"Dude, you're a machine, I swear." Andrew wiped some sweat from his forehead. His parents were on some money saving kick, and didn't want the air conditioning on after eight at night. Unfortunately, Summer in Ohio usually meant still, humid, and hot all night long, and this night was no exception.
"I could keep this up all night." Cam said, smirking.
"You been practicing with someone else?"
"Come on, out with it."
Andrew's room was dark, save for the light flashing from his television. The sun was still out, but instead of curtains, he preferred to have opaque blankets thumbtacked over his windows. It made for a really cool effect when playing video games, as he and Cam were doing at the moment. "I played a bit with some other guys the other day, yeah." "Some other guys the other day? Come on, man. Specifics. Maybe I know 'em."
"Nathan and Jerry Hensley. Couple days ago, when you were busy with...whatever it was that you were busy with."
"Oh, so you met Clint?"
"Yeah...why's everybody call him that?"
Andrew responded by shaking his head and chuckling.
"Ugh." Cam groaned. He'd never find out at this rate. "So you know him, then?"
"Kind of. Not really. In some of the same classes last year, that's about it. I don't think anybody really knows him. He just kind of showed up a few months ago, went to class, didn't talk to anybody, and went home. Seemed like kind of a jerk, really."
"Nah, he's cool." Now that Cam thought about it, Nathan did seem kind of stand-offish at first. Still, there was something that he just couldn't put his finger on...
"I'll take your word for it. Anyway, care to put your money where your mouth is?"
"What do you mean?"
"What you said before about being able to do this all night." Andrew said, nodding to the screen on which their digital avatars were still fighting it out. "I bet if we clear it with the folks they'll let you stay over."
Cam thought hard on this. On the one hand, it would be cool to stay overnight, but on the other hand, he wanted to minimize any possibility of awkward situations between them. Still, normal guys slept over with their friends, right? It'd look weird to turn it down. Finally, he decided to throw his fate to the wind and leave it up to the parents. If they said it was alright, he'd go along with it.
"Sure, that'd be cool."
A quick conversation with the Rowans and a phone call to Cam's parents were all it took to make the arrangements. They lived close enough for Cam to run home, pick up any gear he might need, and run back. Fifteen minutes later, the boys had resumed their positions in Andrew's room: Andrew leaning against the wall with his legs stretched across his bed, Cam sitting cross-legged on the floor, leaning back against the bed frame.
They resumed their game where they left off, talking about whatever came to mind. Movies, music, TV, girls. That last one was brought up by Andrew, of course. Cam played along, not saying anything that wouldn't be considered normal. By the time they looked at the clock, it was already after midnight.
"Hey, the parents are probably asleep by now."
"Yeah, probably." Cam paused the game to wipe some sweat from his face.
"Way too hot in here. I've got to buy a fan or something."
"Yeah, I don't see how you can manage sleeping here without one."
"I usually sleep outside when it gets bad like this."
"Yeah. Just throw a sleeping bag down in the back yard. No big deal."
"Don't you get killed by bugs and stuff?"
"Nah. Between the bug spray and the zapper, they don't bother me."
"You want to? It's a lot better than being in here."
"I don't have a sleeping bag or anything..."
"I got ya covered, don't worry about it."
Quietly, they gathered up their stuff and slipped outside. Andrew dropped his sleeping bag under the one tree they had and unzipped it, spreading it so that it was open like a blanket. He then spread a thin, cool blanket over that.
"There. Big enough for two, provided we don't thrash around too much."
Cam was starting to feel nervous about this. When he agreed to stay over, he assumed that Andrew would be in his bed and that he would be on the floor a good distance away. Now, assuming they both stayed on their own sides while asleep, they were only about two feet apart. Jeez. He looked over at Andrew and his eyes nearly shot out of his skull. His friend had peeled off his shirt and was standing there in his board shorts, spraying himself with insect repellent. Aw hell. He turned the other way.
He turned back to see Andrew offering him the can of bug spray. He grabbed it and turned away again, spraying it on his shirt.
"You gonna sleep in your shirt?"
"Uh...yeah. I always do."
"Really? Well, whatever you're into, I guess," Andrew said. He was getting some weird vibes from Cam, like he didn't really want to be here. He'd had his back turned towards him since they got outside, too.
"Are you alright with this? I mean, if you want to go back inside, we can. I don't want to you feel...I dunno, awkward or anything."
Cam laughed. Awkward. When the hell didn't he feel awkward? Still, he was feeling rather apprehensive about this. Not just the fact that he would be sleeping close to an attractive, shirtless guy, either. Sleeping outside brought back some memories. Those few days he was on the streets...wow, powerful stuff. Just thinking about it put him on emotional overdrive.
"It's just...ah, nothing. Don't worry about it."
He climbed into the makeshift bed and stretched out. He hadn't had one of these when he was on the road, that was for sure. No bug spray, either. He turned to his side just as Andrew was getting in, ending up facing him. He stayed like that for a few seconds before he realized how weird that would look and turned the other way. An hour later he was still awake. He just couldn't shake the memories of his time away from home. Those memories were so potent in his mind, the feelings they evoked felt so real...all of a sudden, he felt so alone, so lost, so hopeless. His head was spinning, his breathing getting shallow and erratic. He sat upright and looked around, shaking. It wasn't the Rowans' back yard he was seeing; it was just some dark, empty plot of land. Alone, alone.
Cam's rapid breathing and jerky movements woke Andrew. As his post-sleep confusion faded, he noticed that Cam was sitting on top of the covers, his legs doubled up and his arms wrapped around them, shaking violently.
"Cam? Cam, can you hear me?"
Still no response. This was creepy. It was like he was in a trance or something. He couldn't be asleep, could he? Not in that position. He reached out slowly and touched his friend on the shoulder. Cam jumped, his eyes wide, his head snapping back and forth. When his eyes settled on Andrew, he seemed to calm down just a little. His eyes were scaring Andrew. They reflected the creepy neon light from the bug zapper, and he wasn't blinking. His mouth opened, but all that came out was a weird choking sound. He reached out and touched Andrew's shoulder, still shaking. The contact seemed to make him fall apart as he fell forward, crying. He was saying something, but Andrew couldn't make it out. Thoroughly scared and confused, Andrew just put his hands on Cam's shoulders, which seemed to calm him down. He stayed like that for a while, until he noticed that Cam was asleep. Slowly backing away to his side of the bag, he leaned back and went to sleep himself.
Cam woke up the next morning in an uncomfortable position, on top of the blankets and kind of folded over himself. Whatever it was, it wasn't normal looking. He tried to correct himself only to find that his back was incredibly stiff from sleeping on it like that. He stood up and stretched out, reaching for the sky. Man, what a weird position to wake up in. How had he managed to fall asleep like that? He looked over to Andrew, still asleep, with one arm out groping the grass. This was always the worst part of staying over at somebody else's house - the time before they wake up, when you're stuck sitting there not doing anything. He laid back down and just relaxed for a while.
When Andrew woke up he was relieved to see that Cam had straightened himself out, but was still worried about what had happened. He asked Cam what was wrong, but received only a blank stare in return.
"You know, what happened last night."
"Dude, you freaked out. I don't know, it was weird. You were shaking and stuff."
"Really?" Cam pressed his memory as hard as he could. He could vaguely recall something happening, but couldn't place the details. "I...don't remember. I mean, I remember that we came out here because it was too hot inside, and then we went to sleep, and that's all I know."
"I don't know what happened. You started acting funny as soon as we got out here, then I saw that you were like...curled up in a ball or something, just kind of staring into space. Then you fell over and started...you fell asleep." Andrew finished up abruptly, not wanting to embarrass Cam any more than he had to.
"Seriously? You're not just screwing with me, are you?"
"I wouldn't joke about what happened last night, man. That was scary. I didn't know if you were having a seizure or what."
They both fell into silence, looking out across the lawn for a few minutes.
"Well," Cam said, standing up, "I'm not going to worry about it. Probably just a nightmare or something."
"Yeah." Andrew nodded, but wasn't sure he agreed. Cam was wide awake, and he was sure of it. He distinctly remember seeing his eyes open. Still, he didn't really want to push the topic. "Hey, I think my parents are at work by now. You up for some breakfast?"
Andrew snorted. "Oh yeah, I'm a real gourmet." Cam snickered at his butchered pronunciation ("gore-meht"). "I can sometimes make a bowl of cereal without burning it."
"Sounds good to me. Er...mind if I hit the can first, or would that be bad manors in the presence of a 'gourmet'?"
"Not at all. In fact, I insist. Wouldn't want you to take a badly aimed turn and knock something off the table."
Cam stared back, puzzled at first. Then, he looked down and realized that he was standing there displaying his morning hard-on like a sundial. Blushing, he stuffed his hands in his pockets and made his way toward the house. Jeez. Granted, he knew that they were both guys and that Andrew was probably in the same condition as he was, but still...he had had the sense to stay under the blanket, rather than getting up and waving it around like a patriot with a flag.
"Patriot with a flag?" He thought, "Giving myself a bit too much credit, I think."
He found the bathroom easily enough, took care of business, and stopped to check the mirror. Just as he thought, his hair was even crazier than usual. He straightened it out as best he could with his fingers, which left it looking more or less the same as it did when he used a comb. He had the kind of hair that never looked combed, even when it was. Always made school picture days a lot of fun. Looking closely, his eyes looked a little red, like he had been crying. Was Andrew right? Did something happen to him last night? He really couldn't remember.
By the time he got back, Andrew had started on breakfast. He had thrown a CD into the stereo and was punctuating his "cooking" with short busts of air guitar as he slid around on the linoleum in his socks. At some point he had slipped a shirt on, much to Cam's relief.
Andrew slid Cam's bowl across the kitchen counter like a bartender, then grabbed his own and moved to the living room.
"Hey, didn't you need to...?" Cam motioned to the bathroom.
"Nah, that's what that tree back there is for."
Cam shot him a sideways glance which made him crack up.
"Kidding. Parents have a separate bathroom. I just used that."
"I was about to say...I mean, jeez, I slept under that tree, man!"
"You sure you want to try this?"
"Yes already, come on!"
"Alright, but you'll have to put this on." Nathan held out a pair of shatterproof goggles to his younger cousin.
"Aw...do I have to? They look so...I don't know, goofy."
"Your mom's used to me coming home with bruises, but she'd kill me if I brought you home like that. Either put 'em on, or forget the whole thing."
Jerry sighed and took the goggles from Nathan.
"Where did you get these, anyway?" He asked, slipping them on.
"Stole 'em from science class last year. Just in case."
"So how come you didn't wear them? I mean, you were still coming home with black eyes."
"Thought they looked kinda goofy," Nathan replied, smirking. This earned him a punch in the shoulder from his cousin. "Come on, let's get to it."
They got into position in the clearing, facing each other and standing parallel to the railroad tracks. Nathan pulled open his gym bag and took out a set of clubs.
"Remember, it's just like balls, only obnoxiously harder to catch. Oh, and they sting your knuckles, too."
To emphasize this point, Nathan displayed a nice sized bruise covering the knuckle of his middle finger.
Jerry responded by raising his own middle finger in a similar manner, snickering.
"Here, start out with one."
He tossed the club underhand to Jerry, giving it just enough spin to twist once in the air. Jerry managed to catch it with both hands. He threw it back and forth between his hands, getting used to the weight and the spin. Within an hour, he was up to three clubs. He wasn't so much juggling them as he was practicing how to pick them up off of the ground, but it was still an impressive amount of learning for one day. Nathan, meanwhile, was keeping up a simple pattern with his own set of clubs, letting Jerry see exactly how it was done.
"Keep this up for a while and maybe we can learn some club passing. You know, two-man juggling." Nathan said.
"Now that I'd like to see."
The unfamiliar voice made both boys jump and drop their clubs. They spun toward its source. A tall girl, with red hair that fell back to her shoulders.
"Whoa, a chick! Play it cool." Jerry whispered under his breath, leaning back against a nearby tree. "So, you, uh...you like what you see, huh?" He said with a ridiculously fake deep voice. She strolled over to Jerry, seeming to pull with her a force field of cockiness.
"Oh yeah," She whispered, reaching to the back of his head. "The juggling pre-teen chemist look is totally in." Playfully, she snapped the elastic band of his goggles and stepped back, laughing. He rubbed the back of his head, shooting her a mean glare, but let himself laugh a bit, too.
"So...how long've you been watchin' us?" Jerry asked.
"Oh, about five minutes, I guess. I was cutting through here when I heard you guys."
"I'm Jerry, and this is my cousin Clint."
Nathan sighed. Introduced by that stupid nickname again. Well, that's how everyone knew him, so he might as well run with it.
"I'm Jill. Mind if I watch you guys practice?"
Now that she was talking to them, she didn't seem nearly as cocky. Confident, yes, but not cocky.
"Actually, we were just finishing up." Nathan cut in. "My hands are starting to wear out, so it's going to get harder to make any catches."
"Aw, too bad. I'll have to come back some time when you're not all worn out."
She finished with a sarcastic whimper of sympathy.
"Uh, 'scuse us for a second, Jill." Jerry grabbed Nathan by his collar and dragged him off behind a group of trees, lowering his voice to a whisper.
Nathan stayed quiet, waiting for Jerry to continue. He didn't. In his mind, "Dude." was all there was to it.
"Dude, when a hot chick asks if she can watch you perform, you do it. It doesn't matter how hurt your hands are. It doesn't matter if you're on fire. You do it."
"Would you stop it with that already?"
"Not until you go out there and give her the best damn show she's seen outside of Lunar Park."
Nathan groaned in defeat. He didn't want to do anything that would look suspicious involving girls and stuff, and he was well aware of the fact that guys, when in front of girls, tried to show off to the point of making asses of themselves.
"Looks like the show must go on. But just this once, okay? I don't want you bringing a bunch of your fifth grade friends over to see me juggle."
"No worries there. None of them are hot chicks."
"You should really drop that 'hot chicks' thing. Nobody says that anymore."
"Lose the dude, too."
"Ugh, just GO."
With a shove, Jerry launched his cousin back into the clearing, where Nathan was surprised to find not one, but three people waiting. Jill, of course, but also some guy he remembered seeing at school last year...and Cam.
"Um, hey Nath-...er, Cli-...er...hey." Cam shifted his weight between his feet uncomfortably. He honestly wasn't sure how to address the guy.
"Hey, Clint." Andrew added.
"Hey...Andrew, isn't it?" Nathan turned his focus on him for now, trying to avoid looking directly at the one he had mentally filed under "boy of my dreams".
Introductions and small talk were made, and it was decided that the whole gang should do something together. After all, they recognized that all of them being free at the same time wouldn't happen too often. After a bit of debate and some pooling of resources, they settled on going bowling.
"There's an old bowling alley just past Lunar. Really cheap for games, and you don't have to rent shoes if you're fine with bowling in your socks." Andrew pointed out.
"Oh, I know that place," Jill said. "They're cheap because they use the old pen-and-paper score cards instead of the computers."
"Yeah, that's the one."
Cam and Nathan, both being relatively new to the area, agreed to follow along with anything the others decided. Jerry, knowing that he was lucky just to be able to hang out with the older kids, would have gone along with them even if they had said "Hey! Let's go throw rocks at beehives and rob the liqueur store!" Lucky for him, the liqueur store was too far away to get to on foot, and the bee hives were all well hidden this year.
The owner of the bowling alley (named "The Sugar Bowl", but referred to as "That old bowling alley" by pretty much everyone but himself) wasn't exactly happy to see a group of five kids walk in. After all, they never had much money, made a lot of noise, picked the worst songs on the jukebox (Damned kid with their popular music...and they call that dancing? But that was another rant all together), and generally tended to cause trouble.
Still, business wasn't exactly booming, and a few bucks was a few bucks. He took their cash and got them set up in a lane (shoeless, as usual with kids...always skimming a little more from the bill).
The five of them signed their names on the scorecard, which was projected onto a lighted scoreboard against the far wall. Cam's short, scrawled printing, Andrew's reckless, almost graffiti-like scratches, Jill's tall and slender cursive, Nathan's slashing, slanted cursive (he signed as "Clint", mainly as a joke, but also because that's how he had been introduced), and Jerry's bold all-caps decorated the players column.
They bowled half-heartedly. All the real action was on the sidelines, where they were talking, joking, and generally messing around while they waited for their turns. If this had been a movie, there would have undoubtedly been a sappy pop-rock song playing while the camera panned across the group, occasionally zooming in on their faces or cutting to the pins being knocked down. Cam was grinning like teeth were going out of style. This was the first time in...well, in a long time that he had been able to feel at home with a group like this.
Nathan, on the other hand, was feeling kind of out-of-place. It wasn't that he wasn't having fun - quite the opposite, this was the most fun he'd had since he moved here. Still, he had always been on the shy side, and being around so many people he had just met was making him nervous. Not to mention the fact that he happened to be, for all intents and purposes, lusting after one of them. He was playing terribly, too. "Cleaning out the gutters", Jerry had remarked.
Another group of bowlers had entered, and were assigned to the lane right next to Cam and his gang. High school kids, by the look of their jackets. They went about their business, not acknowledging the middle schoolers, as was custom. Of course, that didn't matter much to Nathan, who was already feeling off. If being surrounded by friendly kids his own age made him nervous, it wasn't hard to imagine how being surrounded by tough-looking older guys would make him feel.
"Clint, you're up." Jill called, having just finished her frame.
Nathan nodded, picking up his ball (an alley ball, of course - standard black with some of the holes way too big and some way too small) and stepping up to the line. His palms starting to dampen, he began his motion and released way too early. The ball slipped out of his hand and flew at an awkward angle, loudly hitting the floor and rolling into the gutter. His follow-though was a little less than graceful, as well. The momentum had thrown his hand up and out, twisting him slightly. The fact that he was in his socks didn't exactly help. He slid forward, having to flail his arms to keep from falling over.
"Nice toss there, limp-wrist. Your husband teach you that move?" The high school guys cracked up at this. The guy had said it in a joking, not-at-all-serious tone, but it still stuck. He knew that it was just the standard ribbing that they'd give to anybody after a ridiculous throw like that, but it seemed to cut right through Nathan's logic and jab itself into a soft spot in his brain, bringing up some regrettably familiar doubts.
Can they tell? Am I walking funny? I'm not lisping, am I? I've never lisped in my life, why would I be doing it now? They didn't see the way I've been looking at Cam, right? No, they couldn't have, I haven't been looking at him. Have I? Can he tell? Damn it.
Similar thoughts were pouring into Cam's mind, as well. Should I laugh? Should I be offended? Should I storm over there and make a big deal of it? Should I say something reassuring, or would that look bad? Damn it. Both chose silence, letting Jerry get up to take his turn. Aside from that one incident, everything went great. Something about the five of them seemed to draw them together. Call it fate, call it charisma, call it luck...the point was, when they left that day, they all felt like they were part of a team.
The summer took off like a bottle rocket, and before they knew it, it was the Fourth of July. They had been hanging around together almost constantly since that day they all met, living by an unspoken rule that if they had nothing else to do, they would go to the clearing by the tracks to see who else was free. All five of them didn't get together that often, simply due to conflicting schedules, but there were usually two or three there.
Nathan pulled on a loose t-shirt; light blue with a navy stripe wrapping diagonally from shoulder to waist. He added to that a pair of khaki shorts and whatever shoes and socks he saw lying around. The socks didn't match, but he didn't care all that much. As he combed his hair in the mirror, he noticed that his natural hair color was starting to show through. Not a lot, but just a little at the base.
In all actuality, he was just as blonde as his cousin. He had dyed his hair black when his mother had died about a year earlier. Looking back, he wasn't exactly sure why. Rebellion, maybe? He didn't think so. His dad hadn't cared, barely even noticed it for that matter. Maybe that was it. An attempt to get noticed by his dad. He shrugged. Whatever. The point was, he was starting to get really sick of the black dye, and couldn't wait for it to finally grow out. He laughed, thinking about how no one in town save for his aunt and his cousin knew that he was blond. That'll give 'em a shock.
Grabbing his gym bag full of props, he headed outside and made his way to the clearing. Just as he thought, the rest of the gang was there. How had Jerry managed to beat him? Ah well, doesn't matter. "Clint!" They all called his name at once, and he was reminded of how the whole bar used to greet the character Norm on that old sitcom that he and his dad used to watch. Cam had finally gotten used to calling him by his nickname. He wasn't sure if he was happy about that or not. On the one hand, he didn't mumble or stutter when saying hi any more, but on the other hand...well, the mumbling and stuttering was kind of cute.
'Ach, don't think like that,' Nathan told himself. 'You want to ruin everything and break up the whole group? Jeez. Just try to picture him as not being so damned attractive for a while.' He tried, but it just wasn't working. Picturing Cam with huge, disfiguring scars, extra limbs, missing large clumps of hair...
'Hell, he could be missing a head and he'd still be the cutest guy in the world,' Nathan thought, feeling defeated. 'Though not half the conversationalist, I suppose.'
Not surprisingly, Cam was suffering through similar thoughts himself, though he never quite got to the whole "headless guys really wouldn't be fun to talk to" part.
"So, are we going to the thing at Lunar?" Cam asked the others.
"Yeah!" Andrew shouted. "Most of the stuff is pretty lame, but you can win some cool prizes in the contests. Remember when I told you that I'm a very competitive person?"
"Well, look who's got the better memory." Andrew struck a winning pose. "The point is, I lost big time last year, and I want some vengeance. Plus, now that we've got a group going, we can enter some team games. I bet between all of us, we'll take home plenty of titles."
They talked about it all the way to the park, and once they got there, Andrew stepped forward and spun toward them, addressing them like a general giving his troops a last minute pep talk.
"All right men." Jill cleared her throat at this, but Andrew ignored it and kept going. "Time for a game plan. Me an' Jill are the tallest ones here, and pretty close to the same height, so we should do the three legged race together. Jerry, hit that dumb game where you carry the egg on a spoon. The way I see it, you're closest to the ground, so there's less chance of it breaking if you drop it."
"Gee, thanks. No, really, I know I'm a great egg-spooner, but it's good to hear someone else say it now and then." Jerry muttered. Nathan had to admit, since he started hanging around with the older kids, his cousin had really picked up the art of sarcasm.
Andrew ignored him and continued. "Clint, since you're a juggler, you're used to soft-catching things. I say you and Cam should get into that water balloon toss. Try to teach him how to control those paws of his."
"Hey..." Cam raised his hands up to his face. They did seem kind of out of proportion to the rest of his body, but then again, what didn't? Stupid puberty.
"Alright, first wave of events starts in..." Andrew checked his watch.
"Ten minutes. Make me proud, men!"
Jill cleared her throat again, but Andrew had already grabbed her by the wrist and was pulling her toward their event.
"Well, I guess I'd better practice." Jerry said, walking off with his hand out holding an imaginary spoon, leaving Cam and Nathan alone.
"Um...you up for a crash course in soft-catching?" Nathan asked, unzipping his bag and pulling out a soft juggling ball.
Cam nodded and took a few steps back, holding out his hands. Nathan did the same, locked eyes with him and nodded just before tossing the ball in a low and slow arc. The eye contact seemed to make Cam's muscles melt off, the ball's weight forcing his weakened arms down as he caught it.
"Whoa, not bad. That's the right motion right there."
Cam looked down to realize that what he had just done looked a lot like a soft catch. Jeez, if that kept up, he'd have no problem. He tossed back in the same way, and studied Nathan's technique as he caught the ball.
They threw it back and forth a few more times, getting further and further apart. Nathan, of course, was catching everything that came in his direction, but Cam was dropping a few.
"Try not to concentrate on the ball until it's about halfway there. Watch my hands, try to read where it's going to go based on that."
They practiced for the next few minutes before the official announcer (some high school guy that the organizers promised to pay fifty dollars for doing this all day) called over the loudspeaker system that the first wave of events was about to begin. They ran over and signed up, barely making it in time and getting stuck on the very end of the designated field.
"It's better this way, anyway. We only have to worry about one team distracting us. Everybody else has to worry about two." Nathan said. The event started out pretty easily. The water balloon they were given was about the same weight as the ball they had been practicing with. The only problem was that it was slippery and tended to flop around in the air. Still, as the other teams were being eliminated, they managed to stay in, holding eye contact and using the method they had practiced. Soon, it was between them and one other team.
Throw, catch, step back, throw, catch, step back...Cam and Nathan were starting to get so far apart that they couldn't hold eye contact. Jerry, already done with his event (not as good of an egg-spooner as he had previously thought), had come to the sidelines to watch. He was amazed at how far they were managing to throw this water balloon. Suddenly, a cheer went up from the surrounding crowd as the other team's balloon burst open in the catcher's hands, drenching him. Cam released his throw, using all his strength to make it arc across the long distance. Nathan drew it back as it hit his hands, pulling it into his grip carefully. They had won.
The crowd cheered lightly as the judge motioned for them to step forward. Cam had a long way to run to get up to the front with his teammate, but he was there in no time, grinning. The judge asked their names before handing them a pair of small blue ribbons. He then walked over to where the official announcer was seated and handed him a sheet of paper.
"Ladies and gentlemen." The announcer said unenthusiastically into his microphone. "We have the winners of the first wave of events."
Just as he was calling his and Nathan's names, Cam noticed Jill and Andrew approaching, both with red ribbons pinned to their shirts.
"Hey, second place?" He asked.
"Yup. You should have seen the other guys. They must have been on track team or something." Andrew explained. "But I see you guys got first. Awesome."
"What's next?" Jerry asked, eager to make up for his loss.
"Um...I think it's the talent contest and then tug-of-war. But those are all at different times, not like these were."
"Tug-of-war's a team event, right?" Cam asked.
"Yeah, five man teams." Andrew rolled his eyes when Jill cleared her throat again. "Five person teams. Works out perfect, huh?"
"We don't really stand a chance, do we? I mean, we're all pretty small, and I'm not exactly a muscle man, myself." Jerry said. "There's going to be teams of high school kids, right? They'll flip us around like we're nothing."
"Yeah, probably. It'll be fun, though." Jill said. "You going to enter the talent contest, Clint?"
"Yeah, you could totally kill 'em! I checked the sign-up sheet, there's no other jugglers on there. Most are dancers or singers, and you know how lame those always are." Andrew added. "You should do it."
"Yeah, come on, do it Clint!" Jerry chimed in, too. "Show 'em what talent is!"
He had considered it, but the idea of getting up on stage kind of creeped him out. It was ridiculous for him to have stage fright, of course, since he wanted to be a Lunatic some day, but knowing that didn't help him much. He blushed at the attention he was getting.
"You don't have to. No pressure." Cam said.
"I'll do it. But I'll warn you, I'm going to wear the hell out of my arms, so I'll be pretty worthless in the tug-of-war."
"Dude, you're on the same team as me. You don't need to worry about dragging us down." Jerry pointed out. "If anyone drags us down, it's me. Now go get signed up."
The others cheered him on as he filled out the sign-up sheet, which was at the large wooden stage that the Lunatic bands always performed on. The guy in charge of the talent show (wearing one of those cardboard Uncle Sam stars-n-stripes hats) told him to wait in the backstage area.
"If you want any music, talk to the guy at the switchboard over there. Feel free to warm up a bit, too."
The rows of folding chairs that had been set up in front of the stage were almost completely empty, so the rest of the group was able to get some good front-row seats. Just in time, too, because the announcer had just blared through the loudspeakers saying that the talent show was going to begin in fifteen minutes. The rest of the seats filled fast, and a good number of people were standing off to the side and in back. It seemed like everyone was just getting positioned when the guy in the cardboard hat took to the stage.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" He grabbed the microphone and rattled off some speech about patriotism or freedom or something, and there was probably something about "supporting our troops", but Cam wasn't really paying attention. He only kicked back in when the guy mentioned the first act was coming up.
The first performer was a dancer. Some high school girl in tight clothes twisting around to a repetitive techno song. Nothing that interested Cam all that much, but Andrew and Jerry seemed to be watching pretty intently.
Jill just groaned under her breath.
The next few acts followed the same way: Dancer, singer, dancer, dancer, two dancers, a dancer who also sang, one singer with two dancers, singer with a guitar, rapper with two dancers. By that time, Cam was positive that he would be content to never see anyone dance again in his life.
"All right, let's give this dance team a big hand!" The announcer called as the girls with their matching tights left the stage. He flipped to the next index card in his stack, and leaned into the mic. "Now, something different. Everyone, a round of applause for amateur juggler Clint Hensley!"
Cam and his gang laughed, surprised that he would sign up for it using the nickname that he so often seemed to dislike, and cheered as he took the stage. Nathan raised his hand to the crowd just as a loud, fast rock song started pumping through the speaker system. It was a nice change from the other music they had heard that night, which was mostly techno for the dancers and slow ballads for the singers. Nathan raised his other hand, revealing three clubs. He flipped one into his free hand and started a simple pattern. As the music changed, he switched to a different pattern, throwing in more and more tricks as he went. Then, just as the music hit a slow point, he threw one club straight up and flung the other two off to the sides, catching the first one on its descent and balancing it on his chin. He held that pose until the music started picking up again, at which point he rolled his head forward and let the club slip down his back. At the same time, he reached into his pockets and pulled out a set of balls, which he then started juggling.
He was much better at balls than clubs, as most were, so he was able to pull off some really impressive tricks as the song reached its end. At that point, he flashed them all, throwing them all into the air at once, spinning around once, and catching them down the front of his shirt (which had had tucked into his belt specifically for that purpose). The crowd burst into applause, and Nathan gave a quick bow before running off stage. The announcer said something, but he didn't hear it. His heart was pounding and his head was swimming - that was the most amazing thing he'd ever felt.
Cam and the others jumped to their feet and ran around to the back of the stage as soon as Nathan finished. No need to see the rest of the dancers and singers. They found him leaning against a tree, breathing deeply.
"Oh man! If you don't win after all that, those judges are nuts!" Andrew said, clapping him on the back.
"Seriously, that was awesome!" Jerry added.
They spent the next few minutes talking about how great he had done. They knew they had to do it while he was still gulping air, because he would put a stop to it as soon as he could.
"Next year..." Nathan said, grinning, "Fire."
"Why'd you sign up as Clint?" Cam asked, curious. "I mean, now that's how the whole town will know you." "I wasn't really thinking about that. I guess I was kind of thinking of Clint as an alter-ego type thing. That maybe if I screwed up too badly, I could always say 'Oh no, that wasn't me...that was Clint, my evil twin.' I don't know why, exactly, but it just seemed to make it easier to get up there under that name."
"Well, lot of actors have stage names." Jill said. "Maybe that's why they do it, too."
"Man, that killed me." Nathan said. "I'm no good for the tug-of-war, guys. As soon as they announce winners, I'm going to head home and rest for a while. I don't want to fall asleep during the fireworks tonight."
As if on cue, they heard the announcer say that the judges were about to turn in their scores. The judges were all official Lunatics, he added, so they knew a thing or two about performance.
"There's a plus." Jerry said. "If I had been a judge, some of those hot dancin' chicks would have given you some competition."
Jill elbowed him in the side and shot him an evil look.
"What, like any of us weren't thinking the same thing?" Andrew said, looking to Cam and Nathan for support. They both laughed and shrugged innocently.
"Psh. Men." Jill crossed her arms and tried to look mad.
The announcer had called runners up: The singer with the guitar and the team of two dancers and a singer.
"And in first place...Clint Hensley!"
The audience erupted into applause again. One of the stagehands grabbed Nathan by the shoulder and pointed him toward the stage. He shrugged and ran onstage with the runners-up and the guy in the cardboard hat.
The hat guy pinned ribbons to the shirts of all of the winners. Well, except for the dancers, whose shirts were too tight to pin anything to. He just handed the ribbons to them. Once this was done, the crowd began to disperse and Nathan stepped back down with the rest of the group. He pulled the ribbon off of his shirt and stuffed it in his pocket with the other one from the balloon toss.
"Hey, why aren't you wearing 'em?" Andrew asked. He, Jill, and Cam still had their ribbons pinned to their chests.
"I don't know. I feel kind of weird, like I'm showing off or something. Listen, I'm going to head back home and collapse for a while. Where should we meet tonight, here or the tracks?"
"Tracks." The rest of them replied in unison.
"Right. Should have guessed that. Well, see ya." He started off in the direction of home.
"You know, I think I'll head home for a little while, too." Cam said.
"Maybe let my parents know I haven't been kidnapped by ninjas or anything."
"Well, if you want. See you tonight, though, right?" Andrew asked.
Cam started home as well, but at the last minute, changed direction and headed toward Nathan's house. He picked up his speed a bit, and ended up running into Nathan about halfway between his place and the park.
"Oh, Cam. Hey. What's up?"
"I dunno. Just thought you looked kind of down when you left. You okay?"
"Yeah, just tired is all."
In reality, he was feeling down, and the fact that Cam could read him so easily scared him a bit. He had been so up after that performance, but it was like he was all of a sudden hit with a wave of shame or guilt or something. He couldn't quite explain it, but when he was receiving his ribbon, all the could think was that he didn't really deserve it. Like such an honor was being wasted on someone like him. "Oh. Well, I'll let you get home, then..."
"Uh...you can come with me. You know, if you want."
Of course he was sure. He was feeling down, yeah, but being around Cam had always raised his spirits. He nodded, and they walked the rest of the way in silence. When they got back to his aunt's house, it was empty.
'She's probably down at the park, like everyone else. Oh jeez, did she see me on stage?' Nathan thought. 'Is she going to make a big deal about it? What's she going to say about me using my nickname?'
He and Cam sat down on a pair of recliners in the living room and flipped on the TV. It felt good to get off his feet for a little while. Sitting there with Cam, not really saying anything, he was already starting to feel better. Cam turned to him a few minutes later, only to see that he had fallen asleep.
Cam's heart sped up when he saw Nathan's sleeping form curled up in his recliner. He had to fight every urge in his body to keep from running over there and wrapping his arms around him. Instead, he settled on flipping through the channels on the TV for a while. A poor substitute, but a lot less scary to think about. It was nearly time for them to leave by the time Nathan woke up. He looked over at Cam, who turned back to him and smiled, making Nathan fall in love with him just a little more. Anyone else would have either walked out or done something "funny" like drawing on his face with a black marker while he was asleep, but he knew without checking that Cam hadn't done anything like that.
"About what?" Cam asked.
"Made you miss most of the day. You've been stuck in here with me when you could've been out winning ribbons with the rest of Andrew's army."
"Meh, screw that. They're just ribbons. Andrew's the competitive one, not me."
"Well, you want to get to the tracks?"
"Yeah, I guess."
Honestly, Cam had been hoping to spend some time alone with Nathan, but it would probably sound pretty weird for him to say so.
"So, Clint and Cam, huh?"
"Don't act like you can't tell. Even you're not that dense." Jill thumped her finger against the side of Andrew's head, which he slapped away. They had slipped away from the park and had come back to the tracks.
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, come on. From the first time I saw 'em together, I knew. Don't tell me you don't notice how their demeanor completely changes every time they're around each other. The way Cam's always trying to protect Clint, like today with the talent show thing. We were all trying to pressure him into it, and it looked like we were losing."
"Yeah. Then Cam says something like 'Don't listen to them, no pressure.', and THEN he agrees to do it."
"Oh, come ON. They're practically making out with their eyes every time they're in the same room. And didn't you see how as soon as Clint left today, Cam decided to leave, too? Like he was saying 'No reason to stick around, Clint's gone.'"
"Are you saying...?"
"Yes. Obviously. Why, you got a problem with that kind of thing?"
"No, 'course not. It's just I...I didn't know."
"I don't think they do, either. I swear, with you men always acting so thick, I'm surprised the species finds a way to continue at all."
"Sooo...I think we ought to find a way to distract ourselves tonight. Jerry, too. Leave them alone for a little while."
"You want us to set them up?"
"They're already pretty damned set up. They just need to get knocked down."
"Ugh. Not like that. I'm just saying, we need to give them some space."
Just then, Jerry showed up. He had a new ribbon pinned to his shirt, which was a mess.
"Hey, what'd you win?"
"Pie-eating contest. Bunch of pushovers. All 'fraid to get their clothes dirty. I showed 'em how it's done."
"Awesome." Andrew said. "I told you that between us we'd take the contests no problem. But listen, Jerry, about your cous-"
Jill elbowed him hard in the ribs and shook her head.
"I was just saying, when's your cousin coming back? Any idea?"
"I dunno. He's still at home for all I know."
"Nope, I'm here." Nathan pushed some branches out of the way and made his way into the clearing, Cam following close behind.
"Oh, and you brought Cam with you. Cool." Jill said, discretely nudging Andrew. "It's just starting to turn dark, so the amateur fireworks should start soon. The real ones never start until it's night, but the drunk guys who launch bottle rockets out of their fists'll be starting any time now. Just listen for the screams."
They stood around joking and talking for a while, watching the bottle rockets the various people around the neighborhood were launching. The clearing was just big enough that they could stand on a hill and see over the tips of the trees. As it started getting dark, Jill nudged Andrew and pulled him aside.
"Where are you guys going?" Jerry asked loudly.
"Uh...er...we were just, um..." Andrew stuttered.
"We were just going to see if we could see better from the other side of the tracks. Want to come along?"
"I guess. I can't really see too well from here. Short guy always gets the shaft, y'know?"
"Tell ya what, if you can't see too well from over there, I'll let you sit on my shoulders." Andrew said.
"Jeez, I'm not THAT small."
"Well, we'll give you a boost to get up in a tree, then." Jill said.
The three of them walked off, leaving Cam and Nathan alone, still involved in a conversation that neither of them would remember. It was dark now, and the real fireworks had started. The professional ones that burst in the sky and lit up the whole area. Most of the people in town were at the park now, laid out on blankets or sitting in lawn chairs. Andrew slipped past quietly, and, noticing that nothing at all was happening, he walked past them. He tripped himself over his own foot when he neared Cam, knocking into him and pushing him into Nathan.
"Sorry 'bout that," He mumbled, walking off.
They didn't notice. The collision had driven them close together, and neither of them wanted to move apart. They were both expecting the other to take a few steps back, but neither did. Cam looked over at Nathan, watching the light from the fireworks going off in his eyes and flashing over his face. They were both sucking in air like crazy, hoping that the other wouldn't notice. Finally, Cam decided to make a move. He had to. Everything just seemed too right to not do it. Slowly, shaking, he slipped his hand out of his pocket and took a hold of Nathan's. Nathan jumped, causing Cam's five-digit soldier to cease his advancement and retreat back to base in his pocket. Still, Nathan knew what that meant. He was sure he hadn't imagined it. He waited until they were both looking up to the sky again, then slowly, carefully turned and kissed Cam on the cheek. He could swear he had never felt himself blush that quickly before.
Now it was Cam's turn to jump. He spun toward Nathan, locking eyes with him.
"I...I..." He stammered, not sure what he should say. Nathan stood there blushing and looking back into Cam's eyes, watching the fireworks flashing in them.
"I think...I think I love you, Nathan Hensley."
Nathan's eyes flooded, but he didn't cry. He had even used his real name, not that stupid nickname that everyone else called him. "I know I love you, Cameron Jeffries." He said, practically falling into him as they threw their arms around each other.
Jill and Andrew, who had sworn to each other that they wouldn't spy on the boys, were both busy spying on them from different sides of the clearing. Jill was tearing up herself, while Andrew was feeling a little weirded out, but still happy for them.
"Wonder if he'll tell him what his nickname means now."
Andrew nearly fell over backwards when he heard Jerry's voice from the tree above him.
"Jeez, kid!" He whispered angrily. "How long've you been over here?"
"'Bout as long as you have."
"Don't go telling Jill that you caught me spying."
"She's at it, too. I can see her from up here. Third bush from the tracks."
"Hah, I knew it." He looked up at Jerry, who was stretched across two branches.
"You, uh...you don't have any questions about anything, do you?"
"Like you could answer 'em."
"I'll answer YOU." Andrew responded, beaning Jerry with a pebble.
Cam and Nathan were still holding each other, now lying on the grass.
"Uh, we really should give them some privacy, don't you think, kid?"
"Yeah, probably. I wouldn't want to see anything that would warp my fragile understanding of love."
"Heard it on some stupid talk show."
"Hey, Jill's leaving, too. We'd better get back, or she'll suspect us."