Theo Jackson was in heaven.
“They stuck me in remedial English because that bitch Nolan said I plagiarized my Shakespeare paper last year.” Minnie Reynolds spit in the dirt and passed the plump joint to Theo. Minnie was a self-proclaimed goth-girl who, like the entire stupid town of Blackpool, lived about twenty years in the past. Not that she cared. Like her monochromatic wardrobe, Minnie had turned her apathy into an art form by which Theo was frequently awed.
“Duh,” said Theo. He took a long, deep drag and held it in his bird chest for a few seconds before expelling the velvet haze through his teeth with a whistle. “The only original part of that paper was your name.”
“Whose side are you on?” asked Minnie. She hung from the bottom of the bleachers, letting her striped sleeves bunch around her chubby elbows. “Anyways, if Dirty Sanchez hadn’t gotten caught with his hand in the cookie jar, Nolan’d still be out in the annex teaching the cheer squad how to bake the perfect blueberry muffin.”
“Maybe Carrie’s folks will drop the charges,” said Theo. He stood in the shade, enjoying the respite from the last brutal gasps of an unusually hot summer. Even still, Theo’s shirt clung to his back and chest, glued to his skin by sweat.
Minnie cackled, she never laughed. The sound set Theo’s teeth on edge. “Fat chance, cupcake. Three more ‘victims’ came forward claiming he traded them grades for blowies after class.”
Theo passed the joint back to Minnie and cringed as she slobbered all over the tip. “I always miss the good stuff.”
Minnie nodded. “That’s what you get for running off to the big city and leaving us little people behind.”
“I already said I was sorry.”
“No phone call, no emails. Nothing.”
Theo sighed. “It was last minute.”
“I had to find out from your dad that you’d gone to New York,” said Minnie. “You know I hate going to your house. Your mom acts like she wants to drown me in holy water and beat the demons out of me.”
“She does,” said Theo, and he couldn’t help laughing at the mental image of his diminutive mother trying to wrestle Minnie into a tub filled with the spirit of Christ.
“I’m sorry,” said Theo. “What do you want me to do, beg?”
Theo got on one knee in the spongy grass and looked up at Minnie with his most beatific face. His red hair had gotten longer over the summer and he wore it across his eyes like the kids in the City had. “Oh, Minnie, please find it in your cold, black heart to forgive me for running off to New York.”
Minnie Reynolds towered over Theo Jackson like an angry giant before finally grunting and taking another hit off the joint.
“Take it easy with that,” said Theo as he stood up and brushed the dirt from his jeans. “That’s the last of the good stuff.” Minnie took an even bigger hit before passing it back to Theo. He ignored the spit on the end and took a drag, savoring the moment. Pot was the only thing that slowed Theo’s racing thoughts, and the stuff he’d smuggled back from New York–three joints in his underwear–was a hundred times better than the skank weed he got from the Wolfe brothers.
“I really am sorry,” said Theo. “I just…my dad thought that after what happened last year, it’d be good to get away.”
“I get it,” said Minnie. “But you could have told me. Or called. I didn’t even know you were back until you showed up in Chemistry this morning.”
Theo dropped his chin to his chest and tried to look appropriately chastised, though the truth was that he didn’t feel nearly as bad as he knew Minnie wanted him to. “I only got back Saturday.”
Silence descended upon Minnie and Theo as they tried to figure out what to say to each other. Minnie wanted to be angry at her best friend but she couldn’t seem to hold onto the feelings she’d spent all summer cultivating. “Did you at least have fun?”
“You could say that,” said Theo. He busted out his smile, white and crooked and perfect. His mother said he had a smile like a used car salesman, and Theo had been using it to his advantage since the day he was born. “Aunt Julia woke up at 5am every single morning, singing Janis Joplin.”
“Some crazy hippie chick who OD’d on heroin.”
Minnie shrugged and Theo wasn’t surprised she’d never heard of Janis. Minnie’s favorite bands had names like The Entertaining Entrails, and My Heart Beats Black Blood.
“But, yeah, I had a good time.”
“That’s it?” asked Minnie. “No details?”
“You get laid?”
Theo dropped the joint and scrambled to pick it back up. “No! Jeez, Minnie.”
“I went to plays and museums and a couple of clubs,” said Theo. “It was only crazy orgies and Bacchanalian feasts of depravity on the weekends.”
Minnie snatched the joint and lit it with a flashy Zippo Theo suspected she only kept because she was a secret pyromaniac. “You are such a homo.”
Theo ignored Minnie. The truth was that the summer had been the best of his life. Aunt Julia had made him work at her bookstore a couple of days a week–stocking shelves and stuff–but Theo had gotten to see what the world outside of Blackpool looked like. It was big and colorful and made for someone like him in ways that Blackpool never could be. Boarding the plane and returning home had been more difficult for Theo than he was willing to admit. There were few things in Blackpool worth returning for, and one of those, he wasn’t even totally sure about.
“I’m taking Theatre,” said Theo to change the subject.
Minnie groaned. “I thought you wanted things to be different this year.”
“The town queer joining theatre? Can’t be much more of a stereotype than that. Might as well start wearing skirts.”
Theo wanted to tell Minnie the truth, but he couldn’t. He’d made a promise and wouldn’t break it. She was only looking out for him and Theo knew it. But he’d come back from New York filled with so much hope for the future. The whole world wasn’t Blackpool, and Blackpool wasn’t the whole world. Theo Jackson knew who he was, the rest didn’t matter.
“I worry about you, cupcake,” said Minnie. Her face softened, though only someone who knew her could see it under the miles of eyeliner and black mascara. “Everyone around here acts like it’s us or them, and to people in this town, you’ll always be a them.”
“This year’s going to be different,” said Theo. “I can feel it.” Theo’s life was a map. It didn’t matter what anyone said or did, he couldn’t fold it back into the nice neat square it had been three months ago.
“I still love you,” said Minnie.
“I wish I were more like you,” said Theo. “No one screws with you.”
“That’s because they’re afraid I’ll eat them.” Minnie chomped at the air viciously. “Come on, Shakespeare, I’ll give you a ride home.”
Theo held up his hands. “I’d rather belly flop into a pool of hypodermic needles.”
“Asshole.” Minnie flicked the used up joint to the grass and slung her huge black backpack over her shoulder.
“Kidding!” said Theo. He jogged a couple of steps to catch up to Minnie. “Cross country starts in a couple of weeks and I’m out of shape.”
Minnie barely glanced at Theo. “You’re such a jock.”
“Fine,” said Minnie. “Be that way.” Minnie ducked under a support beam and stomped toward the parking lot, leaving Theo behind.
“I’ll call you tonight!” shouted Theo. If Minnie Reynolds had heard him, she gave no indication. Theo waited until she was gone before scurrying back to where she’d tossed the spent end of the joint. It was blackened and waxy, but to Theo it was precious. It connected him to a world where he wasn’t Theo Jackson the town queer, a world where he was just Theo Jackson, a kid with a weird accent and two left feet.
Theo tucked the joint into his pocket and jogged to the locker room to change. When he returned, the sun burned his bare arms like someone above was focusing it on him through a huge magnifying glass. He’d left behind his tight jeans and yellow shirt in favor of running shorts and a loose tee. On days like this, most of the other guys went shirtless, but Theo was too self-conscious of his pale skin and bony chest. Maybe if he were alone, he’d go for it, but Coach Rubidoux had the football team doing two-a-days in the run-up to the start of the season, and he knew they’d be out on the field until after dark.
Cross country didn’t start for another couple of months, but Theo was out of shape. He spent longer than normal stretching the summer out of his legs. His routine of sleeping late, spending the afternoons exploring art museums and tiny forgotten neighborhoods, and then dancing with friends until dawn hadn’t left a lot of room in his schedule for running.
On the other side of the field, Coach Rubidoux blew his whistle and screamed at Jed Wolfe. Even from the track, Theo knew it was Jed by the cocky way he stood with his shoulders tilted to one side like it was too much effort to stand up completely straight. Plus, he was the quarterback of the Jefferson Davis Lions, flanked by his boys: Will Asendorf, Rob Langdon, and Charlie Hudson. The whole time Coach yelled, Jed just stood there like it was a joke, which infuriated Coach Rubidoux even more.
When Theo felt good and loose, he started his laps. At first, his legs felt wobbly, but muscle memory kicked in and, by the third lap, Theo was lost in the rhythm of his heartbeat and footfalls and easy, steady breaths. Running was one of the few things Theo truly loved doing and he wished he’d kept it up over the summer. He was beginning to feel winded after only a couple of miles. Mr. Jackson frequently joked about Theo being allergic to sports, but running belonged to Theo. And it had saved his hide more than once.
It was nearly sunset when Theo couldn’t run anymore. His legs were numb and his chest hurt, a sure sign he was out of shape. But he felt good. It was all those endorphins Coach Haskins lectured the team about when they were having a rough training day. Frankly, Theo loved the feeling. It reminded him of that second wave of energy he’d gotten at 2am in the city when he didn’t think he could dance to one more song or go to one more party. Coach Haskins said that endorphins reminded people they were alive.
Theo loved being alive.
The Lions were still running drills, so Theo trotted around the field to get to the locker room. He felt good about his first day of school. He was still in a lot of remedial classes because he couldn’t keep up with his homework, but he had Theatre to look forward to, and Mrs. McClendon’s Trig class seemed okay. Math was about the only subject Theo didn’t mind. Numbers were constant, and that made them easy to understand.
Theo was walking past the bleachers, imagining he could still smell the lingering scent of marijuana in the air, when Jed Wolfe yelled, “Go long!”
Charlie Hudson was running toward him, a grim expression on his face. It was a face Theo had spent all last year memorizing. The dimple on his left cheek when he smiled, the scar at his hairline, the way his right eye drooped slightly. It was too bad that Charlie was in with Jed Wolfe’s crew. They were trouble and everyone knew it. Charlie’s older brother, Seth Hudson, was in jail on account of the Wolfe’s, and Theo hoped Charlie didn’t travel the same road.
Theo was so busy watching Charlie run, that he didn’t see the football. Hadn’t even known Jed had thrown it until it smashed into the side of his head and he crumpled to the ground.
“Go long!” shouted Jed Wolfe. Charlie wasn’t a receiver. In fact, he wasn’t much of a football player at all. The only reason Coach Rubidoux kept him around was because he showed up to every practice, worked hard, and Coach knew he spent as much time away from home as possible. But when Jed told him to do something, Charlie did it, especially on the field.
Sweat dripped down Charlie’s forehead and into his eyes, making it practically impossible to see. The last thing Charlie wanted to do was run. It was hot as balls and Charlie was practically salivating to get under a cold shower.
“Longer, pansy!” shouted Jed.
Charlie wanted to strangle Jed with his shoelaces.
Jed Wolfe cocked his arm back and threw the perfect spiral. There were a lot of things Charlie hated about Jed, but he couldn’t deny that the kid had skill. As a team, he and Will Asendorf, the Lion’s running back, were nearly unstoppable. For the first time in a decade, sports fans in Blackpool thought they might actually have a chance at a state championship.
But as the ball sailed through the air, Charlie knew Jed had missed his target. Charlie stopped running and watched the ball spiral through the air in a graceful arc that terminated at Theo Jackson’s head. The kid barely had a chance to look up when the ball slammed into the side of his skull like a missile. Charlie glanced back and saw the guys on the team laughing their asses off. Maybe Jed hadn’t missed after all.
Theo collapsed in a heap and Charlie ran the last few feet, hopping the fence to help him up.
“I’m fine,” said Theo, though clearly he wasn’t. Charlie tried to say something, but Theo took off before he could. Charlie hopped the fence and trotted back to where Coach was screaming so loud, it was likely half of Blackpool could hear him.
They ran laps until exhaustion wiped the smile off of Jed Wolfe’s face.
“Why you gotta be such a dick?” asked Charlie as he stuffed his pads back into his locker.
Jed Wolfe wasn’t much to look at, but girls loved him anyway. What God had withheld in good looks, he’d made up for in pure ego. “What the fuck you care for?”
Charlie shrugged. “You know my mom’s gonna bust my balls for coming home late.”
Rob Langdon started a chorus of “Momma’s Boy” which was quickly taken up by the whole team. Of all the guys that hung around with Jed, Charlie liked Rob the best, but not right at that moment.
Jed grabbed Charlie around the neck and shoved his sweaty jock strap in his face. “You got a new boyfriend, Charlie? You in love?”
Charlie grappled with Jed and finally shoved him away. “Fuck off, Wolfe. The kid’s a fag, I just hate running laps on account of your sorry ass.”
Will Asendorf snapped Rob with a towel and Coach Rubidoux shouted at them to clean up and get the hell out.
Theo stood under the hot water until his head stopped throbbing, which felt like forever. He didn’t want to be in the showers when Jed and the rest of the team showed up, but he felt like he was going to puke and didn’t want to leave until the feeling passed.
Theo hated Blackpool and he hated Jed Wolfe and he hated being a target for the assholes like him. He’d wanted the year to be different but it was clear that nothing had changed. He knew he should have stayed in New York. He and his father had even talked about.
When the water ran cold, Theo finally turned it off and wrapped himself in a towel. His head still felt like there was rotten fruit under his skull, but it was bearable. He thought about calling his dad to pick him up, but decided the fresh air might be good medicine.
Theo tried to get dressed before practice ended but he knew he hadn’t been fast enough when he heard the team thunder into the locker room like an army of misfit toys, yelling and laughing and throwing their gear around. Theo grabbed his backpack and ducked into a toilet stall, praying that no one would find him. His head pounded with every heavy beat of his heart.
Theo’s wobbly legs felt weak as he crouched on the toilet, holding himself still and steady.
It was an hour before he locker room went quiet. The lights were still on but Theo figured it was safe to come out of his hiding spot. His mother was going to kill him for missing dinner, but he got the feeling that she’d actually liked not having him around to worry about all summer. Even so, Theo didn’t want to press his luck.
Theo opened the bathroom stall and found himself face-to-face with Charlie Hudson. Water dripped from Charlie’s short blond hair and he looked just as surprised as Theo imagined he himself did. The boys stared at one another as though they were daring each other to be the one to break the silence. Theo refused to speak first.
“Sorry about Jed,” said Charlie. His voice felt loud in the empty locker room.
“Whatever,” said Theo. He tried to sound casual, but his voice broke and ruined the attempt at false bravado.
“He’s a jerk.”
I didn’t know he was gonna do that.”
“It’s cool.” Theo gulped and then said, “I missed you, Charlie.”
Charlie grinned and pushed Theo back into the stall. “I missed you too.” Charlie wrapped his arms around Theo and kissed him until the lights in the locker room went out.