With the beginning of the school year, reality had settled in. The summer had been an idyll because Annie and Jonathan and had been in Goldendale with their boyfriends, North and Jason. The four had spun a bubble of self-sufficiency around them, helping them weather the long illness and death of Jason's father and Jason's coming out as gay. In retrospect, the end of summer was a hiatus before the war to come.
Annie and Jon had returned to Portland, and Jason and North remained at their homes in Goldendale. Jason and North felt the deep friendship that comes with conflict resolved and love freely given. Now, they were trying to help each other through challenges they would find had been clearly underestimated.
Without Jon in reach, Jason's life was tinged with anxiety. North was North — seemingly incapable of anxiety but feeling sullen at Annie's absence. North's parents, two gay men who had raised him for twelve of his fifteen years, and Jason's now-single mother, a member of the Yakama Nation, nurtured the friendship between these unusual boys, North straight and Jason gay.
The school year started rough, and the boys felt increasingly embattled. It was not long before North felt that the year would not, as he had imagined, be about fitting in but about surviving.
Jason had been seen as straight by all his friends and was a linebacker on the high-school football team. His and Jonathan's disclosure of their relationship had embittered many of Jason's teammates. He knew they looked at him now as if he were a traitor, but a traitor to whom?
North had planned to run cross country and track but didn't find a warm reception from the school's current crop of runners. He would run nevertheless, because he loved to run. He would run on the dirt and gravel roads that crossed his family's and the neighboring families' farms, and he would run on the high school's track. He would show them the hind end of a Timberwolf.
Jason had reported to the first football practice in mid-August. The team was running plays without pads in a 3-4 defense. Jason, small for the position, was the outside linebacker on the strong side, and when the ball was snapped, he moved to bump the tight end, which was part of the offense. Suddenly, Jeremy, playing right tackle, came across the line of scrimmage and slammed Jason to the ground, snapping Jason's head back. Steve, the fullback, ran over to help him up. The coach, visibly angry, screamed at Jeremy to get his head out of his ass.
Jason cleared the cobwebs and shakily stood, glaring at Jeremy, who sneered back at him. As practice progressed through the month, the only reason Jason hadn't been beaten badly was that the coach had stepped up to make clear that he wouldn't tolerate crap from anyone on the team. Although the message was given to everyone, it was clearly directed at Jeremy and the others boys who now maligned Jason.
Toward the end of the month, as the first game approached, the coach talked to the team after a practice. After the usual team-building exhortations and instruction, he said, "You need to hear me and hear me clearly. Apparently, you can't manage to behave like a team. You can't tell the difference between your teammates and your opponents. So be it. I'm not going to risk any player's health, no matter how valuable he is to us."
He looked at Jason, who knew not to interrupt. "Here's what's going to happen."
The coach then looked at Steve, the first string fullback. "I'm going to sit any of you who don't have your teammates' backs. That means that key players on both sides of the ball may be sitting on the bench watching the rest of your sorry asses lose every game. I remind you that Columbia's offense uses their tight ends a lot, and if we can't cover them, we might as well not show up. You people had better fix this situation, or I will. Now, get out of here."
Jason had stopped showering in the locker room and left after taking his equipment off. Jason had seriously miscalculated the difficulty of his situation. With Jon here, he could have taken anything. Now, he felt frightened. On his way out though, he heard Steve raising his voice to Jeremy in anger at him.
That same afternoon, North was finishing up on the track at nearly five o'clock when the coach called him over. "Pre, over here!"
North cringed at the nickname. The other runners didn't talk to him and clearly didn't regard him as a full team member. He looked different from the rest of the team, and he ran differently from them. His hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and he was wearing the kind of running clothes he had worn in Portland.
The coach was a no-nonsense woman who, as far as North could tell, knew her business. He thought that working with a female coach was pretty cool. He ran off the track and over to the bench where she sat making notes.
"So, North, I talked to Smith in Portland about how to coach you."
"I could have told you how to do that."
"I didn't want an answer from you, young man."
North sat on the bench and looked at the woman sideways. "Get any good advice, coach?"
"He told me to leave you alone. He said you're an unconventional runner with great physical gifts, but more important, with a good brain and good heart."
"He and I reached an understanding about how he worked with me.
"So he indicated. I may have only a little to teach you about running, but I have a lot to teach you about how to be a runner in Goldendale."
North was quiet for a moment because he knew she was right. "Yes, ma'am."
She smiled at him. He had seen the look a thousand times before. Women always wanted to mother him, to be sure he was safe. His fathers had helped him discourage that desire whenever possible. Girls now reacted to him very differently, and before Annie, he had rarely tried to discourage their desires.
"Why haven't you just left the rest of the team in your dust? You keep just far enough ahead to let them think that they'll eventually catch you."
North thought a moment. "Showing them up would be impolite. Dad tells me that their behavior — their shunning of me — is the result of defective nurturing by their parents. Dad Squared says they're frightened."
"Pre, I don't know about that, but it would be helpful to bring the team together. You have a suggestion?"
"How about winning?"
"That just might work."
The second Monday morning after school started found North in the library during his study period. He felt partly at home there. All school libraries, even modern ones, smell the same, at least the ones that still have more books than screens. North sat at a reading table, paying rapt attention to a library book, albeit one he had borrowed from the Central Multnomah County Library in downtown Portland. He was feeling more and more irritated at his fathers for uprooting and banishing him to the wild east of Klickitat County, more than a hundred miles from the only home he had known. He didn't like feeling as angry as he did; besides, he missed Annie more than he could have imagined. Only Jason's company made living here bearable.
As he read through the last pages of Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, a shadow fell across the pages. One of Jason's teammates, Jeremy, leaned over the table across from him. Jeremy had made himself Jason's and North's tormentor-in-chief and had undertaken a mission to bully them whenever possible. Jeremy's problem was that he was hopelessly overmatched with North.
"What are your two girlfriends up to these days? You getting with Jason and Jonny-boy, Blondie?" North didn't acknowledge the other boy.
"What you reading, Blondie?" Jeremy whispered in his best library whisper.
North tipped the book up so that Jeremy could see the title.
"Trust a fucking fag to read a book about killing children."
North leaned toward Jeremy and whispered, "The title refers to sheep, you moron."
Jeremy's face reddened, but before he could say anything, North raised his voice to a volume easily heard by everyone in the library. "God, Jeremy, I'm straight, man. If you want to know about sex with guys, you'll have to ask someone else. Can anyone here help Jeremy out?"
All of the eyes in the library, including those of the library assistant, turned to Jeremy. Jeremy, who was used to his targets folding succumbing to his attacks, was momentarily disconcerted and left the library hurriedly. North knew there'd be hell to pay later, but he was willing to pay the price.
Jim and Tom were in their home office when the front door slammed. They heard North rummaging for food in the kitchen.
"Let's go beard the lion," Tom said.
Jim raised his eyebrows and shrugged. In the kitchen, Tom reminded North that dinner was only an hour away. North looked at him with as close to a withering look as he could manage.
"Something happen at school?"
"Just the same asshole. I don't like always being in the line of fire. They're going to kill Jason or me before they're through."
Jim pulled North to the dining room table. He and Tom sat on either side of North, and Jim took North's hand in his.
"North, you need to be absolutely honest with me. Do you feel physically unsafe?"
"I don't know what these lunatics will do. They're on Jason all the time. He's a wreck, and I'm not going to let him go down alone."
Jim squeezed North's hand. "If you feel threatened, I'll close up shop in a heartbeat, and we'll move back to Portland."
Tom took the boy's other hand. "You know we will, North. Jason can come with us."
"No, he can't. His mother needs him. He'd never leave her alone. I've never felt this out of place. Can you imagine how Jason feels?" The moment the question passed his lips, North regretted asking. Both his fathers knew exactly how Jason was feeling.
"How did you two do it?" North asked as a tear rolled down his cheek.
Tom placed his palm on the side of the boy's neck and wiped the tear with his thumb. "We couldn't do it alone. We found friends, sometimes in the least likely places. We helped them and they helped us. But, Jim and I were together. You and Annie aren't most of the time, and neither are Jon and Jason."
North sniffled. "Yeah, two is a lot different than four."
After a few minutes of silence, Jim asked, "How do you know that they're all lunatics?"
"Well, let me count the ways. One: no one talks to us. Two: his teammates are using Jason as a punching bag. Three: I can see what those assholes think about you two when they look at me."
Jim sighed, "You two against the world."
"No teachers helping at all?"
"My cross-country coach is all right, but teachers can't do much. Jason and I may be the only kids in that school that listen to them."
Jim continued, "This kid you had the run-in with today? How many others are in your faces like he is?"
"Not many. But they all sit and watch. Jason and I are like bait in a blood sport."
Tom took over, "If you treat them all as enemies, how will you find potential friends?"
"So, you want us just to roll over?"
Tom continued, "No. We didn't raise a spineless idiot. I'm suggesting that you're describing a situation where a small hardcore faction is trying to hurt you. The others are acting like they don't have a dog in the fight. Give them a dog in the fight."
"How? Call a town-hall meeting?"
"No, North. Start picking them off. I'll bet that if a few of them speak up against what Jeremy and his little gang of thugs are doing, then most of the others will follow. Our experience is that most people are decent if you give them a chance."
Jim clapped the boy's shoulder. "You're going to have to help Jason understand how to pull this off. And, be of good cheer. You and Jason will be in Portland this weekend."
One reason that Jim and Tom had moved to Goldendale was to be able to spend more time together. Portland and the hospital at Oregon Health Sciences University were a black hole where Jim's time was concerned, and they weren't happy when they hadn't had enough time together. The move had paid off for them in that regard. They could go horseback riding at Jason's place, cook together in the farmhouse kitchen, and with Jim home long before the usual two in the morning at OHSU, they could have sex regularly. Few people guessed by looking at them going about their days that Jim and Tom were still wild for each other and creative in bed as well as in the many other places in which they played.
Tonight, after dinner, North had cleaned up the kitchen and gone to his room to Skype with Annie. Tom and Jim had used the time to remind themselves that they were lovers as well as parents.
Everyone thought that Jim, an oncologist, supported the family financially, but Tom's work as a writer brought home most of the bacon. His writing allowed Jim to cut back his hours by moving his practice to the slower pace of a small-city hospital at The Dalles.
Lying beside each other later that evening, holding hands in bed after a great romp, Tom turned to look at the man who had lighted up his world for so long now. "Spill."
"I give this two months. If North and Jason can't turn the situation around, we need to go back to Portland."
"I hate to see you go back to that grind, Jim, but we've always put North's welfare first. I don't like what this process is doing to either Jason or North. Let's see if he and Jason can manage what I suggested."
Jim replied, "We shouldn't let this go on much longer."
"We won't, but right now I'd like an encore, please."
In his room, North was Skyping with Annie. He vented almost without stopping about Jeremy's exhibition in the library. When he did stop, he only waited a moment before taking off on a rant about how the football team was treating Jason and how worried he was for Jason's safety.
"Annie, I'm afraid they're going to hurt him seriously."
"Northy, have you talked to your dads?"
North then gave Annie a rundown on Tom's suggestion. "What do you think, Annie?"
"Tom's no fool. You don't like the idea?"
"Why should we have to work so hard to get people to behave decently?"
"The same reason you work at anything. You've always helped people make a community. No reason why the fine citizens of Klickitat County shouldn't benefit. Northy, you can't give up without a fight, and you're smart enough to fight without getting hurt."
"I suppose. I'm just tired, worried about Jason, and horny."
"That I can remedy come Friday night. Jon will have to take care of Jason, though."
Jonathan was in his room at his laptop wishing that he could reach through the data pipe to hug Jason and give him comfort. Jon had never seen Jason so down. He had seen the images of Jason's bruises as they Skyped. Now, his love looked tired, defeated, and Jon couldn't do much to help. He had told Jason that he'd come out to Goldendale and kick some football-player ass. Both of them knew that would be kamikaze.
"Jase, listen to me. You have to quit football. You know that Tom and Jim will bring you and North back to Portland. Cowboy, you're no good to me dead."
"I am not anywhere near dead, city boy — just a little battered. Mama needs me, and I won't leave her in the lurch. Leaving will be bad enough if we go to the UW." Jason pronounced it U Dub.
"There's no if. We're going to Seattle next year, period."
"Enough about my sorry little tale, Jon. How're things with you?"
"Oh, the usual. Defending my chastity against the many studs pounding on my door. I've had to issue Annie a Taser."
"Quite the flower to the bees, are we?"
"Jase! I resent your implication that I'm a flower. You've never been able to wilt me."
"You're a very strong flower, Jon, maybe stronger than I am."
"I'll show you how strong this Friday."
Thursday afternoons were usually taken with long distance, low intensity runs. North liked to run on the road between his family's farmland and Jason's. No one ran with North on these long runs, because he could, and often did, run almost forever. Only one other runner could almost keep up with North. Today, he asked Brent to tag along. Brent was about North's height and had the slender physique typical of long-distance runners. He also had more talent than any of North's other teammates, and North wanted to deploy Jim's and Tom's strategy.
Brent was torn when North asked him along for the run. Most of the team regarded North as suspect at best. Two fathers? Brent couldn't begin to figure how that worked, but some of the guys had seen North's girlfriend, so he probably wasn't gay. Brent also knew the prevailing sentiment that Jason had turned gay because of his association with North and the rest of his Portland contingent. He also knew that North was adopted, and that fact, more than anything else, helped him decide.
"I'm not going to run with you if you're going to beat me to death. I know I can't keep up with you if you won't let me."
"Brent, I'm tired of running alone. I'm not an asshole despite what some may have told you. Besides, you have talent; you're the best this school has. We can help each other."
"You're the best we have. You're some kind of alien with superpowers."
"Apparently I'm some kind of alien, at least judging by how people are treating me."
"That's because of Jason. You know a guy all your life, and then he changes. People are angry."
An inkling of the depth of the feelings of betrayal among Jason's friends dawned on North. They thought Jason had been turned. "My fathers are gay, and they're the best people I've ever known. Don't start some homophobic rant. People don't choose whom they're attracted to and they can't change their natures. Do you want to run, or not?"
They ran north along the city's streets until the streets ended. Then, they cut east and carefully crossed US 97, running north on its shoulder until they could cut east again. The packed-dirt road inclined upward ahead of them. From behind, Brent saw North settle into a rhythm — like a force of nature: no self-doubt and no confusion. He'd have given his left nut to run like that.
The grade steepened, but North's pace remained unchanged until he noticed that Brent was falling behind. He slowed just a little until Brent made up the distance. After five miles of climbing and falling over the broad basalt pillows of the farmland, they stopped and rested, sitting on the roadside.
"Why does she call you Pre?"
"To irritate the shit out of me. She's referring to a runner who would have run me to ground if we had lived at the same time. There's a certain physical resemblance, and she's not the first to notice it. Google Prefontaine."
"Oh, yeah. The guy from Nike."
"Not really. Bowerman was one of his coaches, though."
"How old were you when you were adopted?"
North tried to figure out where the question was coming from. "Three."
"I've got you beat."
"I was six."
"Shit, Brent! That's amazing. I don't know many kids that old who made it out."
Brent saw North's genuine delight. "I thought I'd never find a permanent home. Then, miracle. A couple wanted an older kid. My parents have been so good to me. I was a handful for the first three years. It took me that long to believe that they'd keep me."
"So, you know how I feel about my fathers."
"I do. You're so goddamned special, they must be doing something right."
North tried to guess how much of that comment was sarcastic. "Just like your folks, they do what they think is best for me."
"How do they handle you having a girlfriend?"
"You mean how do they feel about me not being gay?"
"How do your parents feel about you being left-handed?"
"I'm not sure having sex with other guys is the same kind of thing as which hand I prefer."
"A lot of lefties can use their right hands, but throw them something without warning and they catch with their lefts."
Brent frowned and thought.
"Jason didn't change. Who would choose to be treated the way people are treating him? He tried so hard to be straight, but he's not. Now, he knows that to have a happy life, he has to be who he has always been."
North reached to Brent and pulled him up. "Would you like to stop by and meet the dads on the way back?"
"Yeah, I would, North."