t think that’ll happen much here. Actually, not at all. Wait and see.”
“Why do you think I’m smart?” Josh asked cautiously.
Eric grinned. “All AP classes? All? Give me a break, Josh!” Then he laughed, but it wasn’t at Josh at all, more at the situation, and Josh could see that clearly.
The bell rang at that point, and they both got up. As the crowd began moving toward the door, Eric asked Josh to walk with him and he’d take him to his next class, which they both had together.
The morning passed quickly for Josh. He had four classes before lunch and Bryan was in one of them and Eric in three. The introductions to all the teachers went smoothly, there was no problem sitting where he wanted to, none of the teachers made a point of calling attention to him, and in fact, he wasn’t having any problems at all. He was starting to feel he was in a surreal fairy tale. He couldn’t ever remember a first day in any school going so smoothly.
Lunch was the cacophonous mass of hungry, rowdy kids Josh expected. The difference for him from what he was accustomed to was that Bryan met him at the cafeteria door and accompanied him through the line. After paying, and then watching Bryan have his card punched, Bryan pointed out a table for them. There were already three other kids there, two boys and a girl.
Bryan led the way, Josh trailing closely behind. “Hey guys, this is Josh. He just transferred from Kennedy. Josh, the ugly one is Kenny. Oh, I’m sorry, I guess that doesn’t tell you who’s who, does it? OK, this is Kenny here and the other ugly one is Kass. The gorgeous young lady is Cal.”
Josh smiled shyly at them all, and as they were smiling back, he had the courage to look at them rather than the floor. Kenny was in fact a relatively good-looking kid who appeared to be his age, as did all three of them. Kenny had very dark, short hair, dark eyes, a slim build and the mischievous look of an imp about him. Kass was sturdier with messy dark blond hair and very blue eyes behind a pair of thick glasses. Cal was a girl whose face wasn’t classically pretty, but her eyes sparkled as if she knew something no one else did, her long brown hair gleamed and something about the way she held her head slightly to the side as she looked at him with intelligent brown eyes made Josh think she was someone of substance, someone he’d be foolish to ignore.
In fact, it was Cal who spoke. “Welcome to Taft High School, Josh. We’re glad to take in Kennedy refugees. I understand anyone who escapes from there alive is something of a hero. Of course, Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.’ I hope we won’t be doing that with you. At least we can drink a toast to a Kennedy survivor. Unfortunately, all we have is milk. To our newest hero.” She said this very solemnly, raising her half-pint milk carton in a mock toast, yet her eyes twinkled and her look was very slightly challenging.
Kass moaned and dropped his head into his hands, shaking it back and forth as though he were in severe pain, feigning great despair.
Josh was definitely not one for repartee with kids he didn’t know, but his morning had given him both a strong sense of hope and a degree of self-confidence that was uncommon for him. Should he? Could he? As Bryan was setting his tray down, Josh, feeling a little foolish but hooked by Cal’s muted challenge, looked at her and said, “Samuel Johnson said ‘Claret is the liquor for boys, port for men; he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.’ He didn’t say anything at all about heroes drinking milk. But then I don’t much like brandy and do like milk. I myself would probably pick a different quote to describe myself, perhaps one by Henry David Thoreau, who said, ‘The hero is commonly the simplest and obscurest of men,’ or even old Ralph Waldo himself who wrote, ‘Every hero becomes a bore at last.’ That, I’m afraid, catches the essence of me.” Then he blushed.
There was a stunned silence at the table, and then Kenny pointed at Cal and started roaring, laughing so hard he couldn’t speak. He was joined by the others. When he could finally gasp out the words, Kenny looked at Cal and said, “Finally! We’ve got someone who can talk back to you on your own level, Cal. Josh, welcome aboard. We need you here! Badly. There’s this strange girl who sits here who desperately needs being put in her place, probably two or three times a day.”
Josh was still blushing, but sat down feeling a strange sense of belonging. None of these kids were teasing him or making fun of him. He would never have been able to say anything like that at Kennedy. He couldn’t imagine even thinking of doing so. He glanced at Bryan and saw a huge smile lighting his face.
Cal was smiling too. “Wow, Josh. Just like that? Three quotes? Pretty neat, guy. Bryan, where’d you find him, in the back room of a library somewhere, studying?”
“Cal you know me. You wouldn’t catch me within 100 yards of a library.”
The talk and teasing and sass swirled around Josh. He took it in, not saying much unless asked a direct question. He was still shy, he was still an introvert, but he felt good inside. He felt really good. He felt something strange and unusual and warming; he felt accepted.
After lunch, Josh had his first class all day that had neither Eric nor Bryan in it. He thought he knew no one there, but just before the bell was to ring, Frank Bientanotto slipped into the classroom and took a seat in the back. Which was where Josh was sitting. He had wanted an open seat, not wanting to take someone else’s, and thought his odds better the further he sat from the front.
Frank had sat next to him and, looking over, recognized him. He said softly to Josh, “This class is terrible. I’m in trouble here and will get suspended from the football team if I fuck up once more. I hope she doesn’t call on me. I’m scared shitless of her and she knows it. I can’t afford any more bad marks in here, and she’s always springing pop quizzes on us.”
The class was American History, a subject that Josh loved. The teacher had told him her name was Ms. Caldwell when he’d introduced himself before class. She was an older woman, very thin with gray hair and a habitual tendency to frown. After the bell, she began by lecturing the class on the day’s lesson and Josh could see by the class’ reaction, a dry lecture delivered in an uninspired monotone immediately following lunch was having the expected effect. Heads were beginning to nod.
Ms. Caldwell evidently noticed the same thing. She stopped her lecture in mid-sentence, paused for effect, then said, “Since no one is particularly interested in listening to me explain The Missouri Compromise, maybe I’ll just let the brilliant minds in this room enlighten us instead. Maybe that will wake you up. I think to spice it up, we should make it into little individual quizzes. I’m going to ask questions at random from this chapter on the politics of the slavery issue and when I call your name, answer the question correctly or get a zero for today. All right. First question: what year was the Missouri Compromise enacted? James?
A boy in the front row looked up with a pained expression on his face. “1819?”
“No, James. You need to read a little more carefully. That’s a zero for today. Who’s next? Amanda?”
A girl in the middle of the room groaned, but Josh was distracted into ignoring her by Frank. He had a pained expression on his face and was repeating over and over, almost silently, “Not me, not me, not me.”
When Amanda had guessed 1823 and gained her zero, Ms. Caldwell again scanned the room, and her eyes fell on Frank, trying to hunch down in his seat as much as his huge body would permit. She stared at him for a moment, then smiled and said, “Ah, let’s try the back row for some elucidation. Fr. . .”
That was a far as she got before Josh jumped in. “1820, Ms. Caldwell. Oh, you were looking at me, weren’t you? I hope I didn’t speak out of turn.”
“That’s all right, Josh, is it? I was going to ask Frank, but as you volunteered, maybe you can take the next question too. If James Tallmadge’s bill to limit slavery in Missouri passed in 1819, why wasn’t Missouri granted statehood till 1821 with the Missouri Compromise, and why was it admitted as a slave state?”
Josh hated this sort of question. He knew the answer, but giving it in class would make him look like a boasting know-it-all, just exactly the sort of person other students instinctively hate. The answer to this question could be long and complex and it would be easy for him to take the rest of the class period explaining it. But it was far more important to fit in with his classmates. What he would really like was to answer the question and not piss anyone off or gain a reputation doing so.
“Tallmadge’s bill only passed the House, not the Senate, and Missouri was admitted in 1821 as a slave state to balance Maine, which had been admitted the year before.” There. That was brief enough. It left out a world of wrangling in congress and between ideologies and advocates throughout the nation, it was way too sterile an answer, but for Josh, it seemed to be a compromise of his own.
Ms. Caldwell looked at Josh for a moment in silence, her eyes unreadable, then asked another question, and, her fascination with the back row temporarily assuaged, moved her attack to the far right side of the room, leaving Frank to slump in his seat. Josh grinned at him, and he gave Josh back a weak smile back and mouthed “Thanks.”
After the class, as Josh was standing to leave, Frank grasped his shoulder and said, “Thanks, Josh. You saved my ass in there.”
“Just doing my part for the football team, Frank,” Josh joked back, a grin on his face.
“Hey, I won’t forget it. What class you got next?”
“Yeah?” His face lit up. “Me too. Come on, I’ll show you.”
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