What happens when two lonely boys meet in a shopping mall food court?
When they were dry and back in their bedroom, Josh asked Bryan, “Are we going to put our boxers back on?”
“Do you want to?”
“No. It seems sort of wrong, but I’d like to sleep naked with you. That doesn’t make me gay, does it?”
“No, it makes you a horndog. Just the kind of guy I like. I always slept nude before. I like it better. I’m up for it if you are.”
Josh looked down and smiled. “I guess that was just a figure of speech, huh? OK. Let’s do it. You ready for bed?”
“Sure.” Bryan dropped his towel on the floor and pulled back the covers on the bed. Josh turned off the light, then turned to watch Bryan’s bare butt climbing into the bed in the light from the bedside lamp. He dropped his towel on Bryan’s and got into bed too, feeling very self-conscious and naughty. Also, he suddenly realized, very tired and, surprisingly, a little shy.
“Bryan, can we just to go to sleep? I’m too tired to play around any more.”
“I want to do that, too. But can we cuddle up? I really liked that when you did that the other night. I’d like to go to sleep that way.”
Josh smiled. “I like that, too.” He rolled toward Bryan. Bryan rolled over to face the wall. Josh slid over so he was pressed against Bryan’s back. He bent his legs to fit into Bryan’s. They fit perfectly together. A deep sense of contentment washed over him. Sleep came quickly.
----  ----
At school the next day, Eric motioned for him to come over and sit next to him in homeroom. Josh felt a little shy with Eric, but also a warmth towards him because of the way he’d treated Bryan.
Eric brought that up. “Bryan is looking and acting a lot more like he used to. I like his new hair style. It really works for him. But he’s smiling again, that’s what I like best. I guess you two are friends?”
Josh smiled. Eric wanted information, but wasn’t asking directly. He had a great deal of restraint in him and was keeping his curiosity well within polite bounds. Josh was impressed by this boy’s character.
“Eric, I think Bryan should be the one to answer your questions. Yes, I’m his friend, but I’ve known him even less time than you have. He really appreciates what you’ve done for him. He’s incredibly grateful to you. He told me you were a special friend. He called you that, special. You’re really important to him. I don’t know how much he’s comfortable saying right now, but you deserve to know that he’s not in trouble any more. He’s safe, and we’re working on his problems.”
“Oh, that’s great, and a big relief. Thanks for telling me. I’ve been worrying, and I kept wondering if I should tell someone about him. I promised him I wouldn’t, but I never knew if that was the right thing to do. You’ve relieved my mind a lot. Although, as I said, he’s been looking much more relaxed this week so I thought something must be better for him. Can you tell me what?”
Josh smiled. He’d been about to teasingly ask Eric if he was nosy, but he’d been the subject of too much teasing in his life, much of it viciously cruel, to so callously tease another boy, even if it was in jest. Instead, he said, “I think he’d tell you if you’d ask him. I know he’d like to thank you. He feels really guilty about accepting the help you gave him, and really, really grateful to you. I shouldn’t tell you this, but I think you have a right to know: when he was talking to me about you and what you did for him, he broke down and cried, he was so emotional about it. What you did for him saved him, Eric.”
“So he’s told you everything?”
“Yeah. It took him a long time to do it. You ought to talk to him, Eric. I think having the opportunity to thank you would be good for him.”
“So everything’s really okay with him now?”
“No. We haven’t got that far yet. Not all his problems are behind him. To tell the truth, I think we’ve solved more of my problems than his.” Josh blushed and looked down, then forced himself to look back up. “We’re still trying to solve his. But he’s okay.”
“If I can help, Josh, please let me.”
“Eric, I want to thank you, too. Just from talking to you, I can see why he calls you special. Hey, you know what, how about you coming over tomorrow for dinner, maybe to spend the night, too? I’d really like that, and it would give all of us a chance to talk. Maybe he’d tell you everything. Can you do that?”
“I think so. I’d like that. I’m glad you asked me. I’ll call my mom and ask. Thanks, Josh.”
----  ----
In gym, Josh was shocked. Teams were being chosen for basketball. Josh was used to being picked last. Josh was always picked last. It no longer bothered him, it was the way things worked and he knew he wasn’t any good. And so he didn’t even react when he was chosen fourth. He wasn’t paying any attention.
He was thinking about Eric coming over the following evening and suddenly realized everyone was looking at him. He looked up, the blush already forming in his cheeks.
“Josh, you’re with us.” It was Frank calling to him. He’d just chosen him for his team. Fourth. That was ridiculous. No one ever had picked him that high. He sheepishly walked over to stand with Frank and the other three boys he’d chosen, feeling desperately out of place, knowing Frank was going to be disappointed when he saw how badly he played. Frank had wasted a pick. Now here he was, standing where a good player should be standing. This was such a new experience for him, he wasn’t sure how to act. Fourth. A milestone.
Bryan was also chosen by Frank. Sixth. Josh couldn’t wait till they got home.
The really surprising thing to Josh was, in the game, guys passed him the ball. And he caught it. And dribbled, then passed it to other guys. And in doing so, he realized there was a rhythm to what was happening. He saw, in front of him, that how the way the players moved—the way the passes were thrown, the way the people with the ball dribbled—influenced the way the defense moved. He saw the action, and suddenly started to understand it. It was as if a whole new world was opening up in front of him.
The game progressed and Josh was actually involved in it, to his amazement. What Bryan had told him was suddenly making more sense. He was defending against one of the smaller players on the other team, and remembering Bryan’s advice, was keeping between him and the basket, and doing so by moving his body, trying to stop his opponent from dribbling to the basket. He was doing a decent job, too, because whenever his man got the ball, he ended up passing it away again.
They’d been playing for some time when the coach yelled out, “Only a few more minutes guys. Time’s about up.”
Frank had just rebounded a missed shot by their opponents. The score was tied. He whipped the ball to the outside, which meant to Josh. Josh had played almost entirely on the outside, on the perimeter of the action. It seemed scary to him to go inside. That’s where the taller and rougher players were. He caught the ball from Frank, then looked for someone to pass it to. Everyone was covered, and his defender, playing off him, was waving his arms frantically in front of him. Then he charged at him, hoping to tie him up and maybe get a steal. Josh had nervously started his dribble, and as his man ran at him, he remembered how he’d played against Bryan in the driveway. He took a half step to his right, then crossed over to his left hand, leaving his defender clawing at air, sweeping for a ball that was no longer there.
With his defender off-balance and out of position, there was now an open alley in front of Josh. He continued his dribble, but was now moving toward the basket, his heart pounding about 400 miles an hour.
He had entered big man’s territory, a terrifying place to be. He saw no one to pass to, so kept going. A large defender suddenly was in front of him. He moved right to avoid him, then cut to his left, and saw an opening. He was about to dribble that way when he saw a teammate cut toward the basket. It was Bryan. Just then another big defender moved toward him, blocking him. He saw he couldn’t get around this one. Josh stopped his dribble, faked a pass to the right, then bounced a pass to Bryan who had stopped and was open near the left side of the basket. When Josh passed to him, the large defender blocking him jumped back to guard Bryan. Josh saw his opening and moved toward the basket; there was no defender guarding him. Bryan passed the ball back to him, and Josh had an uncontested lay-up in front of him. His nerves screaming at him, his heart pounding, scared his feet would get tangled, Josh caught the ball, rose off his left foot towards the basket, lifted the ball as he stretched his arm out underhand and flipped it onto the backboard, just as he’d learned on his driveway. The ball kissed the backboard and fell through the hoop.
The coach’s whistle cut the air. “That’s it, guys, hit the showers,” he called out.
Josh’s teammates whooped and hollered. Frank and Bryan both rushed to Josh and grabbed him. “Great move, Josh. You won it for us,” yelled Frank. “That deke you put on your man up top to get loose—that was amazing!”
“Great give and go, Josh,” said Bryan, wrapping a sweaty arm around his shoulders.
Josh was in shock and feeling jubilant. He’d never done anything like this in his life. He didn’t know how to react. But a warm feeling was infusing him, right down to his soul. It was a feeling of pride.
In the locker room, there was jibing and joshing and guys undressing. As Josh was taking off his shirt at his locker, Coach McKinley walked up to him.
“Josh, can we talk for a minute in my office?”
Josh walked behind him, and when they were inside, sat down in the chair the coach pointed at. The coach again sat on the desk in front of him, one leg on the floor, one dangling.
“Josh, how did that feel, that last play out there?” He had a big smile on his face.
Josh couldn’t help himself. He broke into a huge grin. “That was, well, Coach, I don’t know what to say. It was incredible! I’ve never been involved in anything like that. You know, I’m always picked last. Then Frank picks me fourth. That makes me nervous. I’m sure I’ll screw up. We play, and I’m doing all right, catching on a little. Then that happens at the end. I felt like screaming my lungs out, then I felt like hugging everyone. It was, well, amazing.”
The coach’s smile grew larger. He couldn’t help himself. He stepped forward and hugged Josh. Josh hugged him back. He couldn’t control the smile on his face either.
“Congratulations, Josh. You were great. And I know exactly what you’re feeling. I was you, not too many years ago. That first triumph, man, that feels sooo good. You made me remember it. You did good, Josh. Really good out there. I was watching you. I tend to spend more time watching the littler guys. You looked to me like you were really getting into it, by the end. You were tentative at first, then seemed to just get a feel for what was going on as the game progressed. That last play, that wasn’t luck, Josh. You saw what would work, you didn’t get intimidated or let the pressure get to you, and you engineered the win. I was impressed. You aren’t a bad athlete. With a little work, a little practice and coaching, you could be pretty decent at this stuff.”
Josh was blushing. Compliments, praise from adults, were new to him. “But I’m small, Coach. A lot of those guys are big. Really big. I can’t compete against them. But I did have fun today. For the first time ever, it was fun to be out there, competing with other guys, almost like I was one of them.”
The coach looked at Josh, and his eyes were bright and piercing. “Josh, you can do whatever you want to do. You might be small, but you’re smart. That’s the important thing. You’re smart enough that you can be successful at whatever you set your mind to. The reason your team won today was because you figured out how to get the job done. You’re athletic enough that you were able to do what you needed to do, and your mind came through for you.”
“It feels really good, Coach. I feel like jumping up and down. I’ve never been any good at sports. I never even got a chance before.”
“Now you will. We’ve got all the sports. I think you should try a few, see what you like.”
“What was your sport in school?”
“I was a runner. I started about your age. I found I loved it.”
“I thought you had to be tall and skinny to be a runner. That you needed a long stride. I’m too short to run.”
“Josh, you’re real good at deciding you can’t do things. We have to work on changing that. You can do more than you think you can. I know you can. Look what you did today. As far as running goes, what you just said, that’s just an excuse. Anyone can make excuses and not really try. There’s always going to be someone more physically gifted than you. Always. The people who succeed in life aren’t necessarily the ones who start off with the best tools. Success depends on motivation, dedication, will and hard work. If you want something badly enough, if you’re willing to work for it, Josh, I think you can accomplish anything. Anything.”
“And were you able to do that? Succeed as a runner, even though you were short?”
“Yeah, Josh, I was. I trained a lot. A lot. I ran all the time, once I started. I wasn’t more talented than anyone else. Most of the guys I ran against had more talent. I had more dedication. I trained harder. I wanted to win more than they did. I wanted to prove something. And I did.”
“What did you win?”
“I was the city champion in cross-country my last two years in high school. My coach pushed me, I worked hard and was able to win. I didn’t think I could, when I started. I felt like you. I was too small, I didn’t have any talent, no one thought I could succeed. In the end, I had gained a lot of determination. It all came from inside me, mostly to show people they were wrong about me. To show myself too, really. Most people thought I was nothing. I believed them for too long. The coach wouldn’t let me believe it, once I’d met him. Every time I told him I couldn’t do something, he pushed me and encouraged me and worked with me so I ended up doing it, then he asked if I still thought I couldn’t do it. He teased me about it. I stopped saying I couldn’t do things. And once I stopped saying it, it was easier to accept that maybe I could. He proved to me I wasn’t the loser everyone thought I was. That I thought I was. My hardest job, Josh, was convincing myself of that. I believed all those people. Once I forgot that and started to believe in myself, I started to improve. I’ve never thought that about myself ever since.”
Josh didn’t know what to say, so said nothing. He just looked at the coach.
“After I started doing well in cross-country, the coach started trying to convince me I could do whatever I tried. I wasn’t convinced. I thought I must just be lucky or have some hidden talent in running. He asked me what I was most scared of doing in high school athletics. I thought about it. The one thing I knew I really, truly couldn’t do was wrestle. I knew a couple wrestlers. They’d picked on me some. They were tough and really strong. I mean, really tough and strong. Now that I was running and training at it, I had become a little bit stronger than I had been, but those wrestlers, they were way beyond me. And they were tough and cocky and liked hurting people. I thought about it, and told him wrestling guys like that would be impossible for me. So, he talked to the wrestling coach, and I ended up at their tryouts.
“I was terrified, Josh. I didn’t want to go. The coach just kept talking to me. He told me he’d see I only wrestled people my size. He told me he’d watch out for me. I trusted him. He wouldn’t let me off the hook. He kept badgering me about it. Finally, I just gave up. I went to a practice to try it, mostly to get him off my back.
“The wrestling coach put me with the lightest wrestlers, and they were all my age. They were just beginners, like I was. They had a lot more courage and heart than I did, but the coach gave me some instruction and I got on the mat with one of them. I knew him a little. He was a nice guy named Sam. We wrestled a little. I didn’t get hurt. Sam said something when I was trying to put him on his back, and he laughed, and then I did, and then all of a sudden I was enjoying it. I found out all wrestlers aren’t jerks, and that I could hold my own with kids my size.
“I went back to practice the next day. I ended up going every day. My gym coach was there watching me, every day, being supportive. The wrestling coach liked something about my tenacity, that’s what he told me, and I was stronger than I’d thought from all the running I was doing. I started doing even better than holding my own. And I started making friends with some of the wrestlers. Some of them were real nice. Some were jerks, but not most of them.
“The end of the story, Josh, is that by the time I was a senior, I was on the team. The other wrestlers voted me captain. I had learned some things, I was feisty, and I was still me, a pretty nice guy, and the team respected me. And I’d got pretty good. I won a lot of my matches. I didn’t do as well as I did at running, but I did all right. The only problem was, my gym coach wouldn’t let me forget I’d told him it was impossible. Any time after that, if I said something was too hard, he’d give me a look and say, ‘Yep, sure looks impossible to me, too. Just impossible.’”
“Josh, you’re everything I was at your age. Except I think you’ve got more going for you. You’re smarter than I was, you have more athletic ability, and you have friends who care about you. What you do with all that is entirely up to you. But, if you ever want my help with anything, anything at all, just ask. I know what it’s like to be in high school and be small. And I know what you can achieve if you work hard and start to believe in yourself. That’s really important.”
----  ----
After school, after they’d pigged out on cold chicken leftovers, Bryan asked a glowing Josh if he wanted to play some basketball.
“Bryan, you asked me before about running. Have you ever done any running?”
“Yeah, actually, I did. I kind of liked it, but I couldn’t find anyone to run with me and it was kind of lonely and after awhile I just stopped. Why?”
“I was thinking of starting to run after school every day. Would you be interested in doing that with me?”
“I’d love to! I enjoyed it. You’re not competing against someone else as much as you are against your own self. The more you push yourself, the better you do, and you’re not held back by anyone else. You really want to?”
“I don’t think I’m any good, but I thought I’d like to try it. You want to start today?”
“Sure. Let’s put some shorts on. And you’re supposed to wear a jock, keep everything tight and not jiggling around. Do you have a jock?”
“No, but I don’t have a lot to jiggle around, either. Let’s put on some shorts and do it. I sort of want to start before I change my mind or start thinking about all the reasons not to.”
They went upstairs and changed, then went outside. “How far do you want to run?” Bryan asked.
“I’ve never done this before. I don’t know. You ran some. Why don’t you decide? Remember, I’m not any good.”
“Josh, you have to stop thinking like that. Okay, I’ll set the pace and lead the way. Today, let’s run two miles. I can figure out about what a mile is, so if we run a mile out and then a mile back, that should be about right.”
Bryan started out at a slow pace, and Josh fell in beside him. They jogged without talking. Josh was noticing his body, how it was responding to the, for him, unusual exercise. By the time they’d reached the end of his street, his breath was coming a little harder.
“Yeah,” panted Josh. “Keep going.”
Bryan slowed the already slow pace a little. He didn’t want to discourage Josh. He was enthusiastic about running. He loved and missed it, and thought it was a perfect athletic activity for Josh. He wasn’t competing against a lot of people, it wasn’t nearly as rough as many high school sports, and they could do it together.
At the slower pace, Bryan reached what he felt was a little less than a mile, then turned and started back. Josh was no longer right beside him, but was several feet behind. When Bryan turned, he fell a little farther back. Bryan slowed down again.
They had slowed even more when their house came back into sight. Josh was running at a slow jog and was breathing heavily. They reached the front of the house, turned up towards the porch, and Bryan stopped. Josh did too, and slumped down onto the lawn on his hands and knees. His breathing was ragged. He panted for a while, not able to talk. He stayed there for several minutes, trying to recover. Finally, when he wasn’t struggling to breathe, he rolled over so he was lying on his back on the lawn. Bryan sank down next to him.
“You okay, Josh?”
“Can we do this again tomorrow?”
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