Jagged Angel deals with a gay teenage romantic theme with occasional melodramatic and sexual situations. The usual restrictions apply: please read no further if this type of story isn't to your tastes, or if you're under legal age. This story may not be reprinted anywhere without permission. The contents are ©2003 by John Francis; All rights reserved. Comments to the author are welcomed at thepecman@yahoo.com.

Chapter 22

"One more," Kyle implored. "C'mon, man! You can do it."

Dylan's chest muscles were burning like fire. The heavy barbell lurched unsteadily, then slowly began to rise.

"It's all you, man! All you! Keep goin'!" called Kyle, who was using his one good hand to guide the bar upwards.

Dylan's muscular arms shook with the strain. At last, with a loud grunt, he pushed the massive weight to the top, paused for a moment, then let it drop down with a loud metallic thunk on the bench posts. He let out a long sigh of satisfaction.

"Whoa, dude!" his friend said, helping him sit up. "Definitely a personal best! Ten reps of 255 totally blows my record off the scale."

Dylan grinned and mopped his sweaty face up with a towel. "And speaking of blowing..." he said, pulling his friend to him and giving him a quick smack.

Kyle took a step back. "Uh-uh," he cautioned. "You heard what coach said. No nooky before the game."

"Since when do you pay attention to rules?" Dylan asked, raising an eyebrow.

Kyle shrugged. "Well, you always did," he pointed out. "I'm just the guy who always tempts you to the darker side." He comically deepened his voice and cupped his hands around his mouth. "Luke... you don't know the power of the dark side!"

Dylan laughed and nuzzled his friend's neck. "Yeah, well... I'd say the dark side's got a pretty good-sized dick on him, that's for sure."

They embraced, then abruptly broke apart when they heard footsteps coming down the hall. His father pushed open the glass door to the gym room and stepped inside.

"Hi, boys," he said. "I'm sorry I can't join you two and Mrs. Callahan for dinner. Another corporate emergency up in San Francisco. I'll just be gone for a couple of days."

Dylan sulked. "Dad, I told you that Friday night is the last game of the season," he said. "You were sure you could make it."

His father sighed. "I'm sorry, kiddo. Look, if I we can wrap things up by tomorrow night, I'll see if we can swing over to Sacto on the way back." He checked his watch. "Christ! I've got to run. Take care, Kyle. Look after my son, and don't let him get nailed by that other team."

"Bakersfield," Dylan muttered.

"Right," his father called over his shoulder. "And be careful with that arm, Kyle. Goodnight, boys!"

"Goodnight, Mr. Callahan."

They waited until they heard the hallway door click shut in the distance. Dylan grimaced and began taking the weight plates off the bar, letting them clank noisily onto the weight tree.

"Fuckhead," he grumbled. "That asshole is so wrapped up in his business crap. It's like he's totally forgotten how you and me almost died at school last week."

Kyle rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah," he replied in a whiney voice. "I know. `My daddy doesn't love me.' Jesus, man -- give it a break, how `bout it? My parents have never come to any of my games. At least yours have been to a few games."

"Yeah, twice," Dylan reminded, holding two fingers up in the air as he dropped the last plate on the stand with a thud. "They've watched me play exactly two times. Once this year, and once last year on JV. They don't give a shit about me -- just the money, the status, and all that corporate society shit."

Dylan turned away and stared at the full-length mirror, which ran down one wall of the luxuriously-equipped home gym, which was nearly as large as the one at their high school. Kyle walked up beside him and gently massaged the back of his neck, then kneaded his shoulders.

"Hey," Kyle soothed. "C'mon. So what if your parents don't give a shit about you. I do. That's what I'm here for."

Tears were welling in Dylan's eyes. "Thanks, man. I guess I sound like some kinda neurotic idiot or something. I'm sorry."

"Sorry?" Kyle asked, putting his one good arm around Dylan's shoulders. "Sorry for what?"

He sniffled. "For everything. Gettin' you involved with all this shit... screwing up your rep at school."

"Hey, if I didn't think you were worth it, I wouldn't be here," Kyle replied.

Dylan blinked and looked up. "But I'm not worth it. I'm totally fucked-up. The team hates me..."

"They do not."

"...my parents don't give a shit..."

"They do, too -- just maybe not the way you want."

Dylan scowled. "Hey! Who the fuck's side are you on?"

Kyle laughed and kissed him again. "I'm on the side of the hottest guy I know. Speaking of which," he said, making a face, "you and me definitely need a shower."

Dylan stopped him. "What do you see in me, anyway?" he asked. "Seriously. I mean, you're totally much better-lookin' than me, and you know it. You could have any guy in school."

"Or girl," Kyle reminded.

"Yeah, or girl. So why me?"

Kyle grinned and brushed the bangs out of Dylan's eyes. "Dude, it's not like you get a choice on who Cupid shoots with the arrow. Plus, you definitely have a better body than me! No way am I ever benchin' 255 with this arm -- not for at least two or three months, that's for sure. You got a body that'd make male models turn their heads."

Dylan raised an eyebrow. "You really think so?"

Kyle nodded. "Take a look in the mirror, Arnold." He pulled Dylan's tank-top off and gently pushed him towards the glass. "Straight up -- you're definitely one of the hottest guys in school."

Dylan stared at the reflection. Maybe Kyle was right. He'd been so wrapped-up in his problems lately -- with Angel, with the team, with his life -- he'd failed to notice how much his body had improved over the last few months. Jesus, he thought, running his hand down his chest to his tight, lean stomach. If I get any bigger, I'll have to start competing in body-building tournaments.

"Hey, look here," Kyle said, pointing to a growing bulge in his workout shorts. "See what I mean? When it comes to showin' how turned on I am, this thing never lies. And I seem to recall you owe me one from yesterday."

Dylan wiped his eyes and forced a smile on his face. "Deal," he said. "Let's hit the shower, then dinner."

Just then, the intercom beeped. "Dylan!" barked a familiar voice. "Honey, your mother wants to eat dinner downstairs in 15 minutes. Will you and Kyle be done with your workout by then?"

"Make it half an hour," Kyle whispered, then gently nipped his earlobe.

"Half an hour, Yo," Dylan called.

Twenty minutes later, Kyle was still moaning. The sweat trickled off his body and onto the bed, as Dylan skillfully brought him to the brink and back three times.

"God, dude," Kyle begged, gripping the bedsheet with his fists. "Please, I gotta..."

Dylan stopped what he was doing, then leaned up and grinned. "Uh-uh. You finish when I say -- not before."

He began to increase the pace of his expert maneuvers. Kyle was much more-endowed than Angel, but Dylan had learned to relax his gag reflex, and he concentrated on giving his lover the most intense pleasure possible.

Kyle's head tossed back and forth on the pillow, as he felt the explosion build up from deep inside his loins. He practically whimpered as waves of pleasure enveloped his groin, his hips thrusting uncontrollably, and his eyes almost rolled back in their sockets. At last, he let his head fall back on the pillow, completely overwhelmed by the orgasm.

Dylan hopped alongside him, grinned, and laid his hand across Kyle's massive chest, which rose and fell as he caught his breath.

"So how was that, dude?" he asked. "Was it okay?"

Kyle's eyelids fluttered. He let out a long sigh, then looked over at his friend and smiled weakly. "Jesus," he whispered. "`Okay' doesn't quite cover it. Lemme just lie here for an hour just to recover. I may never be able to walk again."

"Uh-uh," Dylan cautioned, as he rolled off the bed and tugged on his underwear. "Mom and Yolanda are expecting us for dinner in five minutes. And the last thing you want is `The Wrath of Yo.' Trust me."

Kyle nodded and slowly sat up and reached for his clothes, gingerly adjusting his still-injured left arm. "You sure I can't get you off, dude?"

"Naaaa. I figure if I'm still horny tomorrow night, I'll be that much more pissed-off for the game." He leaned over and kissed his boyfriend gently. "But the minute fourth quarter is over, your ass is mine."

"Gladly," Kyle said with a grin, as he toweled off his hair. "And I'll be lookin' forward to it."

As they headed for the door, Dylan stopped and turned.

"You meant what you said before?"

Kyle looked at him quizzically. "About what? You mean about me bein' into you?" He grinned. "Dude, I remember the first time I ever saw you -- like it was burned into my brain. Remember more than three years ago, that afternoon at the Northridge skateboard park?"

Dylan's eyes had a faraway expression. I was somebody else back then, he thought. "Yeah. I remember."

"I thought you were cute as hell back then," Kyle said, putting his hand on Dylan's shoulder. "I couldn't take my eyes off you for twenty minutes. You were so totally determined to take the roughest course out there, and you kept fallin' off your board. But nothing fazed you."

"I was a total doofus," Dylan said ruefully.

"No, no," Kyle said, as he carefully pulled on his T-shirt over his injured arm. "You blew me away with how... I dunno, how compelled you were to conquer the expert ramp. But you fuckin' did it! I thought to myself, `damn, that kid is gonna kill himself to get whatever he wants, and he's gonna get it or die tryin'.'" He nuzzled Dylan's ear. "You were like an inspiration to me, dude. Always have been. You busted your ass to get where you're at -- you're pretty much the best all-around player on the team, you're practically an A student..."

"B-minus at best," Dylan lamented.

"Close enough. And you totally remade yourself, from that little shrimpy kid, to..." He ran his hand across his friend's muscular body, then looked into his eyes. "To this total hunk. How could I not love you, dude?"

Dylan sighed. "I don't know what I am anymore. I guess back then, I thought maybe I could turn myself into something else -- change my life. That's why I did all the workouts, plus the drugs and shit. I thought I was just trying to improve myself. But I see it now: I was just tryin' to get away from being that little dweeb from Phoenix." He sighed, then pulled on a T-shirt.

"You definitely did that. I bet there's a couple-dozen guys at school who'd like nothin' better than to have you in bed, whether they'd admit it or not."

"And a buncha girls, too," Dylan pointed out, as they made their way down the hallway. "Tanya Mendoza practically raped me in the hall the other day. I think she's gonna try to turn me straight."

Kyle let out a whoop, which echoed down the stairway. "Whoa! Dude, she is totally hot! We should tag-team her, like we did..."

"Hold it down, alright?" Dylan whispered, as they reached the kitchen. "Let's talk about that tomorrow, `kay?"

"About time," Yolanda said, looking across the dining table with a frown. "You two boys need to eat for the big game tomorrow! Give those tired muscles some carbohydrates and protein."

Kyle laughed as he took his seat, and held up his injured arm. "I'm not playin', on account of this thing, Yo," he said, wincing slightly. "I'll just be rooting from the sidelines. But you make a good point about Dylan needin' his protein."

Dylan nearly dropped his fork as his face flushed, then he suddenly felt a compelling need to study his mashed potatoes.

"How are you feeling, Kyle?" Mrs. Callahan asked, putting down her Vanity Fair magazine. "I see you don't have to wear the sling."

He nodded and pulled his plate forward. "Yeah, the doctor told me I could lose the sling as of today, but I still can't really put any pressure on it for another four weeks. I was lucky the bone was only chipped and bruised, not broken. But the tendon still hurts like hell."

The three ate silently, making few sounds as Yolanda quietly set down steaming platters of fresh vegetables next to the roasted ham and mashed potatoes. After a few moments, Dylan felt something cold and wet nuzzling his leg, and looked down to see Lady the dog looking up expectantly.

"I know what you want," he said in a low voice. "Catch!"

He tossed a large chunk of ham up in the air, where the dog skillfully caught it in one gulp, then gratefully licked her lips.

"Hey," said Kyle, his mouth half-full. "I thought she was strictly an outside dog on account of your mom's allergy."

Mrs. Callahan sighed. "Well, Dylan's father and I agreed that we could let Lady stay inside for a few weeks. At least until her wounds heal and her fur grows back."

Dylan rolled his eyes. "Mom," he reminded, "we talked about this before. You agreed that with all the crap I've been through, Lady could stay in here with us from now on. And I'll be moving out in a year, anyway, once I go to college."

"Fat chance, you gettin' a dorm room that allows dogs," muttered Kyle, as he scooped up another large helping of potatoes.

"That's besides the point," Dylan continued, shooting his friend a dirty look. "You promised, Mom."

"And that reminds me," the woman said, putting down her magazine. "Speaking of promises, don't forget: we're starting family counseling Monday at 4PM, with Doctor Rosenfield."

"No fuckin' way!" snarled Dylan.

His mother's mouth fell open in shock.

"Dylan!" said Yolanda sharply. "You watch your mouth around this kitchen. You show your mother respect!"

"Sorry, Yo," he said quietly, then glanced back at Mrs. Callahan. "Alright. No way am I going to see that lying quack. Goddamned back-stabber," he added in a low mutter.

Suddenly, Dylan felt a sharp blow across his shin, under the dining room table. Before he could react, he looked up to see Kyle silently shaking his head and mouthing the word "no."

Dylan's temper momentarily came to a boil, then he caught himself. Kyle's right, he thought. Gotta come up with a compromise... negotiate a deal, like Dad always talks about. The more I stress-out the folks, the worse it's gonna be.

"But... I might be willing to see another doctor," Dylan continued, casually cutting another slice of ham. "Find somebody else -- somebody I can really trust." His eyes locked into his mother's. "And I want an iron-clad agreement that if I ever talk to them privately, nobody's ever gonna hear about it. And that means you and Dad." His eyes never wavered, and his voice had a metallic edge of finality. "Deal?"

She glared at him, then her expression softened and she allowed herself a small smile. "Alright, Dylan. If Dr. Rosenfield isn't suitable, then we'll find someone else."

"Thanks, Mom." He went back to cutting up his slice of ham, then looked up to see Kyle grinning slyly at him. Despite his momentary flash of anger, Dylan couldn't help but smile back.

Mmmm-mmm-mmm, Yolanda thought to herself, as she looked over her shoulder, then leaned back to the stove and checked the dessert. Maybe now that boy is finally gonna come down to planet Earth and be just a little bit more human.

The next morning, Kyle sat on the cold stone steps outside his house, nervously glancing at his watch every thirty seconds. "8:15!" he said out loud. "Coach is gonna kill us both." He shook his head. I'm gonna try his cell one more time, he thought, then I'll have to get the `rents to drive me to Dylan's house and find out what the fuck's going on.

Just as he pressed the first three digits, a loud horn sounded from his right, and a silver sports car came screeching up the drive, leaving a cloud of exhaust in its wake.

"Where the hell've you been, dude?" yelled Kyle, as he snapped his phone shut, then ran up the sidewalk and hopped into the convertible. "You're like half an hour late!"

"Fucking power failure in my neighborhood," Dylan yelled over the roar of the engine, as he roared through a stop sign and into Devonshire. "Everybody in the whole house overslept. I'm lucky that Yolanda had a wind-up, or else I'd still be asleep!"

They raced at top speed down to DeSoto, then took a quick left turn through the open chain-link gate that led into the secondary parking lot by the main gym. The area was completely deserted. Dylan's heart sank.

"I can't believe it!" he cried, pounding the steering wheel in frustration. "We fucking missed the bus!"

"Three busses," corrected Kyle. "Two for the team and one for the marching band."

Just at that moment, a fourth orange school bus came lumbering out from behind the music building.

"But I could be wrong," continued Kyle, with a shrug.

Dylan snapped off his car's engine, grabbed his duffel bag, and began jogging towards the vehicle and frantically waved his arms. Right on cue, the bus pulled up to a stop and the doors hissed open.

"I think you boys missed your ride," said the driver, whom Dylan didn't recognize. "They waited for you until about ten minutes ago, then Coach Highland told me to tell you that you'd better get your butts to Hughes Stadium in Sacramento by 4PM -- or else."

Just as Dylan was about to snap a sarcastic reply, a familiar voice chirped from a nearby window.

"Hey, guys! Ride with me in the back! C'mon!"

Dylan and Kyle looked up, momentarily startled. It was Sean McIntire, waving gleefully from a small window in the back.

"Come on in," said the bus driver, thumbing the way to the rear. "All aboard the Sacto Express. I'll get on the radio and tell the other drivers you guys made it. That way, at least your coach won't have a heart attack."

They quickly hopped up the steps, carrying their overnight bags, then made their way down the crowded aisle. The seats were crammed to the gills with musical instrument cases -- horns, tubas, and drums of every size and description -- along with several large canvas bags stuffed with their football jerseys and other athletic gear.

Just as they reached their seats, the bus lurched to a start. Dylan and Kyle half-fell into the section next to Sean, who was perched next to a large cardboard box filled with pom-poms.

"What're you doing here?" asked Dylan, catching his breath. "I thought you were gonna run that gay dance thing at school tomorrow night."

Sean shook his head. "The new principal rescheduled it for next weekend after... after what happened last week." He shrugged, then held up a digital camera. "And the Chronicle photographer's out sick, so I've gotta cover the big game and shoot all the pictures myself."

"What happened to the regular sports guy?" asked Kyle. "Eddie what's-his-face? I thought he wrote the football column."

Sean shook his head. "Still in the hospital. He was one of the guys wounded outside the cafeteria."

The three fell silent, remembering the `Chatsworth High Massacre' only nine days earlier. Seemed like years ago, mused Dylan to himself. Almost like a movie I saw. Not something I actually lived through.

As the bus made the turn up to the freeway on-ramp, Sean's face brightened. "So," he said, pulling out a small black box, "Dylan... uh, about that interview for the GSA..."

"For chrisstakes," muttered Kyle, who extricated himself from his seat beside Dylan and wandered further down the aisle. "If you guys are gonna gab the entire trip, leave me out of it. I gotta get some sleep."

Dylan sighed. "Alright. So what do you want to know? Where should I start?"

Two hours later, Dylan's throat was getting dry. They had stopped on the way out of town for a five-minute break at a gas station, where they'd stocked up on Mountain Dew and Baby Ruths, but lunch wasn't due until at least noon.

Sean scribbled some notes on a pad in his hand, then checked the blue-and-white MP3 recorder lying beside him on the seat. "Shit," he said. "Batteries are running low. I'll get some new ones when we stop for lunch." He checked his notes and beamed. This is a cinch for making the national GSA Newsletter, he thought to himself. Maybe even XY.

"Hey," warned Dylan. "Don't forget -- I get final approval on that story." That was something his dad and the PR guy had reminded him a few days before. Time magazine was one thing, but they told him he'd have to be wary with anything he ever said to reporters. Even the ones who weren't vultures and hyenas, he thought, picking at the bones of celebrities down on their luck.

"Are you guys done, already?" said Kyle with a yawn, leaning up in his nearby seat. "Jesus, Dyl... it's hard to catch any winks with you guys yammering the whole fuckin' time."

"Hey, some of are trying to work here, you know?" Sean snapped. "It's important that people find out about gay students -- especially when they're star athletes, and even more when they're heroes. Gay heroes."

"Bisexual, too," muttered Kyle, who grabbed part of a canvas cover from a nearby box and pulled it over his eyes, using it as a makeshift sun shield.

Sean nodded. "Yeah." He turned to Dylan and grinned shyly. "So, um..." He lowered his voice. "I didn't wanna pry, but..."

Dylan raised an eyebrow. "But what?"

He nodded to the sleeping athlete to their left. "You and Kyle. You're, ah... together, right?"

Dylan shrugged. "Off the record -- yeah, we are. For now."

"Wow," Sean mused. "I'd sure like to know what that's like. I mean... God, just to be the meat in your sandwich..." His eyes took on a glazed look as his voice trailed off.


Sean's face reddened as the vision of the three of them, naked, in bed together, quickly dissipated. "Sorry," he said quickly, rechecking his notes and adjusting his pants. "It's just that... ah -- well, maybe in the interview I can imply you're off the market for the moment. Y'know -- involved with somebody."

"Leave that personal shit out of it for now," Dylan said, yawning. "Lemme take a nap for an hour or so, Sean. I got a big game to concentrate on tonight. Once that's over with, we can pick up where we left off on the ride back to LA tomorrow morning, `kay?"

The boy nodded. "One more thing. You had any time to think about the Gay-Straight Alliance?"

"Yeah," Dylan said with a sigh, stretching out on the vinyl seat and turning his face away from the hot sun shining through the window. "I can't speak for Kyle, but I'll come to the next school meeting. Now that football season's ended, I'll try to be there every week." Like there'd be a point in me hiding any more, he thought.

"Cool. Thanks, Dylan."

"No problem, lil'..." Dylan stopped himself short. Jesus, he said. I almost called him `lil dude,' like I used to with Angel. With that, he closed his eyes, and the dull roar of the highway and the diesel engine gradually began to fade away.

Blackness. It was night -- very cold, close to freezing, enough to make goosebumps flare up on his forearms, and every breath produced a heavy white vapor from his mouth and nose. Dylan was standing in a dimly-lit gray corridor, partially filled with fog. Was he inside or outside? He couldn't tell, but from the looks of the ground, it seemed like asphalt. Definitely a parking lot, or maybe a driveway.

He shivered again with the cold, cursing himself for not wearing a jacket. As he trudged down the pavement, he began to see a dim red light from the left, which suddenly flared up, almost blinding him. He shielded his eyes and tried to peer into the blurry glare.

"DRAGON," he read out loud. "Beware of Dragon."

What the hell did that mean?

Just as he began to ponder that, he felt a chill down his spine. Not from the frigid atmosphere, but from something else.

Dylan turned, and there was a figure of a boy, standing about 20 feet away, drenched in mist. He couldn't see the boy's face, which was rimmed in shadow, but the boy had long hair down to his shoulders.

Angel. It could only be Angel!

He stepped towards the figure, which raised its hands up as if to stop him.

No, it seemed to say -- not so much speaking the words out loud, but just giving the impression to stay away. There's not much time. Beware of the dragon. Be careful, Dylan.

The figure began to ripple and change, evaporating in the blackness of night.

"No!" he cried out. "Wait!"

As he ran forward, a dark cloud soared towards him, enveloping his body. For a moment he felt a powerful wave of love and affection, along with a pang of regret and sorrow.

Is that Angel? he thought. It had to be!

"Stop!" he cried. "I have to ask you something! Please!"

"Ask what, dude?" said a voice nearby.

Dylan opened his eyes and sat up. He was in a bus, parked in the lot of a large McDonald's overlooking a freeway overpass. In the distance were three other buses, getting up to speed as they approached an on-ramp that led towards the highway.

"I swear, man," said Kyle, dragging their bags across the seat, "you gotta do something about that talkin' in your sleep. What were you saying this time?"

Dylan groggily got to his feet and shook his head. "Nothing."

Kyle looked at him, concerned. "Jesus," he said quietly. "Angel again?"

Dylan nodded glumly. Once when he and Kyle were together a few days earlier, he'd had a similar nightmare. In that one, Angel had laughed in his face, and Dylan awakened in a cold sweat. But this time was different somehow, almost more real -- as if that were possible with a dream.

"C'mon, sleepy-boy," said Kyle, pushing him gently with his good arm as they moved down the bus aisle, carefully avoiding a perilously-balanced tuba on one seat. "Let's grab some Big Macs, `kay?"

Dylan and Kyle wolfed down their burgers quietly, while Sean chatted non-stop about his plans for the GSA meetings at school over the week to come. Dylan chewed slowly while he stared out the window, his brow creased with concern.

I know that look, Kyle mused to himself. Dylan's still freaked-out about something. I better lighten things up.

"So, ah, Sean," he said, grabbing a handful of fries, "seen anything good on TV?"

"Me?" asked Sean, momentarily startled. "The usual, I guess. Not much goin' on -- not until Queer as Folk starts up again on Showtime in a couple of months."

Kyle grinned and nodded. "Cool show."

Dylan raised an eyebrow.

"Hey," Sean continued. "I've got all the DVDs, if you guys ever wanna borrow `em. God, that guy who plays Justin is totally hot -- Randy Harrison."

"So that's your type, eh?" asked Kyle, finishing the last of his Big Mac. "I figured you'd go more for the `Michael' type. You know: studious, more sensitive."

Sean giggled. "No way. Justin's artistic, he's got eyes to die for, and he's getting even better-looking as he gets older. He's a ten on my list." He leaned over and grabbed a few french fries from Dylan's wrapper. "What about you guys?" he asked, looking at them expectantly.

"What do you mean?" said Dylan casually, reaching for his Coke.

"What's your type?" Sean said, exasperatingly. "I mean... y'know -- who's hot and who's not?"

The two eyed Dylan, making him feel almost uncomfortable.

"Well," he said, a little embarrassedly, "I kinda like Orlando Bloom. Y'know -- the elf from Lord of the Rings."

"Oh, yeah," Sean said, nodding. "Definitely 120 degrees on the hot-o-meter. Fabulous."

"Must be the hair," retorted Kyle, who gathered up their burger wrappers and crammed them in a paper bag. "Dylan's kinda got a thing for guys with long hair," he whispered loudly in Sean's ear as he sat back down.

Dylan shot him a pointed look. "And what about you, asshole?"

"Me?" said Kyle, stuffing the bag in a garbage container nearby. "Who's hot to me?" He thought for a minute. "Well, I guess that'd be a toss between Christina Aguilara and Pam Anderson."

Dylan and Sean scowled.

"Oh!" Kyle said, feigning surprise. "You mean just guys!" He thought for a minute, then grinned. "Wolverine -- that dude from the X-Men. That guy could butter my rolls anytime. Oh, yeah."

Sean laughed uproariously. "Ewwwww!" he squealed, trying to catch his breath. "But he's so hairy!"

Kyle shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "You say that like it's a bad thing."

The three boys continued chortling as they made their way out of the restaurant and back out to the bus, where the doors were already open. They trotted up the metal steps and weaved their way down the aisle, past rows of band instruments and cases.

"Hugh Jackman, huh?" muttered Dylan, as he and Kyle took their seats. He turned to his friend and grinned as he rubbed his jaw under his right ear. "Hmmm. Maybe I should let my sideburns grow out. Whaddya think?"

Kyle laughed. "I think you should shut the fuck up and start concentrating on the game tonight, douche. And quit thinkin' about Angel. Let him go, dude."

The bus' powerful diesel engine roared to life, and after a moment, the vehicle pulled out of the parking lot and onto the freeway on-ramp, then gathered up speed and disappeared into the distance.

As the miles rolled by, Dylan leaned back in his seat and tried to force himself to relax. Road trips were never easy for him; he had painful memories of getting car sick as a child. The distant sun flared through the windshield, and he cursed himself for leaving behind his sunglasses in the BMW. He glanced over to Sean and Kyle, and saw that each was already sound asleep, stretched out on the last two sets of double-seats in the bus. Dylan tried the same, letting his feet dangle into the corridor, but it quickly became apparent that the seats were designed only for economy, not for comfort. Worse than cheap lawn chair furniture, he thought to himself. But probably not as bad as the seats on that prison bus I almost had to ride downtown. He shuddered at the memory.

Dylan sat up and yawned, then idly stared out the window, watching the other cars blur by in colorful streaks, as the bus leisurely grumbled up another long hill.

Angel, he thought idly. He suddenly remembered the picture in his wallet, then took it out and unfolded it. Naw, he thought to himself. Doesn't look a thing like Orlando Bloom. Angel's much better than that.

He felt his eyes mist up again. He hadn't permitted himself to cry at Angel's loss, not for over a week.

"Just the good times," he whispered to himself. "I'm just gonna remember the good times and let the bad fade away."

He gave the photo one last mournful look, then folded it and put it back in his wallet, lay back on the seat, and mentally willed the bus to move faster. The sooner I get this game out of the way, he thought, the sooner I can stop worrying and just figure out who the hell I really am.

Promptly at 2:10, the orange LA county school bus came to a stop in front of a sprawling two-story building with a large sign declaring it "North Sacto's Best Western Motel." A flashing neon `vacancy' sign cast a sharp red glare on the bus' windshield, and the doors hissed open.

"Jesus, if this is the best," quipped Kyle, "I'd sure hate to see the worst." He shivered slightly in the cold December air as the boys stepped off the bus.

Dylan rolled his eyes. "Whaddya expect? Sleeping here tonight is a shitload better than getting back on the bus and riding home right after the game."

"Glad you could finally join us, Mr. Callahan!" called a voice from the distance.

They looked up to see an angry-looking Coach Highland. They jogged over and began a long stream of excuses, but the man held up his right hand.

"Forget it," he said. "You boys get up to your room and take a break. We'll leave here for a short warm-up practice at 3PM. Don't forget, we've gotta get off the field by 4:30 in order to give the Bakersfield Titans their time."

"I got one question, Coach," began Kyle, as they followed him through the glass doors to the lobby. "Howcum we had to come all the way up to Sacto to play a school that's like 50 miles from LA?"

The coach rolled his eyes. "I don't make the division rules, McDermott," he shot back. "Just stay out of our way, and keep Dylan here out of trouble." The coach looked around for a moment, then lowered his voice. "By the way -- we just heard from the police that there might be a few problems at the game tonight."

Dylan's eyebrows shut up. "Problems?"

The coach nodded. "It's probably nothing. The stadium director just told me there's probably going to be some demonstrations at the stadium, on account of your... ah, situation." He nodded towards Dylan.

Both boys winced.

"But the head of security assured me they've tripled the police presence at the stadium," he said. "I don't expect any problems. Anyway, you boys go up and get some rest for now. We'll meet back by the bus in ninety minutes."

Dylan nodded and watched the coach as he disappeared into the motel lobby. Yeah, he thought. And I didn't expect any problems last week, either. Nobody did, until it was too late.

"You wanna try maybe playin' a game?" Kyle asked, while fiddling with the remote on the TV.

The motel room was small, a little shabby but comfortable. The two boys were wearing only shorts, lounging on the double bed. A window-unit chugged along, belching a gust of almost-warm air into the room. Lying on a chair nearby were Dylan's jersey, helmet, and cleats, which had been brought up by the team manager.

"What kinda game? This dump doesn't exactly come with a free XBox."

Kyle grinned slyly. "I was thinkin' maybe Nude Twister."

Before Dylan could answer, there was a knock at the door. Dylan hopped up and opened it, revealing the surprised face of Sean McIntosh. Sean's mouth dropped open as he gawked at Dylan's half-naked body.

"Yeah?" Dylan said expectantly.

Sean gulped. "Jesus. I knew you had a great body, but holy shit..."

Dylan rolled his eyes and ushered the smaller teen inside. "Great," he muttered. "Now you can add me to your list, along with Justin from QAF. Shut the door before you let more cold air in, you dork." He quickly flopped back on the bed and grabbed the remote control out of Kyle's hand.

"I don't know any gay guys who look this good," Sean stammered, his eyes still darting over Dylan's body. "I mean... sure, you see muscles like this on websites and stuff, but in real life..." He gulped.

Kyle grinned and wiggled his eyebrows. "Looks like you got yourself a fan club, pal."

"Wow," Sean whispered, almost reverentially. "You must work out a lot to get that big."

Dylan nodded. "Yeah. I used to get pushed around a lot when I was younger, back in Phoenix. I was a mess... just a total geek, like you wouldn't believe. But after we moved out here, I started taking Karate from a place down the street from us. The sensei suggested I start doing some weight-training, and I got into that with Kyle."

Kyle tugged on his pants and stood up. "I only ever saw Dylan get into one actual fist-fight, back in Junior High a coupla years ago. Mr. Black-Belt here kicked the guy's ass in about two seconds, like Jackie Chan or something."

"I'm only a Brown belt, second degree," Dylan corrected. "And I was just a white belt back then." Such a long time ago, he mused.

"Whatever," Kyle said with a shrug. "And that was after he'd only been doin' Kung-Fu for six months!"

Dylan laughed. "Kenpo Karate. Totally different from Kung-fu."

His friend rolled his eyes. "Well, all I know is, you totally stomped the guy, and he probably outweighed you by like 50 pounds. And nobody bothered us again after that. Up till then, I thought I'd have to stick up for you." Kyle shook his head, then his eyes softened. "Shows how wrong somebody can be, trying to figure you out."

Dylan gave him a quizzical grin, but Kyle put his arm around his shoulders and nuzzled the side of his neck.

"Some of us still get hassled a lot at school," Sean said ruefully, as he sat on the corner of the bed. "Maybe not exactly gay-bashing, but close to it. And the new rules only stop people from bugging us when we're at school. Once we're at the mall, or on the street, it's open season on gay boys."

Dylan shrugged. "You really oughta learn some basic self-defense, just for your own good. Maybe drop by the dojo sometime. It's less than half a mile away from school, y'know."

"Maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea if you could stand up for yourself," Kyle chimed in. "At least in the case of an emergency."

Sean grinned. "Yeah. That's a good idea." He thought for a moment, then made an attempt to flex his skinny arm. "Any chance I could get some workout tips from you guys, too?"

Kyle roared with laughter. "You never stop, do you? Yeah, I guess we could talk to coach about letting you use the school gym. Or you could go by Powerhouse or Bally's -- they're in the neighborhood." Kyle struck a muscular pose, then clapped his hands for effect. "Ve could pump you UP!" he said, in a faux German accent.

"F-f-five minutes!" yelled a voice from the outside corridor, followed by a loud knock. It was Charlie Stephenson, the team manager, who opened the door and stuck his head in. "Coach sent me up to r-remind you, g-guys. Bus is pullin' out."

"Be down in three, Charlie," said Dylan, reaching for his jock strap.

"Cool." Charlie grinned. The right side of his face still sagged slightly, but at least the scars had healed somewhat. "You're... you guys are d-definitely gonna stomp the sh-shit outta Bakersfield tonight."

"Thanks, Charlie."

The three boys watched as the former quarterback limped down the motel corridor. I just hope I can stomp them as much as they want to stomp me, Dylan thought to himself.

The C.W. Hughes Memorial Stadium turned out to be far larger than any of the team members had expected. As part of the Sacramento City College campus, which hosted dozens of different state-wide athletic competitions each year, the massive sports complex was large enough to hold all of Chatsworth High, with room to spare. Several hundred people were already lined up buying tickets at the gates, and the bus slowly approached a crowded entranceway decorated with a large banner that proclaimed, "Welcome 2002 Division 2 High School Football Championship."

The large orange bus was in a long line of cars waiting to enter the arena. As the bus pulled through the entrance ramp, Dylan caught a glimpse of the stadium in the distance, which seemed to him to be roughly the size of the Rose Bowl. He felt a sense of dread overcome him, and shivered slightly.

"Hey," whispered Kyle in his ear.

Dylan turned, momentarily taken aback.

"It's gonna be okay," Kyle said reassuringly. "Just remember -- I'll be there on the sidelines with you, even if I'm not in the line-up."

Dylan nodded, then leaned back. He still felt a bit uneasy, with fleeting flashes of memory from his morning's dream. There's definitely no dragons around here, he thought, glancing out the window as the bus approached the parking lot. I've gotta put Angel out of my mind and just concentrate on the game. That's the only thing that's important now.

"Hey, faggot!" yelled a voice outside. "Rot in hell!"

Dylan's face reddened. Outside were a half-dozen protesters carrying signs: "Homosexuals Don't Play Football" said one; "We'll Pray for You" promised another, along with a large poster quoting scripture from Corinthians about "sodomites." He was shocked to see that most of the participants were adults, some gray-haired women. Even children, he thought incredulously, watching one of the protesters idly feed a bottle to her baby. As the bus turned the corner, three leather-clad gang members scowled and gave them the finger, but the bus's loud exhaust drowned out their curses.

"Fuckin' assholes," muttered a voice to his left.

He glanced up to see team captain Lionel Jackson scowling from a nearby aisle seat. "That ain't right," he said, to nobody in particular. "Police best keep them mofos away from me during the game, or there'll be trouble to pay. No way they tell me who I play with." A couple of players behind him murmured their agreements.

Dylan gave him a nod. "Thanks, man."

Lionel turned to him and grinned. "I don't give a shit what you are, Callahan. You on our team, and that's all that counts."

"Just don't drop the soap in the shower, Jackson," snickered Kyle.

Dylan rolled his eyes and elbowed him in his left side. "Did anybody ask for your advice?" he asked. "Don't screw up a good `team moment.'"

"Sorry," Kyle said meekly. "Couldn't pass that one up."

"Don't sweat it, man," Lionel continued, then grinned. "Besides, I figure you ain't into dark meat anyway."

Several players hooted, and Dylan grinned. "You got nothin' to worry `bout, man." They lightly knocked fists together.

After they disembarked from the bus, they headed through a narrow corridor to the visiting team's locker room.

"Yo-yo-yo," yelled one of the voices behind him. "Chatsworth... in the house!" A chorus of whoops followed as they bustled into the changing room, which was bright, modern, and spotlessly-clean.

As Dylan made his way over to locker #19, which corresponded to his jersey number, he mentally tuned out the sound of the conversations around him, letting the noise sink into a dull roar in the background. Kyle sat nearby, keeping a cautious eye on his friend, but knew not to bother him.

"You kinda nervous about tonight?" asked Jackson, who opened a door three lockers away from Dylan's.

Dylan nodded and tugged his shirt off. "A little," he admitted. "But Coach already warned us about fear not being the enemy..."

"Yeah, yeah," interrupted Wallace, one of the running backs. "`Use the fear as a weapon against your enemies.' I'm gettin' really sick of that bullshit."

"The only thing I'm worried about are the scouts watchin' me at the game," confessed Jackson.

"These the ones from San Diego you were talkin' about last week?" asked Kyle casually.

Jackson nodded. "Yeah. Whether we win or lose ain't the problem. Convincin' those guys to give me a scholarship is."

Dylan stood up and clapped his teammate on his shoulder. "Not to worry, m'man," he said. "We're gonna kick ass. And we'll do whatever we can to make you look good out there."

"No matter how hard that is," added Kyle.

The team captain grinned. "Thanks, man." Suddenly he looked over Dylan's shoulder and his face blanched. "Uh-oh -- here comes Coach."

Highland's booming voice came from around the corridor, echoing like a public address speaker. "Alright, men! Listen up!"

As the coach's speech began, Dylan's mind began to wander. He thought back to everything that he'd been through over the last few months -- meeting Angel, falling in love, the blackmail scheme, spending a weekend in jail... and the school shooting. He'd practically lost count of the number of people he knew who had died -- at least two right in front of him. But there was nothing I could do to stop it, he thought. It's like all the wheels were set in motion, and nobody could stop it. All I could do is just watch it, like being in the middle of some insane movie.

He glanced around the room, and looked into the faces of his teammates. Aside from a few coughs and the shuffling of feet, the room was silent. The coach continued to drone on about his philosophy of the game, how the team could bring honor and glory to their school, why winning was the most important thing... Dylan stifled the urge to yawn, then shook his head to clear his thoughts.

One thing still troubled him: Angel. He was never able to have that last conversation with him... never really sure of what they had with their relationship, or if it was even a relationship at all. How much of what Angel did was real? Did he ever even once mean what he said, or was it all just an act? I'll probably never know, he thought.

Almost without thinking, he took a step back, and leaned against the locker door. While pretending to pay rapt attention to the coach's speech, he felt for his wallet in his back pocket, slipped it open, and pulled out a small photograph in the palm of his hand and brought it up to his face. The long black hair, the piercing green eyes, the sad smile... it was as if somehow Angel was still alive somehow, in the little square piece of paper. And I'll never know if you loved me as much as I loved you.

Suddenly, Dylan was conscious of an elbow jabbing his right side.

"That's your cue, man," whispered Kyle quickly. "Say `yes, sir, we're gonna do it!'"

"Yes, sir!" Dylan shouted, suddenly aware that all eyes in the locker room were riveted on him. "We're uh... we're gonna do it! Yeah!" He dropped his right hand, praying that no one would notice the photo.

"You're damn right, son!" the coach echoed. "Now, I'm as sick and tired as the rest of you men that our school baseball team hogs all the glory at Chatsworth High. Tonight's gonna be our chance to make sure Chatsworth's football team makes the record books for a change."

The team murmured their assent.

"Alright!" he said. "We're got less than an hour on the field this afternoon, so I want to go over those two new defensive plays from last week..."

Kyle glanced over at his friend as the coach's speech faded into the background, then saw the photo concealed in his right hand and winced. I gotta get Dylan's mind on the game, he thought to himself. And make him stop thinkin' about that psycho dead kid, once and for all.

Practice was mercifully uneventful, but Dylan still seemed preoccupied.

"You almost made that last pass," Kyle said encouragingly, jogging up to his friend. "But Coach is still pissed."

"I'll make it during the game," he retorted. "Just get off my back, asshole!" He leaned over to grab a long swallow from the water bottle on the sidelines.

Kyle looked up, momentarily hurt.

Dylan was immediately apologetic. "Shit," he said, looking around, making sure the coast was clear. "Dude, I'm sorry. Look... I'm gonna be fucked-up for the next few hours. I swear, I'll be back to normal after the game."

Kyle grinned and leaned closer. "Alright. But at midnight, I'm definitely gonna be `on your back.' Ridin' you like a bucking bronco."

Dylan laughed and jogged back out to the practice field.

Sgt. Jack Forsell of the Sacramento Police Department frowned. It was bad enough, having to install the metal detectors at the stadium with less than a day's notice. Now, with only an hour to go before the state high school championship game began, it looked like the demonstrators were getting completely out of hand. There was a mob of nearly two hundred just outside the main entrance, with only a dozen uniformed men separating them. Half a dozen others would be patrolling the stands, just in case anything happened.

"You have another load ready to take back to the station?" he asked the two officers walking by.

The one on the left nodded. "Yeah -- two more Bible-belters, plus another guy. The first one was spray-painting something on the ground, so we got him on ordinance 613A -- graffiti on state property. The other took a swing at one of the gay protesters from San Francisco. They were both goin' at it, so I figured we'd better take `em both in. The injuries aren't serious."

Forsell shook his head. He wasn't sure which of the demonstrators were more obnoxious: the queers or the religious nuts. At least the former weren't starting any fights -- not yet, anyway.

"Just keep `em separated," he advised. "Hold `em just for tonight until they can post bail. I'll let the captain know what's going on, and get him to send in some reinforcements."

The man grunted and left. The sergeant turned back towards the bleachers, which were nearly half full. In the distance, he heard the squawks of the marching band, sounding an opening fanfare. The air was crisp and cold, and he shivered slightly. This is not gonna be a good night, he thought glumly. He'd been an officer long enough to smell trouble, and there was a definite odor in the early December air. We'd better get ready for anything.

Dylan glanced again at the clock on the locker room wall, as he had every few minutes for the last hour. It won't be long now, he thought to himself. This wasn't anything like the last 100 games he'd played; this one was the big one, the enchilada grande, the whole shootin' match that he'd been waiting for all his life.

"How you feelin'?" asked Kyle, still dressed in his street clothes to his right.

Dylan turned, and his friend's face was a mask of concern. He smiled. "I'm cool," he said casually. "It's just another game, right?"

"I don't mean the game," Kyle said, then looked him right in the eye. "You okay?"

Dylan nodded, then rubbed his eyes. "Yeah. Just kinda tired."

Before Kyle could answer, a figure appeared on the left. It was Charlie Stephenson, wearing a walkie-talkie headset. He whispered something into the microphone and clicked off the switch.

"About that time, g-guys," he said haltingly.

The team got up and silently filed out through the locker room and into the corridor that led towards the field. As Dylan approached the final exit through a maze of hallways, he passed through a crowd of a half-dozen cheerleaders. "It's about time!" cried a sexy female voice. He looked up to see the smiling face of Tanya Rodriguez, who embraced him like he was a long-lost love, and gave him a deep, soulful kiss.

"Whoa!" he said as he leaned away, a little dizzy. "Hey, Tanya. How're you doing?" No way am I gonna be able to get away from her here, he thought, remembering how he had managed to avoid running into her at school over the last week.

"Not how I'm doin'... it's what I'm gonna be doin' later," she cooed. A couple of the girls behind her giggled.

She eyed him up and down, and Dylan suddenly had the feeling he was being appraised like a piece of sirloin on a butcher's counter. Almost as weird as Sean ogling me earlier in the motel room, he thought. But I can relate to that a lot better.

She leaned close to his ear and gently bit the earlobe. "I mean it, baby," she whispered. "No matter what, after the game, you and me are gonna get together... `kay?"

Dylan grinned. "Anything you say, Tanya."

She kissed him again, then he backed up towards the door.

"See ya," he said with a wave. As he turned to join the crowd of players bustling down the corridor, he almost bumped into Julio Martinez, who stared at him in disbelief.

"What the fuck?" the boy said, dumbfounded.

Dylan shrugged. "Just saying hello to one of my many admirers," he explained. "No big deal."

Julio trotted alongside him, trying to keep up with him as they quickly moved through the corridor. "No big deal, he says!" the halfback wailed. "Dude, you and Tanya... you two goin' out or somethin'? I can't believe it!"

Dylan grinned. "Not yet. We're just... y'know, casual acquaintances."

As they made their way up to the line of players that stood at the exit door that led out to the field, Dylan could hear snatches of the opening announcements through the stadium PA speakers.

"No -- seriously, dude," Rodriguez implored, tugging on his shoulder. The Hispanic boy's face had a mixture of desperation and intense curiosity, as if he was confronted by a radical mathematical equation that just couldn't possibly add up. "I mean... I thought you were, y'know... into guys."

Dylan stopped at the railing and turned to his teammate.

"It's like this, dude," he said, thoughtfully. "I may be gay, but I'm not stupid. Tanya's hot by any definition, and I'd do her in a heartbeat if I had the chance." He momentarily felt his groin throb as had a brief mental image of her legendary love-making skills, which approached mythical proportions back at school.

"Yeah," Julio said, nodding, then turned away. "Who wouldn't?" He sighed.

"So, are you interested?" Dylan said casually.

Julio turned back, momentarily surprised. "You mean in Tanya? Shit yeah, I'm interested!"

Dylan grinned. "I might be able to introduce you later on tonight," he said casually.

"Dude!" the player cried. "Oh, man... if you could do that..."

"No promises," Dylan warned with a shrug. "But I bet I could work somethin' out for you." And maybe get myself off the hook in the bargain, he mused to himself.

"Dude -- you make this happen, I'm gonna owe you for life," Julio said breathlessly, holding up his right hand. "I swear it. Mi mano a Dios."

They both took another step closer to the top of the ramp, as their teammates names were called out on the loudspeakers, one at a time.

The quarterback leaned over to him and smiled. "You don't owe me anything, man," he replied. "I'd do it for anybody on the team. `Specially a friend." He held out his hand expectantly.

Julio stared at him for a moment, then seized his hand and shook it warmly. "Thanks, man."

"Don't thank me until tomorrow morning, after Tanya's had time to chew you up and eat you alive."

Martinez laughed. "Then I am gonna die a happy man. Muy contento."

"Number 19..." barked the PA speakers. "Chatsworth offensive quarterback, Dylan Callahan!"

Just as Dylan poked his head out into the arena, he was greeted by the crowd's explosive roar. At first, he couldn't decide whether it was cheers or boos, but after a few seconds, he decided to ignore them. All I gotta do is make it through the next three and a half hours, he thought to himself as he jogged through the end zone to join his teammates on the sideline. That, plus stay alive.

By the beginning of the third quarter, Sean was completely bored. Football wasn't exactly one of his prime concerns; he desperately wished he had his field photographer on-hand, but the Sacramento Bee reporter he talked to back at the press booth said he'd loan him some of their unused shots, provided they gave them a photo credit in the school paper. He fiddled with his digital camera, checked to see how many shots he had left, then stood up abruptly just as he heard the crowd roar. He moved the camera up to his face just in time to snap a telephoto blur on the field -- Bakersfield scored again!

God-fucking-dammit, thought Highland, standing on the sidelines, clenching his fists in rage. He fought the urge to curse out loud, and instead, signaled the referees for a time-out. The Chatsworth players glumly trotted over.

"Alright men," he said. "I want you to try `Ice the Cake' again."

Some of the players groaned. They had already tried that as their second play of the night, and got royally whacked by their opponents. No way would that work -- not tonight, and definitely not with that team.

"Coach?" asked Dylan quietly.

"What is it, Callahan?"

The boy leaned forward. "With all due respect, uh... I'd like to suggest that instead we go for Slam Pass Six." He paused for a moment, then added: "Sir."

Highland raised an eyebrow. "I thought you didn't care for that play."

Dylan grinned. "In the rain, yeah," he explained. "But right now, I think it just might work."

The man glanced at the scoreboard in the distance. Bakersfield was leading, 12 to 6, and they were gonna need everything they had just to keep up -- let alone win.

"Alright," he said, finally, as the referees gave him a warning sign that the time-out was almost up. "Slam Pass Six. Just don't screw it up, son."

Dylan nodded and joined the other boys in the line-up. As they took their positions, one of the Bakersfield players looked up and gave him an evil look.

"Fuckin' faggot," the player muttered, loud enough for all to hear.

Dylan grinned, then blew him a theatrical kiss.

"Yeah?" said lineman Buck Johnson, looking the player right in the eye. "Well, yo' daddy didn't complain when I was fuckin' him last night."

The Bakersfield linesman charged forward with a roar, dragging Buck to the ground and clubbing wildly at his face. Dylan leapt out of the way in the free-for-all, and suddenly a dozen or more players were rolling around on the ground and slugging it out while the referees frantically blew their whistles.

Up in the stands, the crowd leapt to their feet and roared their disapproval. Police raced across the side-lines and a dozen more bounded up the aisles, trying to restore order. Back down on the field, just as the fight settled down, the referees ousted the Bakersfield player and gave them a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. The crowd erupted with another chorus of boos.

The Chatsworth team quickly re-grouped. Highland glanced over to his quarterback. Don't fuck this one up, Callahan, he thought. As if in reply, Dylan nodded, then turned back to the center. Just as he began to count-off the play, he heard what sounded like a small explosion in the distance. Suddenly, a half-dozen more shots rang out, and the players dived for the ground. Dylan looked up from the turf.


Total pandemonium erupted in the stands, as forty policemen swarmed through the crowds looking for the assassin. It was complete bedlam.

The players, referees, and coaches lay frozen on the ground for half a minute, several covering their heads with their hands, as if that would serve any protection from gunfire.

"Hey, man!" called Doug, one of the wide receivers. "Callahan! You okay?"

"Yeah!" yelled Dylan. He slowly raised his head and glanced around the field. The players on both sides were sprawled on the ground, and most of them were looking up warily, trying to decide whether to make a run for it or to hold tight where they were. After a few moments, Dylan stood up and dusted some of the dirt off his uniform, then reached down to retrieve the ball.

"Attention please!" barked the PA speakers. "Attention! Everyone please take your seats. The Sacramento Police have informed us that what we just heard were only some fireworks exploding under the bleachers. Everyone... please stay calm. There's no cause for alarm. The game will resume in a few moments."

There was a nervous tittering of laughter from the crowd, who walked back to their seats.

"That's a relief," Dylan mused to himself. He'd already seen too much gunfire in the last few weeks. The entire "Chatsworth Massacre" had only lasted ten minutes, but that was still more than he ever wanted to experience for the rest of his life.

As it turned out, the play was successful, but both teams spent the next hour unsuccessfully trying to break the tie.

One minute into the fourth quarter, Dylan glanced again at the scoreboard. Still 12 to 12. Goddamit, he said to himself. We're gonna make this next touchdown or die trying.

At the huddle, all the players looked at him expectantly.

"Riptide Six," he said, wiping the sweat out of his eyes. "I know we've only tried it twice in practice, but maybe it'll work."

Jackson grinned. "I'm ready if you are," he said. "If that don't impress the crowd, nothin' will."

They broke and trotted back to the line-up. Dylan was exhausted; he glanced to his left, and immediately felt a pang, remembering again that Kyle wasn't there. His breath momentarily fogged up in the cold, then he took his position.

"Hut-one... hut-two... hut-hut!"

The players collided in a mass of bodies. He feinted to the left, then tore down the right and made his way through an opening, knocking a larger player flat on his ass as he sailed through at top speed. Behind him, he heard what sounded like a stampede of cattle, as the Bakersfield players sped after him at top speed.

The yard lines below him began to blur. Twenty yards... the ten...

Just as began to pick up speed, Dylan caught something out of the corner of his eye. One of the Bakersfield tacklers was headed towards him like a freight train. Dylan brought his arm up for the pass, caught Jackson in his peripheral vision, and shot the ball towards him with all his might. And then...


When Dylan awoke, he could see several blurry faces overhead, while the crowd roared in the background.

"Callahan!" yelled a voice. "Callahan! Are you alright?"

"Yeah," he said groggily, and he attempted to sit up. Immediately, his lower shin throbbed with an electric stabbing pain, and he let out a groan.

"Stay down," said the coach, then turned to his assistant. "How's the ankle, Matt?"

Dylan's eyes came into focus, and he looked up into Highland's face. The man's expression was grim.

"No broken bones, Wayne," pronounced the man, after examining Dylan's foot for a few moments. "But it looks like a bad sprain, maybe a pulled tendon. Could've been a lot worse."

The coach let out a long sigh, then turned towards the bench and pointed to one of the second-string players. "You're in for Callahan, Williams!" he barked, thumbing towards the field. "Off you go!"

Dylan began to protest, as he struggled up to his feet, but the man shook his head and put his hand on the boy's shoulder.

"Sorry, Dylan," he said. "Look -- you got us this far. We're still tied, and that's more than any Chatsworth team has ever done in Division 2 history. We've got five minutes left in the game, and that means we've still got a chance to win. Get back to the locker room and get some ice on that ankle. We'll get some X-rays right after the game, just in case."

The crowd applauded as the announcement was made over the PA speakers. Dylan was momentarily gratified to hear a few boos as well.

Kyle and Charlie Stephenson helped him hobble down the sideline and over to the hallway.

"No fucking offense," Dylan snarled, wincing as he made the turn by the fence. "If those fucking idiots could just learn to block..."

"Dude, c'mon -- it's over," Kyle said soothingly. "Don't even worry about it. There's always next year."

Dylan glared at him. "You say that like there's any chance either of us'll ever make the team again."

He limped his way through the crowded corridor that led to the locker room door, and Kyle jogged up alongside him.

"Hey, guys! Wait up!"

Both athletes turned to see Sean, carrying a digital camera in one hand and a small notebook in the other.

"What're you doin' here?" Kyle asked.

Sean shrugged. "The game's only got a few more minutes to go," he said, turning to Dylan. "I figured, once you're out, that's it -- not much of a story without the star player there. Now, it's just another football game."

Kyle rolled his eyes. "Oh, so now it's not worth covering, because the gay quarterback isn't in the game? Who's being bigoted now?"

"I didn't say we wouldn't cover it," Sean said, following them up to a bench by the lockers. "We've set aside just four column inches on the front page. I've pretty much got it written so far -- Jimmy, the guy from the A/V department, is videotaping the game upstairs with commentary from the stadium announcer. I'll review the cassette tomorrow, write it up over the weekend, and modem it over to the printer by Sunday night. We'll have the whole story in the paper on Tuesday morning. Piece of cake."

Dylan gingerly lifted up his foot, while Kyle inspected it.

"It's already swollen pretty bad," he said, angling the foot under the overhead light. "Some bad bruises, too. We should ice it up."

Dylan momentarily sucked in his breath at the pain. "It's almost as cold in here as it is outside," he said, his teeth chattering slightly. "The last thing I want is ice on my goddamned foot."

"C-coach said we could take you to the emergency r-room in ten more minutes," called Charlie Stephenson from other side of the locker room. "Game'll be over with soon. You can either wait here or out in the bus."

Just as he finished the sentence, there was an enormous roar from the crowd outside. Dylan winced.

"Must hurt pretty bad, huh?" said Sean sympathetically.

Dylan shook his head. "Not just my foot," he admitted, sitting up. "If they cheered `cause Bakersfield just scored, that means we lost the game for sure. And if we scored..."

"...that means the team won the game without you," Kyle finished, shaking his head. "You're sayin' you lose, either way."

"Yeah. Something like that." Dylan smiled sadly. "But the important thing is, at least we made it to the finals."

Suddenly, there was another distant roar from the crowd, and they could feel the vibrations of hundreds of feet stomping in the bleachers above their heads.

"Okay," he said, struggling up to his feet. "I've had about enough of that shit. Gimme a hand, you guys," he said, limping out to the back door. "Let's just wait it out in the bus. I'd rather not hear the crowd."

"Especially if they're not cheering for you," chimed in Kyle, as he helped him through the doorway.

Sean hurried after them with Dylan's helmet in one hand, and his street clothes in the other. "Hey, you shouldn't take it so hard," he said breathlessly. "I mean... you're still a hero to some of us."

"Some hero," he said ruefully. "I bet we're still gonna lose the fucking game, with or without me."

"Yeah, but you did pretty good -- probably the best gay quarterback in the country," Kyle grinned. "Or the most famous, anyway. And the team seems to be gettin' used to havin' a gay guy around."

Sean giggled. "I had you figured early on, y'know," he said, as they trudged down the hall.

Dylan stopped limping and raised an eyebrow. "How? Your gaydar's that good?"

The other boy grinned. "Oh, honey," he said, batting his eyes. "Even the first time I ever laid eyes on you, you know my spider-sense was tingling."

I guess I was more obvious than I thought, Dylan mused, as he leaned down to a water fountain and took a quick sip.

"But still," Sean continued, "I never knew you were going to be a gay icon."

"Idolized by millions," echoed Kyle.

Dylan wiped off his mouth and sighed. "You say that like it's some kinda compliment."

"Whether you like it or not, sweetie, it's true," Sean quipped.

They continued making their way down the stadium corridor and stopped in front of the metal fire-escape doors, waiting for Sean to catch up with them.

"It's so unfair," Sean began to rant. "Why is it in society that when somebody's called `gay,' it's always gotta be an insult?" he asked, shifting the bundle of clothes and camera gear in his arms. "Why does that word have to be any different from saying someone has brown hair, or that they're Chinese, or anything else? That really pisses me off. Homophobic assholes."

They burst out through the exit doors that led into the outdoor parking lot, and were immediately assaulted by an icy wind, which rippled through their bodies.

"Cold as a witch's tit," grumbled Sean.

"Like you've ever seen a tit in your life," taunted Kyle.

"Speaking of which," Sean continued, "And howcum that when two girls kiss, everybody thinks it's hot. "But if two guys do it, it's somehow disgusting." He shook his head. "It makes no fucking sense."

Dylan shivered in his thin jersey as he reflected on Sean's comment.

Kyle grinned. "He's got a point, bro'."

Dylan started to reply, then stepped the wrong way down the stone steps and almost slid. He let out a quick curse, then looked down and winced. "Damn! Stupid foot might actually be broken after all." He looked up at his two friends. "Uh, guys? Mind givin' me a lift here?"

They each took an arm over their shoulders and helped him hobble down the stone steps, then make their way slowly across the athletic center parking lot, towards the awaiting Chatsworth buses. The parking lot was dimly-lit by yellow sodium-vapor street lights, half of which were burned out, and shrouds of fog crept eerily through the area. To the left, a red neon sign flashed intermittently, like a broken beacon.

"People are going to find out more about the real Dylan Callahan after they read my article," reassured Sean. "I think they'll finally understand the real guy -- the gay hero under the football jersey."

Kyle grinned. "I can't wait to read it," he said. "Then maybe I can finally understand this dumbass, once and for all."

Before Dylan could manage a snappy retort, there was a loud clank and a voice echoed from about thirty yards away.

"Hey! Faggot!"

The three boys turned to see a gang emerging from a nearby alley, which was bathed in red light from the neon sign. There were two of them -- one carrying a chain, the other a gleaming aluminum baseball bat. Both had shaved heads and wore dark leather jackets and bright blue shirts. A third emerged from the fog, grinning at them.

"It's party time, faggots!" he called. "Time for you boys to die!"

Dylan stopped dead in his tracks. His eyes momentarily blurred, then focused on the luminous red sign that blazed from the brick wall to the left: "Sacto Dragon Chinese Take-Out Food," it said. "Nam-Kow Tod a Specialty!" An ancient green creature stood poised beneath the letters, jaws opened wide, ready to pounce out at any unsuspecting victims.

Beware the Dragon!

"Oh... shit," he whispered.

As the thugs approached them through the fog, Kyle gently slid Dylan's arm off his shoulder and turned towards the bus. Still more than fifty feet away, he thought quickly. But we could make it if we ran -- assuming the doors aren't still locked. And assuming Dylan can run at all...

The three boys slowly backed up and began to form a small circle as the gang approached them.

"We don't want any trouble," Dylan said, his mind racing, glancing around to make sure there weren't any others ready to attack them. "And our coach is on his way out here any second. He was right behind us."

"Uh-uh," said one of the gang members on the right, who ominously clanked his chain on the ground. "Not with four minutes still left on the clock he ain't."

As the gang approached, Dylan took a step forward, pushing Sean behind him. He eyed the three boys warily; each was close to his age and size, and he dimly remembered one of their faces from earlier that day. If they have a gun, he thought, we're dead for sure.

Dylan looked the leader right in the eye. "So what are you?" he called loudly. "A religious asshole, or just a run-of-the-mill jerk-off?"

The three came to a stop and glared at him.

Under his breath, Dylan half-turned to the boy behind him. "Sean," he whispered, "count to five, then make a run for the bus. And call the cops."

Suddenly, a rock whizzed by his head, missing him by inches.

"Nice one, dickweed," Dylan taunted to the one on the left, who hefted another rock. "If you throw like you fight, you'll be out in less than ten seconds."

Another large rock zoomed by and cracked on Kyle's shoulder.

"GODDAMMIT!" he screamed, falling to the ground and clutching his arm.

"RUN!" Dylan yelled, shoving Sean towards the bus, as he hobbled forward to meet two of the boys head-on.

He quickly dodged the chain that swung too close to his head, just barely nicking his right ear. Dylan quickly executed Guge Gongji, slamming his powerful fist into the other boy's midsection with all his might, and felt at least three of the ribs break like twigs under his fingers. A split-second later, he reached out with his other hand, gripped the back of the thug's neck and smashed his face down on his knee, producing a loud, satisfying crrrrack that echoed throughout the parking lot. The teen cried out and fell to the pavement, holding his face with both hands as a shower of blood exploded from his nose.

"That's gotta hurt," Dylan called sarcastically. Suddenly, he felt a glancing blow off the back of his head and a bright explosion of white light erupted in his eyes. He staggered, trying to maintain his balance on his bad foot.

"YOU'RE DEAD MEAT NOW, FAGGOT!" screamed his attacker.

As the gang-banger swung his aluminum bat again, Dylan feinted to the left and then ducked, letting the bat swoosh harmlessly through the air. The boy screamed with utter rage, then swung again, the silver bat bashing Dylan full in the back with a loud thud.

Dylan gasped as the breath was knocked out of him, fell forward and skidded on his hands, then quickly rolled and jumped back up, ignoring the stabbing pain in his right foot. He turned just in time to successfully evade the bat again, then darted forward and smashed his attacker's right side in a blur with his powerful fists. The bat clattered to the ground as the attacker groaned in agony and dropped to his knees. Without even thinking, Dylan leapt through the air, then spun and roundhouse-kicked a death blow into the solar plexus, sending the boy sprawling. His head struck the ground with a loud thud, and he lay there, unmoving.

Dylan fell back to the ground and cried out in agony, as his right leg immediately throbbed with another immense surge of raw pain. If it was sprained before, he thought with tremendous regret, I bet it's broken now.

The third tough chuckled, then pulled out a large hunting knife from his jacket and flipped it twice in his hands. It caught a red gleam of neon, sending a shaft of light through the wisps of fog in the parking lot. He began to laugh as he approached Dylan.

"You got some skills on ya, motherfucker!" he called out, then reached down and picked the bat off the asphalt and hefted it to his shoulder. "I'll say that for ya. But now it's time for lights out."

Two down, Dylan thought, and one more to go. He tried to struggle back up to his feet, but his right leg was now useless. He began to slide himself on his back across the dirty pavement, the gravel scraping his flesh through his jersey. "What's this all about?" he cried, trying to move a little faster. "Why the hell would you wanna kill me? You don't even know me."

The teenager grinned. "I know enough, Callahan," he said casually, advancing quickly. "Maybe I just don't like faggots. Or maybe I don't like how you treat my friends." He nodded back to the two injured boys lying on the ground several feet away.

Dylan continued sliding himself backwards until his head bumped up against a brick wall, the one with the `Dragon Chinese Food' neon sign flashing above. He glanced around furtively. More than ten yards away, Kyle was still moaning on the ground, clutching his arm. The other two thugs were immobile -- one probably unconscious, the other still quietly sobbing and holding his face. Sean was gone, probably halfway down the block by now. Maybe he'll at least call the police or get the security guards or something, Dylan thought, trying desperately to keep his head clear. Or maybe he's just watching all this from the bus, writing this whole thing down and taking pictures for his stupid article.

The leather-jacketed teen walked up to him and stopped, lay the bat on the ground, then carefully stepped on Dylan's injured foot with his leather boot and leaned forward, applying his entire body weight. The athlete screamed out in agony as his foot made a soft crunching sound.

"I bet that hurts an awful lot," the thug whispered. "But not as much as this will." He held up the knife for a moment and let it gleam in the reddish glow. "Tell me, faggot: you circumcised or not?"

"What's it to you, asshole?" Dylan moaned, pulling his injured foot closer.

The gang member kneeled down and held the knife up to Dylan's face. Both of them were now bathed in the harsh red light of the dragon's light, and Dylan noticed for the first time a silver swastika emblem on the right side of the boy's jacket. His eyes darted back up to see his own face reflected in the blade. "I bet I could make sure you're circumcised with this."

Dylan's head throbbed. He was already exhausted from the football game, and the pain in his leg and head made him woozy. Gotta figure out the next move, he thought, trying to gather his strength for one last, all-out attack. Before I go into shock. He mentally went through the laundry list of the most deadly Kenpo Karate moves he had left -- trying desperately to remember the one from his last test, one designed specifically to disarm an opponent.

What was it? he asked himself, angry that he couldn't remember the Chinese name. Dragon's Tooth? That was it -- beware the dragon...

His attacker smiled, then slowly brought the knife down towards Dylan's groin. Suddenly, there was a loud roar that echoed through the parking lot, as something smashed from behind against the boy's head. His knife clattered to the ground, and he spun around, only to have his face bludgeoned by a heavy blue object.

It was Sean, wielding Dylan's football helmet like a battering ram.

The thug fell with a cry to the ground, and Sean cried out in an almost-animalistic rage and began smashing the other boy's face over and over with the helmet.

"FUCK YOU!" he screamed, battering the teenager with all his might. "YOU <*slam*> AND ALL THE OTHER <*slam*> FUCKING <*slam*> HETERO-CENTRIC BIGOTS!"

Hetero-centric? Dylan thought dizzily, trying to sit up. His eyes went in and out of focus.

“I’LL SHOW YOU WHO’S DEAD MEAT!” Sean yelled again, letting the football helmet fall to the ground as he picked up the baseball bat. With that, he swung the deadly instrument down to the gang member’s head and chest, raining down half-a-dozen punishing blows. The thug began screaming with agony, instinctively holding up his hands for protection. Sean effortlessly batted the first hand away, broke the wrist on the second, then slammed into his enemy’s stomach with all his might.

The boy's screams were loud enough to cause Dylan to open his eyes.

At last, Sean swung the bat over his head, ready to deal the coup de grâce, ignoring the teenager’s pleas for mercy. Time to hit a home run with his brain, he thought grimly.

“SEAN!” Dylan said, bolting forward to rip the bat away and knock it onto the pavement, where it clattered and rolled for several feet. The pain from his foot roared up his leg like raw fire and he fell to the pavement, rolled to the right, and found himself staring directly in the eyes of the thug, less than two feet away.

The gang leader was curled in the fetal position and was choking and sobbing with pain. Blood oozed down his face and mouth; it was clear his nose was badly broken, and he was spitting out large chunks of broken teeth and bone.

Sean stood there still shaking, his breath steaming out of his mouth in small puffs of fog. In the distance, a siren began to wail, joined by a second klaxon horn.

"I want to kill him," he said, tears streaming down his face. He looked up. "No more. They can't do this to us any more."

"I think he got the point, man," Dylan said quietly.

Sean looked up and choked back a sob, then wiped his eyes.

Dylan forced himself to stand up, leaning against the wall for support, then looked out in the direction he'd last seen Kyle. There was a gray shape struggling to get up by a nearby pickup truck.

"Dude!" he called. "Kyle! You okay?"

"Think my arm's really broken this time," called back his friend, now leaning against the car. "Hurts like livin' shit. You guys alright?"

Dylan turned to Sean, then put his hand on his shoulder. The sirens were getting closer now. Sean looked up at him and nodded.

"Yeah," he called, then looked back at Sean and nodded. "We'll be fine."

It's so beautiful, thought Mrs. Callahan, as she glanced out the mansion's large glass window. It almost looks just like Connecticut again. The once-lush green lawn had been transformed into a Winter-wonderland, with white plastic crystals ("guaranteed non-toxic and easy to remove" promised the decorator) taking the place of snow. A movie-realistic fiberglass snowman leaned to one side, and over a thousand small bulbs winked on and off across the entire front of the house. Except for the lone palm tree on the far right, one could almost imagine they were back at their old home again.

She sighed and smiled. Beautiful.

Suddenly, from behind her, the living room sound system began blaring out a decidedly non-Christmas song: The Bee Gees' "Night Fever."

The woman frowned. "Honey," she called to her husband, as he entered the room. "Can't you play some real Christmas music?" she said. "Maybe some Nat King Cole?"

"Can't, babe," he said, taking her by the hand and spinning her out to the middle of the living room floor. "I feel like dancing. Don't you?"

As the couple embraced and began to do a clumsy version of the Hustle, Dylan looked down from the alcove above and rolled his eyes. "That is so cornball," he said. "And that old school music is so fucking lame. They haven't listened to any new music in 20 years." But his fingers began to idly drum in time with the beat. Old school or no, he had to admit there was something kind of fun about that disco crap.

Nearby, Kyle leaned over and caressed the back of Dylan's head with his one good hand and gently nibbled his ear. "Actually, I think it's kinda nice," he whispered. "And Travolta looked totally hot in that movie -- back then, anyway."

The two boys embraced. "Ooof," said Dylan, wincing as his friend's thick plastic cast bumped into his stomach. "When are you gonna be able to lose that thing for good?"

Kyle shrugged. "At least another month," he said, wiggling his fingers. "So I'm definitely gonna need a helpin' hand for four more weeks."

"That's definitely one present I don't mind givin' you at all." Dylan grinned, then leaned over and kissed him. They leaned into each other, the passion building, then paused to catch their breath.

"How's Sean doin'?" Kyle asked, still amused by Dylan's parents' disco dance maneuvers below. "I haven't heard from him in a coupla days."

Dylan shrugged. "He's doin' a lot better than those neo-Nazi guys that tried to kill us in Sacto," he said. "And Sean's big article is comin' out next month in the GSA newsletter. Says he's a shoo-in for some kinda national high school journalism award. Maybe get a scholarship or something out of it."

"That reminds me -- I got an award I wanna give you myself," whispered Kyle, who gently nipped Dylan's earlobe.

They embraced, then headed back into Dylan's bedroom and closed the door behind them.

Back in the living room below, the music continued to blare, the middle-aged couple continued to dance, and the floor thumped like a heartbeat of unbridled desire. Lady the dog yawned, then trotted by the enormous Christmas tree in the living room and sniffed warily at the evergreen branches. After considering her options, the Afghan decided to move closer to the warm fireplace, where she curled up contentedly.

Nearby, the gas-lit flames lapped against the hearth's enormous glass plate, and cast a warm, flickering glow throughout the room. In the very back corner of the fireplace, there was a small color photograph of a strikingly good-looking teenage boy with long black hair. A spark from the gas log spattered across the photo, which slowly began to turn brown, then the edges started to curl up from the heat. As the flames grew ever brighter, the boy's intense green eyes seemed to momentarily glow. A few seconds later, the paper began to smolder, and the smoke wafted up into the chilly winter air and out to the night skies.


Watch for the publication of the final version of Jagged Angel from Aventine Press in late 2003. Feedback can be sent to the author at thepecman@yahoo.com.