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A Secret Edge
By Robin Reardon
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Robin Reardon
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDream a Little Dream
It's like most of these dreams, when I'm lucky enough to have them. The other boy is a little taller than me, dark hair where I have blond, and deep brown eyes where mine are blue. His touch electrifies me, and my back arches in response to the kisses he plants on my neck, my shoulders, my belly.
And then I'm sitting up, alone.
I throw myself back down onto the bed, embarrassed, wanting to cry. Wanting to dream it again. The boy had been no more recognizable than any of the others. So I guess he was no more or less attainable.
I hate what happens when I'm determined to dream about girls. Which of course I should be doing if I'm trying to be like the other guys I know. Girls are what they dream about. But no matter how hard I try, the girl always turns out to be David Bowie. I barely know who David Bowie is! Just from a couple of tunes and that weird movie I saw at the retro theater last year. But there he is in my dreams, sharp bones of his face, lank hair, scrawny body, calling up feelings every bit as strong as the dark-eyed boys who haunt me.
I'm sixteen years old, for crying out loud! Shouldn't I be having normal dreams by now? I don't mind the sexiness of the dreams, but the sex of the people in them ismaking me crazy. I'm dying to ask someone about this, but there's no one I can think of to talk to. Not Aunt Audrey, that's for sure. I can just imagine her response.
"It's called a wet dream, Jason."
"Yes, Aunt Audrey, I know that. I've been having them for years. But why is it always boys in them?"
"Don't worry about that. It will pass. It's just a phase you're going through. Did you take the sheets off the bed?"
But I do worry about it. I think it means I'm gay.
Really, you could ask Aunt Audrey anything, she's so gentle, so even tempered. And there's something about the fluffy style of her "prematurely" (she's careful to stress that when she mentions it) gray hair that gives off a soft warmth.
But if I tell Aunt Audrey, there's no way not to tell Uncle Steve as well. And then I'd have to be prepared for a no-nonsense answer. Matter-of-fact doesn't come close to how he approaches life and everything in it. I don't want a no-nonsense approach to this question. No-nonsense makes it seem like nothing is more important than anything else. Even me.
But that's not fair. All right, they won't let me have my own cell phone ("When you can afford to pay the bills yourself, young man ..."), but I know they care for me. I mean, if they didn't, would they have kept me? I was dumped on their doorstep at the ripe old age of two, after my parents died in the car wreck that didn't do more than scrape my tender baby skin in a few unimportant places.
Aunt Audrey has told me that I'm like the child she and Uncle Steve couldn't have. But we have an understanding, he and I. I don't bring him anything that isn't really important, good or bad, and he doesn't make me feel silly for bringing something to him.
Aunt Audrey may be easier to talk to, but she can be tough as nails when she needs to be. Even a crisis wouldn't faze her. I know she's cool in a crisis, because the surgeons at the hospital want her more than any of the other nurses when they're in the operating theater. But-I need more than her usual cool reaction, so I don't bring this question to her.
So she wields a knife, in a way, where she works, and-unbeknownst to her-I wield one where I work as well. School.
Okay, wielding a knife is overstating it. I just carry the thing around. I'm probably giving the impression that my school is a dangerous place, which it isn't. We don't even have metal detectors, or I couldn't carry it. But I decided a long time ago that I wasn't going to run all the time, away from the bullies and the tough kids who think I'm easy prey just because I have this baby face and I'm not very tall. If they believed I was gay, it would be even worse.
Anyway, dream over, I massage myself into something resembling calm and roll away from the wet spot. And before I know I'm asleep again, the alarm goes off.
The day begins like any typical day, despite how important it will turn out to be. Despite the fact that it will change my life. Aunt Audrey has already left for the hospital and Uncle Steve is still in the shower by the time I'm dressed-his schedule at the vocational school where he teaches math is later than Aunt Audrey's-so I grab something from the kitchen and gnaw on it while I'm dressing. I could catch the bus that picks up kids who live over a mile away from school-I'm a mile and a half-but unless it's pouring rain, I walk. And I walk superfast, to keep my breathing in shape for my favorite "subject." Track. It's spring-training time. I don't pretend I'm Olympic material. I just love it.
I love the long-distance run, when you feel like you're about to die and if possible you'd hurry it up because you feel like crap, and then suddenly you reach this place where your mind and body are the same, no difference, no boundaries, and you feel like there are no boundaries for you anywhere. I also love the short dashes, the sharpness of my senses as I wait for the signal, the huge burst of energy that the signal releases, the feeling that, once I'm under way, no one can catch me. Most guys are much better at one or the other-distance or dash-and it's true I'm faster on the dash. But I love all of it.
Most of all I think I love it because now, now that my knife and I have scared most of the goons away, I run because I want to. Not because they want to make me.
Today after school the trials for track intramurals start. One thing I'm competing in is the hundred-yard dash, but my real goal is to be anchorman for our relay team. Anchor is the last of four runners, always the fastest. So, yeah, I want to be picked for best.
My last class of the day is English Lit. We have this teacher who seems to think everyone should be able to write. But, you know, some people just don't have it in them. Not everyone who can construct complete sentences is a writer, and many kids can't even do that. I guess Mr. Williams is trying to improve this situation, and I wish him luck, but-really.
Take that kid who always sits halfway down the room beside the wall like he's trying to avoid being noticed. If you sit at the front, you look too eager; at the back, you're hiding and really begging the teacher to pick on you. So Robert Hubble sits halfway down. But he can't bring himself to sit in the middle of the room. He has to hug the wall, like if he were put to it he'd know what was behind him.
Actually, he looks like the kind of guy who'd know what to do if he were up against it. He's tall, heavy in a powerful way, with a face so homely it's almost attractive. Not your typical A student. And he can't write, that's certain. I've heard some of his attempts. But he seems like an okay guy, just not someone I have much in common with.
I glance at Robert as Williams is giving us today's in-class essay assignment: write a character sketch of Jesus. Robert's jaw falls, and he fixes a kind of empty stare at Williams. I can imagine him saying to himself, "What? You want me to do what?"
I dig in. I love this stuff. I might be a writer when I finish college. Who knows?
I stop at my locker on the way to the trials to pick up books I'll need for homework tonight. As I slam it shut, I'm greeted with the unpleasant grin of Jimmy Walsh.
Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was pretty good friends with Jimmy Walsh. Most of the kids in class liked him. He had this really confident air about him, he was good in sports, and some of the girls thought he was cute.
He used to read over my shoulder to get my math answers in fifth grade; that's how I first got to know him. At first I didn't like that, but then one day he stood up for me when this other kid (whose name I've forgotten, which is fine with me) deliberately threw a softball right at me. It was between innings, and I'd just made it to home base and put our team ahead. The guy pitching for the other team was pissed because he'd thrown too late to put me out. The catcher threw the ball back to second base, where the batter was headed, and put him out, but I'd made it. There was this signal that went between the pitcher and the second baseman just as the teams were starting to exchange positions. I didn't think anything of it until the ball came smacking into my ribs.
"Hey!" I heard through a fog of pain. "What d'you think you're doin'?" It was Jimmy's voice. I turned a little, saw him throw his hat on the ground, and then he launched himself bodily into the pitcher. The coach broke it up pretty quickly and wasn't any too pleased with either of them, but he'd seen me get hit so he knew what it was about.
I had no objection to letting Jimmy cheat off my math assignments after that. And we were friends, sort of-considering that we're pretty different people-for a couple of years before it started to cool off. He used to come over to my house for dinner and stuff, and I was at his sometimes. His parents and my aunt and uncle never made friends in any particular way, probably because they didn't have even as much in common as Jimmy and I did.
The beginning of the end was when Dane Caldwell moved into our school district. Dane had to make a splash right away, I guess, because it didn't take him long to start looking for people to pick on. You know the type? It's like he's got to prove he's a man by pushing real hard at anyone or anything that doesn't measure up to some masculine standard in his head. I guess I didn't measure up, because it wasn't long before he started pushing at me.
I'll never forget the day he turned Jimmy against me for real. I was fourteen and starting to look good as a runner. Starting to be competition for Jimmy, actually, and I'd just proven it by beating him in a race during phys ed. And Dane was smart. He didn't taunt me. He taunted Jimmy.
"Walsh, you gonna let that sissy boy beat you like that?"
There was a little more exchange between them that I don't remember now, and nothing happened right away. But on my way home from school that day, they followed me. Both of them. If memory serves, I put up a pretty good fight; I'd been in a few scuffles in years gone by, and maybe I'd never be a fighter, but I was no chicken, either. But finally Dane got my arms behind me and held me.
"Give it to him, Jimmy!" he shouted.
I looked right at Jimmy's eyes, panting through gritted teeth, and said, "Don't let him do this to you. Don't let him turn you into a bully."
He plunged his fist into my stomach. And again. And I'm not sure what happened after that, except that some lady came out of nowhere and yelled at them. They ran, and she half carried me down the street and into her house.
"Who were those boys?" she demanded. "What are their names?"
I was in a hell of a lot of pain at this point, but I managed to say, "Never saw them before." Even today I'm not sure why I lied. Some misplaced loyalty to Jimmy, maybe. Anyway, she made me give her my home phone number, and Aunt Audrey came to get me.
And the demands for information started all over. "Jason, I insist you tell me! Those boys have to be punished."
By now there was no doubt in my mind that I had to keep quiet. I mean, think of the terror campaign they'd have gone on if I'd ratted! Thank God Uncle Steve reacted differently; I think he understood.
"Audrey, if the boy doesn't know them, he doesn't know them." Then to me, "You okay, son? How bad are you hurt?"
"I'll be all right. Really. It hurt a lot before, but it's better." And it was better, sort of; but what hurt the most was knowing that Jimmy had let Dane make his dark side too powerful to be my friend anymore, probably forever.
The next day at school it was like Jimmy had never stood up for me for anything. From then on, every time I saw him or Dane, and especially if they were together-which was the case more and more-they'd make these smirky faces. Pretty soon they started calling me sissy and wuss, and they'd do things like push my tray off the table in the cafeteria. The school year was almost up, and I knew I wouldn't have either of them in many of my classes next year, but I was starting to get a little worried. It was bad enough when I was little, getting picked on and slugged occasionally. But a ten-year-old can hurt you only so bad. When the bully is fifteen, it raises the stakes. It wasn't out of the question for me to get really hurt. And I was beginning to feel afraid, which of course is like waving raw steak under the nose of a hungry dog.
That's when I decided to arm myself. I searched eBay until I found someone willing to let me pay for a switchblade with a bank check. Now it goes with me almost everywhere. Not many people know about it, but I do. And that's what counts.
The look on Jimmy's face right now as we stand here by my locker, like he thinks I'm the scum of the earth, makes me glad that knife is with me. It gives me the courage to look blankly at him, like I don't give a shit what he thinks of me, as I give my locker combo a few turns. I'm about to walk away when he decides he'll have to speak first.
"Running today, are ya?"
I don't answer, so he has to try again.
"Think you'll beat me? Think again."
I turn my back on him and walk-saunter-away. He's in the competition for short dashes. Not relays. But I'm trying out for short dash as well, and I'll beat him if I can. He's fast, but his performance is inconsistent.
On my warm-up jog around the track, I pass by the high jump. There's only one guy there, practicing, someone I don't recognize. At first I think he's black, but as I get closer I see he's more likely from India or something. His hair has a beautiful gloss to it, and his face-intense with concentration-transfixes me. It's a big school, over three hundred in my year alone, and there are lots of guys in my class year I don't know. But I'm surprised I've never noticed this fellow before.
I slow to a walk and watch as he starts his run. He's so graceful, it's almost like slo-mo. There's no doubt he knows just where he wants to take off from, and there's no doubt he does it. And then he's soaring. I'm motionless now, except for my eyes, which are following him in this incredible flight. His body twists slowly, gently, and when he lands, every part of him is where it should be.
I'm still there, staring, when he walks around from behind the jump. He sees me. He just stands there, poised and perfect, staring back at me. It's like he wants me to admire him. Maybe he does.
I shake myself out a little and jog back to where Coach Everett is gathering the runners. But I can't shake the face of the high jumper. The arched black eyebrows, the curve of the full lips-these stay with me.
There will be only one relay team from our school in the intramural competitions, so only four of us will be picked as finalists. But there are about seventeen guys waiting to compete, so we do a few elimination heats.
We're down to eight guys in no time, which means that we'll race four and four against each other. Then Coach will mix us up and we'll do it again to get the final team. In relay, it isn't just speed that counts. If you drop the baton in the handoff-well, it's pretty much over. You still pick it up and run, but just so you can say you did.
For the first of these final heats, Coach puts me in the starting position. Not what I want, but it's the second fastest, and you have to get off to a good start, so there's some glory in it. We win.
Mixed up again, I'm anchor this time, but we don't have the inside track. This means we start farther ahead, but it's harder on the curves anyway. Maybe it's just a psychological thing, but it seems real. Those of us in nonstart positions jog off at angles toward our posts to wait for the baton.
Since I'm anchor, I see the whole race as it happens. Denny Shriver is our start, and he gets a really good launch, exploding from the line like a champagne cork. He's handing his baton off to Paul Roche ahead of the other team's handoff, so we're in great shape. I almost don't want this, because I shine better if we're a little behind, but I'd rather have a sure win than risk wishing for a slow runner.
For some reason Paul is in some kind of frenzy and he runs like I've never seen him. He gets to Norm Landers way ahead of the other team. Paul is about to hand off just as I'm starting to dance a little so that I'll be ready to pace with Norm when he approaches me, and suddenly the baton is on the ground. I can't tell whose fault it is. It doesn't even matter. What matters now is how quickly Norm can pick it up and how fast I can run. Our lead is gone.
I don't even look at the other team's runner. I don't allow myself. Right now the baton is everything. In a minute, the finish line will be everything. Norm's pumping toward me, grimacing with effort. And then all I can see is that baton.
Excerpted from A Secret Edge by Robin Reardon Copyright © 2007 by Robin Reardon. Excerpted by permission.
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