9. Depths

"If you don't get a first-string assignment, get over it quick, because from here on out, it's about the team."

It was the beginning of August; we'd been practicing together, "informally" and off-campus, for almost two weeks.  Our head coach had shut down freshman football practice fifteen minutes early that day, called us off the field, and gathered us together. Thirty tired and sweaty fourteen-year-olds sat there in the grass, listening nervously. School would start in a week, and football season would begin the last weekend of the month.  It was time to assemble the starting team and get them working on developing their chemistry during practice.

I was glad Matt had pressured me into staying with the team and playing this year. Like everyone else sitting there, I wanted to start at my position so badly I could taste it.

"Those of you who end up as starters need to know this," Coach continued. "If you're out there on the field as a starter, there's somebody riding the bench who's almost as good as you.

"You'll know by our next practice who's going to start for us this year. But before that, while we're all together right now, I want to talk to y'all as one team.

"I promise you two things. First: you continue to give me a good, solid work ethic during practice throughout the season, and you'll get playing time; I don't care if you're a starter or not. And not only that, if one of my starters gets injured or stops giving his best, somebody riding the bench gets that starting position. So you have to practice just as hard as the first team.

"And second: if you get a starting position, that position is yours to lose. If you're a starter, you earned it by your performance and your attitude, and you'll keep it by your performance and your attitude. If you lose out in either department, one of the boys warming the bench will take your spot and you'll go to the bench. Are we clear on that?"

Everybody on the team nodded in assent.

"All right. The list of starters was posted about fifteen minutes ago back on campus, on the front door of the gym. Check it this weekend before you come to practice Monday, and I want my starters out here Monday morning at 7:30 for a meeting before practice.

"Okay, that's it, gentlemen."

The gathering began to break up as boys started heading silently toward the parking lot. The tension in the air was hard to miss.

Matt made his way over to me, grinning from ear to ear. Shit, I thought to myself: the entire friggin' team is trying to play it cool and resist the impulse to break into a mad dash toward the parking lot, to get their parents to drive them straight to the gym, and here comes Matt, cool as a cucumber, grinning like a fool. So damn irritating...but I couldn't help but be proud of him. There wasn't any question about who was going to start at quarterback. Matt's only real competitor for the spot, Ruben, knew it as well as anybody else.

Matt drew up beside me, slapped me on the back, and said, "You're awful quiet, Phillips; where's the fuckin' funeral?"

My stomach-butterflies were commanding my attention at the moment in spite of my happiness for Matt, so his joviality annoyed me. "We're not all suckin' the coach's dick, Matt, so we can't all walk around with a shit-eatin' grin like you, until we see that damn list."

Matt's grin turned into a scowl and he gave me a shove. "Give me a fuckin' break, Andy, and ditch the false modesty shit. You been burnin' it up out there, and you're name's gonna be on that list, and you know it, too. So don't be out here, all 'oh, poor me, I might have to ride the bench!' Cut the bullshit, 'cause nobody's buyin' it."

"Just save it for later," I said nervously, "and let's see how it works out."

"Whatever," Matt replied, rolling his eyes and striding on ahead of me toward the parking lot.

He was right, of course. I made the list as one of the starting wide receivers. Matt, as expected, was quarterback. Ruben, Matt's potential rival for the QB spot, was designated as starting fullback. All in all, every one of my "gang" made the first-string cut. The six of us all made our way toward each other, high-fiving and celebrating and talking with excitement about the coming year.

The torture of those summer two-a-days bled over into the beginning of the school year. The first week of school came, and the workouts got more intense. We hated all the "abuse," and hated the coaches who subjected us to it. But we knew also that they were dedicated to the game and dedicated into making us into warriors. And we saw that, as a result, we grew stronger, tougher, faster, and more confident; our physiques responded positively too.

Though we'd been working out together off-campus before school actually started, the first week of school we finally got to use our school's practice field. So at the end of practice we all headed back to the locker room for showers. I never thought twice about seeing any of the guys naked; beyond the one little encounter with Matt a few years back, I'd never done anything sexual with a guy, and never really had any interest in it. Aside from checking them out to compare-and-contrast with my own equipment, which we all did, seeing these boys naked didn't particularly do anything for me. I noticed with some detached admiration that we were all developing really fine physiques, but when I saw the guys naked in the locker room, I didn't feel any particular attraction.

Except once.

The practice on our first day of school lasted from the last period of the day until five o'clock that evening. After practice we hit the locker rooms and stripped down to shower for the first time. It was uneventful...

Except for the fact that Ethan was undressing with me in the same locker bay.

Ethan had fiery red hair, which had always intrigued me a little. I wouldn't say I was attracted to him, although he had a great body and a stunningly handsome face. But something about his hair always gave me a vague feeling of distraction when I looked at him. I'd never reflected much on it, but I did register it with some self-puzzlement. That day, I hadn't seen him at the beginning of the period; he'd dressed out earlier than I had at the beginning of practice, and was out on the field before I'd gotten to the locker room, so I didn't know we'd chosen lockers next to each other.

After practice we'd walked into the locker room, laughing and joking together, and of course had ended up in the same locker bay. Ethan could talk more than any person I had ever met, and he continued non-stop as we began undressing. I had stripped down to my jock while he was talking, and was sitting on the bench listening to him tell some story about a trick he and Justin had played on Justin's older brother. Ethan sat down on the bench and started untying his shoes, when it hit me: man, I bet all his body hair is that color. Something about that thought caught in my head, and I found it difficult either to listen or to say anything about the rest of his story. Instead, my eyes began following the movements of his hands as they removed various articles of clothing. I froze as he stepped out of his pants and stood there for a minute, droning on with his story, dressed only in his jock.

I wasn't listening. My eyes were fixed on his midsection.

He hadn't been paying me any attention; he was too busy running his mouth and stripping off his clothes. But as he finished his story, he must have asked me a question. When I didn't respond, he must have looked at me and noticed that I was sitting there staring, zombie-like, at his jock. Gradually his voice got through to my consciousness:



"I said I'd let you kiss it, but we might attract an audience!"

I looked up at him, confused. He was grinning wickedly.

Oh, man. Busted. I felt my face flush and I know I must have turned bright red. My mouth went into gear before I had my brain engaged, and I stammered, "I never...see, I just...well, your hair...it..."

His grin vanished and was replaced by a look of annoyance. "My hair?" he replied, furrowing his brows. I'd find out later that he was somewhat self-conscious about his red hair and didn't like to be kidded about it. "What the fuck does my hair have to do..." then his eyes grew a little wider and the evil grin returned. "Oh, that," he said. "Yeah, it's the same color everywhere. And locking his eyes on mine, he grinned and shucked the jock, saying, "See?"

I saw.

Wow. His dick was average-sized and I wasn't particularly turned on by his equipment--but his pubes! He was right; they were that same bright red as the hair on his head.

I found that riveting. I had no idea why. But I needed to regain my control and my cool. I managed to tear my gaze away. I stood up, looked up at him and said, "You're a freak, dude."

Without missing a beat he responded, "You must like freaks, then."

When I said "Huh?" he sneered and pointed at my jock, which had definitely started to tent out.

I looked down at my jock, and back up at his face. Shit. What the hell was I doing? What was going on with me? I started to stumble through a reply.

"Uhh...fuck that, man, I was just thinking of..."

He interrupted me, laughing. "Forget it, dude. I got wood more often than I don't these days. C'mon." He motioned toward the showers with his head, grabbed his towel and headed toward them, launching into another of his inane stories. I waited about ten seconds for my dick to settle down a little bit, then, still slightly dazed, stripped off my jock and followed him.

We showered, got dressed, and headed toward the parking lot with our teammates, where parents were waiting to give us rides home. When I got home I got busy with homework and chores, and forgot about the incident. But when my head hit the pillow around eleven that night, I thought about it briefly, and it troubled me a little. Why would my dick be interested in Ethan's red pubes? I turned it over in my head, and not coming up with any satisfactory answer aside from reminding myself that my dick got hard at random these days, I let it slide and fell into an untroubled sleep. By the next morning, I'd pretty much forgotten the whole thing.


During that first week of school I discovered which teachers I liked and which I didn't, how long it would take to get from my locker to each classroom, and where I'd eat lunch. Making friends and getting noticed that first week was easy; the junior high hierarchy still seemed to persist, and I noticed that the same kind of thing was happening with some of the kids who'd come from the other junior highs. Somehow, though nobody ever talked explicitly about how these things fell into place, it seemed as though the popular kids from all the junior high schools began to gravitate toward each other. The process of "slotting" people into niches that had already begun in the summer accelerated.  I reflected on this and realized that I felt a little sorry for all those people who couldn't walk with ease into the privileged spots. Somehow it didn't seem fair that things were gelling so quickly. But that's the way it goes, I rationalized: sucks to be them.

I was enjoying the change of routine from the summer, but I was often tired from the combination of soccer and football workouts. My soccer coach had moved me from center midfield, a position I felt I owned, to forward. I didn't like the gameplay of forwards and I didn't like the stress of having to score consistently. I preferred the midfielder's primary role of moving the ball from the backfield into the possession of the forwards. And midfielders weren't presented with as many opportunities for shots on goal, which was fine with me. I enjoyed the footwork and quick thinking required of midfielders; I wasn't interested in being the guy who always had to pull the trigger.

But in sports you pretty much do what the coach decides you should, so the opening weeks of school found me spending a lot of extra practice time on the soccer field, working on my shooting. As I'd feared earlier in the summer, taking on two sports in the same season, on top of my classes and the rest of my schedule, added up to a life that was going to take some effort to manage. At the end of that first Friday of school, I left football practice dog-tired. After I got home I worked on the lawn a little, did some studying, visited with the family, ate, watched a little TV, and decided to go to bed early.

My brother Danny, coming upstairs from having been out with some of his friends, noticed me in my room. Danny was a lean, good-looking, towheaded kid with a bundle of energy; he enjoyed sports almost as much as I did, and played on his school's baseball and basketball teams. His real talent, however, lay in his artistic ability. I always enjoyed watching him draw, and, truth be known, was a little bit envious of his talent in that area. We were pretty close, I guess, and that had its upside and its downside: the love was fierce between us, and so was the antagonism.

Every bit the brat that all twelve-year-old boys are, he stopped in my doorway, stuck his head into my room, and quipped, "Wow...Studboy turns in early on a Friday night! Struck out again, didja?"

I grabbed a rubber baseball from my nightstand and threw it at him, pegging him hard on the left shoulder. "Yeah, I may have struck out, dickhead, but I can still pitch, huh?"

"Oww!" he responded. "Goddammit!!" He picked up the ball and stormed into my room, rubbing his shoulder and scowling. "I don't know why Mom and Dad think you fuckin' walk on water; you're always doing mean shit like this and it's not funny. I was just kidding, asshole, just the way you're always givin' me a hard time."

I felt a little ashamed; he was right, sort of. I went over to him, tousled his hair, and said, "I'm sorry, Dan-O, I didn't mean it to sting quite that bad; anyway, bein' mean to a kid brother's an older brother's job, don'tcha know?"

He stuck his chin out at me in defiance and mumbled, "Eat me."

I burst into a laugh, but did my best to suppress it. Grinning, I replied, "Hell, Danny, ain't nothin' there to eat." He cocked his arm back as if to hit me up-close with the ball, but broke into a smile, and finally began laughing himself. He let his arm fall back down, then looked at me with an expression that was part grin and part grimace, and said, "God, I hate you."

I grabbed him by the shoulders and turned him 180 degrees.  Then I pulled him into me, his back against my chest.  When I had him firmly trapped, I said into his ear, "No you don't, bro, you love me...and I love you too, bud." And with that I planted a big wet kiss on his cheek.

"Ewwwwww!" He broke free from my grip and made a show of wiping his cheek. "Get away from me, you fuckin' homo."

"C'mon, Dan, make up your mind," I teased. "First you're askin' me to eat ya, and now you're all homophobic. What's it gonna be? You want some Andy-love or not?"

Danny scrunched up his face in a display of revulsion and said "Shut the fuck up, dickface, you're creepin' me out."

I laughed and said, "Then get outta my room."

He rolled his eyes at me, then laughed and walked back into the hall.

The next morning I was up early. In addition to my ongoing job throwing the daily suburban newspaper, Matt and I had been in the lawn-mowing business over the summer. It was Saturday, and we had about six lawns to do that day. I threw on some grey boxer-briefs and a pair of red Umbro soccer shorts, a white half-tee, and a pair of old running shoes. Mom was downstairs puttering around in the kitchen. As I walked into the kitchen, she noticed me and said, "Morning, Andy.  You're up early for a Saturday."

"Gotta make the cash, Mom," I told her. "Matt and I have six lawns today."

"Well, sit down and have some breakfast first," she replied. "You'll need fuel for all that yard work. I was just about to cook some bacon and eggs."

I obliged, talking with her as she cooked. We reviewed the week, talking about my subjects at school, soccer and football, my piano lesson that week, and Stephanie. After meeting Stephanie at Kathryn's party, I'd gone to the freshman dance with her the weekend before school started, and we'd been pretty much inseparable since then, so we were officially "going out." Mom listened attentively to the details of my week, offering a few nods of encouragement and support, telling me to make sure I "stayed balanced" and didn't neglect anything.

As she began serving breakfast, my dad came into the kitchen, poured himself a cup of coffee, and sat down at the table. "Hey, Dad," I said as he picked up the Saturday morning paper.

"Morning, Andy," he replied. "Wow. The one thing your mom and I can usually count on is the fact that on Saturdays you three kids will be sleeping in and breakfast will be just the two of us."

"Well, I'm going out mowing with Matt, but I guess Mom's tryin' to get breakfast down me before I go." Dad smiled and buried his nose in the newspaper.

Since I had their attention, I decided to bring up a subject that had come to me just yesterday. "Hey, Dad..."


"I was wondering...I know it's last minute, but I got to thinking I'd really like to have a bunch of kids over for my birthday next Saturday. I have some good money saved up from the summer and I could kick in for food and stuff..."

My mother looked stricken. "Andy, you're talking a week away! I thought you just wanted a quiet evening with you and Stephanie and Matt and...well, whoever Matt's with these days."

"I know, Mom," I said, "And that was the plan, but yesterday I just kinda got to thinking: my birthday's usually the first one of the school year, and it would be a good way to get people to socialize and stuff, different kids from the different junior highs mixing together. I know we had the freshman dance last week, but you really can't party with anybody much when you're at a dance."

My dad asked, "How many kids did you have in mind, Andy?"

"Oh, I don't know, maybe fifty or so."

Mom looked at me as if I'd shot her. "Fifty!"

Her mortified expression caused me to cringe. I ducked my head, squinting and grimacing, and said, "Okay, I guess that's a lot."

She responded, "Ya think? I don't know, Andy; I don't see how we're going to accommodate fifty people on this kind of notice. I just don't think I can get the house ready by that time. You kids don't do the world's greatest job of keeping things neat and tidy around here, you know."

"Well, it was just a thought," I said, apologetically.

"Who are these kids?" she asked.

"Mostly my teammates from football; a few soccer guys, and girlfriends, and the freshman cheerleaders, and some other kids; you know, friends of friends, and stuff."

My mom looked at my dad. "Mark, what about the Club?"

My eyes got wide; I hadn't thought about the Country Club. Between the clubhouse and the grounds there'd be plenty of room.

"I don't know, Kate. It's expensive, and it's short notice. I can guarantee it's too late to get the pool."

I quickly put in, "Dad...could you check it out? I'd be willing to put in big money. I have about three thousand dollars in my savings account from the paper and mowing, and we don't need the pool. The clubhouse and the grounds are good enough."

I could see the gears turning in my father's head. "It's not just the money, though, Andy. Fifty kids: we'd need a lot of chaperones, and I don't know if anybody will be willing to help out on this kind of notice; also, who's going to pull together the food? A caterer's expensive, and your mom doesn't have time to do food all by herself! And you're going to want music, right? Are you talking hiring a DJ and the whole bit? And anyway, do you think you can even get fifty kids to come on such short notice?"

I smiled to myself. The questions were a clear indication that it was a real possibility.

"Dad, trust me, there won't be any problem getting fifty kids to come. And we don't need to hire a DJ; we can use Matt's stereo--it's awesome. Matt and I have plenty of CD's and we can tell everybody to bring their favorite ones. And we can take turns spinning tunes."

My father looked over at my mother with raised eyebrows. She shrugged her shoulders at him as if to say, "It's your call." He turned back to me and said, "Well, assuming it's available, I guess I don't have a problem with it. But if we're doing all the upfront work for it, I'm not chaperoning. You have to find enough chaperones for a one-to-five ratio."

"Oh, man," I whined. "Dad, please. Ten chaperones?"

"Take it or leave it; those are my terms and they're not negotiable."

I sighed. I knew I had no chance of winning this one. "Okay," I said, "but can Matt and I pick the chaperones?"

"Not only can you," he said, "you must. And they have to meet with our approval. And you have to ask them yourselves."

"Fine," I said. I knew which parents from among my friends were a "light touch" and didn't get in our faces too much.

"And we're not springing for a catered job," Dad continued. "So unless you know a free caterer, it's a matter of convincing your mom that you're worth the trouble."

I jumped in quickly. "Mom, on the food, what if I got Matt's mom and Stephanie's mom and Jennifer's mom to help? I'll betcha I could talk them into it. Hell, Matt and I will even help if you want."

Mom frowned at my language, but finally said, "Well, if Pam, and Stephanie's mother, and Jennifer's mother tell me they're willing to do this, and if your father can get the Club for next Saturday, and if you'll pay half of all expenses, then I guess it's okay with me, on one condition."

"What's that?"

"That you and Matt have nothing to do with making any of the food. Just stay out of the kitchen until after this thing is over!"

My father and I laughed. I stood up and hugged both of them to help seal the deal, and said, "Thanks, guys. You're the best."

"Spare us, Mister Touchy-Feely," my dad quipped. "Could you be any more transparent? The only 'thank-you' we need is the assurance that things won't get out of hand and that you kids are gonna be on good behavior."

"Dad," I said to him impatiently, "you know my friends; they're good kids. I don't hang out with the losers and the waste-oids; it's gonna be fine."

"All right," my dad said. "Now go on, get out of here, and get your lawns done.  You have some money to get to us."

As I walked toward the kitchen door and out of the house, I heard my dad saying to my mom, "...kid forgets I grew up in the 'Dazed and Confused' era...We all inhaled, and we were all 'good kids.'  So don't be tellin' me about 'good kids'."

I smiled to myself. We'd be good enough. Or at least good at not getting caught.


As I came up the sidewalk to Matt's house, I saw Pam, his mother, working in the flower-bed that bordered the walk leading up to their front door. When she saw me she put down her trowel, smiled at me, and said, "Hi, Andy. You're not usually around this early on a Saturday. I'm sure Matt's still asleep."

I frowned. "He is? But we have a whole shitload...I mean, we have a whole buncha lawns to do today. He knows we have to start early."

Pam was stifling a grin. She picked up her trowel and resumed her flower-transplanting. "Just go on up to his room and wake him up, it'll be okay."

I nodded at her and headed toward the front door. It won't be okay if that jerkoff causes us to miss a house because his ass isn't in gear, I thought to myself. I had just pledged a bunch of money to help make my birthday party a reality.

I walked up the stairs toward Matt's bedroom, intending to read him the riot act. His door was shut. I opened it, and when I walked in, sure enough, Matt was on his back in bed on top of the sheets, sound asleep, dressed only in a pair of boxers.

I was about to scare him awake when my eyes fell on his midsection. His balls were hanging out of one leg of the boxers, and even through the fabric of his shorts you could see that his dick was rock-hard. I found myself unable to look away. I let my eyes wander up his taut abs and nicely-developing pecs, toward his face.

I stood there for a minute, staring at his face, growing increasingly uncomfortable for reasons I couldn't begin to fathom. I was looking at him through a set of eyes I'd never opened before. And I was unprepared to deal with what they were seeing.

Even at fourteen, Matt had begun to radiate raw sensuality and masculinity. I looked okay myself, but to my eyes at that moment, Matt was developing into a work of art. Out of nowhere, the image of Michelangelo's David that we'd seen in art class last year flashed through my mind. My eyes surveyed Matt's strong cheekbones, his classically-proportioned nose, the sensual curve of his lips, the mussed-up morning hair that managed somehow to frame his face and enhance the impression of casual, effortless perfection. Some hidden, silent place in my heart spoke of unknown need, and I felt an ache I did not understand.

I shut my eyes tightly; seeing had become an act of utter disorientation. I shook my head back and forth, rapidly, violently. Thought had vanished and was replaced with a dark intensity I couldn't express. It felt like falling; it felt like being filled to the bursting-point; it felt like emptiness.

I took a deep breath and forced myself back into coherence. This was no work of art lying here; this was Matt--ordinary, everyday Matt, who was about to cost us at least one lawn's worth of money if he didn't get his ass out of bed. What the fuck was going on with me?

I grabbed his leg and shook him. "Matt! Wake up, we gotta get moving, asshole!"

Groggy, Matt opened his eyes and smiled at me. "Hey, Andy."

"Goddammit, Matt," I fumed, "I told you I was coming by at seven. We're supposed to do six lawns today."

Matt sat up in bed, rubbed his eyes, and said, "What time is it?"

Even in my exasperation, the image of Matt's magnificent sleeping form still had me reeling. Fighting to maintain my equilibrium, I replied, "Almost seven-thirty. Come on, dude, we're off to a late start." I stood at his doorway staring, accusing, and trying my best to recover.

"Okay," he said; "just let me take a shower and brush my teeth."

Before I could voice my disapproval he stood up, and began to push the boxers down and off his hips. His morning wood caught on the waistband on its way down, and then came free with an audible smack against his belly. Stark naked and completely hard, he yawned and stretched, scratched his balls, then walked past me toward his closet and pulled out another pair of boxers, a tee shirt, and a pair of running shoes.

As he bent over to pick up his shoes, I watched the firm muscles of his ass flex, and again I felt myself falling into unknown depths. He closed his closet door and walked toward me, on his way to the shower.

He stopped briefly when he got to where I was standing, and stood facing me, naked. He looked into my face seriously, seeming to study my expression. Slowly he began to smile a little, for no reason that I could discern. The twinkle in his eyes was impenetrable.

I understood nothing. I wasn't even sure what planet this was. I was too undone to defuse whatever was going on here, but I felt an urgency to regain my composure. I frowned at him and said, "Just fuckin' hurry up, will ya?"

He continued to look at me intently.  I thought for a minute he was going to say something serious...and then stuck his tongue out at me and gave me a classic "raspberry." With that, laughing, he left the room and went to get his shower.

I shuddered. Something--something threatening--had come out of nowhere, and I didn't have a name for it. But I hadn't spent years fending off monsters to allow this weird shit, whatever it was, to fuck me up. I forced myself past all those sensations, all those unknowable feelings and thoughts, and moved my attention toward the day that lay ahead.

We worked on four lawns without stopping. Then, around noon, we decided to take a break and grab some food at the McDonald's down the block. I ordered my standard Quarter Pounder Extra-Value Meal, With A Coke; Matt went for the same, with a Dr. Pepper.

We sat down in a booth to eat, on opposite sides from each other, and started talking about the upcoming football season, and this discussion segued into his monologue on becoming the Varsity quarterback eventually. The course of his rambling was familiar to me by now, involving the standard scenario of the two of us as Big Men On Campus, heroes on the playing field and dominating the leadership positions in student government, liked and respected by all. And, of course, desired by the best-looking girls in the school.

He paused for a second to take a bite of his burger. I brought up something I'd been thinking about for awhile. "You know, I'm not sure I get you, Price. I mean, isn't that pretty much how it's always been for us? But you're the one who was always talking about how stupid the whole 'popularity' thing is. How come you're all-of-a-sudden so intent on being Hot Shit At The High School?"

He looked at me. "Nothin' wrong with being popular. I never said there was. I mean, come on, Phillips, if you get to choose, isn't it better to be popular than unpopular?"

"Well, yeah."

"What I mean is that it's stupid the way people fuckin' idolize the popular kids. And it's fuckin' dangerous. People copy what the popular kids do."

This was too much for me. "You're full of shit," I countered.

He flipped me the bird and replied, "No, I'm not. Think about this: if you and I don't show some leadership, who's left by default?"

I didn't even have to think twice. I rolled my eyes and answered, "Jared Jacobson and his sorry-ass friends."

Jared was a guy who'd gone to our junior high. He was a child of privilege, and a reasonably gifted athlete and student. He and his friends had belonged, along with us, to that upper tier in the junior high pecking order. He'd always gone out of his way to make sure everyone knew he and his little posse were better than the rest of us in that upper tier, to say nothing of all the losers below.

Matt grimaced and continued. "Exactly. And pretty soon it'll be open season on losers and geeks, and next thing you know we're like every other fuckin' high school in the world, with the kids at the top making life a goddam nightmare for some little nerd, and everybody else copying."

He paused for a minute and added, "That fuckin' sucks. It's not right, dogpiling on people like that. Who knows what that can do to a kid?"

I looked at him in disbelief and displeasure. In junior high he'd always talked in disparaging words about the student hierarchy, though he never seemed to mind being at the top. But there seemed more to it in his words today: something was different here. The irony had ratcheted up a notch. He appeared dead set in his ambition to stay at the top, but he seemed more disdainful than ever of the whole idea of a "student hierarchy."

I didn't get it. We'd never picked on kids back in junior high, but the way we treated people never had the dimensions of a moral cause, at least not to me. I didn't believe in hurting anybody; Matt had helped me with that. But his intensity on this subject right now was making me uncomfortable. This was a crusade for him, an obsession. I didn't want any part of it. Sure, I'd take the popularity, but I wasn't one for big moral causes.

"Forget it, Matt," I began. "You and me, we're not that powerful. I don't give a shit how popular we get to be. We're just two people, for godsake. The weird kids are always gonna get picked on. You think anything we do is gonna make things better for them? I figure my part is just to be nice to everybody. But that's not gonna make a difference for those guys in the long haul."

"Yeah, it is," he said. "Our friends, man--we don't do shit like that. There is a difference. We don't make fun of people the way Jacobson and his asshole rich friends do. You've seen the way those dickless jerks treat the geeks and the ugly kids and the kids who don't have the best clothes. And then everybody else just fuckin' does what they do because they're the popular kids. Dude--those poor bastards who always get tortured like that, they're human beings too. They have feelings just like we do, Andy, and nobody should have to put up with that shit. Someday some fucked-up kid's gonna get to a point where he's had all of that shit he can take, and he's gonna go over the edge and put some bigtime fuckin' hurt on himself, and then how's everybody gonna feel?"

I wasn't buying it. "So by becoming Big Popular Studs, you and I are gonna to prevent some loser from offing himself?"

"Yeah, himself...or maybe someone else," Matt added ominously. "All that mean shit doesn't have to happen here. We're cool with everybody; all the guys we hang out with are, too. If people think of us when they think of 'the popular kids,' we can kinda set the tone for what happens around here."

He continued. "Most of the kids around here like us better than Jacobson already. I figure because we play football, we have an edge: it'll be easier for us to get into student government, because people know us from football. It's the first sport of the year and we get the exposure, dude. Then, once we're in, whatever we say, whatever we do, that's gonna be what people copy."

"I don't know, man," I replied. "I got my own shit to worry about, I can't be no fuckin' role model. That's what you're talking about, you know. What's this big deal you always have about coming to the rescue of people you don't even know? Who fuckin' made you defender of the defenseless?"

His eyes flashed fire at me. "Kenny did."

Kenny did.

So rarely did Matt ever invoke his dead brother's name that on those occasions when he did, I knew he was speaking from a place inside where the hurt never leaves. In Matt's soul, Kenny's murder stood for everything that was wrong with the world. It stood for safety and security collapsing; it stood for fathers abandoning grieving little boys; it stood for people using people, hating people, hurting people, for their own gratification.

What was there to say in response? His conviction was unutterably correct. I shut my eyes tightly, then opened them again, trying to shake off the accusation, and the anguish, that lay beneath his quiet answer. Thinking about others by now came as naturally to Matt as breathing. Somehow he lived in that place. By comparison I was only an occasional visitor, and sitting here reeling from Matt's two-word rebuke, my conscience was now berating me with that fact.

I looked over at Matt.  He was staring at the table as he said, quietly, "I know how it feels when you think you can't take it anymore."

I looked down at my burger. I couldn't speak. I couldn't eat. I was afraid to raise my head, afraid to look him in the eye. "I'm sorry, Matt," I said, concentrating on my French fries. "I didn't mean it."

He put his hands on my shoulders and raised me from my slumped-over position until he could look me in the face. "Then mean something else," he said.

"Okay," I said quietly, forcing myself to meet his gaze.

We continued to look each other in the face silently. Gradually, the hard-set lines of Matt's lips began to morph into his trademark smile. He took his hands off my shoulder and slapped me gently on the right cheek with his left hand. "I'm good for you, aren't I?"

"Yeah, Matt," I had to smile back, "you're good for me. Maybe too good for me. You're so full of yourself, though."

"No," he said, matter-of-factly. "I'm not bragging, dude. I need to be good for you. It makes me feel better."


"'Cause, bro," he said, eyes sparkling. "If I can make you better, it means you ain't so fuckin' much. Otherwise that big geek-brain of yours would give me an inferiority complex."

"Hey, what can I say? That's me: big geek-brain, big athletic skills, big everything."

"You forgot big head and big mouth."

I shot him the finger. "Fuck you, Matt."

"With that 'Big Everything'? I don't think so, sailor."

I doubled over with laughter, probably more out of a sense of relief than anything else.

We went back to our lawn work, and by the time we'd finished it was about 4:30 in the afternoon. We walked ourselves, our equipment, and our money back to my house. After we'd put away the lawn equipment, we went into the house and headed toward my room. On our way I said to Matt, "You got plans for the rest of the night?"

He said, "Nope. I just thought I'd go home and watch TV and play video and shit. I've been goin' out every weekend and it's hurtin' the cash flow."

We began walking up the stairs. I asked him, "Wanna hang out here, then? You don't even have to go home to grab clean clothes. You can shower up here, and you can put on some of my shit afterwards; we're not that different in size. I don't wanna spend a lot of money either. I still have a lot left but some of it's gonna go fast this month."

"Food too? Your mom okay if I eat here?"

I smiled. "Like you even have to ask."

"Sounds good to me," he said, turning the corner at the top of the stairs. "Sleepover?"

"Sure, why not," I said.

We went into my room and he sat down on my bed. "Let me call home and tell Mom I'm here for the night. I guess it means I gotta go to church with you tomorrow morning, huh?"

"Of course, dude," I replied. "We have to keep you from burning in hell for your sinful ways."

"Fuck you, Phillips, your family doesn't even believe in hell," he said.

"Well, yeah, but you know the drill in this house. Sunday morning's church, dude, and that goes for anyone who's spending the night, too."

"Okay; it's not that bad, and anyway," he added with a wink, "maybe I'll sit next to Beth and give her a thrill."

My sister was eleven years old and had a huge crush on Matt. I wasn't amused.

"Cut it out with that shit," I warned.

"I was just kidding, moron," he said. "Yeah, I'll stay tonight and do church with y'all tomorrow. Got some good clothes for me to wear so I don't have to run home?"

"Yeah, a pair of khakis and a nice-lookin' shirt, that'll do. You can even wear a pair of my shoes."

"Excellent. Okay, I gotta call Mom."

After Matt had made his phone call, we spent some time playing Nerf hoops. As we finished a game, Matt turned to me and said, "What did you mean about your cash getting drained? What are you gonna buy?"

I had forgotten to tell him about the revised birthday plans. "I just decided I wanted to have a lot of people over for my birthday party."

"Cool. We're gonna party here?"

"No, man," I explained, "It was short notice and my mom almost shit kitties. Dad's gonna look into the Club for me and see if we can book it. But I have to pick up half the tab."

"Wow. That is gonna cut into the bank account."

"Yeah," I said, "but it'll be awesome. I mean, think about it. Since you're so into making us the campus studs, we invite our football team, their girls, cheerleaders, some other kids. It'll be like, 'Andy's party rocks, dude!' and the next thing you know everybody's havin' a good time and it works in our favor."

"How many people?" he asked.

"'Bout fifty," I responded. "It'll be the first good party of the school year at the Club. And that won't hurt your plans any."

Matt grinned. "Yeah, that's what I'm talkin', Andy. Now you're with the program. Don't invite that asshole Jacobson, though."

"Are you kidding? Of course I'm gonna invite him, and some of his rich friends, too. If we're gonna do this thing you want, we gotta win over some of that crowd, and what better way than to let them in on the first and best party of freshman year!!"


"Hell, yeah. Or not; you could just see what works out when you get there. Whatever you want."

Matt's eyes sparkled mischief as he said, "There's lots of places there to sort of go off with a girl and, you know, get to know her a little better."

I frowned. "Yeah...but here's the deal. My dad says we have to have ten chaperones."

"That's a crock of shit."

"Well," I said, "maybe so or maybe no, but he's not gonna budge."

"Won't that kill it?"

"Nah, it doesn't have to," I replied. "We can figure shit out. You and I get to pick the chaperones, and they can't be everywhere. Also, I gotta see if your mom and Stephanie's mom will help my mom with food and shit, and you can ask Jennifer's mom."

"Well, you know my mom will," he said. "Sometimes I think she forgets you're not in the family. And, hell, Jennifer's mom is so glad I'm not going out with her daughter any more, she'll do whatever I want." Matt grinned. His good looks and fast moves were already giving parents some concern.

"I can charm Stephanie's mom into it," I added.

"Yeah, as long as she doesn't know what you have in mind for her daughter."

I blushed a little. I was pushing it a little farther each time I went out with Stephanie, and fully intended to make her the next notch on my gun.

Matt thought for a minute, then asked, "Do we get the pool? Swimming could really help stuff. You know, lots more skin, that kind of thing."

"Probably not, on this kinda notice," I answered. "But we can have fun without it. "And..." I paused for effect: "I can probably get a little something to make the punch more interesting."

"No way, dude!"

"Yep," I said. "I betcha I can get my Varsity Bro to get us some Everclear or something."

I thought back to that Monday morning meeting after we'd found out starting positions. At our high school it was a tradition for each freshman football player to be "adopted" by a Varsity player who served a "big brother" function for the year. At that early morning meeting, every starter found out which older player had chosen him. My Varsity Bro was a popular junior, a wide receiver named Cole Martin. From the day he was designated my Varsity Bro, we got along really well. He never treated me like a freshman, unlike some of the Varsity Bros, and I'd been invited to spend time with him and his friends a couple of times.

The day after the freshman dance, I was at his house with a bunch of the Varsity players, when he hauled out a couple of six-packs of beer, passed them around and said, "Time for us to turn Andy into a total bad boy. I hear he already got a good start this summer, drillin' Dylan Clark's woman; this oughta finish the job." I blushed, but inside I was feeling pretty studly, if the older guys thought my hook-up with Staci was a ballsy move. Anyway, that night I got drunk for the first time in my life. It only took two beers, because I'd never had more than a single beer at a time before. Over the next days, Cole and I had gotten more and more tight with each other, and we'd actually hung out together a few times in the last week.  As I got to know the older football players, it became clear to me that I had one of the coolest Varsity Bros around.

Matt broke into my reflections. "No way are you gonna talk Cole into scoring booze for you. How would he get it? He can't walk in and buy it either."

"His brother's a senior at UTD," I explained. "He lives on campus but it's nearby. Brad hooks him up with liquor any time he wants it."

"Fuckin' A," Matt said. "But even if he got us some, how are we gonna get trashed with all those goddam chaperones?"

"Well, we can't get trashed, not really," I said. "Anyway, Matt, have you ever been trashed?"

"Umm, no. Not really. You know what, dude? Truth be known, I've never had more than two beers at one time in my whole life and that was only once."

"Right," I replied. "I'm not saying we should get fuckin' polluted. I'm just saying we could have enough around for a little buzz, you know? I figure it might be fun just to throw a little Everclear in some of the punch, or maybe it would be easier just to carry around the bottle on the sly and hit people's drinks if they wanted some. That way we wouldn't have to worry about chaperones tasting it in the punch."

At that moment Matt jumped up from my bed wide-eyed. "Hey, as long as we're talking about impressing people, do you think Cole and some of the Varsity Bros and upperclassmen girls would come? I bet Jeff would come if I asked him." Jeff Blizzard was the quarterback of the Varsity team, and was Matt's Varsity Bro.

"Great idea," I said. "I think Cole would do it for me, and between Cole and Jeff we could probably get all the upperclassmen we wanted. It wouldn't hurt to have the varsity quarterback and his friends."

"Sounds like the guest list is getting bigger, though," he mused. "Think your folks would shit at the thought of seventy-five?"

"Definitely," I said. "But I bet I can get them to go for it anyway. Like Danny says, they think I walk on water." I grinned, thinking about the little encounter with Danny and the baseball. Just as quickly, though, my smile began to fade. "Shit, that means five more chaperones."

"Well, we'll just have to make sure we get the right ones," he said.

We spent about ten minutes coming up with a list of chaperones who would satisfy my dad's requirements and yet not keep us on particularly short leashes. When we'd pretty much decided on the adults we thought we'd like to ask, I read the final list to him and said, "Okay, is this list the one we're going with? We probably ought to start asking them today, or at least tomorrow."

"Yeah, that sounds about right," he said, obviously enthused at the prospects. "Wow, Phillips, the thought of this is startin' to get me off! Music, food, booze, and hot girls. Perfect combination!"

With that comment, he started taking off his clothes. "Okay, gimme some of your shit to wear," he said casually, naked by this time, "and snag me a towel." My unease from the morning resonated weakly through my brain, but this time seeing Matt in his birthday suit felt unremarkable. I'd seen Matt naked hundreds of times by now, and, I noted with gratitude, whatever was going on at the beginning of the day, things were now back to normal. I noticed that he was half-hard. I smiled to myself, and shook my head. He's as bad a horndog as I am, I thought. Must have been the thought of getting some girl a little buzzed at my party, then going off by himself with her.

I went to my dresser and pulled out a pair of blue mesh shorts, a pair of white cotton CK boxers, and a white tee; then I went to the hall closet where my mom kept the towels, and I grabbed a bath towel for him. Walking back into the room, I handed him the stuff and said, "Okay, hurry up, and don't use all the hot water." He looked at the boxers and said, "Fuck the boxers, man, we're not going anywhere. I'm just freeballin' it."

"No, way, asshole," I said. "I don't want your boys in direct contact with my clothes."

"Get over it," he complained, "and just wash the fuckin' shorts. And anyway, the equipment's gonna be rubbin' up against your boxers if I put them on, right?"

Well, obviously. Somehow that hadn't struck me. "Yuck. Maybe I'll just give 'em to you." I thought for a minute, then relented. "Man, I don't give a shit. Just freeball, I don't care."

He cracked a wicked smile and said, "Anyway, you've had it in your hand, spittin' jizz all over you; what could be worse than that?"

"Don't remind me," I shot back. "Okay, leave the boxers here, but just fuckin' hurry up, wouldja? And you gotta throw on a pair of jeans when we go down to eat. I don't want my mom having to catch sight of your dick through that mesh."

He looked at me wickedly and began, "Well, maybe she..."

"Don't," I warned, not letting him finish. "Shut up and go shower, dammit!"

"Already there," he said as he wrapped the towel around him and walked out into the hall.

Danny was in his room playing Danzig's "Demonsweatlive" CD at top volume. As Matt passed by on his way to the shower, Danny noticed him, turned off the CD, stuck his head out into the hall, and asked, "Hey, Matt. What're y'all doin'?"

Matt went into Danny's room and sat down on his bed. "Well, Pest, we were dividing up the green and now we're showering."

"Uh-huh. Y'all are showering. Right. Yeah, you'll like that, wontcha, you fairies," Danny joked. Matt was actually much better than I was about treating Danny like a human being. As a result, Dan completely idolized Matt, and always did everything he could to spend time with us. He was always trying to impress Matt by acting tough and sarcastic with him.

"Aww, Danny, don't be a poor sport," Matt teased, grabbing him, pulling him up from the bed, and giving him "noogies." "Next time we'll invite you if you ask nice."

I'd overheard their little encounter. I walked into Dan's room and said, "You two can give it a spin if you want," I threw in, "but I think I'll pass. Showering's a one-man operation."

"Yeah, and maybe a one-man-one-girl operation if you're lucky," Matt added, continuing to keep Dan locked in his grasp.

"I don't see that happening any time soon," I replied.

With Danny struggling to break free of Matt's death-grip, Matt's towel started to slip off and pretty soon he was standing there naked, holding Dan captive.  I laughed at the sight: Dan's neck was in Matt's headlock, and Matt's dick was pressed up against Danny's jeans-clad ass.

Danny croaked out, "Hey, watch the naked, man, and get that thing away from me."

Matt let go of Dan, picked up his towel, walked back into the hall, and said, "Rejected again! Okay, little dude, I know when I'm not wanted."

Undeterred, Dan called out, "No, really, man, can I hang out with y'all for a while? I promise I won't be a pest." "Pest" was Matt's pet nickname for my brother, although it was obvious he loved Danny like a brother.

"Let us get cleaned up, Dan," I said, "then we'll talk about it."

After we'd both showered, we took turns playing video games with Danny and letting him sit in while we talked about school and football and girls. As always, Matt went out of his way to make Danny feel like a part of the conversation and treat him like an equal, instead of treating him like the annoying little kid he was. Danny was pretty transparent in his hero-worship of Matt, and Matt always got a kick out of that.

We went downstairs and ate with the family. It turned out that Beth was spending the night at a friend's, which was fine with me. It would have been a little much to have both siblings drooling like idiots over Matt.

After some more videogaming, a movie on the VCR, a late-night pizza and a little TV, Danny went to his room and Matt and I started getting ready for bed. I pulled out a sleeping bag, and Matt said "I'll flip you for the bed." I pulled a quarter out of my pocket and flipped it, saying, "Call it." "Heads," he responded, and heads it was, so I got the floor. I undressed, turned out the light, and crawled into the sleeping bag; up in my bed, Matt was already under the covers. We talked quietly for a while. Just as I was beginning to get drowsy, Matt said, with obvious amusement, "Dude, your little brother really loves me, doesn't he?"

"Yeah, he does," I said, and added silently to myself, right along with my sister, my Mom, and my Dad, and... I choked, mentally, on the end of that thought; as I lay there in the dark, musing, the frightening sense of dislocation I'd felt when I'd first set eyes on him that morning began to rise in me once again. But exhaustion won out, and before I'd had much chance to brood, sleep took me.

Copyright 2004 by Adam Phillips.  You can email me at aaptx28@yahoo.com