Foreword

This story is dedicated to two remarkable young men who I will not name because of their age. They grew up in separate foreign countries and experienced first hand just how horribly humans can treat each other. Then they met the opposite kind of human being and ended up in the U.S. They found each other and love, and life has taken a remarkable turn for each of them. There are still shadows from the past to work through, scarred souls and terrifying memories, but with the courage and strength they have, their lives will continue to improve. They both have special and unique talents and so, so much potential. And the best thing is, they have wonderful, loving adults in their lives now, they are safe, and they have each other.

As always, my profound thanks goes to my editing crew. Your unrelenting prodding to make me make my stories better, your skill with the language and sharp eyes for mistakes all work to the improvement of my writing. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

CP

Tryouts

by Cole Parker

Even though it was the first day of school after spring recess, the boys’ locker room still had the funky smell it always had.

“You’d think they’d air this place out over the break,” Jason said, wrinkling his nose.

I laughed. “They probably tried, and it didn’t take. It smells like wet dog in here.”

“Or a wet dog that rolled in oversexed teenager,” laughed Jason. Come on, we don’t want to be late.”

We both stripped—all the way because we had to put on jocks and cups and spikes—but I was nervous because my mind was on what came next, so briefly being naked alongside a similarly unclad Jason didn’t really register. What came next in this instance, and why I was nervous, was baseball tryouts.

I’d been on my junior varsity team last year and Jason had been on his, too, though he’d been here and I’d been where I lived then. I’d just moved here from a different city over the summer. We were both hoping to make the varsity this time around. But we were just sophomores, and not many sophs ever made the varsity.

Having tryouts the first day back with no prior workouts of any kind wasn’t particularly fair, but Jason had told me the coach, Coach Tasker, wasn’t a fair man; what he was, was competitive, winning being more important than anything else to him. Still, he was the coach, and if you wanted to play, you had to deal with him. Other boys had—for years. I could, too.

I clanged my locker shut, and then waited by the doors while Jason tucked his shirt in—he’d also told me Coach didn’t like his players looking sloppy, even on the first day of tryouts. We banged through the locker room doors, our spikes making a racket on the concrete floor, and jogged out to the diamond. Coach didn’t like laziness, either. Jason again.

“Hey, Jase, Logan.” Mike had been the JV team’s captain last year and a guy I’d met through Jason. I’d become acquainted with Jason himself during the summer. He lived just down the street from me, and he’d found out I loved baseball just as he did. He’d gotten me included in some pickup games that he and a group of similarly minded kids played. That’s where I’d met Mike and several other guys who’d said they’d also be trying out for varsity this year.

Mike called us over to the backstop where he was standing. The diamond spread out before us, and I felt the tingle in side me I always felt, looking at a baseball diamond. There might have been another reason for that tingle, however. I always got just a little embarrassed, a little uncomfortable, when I saw Mike. I knew, deep inside me where I didn’t let myself look very often, that I sort of liked Mike in a way I wasn’t supposed to. He was very striking, at least to me. Dark, fairly short hair that was styled rather than spiked and that he kept in that intentionally arranged messy look that was popular. Bright, intelligent dark eyes. A tall, slim build; he wasn’t a big guy at all. Attractive face that sometimes looked cute, like when he smiled, and more often was simply handsome, like when he was puzzling over something. But besides his looks, it was his personality that really got to me. He was a really nice boy. Most boys weren’t all that nice. Most kids our age were much more concerned with themselves than with anything else. Mike cared about others; I’d seen this in the games we’d played and in the chatter and camaraderie that went on before and after. I asked Jason about this because it was a little unusual, and he told me that’s why Mike had made the perfect team captain last year. At least, the perfect JV captain. Jason said Mike wouldn’t get the job this year if he moved up to varsity. Coach wanted only tough guys on his team and liked his captain to be the toughest of all. He wanted someone who’d lead by intimidation, who scared his teammates into performing. That was the way he coached and how he wanted his captain to act. That wasn’t Mike at all. Mike was nice, but not tough. That was easy to see when you first met him.

But because I was attracted to him, I was never comfortable in his presence. I stared at him too much and was sure he noticed. Sometimes he’d meet my eyes, and he’d get a funny look in them when he did, almost like he could see what I was thinking. I didn’t see how he could; I couldn’t do that and didn’t think anyone else could, either. But I’d see something in his eyes, and then he’d look away, not like he was avoiding me or anything, but just because that’s what you do. You don’t just fix your eyes on one person. Except I sort of did. With Mike.

And I found it hard not to, which was why I tended to be uncomfortable around him. With some guys, I found it was just difficult not to stare at them.

Jason waved, and I did too. Sort of. I tried to keep my eyes averted, and tried not to blush, as we jogged over to where he was standing.

“You guys ready?” Mike asked us, his smile lighting up his face.

“Yeah,” returned Jason. “We’ve been playing catch and throwing each other grounders. Dad’s taken us to the batting cages, too, a couple of times. That’s really helped. I think we’re ready.”

Mike looked at me. “What position are you trying out for, Logan?”

He asked me that because, in our pickup games, I’d played all over. I didn’t really have a favorite position. I liked them all. “Outfield, I guess.” I looked down. I always had trouble when he looked directly at me.

“You should probably tell him you can play infield, too, just so he knows.”

“OK. Thanks.” I looked up at him briefly. He was grinning, looking right at me. I tried to grin back before turning away.

We continued to talk as more guys showed up, and then the coach and several older players came outside. It was a warm day, but spring in the South can be that way. It hadn’t rained in a while, so the field was dry and hard. The grass was that bright green that seemed special on baseball diamonds.

Coach was a large man, well over six-feet tall, with a pot belly and mustache, a red face and perpetual scowl. He was also loud.

“Gather up over here,” he said. With someone else, ‘shouted’ would be more descriptive, but I was to learn that was his normal speaking voice.

There were a bunch of us at that point. The coach was standing between home plate and first base. I thought it strange that Jason had said we had to be all tucked in and sharp-looking. The coach wasn’t dressed that way at all. His shirt told me he’d had chili for lunch, and his hair was mussed up. What ever happened to leading by example?

Jason, Mike and I had been standing on the other side of the backstop. Mike started jogging to get to where Coach was, and we joined him. Some of the kids were strolling, some were running. When we all arrived and were still, Coach began speaking to us.

“I’m Coach Tasker. “I’ve been baseball coach at Selkirk High since before any of you were born, and I still will be long after you’ve gone on your way and been forgotten. We have rules here. No one walks on my field. Ever. You run, or trot, or jog, but you do not walk. If I see anyone doing that, you’re done.

“Also, I don’t say things twice. We don’t have time for that. Learn it when you hear it. If you can’t do that, then you won’t play for me.

“You guys don’t know crap about baseball.” He stopped and turned his head and spat a gob of brown spittle on the ground. I turned away. “I’m going to be teaching you how to play the game, those of you who make the squad. Let’s see…” He made a quick count of us. “There are 23 of you. The Varsity team is allowed 18 players. We already have 10, so I need 8 more. That means two-thirds of you aren’t going to make it. Look at the guy standing on your right. Then look at the guy on your left. If you make it, it’ll be because you beat out those two guys. It’s up to you to show me how much you want to be on my team and how fast you can learn. How good you are now matters, but not as much as the first two.”

I was standing between Mike and Jason. I hoped what the coach was saying wasn’t literally true. I wanted to play; I wanted to be on the varsity team. But I wanted both of them there with me. And then I realized, each of them was looking at me, thinking I was one of the guys they had to beat out. Damn!

“OK! We’ll get started. Line up in alphabetical order by surnames along the third-base line, lowest letter closest to the plate. Move it, people.”

I felt the same jolt in my stomach I imagined, from looking at faces, the other kids were feeling. What the hell was a surname? And how was I supposed to know where to stand when I didn’t even know half the kids there and so couldn’t do what was wanted even if I did know what he was talking about?

I looked at Mike and Jason. “Surname?” I asked.

“It’s your last name,” said Jason.

How in the world did he know that? I was friends with Jason but hadn’t known him all that long; we’d only moved here at the beginning of the summer. I did know he was smart. It was one of the reasons I liked hanging with him.

Jason was bigger than I was, and I was probably a little bit larger than average for my age. He also was a very good baseball player. I was sure he’d make the cut. He was a pretty intense guy, pretty humorless, and his dark hair and dark eyes always gave him a serious look. We got along fine. I could be that way myself.

I turned to look at the rest of the guys trying out. None of us had uniforms so it was a ragtag bunch. Most of them looked as uncertain as I felt. But I figured, what the hell, my name was Andrews, Logan Andrews, and how far off could I be? So, I took a step, remembered, and broke into a sprint and stopped when I came to home plate.

Eventually, we sorted ourselves out and were all lined up. I was first. That made me a little nervous because I didn’t get to see how things would work before I was the one doing the working. But it was what it was. The kid behind me was a little runty kid I’d never seen before named Coletti.

Coach came up to me and asked my name and what position I played. I told him I’d played all over, but thought probably outfield or first base were my best positions. He wrote that down, then told me to grab a bat and a helmet. I’d get ten pitches to show what I could do at the plate.

He had the varsity pitchers there to throw to us. Coach told the rest of us to look at how we were lined up and that they were to go next behind the kid in front of them when it came time for them to bat. Then he told them to scatter into the field to catch any balls hit, to take whatever positions they liked. They did, at a jog. It put 22 kids where normally 7 kids would be, so the field was crowded.

I stood off to the side of the plate and looked out at the pitcher. He was about 6’ 5” and had hard eyes. He was wearing the school uniform, and I was in sweatpants and a tee shirt, so I felt a little intimidated right off the bat. I put on a batting helmet that almost fit and grabbed a bat that seemed OK and stepped into the batter’s box, and the first pitch came right at my head. I jerked out of the way, stumbled and ended up in the dirt. I was breathing fast. No one had ever thrown at me on purpose before. This was tryouts! What the hell was going on?

I looked at the coach. He looked back at me, no expression at all on his face.

I got back in the batter’s box and took a couple of practice swings. Then the pitcher wound up and threw me another fastball, inside again, but not at me. Still, I jumped back.

“Eight more,” said the coach, his face still blank of emotion.

§  §  §  §

Dad asked me about tryouts when we sat down to eat that evening.

“So how’d it go, Sport?”

I’d given up trying to get him not to call me that. I didn’t always do what he wanted me to do, either. I sometimes justified that by thinking about his refusal to stop calling me Sport. But that might give the wrong impression. He and I got along a whole lot better than most dads and sons as far as I could tell. His holding on to that name he’d been calling me all my life wasn’t really to tease me. He just liked it and was used to it. And I didn’t complain about it all that much.

We ate in the kitchen, at the table there. It was a cheery spot in the morning for breakfast, with the sun shining in. At night, when winter had come, it had been dark when we ate, and we’d always had the lights on. Now, in mid-spring, it was still light outside, and the room looked like a kitchen, but one where we spent a lot of time, cooking , eating and talking. It was a room we could both relax and be ourselves in.

“Well….” I had to stop to collect my thoughts even though I’d known this would be the first thing he’d ask. We talked all the time, and especially at dinner. “Well, it wasn’t what I expected. Jason had told me about the coach, but I guess I didn’t really believe it.”

My dad looked across at me but didn’t say anything. He just waited.

“He told us we didn’t know anything about baseball and how good we were wasn’t as important as our desire and our learning ability. Well, think about that for a minute. It’s nuts! I could be the most enthusiastic kid in town and have a 180 IQ, but if I can’t hit a fastball, if I can’t run well, if I can’t catch a ball, or throw it, I’d have no chance! So he can’t mean that. Why’d he say it, then?”

My dad shook his head and smiled. “I have no idea. Maybe he was trying to tell you he wanted to see a lot of hustle, and he wanted to see guys listening to him. Not everyone’s going to be honest all the time, especially a coach working with kids. It was probably said to motivate you and let the best athletes know that they’d have to earn their positions with more than skill alone.”

“OK, I didn’t think of that. But I still think he should be honest with us. I’d respect him more.”

“You’re 15. You’re still an idealist. So, do you think you made the team? You still haven’t told me how you did.”

It was my turn to shake my head. “It was weird. He had us bat in alphabetical order, so I had to go first.” I went on to tell him about my problems with the pitcher. “I thought the coach would say something eventually because all he was seeing was how well I could get out of the way of a pitch. I finally looked at the coach, and he didn’t say anything, just looked back at me.”

“Yeah? Then what?”

“I started to get mad. I only had 10 pitches to work with, and two of them had already been wasted. So now I had eight, and I was boiling, thinking about it. What I wanted to do was charge the mound or yell at the coach for not doing anything. But what I did was just step out of the batter’s box and turn my back on the pitcher and settle down. It took a minute. The coach started yelling at me to either get back in there or pick up my glove and go home.”

“Did you say anything back to him?”

“Nope. I acted like I didn’t even hear him. I adjusted my batting glove, adjusted the helmet, wiggled my shoulders to loosen them up, and then finally turned back around and stepped up to the plate again, taking my time doing it. I never even looked at the coach, even while he was still yelling.”

My dad grinned, then chuckled. “Sounds just like you. You always did want things your way.”

I grinned back. “I just wasn’t going to be intimidated no matter how much Coach yelled, no matter how big the pitcher was. I’d been thinking while my back was turned. The pitcher had to throw strikes. If he didn’t, and I took all his pitches, the coach wouldn’t learn a darn thing. The only way he’d know if I could hit anything at all was if I had strikes to hit. He might find out if I had the courage to stand up there while being thrown at, but it wouldn’t take ten pitches to learn that. Just getting back in the box, standing in to face that pitcher again after what he’d already done, certainly had already told him that.

“So I figured I’d get a strike, maybe not this next pitch, but either it or the one after that, and I was going to be ready. Man, was I going to be ready!”

I took a bite of my dinner before continuing. There were just the two of us, and we always had something to say at the table, and if I didn’t pause to take a bite now and then it’d all be cold by the time we were done talking. “I figured something else, too. Looking at that pitcher, I knew he wanted to beat me. Humiliate me if he could. I could see it on his face. You can tell with guys like that. He thought he had me. He thought I was a scared little sophomore and he could play with me. So, I guessed the next pitch would be either another inside fastball, or, more likely, a curveball, thrown inside so I’d back away from it, and it would curve over the inside of the plate, making me look silly. That’s what I was guessing.”

“And what did he throw you?”

I laughed. “An inside curveball. I knew I was going to hit it as soon as I saw the spin on it. What I wanted to do, however, wasn’t just hit it but hit it back up the middle. Hard. Let him have to get out of the way of something coming at him! So I waited on the pitch; I had to, because I usually pull an inside pitch and I didn’t want to pull this one. I waited, and at the last moment, just as it was curving over the plate, I pulled my hands in like you’ve showed me and I nailed that sucker, hit a line drive right back up the middle, right at him. It was a low liner, and if he hadn’t jumped back, it would have hit him right in the nuts. But he did jump back and landed sort of awkwardly and tripped and fell down, right on his ass. As he was picking himself up, I was staring right at him. It was great!”

My dad laughed, probably more at my enthusiasm than what I’d done. “What’d the coach say?”

I grimaced. “He didn’t say anything. I don’t get the man. I was grinning, and I took a quick glance over at him. He had turned his back and was looking out at the outfield. I guess he saw it all. But I have no idea what he was thinking.”

Dad took a sip of his coke and then laughed again. “Did it occur to you that he did what you’d done? Turned his back on you just when you wanted to see what he was thinking?”

“Man oh man!” I said. “That was… I never thought of that! You think…?”

Dad shook his head, then said, “I have no idea, but it sounds to me as if you’ve already made an impression on this guy. Whether it’s good or bad, I don’t know, but he knows who you are now, for sure.”

We both ate a little more before he asked another question.

“What’d the pitcher do after you knocked him down? I’ll bet you weren’t looking forward to digging in against him again!”

“That was odd.” I shook my head, remembering. “He got up, and I could see he was steaming. He grabbed a ball out of the bag he had next to him. I stepped up to the plate but was ready to bail out. I was sure another ball would be coming right at my head, or behind me. Those are the worst. But he never threw me another pitch! The coach yelled for time and then hollered at another varsity pitcher who came in, and the first guy just left. Coach said something to him, but he just kept walking, right to the parking lot. That was the last I saw of him.”

My dad smiled and took a couple of bites. We talk at the table about what had happened that day. Often the food will sort of get ignored, which pisses me off because I’m the one who cooks it. But Dad was thinking, I could see that, and after swallowing, he asked, “So what happened next? You still had seven swings left?”

“Yeah. The new pitcher was completely different. He didn’t throw at me or stare at me, either, trying to scare me. He threw mostly junk: curves and sliders, change-ups and even a knuckle ball. I did all right against him. I got three more hits. So for the tryout, I hit .400. Not too shabby. And it was against varsity pitching, too.”

“But let me guess,” my dad snorted, “the coach didn’t say boo.”

“How’d you guess? Nope, not a word to me. But he didn’t to anyone else, either, whether they did well or didn’t hit at all. After hitting, I rotated out to where Coletti, the kid who had to bat next, had been playing in left field. I caught the only ball that came out there that I had a fair chance at.”

“Sounds as if you did fine. Is the coach going to post who made it and who didn’t on the bulletin board?”

“He said he’ll post the cuts, and if we’re not on that list, to show up for a second round of tryouts after school.”

“OK. I’ll be shocked if you get cut. How’d Jason do?”

I smiled. “He was great. He was facing one of the last varsity pitchers, and that guy couldn’t throw all that well. Jason went six for ten against him. He made a couple of nice plays at short, too.”

He didn’t ask about Mike. I hadn’t told him anything about Mike. But Mike had done well, too. I expected all three of us had a good chance to make the team.

I did my homework—yeah, homework on the first night back from break—and went on the computer. It was in my room. I had a pretty good room, but didn’t spend much time there. I liked to do most of my homework on the kitchen table. My room seemed too isolated. The kitchen was the hub of that house, and that’s where I spent most of my time when home.

But I stayed in my room that night, on the bed, just thinking My head was buzzing. I hadn’t told Dad everything that had gone on. I sort of wanted to figure it out for myself.

When I’d been out in the field after hitting, there’d been some chatter going on. Of the 23 guys, about half were sophomores, along with one or two freshmen, and the other half were juniors. The juniors had been on the JV squad last year. They were all at least a year older than we were. They looked it; you could tell who was a junior and who was a sophomore just from their appearance. And they acted differently, too. When balls were hit, both into the infield and the outfield, the juniors acted like we sophomores weren’t even there. They cut in front of us and took everything that was hit. And they made remarks, too. They said some nasty things, belittling things. I decided real quick that they were trying to intimidate us just like that pitcher who had tried to intimidate me.

On the first fly ball that came my way, a junior playing next to me came up as I was waiting to catch it and bumped into me, knocking me aside and catching it himself. He threw it back in, then said to me, “Stay out of my way out here. You guys can wait till next year. We’re going to varsity this year. You got to wait your turn.”

This was happening all over the field. The coach saw it. I saw him watching. He didn’t stop it at all. The one ball I caught was over my head and I had to race back for it. The junior was a step behind and never caught up. I glared at him after catching it, and he just turned away. He could tell I was pissed. I was as big as he was. He could tell his tactics weren’t going to work on me.

In the locker room after the tryout, it was the same thing. The juniors were full of snide, cutting, really offensive comments. A couple of the younger guys got pushed, too, or bumped. We sort of just took it. We didn’t know what else to do. We didn’t really know each other, and the juniors seemed to be a tight-knit group with an agenda. The juniors got to the showers before us and didn’t let us into the shower room till they were done, even though there was lots of room. They saw us waiting when they came out and made some remarks about our masculinity.

I didn’t like what had gone on. But I hadn’t known what to do about it. I still didn’t. It was obvious the coach wasn’t going to do anything. He hadn’t even been in the locker room. No one was there but us players.

§  §  §  §

I was finishing breakfast before heading over to Jason’s for my ride to school. Dad was drinking his coffee and reading the paper, the same as always. He was wearing a suit, like always, and had a tie on I’d given him for his birthday. I looked up at the counter, and saw my lunch was there in a paper bag, the top folded across and the flap now bent a little away from the bag. My lunch was always there. Always. Seeing my lunch there, I suddenly felt a lump in my throat. That bag represented love, I guess. Since my mom wasn’t with us any longer, that lunch also represented continuity, a solid core of stability, something I could count on. I cooked dinner, and my dad made breakfast and my lunch. He didn’t mind getting up in the morning. I hated it. So we did what worked best for us. Worked together to make our life as good as it could be. That might have been why we talked to each other as openly as we did. No secrets. There’d already been too many secrets in my family. Secrets meant trouble, to me.

I stood up and put my cereal bowl in the dishwasher. Dad saw I was ready to go and said what he always said, “Have a great day, Sport, and be a leader out there.”

Dad had a great sense of right and wrong. It was like a guiding principle for him, and he’d been instilling it in me all my life. He thought, because I was reasonably smart and had a sturdy body and wasn’t a bit shy, that I should be active in helping other kids do the right thing, too. He liked that I was a good team player and thought I should be someone—carry myself like someone—that other kids would want to follow, could look up to.

When I was younger, I thought that his expectations were a little sappy and that I didn’t want to try to tell other people what to do. I’d even told Dad that. He’d responded that leading people and telling them what to do were two different things. He said I should lead by example, by making good decisions, by doing the right thing even when doing something other than that would be easier. He said people would notice even if they didn’t say anything. They’d notice, and remember.

He’d been telling me that, one way or another, for about eight years now, so perhaps it had sunk in a little. The fact that in his own life he did what he told me to do helped make it real. He led by example, and I saw how that worked.

Right then, in the kitchen as I was leaving, what he said made me pause. I turned my head to see the clock and realized I had a couple of minutes. So, instead of leaving, I sat back down at the table with him.

“Dad…?”

He heard something in my voice, because he looked up from his paper. “Yeah?”

“I didn’t tell you everything that happened at tryouts yesterday.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, it was both during the tryouts and afterward in the locker room, and I thought about it a lot after dinner.”

“And you didn’t say anything about this earlier?”

I shook my head. “I guess I was embarrassed. But the thing was, I didn’t know what to do when it was happening. I knew I should do something, but I didn’t.”

“What happened?”

“Out on the field, the juniors were giving the sophomores a hard time, and the coach let it happen. After the tryouts were finished, he told us to hit the showers. Now, I don’t know if he really meant that or he just meant we were done for the day. But he’s just not very approachable; you don’t feel right asking him things. One of the freshmen asked him if there was a smaller batting helmet, and all he got were a couple of sarcastic remarks that really cut him down. The coach wants you to do what he tells you to do without comments or questions. So, when he said hit the showers, that’s what we did. We all jogged over to the school and took showers.

“Well, the varsity pitchers who were with us did, too. And some of them were seniors and a lot bigger than the sophomores like Jason and me. And they were friends with a lot of the juniors, the guys we’d already been getting some grief from. Well, some of these guys started sort of picking on some of the younger guys. They wouldn't let any of us in the showers till they were done. None of them said anything to me, but they did to the small guys. I mean physically smaller—and the ones who haven’t started developing yet, you know....”

Dad wrinkled his forehead. He did that when he was disturbed by what he was hearing.

“Wasn’t he there? The coach? Didn’t he have an assistant or someone monitoring the locker room?”

“No. It was just us.”

He sat there a moment, just thinking. Then he said, “And you think you should have done something.”

“Yeah. But I guess I was a little scared, being younger, being smaller than the older kids were. It wasn’t right what they were doing. You always tell me to be a leader, to do the right thing. I sure wasn’t being a leader then, like I want to be. And it’s bothered me ever since. I should have stood up for my teammates. But it was like me against the world there. I didn’t know what to do.”

He didn’t say anything for a moment, so I pressed the point. “What should I have done, Dad?”

So we talked. Eventually, I called Jason’s cell and told him not to wait for me. And Dad and I talked some more. Mostly he just repeated stuff we’d talked about before. The one thing that really sank in this time was when he said that if you don’t stand up for what you believe, then you’re not standing up for yourself.

I told him I could see that. “But, Dad it’s different when you’re facing someone a lot bigger than you who’s very likely going to pound you. Probably right in the face.”

“Logan,” he said, with a compassionate look on his face and sounding as deadly serious as I’d ever heard him, “getting hit will hurt. And I don’t want you putting yourself in harm’s way. What would be best is if you could find a way out of whatever the problem is without fighting. Without getting hit in the face. But you need to stand up for yourself, for what’s right. Getting hit will hurt for a day or two. Losing your self-respect will hurt for the rest of your life.”

He drove me to school, and we talked some more on the way. Then he drove off, to inhabit his world, and I went off to try to survive in mine.

§  §  §  §

When I checked the bulletin board, I found I wasn’t on the cut list. Neither was Jason or Mike. Most of the other sophomores were. I felt like pumping my arm like that little kid in Home Alone but just smiled instead. I’d brought my stuff, expecting to have made it past the first cut. Now I’d be using it after school.

After classes, we all gathered by the backstop, and right on the dot the coach showed up. He told us tonight would be the final tryout. There were still eight positions to fill on the varsity, and now there were 12 of us there trying for those positions.

My odds were definitely better. Instead of a two out of three chance to fail, now it was two out of three to succeed.

He made sure the guys trying out for outfield positions were in the outfield, and he had one of the pitchers hit us fungoes. The infield guys had grounders hit to them by another pitcher. We all did that for a half hour with the coach watching us, then we lined up to hit again. He reversed the order, so I was going to hit last. Coach said it was getting late, so only five pitches apiece tonight. He said he already had seen who could hit.

I looked at the pitchers, and the big guy who’d pitched to me first the previous day was there. As the guys ahead of me batted, the big guy was just playing catch with another guy, just warming up. I’d asked around and found out he was the main guy for the varsity team—their ace, if you wanted to call him that. He’d won a lot of games as a junior. I was sure Coach was expecting him to win even more as a senior.

Jason did fine. He got three hits, and they were good ones: all line drives with a couple finding the alleys. He’d also done great in the infield drills, not flubbing a single ball hit in his direction. He didn’t look all that smooth at short, but then he never did, yet seemed to make every play. The fact he had a rifle arm didn’t hurt him any.

Mike looked good, too. He played second base and was a really fine fielder, looking very smooth, very polished. He wasn’t as good a batter as Jason but certainly good enough to make the team, what with his slick fielding. I thought both of them were a lock to make varsity. Or at least should be. The juniors trying out for those positions weren’t half as good.

The way the coach had it set up, on the fifth pitch—which he said would be a strike and one we needed to hit—the batter was to run after he’d hit the ball. He made sure we understood that hitting that last pitch was important to our chances of making the team. I think he was trying to see how we did under pressure. Didn’t he know we already were under pressure? It was a tryout!

I realized there was pressure on the pitchers, too. If I were a pitcher and knew he expected me to be able to throw strikes when he wanted me to, I’d know if I couldn’t do that, I wouldn’t be playing much. As a pitcher I had to throw a strike on that fifth pitch, and as a batter, I’d better hit it. That was the effect that Coach had on us all. Intimidation was his middle name. He’d been making sarcastic remarks throughout the tryouts and never said anything encouraging or supportive to anyone. In my mind, all this pressure was counterproductive. This was a game we played voluntarily, and we were high-school kids. I didn’t think I’d explain my thinking to him, though.

The fielders were to try to throw us out on that last hit. Both Mike and Jason got hits on their last swings. Jason had a double, and Mike hit a soft flare over the shortstop’s head that he couldn’t get back on quickly enough. I thought those two hits probably sealed their positions on the team.

It was my turn to hit next. As I was putting on my helmet, I saw movement above me. The stands had been empty. No one really was interested in watching us try out. But I looked up, and there was my dad, just sitting down on the bench directly behind home plate, about four rows up. Still in his suit and tie.

He wasn’t looking at me, so I didn’t wave. I did smile. I loved it when he came to watch me. Made me proud.

When I heard the crack of the bat, knowing the guy in front of me had hit his last pitch, I turned to go to the plate. Coletti had hit a weak grounder to third. The guy playing there gobbled it up and threw him out, even though Coletti was really fast.

I was ready to step in when the coach called time and made a pitching change. He motioned for the big guy to come in. The guy walked to the mound, glaring venom at me all the way.

I looked at the coach. He looked back. Expressionless.

I moved up to the plate, hiked my bat up, and prepared to hit the dirt. Which I did a second later as a fastball came screaming at my head.

OK, now I was pissed. If that was what the coach had in mind, making me mad, he’d succeeded. A guy could get seriously hurt, playing this game. That ball didn’t miss me by much. If I hadn’t been expecting it, or if I’d frozen like batters do on occasion, it would have nailed me right in the helmet.

Mad or not, I had to get back up there, and I did. My heart was racing, I was shaking a little, but I stood up, brushed off my clothes, and stepped back in. The next pitch was another fast ball, but over the plate. I made a point of not stepping in the bucket when I swung, and somehow I hit the pitch deep to center, over the center fielder’s head.

I knew I shouldn’t do it, even as I was doing it, but I was still mad and so did it anyway; I smiled at the pitcher. A smile with no humor in it at all, only satisfaction.

That might have been a mistake.

The next ball was another fastball—and behind me. The natural tendency is to jump back, and if the ball’s behind you, you get clipped. This would have been like being hit with an ax handle. Luckily, I have really good reflexes, and though I started to bail out, I stopped myself and just stood where I was, trying to pull my body tightly in on itself as much as I could.

The ball went right past my back. The catcher didn’t come close to catching it.

I looked over at the coach, and I wasn’t smiling. He looked at me, then turned away.

I looked back out at the pitcher. “You having fun out there?” I yelled, my emotions getting the better of me. “Forget your glasses today? Or are you always this wild?” He didn’t answer, just as I thought he wouldn’t. “I can see why you keep throwing at me. I keep hitting anything you do manage to get over the plate.”

Then I smiled at him again. There was still no humor in it. I have no idea what it looked like, but it felt sort of ugly.

OK, I’m not crazy. I had a reason for doing what I did. I wanted him as mad as I was. Because I was planning ahead. I figured: make him mad, he’ll be wild, and he only has two more pitches. The coach had said the last one would be a hittable strike, and that meant the guy had to get that one over. He most likely was more intimidated by the coach than he was mad at me. He’d do what the coach told him to do. Which meant he’d have to slow the pitch down. He knew that, I knew that, and I also knew that meant his last really fast pitch would be the next one, his fourth.

I stood in, and took a couple practice swings, then pointed the bat at him and held it like that as he went into his windup, and waited. He came set on the mound and then released what I was sure would be the hardest pitch he’d ever thrown.

I watched it sail over my head, over the catcher’s head and bang off the backstop wires about ten feet off the ground.

“Nice pitch,” I called out. “Probably a strike against Yao Ming, if he was on a step-ladder.” I didn’t smile this time. It was too much of an effort to do that, and felt phony. I was still mad. I even was still shaking a little. But now I was waiting for my strike.

“Hey! No more chatter up there!” The coach was yelling at me. I didn’t look at him.

I knew it was a mistake for me to get mad. It was a mistake to try to get even. But I was 15. I had a temper like any kid does, and didn’t always control it too well. I knew right from wrong, and throwing fastballs at my head was wrong. I felt if I let the pitcher and the coach get away with what they’d been doing, I wasn’t standing up for myself. I did remember my dad’s advice to find a peaceful way to settle my differences. I remembered, but I had something else in mind.

I looked at the pitcher, and he looked at me, and hatred was flowing back and forth. I guess he thought I was showing him up. I was smaller and younger than he was, by a lot. He didn’t like how I was making him look and wanted to put me in my place. I was that how he was thinking. What I was thinking was, I was lucky he hadn’t already hurt me badly. He sure could have if I hadn’t been as quick reacting as I’d been.

I was planning for his next pitch. The guaranteed strike. He wound up and threw, and it was a strike. I’d counted on that. No one crossed the coach.

I was to hit the ball and run it out. So, I did. It was a fastball, and not all that fast, over the outside half of the plate, just above the knees. Perfect. Absolutely perfect.

At the last moment, I squared around and bunted it, a little firmly so the catcher wouldn’t be able to field it. I was a decent bunter. My coach last year had made sure we all knew the fundamentals of bunting. I’d learned well and had become proficient at it. Good enough to pull off my plan, my plan for retribution and redemption. I laid down a perfect bunt, right inside the first-base line.

The catcher couldn’t get it, it was rolling too far for that. The first baseman was caught flatfooted. He stayed at the base. That left the pitcher.

He came racing for the ball, probably hoping to pick it up and tag me hard as I ran past, maybe knocking me down if he could. I could see a look of eagerness on his face, almost see him thinking.

My plan wasn’t to try to beat it out. My plan was to wait for him to try to field it.

He did. And when he leaned over to glove the ball, he was leaning forward with his head right over the base path.

My knee hit the side of his face. Hit it hard. Purposefully hard. He was a big guy. It felt like I’d kneed a tree trunk. But it must have felt even worse to him. He went down like he’d been hit by a sledgehammer. And I hobbled the rest of the way to first.

The whole field was silent. There wasn’t a sound. And then I heard the coach. “That was a bullshit play!”

I didn’t say a thing. I just stood at first base, staring at him.

Expressionless.

What I’d done was one of those things that are judgment calls. Baseball is full of judgment calls. The fielder has the right to field a ball unimpeded. The runner has the right to the base path, unimpeded, unless the fielder is in position to make a play, in which case the runner has to avoid him. Often, those two rules conflict. Often, the timing of the action makes who has the right of way unclear. The umpire has to make a call.

We didn’t have an umpire. And the pitcher hadn’t gotten all the way to the baseline. His head was leaning over it as he tried to field the ball. I was supposed to stay in the base path, if possible. To avoid interfering with him, if possible. Judgment call.

The coach ran over to the pitcher, who was groggily sitting up and holding his cheek. I hoped I hadn’t broken it. I just wasn’t hoping all that hard. If he’d hit me in the head, I’d have hoped he wouldn’t have broken that, either.

The coach helped him to his feet, then remembered us and yelled for us to hit the showers; we were done for the day. He glared at me, but I just turned away from him. Mike and Jason ran over to me, and we went together to the locker room. I glanced up at my father, and he was still sitting there, just watching.

§  §  §  §

The locker room was strangely quiet—at first. I guess what I’d done was sort of violent, and we were a bunch of kids. Violence shakes up kids. I didn’t much like it, either. I knew I shouldn’t have let my emotions get away from me like that. But I’d felt I had to do something. The coach was the one who should have stepped in and prevented all that from happening. But he hadn’t. He’d left it up to us.

We all stripped down and went to the showers. The varsity pitchers were there, so there were 16 or 17 of us. There were 20 shower heads in the shower room, ten along each wall.

The juniors didn’t say anything to the four of us sophomores who were still on the tryouts list today. I didn’t know why today was different, maybe because of what had happened on the field, maybe because there were so few of us that they didn’t feel the need to show how macho they all were. Maybe because tryouts were over and intimidating us wouldn't make a speck of difference now.

Once we were all showering, however, the mood started to change. Kids started talking, then hollering back and forth, just like usual.

Then, some of the varsity pitchers started acting like jerks, which I guess on that team was pretty normal. I began thinking that was because the coach was like he was. He intimidated his players, and they learned from that, learned it was OK to be bullies, to prey on the weak.

Jason was next to me, just starting to shampoo his hair. I looked around and found Mike a ways down the room. He was showering between two of the varsity players.

I was talking to Jason so didn’t see what happened next, but I heard a couple of deeper voices calling out and then laughing, and when I looked over there, I saw Mike covering himself with his hands, blushing and looking scared. Then one of the varsity guys grabbed him and yanked Mike’s arms open, and I could see he had an erection. The guy holding him pulled him out into the middle of the shower room, still holding one arm, and called out to everyone, “Hey, look at this, guys. We’ve got us a real genuine live-ass faggot here!”

His buddy joined in. “He got turned on looking at us. We know what to do with faggots, don’t we?”

Before I knew it, I was on my way there. What Dad had said, what I was still feeling about Coach and the big pitcher—it was all mixed up inside me. Maybe the feelings I had about Mike were, too. But then I was there, and I pushed the varsity pitcher off Mike, shoving him hard and so unexpectedly he let go of Mike and stumbled back.

I’m not a little guy. I’m big for my age, but I was nowhere near as big as either of the varsity pitchers. I hadn’t bulked up at all. I was slender like most 15-year-olds. I had some muscle definition, but not a lot. These two guys both were at least 20 pounds heavier than I was, and built better. All of us being naked like we were, the differences were really obvious. The guy I’d shoved immediately stepped back, confronting me.

I was a little scared, but mostly mad. I’d never been in a fight, not a real one. But I wasn’t going to back down.

I spoke before the guy facing me could, letting my anger show. “What the hell are you doing? What’s wrong with you guys? First that other pitcher, now you two? We’re supposed to be teammates. A lot of us will be. Now you’re trying to start something in here? What’s wrong with you guys?”

I guess repeating the question didn’t make him any more interested in answering it. He didn’t. Instead he said, “You’re going to get it, asshole,” and drew back his fist.

“Hold it!” I said that with as much force as I could. “Don’t do that!” It took a great effort, but I said that without raising my hands or fists to protect myself. The only thing I raised was my voice. Instead of protecting myself, I took one step closer to him. I figured if nothing else, that would make me harder to hit, at least hit hard, and might slow him down.

What he did was open both hands, put them on my shoulders and push me back. I stumbled a little but stayed upright. I kept on talking, figuring that was my best, probably my only weapon. No way could I fight either of these guys. If they were going to hit me, then they would. The senior was coming back toward me when I again said what I had before.

“Hold it! You’d better not do that!” This time I had time to say more. “You hit me and you’ll never play sports here again. You might not even go to school here again. I read the handbook. No fighting. Expulsion if you do. Especially if you’re on a team.”

That stopped him. He was seething, his hands were in fists, but I’d gotten his attention.

“You’re going to get it,” he said, his voice nasty with emotion. “Maybe not now, not at school, but we’ll get you, you can count on it.” He was that mad.

I nodded and forced my voice to be calm. “Well, maybe. How old are you, anyway?”

“Eighteen. Plenty old enough to take care of an asshole like you.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. It also means you’re plenty old enough to go to jail for it. You’re an adult. I’m a minor. In the eyes of the law, I’m a child. Felony assault of a minor is what they’ll call it. You’d better do a lot of thinking. Am I worth that to you?”

His friend was right next to him. “I’m only 17. I’ll do it.”

“Yeah, right. Go ahead, if you want. Same rules apply to you. Whether you do it here or somewhere else, it’ll be because of what happened here, and you’ll be out of school. Maybe they’ll put you in juvy instead of with the adults.” I paused, as if considering, then said, “Although, I’ve heard some of those juvy guys can be pretty tough, too.”

I went on. “What’s with you guys, anyway? Mike here is a good guy. Because someone our age springs one doesn’t mean he’s gay, and you know that. You’re just looking for someone to push around. Mike can help this team win. He’s a great ballplayer and maybe the nicest guy you’ll ever get to know. And even if he were gay, so what? How does that hurt anything? You think there are no major league players who are gay? Are you nuts? There are even NFL players who are gay. You guys need to grow up a little.”

They were both still mad, but neither one looked ready to take a swing at me. Mike was still standing behind me. I turned around and cocked my head back toward where I knew Jason was, and was surprised to see him standing next to me. “Come on,” I said to Mike, and we walked away.

§  §  §  §

That night at dinner, Dad did most of the talking. I was happy about that, because I’d made spaghetti and garlic bread. I make my own spaghetti sauce using spicy Italian sausage instead of hamburger, along with fresh garlic and basil. I love it, and it was much better hot. I ate while Dad talked.

“Your coach is a piece of work.”

I nodded and kept my fork working.

“I went down and talked to him.”

I glanced up, then kept eating.

“He, well, he wasn’t really going to talk to me. Then, when I started asking questions, he was sure he wasn’t going to talk to me and started walking away.”

I sort of giggled, interrupting my swallowing by choking for a moment. People usually aren’t too successful walking away from my dad. He can have a very forceful presence when he wants. He also has this natural charisma, and he knows how to use it.

“So I told his back I had a friend on the town newspaper, and he’d sure like hearing how the coach has young boys showering without any school administrators monitoring them. And how he instructs his pitchers to throw fastballs at the heads of JV players to test their courage.”

Dad still had his suit on. I’ve heard some dads change into more comfortable clothes when they come home at night, but Dad always just kept his suit on, though he did take his jacket off. He even kept his tie tied around his neck. He told me he was just as comfortable that way. It had always been difficult for me to believe.

“Your coach stopped walking when I said that, and we talked. Well, I talked. I told him I’d been watching, and if that pitcher was seriously hurt, then as a coach who’d let things get out of hand, he was responsible for it, and the school was responsible, and I’d make sure everyone who needed to know was informed of exactly what happened, and why it happened, and that he could have prevented it and he didn’t. How instead, he’d intentionally created the situation.

“He was mad enough by the time I got through to take a swing at me. I thought he was going to, a couple of times. I could tell he’s used to getting his own way. He’s a bully. I hate bullies.”

I knew that. I’d been hearing it all my life.

“And I decided about half way into the conversation we were having that it didn’t make much sense to keep talking to him, because instead of being apologetic or sheepish, he was simply coming unglued. He didn’t even think about what I was blaming him for. He didn’t try to explain it or justify it. The only thing that mattered to him right then was that he was being criticized by someone, anyone, and it didn’t matter who. He was used to being king high shit on that field. He wasn’t used to someone calling him out, talking to him the way I was.

“So when I was done letting him know how unhappy I was with his style of coaching, I simply turned around and walked off. I never even told him who I was.”

“Well,” I said, “that might be best for me and my chances of making the team.”

“If you have a team. I’m going to talk to the principal tomorrow. He has to know what’s going on, and that the coach needs to be retired, as of right now, because he’s putting the school and the administration and you kids in jeopardy, the way he acts. He doesn’t need a warning, he doesn’t need to be spoken to about it. He needs to be relieved of his coaching duties. He’s broken several district rules. You know me; I’m not going to let this pass.”

I did know him. I also knew he worked directly for the school district. It was a top job, and he’d relocated here to take it. He’d been an enforcement officer in a much bigger school district before coming here. People had a tendency to listen to him when he was talking full throttle. His position here, Assistant Superintendent, was a couple of notches above high-school principal. If he said the coach had to go, whether it was to save the school from financial damages in a lawsuit or because of violations of school policies or whatever, then he’d be gone.

“I don’t know if your principal has anyone else who can coach baseball. If he doesn’t, maybe you won’t have an organized team this year. We’ll just have to see. In any case, no matter what, I don’t want you playing for that man. No one should be working with kids who doesn’t give a crap about their safety.”

I nodded. I wanted to play baseball, but I wasn’t eager to play for him, either.

I told Dad about what had happened after the tryouts. I told him what he’d said to me that morning had made a difference and given me the courage to confront those guys. And that I wasn’t going to back down or ignore that sort of thing in the future.

Even if it did cost me a black eye now and then.

He’d been right. I’d felt good about myself while coming home that evening. Self-respect, standing up for what you believe is right—they were things that were worth fighting for.

§  §  §  §

I checked the bulletin board the next day. My name was on the cut list. The very first name on the list. Mike and Jason had both made the team.

I was disappointed but not surprised. And I couldn’t help but grin to myself. Coach’s name wasn’t on the list, either, but I knew he was going to be cut, too. Could be he didn’t know it yet.

It was funny, in a way, his cutting me. I was just what he wanted, someone tough enough not to be scared of opposing pitchers, someone who’d face pressure and not back down. But because he felt I’d disrespected him or perhaps because he feared I would challenge his decisions or leadership in the future, he’d made sure I wouldn’t get the chance. He wasn’t only a bully, he was a hypocrite, too.

I sat with Mike and Jason in the cafeteria for lunch. They had trays, I had my bagged lunch. Overall, from the look of their bedraggled single slices of pizza and wilted salads, I thought I had the better deal. For the first time, Mike seemed to have the problem looking at me that I usually did with him. Jason was Jason, just as stoic and quiet as ever.

I don’t know, maybe it was because of what had happened in the shower room, but, for the first time, I didn’t feel nervous around Mike, and I didn’t have any problem meeting his eyes, which made his problem meeting mine ironic. He’d sort of half glance at me, then back down at his tray. His body language was fidgety, too.

Thinking my staring at him wasn’t helping him at all, I resumed my conversation with Jason. “She wants us to compare Curley in Of Mice and Men with Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird. They’re nothing alike. How can I compare them?”

Jason picked up his little container of milk and took a swallow before answering. “They were both bad guys, so that’s the obvious thing. But what specific traits did they share? How did they affect the people around them? Did either have any redeeming qualities? There’s a lot you can write about if you think about it.”

“Sounds to me like what there’s a lot of is work.”

“Sounds like she wants to be sure we read the books and not the Cliff Notes.” Jason chuckled. “That’s what you get for signing up for an AP class.”

“What if I really look and can’t find anything similar about the two guys?”

“If you can’t, then just list what their main characteristics are. Showing how they’re not alike is as good as showing how they are. And there’s an easy way to do this. Both books are online, free. Just download them, then use your Find function to look for each name, and you can eliminate most of the books. It’ll let you just read about those guys.”

I looked over at him, and he gave me a crooked smile. “Hey, we’re kids. We’re supposed to look for the easy ways to do things. We’re supposed to try to outsmart the assignments.”

I laughed, and Mike joined in. Maybe it was because the mood at the table had lightened up with the laughter, but Mike had obviously gained some courage from it. He looked right at me and said, “Logan?”

“Yeah?”

He looked down briefly but then forced his eyes back up to mine. “About yesterday. In the showers. Uh… thanks. You saved me. Those assholes’d have beaten me up, and I think everyone would have just stood there and watched. You stopped it.”

He dropped his eyes again. I had the feeling it wasn’t the apology that was embarrassing him, but something else. Maybe that he’d needed saving, but that was stupid. Anyone his size would need saving from those goons.

Or, maybe it was about the erection, but that shouldn’t have mattered much, either. What I’d said was true. Guys sometimes got erections in the showers. Mostly, they merited a few catcalls, and then people forgot about them. We all knew we were susceptible to boners and so didn’t want to make too much fuss when we saw someone else sporting wood.

But Mike was obviously still edgy. That made me wonder. Was it what they’d said about being gay? I wasn’t sure how to talk about that. I didn’t know how he felt about gay guys. I didn’t know how Jason felt, either.

I was smart enough to know that I should talk to both of them about the subject, but individually. Less embarrassment that way, and probably more candor.

I knew I had to face my own feelings. I thought of what had happened the past couple of days. I’d stood up to jerks bigger than I was. I’d spoken to my dad about it. I’d stood up against the coach. I’d had the courage to do those things, to do what was right. Now I had to face my own demons. In some ways, that was even harder.

Did I like boys? Was I gay? I had asked myself that before but had never answered, had never really let myself think about it for any length of time, or very deeply.

Mike and Jason were now talking, and I took the opportunity to really look at Mike. I let myself stop thinking and just looked at him, and let whatever emotions I had sweep over me.

Yeah, I liked him; yeah, I was attracted to him. Much more than any girl had ever attracted me. The way his hair curled over his ears. The slant of his neck as it plunged under his shirt collar. The flash in his eyes when he spoke. The way his nose moved when he wrinkled his forehead in thought. The sound of his voice, slightly high-pitched and breathy. Physically, he did it for me.

And his personality did, too. He was fun and open and had a great sense of humor. He was intelligent and not a bit stuck up. He went out of his way to help other kids. I really liked that. I think, too, if I ever had the chance to talk to him about doing the right thing as a way of life, being honorable and moral, he’d jump on that bus with me without a second thought. He was that kind of kid.

Yes, I liked him. A lot. I’d never let myself think of him in that context before to the extent I was doing now. Did I want to get romantic with him? Could I see myself dating him? Could I imagine myself making out with him? The two of us, alone, maybe in my bedroom?

Yes, I liked him.

Yes, I probably was gay.

It was a lot to think about. It was a lot to accept.

§  §  §  §

I asked Jason and Mike if they’d checked the bulletin board that morning. I told them I hadn’t had a chance to. OK, OK, I don’t need any crap about that being a lie, being dishonorable, not doing the right thing. I know the difference between something important and playing around frivolously. I wanted to see how they’d react.

They looked at each other, and then neither looked me in the eye. So, I knew they’d seen I’d been cut. And they didn’t think I knew, so they were uncertain what to say. They didn’t want to hurt my feelings. I decided to play with them a little. I knew more than they did, but didn’t really want to tell them I knew the coach was getting canned.

“Oh, you guys haven’t looked yet, either? Probably as nervous as I am, but you guys don’t have to sweat it, I’m sure. You were both great. I don’t think the coach likes me much. Hey, let’s go look now. We’re all done here.”

I stood up and grabbed my bag and sandwich wrapper and milk carton. They picked up their trash and trays. They probably realized this would be the easiest thing: go to the bulletin board together and let me find out by reading the cut notice instead of them having to tell me.

We walked to the gym and the bulletin board that hung outside of it. All three of us stood in front of it to read the notice there.

Instead of the list that had been posted there that morning, there was something new. It read:

- N O T I C E -

Baseball practice this afternoon is cancelled.

There will be a meeting for players tomorrow after school. Anyone interested in playing on the varsity baseball team should attend. This includes but is not restricted to current varsity members and any and all players who have previously tried out, whether or not they were cut. Come to the meeting prepared to try out for the team.

James Collins

Principal

We read the notice, then looked at each other, then read it again.

“What’s this all about?” Mike asked. Jason just shrugged. He was never impulsive. Everything required thought before he’d make a comment.

“It looks like tryouts are going to start all over. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow. It’s too bad, though. You guys were both shoo-ins. Now you’ll have to earn it all over again.”

“I wonder what happened?” Mike was reading the notice for the third time.

“You know, it’s funny. It’s signed by the principal and not the coach,” I said, trying to sound as confused as Mike was. “Anyway, we’ve got to get to class. And I guess we’ll get home early this afternoon. See you in the parking lot right after school, Jason?”

§  §  §  §

I met Jason as advertised. He unlocked the car, we got in and then had to wait for the usual traffic jam in the lot to resolve itself. One nice thing about tryouts and practices was that we missed all that.

I liked Jason a lot, and one of the reasons was that he didn’t need to talk all the time any more than I did. If he didn’t have anything he needed to say, he tended to be as quiet as I usually was. He was like that as we drove home. I looked over at him. He was relaxed; he almost never started our conversations. That was my job. So, I was surprised when he spoke.

“What’s going on?”

“What do you mean?”

He gave me a brief chuckle. “You’re fidgeting. You never do that. I imagine it means you want to say something. So, go ahead.”

I looked at him hard, but then smiled and relaxed. “I can never figure you out. You always seem about two steps ahead of me.”

“I just notice things.”

“You do do that. And, you’re right. I need to talk about something. It’s just hard to know how to start.”

“Well, no rush. We’ll be at your house in a few minutes, and then you can just go inside and forget about it. No worries.”

“Sarcasm isn’t your strong suit, Jason.”

“Oh, really?”

I laughed. “OK, OK, I give. I guess I just have to start talking.” I paused, because I really didn’t know how to do this. I could end up losing him as a friend here, and I didn’t have that many, and none here as good as Jason. But I could end up losing my self-respect if I didn’t do what I knew I had to do. And I might not lose a friend; I might strengthen the relationship I had with Jason beyond what it already was. In any event, talking to him was the right thing to do.

“OK, it’s like this. I have no idea what you feel about guys who are gay. But I think I am. One of them. I don’t know for sure. I’m 15, and I’ve never done anything with anyone, boy or girl. I do know I find some guys more attractive, more interesting, than girls. And I know a guy—not you; I mean I like you a lot, but not that way, so don’t worry about that—and am sort of finding, uh, this guy, more attractive every day. Me, being me, well, I’m going to tell him soon, and I don’t know if he’s gay, so he might react badly, and if he does, it could be all over school then, and you’ll hear about it, and it wouldn’t be right for me not to have talked to you about it first, so I thought I’d do that, you know, talk to you, and feel you out about it, and let you know… and sort of find out if you....”

I ran out of breath and stopped. He glanced over at me, looked back to the front and said, “You’re babbling.”

I snorted. I wasn’t expecting that, and it took me kind of funny. “I’ve never done this before. I guess I got in a rush and didn’t know how to stop.”

I was still then, waiting for some sign from him that he was either OK or pissed at what I’d said.

“I could tell that, the not knowing how to stop part. And it did sound like you’ve never done it before, because you didn’t think it through, entirely. I mean, I know what a nice guy you are and how you consider other people’s feelings and all, but look. You just told me you didn’t like me that way. Well, what if I liked you that way? You could have crushed me there. What about that?”

I tightened up, paused for a moment, and then relaxed. “Uh, Jason? You know all that talk you do about Julie Maxxon? How you’re going to ask her out if you ever get the cojones, although you always say ‘money’ instead of ‘cojones’, but we both know what you mean? How you think she’s cute? How you’ve seen her glancing at you? All that stuff? So suddenly you’re gay and offended I didn’t put you at the top of my list of attractive boys? Yeah, right.”

“Still,” he said, trying to sound hurt and not doing a very good job of it, “I’ve got feelings, and making the top of your list would be good for my ego, and you just shot me down.”

“I don’t have a list, Jason. I have one guy, and I think I like him a lot. But that isn’t the point. The point is, what do you think about having a gay friend? Me, I mean.”

“I don’t have a gay friend.”

Oops! Did he mean that? I felt my spirits start to sag. He glanced over and saw that and immediately continued.

“I don’t have a gay friend. I have two of them.”

“Huh?”

“I have two. You and Mike. You know, the guy you like?”

I felt about two sentences behind Jason again. As usual. “Wait a minute. How do you know he’s the one I like? Or that he’s gay?”

“I told you, Logan. I notice things. You’ve liked him for a while now. Maybe you never admitted it to yourself, but you have. As for him being gay, I’ve known him a lot longer than I’ve known you. We were even best friends for a while back in fourth and fifth grades. We’re still friends—well, you know that—but not like we were. We’re kind of different. He’s a lot more open and spontaneous than I am which is probably why we sort of grew apart. He’s a lot more outgoing than I am, too. We don’t tell each other everything any longer, or do sleepovers. But he’s gay and even out to a very small group of people who keep his secret for him. And are protective of him. I’d have been right behind you in the locker room, but it all happened so fast, and I had to wash shampoo out of my eyes, and you were there so quickly, I didn’t even have time to react. By the time I did, you’d handled the whole thing.”

“He’s gay?”

“Yeah, but I’ll let you find that out yourself when you approach him. Don’t you tell him I told you.”

“Why did you?”

“Because I didn’t want you going all soft in the head and deciding you didn’t want to lose him for a friend or some shit like that. You two are perfect for each other. And you, with all your self-doubts, might just blow it.”

“What do you mean? Self-doubts? Me? I don’t have self- doubts.”

He looked over at me and held my eyes with his long enough that I became worried he’d run us into something. He finally looked away. “Logan, your father has awfully high expectations of you. You have them for yourself, too. But mainly, you’re afraid you’re going to let him down. You worry more about letting him down than you do about letting yourself down. You don’t admit it, just like you didn’t admit that you’re gay.”

I was stunned. “How do you know this?” I asked. He didn’t answer. If he had, he’d probably have said, ‘I notice things’, for the third time. I didn’t know what to say to that so didn’t say anything. We drove the rest of the way home in silence, a comfortable silence, something we did a lot of and which didn’t bother either of us. I was glad we did it this time. I had lots to think about.

When we got to my house, he let me out, but before I could close the door, he leaned over, looked up at me, and said with a grin on his face, “Now we’ll see who has the biggest cojones.”

§  §  §  §

One of the things I do, that’s part of me, is to handle whatever needs handling right away. I don’t like to put things off. I’ve never thought too much about that. It’s just what I do. Now, I thought about it, because of what Jason had said. Do I do that because I doubt myself and know waiting will make something harder? Maybe too hard? So I take care of it before it gets too hard for me to deal with?

I wish he hadn’t said that. Because I realized there was a lot of truth in it. Maybe I’d been lying to myself. About a lot of things.

I always talk to my dad. About everything. I’ve always told myself that, and that I was comfortable with it, and now I wondered. I hadn’t told him about my growing awareness I was gay. I hadn’t said anything to him about Mike. Could I tell him about those things? I had to, didn’t I? And what about telling him that Jason had said my dad expected a lot out of me? And I suddenly wondered what I really thought about that. Did I agree with Jason that Dad asked too much of me?

I didn’t want to think about any of this. I really didn’t. But I knew whether I thought about these things or not, I was going to discuss them with my father. And sooner, rather than later. It was who I was.

The thing I did think about right then was self-doubt. And Mike. I realized the two went together. I didn’t think I doubted myself when it came to most things. I really didn’t. I had as much self-confidence as the next guy, and probably more. But, I realized I did have self-doubts when it came to Mike.

Mike was sort of perfect. Very good-looking in a boyish sort of way, whereas I was very ordinary looking. On a scale of 1 to 10, I was probably a 5. Maybe a 4.5. He was a 9 or 10. Absolutely.

A guy as good-looking as he was could have had at least a somewhat feminine appearance. He wasn’t like that at all. He was very much male, and had a very male look. I wasn’t a bit feminine, either. At least I didn’t think I was. A mirror had never been my best friend and the less time I spent in front of one the less discouraged I became, but I’d never seen anything girlish in my reflection. Never seen anything terribly attractive there, either, but what was there was definitely male. A male who wasn’t nearly in Mike’s class, looks-wise.

He was also very outgoing. Loads of friends, loads of people he stopped to talk to in the halls, loads of people approaching him at lunch. I wasn’t reclusive, but I sure wasn’t the extrovert he was. I had a few friends, but Jason was the only close one. I told myself that this was because I’d only moved here a short time ago. But, forcing myself to be realistic, it was also because I wasn’t the sort of person who made tons of friends. I hadn’t had that back where we’d come from, either. I’d never had swarms of kids hanging around me. Like Mike had.

So, Mike was handsome, outgoing, lithe, mercurial and charismatic. I was plain, reserved, more bulky than lithe, stolid and unimpressive. Yeah, I guess you could say I had self-doubts when it came to Mike. Why in the world would a kid like that want to get together with me? Sure, I did the right thing, and I was proud of who I was. I had recently stood up for what I believed, and was still getting better at that. I didn’t doubt myself in very many ways. But Mike could have anyone he wanted, and when you came right down to it, I didn’t stack up to much.

§  §  §  §

I’d made pork chops and macaroni and cheese for dinner. With green beans and a tossed salad. It wasn’t one of Dad’s favorite meals, but it was one of mine. And I wanted, or perhaps needed, some comfort food that night.

I’d been thinking about what Jason had said while doing my homework. I’d started a list of what Curley and Bob Ewell had in common, and didn’t have in common. It was more interesting than I’d thought it would be. And concentrating on that had allowed my mind to grind away in the background. Pretty neat, how that worked.

I always cooked the chops, thick chops I had the butcher cut specially for me, to just past medium rare. They were still slightly pink in the middle, but done. They were juicy, and good. I know, I know, everyone worries about trichinosis, but it’s extremely rare in the US. Do you know how many cases there are annually? In the whole country? About 40, or less than one per state per year, and most of those come from home-grown and home-butchered pigs. So I cook it so it tastes best and don’t worry about it.

Dad looked over at me between bites and said, “What’s on your mind?”

“You, too? What? People can read me like a book now?”

He chuckled. “Why, who else said that?”

“Jason. He said I had something on my mind, and I did.”

“You want to talk about it?” Which was just him being polite and not pushing because he knew I wanted to talk about it. I always did.

“Yeah. Jason says your expectations of me are very high, maybe too high.”

“He said that?”

“Well, not exactly. But he said they were very high, and maybe I tried too hard to live up to them. That maybe I had self-doubts because I sometimes felt I couldn’t live up to them—or to my own high expectations.”

He didn’t answer that. He cut another slice of chop, and dipped it in the juices that were on his plate, and ate it. He used his napkin to dab at his lips, and then said, “Where’s all this coming from?”

Damn! I liked being around smart people, but sometimes it was a trial, too.

“I told him something, and we were discussing it. That sort of came out of nowhere from him. I’ve been trying to figure out if it’s true or not all afternoon.”

“Did you decide anything?”

“Yeah. There’s some truth in it, but not a whole lot. I think every kid probably worries if he’s good enough to do what he wants to do. But I don’t worry a lot about it. I just do what needs to be done. And try to do it the best I can.”

“You don’t think I push too hard, do you?”

“No, you hardly push at all. I know what you want, but it’s what I want, too. You leave it to me and don’t criticize if I come up short.”

“You hardly ever come up short.”

I smiled. “Thanks. But I do, sometimes. Like I got cut from the baseball team.”

He laughed. “So did the coach. That’ll teach ‘im!”

I laughed, too. And attacked my chop with new vigor. And the mac and cheese. I make it with three or four different cheeses—whatever we have but always including some mozzarella and sharp cheddar, along with some Velveeta so it’ll all melt together—and it always tastes great. Slightly soupy—just a little—and very cheesy. Wonderful stuff.

“So you want to talk about what you told Jason, what you were discussing? Or we could talk about something else. Like how my discussion went with your principal about your coach.”

I nodded. “I’d like to hear about that, but I need to tell you about my discussion first.”

“OK.”

I took a breath. “Dad, I think I’m probably gay. That’s what I told Jason. He didn’t have a problem with it. We’re still friends. Good ones. I told him I liked a boy and was going to tell him about it. I thought I’d better tell you, too.”

I was looking right at him, hoping against hope I wouldn’t see any disappointment in his face. He was looking back at me, so I’d have seen it if it had been there.

What I saw was acceptance. He got up and hugged me. That, I guess, sort of proved it.

When he sat back down, I said, “I at least expected you to be surprised.”

He shook his head. “No, I’m not. Not really. I always thought this might be possible. Maybe, subconsciously, even probable. You know why your mother left or at least what we told you. She told you she loved you in her way but wasn’t happy and that the two of us would be better off without her, without going through all the animosity and resentment she was starting to feel over living the life she was living. And all that was true. We have been better off, and she wasn’t the most loving mother I’ve ever seen.”

He was right about that. He’d always been the supportive, loving parent. She’d been sort of detached, sort of not there even when she was. In the year before she’d left, when I was 7, it had gotten worse and worse. I’d gotten to the point of never going to her with any problems, just waiting till Dad got home. I wasn’t even that upset when she left. It sort of felt like a relief.

Dad looked a little sad, and spoke like it was an effort. “I always wondered how much of her problem was my fault. I never knew and never will. See, I’ve always known I was bisexual. I never told you that; it wasn’t something you discuss with a child. At the beginning, with your mother, everything was fine. I loved her, and we behaved like any young married couple. But pretty quickly she started withdrawing from me. I always wondered, was it because I was bi? Did I somehow lack passion in our… well, when it was important? I didn’t think so, but how could I know? I asked her why she was being like she was, and her answers never made much sense to me, but I wasn’t a woman. But then I saw her get distant with you as much as with me. And then she left. And you know how often she’s wanted to see you since then. Never. So I don’t think it was because of me. But I’ve never really known.”

We’d never spoken about this, not like he was speaking now. It made me feel uncomfortable, his talking about this, and Mom, but I had wondered why Mom had been like she was and why she’d left. I’d never brought it up because he hadn’t; since we were so open about most everything, the fact nothing was said about such a major event in my life had made me think there was stuff I wasn’t supposed to know, some secrets that were being kept from me. I’d sort of resented it, but had not let it bother me too much. It was just the way things were. And I had my dad, and he loved me. That was enough.

I didn’t much like to hear him talking about sex—and Mom—but I did like knowing he felt I was old enough now to do so. Even if I thought maybe I wasn’t.

“If you want to know the honest truth,” he continued, “I really think it was just her, not me. I mean, when she left, she signed a paper saying she’d never invoke any custodial rights to you. It was a deal I agreed to. All she wanted from me was ten thousand dollars—which wasn’t mentioned in the custody deal—and we’d never see her again. What mother would do that? It was wrong. It was so terribly wrong of her and had nothing to do with my sexuality. It had nothing to do with love. People should do the right thing, and what she did was wrong.”

He stopped, and I could see he still felt some emotion about it.

After a minute of reflection, he continued in a softer, more normal voice. “I do know being gay is genetic, and so I’ve watched you. And you’ve never dated and not talked much about girls. So I didn’t know, but wondered.”

“So it doesn’t bother you? About me?”

“Of course not,” he said.

I let that sink in, and the little bit of worry I’d had simply went away. Then I asked him a question, something I’d wondered about but always had felt uncomfortable about asking, so never had. “How come you’ve never dated? Either a man or a woman? It’s been eight years. That’s a long time.”

He looked sad for a moment. Then he sat up straighter. “Logan, we make our lives for ourselves; we’re responsible for them, for our own happiness. I’ve had my job, and I’ve had you, and I didn’t want to do anything that would negatively affect either of those. I’ve always wanted to do what I felt was right. Though that’s a bit of a cop-out. It was more than that. I didn’t want to bring any men home. If I’d brought anyone home with me, it would have been a man. I was thinking more about the attractive men I’d met than any of the women. But I thought, if I’d bring a man home, it might make it easy for you to decide you were gay if you were beginning to wonder about your own sexuality at all, and I wanted that to be entirely your decision, whether or not you were bi, without any sort of influence coming from me.”

“I don’t think I’m bi, Dad. I think I’m gay. And I like Mike. He’s a baseball player I met this summer. Well, you were there. He was the kid playing second base.”

“Slim kid? Dark hair. Really good-looking?”

I smiled. Maybe even I blushed a little. I know my face felt hot.

“I’m fine with this, Logan. I’m happy for you. I just hope he’s gay, too. You probably think he is or you wouldn’t be excited about this. You’d be worried—or scared. And you wouldn’t show it, either way.”

I started to say something, but he held up his hand. “I’ll help with any advice I can give, but I sort of screwed up my own romantic life, and as much as you can, I think you’ll want to figure this all out for yourself.” He grinned at me, a very warm grin.

I got up and hugged him. I might have squeezed a little tighter than usual and held it a little longer. And while I was hugging him, I whispered in his ear, “If you want to bring someone home, I won’t mind at all.”

§  §  §  §

I got in Jason’s car the next morning with my baseball gear. He looked at it, and me, and smiled.

“Ready for practice, I see.”

“Tryouts,” I said. “I think the notice said tryouts.”

“Yeah, but it also said the varsity should come. They won’t be trying out, will they? I’m not sure what’s going on.”

“We’ll see. Maybe they want everyone there to see the big guy who was throwing at me get chewed out.”

“Damon Riggs. His name is Damon Riggs. He’s a piece of work. Real cocky and a real asshole. Thinks he’s God’s gift to Selkirk High School in general and the baseball team in particular. And the chance of Coach chewing him out over anything at all is about the same as finding naked ladies serving dim sum in a Hooters bar on Mars. What is much more likely is that Coach’ll chew you out for damaging Damon’s pretty face.”

“Not going to happen,” I stated with some assurance. “I was just protecting myself.”

Jason laughed. “I guess that’s one way to look at it.”

I grinned, and we talked about our English papers instead. I wasn’t done with mine yet. He was with his. He wouldn’t tell me what conclusions he’d drawn. I was just as glad he didn’t. I wanted to come up with my own.

He talked about Julie, and how he was thinking he might try to approach her. He didn’t say anything at all about Mike. I had no idea how he knew when to bug me about something and when not to, but it seemed instinctual with him, and his instincts right then were, as most always, right on the money.

We dropped into silence about halfway to school. It gave me a chance to think. What I was thinking about was Jason, and his car. They both were much alike. It was a plain car, an older model his parents had helped him buy. Not fancy, not flashy, just something that got the job done reliably and with efficiency and no fuss at all. The car got us to and from school every day and it was easy to ignore what a help that was. Jason was like that, too. Easy to ignore. He didn’t stand out at all in a crowd. But he was my sounding board, my support, my advisor, my friend. I looked over at him, took the time to really look at him, and he turned to me.

“What?” he asked.

“You’re my rock,” I said.

He looked back at the road and kept driving, then, after a moment, said, “You’re nuts.”

“Yeah? What about them?”

OK, so teenagers aren’t comfortable letting their sentimental feelings get too much exposure to daylight. But I’d said, and he’d heard, what I meant.

I didn’t get to see Mike at lunch. My guidance counselor insisted I spend the time with her. I was on the college-prep track, and she talked a lot to everyone who was planning on going to college, making sure we were keeping our grades up, trying to get us to focus on what major we’d want to take, signing up for the PSAT, discussing any problems we were having, just keeping in touch. All the sophomores I knew thought the meetings were a pain in the ass, but a good recommendation from her was said to be important on our college applications, so we all played along. I took my bagged lunch and a pint of milk into her office and ate there while answering her questions and pretending to be as excited as she was, even while feeling I was being a little dishonest doing that.

I got nervous as the clock wound towards three-thirty. I knew there’d be a new coach; if we were going to have tryouts again, there’d have to be a coach. I didn’t really know whether whoever it was would want me on the team. I’d been kind of aggressive in our previous tryouts, sort of let my temper take over my good sense. Maybe this coach wouldn’t like that. Maybe he’d want to make an example of me.

I changed in the locker room alongside Jason, as usual. The room was pretty quiet. I don’t think anyone was sure what was going on. We could hear soft murmurs of guys talking to one another, but it wasn’t anything like the usual locker room atmosphere.

We gathered around the backstop, and pretty quickly the principal came out of the school with another man. I didn’t know him, but I was standing with Jason and Mike and they both smiled when they saw him.

The principal introduced the man to us. It was apparent most of the guys there already knew him, but the principal went ahead anyway. “Guys,” he said, “this is Mr. Parkson. He’s moving up from JV to take over the varsity team. Coach Tasker has resigned, effective yesterday. Mr. Parkson is taking over, and he’ll talk to you now. He and I have already spoken, and I support everything he’s going to tell you.” He turned to Mr. Parkson then and said, “They’re all yours, John.” Then he waved at us and went back into the school.

Mr. Parkson was a much smaller man than Coach Tasker, and the expression on his face wasn’t belligerent or aggressive. He was smiling at us. I’d never seen Coach Tasker do that.

“Boys,” Mr. Parkson said, “please sit together in the stands, down at the bottom. It’ll be easier to talk to you there.”

We all moved away from the backstop to the bleachers directly behind. The varsity players sat on the first and second tiers, and the rest of us fell in behind them. When we were sitting, I looked at Mr. Parkson. He didn’t look like what I expected a baseball coach to look like. He was probably in his 50s, but I was awful at figuring out how old adults were. I just knew he was fairly old. He appeared soft, or maybe gentle was a better word. Whatever it was, he didn’t seem up to the rigors of controlling a group of rowdy boys, or arguing with a cantankerous umpire.

He waited, and eventually we all quieted down. Then he began.

“OK. I’ve been asked to take over the team. I agreed to do it if I could do things my way. Coach Tasker had his methods; I have mine. I’m not going to discuss him or his methods at all but will tell you what I expect.”

He paused and looked at all of us, looking each of us in the eye briefly. He might appear soft to me, but he had no problem at all looking in our eyes. When he spoke again, I thought maybe there’d be some steel in his voice as he laid down some rules, but it wasn’t there. He sounded exactly the same as before.

“My philosophy is that baseball is a game you guys are playing for the fun of it. Winning is more fun than losing, so we’ll try to win, but it isn’t the end of the world if we lose. What we want to do is improve our skills, learn to be good team players, learn sportsmanship, enjoy the sport for what it is and have fun. Everyone will participate. It’s no fun at all to sit on the bench every game and watch other kids play. So we’ll give everyone opportunities. The better players will play more, but everyone will play a lot.”

We were all dead silent. What he’d just said was something none of this group, many of whom had played for Coach Tasker, had ever heard a varsity coach say.

“One thing we’re going to have from every member of this team is good sportsmanship. Win or lose, we’ll play by the rules, be gentlemen, be courteous, and be examples of fairness to our opponents. That means we won’t spike anyone when we slide, or threaten to; we won’t throw pitches at batters; we won’t talk trash. Anyone doing any of those things will be benched, and kicked off the team if it happens a second time. If we win, we’ll win by teamwork and skill, not by intimidation or rough play or breaking the rules. This is a game, and you’re high-school kids.

“And because of that, we’ll be courteous to all our teammates. Getting along with each other is part of what I emphasize. I heard there were some problems during tryouts. Both on the field and in the locker room. I’ll make this very clear: if you can’t get along with each other, you can’t play for me. We aren’t a team, the sort of team I want, if we’re fighting each other. Guys playing for me will like and support each other. Is there anyone here who has a problem with that?”

He stopped and scanned us. He seemed to spend extra time looking at Damon and then at me. I guess looking at us wasn’t enough. After looking at everyone, he looked back at me again. “I think you must be Logan Andrews. Is that right?”

I stood up. “Yes sir. I am.” I was suddenly nervous. I’m not shy, but being called out in front of everyone else so unexpectedly wasn’t something I was prepared for.

“Nice to meet you, Logan. I hear you’re a pretty good hitter.” He smiled, and then, without any change in his voice, said, “I guess you were involved in both incidents I heard about. So I want to ask: Do you have any problem playing with any of these guys?”

“No, sir. Everything you said sounded great to me. I just hope I can make the team.”

He nodded. “I wish everyone could. But I’m only allowed to have eighteen players.”

Then he turned to Damon. “Damon, I know you. You used to play for me. You seem to have grown some.”

Everyone laughed, although Damon didn’t do much more than smile, and that looked forced. He was sitting in the middle of the varsity players on the bottom bench.

“Damon, I guess it’s accurate to say you’re the star on this team. Are you all right with what I’ve said? Do you want to play on a team where winning is secondary to sportsmanship, where our goals are team unity, fair play and fun? Where you have to be congenial with and supportive of your teammates? Each and every one of them? Even the ones, maybe I should say especially the ones the school handbook speaks about when it talks about minorities, about race and religion and sexual orientation?”

Damon didn’t answer. Instead, he sat up straighter and looked around him at his varsity teammates, a question in his eyes. Several of them were frowning, a couple shaking their heads and looking upset.

Damon turned back to the coach. “We have a good chance of winning the league this year, but not if we’re going to play a bunch of young guys a lot. We need our best players—these guys around me here—on the field the whole game, every game. Some of us have worked hard to get to where we are now, and now we’re seniors. We deserve the chance to win. We don’t want new guys coming in and screwing things up for us.” His voice had been getting louder as he’d been speaking and now it reached its peak.

The coach’s voice, when he spoke, seemed much softer by contrast. “And what about the other part, Damon. What if there are boys here with a different sexual orientation than the rest of you?”

“I don’t want any fags on the team, either.” He glanced around him. “None of us do!”

Damon’s face had become flushed. When he said he didn’t want any fags, there were a bunch of head nods from his friends, and a couple of them reached over and slapped him on his shoulders.

The coach looked from Damon to the other varsity players around him. “How many of you feel the same way? All of you who feel that way, stand up.”

Damon stood up first, and four other guys quickly joined in, and then they were followed by two more. They looked at the coach and none of them were smiling. Damon stood with them, and he was looking a challenge at the coach.

Mr. Parkson shook his head sadly, then spoke in a voice that was softer than before. “All right, boys, you can go. You won’t be playing with us this year. We are going to be a solid group of guys all pulling in the same direction, a team, and that won’t be possible with any of you on the squad. Take your equipment with you.”

Damon looked stunned. He sputtered, “You can’t do that! You’ll have no team and no chance without us. You can’t win! We’re the whole team. You’re left with a couple of seniors who can’t do shit, and a bunch of little kids. They’ll get slaughtered out there!”

“Damon, I can do it, and I am doing it. These are tryouts. It said so on the board. Tryouts are held to let us evaluate our players and form a team. That’s what we’ve been doing here. You guys have made it clear you don’t like the direction this team is moving in and maybe some of the people trying out. So, some other young men who share my philosophy will be taking your positions. Whether we’ll get slaughtered or not is no longer any concern of yours. Please leave now.”

Damon looked like he was going to stay, and like he was going to say something more. The coach preempted him, still speaking softly. “If you remain, you’ll all be given detentions for disobedience and disrespect, for not doing what a teacher told you to do.”

What I found so remarkable was, this was an emotional scene, and might have even become confrontational and scary, but Mr. Parkson, by never once raising his voice, seemed to have taken the zing out of it. Damon was left seething but seemingly with no one to take it out on.

Mr. Parkson was a small man, much smaller than Damon, but it dawned on me, watching him, that he did have a presence about him. Damon thought he was going to challenge him, but the mild look on Mr. Parkson’s face, the look of total self-confidence, the look of being totally at ease with himself and the situation, must have registered. Damon had curled his fingers into fists, and they were clenched so tightly they were white, but he suddenly turned on his heels and marched away. His friends followed in his wake.

§  §  §  §

We didn’t shower after the tryouts that were held following Coach Parkson’s talk. He didn’t say anything about taking them, and so some guys went into the locker room and some of us didn’t. Jason and I both just walked to the parking lot. We noticed the coach followed the guys into the building who were going to change and shower.

I was surprised when we reached Jason’s car. My dad was in his car, parked next to Jason’s, waiting.

“Hi, Dad. What’re you doing here?”

“Waiting for you. I was in the area. Want a ride?”

“Sure.” I threw my gear in the back seat, told Jason I’d see him in the morning, and got in with Dad.

“That was a little white lie, for Jason’s sake,” he said when we were moving. “I didn’t just happen to be in the area. I was here for a purpose.”

I looked over at him. His eyes were on the road. I didn’t say anything; I knew he’d fill me in.

“I wanted to see how John would handle the meeting and what would happen afterwards. So I was there, watching from the corner of the school, when James introduced John.”

He glanced over at me. “Just so you know, the old coach wasn’t the only one that wasn’t going to be with the team this year. James, John and I spoke about the situation, and we decided Damon and his gang were done, too. They broke the school rules about discrimination and bullying based on sexual orientation. The remarks they made the other day in the locker room and Damon’s remarks today are against the school policy, a policy written in the handbook and which everyone in the school reads and signs. It expressly warns about such conduct from members of athletic teams.”

“But Damon hadn’t said anything like that before. He wasn’t in the showers, either,” I said.

Dad nodded. “Yeah, but we knew what his attitude was and knew he wouldn’t be able to bite his tongue when John gave that little speech we all prepared together. And he couldn’t.”

“So you set him up?”

Dad chuckled. “I prefer to think of it as he hoisted himself on his own petard.”

“Huh?”

Dad’s chuckle turned into a laugh. Then he quickly became somber. “That’s why I was here. I figured it wouldn’t take long with guys like Damon and his gang before they decided it wasn’t their fault they weren’t on the team any longer—it was yours and Mike’s. So I came to make sure there wouldn't be any trouble.”

“How so?” I couldn’t think of any way he could accomplish that. I’d already begun worrying when I’d seen how mad Damon was walking off. I was pretty sure I was going to get it at some point.

If not just because of what I’d done to Damon, but also because I’d stood up for Mike. I realized I might have to do that again, too, and the outcome might not be quite so good next time.

Dad took a quick glance at me before returning his eyes to the road. “I had recruited someone to come with me, and we waited till the entire group was around the corner of the building, out of sight of you guys, and then I stopped Damon. His buddies stayed with him, as I was sure they would. I told him I was the Assistant Superintendent of Schools, and introduced the man who was with me, who just happened to be the chief of police. That got their attention. I told Damon I had a proposition for him and his friends. He was very cautious, very defensive, and asked what I meant. I told him that I had grounds, just witnessed by a whole group of boys and a schoolteacher, for his immediate expulsion. I said the boys in the locker room scuffle were in the same position. They’d all participated in making prohibited remarks based on sexual orientation. That they’d all broken the school guidelines on discrimination, and were all subject to immediate expulsion because of that.

“That got their attention even more than the police chief did. Then I told them that because of their loyalty to the school as shown by being a part of the baseball team in past years, I would cut them a break. I had a deal to propose to them. If they pledged to have nothing to do with, no contact at all with anyone on the team, they would be allowed to stay in school and graduate with their class. Of course, if they violated this pledge, they’d be expelled immediately, and criminal charges would be preferred against them if their actions merited that. The chief cleared his throat, looked at them the hard way only a policeman can, and told them he really didn’t want to be locking any of them up, but that would be up to them.

“I told them I needed their answers right then; it was a now or never offer. They looked at each other, and one of the guys said his father would kill him if he didn’t graduate, and he’d make that pledge. That got the others all agreeing, too.

“Damon hadn’t said a word, so I asked him. ‘You too, Damon?’ He didn’t want to but reluctantly said OK. I have no idea if any of them meant it, but I opened my briefcase and took out seven sheets of paper. It was a written statement of what I’d just had them agree to. I told them they each had to sign one. They did. I’m sure you won’t have any trouble with any of them.”

“At least till school’s over and they’ve graduated.”

“I thought of that. The day before graduation, I’m going to visit each of their houses. The chief has agreed to come along. We’ll talk to each of their parents. I’ll tell them that if anything happens to any of you boys, there will be a criminal investigation, and their boy will be in the front line of those being questioned. I’ll tell them about what happens to boys in either adult prison or juvy. I think you’ll be fine.”

I thought so, too. In any case, I decided worrying about it wouldn’t help. The fact was, I wasn’t a worrier. It always seemed a waste of time and energy to me.

At dinner that evening, Dad asked about the tryouts.

“They went pretty well. Without the varsity players there, the whole atmosphere was different. Looser, more relaxed. Coach told us to have fun, but to do our best because there would be cuts, down to the 18 best players. I think I made it, and Mike and Jason did, too. Those juniors who’d given us so much grief turned out not to be all that good. I’m sure a lot of them will be cut.

“I don’t know whether we’ll be good enough to win any games, but I do think we’ll be competitive. And I love the philosophy the coach told us about. I asked Mike and Jason, and they said he’s a great guy to play for. So I’m hoping for the best.”

Dad ate some of the lasagna I’d made. I use my spaghetti sauce for it and lots of mozzarella and bake it, and it’s pretty good. OK, OK, maybe that sounds conceited, but it really is good. And a lot of work. I think I’m allowed to blow my own horn a little.

After dinner, I finished my English paper, then lay down on the bed and thought about Mike. I needed to talk to him. I wasn’t usually a bashful guy. I was pretty straightforward, up front, all that sort of thing. But thinking about talking to him, thinking about being turned down, had me all nervous. Finally, I gave up and called Jason.

I told him what was bothering me and then asked, “How do I do this? I’m scared he’s going to laugh at me.”

“He won’t do that. You know him. He’s nicer than I am, and that’s a pretty hard thing to be.”

“Well,” I replied, ignoring his attempt at humor, “his saying he isn’t interested will be just as bad, and I think he’ll probably say that. I’m nothing special, and he is. He can do much better than me.”

“Feeling maudlin, are we? Come on, Logan. I think he’ll be happy you asked him. He might be lonely, even though he’s got lots of friends. He doesn’t have a special one, I know that. I don’t think he’s ever been on a date.”

“So how do I do it? I don’t know where to start.”

He was quiet for a moment, then said, “You know, you’ve just gone through three tryouts, and aced them all.”

“How do you know that?”

He started to answer, and I answered right along with him, “I notice things.”

He laughed. “Well, I do, and you were one of the best players out there today. You made the team, believe me.”

“OK, so what does that have to do with asking Mike out on a date?”

“It means, you’ve just aced three tryouts. Mike is the fourth one. Treat it like that. Put your best foot forward, get your head in the game like this is a competition you’re going to win, be assertive, be yourself and just go for it.”

“You think?”

“Yeah. The opportunity will come. Be ready and then make your move. Just do it. But you’d better be quick. I’m asking Julie out tomorrow. And that’ll settle this cojones business once and for all.”

§  §  §  §

Jason and I were looking at the bulletin board outside the gym when Mike saw us and came running. This coach didn’t list the names of the boys he’d cut. He listed the boys who’d made the team—a subtle difference, maybe, but a meaningful one to the boys who were cut, not seeing their names displayed as not having made the grade.

Mike saw us there and came running. “Did we make it?” he shouted.

That was just Mike. Not ‘did I make it?’ But ‘did we make it?’ You had to love the guy. Well, I was starting to think it wasn’t going to be too hard to do that. If he’d let me.

Jason’s face was showing nothing, so I kept mine blank, too. OK, so I wasn’t above teasing Mike a little. But it really wasn’t that. I wanted him to get the full effect of seeing his name posted on the team roster.

Mike saw our faces as he was rushing to us, and his smile faded a bit. Then he read the board.

“Whoopee!” he shouted.

“‘Whoopee?’” I asked, laughing.

“My parents taught me never to swear, or I’d have said, ‘Holy shit!’ You like that better?”

He had a smile a yard wide plastered on his face, and all I could do was think about kissing him. I couldn’t do that. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. I simply wasn’t ready. Cojones challenge or not. Instead, I said, “See you at practice tonight, varsity stud.” And high-fived him. Walking away, afterward, I felt like I’d let myself down. Jason didn’t help. He walked with me and said, “I’m seeing Julie in my first class. I’m not going to chicken out.”

“Thanks for the sensitive support,” I said back, and walked away from him.

He called after me, “Cojones, Logan. Cojones.” Given my mood, it didn’t bring even a semblance of a smile.

§  §  §  §

Jason was all smiles and goofy grins that afternoon. He’d probably been that way at lunch, too, but I hadn’t had the stomach to eat next to him, knowing how he’d be gloating. I was sure he’d asked Julie, and I was sure she’d said yes. I notice things, too.

I think Jason could see my mood as we were changing into our gear after school, getting ready for our first practice as varsity baseball players. He wasn’t lording it over me at all. He wasn’t talking about either Mike or Julie, either. I guess maybe he was more sensitive than I’d given him credit for—or more aware of how I was feeling. I hated myself for chickening out. That wasn’t doing the right thing, and it wasn’t standing up for myself. It wasn’t who I was, or at least who I wanted to be.

I knew I had to forget about it for practice. I needed to concentrate, and once I started doing that, I started feeling better again. Thinking about anything else was better than thinking about not having the nerve to do what I’d wanted to do.

Coach had a surprise for me. He asked me if I’d like to try first base. I’d played it before and enjoyed the position. Being in the infield, closer to the action, was more fun than standing alone in the outfield and only occasionally getting a ball hit in my direction. So I told him ‘sure’, and he moved me in to play there. Little did I know I’d stay in that spot for the rest of my high- school career.

For some reason, we clicked. I mean, Jason at short, Mike at second and me at first—we just all looked pretty slick together. We communicated well, and that’s important in any infield. That first day, I dug a couple of low throws out of the dirt and made a good play on a screecher hit down the line, somehow managing to get a glove on it behind the bag, knocking it down, then recovering and tossing it to the pitcher covering the bag in time to get the runner. I got a couple of hits, too. Coming off the field, I felt tired, sweaty, and really good.

Jason stayed out on the field for extra fielding practice with a couple of other guys when the rest of us went in to shower. The whole locker room scene was much different this time. Everyone was in a good mood. The coach had been very encouraging, the advice he’d given had been spot on, and there’d been none of what had gone on between the juniors and sophomores in tryouts. It had been a hard practice, but a fun one, too, so spirits in the locker room were high. There was an assistant coach in there with us, but he could tell we were all excited and having fun, and he just sat in the coach’s room with the door open, not bothering us at all.

I was already out of the shower when Jason came in with the others who’d been kept longer. He looked tired but was smiling.

“I think he’s going to make me first string,” he said as he was pulling off his shirt. “I know Mike’ll start at second. The guy who was going to be there is one of them that walked off with Damon. And I think you’ll start at first. You’re really good over there, and last year’s starter graduated. So maybe the three of us will be starters!”

He finished undressing and left for his shower. I finished drying and looked around the dressing room. Mike’s locker was across the room, and as usual my eyes were drawn to him. As I watched, one of the kids who’d stayed on the field late with Jason approached him. He sat down on the bench and watched Mike getting dried off, then started talking to him. As I watched, I saw Mike sort of smile and then blush.

They kept talking, and then Jason was standing next to me, drying himself and looking where I was looking.

The kid talking to Mike was someone I didn’t know. He’d been at tryouts, and I knew his name was Ethan, but that was about it. Oh, I guess I knew something else. He was cute as hell. And he was smiling along with Mike now.

Ethan started to slowly undress, and I’d swear on a stack of Bibles he was doing it very deliberately, teasingly, almost seductively. Mike had finished drying but hadn’t started to dress. Instead, he was standing with his towel hanging in front of him, watching Ethan.

“I hope you haven’t waited too long, Logan.” I glanced at Jason, who was talking to me but still looking at Mike. “Julie and I are going to a movie on Friday night. I was going to ask you and Mike to double with us, but now....”

I could feel my emotions playing like a pinball in a machine, bouncing all over the map. Someone was doing a great job hitting the flippers, too.

Ethan finally got down to his underpants, then stood up, stretched, said something to Mike that evoked another blush, and walked off to his locker.

Jason started to say something, but I was already moving. I’d be damned if I’d let Ethan move in on my boy. I might not be ready, I might still have those doubts not quite under control, but it appeared my number was up. It was now or never.

Mike was just slipping on his underpants when I reached him. I stood next to him, not too close, but close enough I could talk and only he could hear. “Hey, Mike. Great practice! Man oh man, that one play you made going to your right, diving, gloving the ball and then flipping it to Jason to get the guy coming from first? That was amazing. You’re really good.”

Mike blushed, laughed and said, “You’re the second guy to tell me I’m really good in the last five minutes. If a couple more say something like that, I’m going to start wondering what’s going on.”

So that’s what Ethan had said and maybe the reason why Mike had blushed. What else had he said? I moved a half-step closer. The air was wet from the steam coming from the showers. Drying off left us still feeling clammy. Boys were walking around with towels wrapped around their waists. There were raised voices as guys talked to each other across the room. Mike and I were perfectly private in our own cocoon of steam, boys yelling and milling about and lockers banging open and shut.

“Uh, I saw Ethan over here? You guys friends or something? I don’t know him at all.” I tried to keep my voice very calm and to make the question sound entirely idle.

Mike got his socks out of his locker. “Yeah, just like with Jase, I’ve known him a long time. In fact, that’s what he was talking to me about just now, how Jase had told him when they were coming in that I looked like I was a little down and needed some cheering up. I have no idea where that came from and I told him that, and we both laughed it off. You’ve got to know Jase. Sometimes he has a weird sense of humor.”

I turned to look at Jason, across the room, dressing. He quickly looked away when he saw me turn. I’d have to think up some perfectly good way to kill him when I had the time to consider it.

“Hey,” Mike said, “you looked great at first. I think we’ve found ourselves an infield.” I looked away from Jason, back at Mike, and saw him tug on his shirt, covering his beautiful chest.

I had to move my eyes. It was so easy to stare at him. He was making conversation, just conversation, and I was standing there that close to him. He was fresh from the shower, smelling of soap and shampoo, his face glowing, his eyes sparkling. I didn’t see how I could be intoxicated, just from looking, just from being close, but it felt that way. I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer. Rejection, being laughed at, being gently turned down, whatever, I had to do this.

“Uh, Mike?” Damn, that sounded bad. My voice was suddenly hoarse, and I realized I was almost trembling.

“Yeah?”

I was going to do this. I was going to tell him I was gay. I was going to ask if he was. I was going to tell him I liked him and that I wanted to go out with him. That was a lot to lay on him, all at once, here in the locker room with other guys all around us. I sort of hesitated, then just did what I do. I did what was right.

“This probably isn’t the best place to say this, but, well, Mike, I’m gay.” I spoke in a low voice, and in the locker room din, the humid atmosphere cloaking my words, the irreverence of boys being boys at a high noise level, I knew no one but Mike could hear me.

“I’m gay,” I repeated, “and, well, I hope you are, too, because I really like you.” I suddenly felt I couldn’t get the words out quickly enough, and sped up. “I can’t help but watch you all the time. What I’d like is for us to go out. On a date. Even if you aren’t gay, I’d still like to be your friend, and we could still go out. Jason is taking Julie Maxxon to a movie Friday night, and we could go, too, even if you’re not gay. Get something to eat afterwards. Maybe a pizza, or a burger. I think it would be fun, and we could—”

While I’d been speaking Mike’s eyes had grown wider and wider. “REALLY?” he asked, breaking in on my increasingly rambling outing of myself while I was asking him out. Then he lowered his voice. “You mean… you mean you’re gay? You really are?”

“I am and hope you are, because I really like you.” I couldn’t help myself. I reached out and touched him, touched his hand, so very briefly.

“Wow! God, you’re brave! Yeah, I’m gay, too. You’re a lot braver than I am. I’ve been wanting to ask you out, but never in a hundred years thought you were gay. Yes, I’ll go out with you! First making the team, now this. I’m the happiest kid in the world right now.”

“Well, maybe the second, after me,” I said, and we both grinned like Santa Claus had come in April.

I touched him again then, but couldn’t do more. I wanted to do more. I could see he wanted to touch me, too. But we couldn’t. We would, later, but for right then, the grinning would have to be enough.

The End

To my readers: AwesomeDude still needs your support. Some of the writers who call AD home have collectively written a book to help cover the site’s costs of operation, but that only brings temporary and limited funds. Continuing financial support, using the button above the home page or any other method available, will keep this site up and running, and the stories we all love available for the foreseeable future. I would hate to lose AwesomeDude. I’m sure I’m not alone in that thought.