Brett didn't buy the old I'm-not-feeling-well routine and insisted I tell the truth. "Something happened," he asserted. "Listen up, I'm gonna rock over to your house after swim prac and if you don't tell me what really happened I'm gonna beat you up good and proper tomorrow morning in the gym, even more than I did this morning. Got it?" Brett had a talent for being unapologetically direct.
He arrived after supper explaining he'd had several chores to do at home. I led him to my room as he asked how I was feeling. "Okay except for the high-pitch voice."
"So what happened? And stop fooling around with words."
I sat at my desk while he chose to plant his butt on the side of my bed. "I guess Mitch is pissed at losing the boxing match."
"What happened?" he demanded again.
"He got me in the change room when I went for a leak during break."
"He had backup but he took me alone."
"He didn't take you, Kyle. I heard what happened. It wasn't even a fight. It was an ambush."
"If you heard what happened, why are you asking?"
"I wanna hear it from you."
I couldn't quite figure whether Brett was mad at me or Mitch or both. I sought clarification. "What exactly did you hear?"
"I heard you went to the change room to take a leak. When you zipped and turned to leave, Mitch and two of his goons confronted you. You were nervous; I can understand that. So you extended your hand and told Mitch no hard feelings. Then the asshole takes your hand, pulls you toward him and knees you hard in the balls. Next thing you know, there's a teacher kneeling over you waving smelling salts under your nose."
"Hey," I shrugged, "so now you know. Just don't go looking for any shit. Okay? Mitch's got a lotta backup at school and all those guys are seniors."
"Don't do anything, Brett," I pleaded in earnest. "It's no good starting a war at school. Some of those guys are packing."
"Yeah, and you never know who's packing and who's not."
Brett more or less ignored my concern and turned the subject 360 degrees. "Do you have any girlfriends?"
"Nah. I guess I really don't have the time for them `cause they get pissed at me whenever I'm with friends or surfing or whatever. I don't need that sort of possessive shit." Because the vibe in my room was pretty amiable, it struck me that the timing was right for Brett to answer a question I'd been pondering. "Why did you call me a faggot in the quad that time?"
"It's a long story, Kyle, and I was being stupid at the time. I was acting for the group, and the last thing I expected was for you to react the way you did. But," he paused, "I'm glad you did."
That comment came like a bolt out of the blue. "Why?"
"Gave me a chance to beat up on you," he cracked.
"So what's the story with the guys?"
"It's supposed to be a secret."
"But you and I are mates, so I figure it's okay to tell you. Besides, you know what I'll do if you open your big mouth."
"I was clubbing with Frank one time and we got totally shitfaced on booze. He told me how you and he jacked off together on mountain hikes and stuff. Then he told me you're the horniest person he knows."
"Oh? But that still doesn't explain why you called me a faggot."
"Hey, Kyle, I dunno. I didn't know you all that well back then. I'd just joined the swim team and I guess I was jealous of how well you always performed with the swimming. You were just a target and I'm sorry I said what I did. I know now that I was totally out of line. Forgive me?"
Whoa! What was happening here? Forgive him? This was Brett? All I could think of saying was "Yeah, sure." Then he surprised the hell out of me again by giving me a huge bear hug.
"Mates, right?" he asked.
"You bet! Hey, can I ask you something now?"
"Why are you always so damn aggro?"
"I don't know. Well, I think I know, but I'm not sure."
"Wanna talk about it?"
"One day, maybe."
The reason Brett asked me about girlfriends became apparent a few days later when he invited me to join him and Susan clubbing. "I can organize a blind date if you want."
I wasn't sure how to answer. A blind date? What would that lead to? "I'll let you know," was the only response that came to mind.
Meanwhile, Brett's foul moods still puzzled me. One morning in the gym he was hitting the bag so hard I thought it might bust wide open. Naturally, albeit not diplomatically, I asked him again why he was so aggro.
"I'm not in the mood for small talk, man. You can leave if you want to."
"Leave? Hey, this is our arrangement. I thought you liked us training together."
"I do. I just feel fucked up this morning. And don't ask a lotta questions for Christ sake. I can't tell you anything."
I changed tack by skipping around the ring, shadow boxing and teasing him. "Bet you can't hit a moving target."
"You serious? I'm in a major hostile mood and you want to ring it with me?"
"Why not? You're not gonna hit me for shit."
"You're on, dude," he grinned in a menacing way. "But if I get you you're gonna be in a lotta pain."
"Quit yapping and let's go!"
Well, I was lucky. He pummeled the hell out of me but withheld a lot of his power. I could tell I was appealing to the better side of his nature. In the showers, I quizzed him again. "You sure you don't wanna tell me what's bugging you?"
"Yep, I'm sure."
"Well, hey, I got a pair of ears that aren't too busy most times, so if you wanna give them some work to do, they're all yours."
Brett's riposte was unexpected as well as, I thought, involuntary. "It's my mom's boyfriend." He saw the look of puzzlement on my face, then quickly added, "Oh, shit. It's nothing. Let's drop it."
"Well, I'm here if you change your mind."
That evening, Graham breezed into my room as usual except for one thing: he was nursing a cut on his cheek. "I was at Ryan's house boasting about you beating the crap out of his big bro, Mitch, so he backhanded me."
"That lump of lard hit you?"
"And he said he's gonna give you something to think about."
"He already did; he kneed me in the nuts."
"He said that's just for starters."
Next morning in the ring, I reversed the normal situation. Brett was in a good mood and I was ready to kill someone. As it happened, I didn't do any real damage to Brett, but it wasn't for lack of trying. I was furious about Graham being smacked by that bully.
At lunch break, I sat with Brett and saw Mitch heading for the change room. This was my chance to even the score. I told Brett I'd be back shortly and took off after Mitch. The moment I entered the change room, I recognized a set-up. There were four guys plus the lump of lard. "Take him out, Mitch," one of the goons said, "he's a little wussy boy."
Mitch stood a few feet away but I managed a quick punch. It opened the cut on his cheek where I'd hit him during the boxing match. "Hey, Kyle," he sneered, "one on one, now. Come and get me." His hands mockingly beckoned me as two of his goons restrained my arms. "So what are you gonna do now, wussy boy?"
Certain I was dead meat, I was relieved to hear a familiar voice. "He's not gonna do anything, and neither are you or your friends."
"Fuck off, Frank," Mitch glared.
"It's not just me, dude," Frank said quietly, standing to one side of the doorway. The rest of the swim team entered the change room, including Jolly Jim. My jaw hit the floor. The two guys holding me freaked and retreated a few paces.
"It's not your fight, Frank." There was a quiver in Mitch's voice. He wasn't used to being outnumbered.
"You turned it into a fight when you were too chickenshit to take Kyle on his own. He gave you the chance and you fucked up, dude."
"Okay, big shot, what now?" Mitch demanded, wiping the blood from his face.
"You wanna take Kyle on? Like right now? We'll make sure it's one on one."
Mitch glanced at me then lowered his head. "No."
"Then it's over," Frank declared. "If you or any of your so-called friends get in Kyle's way, you deal with us. Oh, and there's another thing: leave the little guys alone, in or out of school, or the same thing will apply."
Back on the school bench, I asked Brett how come all the guys knew I was deep trouble.
"We've all known since last night," he laughed.
"Mitch's little bro phoned me. Remember, Mitch and I used to be buds on the boxing team. Anyway, he told me about Mitch and his goons baiting you into the change rooms. They were gonna make sure you were carried out of there."
"You mean like it was all arranged?"
"Seems like it. Hey, you cut Mitch's cheek. Tell me what happened."
"Mitch was zipping up when I went in there. `Kyle, buddy,' he says, `feeling nutty?' He and his morons thought it was a pretty cool joke. So I told him he was a coward and a bully. I was pretty damn mad. Then I told him we needed to sort things out just between the two of us, and that he should leave the little guys alone `cause they had nothing to do with this shit. `Yeah,' he says, `well they think you're a big fucking hero, and one of them's got a big mouth.' Anyway, Brett," I concluded. "I guess you know the rest."
"I've got a feeling I don't but that'll do."
"Tell me, why did Ryan phone you? What kind of brother would do that?"
"He said Mitch beat up on a friend of his called Graham, and that Graham was also a friend of yours. I couldn't understand the whole story but you told me about Graham, your little grommet surfing buddy."
"And Jolly Jim?"
"Well, Jim said he never wanted to end up in the ring with you after he saw you trash Mitch that time, and also that you're his swim team mate. He's also seen the other side of Mitch."
"Think it's over?"
"Oh, yeah. Mitch is a bully and bullies are chickenshit on their own. I know `cause I used to be one." That admission caused me to crack. He waited for my laughter to subside before continuing: "But there's one helluva thing that's happened here this morning."
"The guys on the swim team are always looking after themselves--taking care of number one--getting better times, fighting for places in the competitions. This is the first time I've seen them like a real team, with a common goal."
"Yeah, I see what you mean. Anyway, thanks a stack for what you did. But Mitch needs to thank you as well."
"I was gonna hit him so hard, he would've gotten a speeding ticket on the way to New Zealand."
We both cracked at the thought of that blimp hurtling across the Tasman before Brett raised the subject of a date again. "Hey, listen, you still wanna go out with Susan and me? I think Stuart and some chick will be coming. And I've organized a blind date for you. No--it's not Mitch in a pink tutu."
"Sounds cool, but I'll need to check with my folks first."
"Check with your folks? Kyle, you're not a little kid any more."
"Have you been eyeing my jewels again? Anyway, that's how it is at my house. I always ask my folks if it's okay to go out. If they say no, then it's no. I'll be pissed if they say no, though," I laughed, then raised my voice to falsetto, "`cause Kyle's been a good boy!"
Well, my folks did give me permission to go out clubbing. Stuart wasn't sure he could make it. His folks had organized some posh penguin-suit do that required his attendance. Meanwhile, I was, to say the least, curious about what my date looked like. According to Brett, I'd find out soon enough. "I think you'll like her."