Coach Wayne Highland sat at his desk, holding his head in his hands. His face was lined with pain, and he was absolutely, utterly convinced that today just might be the worst day of his life.
"He's doing this deliberately just to kill me," he said to the empty room. "It's part of some insane plot. Either that, or the kid's determined to give me a nervous breakdown. Those are the only possible explanations. Unless I'm just in hell."
There was a knock at the door.
"WHAT IS IT?" he bellowed.
The door creaked open, and Dylan inched his head around the corner.
"Hi, Coach," he said quietly. "I'm... a little early."
Highland glanced up. "Come in, Callahan," he said wearily. "And you, too, McDermott. I see you out there. You may as well hear this too, even if you're on the disabled list."
Both boys trudged in and sat down in two chairs placed in front of the man's desk.
"Close the door," the coach said.
Kyle leaned over and lightly kicked the door with his toe. It slammed with a loud bang, and all three of them jumped.
"Sorry," he muttered.
The coach sighed and rubbed his tired eyes.
"Coach, I..." Dylan began.
"Shut up and listen to me."
The two boys stared at the man, who got up from behind his desk, walked around to the front, then leaned back and folded his arms. He looked Dylan right in the eye.
"You could've told me, son," Highland said quietly. "You could've at least trusted me -- come to me for advice."
Dylan's face reddened. Shit, he thought. So it's gonna be like this.
"Just let me finish." The man thought for a moment, then began. "Do you know the number of gay athletes in professional sports in North America?"
Dylan shook his head.
"Must be a few dozen," said Kyle. "Maybe a hundred or so."
The coach rolled his eyes. "Let me rephrase that. How many out of the closet gay athletes are there in professional sports? We're talkin' football, basketball, baseball, hockey... hell, even tennis and golf! Take a wild guess."
The two boys stared back with blank expressions on their faces.
"I'll tell you how many," the man said, leaning forward. "NONE!"
They both winced.
"NOT A FUCKIN' ONE!" he roared. "They keep their goddamned private lives to themselves, and for a very good reason! And if they do come out of the goddamned closet, they do it after they retire... not before!"
Dylan sighed and shook his head. Maybe it's not too late to have Mom and Dad ship me off to that private school in Switzerland, he thought.
After an uncomfortable silence, the boy cleared his throat. "Look, coach... I'm sorry. You know I'd do anything for the team. This thing that happened last week..." He made a helpless gesture, then looked up at the man. "I had no choice," he continued with a sigh. "It was either do what I did, or we would've all died. And I wanted to save Donny, too."
The coach nodded sadly. "I know, son," he said. "Dylan -- understand me. I think you're a real brave kid. You saved a lot of lives with what you did. You're a good player, too, even if I think you're a goddamned showboat with an attitude problem. But I can deal with that."
Highland walked back behind his desk and plopped down in his chair, defeated. "But this..." he cried, pointing towards the Time magazine cover, "this is so out of control, I'm at my wits' end." He sighed and rubbed his eyes again. "I just wish you could've waited until Saturday to give that goddamned interview."
Well, Dylan thought. I gotta do what I gotta do. "Alright," he said, standing up. "I can see where this is headed. If you wanna kick me off the team, fine. I'll go."
"NO!" barked the coach. "SIT THE FUCK BACK DOWN!"
Dylan lurched back into the seat.
Highland shook for a moment, then forced himself to relax and took a deep breath. "No," he said, finally. "I can't allow that." He leaned forward and gave the boy a long, hard look. "Kid, you might not believe me, but I wouldn't kick you off the team even if the acting principal would let me -- which she won't, by the way."
Kyle nodded. "Yeah. Bad publicity."
The man shook his head. "Screw the publicity," he snapped. "No matter what you two think, I do what I think is right. And you're right for the team."
"I'll resign, then," offered Dylan. "Voluntarily."
The coach rolled his eyes. "Great," he said sarcastically. "So now everybody who calls you a fag to your face will know you're a pussy."
"I'm not a pussy," Dylan retorted.
"I know you're not. But you'd be a quitter and a loser, and that's a fact. And it's gonna be tough enough as it is without Kyle on the field -- him and Blake, god rest his soul."
In the background, they heard some muttered voices and some doors slamming outside the office, as the team began to filter into the locker room.
"What about them?" Dylan said, nodding towards the door.
The coach shrugged. "You let me worry about the other players," he said. "The county school superintendent just gave us some new preliminary guidelines on discrimination policies. And that includes a zero-tolerance on bullying." He picked up a fax off his desk, waved it for emphasis, then handed it to Dylan. "Reading between the lines, I think they're doing an end-run around future gay-bashing lawsuits. A little late, but at least it's progress."
Dylan glanced over the form and sighed. A piece of paper isn't gonna stop these guys from hating me, he thought.
The coach stood up. "You two come with me. I've got a little speech to make to the team."
They walked over to the door, but Dylan stopped just as the coach began to step out into the hallway.
"You sure this is what you wanna do, Coach?" he asked. "'Cause I really meant what I said. I'll quit for the good of the team. I don't care what the assholes say about me if I do. You and me... we'll always know the truth."
"Me, too," chimed in Kyle. "I'll quit, too -- if it'll help."
Highland nodded, but his expression stayed grim. "I appreciate that, boys. Thanks, but you're both gonna stay. And that's for the good of the team, whether they know it or not."
They stepped into the locker room. Near the shower stalls, assistant coach Charlie Stephenson was tossing some towels into a laundry cart. As they walked to the corner of the room, the loud din quickly came to a halt, and several players openly gawked at Dylan and Kyle. One half-naked player quickly covered himself up.
"Uh-oh -- definitely no love in the room," whispered Kyle in Dylan's left ear. Dylan nodded.
The coach clapped his hands together. "Alright, men! Listen up. All of you were at the general assembly this morning, and you heard the announcement from acting principal Simmons." He slipped on his reading glasses and read from the memo in his right hand. "As of December first, there is now an official zero-tolerance policy on hate crimes and violence for all LA county schools. Any student who harasses another student or teacher within 100 feet of school property, on the basis of their race, religion, national origin, disability, gender orientation or sexual preference..." -- he gave a slight emphasis on the latter phrase -- "by means of language or action, will be given an immediate 3-day suspension. Any student involved with violence of any kind against a student or faculty member, for any reason, will be suspended for 10 days, without exception. And a second incident will result in an immediate expulsion, and may also result in a jail sentence and up to a $10,000 fine. And possible civil penalties on top of that. Unquote."
Julio Martinez, in the back of the room, raised his hand. "Hey, Coach! What if some faggot touches you in the shower, or some shit like that?"
All eyes turned to Dylan. He glared back, but remained silent.
The coach put down the paper and took off his glasses. "As far as I'm concerned, if any student does anything sexual on school property, to themselves or anybody else, they get booted out, period." He looked at the boy in the distance and raised an eyebrow. "But if you ask me, nobody's gonna want to touch your ugly ass anyway, Martinez."
A few of the boys laughed nervously, and the Hispanic boy's face reddened.
"And, by the way," the coach continued. "If you use that word again, Martinez, you're suspended."
The boy feigned indifference. "Whatever," he replied, then sat back down.
"Coach?" called out another voice.
"What is it, Riles?"
Jon Riles, one of the second-string receivers, stood up and cleared his throat. "Uh... who's gonna take Kyle's place for Friday night's game in Sacto?"
The players looked at the coach, expectantly.
Highland grinned. "That'd be you, Jonny," he said. "We're movin' you up to first-string. Congratulations, kid."
"Fuck that shit," the boy muttered, dropping his helmet to the bench. "Ain't no way I'm gonna play with no faggot."
"GET THE HELL OUTTA HERE!" the coach bellowed. "OUTTA HERE! NOW!"
Everyone froze while the boy grabbed his street clothes, slammed his locker, then angrily pushed his way though the crowd and out to the hallway. His curses and mutterings were clearly audible until they heard the locker room door slam shut behind him.
Highland turned back to the team members, who were shuffling idly. "Alright," he said. "Any of you other clowns want to leave? Because if you do, tell me now! Dylan Callahan will be our starting quarterback this coming Friday night, and that's the way it's gonna be. This is not a democracy -- you boys don't get to vote, not as long as I'm the coach around here."
"You're totally nuts!" yelled a voice from the right side.
Dylan turned and stared at Jordy Chandler, team center, who was shaking with rage.
"No fucking way am I gonna be on the same team as this... these FAGGOTS!" Chandler cried, gesturing towards Dylan and Kyle. "I got rights, too! You can't make us do this, Coach!"
"Sh... shut-UP, Chandler!" yelled another voice.
It was Charlie Stephenson. He took several unsteady steps from the laundry basket and stared over at the team.
"Just shut the fuck up!" he said, louder.
Even the coach blanched. The room was silent as a pin.
"N-none of you s-seem to remember what Dylan did last week," the boy continued. He's a..." Charlie screwed up his face, making a herculean effort to force the words out. "...a...a hero. Dylan s-saved a buncha people in the school last week. More than a dozen of you g-guys right here owe your lives to him."
"Shiiiiiit," muttered Lionel Wilson.
"You, t-too, Lionel," continued Charlie, pointing directly at him, his hand trembling. "Your black ass would've been t-toast if Dylan hadn't been there, and you fuckin' know it!"
The team murmured.
"He should've let that fuckin' faggot die!" spat Chandler. "All Dylan was doin' was try to save one of his little homo friends!"
"I didn't even know the guy," began Dylan.
"You let me handle this," barked the Coach. He turned back to Jordy and thumbed towards the door. "You're history, Chandler! Get the hell outta here. We don't need you. Considered yourself suspended."
"FUCK YOU!" the boy snarled. He bolted from the room, nearly knocking down Stephenson on his way to the exit.
The players watched him storm out of the locker area, then listened as a distant metal door banged open, then slammed shut. The room grew uncomfortably silent, marred only by the dull rumble of the furnace in the background. All eyes stared at Dylan, who nervously looked down at the floor.
"L-listen to me," said Charlie.
All eyes turned back to the former player. Dylan noticed for the first time that Stephenson's scars were healing, but the left side of his face still sagged slightly, giving him a distorted, disturbing appearance.
"What Dylan s-said this morning was right," he said, his voice shaking slightly. "People treat me like shit now because I'm dif-different, too... like I'm not worth a shit anymore. Even though I'm still the same on the inside." He stared angrily at the team. "B-b-but even if I wasn't hurt from the ac-accident, I wouldn't play on a team that w-wouldn't respect a guy like Dylan. He's... a great player, no matter what, and that's all that m-matters. You guys are a buncha assholes."
With that, Charlie began to push the towel cart out of the room. The other players uneasily moved out of the way and let him pass by, moving towards the hallway. Dylan noticed that the boy wasn't dragging his left foot as much as he had the month before. After a few moments, Charlie disappeared in the darkness.
"I think I saw this scene in a movie once," whispered Kyle to Dylan. "Next, the coach says, 'win one for the gipper, guys!'"
"And you pipe down, too, McDermott," bellowed the coach. "If you weren't already on the disabled list, I'd kick your ass out on the track for the rest of the day."
Kyle winced and shut his mouth.
Coach Highland clapped his hands together. "Alright, men," he said. "Enough of this. Get outside! We're goin' to at least 6PM today. That'll make up for not having any practice yesterday. We'll be going late every night this week until we leave on the bus Friday morning. Go! Move it! Hustle, hustle!"
The players groaned and began to file outside, weaving a wide path around Kyle and Dylan. Several of the boys glared at them on the way out, but said nothing. After the last player had left, Dylan turned to his friend.
"Okay," he said, sarcastically. "That went well."
"Callahan!" yelled a voice in the distance.
"I'm COMIN'!" he called back, then shrugged and trudged out the back exit that led to the outside field..
§ § §
The practice dragged on until nearly 6:15. Few words were exchanged between the players, who did their best to avoid speaking to Dylan whenever possible. It was almost as if he didn't exist -- as if the friendships and team camaraderie of the past couple of years had evaporated overnight.
"They think I'm a totally different guy," Dylan muttered, pulling off his helmet as the coaches blew their whistles, signaling the end of practice.
"That last play looked pretty brutal," said Kyle, who jogged up alongside him. He was still wearing street clothes, and his right arm was still in a bright blue sling. "I think Lamont was tryin' to knock you into next Tuesday."
Dylan nodded and rubbed his sore left side. "Yeah. But I'm not gonna make any waves. I'm just gonna take it. Coach'll just say I'm bein' a pussy if I complain."
Several of the other players brushed by them, jogging into the locker room. One of them turned and sneered, then muttered something under his breath and disappeared.
Both boys stopped in their tracks. "What'd he say?" asked Kyle angrily. "Because if he said what I thought he said..."
"Come on, man," Dylan said quietly, pulling his friend off to the side. "I heard him. 'Fuckin' faggot.'"
Kyle was fuming. "What are you doin'?" he snapped. "You can't just put up with this shit, dude!"
Dylan sighed. "It's all I can do for now."
Seconds later, Coach Highland walked up, carrying a sack of practice footballs. "Go on in, son," he said to Dylan. "We're done for today."
Dylan shook his head. "I'm gonna give 'em about 15 minutes first," he said quietly, looking down at the ground. "I'll take my shower then."
The man tightened his jaw. He understood. "You don't have to do this, Callahan," he said. "One word from me, and..."
"No," Dylan interrupted. "I'm not gonna give 'em the chance to get in trouble." He turned and looked the coach in the eye. "It's okay. I don't wanna make this any worse than it has to be."
Highland nodded. "Okay. Just be careful in there. Thanks, kid." The man continued through the doorway. I'm gonna have to do something about this, he mused to himself.
"Jesus, dude," said Kyle, shaking his head. "You've taken showers with the guys about two hundred times! They know by now you're not gonna grab 'em or something."
Dylan forearmed some sweat off his brow and leaned against the building. "One step at a time, bro'." His face brightened, then he dropped his voice conspiratorially. "You and me know there's only one guy I'm gonna reach for in the shower."
Kyle laughed. "Okay. But I'm stickin' around for the duration, just to be your bodyguard."
"Some bodyguard," Dylan snickered. "With that arm..."
"...I can still beat the shit outta anybody who tries to pull something."
Dylan grinned. "You forget I'm a second-degree brown belt. I bet I'll make black belt by summer. But it won't be necessary. The team'll accept me eventually -- you watch. I know these guys!"
Kyle stared into his boyfriend's eyes. I'm gonna believe that, he thought. It ain't ever gonna happen, but I'm gonna try to believe it anyway.
§ § §
By Wednesday, Dylan was grateful that his fifteen minutes' of fame was finally beginning to evaporate. The number of autograph requests had gone down to only half a dozen that day, and several students in class were beginning to almost treat him like a person again.
But the team was still aloof. Most of the players kept their comments to themselves, barely acknowledging Dylan's presence. He noticed most of them stayed at least ten feet away in the locker room when he changed from his street clothes into his uniform, but he ignored them and jogged outside, as if nothing had changed.
At around 5:50, the coach blew the whistle, signaling a break. Dylan trudged to the sidelines, where Kyle tossed him a towel and handed him a Gatorade.
"Things gettin' any better out there?" Kyle asked.
Dylan shook his head. "Naaa. Well, maybe a little." In the distance, he heard the school fire-alarm bell ring and looked up in time to see the head coach jog over to the back of the locker room, where the man began a spirited conversation with one of the other school officials.
Dylan took a long swig, then turned back to his friend and nodded towards the team members, who stayed 20 feet away. "The guys are still treatin' me like I'm a leper."
Just as Kyle was about to reply, the coach ran up and clapped his hands. "Listen up, men!" he said. "Over here."
They gathered around him in a circle. "We were gonna call this the end of practice," he said, "but the school just had a bomb threat. We're waiting for the police to come over and check out the locker room before we can let any of you back in. Just hang out here on the field for a few minutes, until they sweep the place. I'm sure it's a false alarm." With that, the man jogged back to the door, just as a uniformed officer waved to him from the side.
The players eyed Dylan. "Who would wanna bomb our school?" scoffed Lionel.
"Maybe somebody who hates fags," spat Martinez.
Dylan started to take a step forward, but Kyle immediately stood in his way. "Let it go, dude," he whispered. "Don't do this."
He ignored his friend and brushed past him. "You got somethin' to say to me, Julio?" he said loudly. "Then just say it."
The Latino boy narrowed his eyes. "Fuckin' maricon," he said. "We don't need ya."
Dylan leaned forward and grinned. "Yeah. You guys did real well against Burbank without me and Kyle three weeks ago. Is that really what you want?"
"We don't want no fucking fags!" the boy cried, suddenly leaping forward and taking a swing square at his jaw.
By instinct, Dylan immediately blocked the punch. Julio swung again, but Dylan deftly bobbed to one side, letting the boy's fist hit nothing but air. He resisted the urge to smash his opponent's nose into his skull, and instead held his hands up.
Martinez was like an enraged bull. With a cry, he lunged forward, grabbing for Dylan's jersey. In one swift, fluid movement, Dylan executed Osato Gari, sending the boy tumbling backwards to the grass with a thud. That's what three years of Kempo Karate will do for you, he thought, trying not to smile.
The teenager lay on his back, momentarily stunned. Dylan stood over him. "I'm not your enemy, dude," he said quietly, holding out his hand. "C'mon, Julio. Let's forget about this."
Before the Hispanic boy could reply, the Coach ran up. "Hey!" he cried. "What the hell's goin' on here?"
The players went silent.
"Nothing, Coach," Dylan said, pulling the player up to his feet. "Martinez here just slipped on some wet grass. It's no problem."
The boy glared at him but said nothing as he brushed off some stray leaves from his uniform and joined the other players.
"Okay," replied the coach. "The cops say the Phys Ed building's clean. You boys can hit the showers." He ran back up to talk to two LAPD officers, who were waving to him from the sidewalk.
The players silently crossed the field and ambled over to the locker room door.
"Thanks for doin' that, Callahan," said Lionel, as he walked up beside him. "You coulda got him suspended 'cause of the new rules and like that. But you didn't."
Dylan looked up, momentarily startled. Maybe the ice is finally starting to melt, he thought to himself. "Thanks, man," he replied.
"No problem," the boy said with a shrug.
The two stopped at the sidewalk and let the other players silently file by. Dylan watched them until they disappeared through the door, then turned back to the black team captain.
"I appreciate you givin' me a break, Lionel," Dylan said. "I kinda need all the friends I can get right now."
Jackson looked up, and his jaw tightened. "We ain't friends," he said quietly. "What you did last week was good. You saved a lotta people, me and my brother included. But make no mistake: you ain't no friend of mine. That's just the way it is."
With that, he turned and disappeared into the locker room door.
"Jesus," Kyle said in disbelief. "I'm gonna give that jerk a piece o' my mind, followed by my foot up his ass!"
He started forward, but Dylan pulled him back. "No," he said quietly. "Lionel's right. I've had enough." He turned to the right, just as Coach Highland was trudging back towards the Phys Ed building. "Hey, Coach!"
The man jogged up to him. "Sorry about this, kid," he explained. "Don't blame yourself for this. There's always gonna be assholes out there."
The boy shook his head. "I'm done," he said, handing the surprised man his helmet. "That's it for me. I'm quitting."
"Call me a loser," he interrupted, "a quitter... a pussy, even. I don't give a shit anymore. I'm outta here, Coach. The team doesn't want me."
Highland looked at the boy sadly. "You can't put up with this for just two more days, son? Are you that afraid?"
Dylan shook his head. "I'm not afraid of anything any more," he said. "I've thought a lot about death in the last couple of weeks, and I realized -- if you're not afraid of death, then everything else is bullshit." He gestured towards the locker room door. "But I've got too much crap goin' on in my life right now to have to deal with those jerks. Get yourself another player. I'm sorry, Coach."
With that, Dylan and Kyle left. Highland watched them as they trudged away. He shook his head. Well, he thought. That's it -- game over. Suddenly, his expression changed. Unless I play my ace in the hole.
§ § §
Dylan brooded at his desk, idly clicking the mouse on the computer screen. Shit, he thought, marveling at the on-screen images. I wish I had checked out these gay porn websites a lot sooner.
Suddenly, there was a knock at his door. He quickly kicked in a screen-saver and looked up. "Yeah?"
The door opened and Yolanda leaned her head in. "Dinner'll be ready in ten minutes, baby. But somebody's here to see you first."
Dylan's jaw tightened. "If it's that Enquirer guy again, tell 'em this time, we'll sic Lady on him. Or maybe I'll bite him myself."
"Come on down to the living room," she called over her shoulder, as she disappeared down the hallway.
He rolled his eyes, then followed her. "I'm not in the mood for this," the athlete said, walking down the stairs. Just as he got halfway down, he looked over the railing and saw a familiar figure standing in the foyer. His mouth dropped open in surprise.
"Hey!" said Alan Wilson, his former coach. "There's the hero! Good to see ya, kid."
Dylan's face broke out in an ear-to-ear grin as he reached the foyer. "Me, too, Coach," he said, shaking the man's hand. "Listen, I'm sorry I haven't been in touch. I've kinda been busy, and..."
The man chuckled and nodded. "Yeah. I've been readin' the papers." He cocked his head and looked at the boy. "You had real guts, Dylan. I know everybody's probably been telling you that for the past few dats, but not many people know you like I do. You've come a long way."
"Thanks," Dylan replied. "You wanna stay for dinner?"
"Can't," said the man, following him into the living room. "I've only got a few minutes."
They sat down on the coach. Lady the dog strolled over and sat by her master's feet, again trying vainly to scratch the itch on her right side. Dylan leaned over and gingerly rubbed the area with his fingertips, taking care not to pull at the stitches.
"You doing okay?" Dylan asked.
The coach nodded. "Yeah. The school's paying out my contract. I've got a lead on a position at CSUN this summer. It's a step down from where I was, but I'll be okay. The junior college team needs a lotta help."
There was an uncomfortable silence. Lady laid her head down on the carpet, grateful that her wounds were finally healing.
"So... I guess Highland sent you over here, huh?" Dylan remarked.
Wilson shrugged. "Wayne and I didn't always see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. But he's still a good coach." He raised an eyebrow. "And he knows you're not the first gay player on the football team."
The boy stiffened. He knew about Kincaid last year.
"Not a lot goes on at Chatsworth that the teachers and coaches don't find out about," the man continued. "Eventually, anyway. But my feeling is, as long as the student's personal lives don't get in the way of their education..."
"...or the team," added Dylan.
"Yeah. As long as they keep their lives private, it's not that big a deal."
The boy sighed. "That's not an option for me," he said quietly, looking the coach directly in the eye. "Not any more. The team doesn't want me."
"Give 'em one more chance," the man gently advised. "Go back to practice tomorrow. They're still getting used to the idea of... well, your situation."
"They hate my guts," Dylan fumed.
"You're not on the team to make friends," Wilson pointed out. "You're there to play football. Just act like everything's normal, and eventually, they'll loosen up."
"But the guys..."
"You leave them to me," the former coach interrupted. "I may not be employed by the school any more, but most of those boys still owe me."
Dylan nodded. "Alright," he said reluctantly. "Two more days."
"You hang in there until the game Friday night," Wilson said, as he got off the coach and walked towards the door. "This is the closest Chatsworth has ever come to winning the Division 2 state championship. You've come this far, kid -- trust me, if you quit now, you're gonna kick yourself for the rest of your life."
Dylan walked to the front door and opened it. On his way out, the man stopped and clapped him on the shoulder.
"I know," Wilson continued. "Twenty-six years ago, I had an argument with my high school baseball coach. It was over something stupid, and I was a hot-head. I quit the team, and they lost a playoff." His eyes were filled with decades of regret. "I remember it like it was yesterday. That's the kinda crap that happens when you put your own feelings ahead of the team's."
The boy looked up at the man. He finally nodded. "I'll be there," he said. "Even if it kills me."
"Thanks, Callahan," he said. "Oh, and once the season's over with," he added, "I'd appreciate it if you could come down and help me sometime with the inner-city league downtown."
"Sure. Maybe I can give you a few hours Sunday afternoon. Me and Kyle."
Wilson grinned. "That'd be great. And remember what I said, Dylan. Trust me -- you're gonna make it through this."
Dylan smiled wanly as he watched the man walk into the night. But I think I'd rather face Donny's rifle again than having the team hate me, he thought.
§ § §
The next day went a little better. By noon, Dylan had only been asked to sign two autographs, and the police were continuing to keep the news media off school property. After the final bell rang, Dylan took the long way around the central school corridor, taking a less-traveled path to the gym for that day's practice. The temperature had dropped considerably, and even by 3:30, he shivered slightly as he approached the L Building, which housed the Phys Ed department. Just as his foot hit the stone steps that led up to the side entrance, a voice called out from nearby.
"Hey, Dylan! Got a sec?"
Dylan turned just as Sean McIntosh jogged up, still huffing and puffing, his breath sending soft clouds of gray mist around his face.
"Hi, Sean," he replied. "I'm on my way to..."
"Yeah, I know," Sean interrupted, pushing his glasses back up on his nose. "Practice. Listen, I didn't want to hit you with this so soon after... after what happened last week."
Dylan cocked an eyebrow. "With what?"
Sean held out a portable recorder. "An interview," he said expectantly. "Just for the school paper. The Gay-Straight Alliance said if I could get you to talk, it'd be a shoo-in for their next national newsletter. Please?"
He rolled his eyes. My Dad warned me this could happen, he thought ruefully. "I told the guy from Time that I'd only talk to one news organization, and that's it."
The boy took a hesitant step forward. "But that one's already in print," he pointed out. "It's not like this is competing with them. And this is non-profit."
"Jesus, Sean," Dylan lamented. "My family already turned down Barbara Walters and even 60 Minutes! Are you gonna make me have to turn you down, too?"
Sean stared at him, his eyes momentarily filling with tears. "I just thought... maybe you'd be a little more sympathetic to us now. Maybe even come to one of the GSA meetings."
The athlete sighed. "But I'm still the same guy, Sean," he said gently. "I haven't changed -- even if people think I have."
"You could say that in the interview!"
Dylan started to open his mouth, then stopped. One more wouldn't kill me. "Alright," he said finally. "I'll think about it. After the game tomorrow night."
Sean's face lit up. "Fabulous!" he said. "I'm covering the game for the Chronicle. I'll talk to you on the bus ride back to town Saturday morning. Thanks, Dylan!" He took off at top speed down the corridor.
"Oh, I'm definitely lookin' forward to that," Dylan muttered, then sighed and trudged into the locker room.
§ § §
By 6:10, practice finally ended, just as most of the sun had faded from the Western sky, leaving behind just an angry splash of fire in the Santa Susana Mountains. Kyle and Dylan were the last to exit the practice field and make their way to the locker room.
"You sure you wanna do this?" Kyle whispered, as his friend pulled off his jersey and shoulder pads as they walked down the corridor.
Dylan nodded. "Yeah," he said quietly. "Coach Wilson said the more I acted like everything was normal, maybe they'd start to act like things used to be."
"Even though things aren't," Kyle pointed out, as they reached their lockers.
"Who's side are you on, dickwad?" Dylan asked, a little too loudly. A few of the other players turned, and one pulled up a towel in surprise.
The room grew silent as Dylan casually disrobed and tossed his clothes into his locker, then grabbed his towel and trudged into the shower room, which was a common area with two dozen spigots. Three boys eyed him as he strode up to a corner shower head and cranked it on full blast, but he ignored them and let the hot water cascade down over his aching muscles. After a minute or two, he was able to lean against the tile wall and relax. It'd been a hard practice, but a good one. He was convinced they were as ready as ever to take on the Bakersfield team in the championship. Even without Kyle, he thought, we still got more than a fighting chance.
Suddenly, there was a voice behind him.
Dylan glanced around. It was Martinez, who shot him an angry glance.
"Chill, dude," he said, shutting off the faucet and grabbing his towel. "I was just leavin' anyway." Dylan strode past the boy and walked back up to his locker.
The room was filled with a dozen other stragglers, most of which watched Dylan carefully as he dried himself off. Kyle was leaning against a nearby locker, trying to act nonchalant, but ready to move quickly if the situation demanded it.
Rick Chavez, one of the linebackers, who was sitting on a bench nearest Dylan's locker, spoke first. "So, ah... are you guys like, a couple?"
"A couple of what?" asked Kyle. "We're friends, yeah. So? What's it to you, Rick?"
"Nothin'. I just thought..."
"And what if we are?" asked Dylan, as he pulled up his underwear. "That just means less competition for you guys with the chicks out there."
Chavez weighed that. "Yeah. That's true."
"And," Dylan continued, pulling up his socks, "I'm not saying me and Kyle are together or not -- but I swear to God, I'm not interested in anybody on the team." He grinned at the other teen. "You're good at blocking, Ricky, but I wouldn't exactly put you in line to be the next Calvin Klein underwear guy."
Several of the players snickered. Team captain Lionel Wilson slammed his locker door and chuckled.
"My girlfriend says I look great in boxers," he said. "Maybe not male model-great, but she knows what she likes."
Dylan grinned as he finished pulling on his jacket. "Yeah. Me, too. And it doesn't include any of you guys -- I promise." He slammed his locker door, then grabbed his gym bag and turned to Kyle. "You ready, bro?"
"Yeah," Kyle said, straightening out his arm in his sling. "Let's blow this joint."
The players burst out laughing, and Kyle's face turned red.
"Shut up, you guys," he retorted. "That's not what I meant!"
Dylan pulled Kyle towards the exit by his good arm. "You'll have to excuse him," he called over his shoulder. "I think he's overdosing on the pain-pills."
The players laughed harder.
"Since when is now any different?" called out Coach Highland, who stepped out of his office and walked over to the exit to join the two players.
Dylan grinned, and the man put his hand on the boy's shoulder.
"Thanks again for giving the team a second chance, Callahan," he said. "We're gonna kick ass tomorrow."
The boy nodded. "I just hope they don't think I'm tryin' to grab any ass -- especially theirs."
"Get outta here!" the man growled, giving Dylan a gentle shove towards the door. "Go home and get some sleep. We're back here on the buses at 8AM sharp. We've got a six-hour ride to Sacramento, which gives us just enough time to eat, maybe do a little warm-up and relax, then the game is at 7PM."
"We'll be there," Dylan called over his shoulder. "Count on it."
From a distance, Martinez watched, as he carefully wiped the drips of water off his brown skin. He sneered as the two figures disappeared down the hallway. "Fucking maricones," he said under his breath. "Pinche pendejos!"
He pushed his way past Charlie Stephenson, who had just finished stacking a pile of clean uniforms in the corner. Charlie glanced at him, then looked sadly towards the door. And I'm supposed to be the one who's brain-damaged, he thought, then reached for another freshly-washed jersey.