We Will Remember Them

Chapter Seven

The worst thing about coming back to Texas from somewhere cooler in August is when that first blast of oven-hot air hits you. And it did, just as I crossed the threshold from the plane to the steps. It was early afternoon and we had to get back to mother's so my father could pick us up for Saturday and Sunday.

Honestly, I was looking forward to spending some time with him. He and Fonda had broken up, which was to be expected since she was much younger and pretty cool and my father just wasn't. He was an old school guy, he drank scotch for the love of Pete and Fonda liked appletinis. Like there was a chance there'd be a meeting of the minds on much of anything.

At any rate, I figured with that and mother's engagement, he probably needed some time with us and I was happy to give it. It would be nice to hang with him before the brutality of two-a-days on Monday hit like a rock at 7 am.

We drove back to town so we could be home by 5 and repack for the next two days. Daddy showed up on time at six and he and mother disappeared into her office for a good thirty minutes to talk, presumably about the engagement. Cat and I hung kind of close by, not because we could hear through the door but because we didn't want to get caught up in something and then have to leave.

When they came out, daddy was saying, "... you're sure you want to do this?" and mother responded, "Yes. I don't need the money, Ed, and it'll give the kids a good head start." With that, he hugged her and they finally noticed us.

"Y'all ready to go," my dad asked.

"We've BEEN ready," Cat replied and I just snorted.

"Watch it, young lady. And you, too. I'm not above taking my belt to either of you, I don't care how big you think you are," he said.

We both replied, as we had a million times to his empty threats, "Yes sir." We may have been lippy at times, but we both basically respected our parents. We may not have agreed with their decisions, but we loved them both very much. Even at the darkest, when he was relocating us to Plano, I may have been mad at him but I never stopped loving him.

We got out to his house about 20 minutes later and ordered pizza. After dinner, we settled in to watch Star Trek reboot which I'd seen a hundred times but could always watch once more. My father had been a kid when the original movies came out and his favorite was The Wrath Of Khan. I actually liked it, Cat just thought it was old bullshit.

Cat crashed out early and we finished the movie. When it was over, he went to the bar and made himself a drink.

"Want one?" he asked.

"Sure"

"OK, but don't tell your mother," he finished.

We went out to the patio off the family room and he lit a cigar. The scotch tasted awful and I choked a bit which prompted a laugh from him. He got the cigar going and leaned back in the chair with a heavy sigh.

"Daddy, what were you and mother talking about this afternoon?" I asked.

He looked at me, strangely, as if he was about to say 'that's between us, kiddo' but he softened, just a bit and exhaled a long steamer of smoke.

"There's a section in our divorce decree that stipulates if your mother doesn't remarry for two years after our divorce is final that she would get $2 million. If she does, that money goes into trust for you and Cat. I just wanted to make sure she understood what she was giving up."

"Why'd you put that in there?" I asked.

"I wanted to make sure that your mother didn't do something stupid by marrying someone because she felt insecure about money. She wouldn't take any alimony, she just wanted child support for you and Cat. I also wanted to make sure that she had a couple of years under her belt before she did something else stupid, like marry someone who was in love with her money. Doesn't really matter now."

I smiled, "Dad, Neil's a really good guy. You don't have to worry about him."

"Is that what you're going to call him?" he asked.

"Yeah, Mr. Hastings sounds too formal given the situation and I'm not about to call him stepfather or some other nonsense."

He chuckled a little, "Good. I don't want either of you to ever forget that no matter what goes on, I am your father," he finished with emphasis on the I.

"We know, and we love you."

He just glanced over at me and nodded. That was my father showing affection. It was the Robin Edward Hallstrom, III equivalent of a hug AND a kiss on the cheek.

We sat up for another 30 minutes before the scotch, and being tired in general, made me sleepy. We'd talked about the trip and I gave him some details, obviously omitting the sex.  As I made my way to bed, I got a text from Bruce, a simple heart followed by 'thinking abt u'. It made me smile and I ended up having to stroke one out before I could go to sleep.

The next morning, daddy let us sleep in to NINE OCLOCK which was big for him since by then he'd been up for three and a half hours. After breakfast, I took a four wheeler over to the north pasture and sat on top of the hill, just relaxing in the Texas heat. It was good to be home and this was my favorite spot at the ranch. It overlooked a pond and a larger lake that was fifteen feet below it, separated by a dam with a spillway. My grandfather and dad had it build before I was born to make sure the cows always had water. It was about as close to idyllic as I could imagine, save for the pond near Charlie's grandmother's house.

I ended up nodding off at some point and woke up about noon when a grasshopper landed heavily on my chest. I brushed it off, got up, and went back to the house. When I came in Cat and my father were already at the table eating.

"Where'd you disappear to," he asked.

I sheepishly replied, running my fingers through my hair, "The north pasture. Just wanted to think about some things and ended up nodding off."

"Well, clean up and sit down with us."

I went over to the sink and washed my hands, then got some of the delicious KFC my father had picked up for lunch and sat down at the table.

"You looking forward to football tomorrow?" my father asked.

"Not really. I mean, it's two a days so it's not like it's going to be fun. Plus, I'm pretty sure this is my last year playing. I'm going to focus on baseball," I replied.

My father sat back in his chair, looking obviously displeased. "Son, I really don't like you giving up before the game even starts. I wish you'd give it a chance."

I rolled my eyes, "Daddy, I may be able to get through this year on the b team. I might be able to get through a year of JV, but I'm gonna be on the bench mostly and that's the way it'll be straight through my senior year. I'm not big enough or fast enough and I don't like football. Baseball I like AND I'm good at so why waste my time on football past this year?"

"You might grow," he stated, sounding kind of defeated.

"Yeah, and if that happens I'll reconsider. But, right now, this is what I want. I really wish you'd be supportive and stop trying to shove me into what you want."

He looked at me for a second and I saw him soften up a bit, "Rob, it's not that I'm trying to force you to do anything. I just don't want you to make a habit of giving up and psyching yourself out before you even try. And I have never tried to shove you into football, you used to like it."

"(snort) Daddy, yes you have. He hasn't enjoyed playing in two years and he'd have backed out this year if he didn't think he'd disappoint you." Thank you, Cat.

He sat there for a second, no doubt trying to think of a way to shut up Cat and then asked me, "Is that true?"

"Yep. You want me to play, I don't. I'm going to this year, I already committed to it, but when it's over that's the end of me playing football."

He smiled at me, just a little wan smile, "And you don't think you'll regret it?"

Putting a big forkful of mashed potatoes in my mouth I replied, "uh uh."

And that was the end of the conversation which worked out well for me. I'd honestly been dreading it because I knew how my father felt about football. He'd been good enough to play in college, his career cut short by an injury his sophomore year. My father wasn't just competitive, he was aggressive and sometimes over physical with people. I'd seen it a number of times and always thought he'd probably been a bully in high school, or at least that would have been how he was perceived.

I knew I got my competitive streak from him, my need to win, but I was never really as aggressive. When I was a kid, he'd constantly coach me to be more aggressive with other kids on the field. Sometimes it worked, mostly it didn't. I never had his size and, absent steroids, probably never would. I'd long ago made my peace with that fact and really hated that he never seemed able to accept it.

Later that day we went into town for a movie and then dinner. You're probably noticing a pattern at this point with regard to my father and meals... he doesn't cook. Well, that's not true, he does and he's not half bad. He just doesn't really enjoy it and the food he makes is usually pretty disgusting. One of his favorites was 'Chipped beef in cream gravy on toast', which Cat and I had named 'hamburger gravy toast vomit'. I mean, it was GRAY goo on toast. Doesn't that sound awesome for dinner?

We got back to the house in time to shower and hit the beds. At 6 am, I got up and got ready for practice. I didn't eat much, just enough to have something in me but not enough to throw up.

He got me there just in time and we had 15 minutes to suit up and hit the field. While I'd been in CA, Willy and Brent had picked out a locker for me right between theirs. When I got there, I had stuff in it but no pads so I had to go see the freshman coach, Coach Meade. He was a big guy and as I got into his office, he growled, "What do you want?" around an unlit cigar hanging out of this mouth.

"Hallstrom, sir. I was out of town with my family and wasn't able to get my pads last week." I said, as businesslike as possible. I'll be honest, I'd heard stories about what this guy did to kids he didn't like. Plus, the guy intimidated the hell out of me. I'm pretty sure he knew it, as this smile broke out on his face.

"Relax, kiddo. Josh came in early and grabbed you some pads. I didn't even know he had a brother, other than Saunders," he finished, obviously being facetious about the relationship between Josh and Alan.

"Well, technically he's not my brother yet. My mother and his dad still have to get married..."

He laughed, "That's Josh jumping the gun again. Go find him in the varsity locker room. And son?"

I looked back at him as I opened the door, "Yes sir?"

He smiled a wide and yellowy grin, "Welcome to real football."

"Thanks, sir," and I walked out. I went into the Varsity wing which was about half full and got about five feet from Josh before I felt a hand grab my shoulder and spin me around.

"Stupid fucking freshman. You can't come in here, dumbass...," then, as he looked at me, it was like a light bulb went off. "Rob? Right?" he asked. I realized he was one of the juniors Josh had introduced me to the previous year.

"Yeah, sorry, I just needed to get my pads from Josh," who had appeared at my side and said, "Dammit, Jay, I told you he was coming in to get the shit I picked up for him. Fuck!"

"Dude, I'm sorry," and, looking at me, "Sorry, dude. I didn't recognize you until you turned around."

"S'cool, man," and I held out my hand to bump his fist.

Josh handed me my pads and I said, "Thanks, Brother!" with a smile and made a beeline back to the freshman locker room. While I was changing, Willy put my pads in my pants and once I got dressed I put my practice jersey over my shoulder pads and then suited up. One thing about being in full pads, you did feel like a beast. Seriously, you felt like you could run through just about anything or anyone.

Until someone, I don't know, LIKE WILLY, slapped hands down on your shoulder pads to psych you up and all it does is remind me that you're fucking small as shit.

We got out to the field and I realized there were a good 20 more kids in freshman ball than had been in eighth grade. I was still hopeful for an A team slot, but I knew my chances were limited as hell. Coach told us to pull off our shoulder pads and we ran and did some calisthenics to get warmed up. About 8 we put the pads back on and ran some drills.

It was pretty fun. I was still stuck at 5'7 and 155, but I was pretty strong and could hold my own. My father had always been big on going full out, no matter what you were doing. No regrets, he'd said, make sure you leave it all on the field. I took that advice to heart years ago and that was how I played.

I could tell Meade liked me. I could also tell, from all the shit he had me do, he was trying to find a way to put me on the A team.

After morning practice, we were walking back to the field house and Meade pulled Willy aside. We went on in and Willy was about 2 minutes behind us with the big smile on his face.

"He wants me to practice with Varsity this afternoon," he said.

Both Brent and I lit up and slapped him on the back. Honestly, it was a big deal moving to varsity as a freshman. Most years, it just didn't happen and what it effectively meant was that they were going to sideline a senior because you were better. In a roundabout way, it was a reminder this was it for football and me. I didn't think I'd enjoy being replaced by a freshman.

As the week went on, the teams were shaping up and it was clear I was going onto B. I fit there better and Meade finally acknowledged it Thursday afternoon as we were walking back to the field house. Brent had been moved to JV earlier in the day along with Darnell, leaving me to my own devices. I wasn't as close to the other guys who remained on the freshman team.

"If they move someone else up, I can move you to A, but I don't think it's going to happen. I gotta tell you, son, you impress the hell out of me. You are one tough little guy and I see you putting in the effort," he paused, glancing over at me, "but I know your heart's not in it. I see how hard you work, but you don't really like football, do you?"

"No sir, I don't. I promised I'd play this year, that's what I'm going to do. And I'm not going to half-ass it either, sir. You won't have to worry about me pulling my weight," I told him.

"Your parents picking you up today?" he asked.

"Yes sir, my dad," I replied.

"OK, when you're in street clothes come get me, I'd like to have a word with him."

I walked back to the freshman locker room. Willy and Brent weren't in yet, the varsity and JV were still on the field. I changed out of my clothes, grabbed a towel, soap, and shampoo and made my way to the showers. What was left of the team from eighth, after you removed the people who had been moved up, was still pretty impressive. I was probably one of the smallest left. Jake was actually smaller than me, but only in terms of being shorter. At 5'5" he already weighed about 165 and was pretty damn strong. Most of these guys were and it was clear some of them, and not just Willy, would be able to play college ball.

Oddly, with all the bullshit in a boys' locker room, I never felt intimidated by any of these guys. We'd played together since flag, we'd all grown up together and we were mostly all friends. There were a couple of guys who didn't like me, but they mostly steered clear of me and I of them.

I got out of the shower, put my shit up and packed up my bag after I dressed. I always hated being soggy just out of the shower and after practice that was just inevitable. Still, it was better than smelling like a bag of rotting onions.

Just as I was locking up to leave, Willy and Brent stumbled in looking like they'd been through a shredder.

"What the hell happened?"

Willy just smiled weakly as he sat down in front of his locker and Brent just mumbled, "Josh". I told them I'd call them later, grabbed my bag and headed to Meade's office. While I was standing there, Josh, Alan, and some of the varsity players came in, looking tired but far more upbeat than Willy and Brent. I pulled Josh aside for a second.

"What did you do to Brent?" I asked.

"I showed him the ropes. He can handle it," he said with a smile.

"Dude, take it easy on them, willya..."

"Like they took it easy on Alan and me last year?" He interrupted.

"Seriously, you don't have to shred them."

At that point Meade comes out and says, "Hastings, get cleaned up. I gotta talk with your brother here and his daddy."

And with that, Josh left with a shit eating grin on his face. I was thinking he and Alan had been pretty merciless to Willy and, it looked like, especially to be Brent. It was absolutely overkill, probably closer to hazing. I mean, Josh was like a Mac truck and Brent, while pretty damn big, wasn't in his league. Having Josh take you down can't be fun.

Meade and I walked out to the parking lot and found my dad on the phone. I hopped in the passenger seat and Meade went around to the driver's side. Daddy got out of the car to shake his hand and left the door open.

"I have to tell you Mr. Hallstom, you've raised on hell of a young man. I've been coaching 25 years and there have only been a couple of kids that standout the way your boy does. I just wanted to meet you and tell you thanks for letting me work with him."

"I appreciate that, Coach Meade. His mother and I have worked hard to keep him level. Glad it's paying off."

As we drove off, my father looks over at me and says, "So I guess this means you did better than you thought you would, huh? See, this is what I'm telling you, hard work pays off."

"Dad, I'm on B team. He's just impressed that I play as hard as I do. That was it."

"Well, B team is good. I mean, I wouldn't expect you to be on A with Willy quite yet. You'll catch up."

I sighed, "No, I won't. Willy was moved to varsity on Monday and Brent was moved to JV this morning. Even still, there were 20 other guys who were better than me. Hell, I know there are other guys on B team who are better than me, but they're lazy. That's what Meade was talking about."

"They moved Willy to varsity?"

"Yeah, in case you haven't noticed, he's pretty damn big for 14 and strong as hell."

Daddy sat there, silently, for a second before answering. "No, honestly, I hadn't. I still see you guys as little kids running into one another playing flag most of the time."

"Well, we're pretty far from that. This is the problem, you're not seeing me as I am, you're seeing me as you want me to be. It'll be a lot easier for me if you stop that."

He kind of winced a bit at that, as if I'd physically struck him. It wasn't my intention, I wasn't even irritated or exasperated with him. I honestly felt bad because, once again I'd said something without malice and it had been received like a blow. And to my dad, no less.

My father cleared his throat, clearly choking back some emotion, "You wanna stop at Dairy Queen and grab something before I drop you back at your mothers?"

"Yes sir, that would be great!" Honestly, I wasn't that excited about DQ but I was excited about spending time with him and I knew Neil and my mother were going out which meant my choice of disgusting frozen dinners that mother kept picking up, despite our pleas to stop. And if you think I was just being a whiny brat, I offer in my defense the El Patio frozen dinner which I challenge you to eat, let alone enjoy.

We pulled into a parking space and went inside. It wasn't terribly busy so we put in our orders and sat down. As I sucked down a chocolate shake, my dad kept rubbing his hands together, one of his few nervous tics. It was maybe a minute or two before he finally spoke.

"Son, the last thing I want to do is hurt your feelings and I know you're right. I just see you work so hard and I keep thinking at some point you'll catch up to the other boys. I don't want you to give up on that, but I know I have to let you, for lack of a better phrase, be you. I just want you to know I heard what you said and I'm going to work on it."

I smiled back at him, "Thanks dad. I honestly didn't mean what I said in the car that way. I really didn't mean it to hurt your feelings."

My father ducked his head a bit, another one of his tics. He's gotten so much better about emotion but at this point he was still pretty horrible at it. "It's OK. Sometimes it takes something like that to pull people out of their heads and you were right. You didn't hurt me, it was the realization that you were right that hurt. Again, it's something I promise I'll work on."

"Thanks."

"So, why don't we go ahead and pull you out of football tomorrow? I know it's not what you want, why not cut bait?" he finished.

I sat back, "I can't do that. I already committed and it's important to me to finish what I started. I'll be fine. Like I said, most of the B team guys are lazy and I can outplay them. I'll be ok."

My father just smiled broadly back at me and nodded his head. "I'm proud of you and I want you to know that. You may not be the best player on the team, but I understand why that coach wanted to talk to me."

This was, I think, the first time my father and I really understood one another. I know I felt pretty high during our little dinner. It was a good moment and I honestly think it helped him understand my coming out. He stopped seeing me as a child and started seeing me as a man. At least that's what I told myself, but I have a sneaking suspicion I'm right. It was strange because I'd already told him I was playing because I'd committed to do it. I think he just assumed it had all been for him.

A few minutes later the food came and I wolfed mine down before getting up to order more. This was my problem in a nutshell, I got my mother's metabolism. I burned up everything and had to eat excessively to put on any weight. Daddy could put on muscle, even now, just looking at weights. So could Josh and Alan. I on the other hand, needed to eat an entire cow to put on five pounds. It was pretty brutal.

I finished second dinner and we left. My father dropped me at our house and I went inside to find my sister and Josh curled up on the sofa watching a movie.

Josh looked back at me as I walked into the family room. "Where'd you go?"

"Daddy wanted to talk to me about football. Meade made a big deal about what a great kid I was and he misinterpreted it to mean I was doing well. We had a talk and he finally understands why I'm done after this year?"

Cat piped up, "He FINALLY got it?"

I laughed walking over to her to hug her, "Yeah, and I think your little quip last Sunday helped."

"Well cool. I made lasagna which wasn't that bad and we just started 'Dear John'."

"Uhm, that doesn't sound all that awesome. Why can't we watch something else?"

Cat, grabbing the remote and obnoxiously aiming it at the DVD player, said, "BECAUSE tonight I get to pick the movie and I picked this. And it's good so far. Plus it has Channing Tatum in it and Josh and I think he's hot."

I just kind of giggled, "Josh?"

Josh just shrugged. "I wasn't going to lie to her. I do think he's cute."

"Alright, let me put my gear up and grab something to eat."

That's right, THIRD dinner. I figured it was a good idea at the rate I was burning up calories during practice.

We sat and watched the movie which was pretty horrible. OK, we all cried a bit but the movie really was bad. And yes, Channing Tatum was pretty in it. He's pretty in everything. Even as the slave boy in THIS IS THE END.

After the movie, I went up to my room to call Willy. He answered on the fifth ring, with the kind of tiredness usually reserved for people who've just been in a marathon.

"What's up, man?" he said.

"Not much, just wanted to check in on you. How are you doing?" I asked.

He sighed, "I'm feeling OK. I'm tired as fuck and about to pass out."

"What the hell happened at practice this afternoon?"

"Well, they used the JV and the new varsity players to run offense against the varsity D. They just creamed us. Especially Josh. He took Brent down HARD a couple of times. He took me down hard only once but damn, the motherfucker can hit. I know he's big, but until he wraps you and takes you down, you don't realize HOW big..."

Josh, as Willy was speaking walked into my room and mouthed, "Who are you talking to?"

I replied "Willy" outloud which prompted Willy to ask what was going on and I told him Josh had just come in. He told me to put it on speaker.

"Alright, it's on. I told Josh to take it easier on you guys and he told me he would."

Josh quickly piped up, "No, I didn't."

"Josh, DUDE, lay off them a bit!" I said in a demanding tone. Willy just blurted out, "You're going to make it worse, man!"

Josh just replied, "No, he's not Willy. And Rob, you need to think about this. What we're doing, running those drills, is to get these guys ready. They're going to be tackled. They're going to be tackled by people a lot bigger and meaner than ANYONE on Varsity. If we don't let them know how it feels, and how to take the fall and protect themselves, they're going to get hurt. None of us are being mean or sadistic, we're trying to get them ready."

"Then why were you so much harder on Brent than you were on Willy?" I asked.

Josh responded, "Because Willy keeps his head up and protects his neck, Brent doesn't and Coach can't understand why. Look, in a couple of years, no one is going to be able to take these guys down. But right now, this year, they're both smaller and weaker than the defenses of a lot of teams we'll be playing. They need to be prepared. Willy, how are you feeling?"

Willy coughed a bit, "I'm fine. I just need some sleep tonight and I'll be good to go tomorrow."

Josh looked at me, "See, they're going to be OK. I get what you're thinking, but it's wrong. You gotta think about the bigger picture."

Willy piped up, "Guys, Ima let you go and get some sleep. See you tomorrow."

Josh and I both told Willy bye and cut off the line. I just looked at Josh for a while and said, "I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking."

"Don't worry about it. I would have explained it you this afternoon if Meade hadn't told me to go. We're not hazing them, I promise."

I kinda slumped back onto my bed. I'd made assumptions and acted on them without even bothering to think things through. Why on earth did it not occur to me that Josh just wouldn't do shit like that? I'd never seen him deliberately hurt someone that wasn't trying to hurt him or someone he cared about.

I looked back up at him, "Josh, I have to apologize. It's more than just that, I made an assumption about what you were doing and it never fucking occurred to me that you're not that guy."

"Oh, no... come on, Rob. Don't beat yourself up over this. You were trying to protect your friends. I get it. Trust me, I'm not offended.

Beside, we did haze them a bit." he finished with a smile as he backed out of my room.

I couldn't help but smile back. "Thanks man."

"Come down. We're having ice cream."

I had some ice cream and then fell asleep on the love seat in the family room watching another one of Cats and Josh's terrible movie picks. They seemed just delighted to torment me with romance movies that honestly never should have been made.

The next thing I remember is Josh nudging me awake. "Hey bud, I need to get you into bed. I'm gonna pick you up, OK?"

I just mumbled out OK and kinda fell back to sleep. The next thing I heard was my alarm going off at 615. I was damn confused since the last thing I really remember was falling asleep during the movie. I was still in the t-shirt and shorts I'd been wearing and my mouth had this funk in it which let me know I'd not brushed my teeth the night before.

I went to the bathroom and slowly woke up. I vaguely remembered Josh waking me up. I couldn't believe he'd carried me up. I took a quick shower and got dressed, grabbed my bag and headed down to get something to eat.

In the kitchen I ran smack dab into my mother, Neil, and Josh.

"Morning sweety," my mother said. I just kind of stood there for a second. I'd just assumed they were having sex. I never assumed I'd wake up one day and find Neil and Josh in my mother's house. In my house.

"Rob, get out of your head," I heard Josh say.

I refocused on them and realized I was being stupid. This was always going to happen. Just didn't expect it this morning.

"Sorry, good morning," and I walked over and gave my mother a hug.

"You just want some toast?"

"Yes ma'am" was all I said as I went to the fridge to grab the juice... which was already on the countertop. Clearly this was not my morning.

I just closed the door and caught Neil looking at me, with concern. I just smiled back at him and went to sit at the bar next to Josh who was working his way through what looked like half a dozen eggs.

"Mom, can you make me some eggs too? I'm hungrier than I thought." I asked.

My mother smiled at me, "Scrambled with some cheese?"

"Yes, please."

I looked over at Josh. "Did you carry me up to bed last night?"

He just looked at me, "You don't remember? Man you WERE out of it. Yeah, you fell asleep like 10 minutes into the movie and I thought you'd be more comfortable in your bed, so I took you up. You don't remember me asking you?"

"Vaguely, I just woke up in my clothes and that was it."

"Yeah, I didn't want to wake you about changing. You didn't move a bit when I took you up."

I just smiled back at him, "Thanks for doing that. Hope I didn't break your back"

He and Neil both laughed, "You're light as a feather... don't sweat it."

I poured a glass of OJ and we all talked. Usually, at this hour, it was just me and mother and we'd chat

about whatever. This, the four of us, actually felt good. It was weird, but it was good... it's hard to describe and I feel odd even putting this in here, but that day just started off, from the moment I got up. It kind of set the tone for what happened later.

A few times, especially after mother put the plate in front of me, I caught Neil looking at me with the same look he gave me earlier, concern. I could read it. I felt like he wanted to say something, and I didn't know what. I just felt this sense of dread for what I was sure would be an awkward conversation. I saw Neil as my best friend's dad and my mother's boyfriend. Knowing that they are having sex was just fucked up. I was trying to be cool.

About the time I finished eating Neil said, "Why I don't I take the boys to practice?"

My mother walked over to him, gave him a nice little kiss, and said, "That would be great."

With his arms still around my mother, he looked over at us and said, "You guys grab your stuff and meet me at the car."

I started to grab my plate to take it to the sink and mother just said, "Sweety, don't worry about it. I'll take care of it."

Josh disappeared into one of the guest rooms and I already had my stuff ready to go so I walked out the front door to Neil's car. I stood, leaning up against the Rover, waiting for them to come out. Josh was about 90 seconds behind me.

"Are you OK?" he asked.

"Yeah, it's just weird. I know they're doing it. Just this morning was kind of a shock."

"Was to me too last night when your mom told me I could sleep in your room or the guest room."

I asked, "Why'd you choose the guest room?"

He smiled, "I wanted to let you sleep and I knew I'd wake you up getting ready for bed."

"Actually, I don't think you would have."

About that time Neil came out and we all got in the car. The ride over to the field house was pretty quiet. When we got there I started for the door and Neil asked me to hang for a second. Josh got out and said, "See you inside," then closed the door.

Alone. With Neil.

I started to say something but words just wouldn't come out. I didn't know what I wanted to say. Thankfully, Neil did.

"Rob, I know this morning was awkward and I'm sorry about that. We made some plans last night that we'll tell you about at dinner. I just want you to know that I love and respect you very much and I wanted to tell you that before you thought anything else."

I just sat back in the seat and thought for a second. "Neil, it was just kind of a shock. You don't need to worry about me. I love my mother and I love you and Josh."

He smiled at me, "I just wanted to make sure. You, your mother, and sister are family to me now and I don't want you to feel awkward around me."

I laughed, "I don't, I promise."

"OK, then get out of the car and go have a good day"

I smiled back at him, opening the door and getting out, "I will and thanks!"

No sooner had I closed the door than I saw Wes Johnson getting out of his father's truck. I knew, by the smirk on his face, this was going to be a thing. Wes was one of the guys on the freshman team I generally avoided. He didn't like me and I honestly didn't care much for him. Apparently, the hatred on his side was related to some business deal my grandfather had done with his grandfather that had soured. I asked my father about it at one point and the bottom line was that Mr. Johnson had gotten over extended and needed cash, so my grandfather bought him out of the project. It went on to be successful and Johnson seethed, as if he'd been cheated. My father didn't care much for the Johnsons.

I had no reason to really hate Wes, and honestly didn't. He was the one who had a thing for me. We'd fought once, in fifth grade, and it had been a draw. Since then, we'd mostly just avoided one another and been pleasant to each other when we were forced into proximity.

Just after 830, as were in the home stretch to the 9am end of practice, Wes made a comment about my mother. Some of the kids standing near him snickered and I played it off since he wasn't loud enough for me to have heard clearly. That lasted, maybe 90 seconds before he said, in my direction, "Hallstrom, did I see you coming to practice this morning with Josh and his dad?"

And I looked back at him and said, "Yeah, what's it to you?"

He shrugged, grinning and looking at the two guys standing next to him, "Nothing, I was just wondering if he fucked your mother just last night or if he did it again this morning?"

And I lost it. My vision went red and I charged at him full speed, knocking him to the ground and knocking his helmet out of his hands. I started wailing on him, specifically on his face. It took him a few seconds to get past the shock and throw me off him, and by then some of the other guys and Coach Meade were there to pull us apart. He managed to land a decent punch to my right eye, I hit both of his and fucked up his nose.

"What the hell is wrong with you two?" Meade asked.

We both just stared at each other in silence. When we didn't respond, Meade told us both to run laps until practice was over.

"And make sure you wear your hats, ladies. That's what happens when you fight on MY team."

We ran for almost 30 minutes before Meade told us to stop. We'd both been mouthing shit to one another while running, at least initially. By the time Meade told us to stop, we were past that point and both heading for shear exhaustion. 

"Good, now shake and get cleaned up. I need to have a word with your parents when they pick you up."

We both shook hands, squeezing as hard as we could, and then walked to the house to get cleaned up.

After I got dressed, I went to Meade's office and told him I was ready to leave. Once again, my father was picking me up and unlike the night before, this conversation didn't go well.

When my father got back in the car, the first thing out of his mouth was, "What the hell were you thinking?"

"Dad, Wes made a nasty comment about mother and I jumped him."

"What in God's name did he say that got you so riled up?" he asked.

And, once again, one of my best assets becomes my worst enemy.

"He asked if Neil had fucked mother last night and this morning since Neil drove me and Josh to practice."

My father, not one to miss much, responded, "Did Neil spend the night at your mother's house last night?"

I sighed, "Yes sir, he did."

And that was it for the rest of the ride to my mother's house. He pulled into the drive and got out along with me. We went inside and he instantly began yelling BETHANY.

My mom came out of her office, "What are you yelling about?"

He looked at me and said, "Tell you mother about your fight and why you got into it."

She looked at me, "You got into a fight? Oh, Rob, what happened?"

As I relayed the story, my mother's face became crimson. I honestly didn't know if she was pissed at me or my father, but I knew that look. She was red hot angry.

When I finished she just looked at me. "Go to your room. I will deal with you later."

I trudged off and up the stairs to my room, only to hear them shouting at one another. My mother landed a good punch with "Don't lecture me when you were doing the same thing with Fonda. At least I'm engaged."

I heard the front door slam about five minutes later and I sat on my bed, knees to my chest, slowly rocking back and forth. I hated the waiting when I knew I was going to be punished.

About ten minutes later, my mother knocked on my door and opened it. She just stood there for a second, the anger drained from her face and looked at me.

"Honey, it's OK. Let's take a look at your eye."

She got on the bed and moved my head back, "Well, it's going to be a nice black eye but it doesn't look like he did any damage. How'd Wes look when you were done with him?"

I just smiled back at her, "Worse."

She returned my smile, "Good. Now, you're grounded for the weekend."

"But mom, I didn't start it!" I objected.

She just looked at me, "No, you didn't. You let someone else get under your skin and instead of ignoring it or mouthing back, you attacked. That's not how you were raised and that's not how you act."

"Yes ma'am"

"Since you don't have practice this afternoon, you can get started on some lawn work after lunch."

She got up to leave and turned back to me, "Rob, I love you. I know this is weird, but it's all going to be OK."

"Does that mean I'm not grounded?"

She smiled, "Nope. You're still grounded for the weekend."

I laid down to rest and ended up falling asleep until about 11. I went downstairs and watched TV until lunch was ready and then spent the afternoon doing yard work. It sucked because I actually wanted to be at practice. I didn't really care about football any more, but I hated what I'd done and that I'd let the other guys down by getting into trouble.

About 7 Neil and Josh came over and we ate dinner. When we were done, mother and Neil announced that they'd set a date for the wedding, November 6th. Surprisingly that wasn't the big news. WE were moving to Neil's house at the end of September.

THAT bummed me the hell out. I liked our neighborhood and having Alan close. We'd lived here four years, longer than we had at any other house. It was my home and now I was being uprooted.

Josh and Cat were pretty excited. I just looked at mother and asked if I could be excused.

She looked at me with concern, "Are you OK?"

I just shrugged and said, "Yes ma'am. I'm glad you guys set a date, but I just want to go to my room."

"OK, if that's what you want." she replied, obviously upset at my reaction.

I grabbed my plate and walked to the sink, conscious of the eyes on me, which really made me angry. I don't know what I thought would happen when they got married and, honestly, Neil's house was larger than ours and wouldn't need much work to accommodate the five of us. Ours would. But all that be damned, I didn't want to leave my home.

Oates, I was sure, would have a field day with this when we met the following Tuesday.

I walked up the stairs, got into my room and broke down. I don't know why I was so emotional, it was just a damn house. But my head was swimming and all the built up tension from the day came out in tears. I ended up falling asleep around 9 and that was it. 

The next morning I got up early, around 630, and the house was quiet. I decided, for some reason, to go for a jog. I'd been big into running when I was trying to lose weight, but now that I was trying to put on muscle, I just couldn't afford the rise in metabolism. I briefly considered that I was grounded before saying to myself, fuck it.

I ran for about 3 miles and came back to the house only to find Neil in the kitchen working away on what I assumed was going to be breakfast. I walked up the counter and sat down on one of the stools which got his attention.

"How are you feeling, kiddo?" he asked.

"I'm better. Sorry I was so weird last night." I responded.

He stood there looking at me for a second before he said, "It was the move, wasn't it."

And suddenly, I started to tear up again. He came around to me to give me a hug, despite me being a very sweaty mess.

I stopped crying and he pulled back to look at me.

"I'm sorry, it's just this is the only house we've really lived in. Daddy moved us around a lot and it's hard to know I'm going to lose it." I told him.

He just smiled warmly at me, "I understand, Rob. You don't have to apologize."

I cleared my throat, "Yes, I do. Last night was a big deal and I got all emotional and back into my head.  It wasn't fair to any of you and I'm sorry."

He hugged me again, "Well, I accept your apology." He looked back over at the prep work he was doing then back down at me, "You know, doughnuts would be good right now, don't you think?"

I laughed and said, "Yes sir, I agree."

He laughed, "Alright, let me grab my keys and see if we can get there and back before everyone else is up."

Going with Neil was a lot of fun. I think it was just a relief to have the emotional crap out of my system. We ended up getting back just as mother was pouring a cup of coffee and I walked up to her and gave her a hug.

"Sorry I was such a pill last night, mom" I said.

"Well, you had a pretty big day yesterday..." she said, smiling. "Tell you what, if you'll promise not to ever throw the first punch again, I'll take you off grounding. Deal?"

"Yes ma'am!" I said.

"Alright, go get cleaned up for breakfast."

"Yes ma'am," I replied, grabbing a doughnut and running up to my room.

I took a shower and walked out of my bathroom, nude, only to find Josh laying on my bed.

"Dude, what the hell?" I shouted.

Josh just laughed, "It's nothing I haven't seen before, stop being bashful."

I just laughed back at him, "I'm telling Lane you were perving on me."

"Go ahead, he won't believe you!" he said, laughing back at me. "Seriously, are you OK with everything?"

I smiled back at him, "Yeah, I am. And I'm sorry about being a stupid last night. It was the move... this house means a lot more to me than it should and it just caught me off guard. It's a lot of change and I just need to do a better job rolling with the punches."

"It's OK, man. When dad told me we were moving to Texas, I freaked out for a week. Honestly, it's been the best thing that ever could have happened for both of us."

"Hey, my mom degrounded me."

That caused him to really smile, "Oh, really? Well, then you have plans tonight."

"Do I,"I asked.

"Yep, you're coming with me and Lane to your first high school party."

I laughed, "Oh, and how are we getting there? I don't suppose your dad is going to drive us?"

He snorted, "Hardly. Jay is picking us up. GOB is picking up Alan, Willy, and Brent. He took some persuading on Brent, but we convinced him he and Willy are a matched set."

"And how am I going to convince my mother to let me go with Jay?" I asked.

He smiled, "You let me handle that." And with that, he got up and went down stairs. I took a moment longer to get dressed and went down. Cat, of course, still wasn't up but it wasn't going to stop the rest of us from eating.

Breakfast was exactly what I needed and it was nice having Neil and Josh there. For the first time I was thinking about this being a more permanent state of affairs, that this is what most Saturdays would be like from now on. The thought made me feel really good.

After breakfast, Josh pulled mother away, presumably to talk about tonight and I went up to the play room upstairs to read and watch TV. I fell asleep at some point, really just nodded off, and woke up right before lunch to Cat screaming about the lack of chocolate cake doughnuts. Neil had bought some, at my insistence, and apparently Josh ate them. The injustice of it all was unbearable to Cat.

I went back downstairs and started pulling things out of the refrigerator to make a sandwich. Josh kept apologizing profusely and offered to make it up to Cat any way he could. She just said, "Let me think about that" which was always a bad sign. She'd want something at the most inconvenient time. Josh was about to get a crash course in being big brother to a little sister.

Cat stomped back up to her room with two glazed doughnuts and I kept making my sandwich. I asked Josh where mother and Neil were.

"They went out to the house. They're going to make a list of what needs to be done before you guys move in."

I smiled, "That's cool."

"And, I talked to your mom. Since you will be under the watchful eye of your big brother, she's decided to let you go with us as long as we have you back by midnight. And NO DRINKING."

I just laughed, "You're really into this whole big brother thing, aren't you?"

"Yeah, I am. I always wanted a brother or a sister, but mom couldn't have any more kids. You and Cat are like a dream come true for me. It's the ultimate win and I'm going to take advantage of it by being the best big brother in the world."

I laughed, "You know she's going to ask you to do something at the worst possible time. She's going to make you suffer. That's what Cat does. You can't ever agree that you've wronged her."

He just smiled, "I know she is. I don't care. Hell, I'm so happy it wouldn't ever matter to me", he paused for a second, looking at me, "Hey, would you make me one, too?"

"Sure," I said with a smile.

We sat down to eat in front of the TV, watching some lame Schwarzenegger movie called 'Commando'. About an hour later Alan texted to see what I was up to and invited us down to swim. I looked over at Josh and asked him if he wanted to go and we both decided to head down there. Josh had to borrow some shorts from Alan since mine wouldn't have fit him at all. Not that Alan's really did, but at least he was closer in size to Josh than I was.

 We swam for a couple of hours before heading home, in desperate need of snacks which turned out to be left over doughnuts on which we gorged ourselves. Then the carb coma hit and we were out on my bed. I woke up at one point, my head on Josh's arm with him spooned behind me and his other arm across my midsection. It felt good, not sexual, just comfortable. I don't remember falling asleep that way, but, as I fell back to sleep, I realized I wish we had.

It was late afternoon when my mother and Neil got back. Josh was already up and helping Neil bring in groceries when my mother came in to wake up me.

"Hey sweety, did you have a nice nap?" she asked, sitting on the edge of my bed.

"Uh huh," was all I could reply as I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes.

She gave me a little kiss on the forehead, "Well, come downstairs and help me with dinner."

It took me a while to fully wake up, but I finally pulled my ass out of bed, went to brush my teeth and headed down. When I got close to the kitchen, I could hear my mother talking.

"Oh, that's what he does when he's falling asleep and he feels safe with someone. Then his body tenses up and just as quickly releases and he's out like a light. When he was really young, once I heard that whimper I knew it was all over." she said, laughing a bit.

As I walked into the room I said, "What are you talking about?" and noticed Josh standing there.

My mother just looked at me and said, "You. How you fall asleep."

"What about me? How do I fall asleep?" I asked.

Josh then piped up, "It's the cutest thing. When you go to sleep, you let out this little whimper and you're out. I was just asking your mother about it."

I looked at my mother, "How do you know I only do it when I feel safe?"

"That's because you would only do it for certain sitters. The ones you didn't like never mentioned it. The ones you did, that you were closest to, ALWAYS brought it up because they thought it was very cute."

"I still do this today?" I asked.

Josh laughed, "Yeah, like two hours ago!"

My mother came over and gave me a hug, "Trust me, honey. It's nothing to be ashamed of. It's really very sweet."

I took the hug and shrugged my shoulders and that was it. I decided it's not something I can help and I'm not going to dwell on it... just another of those embarrassing little things that make up me. I was pretty sure Oates would call that progress, accepting the things you can't change. Tuesday was going to be awesome!

I helped mother with dinner, then we ate. I was still kind of out of it from my nap, which happened sometimes. Daddy calls it sleep drunk and he was probably right considering I'd slept quite a bit in the last 24 hours.

When we were done, Josh and I went to get ready and by 730, Jay was at the front door. I went to get it and let him in, only to see him attacked by mother in an effort, I was sure, to completely eliminate any chance I would ever have at a social life this year.

"Hi, Jay," she said, walking up to him.

"Hi Mrs. Hallstrom! I didn't realize you were Rob's mom!" he sputtered out.

"Yeah, since there are so many Hallstrom's in the world. Now, we need to talk about you having my son and soon to be stepson in your car. You're not going to the drinking." It very clearly wasn't a question.

Jay, still off kilter, "Oh, no, not at all ma'am. Drinking and driving is illegal."

"Yes, it is. Especially with minors in the car..." which was interrupted by me saying, "MOTHER, stop. We're going to be fine. If anything happens I'll call you or daddy. Please stop beating up Jay."

She just looked at me, "One day you will understand," then she smiled, "I do trust you, just want to make sure you get home in one piece. Because I love you," she finished hugging me.

"I love you, too!" I squeaked out. Josh soon rounded the corner and fist bumped Jay.

"Dude, thanks for picking us up," he looked over at my mom, "I promise, nothing will happen to him," and he finished by giving her a hug.

"Alright," she said with a tight smile on her face, "You guys have fun."

And we finally walked out the door. We got into Jay's car and he said, "Dude, I had no idea Mrs. Hallstrom was your mom. No offense, but she is so fucking hot!"

Josh and I both hit his arm which prompted him to say, "What?"

Josh spoke up, "Dude, that's my stepmother and my brother's mother. Show some fucking respect."

Jay sat there for a second, processing, and finally apologized to us both with, "I seriously didn't mean anything by it, but she's one fine lady."

Josh looked back at me, rolled his eyes and turned back around.

"Jay, where are you going?" Josh asked.

Jay looked over at Josh like he was crazy, "To the strip so we can meet up with GOB."

"We have to pick up Lane, remember?" Josh said.

"Oh, shit. I completely forgot your better half."

Josh just laughed, "Well, you're right about that. Turn here." Josh proceeded to guide him to Lane's house.

When we got there, Josh hopped out of the truck and ran to Lane's front door. He rang the bell, waited a bit, and was rewarded with this special prize. He gave Lane a nice kiss and the two of them walked back to the truck. Jay didn't say a thing, just sat watching them with a smile on his face, which I can remember thinking was really cool.

Josh opened the door to the back seat and Lane climbed in.

"Hey Jay," he said. "Thanks for picking me up!"

Jay smiled back at him, "Shit, it's not a problem. Beside, you make Josh tolerable."

Lane then turned to me and gave me a hug. "I thought you were grounded, slugger?"

I just smiled back at him, "She made me promise not to throw the first punch again. I can't believe I let Wes get under my skin like that."

Jay then piped up, "So YOU'RE the one who hit that Johnson kid! Nice work. Hated his brother and I like him even less." which made me smile. Always good when the people you're with hate the same people you do.

"I didn't even know he had a brother?" I said.

Jay was quick with his response, "Oh yeah, prick was a senior when I was a freshman. Total asshole. Used to pick on us relentlessly. I hated that guy. His daddy was talking to Coach Edwards about putting Wes on V and making a big deal about who he knew on the school board. Fucking prick."

Josh looked over at him, "Gee, Jay, tell us how you really feel?"

About that time we pulled into a gas station on the strip and Jay called GOB to find out where he was. Five minutes later he pulled up in a giant four door dualie. It was a beautiful truck, especially compared to the ten year old suburban Jay drove. We all got out and Josh disappeared into the gas station, after Lane and I asked him to get us Cokes.

Willy came over and honestly looked much better than the day before, while Brent went with Alan to talk to Jay.

"How'd you talk your mom out of grounding you?" he asked.

"Honestly, I think she felt bad. I kind of overreacted when Neil and mother told us we were moving out to Neil's house at the end of September. So this morning she made me promise not to throw the first punch ever again." I replied.

He just laughed, "Yeah, I gotta say when I heard about it after practice I thought Danny was kidding me. I'm honestly glad you hit that prick. So is most of the varsity and I'm pretty sure Coach Edwards.

Now, what's the deal with the house? You've lived in so many, what the hell is one more?"

I sighed, "Dude, it's shit in my head. It's because we've lived in it so long, it's like a security blanket for me. Plus, I like the neighborhood and having people close. Josh's place just feels so isolated."

"Yeah, trust me, it's a good thing. Plus, Josh's house is amazing. I mean, no offense, your house is nice but his house is fucking awesome."

I laughed, "Well, it's going to be my house too in about a month."

We continued to chat for a bit. Brent, GOB, and Alan wanted to hear the story about Wes. Apparently, I was a bit of a minor celebrity with the varsity.

We ended up getting in the cars and cruising the strip. It's really pretty simple, but it's a whole lot of fun. You drive from the square, where the courthouse is, back to the gas station we stopped at earlier, then back again. You run into people, say hi, pull over to get out and talk. And flirt. There was a junior girl who made a big deal about me being cute and Josh told her to watch it, that I was too young and innocent for her. I mouthed 'thank you' to him. He ended up pulling me aside later and told me, "You need to be ready, because that's going to happen a lot."

About 830, we abandoned cruising and sped out to the party, which was in a pasture on Dave Morrison's place. Dave was a senior and he'd been having parties out there for years. There was the obligatory bonfire though it was still too hot to get anywhere near it. Honestly, it was a lot of fun. Lane and Josh introduced me to the upperclassman who could make my life hell, hopefully sparing me from that. I also drank some beer, but kept it cool except for one incident where I decided to accept Glenn Reynolds headbutt challenge and fell straight back on my ass.

When Glenn finally stopped laughing he helped me up and gave me another beer. "This is my BOY! Josh, your little brother is cool as shit!"

The clock started getting close to 11:30, but Josh already had it under control. Willy and Brent didn't have a curfew at that point so they stayed with Lane while Josh, Alan (who did have a curfew), and GOB took Alan and me back home.

Josh gave me some breath mints before dropping me off and it was a damn good thing he did, because mother was definitely snooping around trying to figure out if I'd been drinking. I told her I had, but that it was just one beer. She smiled, like moms all do, knowing I was lying to her but decided to let it go since I was ambulatory and home on time.

I went upstairs and got into bed with a smile on my face and a light headache. It had been an awesome night and I was glad I went.

The next morning we got up and went to church... just a typical Sunday. When we got back to the house, my father's Escalade was in the front and he was sitting in the front patio when I opened the door.

"Hey kiddo," he said walking in and past me. "Need to talk to your mother."

"She's in the bedroom changing from church."

He let out a long breath, "OK, I'll wait in her office. Why don't you go get changed."

And I took off to get out of the flannel (YES, FLANNEL) pants I was wearing. They looked really hot on me which was also the problem, they were really hot on me. When I came back down, the door to mother's office was closed and I went into the kitchen, picking up a piece of sausage left over from that morning. I guessed this meeting with my dad was the reason Josh and Neil didn't stay over last night.

Maybe 20 minutes later I heard them walking down the hallway. Cat had come in to join me watching 'Dumb and Dumber' and we both got up to hug daddy before he left. Mother then went in the kitchen and started on lunch. A little while later, I went in to help her.

While we were working, I asked her what Daddy's visit was all about.

"Well, I'm going to sell the house. So, I need to list it and he's going to have one of his agents do it."

I sighed a bit, "Yeah, I guess you have to. Otherwise, we'll constantly be thinking we have a way out from Neil and Josh and if they get on our nerves."

My mother just laughed, "No, that's not the reason, but you're very funny, mister."

I just smiled back at her, "I get it mom... I'm OK with it."

We wrapped up prep and finished up lunch. I really do like cooking, mostly because it was something I got to do exclusively with my mother. Even when my father DID cook, he never wanted anyone in the kitchen 'learning his secrets', as if the creation of cream gravy was a great big mystery.

We ate and later that day I went down to Alan's to see how he was doing. Despite the warmth of day, we decided to stay in and play GTA. About an hour in he looked at me, like he wanted to ask a question.

I just looked back at him and said, "Whatever it is, just say it."

He frowned, "Man, I know it's a good thing your mom and Josh's dad are getting married, but I'm going to miss having you down the street."

I sighed, "Word travels fast I guess... Josh?"

"Yeah, he told me last night. Really bummed me out."

"No reason why it should, dude. Remember, in another two months, you and Josh will both be able to drive and you'll probably be over at our house more than here. It'll work out."

He smiled at me, "Man, I'm really proud with how well you're dealing with it."

"Don't be," I said, leaning back on my hands, "I was pretty upset Friday night, but I pulled myself out. I guess the therapy is working."

"It's more than that," he opined. "You're working things out yourself. It's good to see since it means I won't have to worry about you so much."

Laughing, I said, "Fuck you, bitch! I don't need your worry." Which got a laugh out of him as well.

"Seriously, though, it's really good to see. And you handled the party well, too. Girls kept coming up to me asking who you were. I don't think you're going to be able to stay in the closet too much longer."

I knew that was coming. I'd noticed the looks and glances the night before. After the summer, and with help from Josh and Bruce, I'd learned to pick up on stuff like that. I'd also realized that unless I wanted to be 'that guy', I was going to have to deal with the reality of my orientation before too long.

The rest of the day was uneventful. Josh and Neil came with bags to stay for the week and we had dinner together. The second week of two-a-days went better than the first. Wes and I stayed clear of one another and the team started to really come together. Even some of the lazy guys finally got it through their heads that winning or losing was irrelevant, they needed to go full out all the time.

The next weekend there was another party, this time at someone's house. It was fun and now that I knew a few more people, or rather they knew me, it was a lot more enjoyable. School started the next week and it was a big change from middle. For one thing, while I was friends with the jocks, most of the seniors seemed to think it was pick on the fish week. Luckily, someone I knew was usually walking by when I was being harassed and told my assailants to knock it off.

By the end of the week, I was pretty tired. That Friday I got home, took a nap, and we barely made it to the game. Willy actually got to play some and did an awesome job. Josh and Alan both stood out. It was good to see my boys doing well and I was excited for them. I ended up riding back with Neil and mother and made it to bed before collapsing. There wasn't a thing wrong, it had just been a long week and cheering at the game basically took what I had left.

Tuesday was my birthday, so I told mother I wanted to have lunch with just her, Cat, and dad on Sunday, then we could do something with Josh and Neil on Tuesday for dinner.

Sunday rolled around and I woke up feeling great. Church was actually fun now that I got to be in the high school group for Sunday School which was funnier than you might expect. The older kids at my church were some of the most popular in school, one of them, Ben Mitchell, was a senior on the baseball team. We'd met at Dave Morrison's party and were friendly. I started asking him about going out for baseball and he told me the coach already had his eye on me for JV.

Which was cool, but I wanted varsity. I talked to Ben about it and he agreed to help me over the fall get ready for the tryouts which had me pretty excited. While I may have been decent at football, I was good at baseball and I wanted varsity more than anything.

After Church we got home and changed. Daddy was bringing barbecue for lunch so there wasn't anything to cook. I'm actually trying to cut back on the level of detail here because every second of this day is burned into my memory.

My father showed up about 30 minutes after we got home with enough barbecue to feed ten and some presents, presumably for me. The thing is, he was clearly not himself. He was agitated by something and I stupidly just assumed it was me. Mother and Cat didn't seem to notice, or maybe they just didn't care, assuming it was one of Daddy's moods.

We sat down to eat and talked a little. My father wasn't real talkative, as usual, but this time I knew there was something else behind it. We just pretended nothing was wrong which was driving me crazy.

After lunch, mother brought out a birthday cake she'd made for me (pineapple upside down, my favorite, and from scratch no less) and they sang happy birthday. I blew out the candles, we ate the cake, and then I opened presents. Yeah, festivities! At that point, my father asked Cat to go up to her room. Being well fed and wanting to read some book, she complied very easily. I asked if I could go as well.

"No, this concerns you." my father curtly replied.

My mother just looked at him, "Alright, Ed, what has you so bent out of shape?"

My father leaned back in his chair. "I ran into David Hickman when I picked up the food. He asked if I'd been at the game Friday night and I told him no. He went on about how well they played, especially the gay kid. I asked him what he meant by that and he said that Hastings kid, Josh or John or something. 'Boy can really play football even if he is queer'."

Mother just looked at him, "Yeah, Josh is gay. So?"

My father's face turned red, "You mean you knew he was gay and you were still planning to move the kids in with Neil?"

Mother and I both looked at each other and started to laugh. She responded, "Of course I knew he was gay. I've known he was gay for two years."

I added, "Josh was open and honest about it from the day he showed up at school when he moved here, dad."

My father just sat there for a second, then said, "Well, I have a BIG problem with the kids being around him."

My mother just laughed, "Oh stop. You aren't a bigot. My uncle's gay and you never had a problem with him watching the kids when they were little."

"THAT was only for a few hours. Living under the same roof, I'm afraid the kids will pick up ideas and experiment." he responded.

"Ideas?" I asked.

"Yeah, like that maybe you want to be gay, too, based on his influence." my dad answered.

At that point, MY blood pressure went up. Thank God I still had enough of a tan to hide it. I sat there for a second, realizing this was it. My mother started to say something and I said, "Mom, hold up a second." I turned to my father, "I don't need Josh to give me any ideas about being gay. I knew I was a year before he moved here."

And silence. Nothing. Just a blank look on my father's face as I looked at him.

Finally he asked, "What did you say?"

I cleared my throat, "I said, I knew I was gay a year before Josh moved here. I'm gay. And it has absolutely nothing to do with Josh."

"But you date girls. Hell, I thought you were going to go crazy when your girlfriend moved last spring."

I just sat back in my chair, "I was upset because Kami knew and I really loved her AS A FRIEND. She knew when we started going together and she helped me figure out who I really was."

My mother blurted out, "You don't mean..."

"Yes, we had sex. And I knew at that moment that it wasn't right for me. I needed to be sure and that helped me come to terms with my orientation. G-A-Y."

"Oh my God," was pretty much all my mother could manage. I didn't know if she was more upset about my coming out or the admission that her baby was sexually active.

My father got up from the table, "I don't believe you. You know I love you, no matter what, but I simply don't believe you. I think you're trying to cover for your mother and your friend."

"Well, then you're wrong. I'm gay. That's it. You've been told. Now I might as well come out of the damn closet." With that, I got up from the table and before I left the dining room I turned and said, "This is real, dad. I'm being honest. And thanks for making this birthday about the most uncomfortable one I've ever had."

I was up in my room for about 20 minutes before mother came in. I was laying on my bed staring up at the ceiling which was still covered in the stars I'd insisted had to be there four years ago. She sat down next to me. I knew she'd been crying.

I just looked up at her. "Did dad leave?"

"Yes, we talked a little more and nothing is settled. I don't know what he's going to do but this is not going to change our plans."

I smiled at her, "Good."

She took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "You know, I love you unconditionally."

"Yeah, I do. I also know you've been crying. This doesn't mean my life is over, you know?"

She smiled back at me, "I wasn't crying about that, I'm perfectly fine with you being gay. It's not like it's something you can change anyway. It's the sex part. I never wanted you to grow up this fast and now it's like you're on overdrive."

I smiled back at her, "If it helps, it was almost a year ago." I decided now would not be the best time to tell her about Alan. Or Brian. And definitely not about Bruce.

She looked at me questioningly, "We asked you about that. You flat out lied to us?"

I sat up a bit, using the pillows on my bed to prop myself up. "No ma'am, you asked specific questions, not if we'd had sex. The answers to those questions was no. Those rumors were dumb. The Saunders were home when Kami and I supposedly had sex in their bedroom. After they'd gone to bed. It was nonsense."

"OK, I'll buy that," she said with a smile. "But from now on, no sins of omission. I may ask a specific question and I want the unvarnished truth back, not the response I'd get from a lawyer. Understand?"

"Yes ma'am."

About that time Cat walked into my room, "What's going on?"

My mother just smiled at me, "Your brother told your father and me that he's gay."

"Oh, is that all? I knew that already."

I looked at her, "How?"

She smiled, "I saw you kissing Bruce at Neil's and mom's engagement party."

My mother turned to look at me with this questioning look on her face.

"Mom, think about what you're about to ask and decide if you really want to know the answer."

She just smiled, "This is your freebie, kiddo." She stood up, and walked to the door, "Let's give your brother some privacy. I'm sure he has some phone calls to make."

I spent the afternoon letting those who already knew I was gay know that I was now out of the closet. Willy and Brent were thrilled, Alan and Lane not as much. Josh was the only one I told the full story and he just thought it was funny.

"I bet he suspected something was up, subconsciously," he said.

I told him, "No, that's not the way my father works. Trust me, this is going to take him some time to process."

I also called a few of the guys who played football with me to give them a heads up. None of them were weird and they all told me they'd have my back tomorrow. A few of them told me Willy had already called them. My last call was to Darnell.

"Willy already beat you to the punch. He thought I'd be upset or something. Man, you are who are and I don't give a shit. As long as you don't hit on me, we're cool."

I just laughed, "Yeah, that's not going to happen. You're so straight you may as well be a ruler." We both laughed and I told him I'd see him tomorrow.

Josh and Neil came over to spend the week while renovation work started on their house. We had dinner, watched a movie, normal Sunday night stuff. I went to bed early, knowing tomorrow was going to be real shock to some and a big change for me.

Thanks for reading! Any comments can be sent to Don Cornelius. This is really just a hobby for me so flaming me just makes you a douche.