Being 12 was hard. There were many reasons for that, but a lot of them fell into a single category, as Ben Hathaway saw it: change. Everything, big and small, seemed to be changing. And he didn’t like that one bit.
He was in a new school this year—a first-year, middle-school kid with mostly older kids inhabiting the sprawling building. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his parents had divorced two months previously, and he was now living with his mother in a new house. It was in a nicer part of town than where they’d been before, but still...
So, new school, new neighborhood that he still hadn’t learned his way around, no friends in the neighborhood or the school, and, maybe worst, a new place to live without his dad in the house.
Those were just some of the changes. Maybe even the less-important ones. He was changing as well. Not just the obvious ones he encountered when he was taking a shower or changing into his pajamas at night. He’d expected those changes, and they were happening, slowly, but right on schedule according to what he was learning in his Sex Ed classes. Still, it took some getting used to. However, he didn’t find those physical transformations as bothersome as what else seemed to be changing.
He’d been just like all his friends before all this development began. He’d liked the same things, the same games and activities and people and movies and jokes and such. They’d all been on the same page. Now, well, he thought he was changing in ways his old friends probably weren’t. Probably not in the ways the new friends he’d probably make at this new school were changing, either.
He got ready for bed, slipping off his clothes and dropping them wherever, while reaching for his pajamas. He hesitated before pulling them on. It was a warm night, and as he felt so often now when going to bed, there was an excitement coursing through him. He wondered what it would feel like to slide under his top sheet naked.
There, that kind of feeling—something else that had changed. Sex Ed hadn’t prepared him for the depth of the feelings he was having these days. Urges that had been whispers before were suddenly shouts, demanding his attention. Not just at night, either.
He dropped his pajamas, and feeling deliciously naughty, pulled back the bedspread and light blanket. He’d only need his thin sheet tonight. He slid into bed and slowly pulled the sheet over him, feeling it glide across his body.
All this was so new. What came next was also new and was the change he was most concerned about. He knew it was about to happen, and it did. As soon as he closed his eyes, his imagination took over. And where it went was where he knew it would go because it had been going there for the past two weeks, since his first day of the school year.
Crew Carson. That was the boy’s name. Ben had a crush on Crew Carson that was larger than anything he’d felt before. It was almost more than he could handle. It was overpowering, all-consuming, and unless he forced himself not to think of him, Crew was in Ben’s mind most of the day and at night when he was trying to sleep. And in the morning when he woke up. Crew Carson.
He’d had crushes before, of course, on both boys and girls. They usually lasted a week or even two, then gradually faded away when a new person caught his eye and imagination. But this crush on Crew wasn’t like that. It had hit him with the force of a cannonball and had never lost its impact.
School had started the last week in August. He had Crew in most of his classes. Whereas Ben was about the same size, give or take, as most of his peers, Crew was somewhat taller. Ben had almost white-blond hair, a pallid complexion with rosy cheeks that embarrassed him, and bright blue eyes; he thought himself terribly uninteresting-looking—rather like a piece of plain white bread. He wished he had the exotic looks of Crew, who was dark with bronzed olive skin, almost-black hair that in bright sunlight showed variable shades of deep-brown and almost-purple tints among its many shades of ebony. His eyes were dark, too, coordinated with his hair. Ben was disappointed he was so very blah, with his washed out features—even while his mother assured him he was cute, cute as a bug, she said—and he felt Crew was simply the most handsome boy he’d ever seen.
They had different personalities, too. Ben was reticent and happy to be in the shadows, unnoticed and uninvolved. Crew was effervescent and, due to his looks or charismatic personality or both, most often at the center of whatever was going on. Other kids were drawn to him. Ben didn’t mind how that worked because, while he stood in those shadows, he was free to watch Crew all day long with no one noticing. And, that was what he did.
From the first time Ben had seen Crew, Ben had been smitten. Ben had first laid his eyes on Crew on the first day of school when Crew had entered a classroom where Ben was already seated—in the back, where he always tried to sit. Ben had felt his stomach lurch and his eyes latch onto the boy. He’d had the same reaction ever after.
Now, a couple of weeks into the school term, Crew was in his thoughts almost constantly—and often painfully. At night, it was usually the same. Ben couldn’t get him out of his mind and just accepted the fact the boy would accompany him to the land of Nod, and so he allowed his mind to drift where it would—
Crew was on a raft with him, floating down a wide, slow-moving river with leafy forest on both sides, just the two of them. It was hot, and Crew convinced Ben that removing their clothing, allowing the breeze to kiss their skin, would make them feel much better. Ben had seen the wisdom in this and shucked his clothes, then turned and saw Crew equally naked. Crew became aroused looking at Ben, which caused the same reaction in Ben, and almost as if by magnetism the two boys began walking toward each other—
Or, they’d built a tree house, and Crew had been working on nailing down the floor while Ben was below, fastening the cut-up pieces of two by fours to the tree, which would act as steps up to the floor where Crew worked. When Ben had looked up, he realized he could see almost all the way into the shorts Crew was wearing. He could see no hint of underwear; Crew was going commando that day, and Ben couldn’t pull his eyes away. Eventually, Crew glanced down at him, and a slow smile spread across his face. Crew slowly moved his leg, opening the restricted view Ben had so he could see all of Crew’s—
Or, there was a school dance for the freshman class and everyone was there, even Con Gower, who had the reputation of being the class bully. They were all dressed up—the boys in sports jackets and ties, the girls in pretty dresses. Ben was on the sidelines, as usual, wondering why he had no desire to ask any of the girls to dance with him, knowing the person he wanted to dance with would be horrified if Ben approached him. Then, to his surprise, Crew materialized in front of him and said, “Could I have this dance. I can’t take my eyes off of you. You’re the most attractive person in the room! I want you in my arms.” Ben blushed and demurely accepted, but when they were dancing, and he’d been in Crew’s arms, he became too excited by the feel and smell of the boy and the inevitable happened. He tried to hide it, but moving closer to Crew would have meant he’d feel it. Then Con Gower of all people saw it and said, “Look everyone, the fag is hard,” and that’s when Crew slugged Con in the stomach, dropping the bully to his knees. When people turned to look, Crew stepped back in front of Ben to screen his predicament and said, “Con was talking about me,” and pointed to his own crotch where there was an obvious—
Or, the bombs were exploding in the distance, getting nearer. The class was all huddled out in the main corridor against the walls, away from the glass in the windows. “This is it,” Mrs. Handratty said. “I think the war’s finally found us. I pray you all survive.” Ben was scared to death hearing the planes, hearing the bombs, and then Crew was with him, sliding down to sit next to him on the floor, taking Ben in his arms. “If we’re going to die, we’re going to die together!” he said and leaned over and kissed Ben. When he did this, his hand slipped onto Ben’s lap, and even with all the other kids watching he could feel himself getting—
The bright sun coming through the windows woke him. Something felt different, and then he realized he was naked under the sheet. He’d done it! He’d slept without wearing his PJs! Then he saw them lying on the floor and had the terrible thought that if his mother came in to wake him, she’d see them, too.
He glanced at the clock and saw it was about the time she’d come in if he wasn’t already up. He jumped out of bed and was reaching down for his pajamas when he heard footsteps. Then the door opened, and he heard, “Oops! Sorry dear.”
“You’re supposed to knock!” Ben said, angrily. “Here, I just took off my jammies to get dressed and in you walk. At least I was turned around! You’ve got to knock and wait for me to say it’s OK!”
“All right. I said I was sorry. It’s not as if I don’t know what naked boys look like!”
“You don’t know what this naked boy looks like, at least from the front, and I plan on keeping it that way!”
“Well, he looks fine from the back,” she laughed, teasingly.
“Mom!” he shouted in exasperation.
She gently closed the door as she left, but he could hear her still chuckling.
So daydreaming about Crew, crushing on him really hard, was one of the changes Ben was experiencing, one of the most affecting and confusing. He was still trying to decide, however, whether it was one he did or didn’t like. He was still working on that.
He’d thought his crush on Crew would be a transitory thing, like the others he’d had. It wasn’t, though. Its intensity had waned a bit, but his feelings were still strong. His crushes on both boys and girls were now a single crush on a single boy. The ones on girls simply were no longer happening. It was just boys. Well, that wasn’t true, either. It was one boy, and it was hotter than anything he’d ever felt. That was taking him some effort to get used to.
Ben remembered the assembly at school the first week of the school year. Everyone had been there and informed of the anti-bullying policy at the school, which was strict. No physical bullying and no verbal bullying. No social-media bullying, either. There’d been a lot of talk about religious and sexual orientation and racial differences, but what was emphasized was how the kids all had more in common with each other than things that separated them, and they all had the right to be comfortable in their own skins and their own school. There was talk about how, at their age, learning to accept the differences in people and finding the common ground was one of the most important things they’d be doing in their time at this school.
Ben had been surprised at what came next. The principal had called several kids up onto the stage to speak. One had been a girl who was wearing a head scarf. She was a Muslim. She answered some questions from both the principal and the audience. She seemed outgoing and not a bit shy about speaking to the large group of kids.
There was a black boy who did the same and also wasn’t intimidated by standing in front of the group. He was his class’s president and student-council rep. He was the editor of the school’s paper, and he said he was hoping to get into Harvard after high school.
And to Ben’s great surprise, there was a boy who told them he was gay. He stood up on the stage in front of everyone and said he was gay! Ben just stared at him, wondering how he had the courage to do that. The boy also said he was the first-string keeper on the school’s soccer team and that he was on the school’s debate team as well, so being gay was just one other thing in a long list of things describing him. Ben had seen him in the cafeteria and outside before and after school and knew from the large group of kids that were always around him that he was a popular kid.
As were the other two kids.
Ben was impressed with this school. There was an air of friendliness about it. Oh, there were some kids like Con Gower, but they were the exception, and they came in with a reputation from their elementary schools and so were closely watched.
School was school, except now all the students moved from classroom to classroom rather than staying in one place all day. Crew was in some of his classes, not in others. Ben found it much easier to concentrate on the lessons being taught when he didn’t have the distraction Crew caused. He still saw him in the cafeteria, however, and they had the same gym class, so he saw him there, too.
They had social studies together, and Mr. Turner assigned a project for the term. Ben was hoping he’d get paired with Crew for his, but he got a girl instead. He watched Crew and the boy he was working with, heads together, talking and planning and working, and he sighed. Why not him? Because, as much as his imagination at night took him places with Crew that were often clothing-optional, he realized that what he really wanted with Crew more than anything was to be able to spend time with him, talk to him, maybe play video games with him. Just hang out with him. Just get to know him. Just to be friends.
“What are you looking at?” Marti asked him. “You aren’t even listening to me!”
Ben blushed. “Sorry. I’ve got a saxophone lesson after school, and I haven’t been practicing, and I’m going to get reamed.”
Marti looked at him skeptically. “I’m in the band. I’ve never seen you in there.”
“Oh, I’m just beginning. Maybe next year I’ll be good enough.”
She stared at him a moment, seeing his blush, reading his body language. “What’s your teacher’s name?”
Just then Mr. Turner was wandering by, and overhearing her, asked, “Are you two working on the project? A working outline is due in two weeks. Some groups are ready to start writing already. You need to spend your time together productively.”
And so Ben never had to tell her the name of his nonexistent sax teacher.
Gym class sucked. And was thrilling. But mostly it sucked. The thrilling part was showering. It meant he saw Crew in the almost-altogether. Not totally, because most of the boys were shy and kept their underwear on or changed into a bathing suit under a towel. Ben did that once he saw others doing it, and Crew did as well. But Ben did get to see Crew’s body—how his muscles moved when he walked; how he didn’t have any more hair in his pits than Ben did; how his ribs were barely visible yet there, showing he had a little meat on his bones—just not much; how flat his tummy was; how his arms were starting to show just a bit of definition. It was enough to fuel a whole new set of fantasies at night.
The other exciting part was seeing Crew doing all the stuff most of the other boys were doing and doing it better than they were. Crew was an athlete! A good one, too. No matter what the activity was—basketball, dodgeball, volleyball, rope climbing, soccer, calisthenics, touch football, whatever—Crew was a natural. He had the strength and grace and body control to look good doing them all, and Ben surreptitiously spent a lot of time watching him, marveling at him. So much time the coach would occasionally yell at him to get with it.
The sucking part was all the rest. The fact was, Ben was crap at team sports. No matter what it was, he didn’t seem to fit in. The other kids learned about this right away. He wasn’t the only kid who was uncoordinated and unmotivated, so he wasn’t always picked last, but was in the last four or five picked every time.
When he had to participate, he did so in a desultory sort of way. The coach noticed.
“Ben, stop and see me in my office when you’re dressed,” Coach Hubbard said one day when Ben walked out of the showers, his towel wrapped around his bathing-suit-covered loins. Ben dressed hurriedly and knocked on the open door to the coach’s office. He was sure he was going to get chewed out for his lack of enthusiasm.
“Come in. Close the door, please.” When a nervous Ben was seated in the chair the coach had pointed to, the coach smiled at him. “I’ve been watching you,” he said.
“No, nothing’s wrong. I just wanted to talk to you. I see you’re not very interested in the games we play here during gym class. That’s OK. Some boys are; some aren’t. I watch all the boys, and you’re not alone. But most boys are good at something, and you do have a talent. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
Ben’s heart was still beating fast from his nervousness, which made it hard for him to think. He wasn’t good at talking to adults. So, rather than try to figure this out, he merely said, “No.”
The coach laughed. “Why did I think that’s what you’d say? As I said, I’ve been watching you. You remind me of someone.” He paused for effect, then said, “Me. I was like you when I was just starting middle school. It’s a time in life where we start learning who we are. When we find what we’re good at and what we enjoy doing. Often those are the same thing. I know something you do well. I don’t know if you enjoy it. Your face rarely gives much away about how you’re feeling.”
Coach Hubbard stopped, and Ben squirmed in his chair, remaining silent. The coach nodded as if that’s what he had expected. “What you do well, better than most in this class, is running. Every time we do laps, I watch your form. You have natural talent for running. I’d like you to consider going out for our track team. Do you think you’d be interested in that?”
Ben was shocked. Good at running? Sure, he could run. All boys could. He’d never considered he was better than the others at it. He thought back and remembered the last time they’d run laps outside. It was a quarter-mile track, and they had to run around it twice. They’d all started in a pack together, which had bothered him. He didn’t like being in the middle of a bunch of boys, all swinging their arms and elbows and unconcerned about where they were swinging them. He jogged with the rest for only a short time before he saw an opening in front of him, an escape route. He put on some speed and ran through the pack to an open track. Then, to keep ahead of all the rest, he just continued to stay in front, running at whatever pace was required. It hadn’t been difficult. Was this what the coach had seen? He hadn’t been that fast, just faster than the rest, and only because he hated being in the middle.
The coach was looking at him. Waiting.
“Uh, I don’t know, Coach. I mean, I’ve never even thought about something like that. On a team? With all those other athletes? The good ones?” He immediately thought of the sort of boy who’d be on such a team, big guys, rough guys, muscled and older guys—ones who’d undoubtedly look down on a shrimp like him. Make belittling comments.
“Uh, well, thanks, Coach, but I don’t think so. Nice of you to ask, however.” He stood up, ready to leave. The coach motioned for him to sit down again.
“Ben,” he said, speaking a little softer, “remember when I said you remind me of me? Well, let me tell you a story. A true story. When I was in high school, I became friends with a boy in my class. He was really good at many things, most of the things I was very bad at. What he did best was to believe in himself. That was what I was worst at. The one thing I could do was running. My friend knew that, and he started pushing me. Not by forcing me to do anything; he was more subtle than that. He pushed me by complimenting me. Telling me how good I was. He was on the track team and very successful. He told me I could be, too, if I’d just try. I didn’t want to. The thought of it tied me in knots. Then he told me that the team’s best runner wasn’t going to be able to compete because his grades were bad, and they needed someone to take his place just so we had enough bodies on the team. He pleaded with me to join and told me he’d be sure I was accepted by everyone, that no one would expect me to be a star or anything like that.
“Well, it was hard for me, but I felt I was doing this for him, and he’d done a lot for me. So, I let him convince me to join the team. I only agreed because he wanted me there and was there himself. When I started training with the group, I learned something. They were all just kids like I was. The coaches didn’t yell at us and criticize us; they worked with us, supported us, taught us how to run better. I found out all my fears had been only that, fears, and I started enjoying being with the other kids.
“My friend pushed me and was there with me, and I found I liked working hard, and by the time we finished high school, I’d set a state record in the 880. You know how I was able to do that, besides the hard practice I put in?”
Ben shook his head.
“I could do it because I joined the track team. That was how.”
Ben looked at him, but he could see the coach was done. Ben stood up, turned to see if he’d be waved back down, and when he wasn’t, he opened the door. Then, just as he was leaving, he turned back to the coach and asked, “What about your friend? Do you still know him?”
He saw the coach hesitate for a moment, then looked him in the eye. “We’re still friends. We even went to the same college. Now, we share an apartment.”
During the next gym class, the coach sidled up to Ben when he was alone and asked, “Have you given the track team any more thought?”
As a matter of fact, Ben had. He’d never been told he was good at anything before, and certainly not at anything athletic. He thought about that a lot. He actually sort of wanted to do it. But even more, he sort of didn’t want to be involved in something like that. He was sure he’d be the worst on the team and would be scorned by the others. He couldn’t face that. But of course he couldn’t tell the coach that.
“I don’t think so, coach. I kinda want to, but, well, no.”
Coach Hubbard nodded. “Well, then, I want to tell you something. We have an outdoor track, as you know. We also have an indoor one, up above the swimming pool, circling around behind the bleachers up near the ceiling. I’m giving you permission to use either one any time you want. I think you should practice—every day if you can—and if I can’t get you to do it with a team and with our coaching, at least you should do it by yourself. So both tracks are available for you. It’s up to you whether you take advantage of them. I’m trying to help you like my friend helped me. This is the best I can do.”
The snow came early, during the first week of December. It was still warm enough that the snow was damp, and so it was good for making snowmen, snow forts, and, of course, snowballs. It snowed heavily one Thursday night, and Ben woke to the news school had been cancelled.
His mother still made him get up. “You’re not lazing around like you do on the weekends. If you’ve got nothing to do, I’ll find something. But maybe you’d like to take your sled over to Boardman’s Hill. I saw a couple of neighborhood kids walking down our street dragging sleds behind them, and that’s probably where they were headed. Maybe you could even make a friend.” She paused a moment before sighing. “Like that’s going to happen.”
She said the last with mixed emotions, sarcasm dancing with regret, and patience trying to cut in. He smiled at her because he knew she deserved his smile. He wasn’t the easiest kid to put up with, and she did OK. She had to be mother and father to him now, and she tried. He hadn’t even talked on the phone with his dad since the divorce. The man had just disappeared.
Ben knew Boardman’s Hill. Their street ended in a cross street that ran parallel with the edge of a steep escarpment that ran down a couple of hundred feet to a river at the bottom. In many places, it was as steep as a cliff face, like at the end of Ben’s street where it was way too sheer even to try to climb down. However, a few blocks to the south, the decline was much gentler, and there was a narrow trail ending at the flat area near the river. Rather than lead straight down the side of the hill, the trail cut across the side of it to reduce the steepness of the drop. What made it so picturesque were the trees bordering each side of the path. Loner that he was, Ben had explored the neighborhood by now and once even walked all the way down to the river following the trail. The trek back up tired him out. It was a long way.
He’d heard that it was called Boardman’s Hill and that a lot of kids used it to get to the river and the flats surrounding it in the summer. Thinking what it must look like covered in snow, he wasn’t surprised that it would be a popular sledding spot.
After breakfast, his mother did the dishes and then looked at him. He knew she’d meant it about chores, so he quickly found his coat, boots and gloves, pulled them all on and said, “Be back by lunch.”
“Have fun,” she returned, watching him walk out the door.
He found his sled in the garage in a large box they hadn’t got around to emptying. Looking around, he saw several boxes like that and grinned, realizing what chore he’d avoided.
It was early enough in the day that there were only a few kids at the hill. They were scattered all over, some at the top ready to ride down, some on their sleds already partway down the hill, some trudging the long way back up and a few standing about halfway down where there was a broad flat area without any trees, a place to rest on the way back up or do whatever a kid wanted to do.
Ben pulled his hood up to keep his ears warm. To keep himself unrecognizable, too, but he did that by instinct rather than by conscious thought. Kids were lining up, taking turns, and he got behind the last kid, one he recognized from school. Timothy, he thought. Small, kind of wispy kid who was really quiet in school and often had a vague sort of look of incomprehension on his face. Well, Ben couldn’t hold that against him. He was that way, too. Except for the look, of course.
When it was his turn, with Timothy about half way down, Ben took a couple of running steps and launched himself head first, flat on his stomach on the sled. The path wasn’t too steep at the top but dropped faster partway down. The sled ride was long and thrilling, the best ride Ben had ever had. The trees on both sides of the path flew past, and as he came to the flatter area halfway down, he saw several kids there, and then, to his surprise, he saw Crew was one of them. He slid on, came to the steepest part of the trail and nearly flew. The path gradually flattened out as it neared the river, and the ride eventually came to an end.
He rolled off the sled, beaming. What a ride! Then, realizing another sled was coming, he got up, grabbed the rope attached to his sled, stepped to the side of the path and began the long hike up.
As he walked, watching Timothy a few yards in front of him, he realized he’d soon be passing by where Crew was. The thought excited him. Would he be brave enough to talk to Crew? Would Crew talk to him? He probably would; Crew was friendly with everyone. The only real question was, would Ben be so tongue-tied in Crew’s presence he’d act like a dork?
When he’d almost reached the midway plateau, he heard Crew’s voice. “Hey, Timmy! Come over here. This is neat!”
Timothy turned off the hill and moved out of sight. Ben kept walking and then came to the flat area where a few kids appeared to be busy doing something in the snow. He was going to stop and watch but saw Crew, and his heart began beating faster than it already was because of the climb. He had started up the hill again when he heard, “Hey, uh, you’re Ben, aren’t you? Ben, come help us.”
Crew was talking to him, but even better, Crew knew his name!
Ben turned and stepped away from the hill onto the flat area. There were five kids there. Crew came over to him. “We’re building two snow forts so we can have a snowball war. Come help us. With you, we have six guys, so can have even teams. Come on.”
Crew turned to go back to where the forts were being built. Three kids were carrying snow to where they were building a wall, patting the new snow into place. Another kid was working on another construction a short distance away from the first. Crew led Ben there. “This is Peter,” he said, introducing Ben to the other kid. “And Peter, this is Ben. That’s right, isn’t it?” he said, looking at Ben.
Ben finally had to speak. “Yes,” he said. “Ben Hathaway.”
Crew seemed to take it for granted that Ben knew who he was. “OK, we three will be against those three. Let’s get this fort built and then have ourselves a war!”
Ben started helping. Building a snow fort from dampish, heavy snow was pretty easy, and working together with Crew was much easier than talking to him. It all seemed so natural! In only a few minutes, they’d finished the building part and Crew had them begin making snowballs.
“Uh, I’m not real good at throwing,” Ben said to Crew, trying to pack snowballs and finding they kept falling apart.
Crew watched him, then said, “You’re not using enough snow and you’re squeezing and twisting at the same time. You’ve never done this before, have you?”
Ben dropped his eyes. He was a failure, and in front of Crew!
Crew didn’t seem upset at all. Instead, as upbeat as Ben had always seem him to be, he said, “Well, if you can’t be our armaments man and keep us stocked in ammo, you’ll have to be our lookout. You spot them if they move around, so we know where to aim, and let us know if they start to charge so we’ll be ready. But you need to throw some, too. Doesn’t matter if you actually hit anyone. Throwing is easy if they charge and get closer. Remember, this is all for fun!”
“How exactly does it work? What are we trying to do?”
Crew stopped and looked at Ben for a second, then grinned. “Fun,” he repeated. “What we’re doing is having fun.”
Then, seeing the perplexed look on Ben’s face, he clarified, “We throw snowballs at each other, using our forts for protection. Sometimes, one side will charge the other; they usually get repelled because the side they’re attacking has their fort to stay behind and can pepper the attackers at will with their stock of snowballs while the ones charging only have what they can carry.
“When one side runs out of snowballs, or gets tired of throwing them, or simply wants to stop, they give up, or request a draw. It’s really just a game and just for fun.”
“OK,” Ben said and kept trying to make snowballs, learning it wasn’t that hard to do. He was feeling a little spacey and a lot excited. The boy he’d been fantasizing about was talking to him! He’d dreamed about Crew and him being friends. Could this be a start of that? Could it? Crew was really nice!
“We’re about ready,” called one of the kids they’d be going to war with.
“Us, too!” shouted Crew, excitement in his voice, and he had Peter and Ben get behind their wall. Crew was about ready to declare war, and Ben was holding two snowballs, wondering just what he was supposed to do with them, when another boy walked into their clearing.
“Hey, what’s going on here?” he called out. It was Con Gower.
The other six boys stood up from where they’d been standing behind their fort walls. Con looked at them all, then said, “Great! A snowball war. I’m in!”
The three kids who’d been the opponents of Crew and his group looked at each other, then at Con, and then one of them spoke. “I just remembered. We’ve got to go. See ya.” All three then took off running, grabbing their sleds as they went.
“OK, the chickens left,” Con said. “The four of us will do this. I’ll be with Carson. You two get in the other fort.”
Ben looked at Crew. He didn’t want any part of a war against Con and certainly not against Crew. Timothy was looking at his two teammates, seemingly uncertain about what was happening. Crew bent down and said to Ben, “Wait a second.” Then he called out to Con. “OK, but I have to check these guys have enough snowballs first.”
Con moved over to what was now his fort and started packing snow into snowballs, adding them to the pile already there. Crew walked with the other two over to the other fort.
When the three crouched down, Crew told them, “Look, I don’t like this guy any better than I expect you two do. So let’s do this. We’ll be throwing snowballs back and forth at each other. Then, if you guys get up and attack us, I’ll switch sides and join you, and the three of us will pepper him with snowballs. He’ll get pissed, shout at us some, and then leave. It’ll be great. OK?”
Ben was stunned. Crew wanted the two of them—well, three if you counted Timothy—to work together. He wanted Ben on his side with him!
Ben had no desire at all to be in this war, but if Crew wanted them to work together, almost as if they were friends, then yes! He was in!
The two looked at each other, and Ben smiled and said he’d do it. Timothy didn’t really say anything, just stood there.
Crew went back to his and Con’s fort. Ben picked up a couple of snowballs and told Timothy to do the same. “You know what we’re doing?” he asked Timothy.
“Throwing snowballs at each other’s forts? I don’t throw all that well.”
“Yeah, that’s what we’re doing. When I get up to charge them, you come with me, bringing snowballs. We’ll all attack Con.”
Timothy again looked uncertain. Ben bent down and made several more snowballs, then stood up and yelled, “We’re ready.”
He heard Crew call back, “So are we. All right, I declare WAR!”
Immediately after that, he stood up and threw a snowball that hit the front of Ben’s fort.
Ben did the same, with the same result. And then everything went bad.
Con stood up, holding two snowballs, ones he’d packed as tight as he could while waiting for Crew to come back from the enemy fort. Instead of throwing them, however, what he did was yell, “Charge!” and run at Ben’s fort.
Ben was still standing after throwing his first snowball. Con closed ground quickly, and while doing so, reared back and threw his first snowball at Ben. It hit him squarely in the forehead, knocking him over and making him dizzy. It wasn’t loose snow in the snowball. It had been packed as hard as Con could make it.
And then Con was on him. He rubbed snow in Ben’s face, then pushed loose snow under his coat, into the back of his shirt and down his back, and even into the front of his pants, laughing all the time he was doing it and yelling nasty things at Ben. Ben couldn’t fight back. His head was still ringing from the snowball that seemed to have been half ice, and Con, sitting on Ben’s stomach with his knees on his shoulders, outweighed him by over fifty pounds.
Crew and Timothy watched.
When Con finely tired of abusing Ben, he stood up and said to Timothy, “You’re next!”
Timothy turned and ran. Con yelled, “We won! We won the war!” Then he saw Ben’s sled next to the fort and took it to the hill and kicked it back onto the hill, sending it sliding down to the bottom unmanned.
Ben stood up, still woozy, and turned to the hill and started walking up it. The snow that had been forced inside his clothes was melting and cold water was running down his body. He felt a little sick from his head having been hit so hard. His ears were ringing. He remembered his sled but didn’t have the energy to go after it. He thought he might have heard Crew’s voice, calling after him, but he ignored it. All he wanted, the only thing he could think of, was to go home.
Ben slammed the door when he got home. He was trying hard not to cry. He hadn’t, walking home. But now he was alone; his mother’s car was gone, and he’d had to use his key to get into the house. Now, he could let his emotions get the better of him with no witnesses.
He began crying, then sobbing. The snow down the back of his coat and in his pants had all melted and wasn’t that cold any longer, but he got rid of his coat as quickly as he could, then ran up to his room, where he finished getting undressed. Clothes scattered where he threw them, he ran into the bathroom and waited for the water in the shower to warm up while trying to get control of himself.
The warm shower made him feel better physically. He wasn’t sure anything would help him with his feelings. When Crew had spoken to him, his heart had leaped. Crew had acted friendly, friendlier than Ben thought possible, as if he really liked him. It seemed Ben’s heart had actually leaped with joy. Working with him on the fort, each helping the other, talking about the best way to do this and that, cooperating with each other, occasionally grinning at each other—it had been better than wonderful. He didn’t have the words in his head to describe how it had felt.
And then the two of them conspiring against Con! But it hadn’t gone like Crew had promised it would. Con had attacked him, and Crew hadn’t done anything at all. It had all been a hoax! Crew had betrayed him. Acted like they were friends and then turned on him.
To add to Ben’s misery, when Con had attacked and overwhelmed him, Ben hadn’t fought back. He hadn’t been able to, but still… And Crew had seen his humiliation. Seen how weak he was. Seen he was a dork.
Ben felt the tears coming back and tried to stifle them, but he couldn’t. Everything had gone wrong. Everything! He had no chance to even be friends with Crew now, not that he wanted to any longer. But it was all so overwhelming! He wailed, glad his mother wasn’t there to hear him.
He was in the process of calming himself down for a second time when he heard the doorbell ring. He was still upstairs in his room, naked with just his towel around him. He thought about ignoring the bell, but when it rang again, he peeked out his window down at the front stoop where the caller would be standing.
Looking down, he could only see the top of the head and shoulders of the caller, but he knew immediately who it was. It was Crew. Ben recognized the coat, and he recognized his own sled, which Crew had retrieved and brought back for him.
Ben stepped away from the window and sat on the bed. There was no way he was opening the door for Crew. The boy had betrayed him. Ben hated him!
Ben had a problem. He was still a loner at school, but that didn’t really bother him. He still hadn’t spoken to Crew, even though the boy had made several efforts to talk to him. Ben had just glared at him and walked away. Eventually, Crew had stopped trying. Which suited Ben fine.
Ben’s problem was that he still had to sleep at night, and while, by trying hard, he was able to avoid thinking about Crew when falling asleep, he couldn’t control his dreams. And in them, Crew was still the leading figure. Ben didn’t dream about him every night. Maybe once or twice a week he managed a Crew-less sleep. But all the other nights…
Ben had taken Coach Hubbard up on using the track. He thought if he exercised a lot, he’d be more tired at night and sleep more deeply, maybe even dreamlessly. It didn’t really work that way, but to his surprise, he found he really liked running. He had another surprise in store for him, however.
It was winter, and it was cold. Way too cold outside for running on the outside track, even if it hadn’t been covered with snow most of the time. But it was—was both cold and snow-covered—and so Ben had to run on the indoor track. The first week he did so was great. He was all alone, with the track deserted other than for him. He changed after school in the locker room, then climbed the stairs to the track located high above and surrounding the pool. He ran for forty-five minutes, jogging at times, running all out at others, and took short rest periods now and then when needed, but he was able to exhaust himself every day.
He did this for the first week back at school after the Christmas break. Then the second week, when he went to change before his run, he found a bunch of boys in the locker room. Not sure what was going on, he did what he usually did when there were people around to be involved with. He left. He had his running gear in a sports bag, and he simply took it up to the track with him and changed there. There was no one to see him, and he never took his underpants off, anyway.
He’d been running for ten minutes when he heard a commotion below. He stopped and looked over the railing to see what was going on. As he watched, the boys who’d been in the locker room paraded out onto the pool deck. They all had skimpy bathing suits on, all the same color, the dark green that was one of the school’s colors. Ben remembered seeing a signup sheet for the swimming team. It was easy to put two and two together.
The track was set back from the railing a short distance, but it was far enough that while he was running, he couldn’t be seen from below. He watched a moment, seeing the boys march in, then stepped back and began running again. Now the silence he was used to was filled with the sounds of boys’ voices, splashing water, and the frequent whistle of the coach trying to maintain order so he could do some coaching.
When Ben was done for the day, the boys were still in the pool. He stopped to look over the railing again and saw the pool full of boys swimming laps. There were a few up on the deck, too. He saw the coach talking to two boys, and when they turned to walk away, he saw one of them was Crew.
Crew. Crew, mostly undressed, only wearing a tiny swimsuit. Crew, with water glistening on his chest. It reminded him of Crew in the showers after gym class. Crew hadn’t been in his gym class this semester, something Ben was very pleased to find. But now, seeing him down below, Ben couldn’t help but be reminded of how Crew had looked up close before and after showers. He looked just as good now.
Dammit! he thought. He forced himself to stop watching and went back to running another ten laps as fast as he could. Then, totally spent, he dressed and walked home.
But every day after that, he’d run, the boys would swim, and Ben would spend the times he was resting between sprints looking down at the pool, and his eyes found and followed Crew. Much as Ben hated him, he couldn’t stop either his eyes or his dreams.
Valentine’s Day was different now that Ben was in middle school. In elementary school, teachers asked the kids to give cards to all the other kids in the class so no one’s feelings would be hurt. Everyone had done that. If you had a crush on someone, you could make their card special, maybe buy a really large one or add some small candies to the envelope. Or even give them two cards. Lots of kids had lots of crushes, three or four at a time. Giving cards was easy and fun.
Now, in middle school, it was understood that you only gave a card to someone you liked. It could be two or three people, but mostly, it was only one. Some of the shyer kids did this anonymously. The brave ones signed their names boldly with their messages of love. Then there were the kids like Ben. Ben was very uncertain what to do.
Ben’s hatred of Crew had been waning. Seeing him in the pool every day—and knowing that was one of the things he most looked forward to—made him realize hating him was silly. Thinking about what the boy had done in the snow that day rebooted his anger, but often now he managed to forget about the betrayal. It was something that had happened a while ago, something that had caused him pain, and it was best not to think about it.
The fact was, his body still reacted to the sight of Crew. It was hopeless to ignore that. He knew he was still strongly attracted to the boy. He still wanted them to be friends. Even if he did still hate him. At least a little. When he forgot and thought about it.
This had Ben thinking about the Valentine card. Should he give Crew one? He wanted to. He wouldn’t sign his name, of course. That would be stupid. But if Ben gave him one, at least he could write on it how he felt when seeing him, how much he wanted to be with him, how just the sight of Crew affected him, how he wanted to be friends with him. The things he and Crew did together in his daydreams? No, he could never let on about that.
He visited a store that sold Valentine cards. They seemed to have hundreds of them, yet he couldn’t find the right one. None of them said what he wanted to say. They were all too gushy or stupid. The best one he’d found was a picture of a giant shining light bulb that read on the inside, “You light up my life.” But that seemed too, too…impersonal. He wanted just the right one, and he couldn’t find it.
Then he did. He’d passed it by earlier when he saw how plain it was. It was simply a large red heart, and on the inside, there was nothing at all. It was just blank. But if Ben wanted to express his feelings, it was perfect for that. And the heart on the front wasn’t too gushy at all. No lacy fringes, no arrow through it, no smiling cupids.
He bought it. Then he had to figure out what to write on it. He thought long and hard, wrote many drafts on lined paper trying to get it right, struggling to find the proper words. When he finally thought he had what he wanted, he copied it onto the Valentine and quickly sealed it, unsigned, in its red envelope.
Now he had to just drop it in the box. Each homeroom had a box for Valentines meant for the kids in that homeroom, and before school each day, kids would come into homerooms that weren’t their own to drop cards off. Ben felt really funny about going into Crew’s homeroom. Crew would see him. Would he know Ben had given him the card? Would he guess?
Ben hadn’t been a loner before coming to this school. He felt the role had been forced on him by moving at the time of year when he and his mother had—that is, just before entering a school where he knew no one. But he didn’t find himself uncomfortable in the role. He could have made friends if that was his personality, but he was just as content not having them. It wasn’t that he was shy. He was neither shy nor cowardly. He just was reserved and quiet, and people tended to ignore him. He found he was OK with that.
Because he wasn’t shy, he had no trouble making the decision to walk into Crew’s homeroom early Valentine’s Day morning. The box was right by the door. He dropped his card into the box, turned around and left, never looking at any of the kids in the room. He didn’t even know if Crew was there yet.
Then he went to his own homeroom and settled into his chair there. The homeroom teacher passed out all the cards in her box during the homeroom period. There were none for Ben. Just as he’d expected.
While he watched the other kids open their cards and share them with friends, the girls giggling, the boys blushing, Ben satisfied himself with reviewing in his mind what he’d written to Crew:
I’ve watched you all year. You’re wonderful. You make my heart beat faster. I wish we were friends. I wish we were more than that, but it doesn’t seem possible. I just want you to know that someone watches you all the time and wants you more than you could ever realize.
Your Secret Admirer
It was getting worse. Aren’t crushes supposed to be short-lived things? Ben wondered about that. His fixation on Crew was driving him crazy. In the classes they shared, Ben always found a seat behind Crew so the boy wouldn’t know he was being stared at. Where they had assigned seating, Ben couldn’t do that, and it was a problem because even there, where he might be seen, he still spent too much time glancing over at Crew.
The day before, there’d been trouble, and Ben wasn’t sure what to think. In science class, where his assigned seat was in the same row as Crew, but three seats to the side of him, Ben had been looking at Crew when Crew glanced his way and saw him. Ben immediately turned away and then thought perhaps that made him look guilty. He forced himself not to look again, but when he forgot and did look, Crew was looking at him, a bemused expression on his face. This time, Ben didn’t yank his head back around but let his eyes pass over Crew to something beyond him before facing front again.
But it had him worried. He couldn’t let Crew know. Because of the aloof way he’d treated Crew after the snowball war, he thought it likely Crew would take the opportunity to humiliate him if he had the chance. Letting Crew know he liked him would give Crew all the ammunition he’d need.
So today he wasn’t going to look that way at all. He turned slightly in his seat, away from where Crew was sitting so if he did forget and look that way, he’d have to crane his neck to do so, and that would remind him.
The class droned on, and Ben was doing a great job of not looking in Crew’s direction. And then the teacher asked a question and called on Crew to answer it. That meant Ben could look at him, didn’t it? Of course it did, and so Ben turned in his seat and turned his head and focused his eyes and found, instead of looking up at the teacher, Crew was looking at him. Crew was looking at him with unreadable eyes, but he nodded at Ben slightly, almost imperceptibly, then looked back up front and answered the question.
Caught! Ben couldn’t think of it any other way. He’d been caught. Well, if Crew called him on it, he’d simply act like he had no idea what Crew was talking about, that he’d simply been looking at Crew because he’d had been called on. That should work. Ben just hoped Crew wouldn’t do it in front of a whole lot of kids. Ben wasn’t good in groups. He’d start sounding defensive and that would be that.
Crew sat closer to the door than Ben did. Ben waited till everyone had left before he ventured out, very much thinking that Crew would be waiting for him. Maybe with a bunch of other kids.
There was no sign of him, however. Ben walked to his next class, one that Crew wasn’t in, and didn’t really settle down till that class was almost over. He decided he’d be more careful. This had been a close call. Too close.
Yet in the next class, one where he sat behind Crew, Ben spent most of the class looking at him, daydreaming about him, and feeling helpless about not being able to stop.
Trying to combat these desires, Ben began running even more. He found Coach Hubbard came to school early, and Ben began doing the same thing, coming early before school to run. The coach sometimes came to watch him and would often give Ben tips to improve his performance. He had many words of praise for the boy as well.
Coach Hubbard told Ben he should begin lifting and curling light weights so he wouldn’t only be developing his legs. He also gave him a key to the locker room, telling Ben it was best if he didn’t start the school day smelling like a wet goat.
It was only because of the growing friendship he had with the coach that he was able to do what he decided he needed to do, what he needed to do about Con. The boy hadn’t only assaulted him that day on Boardman’s Hill; ever since then, Con had been calling him derisive names when no one else could hear. Passing in the halls, at his locker, in the rest rooms, wherever the two of them had the slightest contact and no one was in earshot—Con would call him names that disparaged his manhood, his sexuality and his courage. Ben felt he’d been ignoring this for far too long; it was time to put his grievances with Con to rest.
After his run one morning in early April, Ben stopped by the coach’s office. The coach looked up from his desk, saw Ben and smiled. “You know, Ben, you’re really looking fit. All this running and work with the light weights you’ve been doing has been good for you. You’ve gained some muscle. You’re carrying yourself a little better. Looks good on you.”
Ben blushed. Then he said, “Coach, you monitor the cafeteria some days, don’t you? When are you going to be there again?”
“Today, actually. I do it twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays. Why?”
Ben paused. He trusted the coach, but he knew there were rules to follow, and the coach was a school employee, which meant he had to follow the rules as much as Ben did. So, how he answered that question had to be finessed. Well, to say it plainer, he had to stretch the truth.
“I… well… see, this guy has been sort of giving me a hard time. I’ve never said anything because it would be his word against mine, but yesterday he told me to be careful in the cafeteria because the floors are awfully slippery. I think he’s going to try to trip me, and he wants to double his pleasure by making me worry about it before it happens.”
“And what did you want me to do?” The coach was frowning at him, and Ben didn’t know if it was because the coach didn’t like to hear Ben whining to him or because he didn’t like the fact Ben was being bullied.
“I just wanted you to be aware of what might happen, and maybe to be there to help if it does. That’s all. This guy is a lot bigger than I am.”
“Who is it?”
“Oh. Yeah, he’s been skating on thin ice with a number of kids. All right, I’ll keep an eye on him.”
With that now set in place, Ben was ready. He walked into the cafeteria, got in line, and while waiting, looked out over the room and saw where Con was sitting. As usual, it was at the end of a table. Ben grinned.
He selected a plate of spaghetti, grabbed a bowl of macaroni and cheese, and took a container of milk which he opened before setting it on the tray. Then he walked down the aisle between tables where he’d have to pass Con. Just as he came up next to Con, Ben stumbled badly, and in doing so, dumped his entire tray on Con.
Con jumped to his feet, wearing Ben’s spaghetti with red sauce which was speckled with dabs of bright yellow macaroni and cheese, all punctuated with drizzling milk. Ben took a look at him and repressed a snicker. Then he stepped back and said loudly, “You tripped me!”
Ben started to raise his hands in fists, seducing Con, who was always quick to anger, into doing the same. Ben wasn’t disappointed; Con complied, raising his own fists. “You fucking fag, I’ll kill you,” he shouted. Ben’s hands quickly opened so his fingers were splayed in a defensive posture, and he took a step back. Con stepped forward and started to swing, but his arm was caught by the coach.
“You’re in deep trouble, son. I saw you trip him, and I saw you starting to hit him, and I heard you threaten him and use one of the forbidden words. Let’s you and me go see if the vice-principal is in his office.”
Ben watched them walk out, the coach’s hand holding tight to Con’s upper arm. Ben’s lunch was still dripping off Con as he left the room. Ben didn’t even feel sorry for pretending he’d been tripped.
That was the last time Ben ever saw Con.
The school had home-and-away swimming competitions. Ben went to all the home meets. He sat at the top of the bleachers. Rarely were the meets well-attended. They were held in the afternoon after school, and as most parents worked, the only ones who came were students, and the swim team didn’t excite the interest of many of them.
So Ben had the top row of the bleachers to himself. He watched Crew. It didn’t matter if he was swimming or not, Ben watched Crew.
It was a good thing he sat by himself, because the sight of Crew’s slim body coming out of the pool, glistening with water, almost always aroused Ben. But no one was close enough to see.
Once, when Ben was least expecting it, Crew looked up and saw him and stared at him. Ben stared back.
The weather had changed, and it was nice enough outside now that Ben could run on the outdoor track. Because the track team used it in the morning, his morning run was still inside above the pool. But in the afternoons, the outdoor track was deserted, except for him.
He had company, though. The track circled the football field, and after school, the soccer team practiced on that field. Ben was not a bit surprised to find Crew was on the soccer team. Not only was he on it, he played forward and was the team’s leading scorer. There seemed to be nothing athletic that Crew couldn’t do and excel at.
So Ben circled the field time after time and spent most of his glancing at the boys playing soccer. He’d locate Crew, then look away. Watching Crew steadily would be a dead giveaway. But looking over the field, letting his eyes briefly scan over him, Ben was sure that that wouldn’t be a problem.
He saw why Crew was so good at soccer. Not only could he control the ball when he was sprinting, he was also the fastest player on the team. No one could keep up with him. He ran effortlessly.
There were only two more weeks of school. They’d started the school year early and were ending it the same way. Next week they’d begin final exams. And on the weekend, there was a yearly end-of-school event: Fun Day. On that Saturday all the kids in school were invited to come for fun and games. It was held in the football stadium. There would be a soccer match between students not on the soccer team and teachers, races for boys not on the track team, fun stuff like water-balloon tosses, sack races, spoon-and-egg races and the like, and booths set up with all sorts of carnival games. There was lots of free food, too, provided by the parents.
Ben wasn’t planning on running. When the coach found out, he shook his head and walked Ben into his office.
“What’s the deal? You’ve been training for months, and you’re really good. I think you’d win. When I’ve had my watch on you, I saw you were running great times for a kid your age. Really good. Why do all this work and not use it?”
“I don’t want to.” Ben was almost sulking.
This was a side of Ben that Coach Hubbard had never seen before. But he knew teens. He looked at Ben, then softened his tone. “Ben, you love running, don’t you?”
“And you’re not shy. I see you interacting with other kids, and I know what shy looks like, and that’s just not you. You’re quiet, you don’t jump into conversations, but when someone speaks to you, you answer with no hemming and hawing or looking at your feet.”
“So, can you tell me why you don’t want to run? Please? I want to understand.”
Ben had been wanting to talk to someone for some time. He was gay. He knew that. And he wanted someone else to know. He wanted to see what it felt like, telling someone. See how they’d react. See how he’d react to their reaction. And the coach was the perfect one to tell. They’d become close. But it was a big, big thing to do.
The coach nodded. “I can see this is hard. I’m on your side, Ben. You know that. But I’d like you to run. I’m going to go all out convincing you to run on the team next year. I think you’ll be ready for that. You weren’t this year. Next year you will be, and I’ll get you to do it even if I have to run behind you with a switch!” He smiled, and Ben couldn’t help smiling, too. “But if there’s a reason you can’t run, please tell me.”
Ben shook his head, undecided and conflicted. Then he took a deep breath. “You really want to know why?”
“This is hard. I’ve never said this to anyone. But, you see, there’s this boy. Crew Carson. He’s, well… You know him. He’s best at everything he does, and he’s signed up for the mile race. He’ll beat everyone. If I run, he’ll beat me, too. And I can’t face that because… because... I… I like him.”
The coach’s eyes softened. “Are you telling me you’re gay, Ben?”
Ben dropped his eyes and nodded.
“Does Crew know you like him?”
“No! He can’t find out, either.”
“Why would it be so bad if he beat you?”
“It just would. I can’t explain it, but it just would.”
“Why do you think you wouldn’t be able to beat him?”
“I’ve watched him playing soccer. He’s really fast. I’ve watched him doing other stuff. Whatever he does, he’s the best. I couldn’t possibly beat him.”
The coach sat silently for a few moments. Ben was still looking down, his shoulders slumped. Coach watched him, then stood up from behind his desk and walked over and took the seat next to Ben. He reached up and squeezed Ben’s shoulder gently for a moment, then took his hand away. “You remember that story I told you about me and my friend?”
Ben nodded. He didn’t feel like speaking.
“One of the reasons I didn’t want to join the team was pretty much like what you’re saying. I didn’t want them to look down on me. But mostly, I didn’t want my friend to see I wasn’t as good as any of them were. As he was.”
Ben sat up a little straighter. He recognized what the coach was saying. It was how he felt.
The coach continued. “You know what happened? I wasn’t as good as they were, but I was there with my friend, we were together, racing and working and improving. We became closer because of that. No one, especially my friend, expected me to be really good. And I wasn’t. But with training and practice, I got better, and in fact eventually I got better than my friend. And, either worse or better, he still liked me.”
He paused then and waited till Ben looked up at him, meeting his eyes. “Ben,” he said, “Whether my friend liked me or not didn’t depend on how fast I could run. But maybe, just maybe, it did matter whether I tried or not. That’s not talent, that’s personality, and maybe he liked me better because it was part of my personality to join in and compete, even when I was reluctant. I think that might have made a difference to him.”
Ben was now staring into Coach Hubbard’s eyes.
“Ben, whether he beats you or you beat him, he’ll have to respect you because you tried. That’s the way athletics works. I want you to run and give it your best, and win or lose the race, you’ll have won something even bigger. Your relationship with Crew, whatever it is, will improve because of it. Trust me.”
It was only later that Ben realized Coach Hubbard hadn’t reacted at all to his revelation about being gay.
Ben was nervous as hell. He’d signed up for and was running the mile. Several other boys had entered. He was a freshman, however, and there was only one other freshman running: Crew. Crew was joking with the other boys. Ben stood apart. Feeling nervous. He’d never run against anyone else. This would be his first real race. If his stomach let him actually run.
“Boys, take your marks.”
All the boys moved out onto the track, Ben and Crew among them. At that point, Crew stripped off his tee shirt and tossed it aside, planning to run bare-chested. Ben was caught off guard by the spectacle of Crew’s lean torso and the way it tapered, narrowing to a slim waist. He stopped, momentarily stunned, and was bumped by the boy behind him, almost staggering him. At that point his vision of Crew was disrupted by the others jostling for position. The older, larger boys all ended up right behind the starting line. Ben and Crew were up close behind them, so close next to each other their shoulders almost brushed. Crew looked over at Ben who hadn’t been meeting anyone’s eyes.
“Good luck,” Crew said, his face expressionless.
“Uh, you too,” Ben stuttered, and then the gun went off and the race began.
The pace was very fast at first. The guys in the lead were all trying to get out in front, and they were sprinting. Ben watched them go, not trying to keep up. Within just a few steps, he was in last place and falling farther and farther behind. But all the running he’d done, sprints and jogs and longer distances, had taught him what speed he could run and end a mile run with a decent time. Sprinting at the beginning had never worked for him. If the guys ahead could do that all the way, more power to them. He knew he couldn’t.
By the time the leaders were halfway around the first of four laps of the track, they were slowing down. Ben was far back, and everyone else was in a group at the front, except for Crew who was about halfway between Ben and the front-running group. Ben maintained his pace and saw he was slowly closing the gap on the rest. By the time he’d finished the first lap, he was only 40 yards behind the last boy in the group, a group which was now spread out some. Crew was in the middle of the spaced-out group.
Ben started passing boys on the second lap. They were breathing hard and their strides had gotten shorter. Ben was still running easily, just a bit faster than the pace he’d started with. Now, about 30 yards ahead, the leading runners were still in a loose pack. Crew had moved up to be with those in front, but he wasn’t pulling away from them.
By the time the third lap began, Ben was at the back of the group of front-runners, some of whom were now flagging. He soon began passing them easily, his stride still long and steady. Crew was in the lead now but not far ahead of the others, and he wasn’t gaining ground.
Ben was still breathing easily. How he was running today was much like his morning and afternoon runs. He was used to this and was still running loose and free. As he pulled up with and then passed other boys, he began to feel a sense of elation. This was fun! And he was passing older, stronger boys.
By the beginning of the fourth and final lap, Ben was right behind Crew. For once, he wasn’t concentrating on the appearance of the boy. It was simply another boy running, and they were both trying to win. Crew wasn’t looking quite so fit now. He was breathing heavily, and his stride wasn’t quite so effortless. He was working hard to maintain his pace.
Ben passed him, taking the lead. He stepped up his pace a little when he went on by. He couldn’t believe the feeling of exhilaration that brought. This was Crew, the best athlete in their class, one of the best in the entire school! Ben kept up his faster pace and pulled away. Finally, he let up just a little, well in front now with only half a lap to still run.
He was vaguely aware of cheering from the spectators. But now it was getting louder, and he took a quick peek behind him. Crew was coming! He was running harder, his face a rictus of pain, but he was pushing with everything he had and was gaining steadily.
Ben sped up, too, but it wasn’t as easy as it had been. He felt the first signs of tiring, felt it in his legs and his lungs. He’d been running a faster pace than in training, and it was beginning to be noticed. Another quick glance back showed Crew still gaining, and only a few yards behind now.
They were around the last curve, starting the last stretch, straight to the finish line. Ben knew he had enough left to reach the tape, but to beat Crew, he’d have to speed up. He reached inside himself and did so. He didn’t speed up that much; he didn’t have that much left, but he was now running at the same pace Crew was. Crew was struggling mightily to catch up, but wasn’t making up any ground. Ben saw the tape marking the finish not that much farther ahead and hoped he was running fast enough to get there first. He was about done in.
Then he felt Crew on his shoulder; Crew somehow had managed to catch him.
Where Ben found it, he wasn’t sure, but somehow he found a final burst of speed, a final kick, and with that, he raced across the finish line. Ahead of Crew.
He’d done it. He’d won by one step!
Ben broke the tape and immediately fell into the arms of the track official standing at the line, heart almost pounding out of his chest, legs like half-set Jell-O.
Crew was also exhausted but able to maintain his feet, slumped over, hands on his knees. The track official moved Ben onto the grass of the football field, where he sat down, waiting for his heart to try to stop pounding, sucking in gallons of air with each breath. And then Crew was sitting next to him, laboring just as hard.
While they were sitting together, just breathing, Coach Hubbard walked over. “Well, done, Ben! And you, Crew. That was some race. I think we have two great recruits for the track team next year. You guys ran a great time for 12-year-olds—a really great time. I’m proud of both of you.” Then he looked directly at Ben, nodded and winked before walking away.
Neither boy had been able to speak to the coach. After a few minutes, when their breathing had steadied, Crew leaned over and put his hand on Ben’s shoulder. Ben turned to look at him, and Crew smiled. “I can finally talk to you and you can’t walk away; at least, you can’t if your legs feel the same as mine.” He grinned. Ben loved that grin. He’d seen it before, but only at a distance. Now, it was right in front of him. Meant just for him.
Crew was continuing. “I figured out why you wouldn’t talk to me,” he said. “It took me a long time, but I did. You thought I’d ganged up on you or betrayed you or something like that back there by our forts in the snow. I didn’t. Con just suddenly attacked, and there was nothing I could do about it. He’s twice my size, just like he is yours, and he was on you, doing what he did, before I could do anything. It all happened so fast, and I was sort of stunned. It was over before I could do anything, but I don’t know what I could have done anyway. But I can understand how you must have felt. When you just walked away, I got all over Con, verbally at least. He just laughed at me. I’m so sorry.”
Ben’s heart was pounding now—and not from the running. Crew was speaking to him. And being nice. He felt himself starting to react, and squeezed himself between his legs to keep it down. He knew he had to respond to what Crew had said, but he wasn’t sure he could talk. This was the boy he’d been dreaming about, focusing on, all year.
Crew was watching him, and when he didn’t speak, asked, “Can you forgive me? I want you to. I want us to be friends. I’ve seen you watching me. I’ve been watching you, too.”
That brought Ben out of the state he’d been in. “You have?”
Crew smiled a little nervously. “Yes. I like how you look. I love your hair.”
“Me too! I mean, about how you look,” Ben blurted, then looked away, beginning to blush like mad.
Neither spoke for a moment, and then Crew, changing the subject from the embarrassing course it had been running in, said, “I’m sweaty. Wish we could shower here, but everything’s closed.”
Ben suddenly grinned. For the first time in months, he felt some of his sense of humor coming back. “Well, not if you’re the amazing Ben Hathaway. Your wish, sir, is my command. Let’s go shower.”
“Huh? You mean here? At the school? How?”
“Come on.” Ben got to his feet and found his legs would hold him, if still a little shakily. Crew got up, too, picked up his discarded tee shirt and nodded when Ben said, “Let’s cut across the field.”
They crossed the football field and the track on the other side and headed for the school building. Ben led them around to the side where the gym was, then took out his key from his track-shorts inner pocket. He unlocked the door leading into the gym, then locked it when they were both inside.
“You have a key?” asked Crew, shocked.
“Coach Hubbard gave it to me so I could get into the shower room after running in the morning. I found out it worked on the gym door, too.”
The boys went into the empty locker room. Crew began stripping off once inside, and Ben followed his lead. When they were both in their underwear, Crew grinned at Ben and dropped his briefs, too. Ben didn’t need to be talked into doing the same. Both were half chubbed, and they grinned at each other, their eyes touching, sparkling, seeing that.
They took showers next to each other, and when Ben offered to wash his back, Crew nodded. When Ben touched him, stroking his back, Crew very quickly became fully erect. Ben took one glance and he became the same. They studied each other, seeing the differences and similarities, and then Crew whispered, “Can I touch it?”
Ben nodded and then gasped when Crew wrapped his fingers around him. Very quickly, Ben did the same to Crew. Both boys looked at each other with wonder in their eyes, breathing like they were still on the track. They were so excited, it took very little time before they collapsed into each other, each holding the other upright.
Ben was sitting on Crew’s bed. In the past week, they’d been getting to know each other and been at each other’s house. Crew lived in a nicer part of town than Ben, but his bedroom was just as messy. He had more stuff than Ben, but it was just stuff. Ben had what he really needed at home. Only now he was realizing how much he’d needed something he hadn’t had: a friend.
“That was you who gave me that Valentine, wasn’t it?” asked Crew. He was on the bed, too, and Ben was sitting between his legs, leaning back against Crew’s chest. Crew was idly running his fingers through Ben’s soft, white hair.
“How’d you know?”
“I got several cards, and they were all signed. That was the only one that wasn’t. I was hoping it was from you.”
Ben smiled. He loved the feeling of Crew’s fingers in his hair, and loved that Crew liked him. He also loved that he was able to be snippy with him, sarcastic…funny. It had been so long.
“So why didn’t you send me one? Huh? You said you were watching me watch you. You said you wanted to be friends all along. Why not send me a card? Huh? Huh?” he harrumphed.
Crew giggled, but then sobered. “I thought you hated me. You watched me but never smiled. I never saw you smile once until, well, in the showers. You’ve got a great smile!”
“I tried to hate you. It never worked. I was so attracted to you. Not just your looks, which are gorgeous by the way. Just everything about you. I wanted to hate you because of what happened on that hill, but then I’d dream about you. Dream of being your friend.”
“Um, did your dreams include anything else? Just so you know, I’m sitting here behind you wiggling my eyebrows lecherously,” Crew stated, again giggling.
Ben wriggled up a little higher against Crew’s chest. “You know, it’s funny. Daydreaming, I had those kinds of thoughts all the time. But at night, asleep, in my dreams, we were just friends, doing things together—not that kind of thing. I never understood that.” He stopped to sigh. “We missed so much time because I was holding on to my hurt feelings.”
Crew left off with Ben’s hair and wrapped his arms around Ben. Crew was always touching him one way or another; Ben loved it: Crew not being able to keep his hands off him.
“Yeah, we did lose some time,” Crew said. “But just think, we got together just in time for summer.”
Ben leaned his head back on Crew’s shoulder. “What’s going to happen this summer?” he asked.
“What isn’t?” Crew said and laughed like a boy in love, with the whole world spread out before him and an entire summer just waiting for whatever he and Ben would make of it.
As usual, my thanks to the editors who helped make this story shine. Any errors remaining are my fault, not theirs.
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